How does one come out and say it when a global audience believes it knows the terrain of one’s life story—all the fissures and intimacies that there are to know—already? How does one tell of that thing which one held close—and tell it in a whisper to one’s mum, to one’s Baba—while letting go of that tight-fisted secrecy into the air for others to breathe in and take away as if it were theirs to own and consume? Here, on the Internet, a world will imagine that this whisper is an invitation to bring cars around to the back of the house, where carefully tended thickets camouflage things one did not, in fact, know how to reveal to the most beloved figures in one’s life. It will not be obvious to many that the thicket is still one’s own, that one simply said what should have been just known, not asked about, or inquired into with prurient inquisitiveness.
My mother used to sing this comical song, in the sing-songy mock-English of the “Lansi” – the mongrel coastals of Sri Lanka: “Peeping through the window, darling/People what would say?/Come in through the doorway darling/Come in proper way!”
On Saturday, his 43rd birthday, Biyavanga Wainaina, hardcore comic, announcer of the ugly-obvious to nice liberals with imperial ambitions, and memoirist, asked a few select online publications (Africa’s a Country, Kwani?, and Chimurenga) to post a piece that will make people say things. But in a way, he’s also said, “Stop peeping through the window. Come in proper way.”
In a way, he said something that we know. (Have you read his memoir? You a fan that doesn’t read his tweets or FB page?) And this isn’t something that he needs to say to any of us. But he does anyway. To write himself real, to speak himself true.
So the world may be blown away. And if the virulence of personal attacks on anyone who dared to say, in the past week, that Nigeria’s anti-homosexuality law is actually about patriarchy, political power, and violence—and not about what’s “African” (no more than church and Jesus)—is any sign of what Wainaina will face, we know the risk he took. But one takes risks as dangerous as this because to live without revelation is to bury oneself alive.
Binyavanga Wainanina is stretching, playing with, and mocking the limits of memoir, and the conventions of writing one’s life story. We think he told us about himself in his memoir, One Day I’ll Write About This Place, published by Greywolf Press in September 2012. Memoirs are supposed to be the public forum on which one gives people the “true” account of one’s life. We think memoirs are locations of revelation. Where one “fixes” the truth in print. And one’s version of the story is meant to be incontestable—as long as one maintains the bond of trust with the reader: a dance that is fraught with tension. So we believe he’s told us all there is. Why would a memoirist hold back? To do so would be to break that bond, to let one’s dancing partner fall.
But Wainaina was never conventional, even in print. In his memoir, his words create a shadow-dapple like leaves, moving, rustling, changing. We’ve never been able to fix him. And on a perfectly slow Sunday morning, a year and a few months after his memoir was published on crisp paper and respectable hardback, he contests the very parameters of print, and of memoir in print. He adds to his memoir. No, he challenges memory—our memory of him.
This confession—this unruly addition to his memoir—isn’t addressed, “Dear World, I am a homosexual.” He tells his mum, “I am a homosexual.” He adds to her memory. Had visa, temperament, material success made it possible, we imagine that he would have been there, telling her. Had failure—as he imagined it—and shame from not having achieved not prevented him. Maybe. So that she would know her son in his full revelation. So that he would never had to break her step as she danced with him. But he doesn’t get to try out that version of his life.
Wainaina, has, to some extent, been held in that eternal moment, whirring his tyres in the mud and mire of not having given his mum and Baba an invitation to enter the intimate spaces of a home in which he feared they would not be comfortable. So he tells her now. He tells her as her organs fail, and as she parts through the hospital window, leaving an open invitation to her husband. He tells his Baba, who joins her eleven years later. But here, in this place of possibility, this imagined space, Wainaina’s story—confined until now in the spaces reserved for the sick and dying—escapes through an open window. Perhaps a careless nurse left it open.