Facts and fiction in Binyavanga’s memoir
Posted Sunday, July 1 2012 at 01:00
Binyavanga Wainaina’s recently launched book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, should come with disclaimers on the cover – “Warning: not for the discerning reader. A lot of errors inside!” While reading, I had to put the book down at points to differentiate between fact and fiction.
It makes the insightful reader wonder how it got selected to Oprah’s Book Club’s 2011 Summer Reading List, and whether the critics who so positively reviewed it did really read it.
But Mr Wainaina’s book is not without its pleasures. It is a coming-of-age story and a moving and inspirational piece of literature.
However, it is littered with significant historical and factual errors. Several times in the book, which is marketed as a memoir, doubts are raised over the truthfulness of the story.
Take the instance of his narration of early academic life. Dates and numbers seem to be problematic to the author.
It is 1983, the year Mr Wainaina sits his CPE examinations. Two inaccuracies pop up. He refers the old education system as the 7-4-6 system, instead of 7-4-2-3.
And the deviations from facts don’t end there. Writing about a press conference in 2006 where Togo’s football federation chief Rock Gnassingbe announced a cloth printing deal with a Dutch textile company, he goes: “Snap snap. An android mobile phone takes a picture of the sample fabric on display.”
At the time, Android phones were non-existent! Google, the company that owns Android, was by then busy pitching the then new concept to cell phone manufacturers and network operators.
In fact, the first commercially available mobile phone to run the Android software was the HTC Dream, also known as the T-Mobile G1.
And, it was released on October 22, 2008 – two years after the character in Wainaina’s “memoir” used one. How could they truly have had one at the time?
Perhaps we can leave this to Sherlock Holmes.
Still not done, Wainaina plays the anachronism card again, only that this time it turns musical.
He seems to have particular fascination with two cultural icons: the late Brenda Fassie and Michael Jackson, whom he spends considerable time mentioning in the book.
With Fassie, at least he gets the details right. But, when it comes to Jackson, you are left wondering what the two anecdotes related to him are intended for if they are both in the wrong time context.
As Jackson asks at the end of Smooth Criminal, “do we give a damn?” We definitely do.
Did the author think these gaffes and made-up scenes would go unnoticed?
How could a memoirist unearth his life’s truths with inaccurate events?