One of the biggest preoccupations in literary discourse in the country over the last month has been the inclusion of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, in the highly regarded Oprah’s summer reading list.
It hardly comes as a surprise since in terms of language, style and intellect, Binyavanga has left an indelible mark in the literary sands of time and, with Oprah’s approval, is now bound to be a truly global figure.
One reviewer in the New York Times notes: “It is not a book for Afrophiles or lovers of post-colonial literature. This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-written tale preferable to the empty-calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.”
It is a story told from the innocent eyes of a young Binyavanga about growing up in a country where tribalism is a thorny issue.
He tells of parents’ expectations and the powerful pull he had towards books and writing, which later become his source of wherewithal.
The 2002 Caine Prize winner (for his novella Discovering Home) has always been critical of the West’s portrayal of the African continent.
His 2005 essay, published in Granta, a British Literary magazine, How to Write about Africa, is the paciest, most satirical piece directed towards the West and their nauseating depiction of Africans in their narratives.
His new memoir has certainly borrowed from his previous works, even though he takes a much central role this time, being the main player.
He writes about his political fragility in Kenya through the transitional periods of Jomo Kenyatta’s death to Daniel Moi’s autocratic regime, his academic excursions in Uganda and South Africa, and pervasive neo-colonialism.
Binyavanga has been praised for his impeccable linguistic flair, cinematic description and poetic flow.
But one must ask: Who do the likes of Binyavanga write for? Whose literary and scholarly interests are they serving?
Partly because of their names, Binyavanga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, his son Mukoma and other writers professionally exiled in the West are normally accorded space in the media to write about Africa.
Newspapers such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Washington Post and others have run columns by these writers full of intelligent ideologies impossible to apply in the African context.
While we enjoy their mastery of the language, their works have continuously failed to capture the present mood in the continent.
They are invariably engrossed in historical literature. Ngugi is still lamenting about local languages, a decades’ old debate.
Contemporary writers criticise Africa and accuse the Western world of continuous imperialism from Western capitals, which is the height of paradox.
They come to Africa to deliver lectures and papers and then go back to their rewarding and lucrative jobs.
I have issues with their making a living criticising Africa for their magnanimous hosts while at the same time not sparing them.
It is time we began to pursue literature that celebrates our culture as well as the emerging challenges.
Colonialism and apartheid are wearing thin. The youth are grappling with unemployment, population explosion, and urban issues of sexual orientation and hyper-consumerism.