Inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people

May 21 marks the anniversary of the writer and commentator Binyavanga Wainaina’s untimely death in 2019. He was 48.

Image credit Erik Hersman via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Binyavanga Wainaina was a key representative of African literary and public intellectual culture from the early 2000s to about 2014. From then until his tragic death in 2019, his public appearances became infrequent as did his output, save for his extraordinary account of his stroke in Granta, “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane.”

As Africa Is a Country colleague, Zachary Rosen, reminded me while I was writing this: it is especially important to talk about and elevate Binyavanga’s contributions to cultural politics and the political economy of publishing because young people coming of age today may not have witnessed his creative expression in action or felt the energy of his literary work. For those lucky to have been in his presence, like Zach and I, Binyavanga was quite a scene: “… speaking with his arms, his head, his whole body; assured meandering words flowing forth, to where one couldn’t be sure at first, but they always got there if given the chance.”

Binyavanga lived publicly and fully. Inevitably, he divided opinion and had his defenders,  critics, allies, and enemies. I myself, who broadly identifies with leftist working-class politics and draws on those traditions’ rich histories on the African continent, particularly in my native South Africa, didn’t always agree with Binyavanga. A case in point was his “Upright People” movement near the end of his life, which was hard to pin down with its contradictory mix of libertarian impulses and radical democracy. But at the same time, I admired how he lived his own principles and how brave he was. And how cutting he often was about politics. As he wrote, in his memoir, about his native Kenya’s politics on one of his visits there from South Africa: “I returned to my home, Kenya, to find people so far beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness.”

And, while Binyavanga is considered a charter member of the Afropolitans, he also struggled with it, critiquing its limitations and trying to stand alongside as well as apart from it. In this, he reminded me of something Edward Said said about himself once (and which I partly adopted as a credo):

I’ve never felt myself to belong to any establishment of any kind, any mainstream. I’m interested in mainstreams, I’m jealous of them, I sometimes, occasionally, envy people who belong to them—because certainly I don’t—but on the whole I think they’re the enemy. I feel that authorities, canons, dogmas, orthodoxies, establishments, are really what we’re up against. At least what I’m up against, most of the time. They deaden thought.

Or as Binyavanga himself wrote in his 2011 memoir with its aspirational title, One Day I Will Write About This Place:

I am starting to scribble my thoughts, to write these moments. It is when this is all done that I do what I do best. I look up, confused and fearful, all accordion with kimay [a word he invented to describe how he was hearing and seeing the world]; then soak in the safe patterns of other people, and live my life borrowing from them; then retreat—for reasons I don’t know—to look down, inside the safety of novels; and then I lift my eyes again to people, and make them my own sort of confused pattern. I am no sharp arrow cutting through the career ladder. It’s time to try to make some sort of sense of things on the written page. At least there, they can be shaped. I doubt myself the moment I think this.”

I am remembering how I first came to know about Binyavanga and his work. And this involves the fact that a big part of his biography involved his deep connection to South Africa.

If you know his personal biography, which he writes about in One Day I Will Write About This Place, he came to South Africa, in the early 1990s, to study at the University of the Transkei in Umtata. It is worth highlighting the fact that he came to study in a region that was the remnants of a South African bantustan; not just any bantustan, but one that was central to apartheid’s divide and rule politics, and at the same time some of its most disruptive oppositional forces. (People forget Bantu Holomisa, the progressive general who in 1987 had orchestrated a coup against the Matanzimas and Stella Sigcau and then made the Transkei a safe haven for returning exiles like Chris Hani after 1990.)  That Binyavanga went to Transkei rather than the more high profile schools where many well-to-do families from elsewhere on the continent sent their children, such as the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University, and Wits University, is testament to making choices that, like Said, are anti-mainstream.

Binyavanga would stay in South Africa for at least the next decade trying to build a professional reputation as a caterer and food consultant, as well as a writer. As he described himself at the time: “As a hobby, I collect information about traditional and modern cuisines of Africa, and write extensively about them. It is my aim to start to find an Afrocentric perceptual framework with which to comment about cuisines of the continent.” Already he was showing his penchant for self-promotion and bawdy humor: “I am widely regarded as the leading commentator on African Cuisine in South Africa … But I would much rather describe myself as a dedicated Food Slut.”

