Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina had been a breaker of stereotypes. Not only did his own evocative writing challenge stereotypes about gender and identity, he had also created a bustling literary scene for young writers who dared to think out of the box. Writer and editor Margaret Busby fondly spoke of his “daringly unconventional dress sense that inspired warm smiles”, while author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had penned his citation when he had made the list of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Well-loved among his literary contemporaries as well as his readers, Binyavanga passed away at the age of 48 on May 21.
In a tribute to Binyavanga, Sigrid Rausing, editor and publisher of Granta, shares that the 1994 issue of Granta was on African writing, but it barely contained any African voices, except the one speech by Nelson Mandela. In response, Binyavanga Wainaina had provided the world with some “useful” tips on writing about Africa. It was an essay that turned heads, and focused the world’s attention on exactly how authors, mostly white Western authors, had been generalizing and appropriating Africa. In the guise of being handy tips for writers, the biting satire went, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving…Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: 54 countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.” Binyavanga’s “How to Write About Africa” (2005) soon became one of the most read articles of Granta, and it brilliantly pointed out how historians, journalists and writers had been perpetuating some cliched and highly problematic views about the continent.
“Kenneth” was born into a middle-class family in Kenya, to Rosemary and Job who worked at a hair salon and an agricultural company respectively. From his simple childhood in the lakeside town of Nakuru, his higher studies took him to South Africa in 1991, and he later began a career as a freelance travel and food writer based in Cape Town. His talent as a writer earned him the position of writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York and Williams College, Massachusetts. Completing his MPhil in creative writing from University of East Anglia in 2010, he served as director of Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York.
In 2002, Binyavanga had made a sweeping entrance into the literary scene by bagging the Caine prize for African writing for his story, “Discovering Home”. The author decided to spend the prize money of £10,000 to form his own literary magazine, Kwani? to support other writers with potential. The word Kwani has its rebellious origin in the streets of Kenya, as it means “What?” in Sheng, a form of Swahili urban slang, questioning the very literary establishment. The magazine emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the African literary scene as it published newcomers and developed a vibrant community by organizing different events and workshops all over the country. Such was the influence of this canon-breaking literary movement started by Binyavanga that The Kenyan Press termed him and his Kwani crowd “literary gangsters”.
Fellow writers and well-wishers of Binyavanga had always admired his stubborn spirit and refusal to give in. In 2007, he had turned town the Young Global Leader Award by the World Economic Forum, saying that, “it would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am “going to significantly impact world affairs.” Sigrid Rausing fondly remembers his indomitable spirit even after he had suffered his first stroke. He would regularly send her pieces by other writers whom he thought had potential. Hence, Binyavanga was a mentor and an inspiration for the young African writers he had groomed under the Kwani umbrella.
Another identity of Binyavanga is that of an LGBT rights activist. In 2014, he took the bold step of coming out in public by publishing a lost chapter of his memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place”. The chapter was entitled “I am a Homosexual, Mum” which he had published after the death of both his parents. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the same year. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie praised him as he had “demystified and humanized homosexuality” in a country where it was still a criminal offense to be one. In 2016, there was another revelation by him on Twitter, that he was “HIV positive and happy”.
The author, grappling with his sexual orientation all his life had finally found some solace last year. According to his Facebook post, he had asked his partner for his hand in marriage, and he had said yes. Just days after Binyavanga’s death, unfortunately, there was a court ruling in Kenya upholding the constitutionality of the law criminalizing homosexuality.
Caine Prize trustee Ellah Wakatama Allfrey spoke of Binyavanga’s contribution to the African writing community, remembering fondly the “wings he gave to a generation of writers.” Binyavanga Wainaina was essentially anti-establishment, yet he only wanted to create a world where Africa is not otherized, and young writers stand a chance to showcase their talent to the world.