In his essay "How to Write about Africa," published in Granta in 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina, 40, offers satirical advice to Westerners writing about Africa. In doing so, he points out the clichés and simplifications of much of Western media's coverage of the continent. He advises writers to feature "naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermetic splendor," and warns against including any "ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of any children not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation."
Now, reflecting in a less satirical tone on the same question, he says, "In so much travel writing about Africa by non-Africans, stereotypes come up, and it doesn't open up a diversity of looking."
Wainaina's new memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf Press), offers a rich vein of observations on a childhood in Kenya, his experiences as a young man in South Africa, and as an adult regarding Africa from his position as a writer and teacher in New York. His writing is full-bodied and rich, describing a present-tense world in sensual, emotional, and psychological detail. We get an influx of images and sensations, a multifaceted view of a country, a continent, and, above all, a person.
In one scene, the author travels along the Hudson River on a MetroNorth train, checking the news of the 2006 World Cup on his laptop as Togo takes the lead over South Korea. He imagines all of the millions of people who might be reacting to the win, "some living in musty dormitories in Moscow; tired and drunk... in well-oiled boardrooms in Nairobi and Lagos and Johannesburg; in cramped tenements in the suburbs of Paris; inside the residences of the alumni of the Presidential School of Lomé; in the markets of Accra and the corrugated iron bars of Lusaka; in social halls in the giant markets of Addis Ababa...." It is, then, an Africa of infinite faces, personalities, and routines that Wainaina describes.
He won the Caine Prize in 2002, awarded annually to a writer in Africa for a work published in English, and used his winnings to cofound the literary magazine Kwani? The magazine publishes the work of writers from throughout the African continent. In the first year, Kwani? published a story by Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor, which earned her the following year's Caine Prize. Part of the goal with the magazine was to bring attention to writers that larger organizations might not notice. One of the challenges for African writers, says Wainaina, is getting funding. "If you show somebody dying of AIDS you get money," he says. "But of course a lot of writers aren't interested in writing about this." As a response to that uneven distribution of funds, he says, "We had to kind of cobble together our own little infrastructure, and help people with good ideas connect."
He works with similar goals in his position as director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, where he has directed the Pilgrimages project (www.pilgrimages.org.za). The project sent 13 African writers to 13 cities for the two weeks of the 2010 World Cup. Each writer blogged about the experience and used the trip as the basis for a 30,000-word travelogue to be published in four African countries in 2012.
As for his own book, which he spent seven years writing, Wainaina's mission was simpler and perhaps more universal. After he won the Caine Prize, he says, "Everybody was asking me, are you going to write a big African novel that changes African writing and stands for Africa, maybe something about globalization? I have my opinions about that, but it's not my vocation." His vocation, he says, is simply to write. "I love playing with words and texture," he says. "I like the idea of readers feeling a familiarity, whether it's with Africa or childhood...." After all, he says, though he writes about Africa, he is finally interested in "being able to speak to anyone."
Sasha Watson is a freelance writer and the author of Vidalia in Paris (Viking, 2008).