Binyavanga Wainaina

by Rob Spillman

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:


Photo by Jerry Riley.

Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina is inexhaustible, a public intellectual very much engaged with the literary and political worlds. His memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, published this July by Graywolf Press, chronicles the multiplicity of his middle-class African childhood: home squared, we call it, your clan, your home, the nation of your origin. It is an impressionistic memoir of the mutability of place and language, told in the first-person present so that, as readers, we are taken through his post-colonial childhood by a hyperobservant, sensitive guide. It moves from his discovery of the power of fiction to college in South Africa, where he started writing in earnest. “Discovering Home,” a personal essay about a family gathering in Uganda, won the 2002 Caine Prize, commonly referred to as the African Booker. While this launched his career, Wainaina is more widely known for what started off as a tongue-in-cheek letter to Granta called “How To Write About Africa.” The stinging satire— “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West”—became the magazine’s most-viewed online piece and catapulted Wainaina onto the international stage. He is the founding editor of the groundbreaking Kenyan literary magazine Kwani? and is currently the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College.

I have two favorite images of Wainaina: In 2006 I participated in a conference and in Nairobi organized by Kwani? and the Summer Literary Seminars. For a week, writers and editors from across Africa exchanged ideas, shared stories, and generally had a great time. In the center of it all was Wainaina. On one of those nights, at around 4 AM, I had to crash and begged leave. Wainaina gave me a look that said, “Really, why would you sleep?” The other image is from New York, in the spring of 2007, when we were due to be at a panel at Yale at 11 AM. We needed to leave my Brooklyn house by 9 AM. At 5 AM, after a long, long dinner party, Wainaina and Ntone Edjabe, the editor of the South African literary magazine Chimuerenga, left to check out an after-hours salsa club. They returned in a cab at 8:59 AM. And he killed it on the panel. Four years later, on a gray April afternoon, I spoke with Wainaina in a coffee shop near Bard, where, not surprisingly, he seemed to know everyone by name.

Rob Spillman How did the book come about? And what made you choose the first-person present form?

Binyavanga Wainaina There was never a decision to write this book. There was already the essay “Discovering Home,” which was also written in first-person present. It was the first thing I ever published—in a South African newspaper. It won the Caine Prize and so forth. So when I got a new agent and we had lunch and he said, I could sell “Discovering Home”, immediately I said, Yeah, I could write it. It went like that. So from the beginning the idea was immediacy; I knew when I set out to write this, although it took a long, long time—

RS How long did it take?

BW Seven years, man. Five, six years of many, many collapses. I wanted to try to write a riskier book. I felt like I’d been writing a lot of safe short stories for a while, and I wanted to go a bit crazy and take some risks with form and language. I was feeling a little cramped with all these new expectations—you know, to write a big Africa book that fulfills the Postcolonial Condition and so on . . . Finding a language for the imagination of childhood occupied me a lot. I wrote a lot that just wasn’t working and it took me a long time to find the heart of the book, which ended up being more about playing with language than about Kenya. Ultimately those portions became the heart of the book at some point when some of the wilder sections collapsed under the weight of their ambitions; I had to whittle many down, kill some, and weave other sections back into a rewritten manuscript.

RS In a recent issue of Bidoun magazine you wrote about your well–known Granta piece: “Now that I am that guy, the conscience of Africa, I admonish you and give you absolution.” Toni Morrison said that she gets annoyed when people call her a woman writer or a black writer. But I wonder if you, because you are “that guy,” feel that you have to embrace “that guy–ness” or African-ness or Kenyan-ness more than, say, an African-American writer?

BW I feel like the original Granta piece now belongs to somebody else. I have enjoyed desecrating it—I can distress the sanctimoniousness that sometimes surrounds it. I want to be contrary about “How to Write about Africa.” I came to writing because I love to read books, especially trashy books. There’s a kind of a citizenry there. Even as kids, we had our peeps—our parents didn’t want us reading these pulpy books, but we’d trade and barter. We knew what was going on, we’d recognize our kin—at bookstores or libraries I got to know other people like me from years of meeting them in the shelves. That feeling of community with other similarly addicted people is very strong. It’s almost to whom the things I write are addressed.

Then there’s the whole Africa thing, which is complicated. The moment you have been published and recognized for whatever reason, and your name is bandied about around Africa and in writing circles, you end up in certain places. You end up in London a lot. This has been decided. Somehow you end up in Paris a lot too. It’s been decided. And then little other places. New York for some reason hasn’t quite done it. In these places you generally meet African writers and have some kind of relationship which is usually like “Oh fuck!” and then you get very drunk and you get to know each other—over long periods of time. For many of us, in a certain way, that’s our first discovery of Africa. Some writers met Africa early. They came to New York to study at NYU, or they were in London, in Leeds, or somewhere, and there was an African students’ association—they made friends and some kind of community thing happened. It happened to me as a student in South Africa where I met Ghanaians, Ugandans, and all these professionals. I belonged to a community around them and then developed a sensibility, because, all of a sudden, I would find myself knowing what happened in the Ghanaian election, for instance.