It was his writing that first drew my attention. When I discovered his work around 1997, he was writing a weekend column about food in one of the daily newspapers, and I was just back from studying in the US so couldn’t help but notice his writing, though it was buried between TV listings and photos of social events. Next to a lot of ordinary writing in much of the surrounding pages, Binyavanga’s prose jumped off the page. Now, I couldn’t find a sample of one of those pieces, but another piece that he published elsewhere at the time, gives a flavor:

I had a memorable Kenyan meal at a friend’s place in Sandton three years ago. We ate a roast leg of goat, sukuma wiki (curly kales) and m’kimo with njah beans. There was bottle after bottle of Tusker beer to wash it down. The fresh goat and the njah beans had been smuggled through Johannesburg airport by our enterprising hostess. The beer came wrapped in a diplomatic pouch, and the curly kales were hijacked from the fish section at a nearby “Pick ‘n Pay ( it uses the green vegetables to dress the display). I am told that “Pick ‘n Pay” cameras in Johannesburg have learnt to spot Kenyans as soon as they walk into the supermarket: “Warning to all fish market staff—you are about to be undressed!”

By the turn of the century our paths crossed at the journal, Chimurenga Magazine, edited by Ntone Edjabe, and where I helped out as a contributing editor.  Binyavanga was moving back to Kenya and in 2002 one of his short essays, “Discovering Home,” published in Chimurenga, and described in some places as an autobiographical novella, won the short story Caine Prize. At the time he won the Caine, he was only the third recipient. The Caine Prize, based in Britain, had been inaugurated in 2000. Leila Aboulela was the first and Helon Habila the second recipient. The prize would elevate Binyavanga’s public profile and set an expectation that he would write a novel. Later, Binyavanga would disavow himself from the Caine, but more on that later.

In 2006, Binyavanga’s life and people’s expectations of him changed with the publication in Granta of a short piece, “How to Write About Africa.” That article lampooned Western media stereotypes of Africa and made him a global star. It is also where my work and later that of Africa Is a Country, which I founded in 2009, became very clear.

At the time, mainstream media coverage of Africa in Europe and the US was abysmal. On top of it, the popular sources about African politics and culture were mostly blogs that highlighted development debates, NGO issues, the pros and cons of US or EU foreign policy for Africa argued between Americans, and the aspirational politics of African government elites like Thabo Mbeki’s “African Renaissance.” They had very little to do with actual African politics, aspirations, or perspectives. I saw Africa Is a Country as intervening in those debates. But I also wanted to introduce audiences to leftist or progressive perspectives on African affairs and undercut the dominant media narratives about Africa.   Binyavanga would also later publish a few essays in Africa Is a Country, adding to its legitimacy and cultural capital, but nothing we did could equal the impact and reach of “How to Write About Africa.” Nothing since has slapped as hard as a piece of cultural criticism since Chinua Achebe, in 1975, wrote An Image of Africa about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One big difference between Achebe’s and Binyavanga’s essays was that the latter had the internet as a distribution tool. One African journalist in 2010, at least four years after its publication, summed up the impact of “How to Write About Africa:”

[it] remains the most forwarded article in Granta’s history. The laugh-out-loud-funny satire captured every recorded stereotype that has been used by journalists, novelists, and historians when writing about Africa and its myriad countries, peoples, languages, and animals—and turned each cliché on its head. The actor Djimon Hounsou even made a video of himself reciting the essay in a faux-serious tone.

Later, Binyavanga would write, in Bidoun, “How to Write About Africa II: The Revenge,” about the reception to the original essay. He revealed that it was, with few edits, entirely based on an email he had fired off in frustration to the editors of Granta over its “Africa” issue. The editor encouraged him to turn it into an essay. But Binyavanga also revealed how tired he had become of how that essay framed his writing and the view of him in public life:

Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa.

