Binyavanga Wainaina, a leading voice in African literature, winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, and founder of Kwani?, died in Nairobi on Tuesday at the age of 48. His friends and colleagues remember him here. (Read a separate essay by Billy Kahora, on the life and work of Wainaina, here.)
It is 2010, Goteburg, Sweden, and a few of us have gathered after a day of panel discussions to relax. It is my first time meeting Binya. I am a newly published author, in awe of this monumental intellectual sitting across from me, smoking a cigarette as we have another drink and keep talking about books, about African writers, about literature and the state of it. Someone cracks a joke, another follows: barbed wit, language tumbling over itself to embrace the countries we represent, the continent where we were all born, the many tongues we speak. I have an exchange with someone, then when I turn, I catch Binya in a quiet moment, private thoughts tucked into this loud, joyous night. I take out my camera: he is staring into the distance, seeing something that none of us can see, so caught by a vision that for an instant, we are lost to him and he is both nowhere and everywhere, here but not here.
What does it mean when a writer like Binya dies but leaves his words behind? Provocative, dizzyingly brilliant, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, proudly African, proudly himself, so achingly and compellingly vulnerable. How do we mourn when his voice is so loud that it can still fill a room? I think now to the last time I saw him: it is NYC, 2017. The ravages of his stroke are still apparent. The night feels historic, a moment unfolding on different levels, disappearing before I can grasp what it is that I should be noting. Abubakar Ibrahim, Chiké Edozien, Mona Eltahawy, Helon Habila, Chinelo Okparanta, Enuma Okoro, Chidinma Nwoye: we gather around him at a bar, we writers from a continent he helped redefine. I sit next to him and as the conversation grows lively and quickens in that intimate circle, Binya struggles to speak. I watch his body bend and tug at each word leaving his mouth. He blinks quickly and urges sentences forward, frustrated by his own pace. I listen, and I see him traveling down a long-familiar road: a writer trying to keep up with a mind that spirals and flies past language, nearly impossible to follow closely regardless of a body’s health. This is not unusual, I remember thinking. He has always been catching up to his thoughts. He has always outpaced himself, pushing language ahead in the process. What comes back to us is a testament to that continual struggle, also called invention. Also called flight. And now he is gone, unreachable, outpacing us again. What language is adequate to express this loss when he has invented his own and held ours up as ineffectual and often futile? Here he is: everywhere and nowhere, watching impatiently in another country of his own making, urging us onward, pushing us to match his pace. We will keep trying, Binya, in gratitude and in awe of a life so ferociously embraced and spectacularly lived. Thank you.
I met him in various places, Leeds, New York, Stockholm, Nairobi, and one in my home in Rironi Kenya, and at his father’s home, Nairobi. I saw him mesmerize audiences with histories, his charisma. I wrote a preface to his memoir: One day I will write this story. And he did indeed write this story, with his creative essays, his activism, and his impact on the literary scene in Kenya and Africa. He will forever be associated with the Kwani generation of African writers, who include his friends, Chimamanda Adichie and Billy Kahora. Who really was Binyavanga Wainaina? He was, simply, a literary force of nature: he will always be part of our lives.
–Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
One day, soon after he’d published his “coming out” essay, I was standing outside a Soho restaurant with Binyavanga and the Nigerian-British art director Michael Salu. Binya has been late to brunch… as always, he was worth the wait. As we waited for a car to pick him up a black woman in a duffle coat and jeans walked by. She looked at us, walked a little past, then turned to stand in front of him. You’re Binyavanga, she whispered. Yes, he smiled. I am. Thank you, she said, taking his hand. He looked at her, into her eyes. Thank you, she said again. He nodded. She walked on.
Is that happening to you a lot, I asked him. Yes. Everywhere.
This is what he did. He looked deeply: saw and acknowledged. He challenged, he told off, he complicated, he demanded more. He gave more. I want to eat the world, he said that day. And in that too short filled to bursting life, this gorgeous human being galvanized an entire generation of writers whose work, along with his, informs how we all write about Africa.
–Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
The first thing one noticed about the Binj was his brilliance. He knew something about everything. He was an ebullient, passionate man, his mouth full of things he had to say, history lessons he couldn’t wait to share.
