warning: unavoidable spoilers
The joy of reading every sentence in this memoir, at least for this reader, lies in the feeling of connecting directly to a strange and familiar mind. The joy of reading the entire book lies in seeing the title fulfilled at the end. It starts with the sideways, blurred, and myopic views of the author as a child, and proceeds through vivid difficulties across several nations and through dozens of meetings and partings.
I had difficulty at the beginning deciding if it was a novel or a memoir. The view from the author’s mind was hard to distinguish from surrealism. In retrospect, he seems to have been aware of his difficulty relating to people, even to reality, and aware that people viewed him differently as well.
It is worth quoting the beginning here:
It is afternoon. We are playing soccer near the clothesline behind the main house. Jimmy, my brother, is eleven, and my sister, Ciru, is five and a half. I am the goalie.
I am seven years old, and I still do not know why everybody seems to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
He runs into the distance when the family parks for a rest on the side of the road. He is looking for the place in the distance where the world becomes fuzzy and indistinct, and is disappointed that when he gets there, it’s all hard-edged, just like where he started.
While the interior life of such a child would be interesting enough in any situation, it reaches a higher level in newly-independent Kenya, where anti-colonialism gave way painfully to post-colonialism, and terrors and divisions lurked around every corner. The unity with which Kenyans achieved independence shattered under the force of the colonial divisions, layered on top of precolonial divisions. Further problems erupted among people when neighboring Uganda’s president, Idi Amin, led his country to slaughter. Among the refugees were the author’s mother, whose name flitted into and out of his life.
The author flits into and out of the life of Kenya as well, passing through the South African bantustan of Transkei, the United States, Nigeria, and Togo. His travels and his maturity correspond with his engagement with the world and people, though not always harmoniously. Still, he achieves a level of normalcy and even accomplishment alongside his increasingly confident interactions with people. The world is not less dangerous, but he has put down his books, stopped seeking the blurry distance.
A recurring theme is how to feel Kenyan. Binyavanga Wainaina is almost autistic in his capacity for focusing on details. This makes for a blizzard of novelistic data that may make a reader feel not up to the task of comprehension. My accustomed diet of manga and YA fantasy novels as a break from editing and writing chapter books for struggling readers may have degraded, or at least reshaped, my reading skills. The author wraps his character’s narrative in recurring and evolving observations on small cues to national identity, and large shifts in public sentiment.
This should not sound like something precious and coy. What emerges from the pages is a hard-won realization of what it means to be Kenyan, both in contrast to other nationalities and in contrast to internal loyalties of language, colonially-recognized tribe, and class.