Oprah club selects Binyavanga book

Friday August 19 2011

By KAMAU MUTUNGA [email protected]

The Oprah Book Club has selected Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s new memoir, One Day I will Write About This Place, as one of its top ‘summer reading list.’

Discussions in literary circles have veered away from the selection to “the Oprah effect” that is likely to befall Binyavanga’s book, considering the Oprah Book Club is one of the world’s most influential — the titles it picks end up selling millions of copies.

One Day I Will Write About This Place, which was released in July by Greywolf Press, was one among 27 books selected.

Termed a “dreamy memoir” that recalls his childhood, the book explores tribalism, political unrest and western influences in Kenya “with an innocence and confusion that brings such humanity to these larger issues.”

The 272-page memoir is a recollection of Binyavanga’s school days, his mother’s religious bearing, his failed studies in South Africa, a moving family reunion in Uganda, escapades while travelling the globe and how Kenya’s shifting political tapestry weaved differing patterns about his family, identity and nationhood.

Stripped down to its bare essentials, it’s a tale of someone coming of age while imbuing the literary potential within him via “gobbling books like candy.”

The memoir is peppered with bursts of Binyavanga’s nimble observations, like the chapter where he is travelling to Mwingi and “his mind has been taken over by the bubble gum music playing on the radio, chewing away, trying to digest a vacuum.”

Then there is the flair for graphic descriptions: “The nightclub’s lights (that) are caterwauling above me, like a frenzied child with crayon lights, scrawling and scribbling with delight.”

He arrives in the evening and “the sun is deep yellow of a free-range egg, on the verge of bleeding its yolk over the sky.” He goes to the local bar where he is “coasting on a vast plateau of semi-sobriety that seems to have no end.”

Inside the pub, “everybody is doing the ndombolo, a Congolese dance where your hips (and only your hips) are supposed to move like a ball made of mercury. To do it right, you wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela.”

At the risk of being a kill joy, I read some of the above excerpts from, Discovering Home, Binyavanga’s short story that won him the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002.

The Economist magazine (July 14 edition) concurs, observing that the memoir exhibits “a lack of heft; a lot of the book consists of previously published essays and travelogues.”

Well, the Oprah Book Club turns fortunes. In 2009 it selected Say you’re one of Them, the short stories of Nigerian author Uwem Akpan, which became a best-seller in the US.

The selection might do the same for Binyavanga, founder of Kwani? the local literary journal, and director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, New York.

Actually, One day I will write about this Place was ranked 35,020 on Amazon.com best-sellers list two weeks ago.