He was as generous with his intelligence as he was with tips and his network (“Ah! You know which shoe shop you’d like? I’ll send you an email with their website. You should check out their Shoes!” “I have a cousin in Atlanta who’s married to a Nigerian, I will write introduce you to each other.” )
He was so charming and charismatic that one was willing to forgive him anything (traveling the UK as part of a Caine anniversary tour, he made us late to a festival in Bath once, but I remember we got on the train laughing and reveling in his stories, forgetting that we had been determined to be mad at him).
He believed in a better Africa, an upright Africa, an Africa where we told and retold our own stories (he set up Kwani? with his Caine prize money to achieve that narrative dream, to create a space for that dream to flourish and did it!).
Binj was a force of nature, whirlwinding his way through the world, and finally succumbing to that which must come for all.
Everyone knew the story of how Binyavanga entered the Caine Prize in order to win £10,000 and start Kwani? When I set his essay “How to Write about Africa” in the first week of a class at Williams College (where Binvayanga had also taught), I came back the next week to find my class size had practically doubled. He nailed the “white savior” narrative and, if he didn’t quite kill it, he left it squirming. He called himself the Binj. I remember his laugh, sometimes huge and from the belly, at other times a giggle like he’d just been squeezed. I interviewed him once for a radio documentary on those Africans of our parents’ generation who came of age at the same time as their countries, their confident assumption of the authority that had come to them as a bequest of history, the wild anecdotes we grew up hearing. That’s the world that created the Binj. In New York in 2015, a group of us African writers were billeted in the same hotel next door to an Irish pub where we hung out drinking and smoking outside. After I went to bed, Binyavanga would go and explore BYC nightlife. That was the year Chimamanda’s father was kidnapped in Nigeria. The two were close and Binyavanga spent a great deal of time on the phone with her. He let us all know when the crisis was over. Later the Binj wanted to buy a hat, for what reason I can no longer recall. I knew of a place near the Empire State Building, a men’s hat store, but when I showed him the website, he said: “Not that kind of hat. I want a… what do you call it?” He made a shape with his hands. “A bonnet.”
If there is one salient through line in African literature, it is that as writers we have had no choice but to be political–that is our literary tradition. Writers like Sol Plaatje (b. 1876) were political and were the founders of South Africa’s anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress that would later seat Nelson Mandela as the first black president in 1994. Then of course we have the Makerere generation of writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo for whom questions of aesthetics were also political questions. Binyavanga Wainaina was working from that literary tradition. But he did something most African writers have not–and that was to bring questions of sexuality, specifically African LGBTQ human rights to national and international attention through his writing and public platforms.
I have lost a friend and a comrade of two decades. It will be a lonelier and less well-lit this journey he has left us on. I want to celebrate his strength by offering this poem that I first wrote in 2010 in solidarity and celebration of LGBTQ Africans.
This is What I know
*For LGBTQ Africans
I know that Black people were sold as slaves because they were seen as talking beasts of burden and Africans colonized for their own good; and it was unnatural for women to operate heavy machinery let alone operate on a brain.
I know that in the United States, Jim Crow used the rope to keep black from white, and apartheid in South Africa killed for as little as looking across the color line; and that intermarrying between the races was a crime against God, Queen and Country.
I know that a God of many names, the Laws of many lands, science and nature were used to justify slavery and colonialism, holocausts and genocides, rapes and lynching.
I know that African dictators called those who fought for democracy “puppets under the pay of foreign of masters” and the foreign masters called those same people communists and insurgents.
And this I know very well: that had the Sojourner Truths, Dedan Kimathis, Martin Luther Kings, Malcom Xs, and Ruth Firsts failed, my wife and I would not have crossed the color line and my daughter would not have been possible.
I know that she, just like her mother and I, just like her grandparents will have her struggles, but it will a struggle waged at the crossroad of many cultures and worlds.
So I must know that those before me did not die so that I could use my freedom to put others in jail; or use the same laws that betrayed them to enslave and torture.
I must know that if Steve Biko died so I could write what I like, then my pen cannot become the weapon that justifies the torture and murder of others.
How then can I not know that no one appointed me protector of African cultural purity? How can I not know that I am not the standard of all that is moral and natural?
What fortress is this I build that subjugates those within and keeps those outside under siege? Whose moral law is this I use to judge?
Whose legal system to jail? Whose weapon to murder? And whose tongue do I use to silence?
