Reading Binyavanga I

Over the next few weeks (perhaps months), I hope to engage with One Day I Will Write about This Place. I’m interested in what it means to read it now, what it means to read it as a Kenyan, what it means to read it as an academic, what it means to read it as Binyavanga’s friend, what it means to read it as someone with an oblique relationship to Kenyan masculinity. Each of these positions (and several others that remain unmentioned) condition a certain reading experience: each position comes with certain expectations, certain desires, certain assumptions.

Throat clearing is always unattractive—we want those who do so to get to the point. I want, however, to mark what feminism has urged us to recognize as the position from which we speak. (I write, of course, but that “speak” is important.)

A bit more throat clearing.

This series of responses is titled “Reading Binyavanga” because I think his work has created something of a crisis of reading for many people, not least the many Kenyan men who encounter it.

A friend tells me that her brother said it did not live up to his expectations. I’m interested in this reaction because it seems to echo that of other Kenyan men. An early “preview” of the book in the Daily Nation mentioned that it received an unfavorable review in the Economist without adding anything else. It was unclear whether the writer for the DN agreed with the Economist. A second review, also in the DN, complained that the memoir had been written for a foreign audience.

Silas Nyanchwani writes,

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?


While we enjoy their mastery of the language, their works have continuously failed to capture the present mood in the continent.

Nyanchwani goes on to offer this prescription:

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.

The review was subsequently criticized by Joseph Mwella. But I want to dwell on it for a little, because I think it says something important about the normative protocols governing reading habits, publishing practices, and, inevitably, literary production.

A recent video on performance poetry in Kenya focused precisely on the issues that Nyanchwani describes. When asked what they wrote poetry about, the poets offered the list Nyanchwani privileges: the problems of poverty, disenfranchisement of the youth, AIDS, and so on. They had a list of recognizable “issues.” The “literary” in Kenya is measured by its proximity to “issues.” I am not proposing a distinction between aesthetic and political writing. Instead, I am interested in the processes of valuation that confer legibility to Kenyan writing as Kenyan writing. What formal elements and thematic concerns mark a work as Kenyan? And for whom?

Even though Nyanchwani and Mwella come to the question from different positions, with the former excoriating Binyavanga and the latter exculpating him, they both ask what makes Kenyan writing legible, a question worth pursuing, though I shall not pursue it here.

I wonder how (and whether) gender makes a difference in reading Binyavanga’s work. Thus far, all the views and reviews of One Day in the Kenyan press have been written by men. And I think Binyavanga’s writing makes Kenyan men uncomfortable—this, I realize, is a huge generalization, but, I hope, not a useless one.
A previous post mused on “certainty.” It was written while I was reading One Day, a book that is suffused with uncertainty. In the first few pages, for instance:

I am seven years old, and I still do not know why everybody seem to know what they doing and why they are doing it. (2)

I know how to move with [Ciru’s] patterns, and to move with Jimmy’s patterns. My patterns are always tripping on each other in public. They are only safe when I am alone, or when I am daydreaming. (3-4)

I am always standing and watching people acting boldly to the call of words. I can only follow them. They don’t seem to trip and fall through holes their conviction does not see. So their certainty must be the right world. (6)

For those who have met Binyavanga—and he does get around—these admissions of uncertainty are unsettling, even disconcerting. In person, he is so charming, so charismatic, so attuned to the world around him that one imagines his writing voice to be bold and assured, the persona revealed to be a how-to of Kenyan masculinity. And, certainly, his most famous piece, “How to Write about Africa,” created an expectation that his work would resonate across space and time, that the tone of his book would be harder, more excoriating. These early moments of vulnerability are surprising—they make his readers itchy.

While uncertainty in a child might get a pass, “Ken-Ken,” his mother’s name for him, never seems to outgrow it.

