Reading Binyavanga IV

In the final part of this series, I want to think more deliberately about frames and framing: what geo-histories are appropriate to read One Day I will Write about This Place? Bracketed and intersected by 9/11, Kibaki’s ascent to power, Kenya’s post-election violence, and Obama’s election; written primarily during Binyavanga’s residence in the U.S., or, at least, away from Kenya; set in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, and the U.S.; marked by sounds from Congo, South Africa, and the U.S., these along with the Kenyan benga I discussed previously; shifting, frequently, between the confessional and the ethnographic, the nativist and the cosmopolitan, the national and the post-national, how might one describe “where” One Day lives as it travels? More plainly, is this a Kenyan book? An African book? An Afro-diasporic book? A New York book? A post-9/11 book? A PEV book? A South African book? These questions return to the first post in this series, where I noted that a Kenyan reviewer had claimed One Day is not written for Kenyans. Indeed, despite Binyavanga’s occasional (too-brief) forays into Kenyan rurality-as-development, One Day is not quite as “son of the soil” as recent winners of Kenya’s book prizes. And the reader looking for “Kenyan literature,” especially as defined through Kenya’s bookstores and literary prizes and school curriculums, comes away from One Day with a sense of bewilderment, sure that an experience has taken place (that of reading), but not quite sure how to frame or narrate that experience.

Do terms like “transnational” or “world literature” suffice to describe One Day’s multi-geographies and multi-histories? And how do terms like “transnational” or “world literature” function in Binyavanga’s local-making project. A remarkable feature of One Day is how local every location becomes: rarely is Binyavanga rooted or rootless. Rather his work “makes local,” to use a necessarily awkward locution.

The whereness of Binyavanga’s work is as much about the geo-histories it inhabits as it is about the critic/reviewer’s desire. I started writing this series while in Kenya and, though I had a copy of the book before I left the States, I read it in Kenya and on the plane—I forget, now, whether I was heading to or returning from Kenya. I’m writing this from a friend’s apartment in DC, and, from here, some of the certainties I had about One Day feel more tenuous. From here, I am compelled to ask how it might speak from and as a diasporic work. Because context matters, I should also confess that I am working on an article about the diasporic nature of African fiction. These are my taints.

A recent Call for Papers asks (belatedly) what would happen if we moved the centers of black diasporic action and interaction from European and North American cities to Africa-based locations, from, say, Paris or New York or London to Lagos or Kampala or Johannesburg. As one reviewer notes, One Day continually returns to Nakuru. In conversation, Binyavanga compels me—and other Nairobi-provincials—to re-imagine Kenyan geography from a Nakuru that is more than a stop on a school vacation trip to look at pink flamingoes (the real ones, not the charming plastic on U.S. lawns). I know Nakuru as the place where very good family friends lived, a place where the fish was abundant and wonderfully fresh. And while I knew the president had a house there, Nakuru never really figured in my imagination of Kenyan cosmopolitanism.

To reformulate an earlier question: what would world literature look like if it started from Nakuru? What would transnational literature look like? What happens if sites otherwise described as too local to be national or regional or international assume the weight of their histories and localities? (A friend is writing an epic poem focused on Lukenya that I suspect will change how we imagine Kenyan micro-localities once they are embedded within their global histories.) And what would it mean to read One Day as “World Literature”? These questions spring, in part, from a wonderful class taught by my colleague Sangeeta Ray in fall 2011. Here’s the course description:

At times, the world itself seems surprisingly irrelevant to the dominant modes of collecting, describing, and marketing “World Literature”; “world” is often a pure abstraction, an empty container with no specific referent and a content designated from on high by ambitious anthologies and “great books” courses. And yet, there are worlds at stake. The past decade has seen a number of influential reformulations of World Literature, but if world literature is a problem (or the name of a problem), “World Literature” is part of the problem.

In this course, “Other World Literatures,” we will consider not only what kind of problem world literature is but also other models or modes for thinking world literature—models that don’t take the world itself for granted and that take other worlds seriously. Can we imagine and practice other world literatures that might disrupt—rather than aid and abet—normative globalization? Some of the questions we will explore: What is new in this new world literature; or, what is its (new) world? And what happened to the “Third World” in world literature? What gets left out of World Literature, and what gets expropriated or marginalized by virtue of being included? What other worlds—above, below, or aside—does “World Literature” obscure? What other world-systems—besides the center/periphery models—could be at work in the making and masking of world literature? In what ways is World Literature a reaction to postcolonial studies or an alibi for a domesticated, depoliticized cosmopolitanism conducted in European languages and within Euro-American networks of power? What does world literature look like from other locations? Are there alternative world-views or views of the world that don’t produce or reproduce the flat-earth literary maps of the world republic of letters, cosmopolitan comparatism, or normative transnationalism? Is “World Literature” merely what we call comparative literary study or literary commerce in the era of globalization? What happens to the theories and practices of World Literature when we factor in the effects of things like illiteracy and intellectual property laws, environmental and social crises, natural resource extraction, debt loads and dumping, commodity and capital accumulation, informal economic networks and labor pools, military and humanitarian domination, carbon (and other energy) economies? We will see if we can investigate and come up with approaches to the problems of world literatures that introduce wrinkles and wrenches in the time and space of World Literature as it is currently theorized.

One Day introduces “wrinkles and wrenches” in how we envision the relationship between space and writing.

While I am convinced that the question of One Day’s geo-histories is more or less an academic one, it would be a mistake to reduce its stakes to another book or article or class or conference. I have been thinking about the stretch it demands—the stretch that is so often disavowed by readers and critics. Although much of the book focuses on Binyavanga’s childhood, I’m intrigued by all the reviews that highlight the magical childhood and gloss over the troubling young adulthood filled with depression, itinerancy, indirection, vagueness. Wayward, unfocused children can be delightful, but wayward “youth” are not. Especially so when that youth leaves a specific space and travels—the troubled immigrant youth of here and there and elsewhere. Specters of Afro-modernity. How does one read the geo-history of wayward youth as it moves through and beyond picaresque geographies, not suturing a nation or being molded into a citizen-character, but morphing with each new encounter into something unpredictable?

I have said more about “geo” than I have about “history.” Except to mark where I have written this post. I complete it on December 31, 2011, from my new apartment in Baltimore as I prepare to go into DC to celebrate the New Year with friends. It is traced by the New Year I will not be spending in Nairobi, the weeks I wrote it while in my Spring Valley apartment, the airports I shuttled through writing and editing (JKIA, Dubai, JFK, BWI, National), the many people who made Nairobi wonderful and those who have welcomed me back to the States with love and care. It is these geo-histories of movement and stasis I bring to One Day, delighted to find in its itinerancy the familiarity of disorientation.