How can I, Black and African and blessed as I am by the struggles of my fathers and mothers deny my gay brothers and sisters their rights?
This I know – The struggle continues. And if it continues for some, then it continues for all.
–Mukoma Wa Ngugi
In 2005, I was working in London as the deputy editor of Granta. The magazine had published a much-admired issue devoted to Africa a decade before, in 1994. William Boyd, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Paul Theroux, and William Finnegan were among its illustrious contributors—but we wanted to commission a new one to highlight the extraordinary burst of new writing coming from all over the continent; to make an issue not just about Africa but by contemporary African writers in all their diverse glory.
The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina was at the top of our list. Then in his early thirties, he had recently won the Caine Prize for African Writing, founded the vibrant and influential literary magazine Kwani?, and had been making a name for himself in the renowned writing program at the University of East Anglia. He had also, not long before, sent Granta an incredibly long and very funny email critiquing that 1994 issue. His email was biting, playful, over the top, and it went on and on for thousands of words; he called it a Letter to the Editor but it sounded like a lover’s kiss-off crossed with a literature student’s earnest denunciation of his antecedents crossed with a pissed-off “not punk enough” screed in Maximum Rocknroll. As Binyavanga later wrote, “In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood-sugar—it runs in the family—I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its ‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of ‘Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.’ It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of ‘reportage’— Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were ‘over there,’ where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long—truly long—rambling email to the editor.”
That editor was Ian Jack, one of the most perceptive editors (and writers) of our time. Neither of us shared Binyavanga’s derisory opinion of reportage, especially not of the class in that issue of Granta; but of course he was right about the conversation and the absence of African writers from it. Ian had written back encouragingly to Binyavanga, and as we began work that spring on our own special issue, “The View from Africa,” he said to me, “Give this chap a call, will you? I suspect he’ll have something to say that perhaps we all need to hear.”
When I reached Binyavanga he was back on the beach at Lamu, in Kenya. I told him how much we’d enjoyed his letter and how keen we were to feature new writing from him. He was gracious and excited, and said he had an idea for a piece about Bob Geldof and the mentality behind “We Are the World”-style liberal beneficence toward Africa. He pledged to send us something soon. Weeks went by and nothing arrived; months passed and still nothing came. By then we had assembled a list of contributors we were proud of—new fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Moses Isegawa, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; an extraordinary piece about Johannesburg by South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić—but we remained determined to feature Binyavanga in the issue. When at last he sent in a draft, I devoured it that night… and was crushed to find it felt neither as powerful nor as persuasive nor as pointed as I’d hoped. I called to tell him so, hoping neither to hurt his feelings nor discourage him from sending us something else, but—typically—he laughed and said, “Yes, that was terrible,” and said he’d give us something better.
Subsequent weeks, however, brought only silence. Finally, nearing the moment we were due to send the issue to the printer, I re-read Binyavanga’s Letter to the Editor. Everything that made Binyavanga so great was there on the page—his righteous passion, his biting wit, his eye for hypocrisy, his arch turn of phrase. And embedded within that email’s thousands of wild-eyed words were wry, satirical bits that mocked the way Africa and its people, its landscape, its wildlife were often written about. Why such a blazingly obvious idea hadn’t occurred to me before I don’t know, but I called Binyavanga and suggested we extract these bits, sequence them to give them a shape, and run them as a kind of satirical guide for anyone thinking of writing about Africa. From the beach in Lamu he said, “Yes, why don’t we do that!” I sent him a draft version and he had a revised one, perfectly composed, back to me the same day. Binyavanga later wrote that, soon after the piece was published, “I started hearing from friends, from strangers; started getting my own words forwarded to me with a cheerful heading, as something I might be interested in, as though I hadn’t written it. I went viral; I became spam.”
In the years since “How to Write About Africa” appeared and made its indelible mark, I would hear from Binyavanga with suggestions for other writers to publish. Nobody was more generous; he was forever emailing, “I have an amazing writer for you!” It’s true that he used a subsequent assignment that Sean Wilsey and I gave him, writing about Togo for The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, mainly to explore around the burgeoning fabric stalls of the market in Lome, and to buy himself dozens of shirts. But he delivered a glorious essay on the look and feel of the place! (He was always a soccer fan. Once, watching a qualifying game for the 2006 World Cup together in an East London pub, we saw heavily favored Ireland draw with Switzerland and thus fail to quality for the tournament. “Listen,” said Binyavanga. “Playing in those shirts, they cannot win. Only African teams look good in green.”)