If “How to Write About Africa” connected early Africa Is a Country and Binyavanga, his coming out as gay in 2014, was the first time, outside of appearing on panels, for us to work together. That moment was also an interesting one for African digital cultures.

The story revolves around events leading up to and on Binyavanga’s 43rd birthday on January 18, 2014. On that day, Africa Is a Country and Chimurenga Chronic simultaneously published an online essay by Binyavanga, “I am a homosexual, mum.” Referring to the post as the “lost chapter” of his 2011 memoir, “I am a homosexual, mum” was written in the form of a letter to his late mother and “cuts back and forth between different ages, as well as real and imagined memories.” As we learn, sadly, from the piece, he never actually told his late mother (who passed away a few years ago) that he was gay.

A few days later, Wainaina and those close to him, also put up a series of Youtube videos in which he expanded on his reasons for coming out, and also opined on a range of other topics (a sort of video manifesto). While the videos had some traction, it was his essay that went viral.

The essay was reported on by most mainstream Western media and also in African media (both print, television, and online), especially in Kenya where Binyavanga resurfaced on chat shows.  The attention did not surprise anyone. The publication of “I am a homosexual, mum” coincided with a fierce debate and a stifling legal environment for gay people in a number of African countries. At the time, 35 countries in Africa had “anti-homosexuality laws.” As The Guardian reported at the time, Binyavanga specifically timed his essay to coincide with: ,

… a moment when his country, Kenya, is ratcheting up its official and colloquial homophobic rhetoric. When its neighbor Uganda–his mother’s home nation–has had before its parliament a bill introducing the death penalty for some homosexual acts and where a leading gay rights campaigner was not long ago murdered. And at a time when Nigeria–a country Wainaina is in the habit of visiting several times a year–[openly flaunted its repression of LGBTQI people]. Wainaina’s lost chapter, then, was a pointed and deliberately provocative act.

What interests me is how “I am a homosexual, mum” entered our media worlds: the fact that it was first posted on two small African, niche websites—Africa Is a Country and Chimurenga—before it was picked up and reported by mainstream media.

Binyavanga’s choice to publish the essays at Africa Is a Country may have surprised many.  There was an important rationale behind the decision as Binyavanga would explain in an interview on American public radio a few days later,

I’m a writer, and I’m an imaginative person. And I think I kind of had a feeling, having been in the media before, that the media kind of deals in sort of, you know, nice things, but bullet points …: [And he made scare quotes] ‘In the heart of gay homophobia darkness in Africa Binyavanga writes …’ [or] ‘Binyavanga explained how homophobia in Africa works’ … So it was very important to me that first … I didn’t want this story published in The New Yorker or in some magazine abroad or anything. I wanted to put it out for people to share. I wanted to generate a conversation among Africans … just talk around the issues in a certain way.

So, Binyavanga wanted us to imagine for a moment that if Africa is a Country and Chimurenga Chronic didn’t exist, he would have had to go to an elite Euro-American publication like the New Yorker, the New York Times, or The Guardian. Equally important, had Binyavanga made the announcement in a Western mainstream media outlet, opponents of gay rights on the continent (who include a number of Western enablers) would have seen him in a Western media outline, and concluded: “See, homosexuality is a Western thing,”  and could have easily dismissed him or cast doubts on his motives.

For that, I am eternally grateful to Binyavanga.

In his final years, Binyavanga prefigured some of the kinds of ideas that are now mainstream among black creatives or Africans or African-descended people in publishing. He became more outspoken about building African creative infrastructure (this included his disowning the Caine Prize). He also urged Africans to connect—not uncritically or romantically—with our traditions and histories, our own usable pasts, in confronting and imagining new futures. His broad project “Upright People” movement was an example of this.

In the end, it was sad to watch from afar as his body began to fail him, and overwhelmingly sad when news arrived that he had a fatal stroke.

In One Day I Shall Write About This Place,  Binyavanga writes: “what a wonderful thing. I think, if it were possible to spend my life inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people.”

I think he did and we’re better off for it.

Further Reading