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.