Somehow he combined authority with sweet modesty, a lack of self-importance with a delightfully grand bearing. Who after all wore a pink tutu better than Binj? Who wore anything better? And even as his public role grew more prominent, especially in the wake of his coming out as a gay man in a deeply repressive society and his exceptionally moving TED Talk “Conversations with Baba,” he retained a sense of irony and reticence about his position as what he’d later call “that guy, the conscience of Africa.” He was, he always insisted, simply a writer, and he seemed to be living very large ideals within a very human frame.
A decade or so ago, when my wife and I were expecting the birth of our son, Binyavanga wrote to ask how we were doing. Fine, I said, except that we hadn’t yet settled on what to name the boy. “How about Binyavanga Wainaina,” he wrote back, deliciously. We didn’t take him up on that excellent suggestion, but I take great solace in knowing that his name—and his writing, and his example—will long endure.
I remember so well Binya winning the Caine Prize in 2002. We celebrated by going to Orso’s to eat grouse. I nervously picked up a knife and fork; he picked it up in his bare hands so I followed. It is the best and only way to eat grouse. We subsequently sold the book to Granta and he took years to finish it, and also wrote his famous piece for Granta after an anodyne issue on Africa. Big, captivating, forceful, what a loss, what a tragedy to lose him when there is so much to be done.
When I met Binyavanga in 2008, he had already kicked open the iron gates of the literary establishment by receiving the Caine Prize and using money that came with it to establish an organization of writers and literary journal called Kwani? He had already used the fire of his wit, humor and intellect to upcycle archaic ideas about Black people into a tool of our liberation titled, “How to Write About Africa.”
We were in Accra, Ghana for the writer’s conference and retreat pulled together under the leadership of Jeffrey Renard Allen, Arthur Flowers, and Mohammad N. Ali. My expressed purpose was to represent the gatekeepers. I was a book editor for a major publisher invited to give my insight into an industry that marginalizes Black voices and sent to find new authors to add to my list. My personal motivation was to briefly remove from my rickety seat inside the publishers’ gate to gather with my brothers and sisters who spoke for who I am as a Black person in the world.
A few days into the gathering, Binyavanga invited himself to a table where I sat alone, taking in the serenity of the seaside resort where we stayed. He wondered out loud about me, not as a publisher, but as a person. I wondered if this is how young male writers flirted these days with older women, but I was charmed by his interest, the way he kind of bounced in his seat with his hands dancing in the air, and his obvious kindness—a quality that is too rare among those known in the literary world for their wit, humor, and intellect.
The conversation about our lives, our work and aspirations which began that day continued albeit over long stretches of time and geography. He carried on with his work and by 2011, I was reading his memoir One Day I’ll Write About This Place, bending myself into its pages as I laughed and cried alone, riding the subway in New York City where I live.
He gave so much of himself in his book, but there was a missing piece, so groundbreaking alone, he held it back until 2014 in his essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mums.” I laughed at myself, remembering that moment when we met six years ago at the seaside resort in Accra when I wondered about his motives. He had blown up white supremacy with “How to Write About Africa,” now he was taking on the homophobes—and not from a distance.
He didn’t declare his truth from within the borders of the United States while serving as a professor at Bard College in New England, he went home to Kenya to come out. This 21st century Pan African man following in the long tradition of brilliant Black writers was along the same continuum as activist writers before him such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez; he was moving the movement to the last revolutionary frontier of LGBTQ rights from the diaspora to, yes, the continent of Africa. He began to use his voice—and his gender fluid fashion style—to call for the release of the African imagination, the freeing of our minds—as expressed by George Clinton, so our asses can follow.
The last time I was with Binyavanga in person was to see him, wearing gold shoes and green hair, present in a lecture series at City College that pays homage to Chinua Achebe, the celebrated Nigerian author who was a visiting professor at the Harlem campus in 1989. Binyavanga had served as a Fellow at Bard College and Director of its Center for African Literature and Languages. On this evening he read from a piece about three months he spent living in Dakar. He was there to spend time with Youssou Ndour, to write about the legendary musician who broke barriers in his country beyond the arts, expanding into politics and business. He took the occasion in his downtown to learn two things: how to swim and how to play sabar, the signature music of Senegalese culture. I was bouncing in my seat, not only excited by hearing new work from him, but one that revealed even more that we had in common. I’m passionate about swimming—even as I am like him a bit fearful—the culture and people of Senegal, and have studied Sabar dance for more than twenty years (and know from my experiences that the rich tradition is not easy to master).