Certainty loses its spine, and starts to accordion (24)

I am starting to read storybooks. If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in the world, this sound and language can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently, where people like Jonas, the Pokot guard, live, and in that place anything can happen to you. (32-33)

To me every new thing is always splintering into many possibilities. These can still spin and spin around and leave me defeated. (56)

These are dangerous sentiments, for, as he notes, “The vague get hijacked” (68). They are also not sentiments authorized by the male boarding school culture that revels in celebrating calluses: those who went to Lenana, for instance, are encouraged to narrate their stories of becoming “hard” men. Our languages are shaped around our psychic and physical calluses. We are “toughened up.” One is supposed to desire this toughening up. But, we read,

There are things men are supposed to know, and I do not want to know those things, but I want to belong and the members need to know about crankshafts and points and frogs and holy manly grails and puppy dog tails. (75)

This ambivalence of belonging—to which I shall return in a subsequent post—re-thinks Kenyan possibilities for masculinity. Denaturalized, masculinity becomes an object of desire, externalized as a set of rituals, confirmed by a club membership.

Against the hard shell of callused masculinity, even though that “against” fights too hard, Binyavanga offers something that is dangerously tender: “Our shells crack, and we spill out and mingle” (141). And continues to inhabit cracks and fractures in gendered performativity: “Maybe, maybe I am some sort of Ben Okri-ish abiku, that spirit child in The Famished Road” (165).

And the moments Kenyans might want to celebrate seem to pass over too quickly, and are embarrassing: “I win the Caine prize, and cry, bad snotty tears” (189). The last few chapters seem to gesture toward adult self-assurance, an acknowledgement that now he know how to play “the game”:

To be a successful sovereign citizen of urban Togo (or Brazil, or Nigeria, or Kenya)—one who is not allied to French scholarships and French departments, to administrative authority and the “private sector”; one not allied by clan or tribe or family relationship to the Gnassingbés or the Kibaki family—one needs to cultivate a certain fitness, a certain rhythm, Your body, your tongue must respond quickly to an environment that sometimes shifts every few minutes. You must constantly invent new strategies to thrive the next day. These strategies need to be drilled into the body, so they are used subtly and suddenly when they are required. (228-29)

Yet, the end re-turns to a difficult abstraction, the relationship between “kimay” and “benga,” polyglot, hybrid soundings of possibility tethered to illegibility: “the guitar sounds of all of Kenya speaking Kenya’s languages” (254).

One Day ends by making an argument for the imagination—the uncertainty that opens the novel yields not to its opposite, but to a different configuration, where the “daydreams” of a young boy are allowed to re-imagine the world. The vision is tender and vulnerable, and, I suspect, difficult for many Kenyan men to read.
I suspect that my so-called reading of gendered reading is flat. It could use more nuance. Yet I thought it important to open this series by trying to locate different kinds of readers, trying to understand the difficult demands Binyavanga’s book exacts on its readers. Because while it is an incredibly pleasurable book, it is also incredibly taxing, asking more than Kenyan readers (so attuned to satire and farce) are accustomed to giving.

12 thoughts on “Reading Binyavanga I

  1. I found it hard to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o because for me he was heavily steeped in satire and farce (which I love), but hardly ever rose above it.

    There is a way in which this certainty you have written about (I prefer to call it “the empty pose”) is not only a part of Kenyan masculinity but also a part of Kenyan-ness (here you probably remember that bad joke I tell on my blog all the time: Kenyans aren’t opinionated, they are just right. Their opinions are facts).

    We have become a PR nation. Hidden among our Vision 2030s and our Vision Nairobi-metropolis and all our other visions is a desperate need to be represented well in media, minds and other spaces across the world. This is especially true after the coverage we got due to the post-election civil war. And this desperation makes any art or project we deem Kenyan overinvested with the need to be a part of our PR.

    So then One Day comes along and here is Binyavanga with all his uncertainty and he’s showing us just how porous the borders of his and our Kenyan identity are…and he’s feeling his way around the world…and the whole time he’s doing this we are nervous as fuck. Because we know “the West” is reading this book and we want to come off looking good.

