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Binyavanga Wainaina: The man who could not be tamed

  • Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who died recently, was a champion of literary voices from Africa
  • He took a grave risk by coming out as gay in 2014 in a continent that is hostile to LGBTQ+ rights

Wainaina was an outspoken critic of Western writing about Africa.
Wainaina was an outspoken critic of Western writing about Africa. (AFP)

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Reading Binyavanga Wainaina makes one feel that he wrote with his body. He experienced words as a physical sensation, as we do with love (light-headedness) and sorrow (knot in the chest). As a child, he played with words in his mouth—rolling them, enunciating them, spitting them out. He was full and bursting with words.

The first thing I read by him was his satirical essay for the literary journal Granta in 2005, How To Write About Africa (“Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances”). The piece had its origins in a rambling email that Wainana, exasperated by clichéd Western writing about the continent, had sent to the journal. Inspired, I tipped my hat and borrowed the style for an essay I pitched to an Indian publication about the typical travel feature (“Irrespective of the place you are writing about, sunlight must be dappled, mountains silent and cafés quaint”).

I read his 2011 book—One Day I Will Write About This Place—in a kind of fever. One Day is wholly original, a type of book I didn’t know people were allowed to write. It is memoir, travelogue, personal history, all rolled into something mixed and messed-up—like the country of Kenya and the continent of Africa. Wainaina follows himself from a childhood in the lakeside town of Nakuru to university in a fermenting South Africa to a teaching job in freezing upstate New York.

In sets of three adjectives—for instance, his sister Ciru is “small and thin and golden”—he manages to capture the essence of people and places in a way they can never be anything else in the reader’s imagination again. Loosely—a word he was fond of—he glides from personal to political and then quickly tightens the screws on a commonly lived epoch (“Some say all we do is turn, like rotisserie chicken, on the whims of our imperial presidents, Kenyatta and Moi”). One of the most memorable sections of One Day is Wainaina’s description of a long-awaited family reunion at his maternal grandparents’ highland home in western Uganda (where the shade of green is “cool and enduring” and “rivers and lakes occupy the cleavages of the many mountains”), close to the border with Rwanda and Congo.

Wainaina first burst into the limelight when a version of this section—titled “Discovering Home”—won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. He used the £10,000 (around 8.7 lakh now) prize to help start a literary magazine called Kwani?, which is the Sheng (an urban slang of Swahili) word for “What?”. Over the years, Kwani? emerged as an almost centrifugal force in the African literary firmament, publishing new writers and developing a vibrant on-ground community through workshops and events. The Kwani? crowd moulded itself in the image of its founding editor—big, brash and uncompromising in its unconventionality. The Kenyan press called them “literary gangsters”. Billy Kahora, who edited several issues of Kwani?, recently wrote that Wainaina made many enemies because he could “be cruel if necessary” and rigid about his aesthetic standards.

Wainaina did “open out” after he published a “lost” chapter of One Day in 2014 and came out as gay publicly, a brave move in a continent hostile to LGBTQ+ rights. On World Aids Day in 2016, he tweeted he was “HIV Positive and happy”. On 24 May, three days after Wainaina’s death from illness, Kenya’s high court upheld the constitutionality of a colonial-era law prohibiting gay sex.

Despite everything, one day, we will make peace with a visceral personal truth, and achieve some kind of freedom. This was the hope of compassionate and irascible Binyavanga, binger and harbinger of life and literature.

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