The joy of this evening continued at dinner after the event when our conversation turned to an exploration of working together as publishers. Despite being positioned as a literary writer, we shared a conviction that popular fiction is as valuable to our culture and can be written and published according to the highest of standards and with respect. He developed a clear vision and business plan to develop and market these books to an African world market. I was developing a plan to publish well-done accessible fiction and nonfiction for a core audience of Black people in the West and our shared idea was to consider books from each other’s respective lists that might resonate across borders. We compared notes back and forth, but after a while our direct one-to-one dialogues shifted to social media where I became aware of new challenges he faced, particularly with his health. I was facing new issues myself, as I was now a freelancer without the regular income of a corporate executive and no financial backing to launch a publishing company. I was patient with my circumstances and his, having faith and concerned for his wellbeing and his time. He announced that he was HIV positive—and self-described as happy. He let his friends know when he’d suffered from a stroke, been disappointed by political setbacks, and found love—all things which consume time and attention. He was doing more than enough without more than my prayers and I was good with that. I imagine the gate of the literary establishment he broke open for this generation as never being locked again, but rather still swinging back and forth on salt-rusted hinges. Their creaking woke me up with the news yesterday that he’d transcended every barrier into the realm of the ancestors. And I cried, and listened to his dancing words and imagined him swimming and Sabar playing. I opened my arms and pushed from my lungs a wail of laughter, remembering how he delivered humor as organically as he told the truth. He is already deeply missed, but that should be our motivation to meet him again and again in his revolutionary body of work.
“Dirty socks. What do you mean dirty socks?”
Binyavanga and I were heading to the gym when he brought up the topic, so I assumed he was concerned about either laundry or hygiene. But no. As always with Binyavanga, the issue was about writing.
“I asked students to write their first essay on dirty socks. I told them just to write…tell me anything they want about dirty socks.”
At the time I was the chair of Africana Studies and had recruited Binya to be the Visiting Sterling Brown Professor in Africana Studies at Williams College that fall in 2008, a professorship named after the famous black poet and literary critic who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College in 1922. Binya planned to spend the semester teaching, getting in shape, and finishing his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.
I had asked him to join us at Williams after reading his story, “Ships in High Transit,” published in Virginia Quarterly Review (2006). The story, with its point-on depiction of the white savior complex and voluntourism in Kenya, had impressed me and I knew his presence on campus would be invaluable (this was, by the way before I learned about his justifiably famous essay, “How to Write About Africa”). Without a doubt, Binya brought a unique presence to Williams College that fall—as one of his students, Annette Joseph-Gabriel (now professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan), has said, Binyavanga was “neither proper nor conventional.” According to Annette, Binya’s goal was not to “teach you the true meaning of creative writing,” but rather to tell stories and in so doing he hoped students would learn how to write and read fiction. “In one class,” she recalls, he “told us a story about one of his classmates who committed suicide. By the end of the story I was laughing so hard I had to leave class for a solid 10 minutes. I laughed myself silly, then I just sat in the hallway and thought about what he had just done. How he had just told that story. How he had used language to take this thing that was horrible and traumatic and evoke a reaction in me that was so strong and unexpected and uncontrollable and disconcerting that I was now sitting in this hallway thinking about myself and my life. I can’t say that this was his intention with the story. But I have never again read literature the same way since that day. I have always tried to peek behind the curtain to see what the writer did with language to make me do or feel something strange and unexpected.”
Binya was always trying to get you to look behind the language, beneath all the postures and platitudes. He refused to offer his assent to the comforting stories we so often tell ourselves. And he could be just as trenchant in his social interactions, for what mattered to him more than anything else was telling the truth, no matter how unnerving or offending. It was, he argued, “the most political act one can have.” He wanted us always to see and to be honest, about dirty socks or prejudice or corruption, or anything else from which we would like to look away. Honesty, for Binya, was a form of generosity, and Binya was tirelessly generous. His former students and colleagues at Williams College will miss him terribly.