How to Read About Binyavanga Wainaina

by zunguzungu

Page one. The first lines of the book describe where and when the first moment of the book is set, the image — frozen in literary time — of a seven year old boy playing soccer with his brother and sister. Or, rather, of the seven year old Binyavanga waiting in the goal while his smaller, thinner, goldener, taller, fitter, and darker siblings play soccer around him.

The second block of text comments on this moment in time:

“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.”

So much of the book is contained in this instant, so we don’t want to sweep past it too quickly: the world is sweeping past young Binyavanga, with a conscious purpose that still eludes him, and yet the absence of that sense will not let him go, consumes him. That proleptic belatedness — the same as in the title — is his anticipation of a moment of realization that should have come but has not, yet, the consciousness of a consciousness that has not yet fallen into place. This is his consciousness.

Into place. Some of this is physical, and all of it is embodied, so the physical is unavoidable: when Mum tells Binyavanga that he is not fat — “You are plump” — this game with language has a clear and obvious point, the work of unsaying what becomes all the more true by the exercise, that Binyavanga is overweight. There is too much of him. His flesh is overmuch, matter out of place. His siblings Jimmy and Ciru are physically perfect — they not only know what they’re doing, but they do what they know they are to do — but the seven year old Binyavanga is not so confident and purposeful in his consciousness. They are in tune with their world, in time and in place, and they know how to be. He is conscious, instead, only of the dissonance between what he knows and what he does, the excess he does not know what to do with.

This book will remind you that sounds have a feeling, that sounds are produced and felt and heard by bodies, by tummies, heads, and hands. When Binyavanga is waiting in the goal for his faster moving siblings,

“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.”

These are also the excess embodiments that Binyavanga does not know what to do with, the sounds out of place — the noise and music that will not resolve into meaning — for which he has only fragments of language, shoring up against his ruin. Yet language is itself the problem, and so language is and can be no solution.

What is thirst, he asks; “Even me I am thirsty!” he asks his siblings, who are quenching their thirst with a resolution and an understanding he cannot match or comprehend. “Hata mimi” in Kiswahili and “even me” in English are different sounds that people use to mean something very similar; me too, as I might say in the United States. When I talk with my friend Liz in English, she says “even me” in this way, either because we learned swahili together, or because her swahili is deep enough that it seems natural to her to say “even me” in English.

Binyavanga is unsatisfied with the ways his siblings quench their thirst; they know something he does not, can say something — burp something — he cannot. This is his real thirst.

“This word, thirst, thirsty. It is a word full of resolution. It drives a person to quick action. Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting suggestions?…I want to be certainly thirsty, like Jimmy and Ciru.

“Other people have a word world, and in their word world, words like thirsty have length, breadth, and height, a firm texture, an unthinking belonging, like hands and toes and balls and doors. When they say their word, their body moves into action, sure and true.”