    Just as those spoken word artists and their work, One Day is a case of political and moral overinvestment if there was one. We are all struggling with the coordinates of this new Kenyan-ness after Moi.

    Ok, this comment is more a mish mash of thought, more me rambling than anything thoughtful.

    I see you are back in the US of Occupying Wall Street without much of an agenda.


  2. I almost forgot: why oh why, Keguro, did you write this as I am contemplating a very bad, unthought post about the men in my family? Why?

    Now that I have read on here I can’t help but want to craft a more nuanced post — rather than the usual infantilism and the kind of remembering that is really forgetting.

    More and more I’ve been thinking about Kenyan masculinity and thinking of its empty pose. The way in order to inhabit it, I feel I have to play pretend. The danger of course lies in playing pretend for so long that you can’t distinguish what’s real from what’s Real, no?

    I’ve been trying to unpack Kenyan masculinity, but I think my dad is a bad lens. He’s too close to me, and I am hardly brave enough to paint him as he was/is. I always end up idealizing him even though I have spent my life going diametrically opposite him. (Here is the danger/facade in all those posts I have written about him).

    Anyway, being here in America (sic) allows me to put the Kenyan masculinity down for a while.Well, only until I am hanging out with our Kenyan ladies and the role play seems to force itself into the room — this is also something I keep thinking about. Thinking in mostly heterosexual terms: the other group of people unnerved by this uncertainty of masculinity that Biny offers is our women. This is not related to the memoir so much as to my experience interacting with these diasporic sistas. Some of them seem to have been born a generation too late — it is as if they would have been better off born and dating my dad’s “more masculine” generation or something. Weird.

    Ok, baadaye.

  3. Write about masculinity. Now. In fact, don’t even sleep before writing. I am not sure how I feel about performances of masculinity–certainly, I benefit from them while in Kenya (and, sometimes, in the US). And there is plenty to critique about the model of masculinity Binya uses elsewhere in the book: a kind of innovative afro-cosmopolitanism that is, frankly, quite unavailable to women writers. And there are moments in the book that piss me off, when he comes off as Okot P’Bitek (in one bar scene, he wants to tell a woman to return to “Subukia” and farm, and I wonder about that nativist authority). And perhaps as part of this series I’ll think a little more about how women fare in his text–there’s much to be said about sibling relationships and so on, but I’m also curious about the women who are not protected by blood from a certain gaze (he writes a lot about “sharp breasts”).

    I have skirted the problem of representation, of course. Who does Binya represent? In part, I skirt it because he’s very strongly against taking a kind of flattened (often polemical) representative position. But, of course, it’s difficult not to read him as a certain kind of representative for African writing and for Kenyans.

    I have a post lined up on Ngugi and Binya that is, I think, necessary and perhaps unavoidable. I like Ngugi a lot. More than I once thought I would. More on this later.

    I want to keep asking what kind of space Binya is opening for other writers–what kinds of languages, what modes of expression, what articulations of self and relationships with others. I’m hoping to see more Kenyans writing about his book–I’m interested in the kinds of conversations that can be spawned (even as the book is relatively expensive in Nairobi, alas). I wish a Kshs. 250 copy were available.

  4. Fantastic! I want to read this book now. We need more of this. More honesty and uncertainty. Throw out the false bravado. heck, let’s acknowledge that, for the most part, we are lost on this continent and we really are unsure about the way to fix things, that we lack the confidence to build the Africa of our dreams. Let’s be honest in our conversations with each other and fuck it if the West is listening. Then and only then can we begin to see and do our way out of the mess that we are in and the crippling inertia that our leaders are so keen on exploiting. I’m past caring about Africa’s image in the West. If this book so much as hints at these issues, then hats off of Binyavanga. And if he did, then absolutely he wrote this book for himself and for us. And I hope more of such works follows.

    Thank you for this post.

