December 1995, and three generations of Binyavanga Wainaina's family gather in Kisoro to celebrate Christmas. From this town at the tip of western Uganda you can see across the Mufumbiro mountains into Rwanda and Congo. The nationalities in the house reflect the geography. The Wainainas have arrived from Kenya, aunt Rosaria from Rwanda, cousins from Kampala and aunt Christine from the US. Warm in the enveloping arms of this multilingual, multinational song-singing family, Binyavanga decides, "one day, I will write about this place".
Wainaina won the Caine Prize with an earlier account of this gathering in 2002. Since then critics have eagerly anticipated his first book-length publication. But he had more pressing plans. He returned to Kenya, co-founded the ground-breaking literary magazine Kwani?, and later became director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York. He also fired off an angry email to the editor of Granta, which was published as "How to Write About Africa" and became the most read article in the magazine's history. He instructs the would-be author to focus on conflict, starvation, the primordial, rolling grasslands, graphic illnesses, dictatorships and beautiful sunsets. With no small dose of irony, it has become a popular set reading for university students.
Both Wainaina's grounding within the family and his intolerance of development-speak sympathy are apparent in this absorbing memoir. Mostly chronological, it opens in the late 1970s and carries us up to the present. Wainaina's childhood is described with swift snapshots of feelings and ideas, capturing the transience of childhood attention. The book unfolds through his adolescence into a sensual maze of discovery and depression. Away from the family, Wainaina peels his thumbnails to the flesh at boarding school and sinks into sordid isolation at university. He is pulled back by his interest in other people, by his patient mother, by a taste for beer, languages and conversation.
This need for human connections is explored through arresting images. He writes: "My father is like warm bread: he smells good and radiates good biology, and my enzymes growl and glow around him". Wainaina's identity as a writer develops in response to this need to bathe in the reflections of others. Each page crackles with the literary enactment of Achebe's assertion that "Africa is people". From schoolfriends to women in bars, airport officials to rural farmers, Wainaina describes his companions with tenderness as he travels through Kenya, South Africa, Ghana and Togo. "What a wonderful thing" – he concludes – "if it was possible to spend my life inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people".
The people he doesn't have much time for are mostly white foreigners – from the blue-eyed Swedes peddling cow-manure as power to objectionable people on long-distance flights. He sees NGOs as culture-destroying: if there are few new Kenyan writers, it's because they're being better paid writing donor-funded brochures. To balance such cynicism, the reader longs to hear more about the arts scene in Kenya today, Wainaina's work with Kwani? and in particular the literary response to the post-election violence in 2007.
Above all this is a coming-of-age memoir about disappointment, changing aspirations and familial, if not romantic, love. Dancing with elastic English through exuberant dialogue across languages – Sheng, Gikuyu, Pokot, Lingala – Wainaina shows us how his own vocabulary has formed and evolved. Ultimately this takes him back again and again to his childhood in Nakuru, to his family – "as solid as fiction" – and the worlds their lives contain.