I just read Elizabeth Lowry’s LRB review of One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina, which sounds absolutely wonderful (Alexandra Fuller raved about it in the NY Times last year), and I wanted to quote this section for obvious reasons:
Although Wainaina’s Kenyan father was a Gikuyu, his mother’s family originated in Rwanda and later emigrated to Uganda. The name Binyavanga was given to Wainaina in honour of his maternal grandfather. In Kenya its obvious foreignness sets him apart as being exotic; he confesses that ‘an imaginary Ugandan of some kind resides in me, one who lets me withhold myself from claiming, or being admitted into, without hesitation, an unquestioning Gikuyu belonging.’ Despite having lived most of her adult life in Kenya, Wainaina’s mother, too, is depicted in his memoir as remaining somehow outside her adopted country, able to slip fluidly from one identity to another. The Wainaina family gets by in a mixture of languages: Luganda, Kinyarwanda, Gikuyu, English and Kiswahili, and the children all have English as well as African first names (Binyavanga’s is Kenneth, and to his embarrassment his mother insists on calling him KenKen). …
There are other languages and places, other possible selves, circulating in Wainaina’s childhood. The national catchphrase, exhorting Kenyans to overlook their tribal differences, is harambee or ‘pulling together’, but ‘Ki-may’ is the cheeky name Wainaina invents as a boy for those indigenous languages which are incomprehensible to him: ‘Ki-may is any language that I cannot speak, but I hear every day in Nakuru: Ki-kuyu, Ki-Kamba, Ki-Ganda, Ki-sii, Gujarati, Ki-Nyarwanda, (Ki) Ru-fumbira. Ki-May. There are so many, I get dizzy.’ The young Binyavanga is a fan of Billy Ocean, the Jackson Five and The Six Million Dollar Man, and the early chapters are full of ebullient Americanisms. He even invents a verb, ‘wreng wreng’, to describe the nasal way he speaks when he is in Six Million Dollar Man mode: ‘“Steve. Austin. A me-aan brrely alive,” I wreng wreng Americanly. “Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee. We can build the world’s frrrrst bi-anic man.”’
His family sends him to South Africa to study business, but: “He spends his days in bed with the door locked and the curtains drawn, eating pilchards from the tin while reading Saul Bellow and Nadine Gordimer, restocking addictively on books at a second-hand bookshop.” I think many of us can identify with that.
Unrelated, but I can’t resist: the previous article in that issue of the LRB, Rosemary Hill’s Shaving-Pot in Waiting, is ostensibly a review of two books, Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy by Helen Rappaport and Albert by Jules Stewart, but she spends three pages talking about the first (well, mainly about Victoria and Albert themselves, but that’s par for the course with review essays). In the last half of the final paragraph, she finally gets around to poor Jules Stewart, eviscerating him as efficiently as a lioness: “There have since been a number of biographical reassessments to which Jules Stewart’s lame effort adds nothing. A book on which every expense has been spared from the thinness of the research to the awkwardness of the typesetting, it overestimates Albert’s influence as much as earlier generations underestimated it[…]. Albert’s trials, it seems, are never-ending.”