How to be a Travel Writer

[amazon_image id=”1555975917″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir[/amazon_image]

Destination: Africa

Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place (NEW August 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina

(NOTE: After I wrote and titled this review, I carefully read Binyavanga Wainaina’s sardonic instructions on “How to Write About Africa” in the magazine Granta. You may want to check as you compile your Africa reading list.) Football!

Binyavanga Wainaina reinvents memoir writing in[amazon_link id=”1555975917″ target=”_blank” ] One Day I Will Write About This Place[/amazon_link].  I read two or three books a week and many of them are very, very fine writing, but this one knocked me back in my chair and made me reconsider the conventions of writing. Original. Poetic. Surprising. Experimental. He sees and hears and feels the world in ways you never thought of before.  Right from the first page, this book is a WOW experience. In this quote, he is describing a day playing soccer in Kenya when he was seven.

Warm breath pushes down my nostrils past my mouth and divides my chin.  I can see the pink shining flesh of my eyelids. Random sounds fall into my ears: cars, birds, black mamba bicycle bells, distant children, dogs, crows, and afternoon national radio music. Congo rumba.  People outside our compound are talking, in languages I know the sounds of, but do not understand or speak, Luhya, Gikuyu.

Maybe it is this early exposure to various languages that seem to be sounds without meaning that creates an approach to language that seems as much incantation as communication. These verbal meanderings come across as playful and spontaneous, but in fact are carefully crafted, because, as he says while contemplating the words “thirst and thirsty”, “Words, I think, must be concrete things.  Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations.” Nothing escapes him.

One bee does not sound like a swarm of bees.  The world is divided into the sounds of onethings and the sounds of manythings.  Water from the showerhead streaming onto a shampooed head is manything splinters of falling glass, ting ting ting.  

All together they are: shhhhhhhhhh.

Shhhhh is made up of many many tinny tiny ting ting tings, so small that clanking glass sounds become soft whispers; like when everything at the school parade is talking all at once, it is different from when one person is talking.

This reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s love of words which bursts out in his poem, The Bells, when he finds words to mimic the sounds of the bells from tinkling to tolling, and extols the “tintinabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.” Wainaina knows very early that he is meant to be a writer and spends all his money on novels and all his time reading. He says, (as many writers have discovered)  “I…start to write and answers arrive, and after a while I realize I have followed a straight line and I am done.” But as a young man, the impressions of the world are overwhelming. “I do not have enough words for all of this,” he says. Eventually, he sends off a travel narrative to an Internet site and is paid for it. He is a professional writer.

But One Day I Will Write About This Place is much more than a travel memoir.  Instead, he uses the journeys he made through Africa to add to the picture  of the struggles that ripple over the continent.  Kenyans grow up saying, “We are not like those Ugandans,” but then the tribal conflicts emerge in Kenya as well. Because he is identified as Gikuyu, even though he does not feel that identity strongly (he just wants to be Kenyan) he and his family are in danger when the government turns anti-Gikuyu.  Even before the most dangerous period, his brilliance and high grades are not enough to get him into a top high school because he has the wrong identity. This awareness of dominant and minority groups sharpens Wainaina’s observations of other parts of Africa.

From childhood games, the influence of American culture, hairstyles and clothing choices, the book progress to corrupt politics and shockingly bloody oppression and reprisals. Wainaina depicts an Africa where real people live (see Granta article referenced at top)–an Africa that will stay in your mind.

He finds hope in the fact that Uganda has rebuilt itself. “This country gives me hope that this continent is not, finally incontinent.”

The light Wainaina sheds on “the dark continent” and his strikingly original expression make this book a must for the traveler’s library. And a real find for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of Africa.

Having won several literary awards and started a literary journal Kwani? (why not?), he now teaches at the Chinua Achebe (See Things Fall Apart review) Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in upstate New York.

The book title is linked to Amazon for your convenience. If you click through to Amazon and purchase anything at all, I get a few cents which helps support A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.

I am visiting Africa through literature on a semi-regular basis, as I try to expand my woefully small pool of knowledge. I welcome guest posts on books about Africa that may have inspired you, or suggestions to add to my reading list. And you can enter the Book Giveaway when you leave a comment, subscribe to A Traveler’s Library, or add your name in other ways. (See the rules here, and the list of books here.)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “How to be a Travel Writer

  1. The language you quote is magical. I have to add this to my reading list. After my trip to Egypt this summer, I realized how woefully inadequate my knowledge is of Africa and how amazing it is. I’m all about those wow moments so I think I’ll go find this one for my next read.

  2. The language you quote is magical. I have to add this to my reading list. After my trip to Egypt this summer, I realized how woefully inadequate my knowledge is of Africa and how amazing it is. I’m all about those wow moments so I think I’ll go find this one for my next read.

  3. This sounds lovely, Vera. I have been to the African continent 9 times, drawn back again and again because of the beauty of its landscapes, its wildness, its legends, and its animals. One book I really enjoyed was “Baking Cakes in Kigali”–delightful and insightful in so many ways.

  4. The few samples feel a little like a mix of Kerouac & Faulkner to me. I read his words like a beat poet casually reciting on stage. Looks like a fabulous read. I’ll need to check if it’s on kindle.

    1. Interesting observation, Laura. I think he’s more coherent than Kerouac and not as dense (as in heavy–not dumb) as Faulkner, but he definitely has the affinity for words that all the best writers have.

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