    BTW, I think Ngugi is the bomb after reading Wizard of the Crow. I’m yet to review it on my blog. It has completely paralyzed my ability to discuss the book!

  5. “And there are moments in the book that piss me off, when he comes off as Okot P’Bitek (in one bar scene, he wants to tell a woman to return to “Subukia” and farm.”

    The 18 year old milimani, Lenana school Binyavanga meant that ^^ (go to Subukia). The 40 year old Binyavanga does not want to pretend that he does not mean that^^ when he is being his 18 year old self in the present tense, on the page, and in his mind. He is still confused how to take that self and bring it today, but he is stranded in the present tense, about the past and present, and his prose is four years behind his mind, but he does not know where his mind is, but it is not growing potatos. I think it is licking an earlobe, but the tongue is too long to lick his own.

    Also. correction: one reviewer, the East African is a woman….

    Also – me, not persuaded that younger urbanish Kenyan men live inside that boarding school world of certainty and headmaster boyhood that I did…and not at all persuaded that younger campus and just post campus Kenyan men in their mid twenties will have the same discomfort with that gung ho jockness that was so ubiquitous with those us from the days of A level, and those late Moi era and pre-Kibaki 844s…

    thanks for some great thoughts.

  6. Kinna, do read the book and write about it. It would be great to have a chorus of responses that are not restrained by the genre of the review. The River Between remains my favorite Ngugi book, because I love the voice of first books–the hesitations, the stutters, the vulnerability. But I think Wizard is his most accomplished–the wicked humor found in his works from the later 1960s and 1970s comes to fruition, and it is the most formally interesting.

    Binya, thanks for engaging with this tentative reading. To use Kweli’s terms, masculine certainty may be more of a “pose” than a fact, but a pose with real social effects. I find myself amazed by Kenyan calluses, as though entire generations were taught to walk barefoot over glass and now stride through the world on trauma-cured (as in curing meat) feet. It’s an unfair characterization–Rasna is much more tender than I am. So, in a sense, I am also mourning certain kinds of masculinization and their results. And it might be that the boarding school masculinities I speculate about are particular: your Lenana was very much my Lenana–not surprising seeing you left the year before I started. I’d have to talk to younger men to see if it’s still that particular Lenana, even as my knowledge of masculinization strategies comes from a range of places, including Nyeri High and Thika High and Upper Hill and Jamhuri and so on.

    1. All this talk of institutionalized masculinity (through high school ed) is going to give me nightmares. Seriously. I still have nightmares about my time at Maseno High. Not that anything traumatic happened there; it is the very thought of the world view promoted within the walls of that institution while I was there that haunts me to death — the thought that there seemed to be people even at the time who took the “lessons” imparted there very literally and that these people are in positions of power all across Kenya. Every time this thought crosses my mind I get a little depressed.

  7. I enjoyed reading this review. It is only when we become bold and talk of our inadequacies, non-comparatively, that we shall progress. And whilst doing so eschew the obvious poverty-porn that most do just to please publishing houses.

    My first introduction to Binyavanga was his no-nonsense article, ‘How to write about Africa’. I was so much so happy with what he wrote that I shared it on my facebook page. Then I met him at the American Corner of the Legon Center for International Affairs (LECIA) when he visited Ghana and met the Writers Project of Ghana members (a section) with Kojo Laing. There he read to us what was then in a manuscript form and has now become One Day I will Write about This Place. I remember how much fun the audience had and the laughter that waved through the audience.

    I have not as yet read his memoir but if it is the book I listened to, it is something I’d rush to read. Combining aesthetics with a story that questions identity and place and habits is what we need to expand the horizons of literature. And to develop ourselves, first as humans, and then as Africans.

  8. Very exciting that you’ve begun offerig your thoughts on this book. I just picked it up, and look forward to reading it soon, in the interstices of all the other reading required for this quarter. Your thoughts are, as always, brilliant as gold.

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