One day I will write about this place

I pick up my father’s World Almanac and Book of Facts 1992. The language section has new words, confirmed from sources as impeccable as the Columbia Encyclopedia and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The list reads like an American infomercial: jazzercise, assertiveness training, bulimia, anorexic, microwavable, fast-tracker.

The words soak into me. America is the cheerleader. They twirl the baton, and we follow. There is a word there, skanking, described as “a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat; dancing in this style.”

I have a brief flash of us in forty years’ time, in some generic dance studio. We are practicing for the senior championships, in a Kenya that is formatted and large, where work has digested us all, wearing plastic smiles on our faces as we skank across the room, counting each step like good students. The tutor checks the movement: shoulders up, arms down, move this way, move that: Claw, baby. Claw! In time to the beat, dancing in this style.

An excerpt from author Binyavanga Wainaina’s new memoir.

Alexandra Fuller raved about it in the New York Times. But I picked it up mainly because I liked his non-fiction musings. He says sensible things on the ethics of aid, has one of the more hilarious must-read bits on how to write about Africa, and why he wrote that particular piece.

The book is worth the read, though I had to push myself a little through the first half. The writing quality more than makes up for any sluggishness in the beginning, and the story gets more and more engaging as we enter adulthood with him.

Another excellent excerpt, below the fold.

One day a very nice Dutch man calls me up. “Are you Binya-wanga? The writer?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I heard about your work. I work for the European Union Humanitarian Something. I want to produce a book about Sudan, about sleeping sickness in Sudan.”

“I don’t really do development writing,” I say.

“Oh, no no. We want a proper… African writer to write a book about what he sees. You know, literature. We will publish it and pay for everything. You will go with a photographer. It will be something different. Powerful. Literature and photographs.”

“You mean you will pay, and I can write whatever I see?”

“Yes.”

“And you can say that in the contract?”

“Yes.”

So I go to Sudan, and come back shell-shocked. I start to write. I fictionalize parts of it. I met a South Sudanese doctor who worked for the SPLA. He would work the whole morning and get violently drunk in the afternoon. Sometimes his superiors would send him to Nairobi to get in shape, then return him to the front to patch broken bodies together and throw them back to the war. He refused to leave his work and get a decent job somewhere. I decide to make him a poet. It is the first poetry I have written.

I send the finished text to the nice Dutch man. He is quiet, for a long time. Then I am called to a meeting.

His supervisor is in town, from Brussels. The EU is very jittery about the book. They say that EU policy says there is only one Sudan, but my story says South Sudan!

They are also concerned about language… some… improper… unseemly… language. Many things are not in line with EU policy.

They have a proposition. Scrap the book. Keep the money. What they can do is fund an awareness-raising photo exhibition. And for the exhibition, I can write a few paragraphs—within the parameters of EU policy on Sudan, of course.

You keep your full fat fee, of course. I tell them to fuck off in seemly language.

I raise the money elsewhere, and Kwani? publishes the book. I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job.

Do not complicate things, and you will be paid very well.