I have tried, just once in my life, to be an Angry Black Man. I planned a picket in New York City against a man I love to hate — Ryszard Kapuscinski. He was going to speak at a conference organised by American PEN. Nobody seemed to want to join me. There were better things to do in New York, like drinking — I do not lie — a hibiscus juice and chilli margarita. So I got drunk.
I like Wainaina’s work a lot, but for all his sweeping generalisations about Africa (read the rest of Wainaina’s piece, he makes a serious point), Kapuscinski remains one of my favourite writers. It’s not just the “quality of the prose” thing, with writers who are controversial in this particular way–Kapuscinski, Naipaul.
It’s that even when you disagree with the lens they focus on a country, a place, an idea–I have a lot of trouble with Naipaul’s refusal to admit that his view of history in say, Vijayanagar, might not represent the truth of what happened, for instance-that disagreement forces you to think harder about what they’re trying to get you to look at. I can see some of Wainaina’s anguish–how could Kapuscinski, who wrote “Let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality” be accepted as the Voice of Africa now, for instance. But the same man wrote with brutal honesty about being an outsider, a white man in Africa. And anguish can become obsession. Some of Wainaina’s best writing has come from writing against the grain–against the vision that he accuses Kapuscinski of putting forward.
I like Wainaina’s travel writing and his food writing, both in danger of being obscured by his classic essay, How To Write About Africa (“some tips: sunsets and starvation are good”). Some of his work is here: “Everything around me is a memory of water. The dry riverbeds, the millions of dried petrified trees, the camels taunting us all. The hot dry wind, the water carved gullies, the large flat depressions that become marshland when it rains.”