More than anything else, I feel I belong to an African network of writers. I feel a sense of duty and service to it, which has, by a mixture of many things, started to inform my own politics and ideas of myself as a writer. But I don’t feel the need or duty to represent Africa to the world as a writer at all.

RS When you are writing, do you have these African writers in mind? Do you have any audience in mind when you are writing?

BW I have an audience of me when I was nine, or someone like me when I was nine.

RS In One Day I Will Write About This Place you talk about making sense of people’s patterns and networks. It is almost like you’re reaching out to your nine-year-old self and saying, “Here’s what I’ve learned. Here are the networks and paths.”

BW When I came home from South Africa to Kenya in 2000, and started off writing I was spending a lot of time reading Nadine Gordimer: her short fiction from the ’60s, stuff like An Occasion for Loving. I really liked her way of creating texture and place. More than the quest for something to write about or the desire to make a scene work, the issue for me was how much I trusted the aesthetic of that breathing nine–year–old person I carried around. I have an extraordinary memory of my childhood. It’s very impressionistic, but sometimes very clear; over the years I have had easy access to it. Like, I can put events and a certain aesthetic wrapping above my left shoulder and look at them, and feel separate from them, but know them enough to write about them. The challenge is to write my way into that space somehow. That creative voice is part of me more than anything else.

RS Toni Morrison also talks about how she finds that there’s always one person who gives you permission to write about what you truly want to write about. Was there any one person or group of people that gave you the go ahead to write what you really wanted to write, how you really wanted to write it?

BW It sounds strange, but maybe it was teachers. I had a teacher in primary school called Mr. Mwangi. He was my English teacher briefly, but he was also the music guy. He used to do guitar, piano, which I was terrible at. But he was this person who, when you were writing your English composition, would be like, “The wilder and crazier it is, the better.” In the Kenyan school system, which is very puritanical, he was an exception. I did not know that I wanted to be a writer at all. It wasn’t a question that came up. But I was always writing in my head and that world was always the one I lived in more than any other one. Pursuing that world was the first thing I did when I started writing. Until actually winning the Caine Prize I didn’t have the feeling that I had to represent the continent or wonder if my writing “was really Kenyan.”

RS You were just trying to figure out your own patterns.

BW Yeah. And then, of course, once you meet people who have been doing this for a while—which I’ve been really lucky to do just by happenstance—you discover more. You discover more from meeting Ng?g? wa Thiong’o and others, and just chatting with them and having a drink. You discover how much they were also looking for the same thing as you. As a young writer, you always think, No, they were trying to recreate the Marxist state. Not that they are wacky or dreamy people. The feeling of kindredness coming from a very quick meeting. That is a beautiful thing and a surprise, too.

RS I remember when we were in Nairobi together, before the elections, in December 2006, at the Kwani? Festival. There were people from Cameroon, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, the Congo, writers from across Africa, and it would go all night because everybody was talking. You mentioned music; I like how the Congo rumba filters through your book. There was one late night when Ntone [Edjabe, the editor of the South African literary magazine Chimurenga, as well as a professional DJ] put on “Africa Liberte.” Everything stopped and everybody had to dance.

BW That was an unforgettable night. We all recognized a certain forgotten childhood in that song, a certain distant pain, a distant mood. It was amazing; all of us there were inside that same moment. Then there’s also this Congolese thing, the sounds, you are always hearing people speaking in other languages, so you develop a very high ear for them. Part of being in Kenya is being able to place people in some kind of geography in your imagination, though you have no idea what they are saying.

RS What about Sheng? [The street patois of urban East Africa, combining English, Kiswahili, and tribal languages.] Is that common enough in Nairobi that everybody there can handle Sheng? Is it a lingua franca?

BW I’d say maybe Kiswahili and Sheng, yeah. But Sheng itself and its variations have always been insider languages. Different parts of Nairobi have their Sheng which, as part of its own design, exists partly to lock strangers out. But Sheng has also, since the ’90s, become the language of youth politics, a lingua franca for a generation of Kenyans who are under 30 now. Many in Nairobi say, “Sheng is my mother tongue.” If you approach somebody in Sheng, even if your Sheng is as terrible as mine is, you’re saying, “We have a communion together. I’ll be nice to you, you be nice to me.” Now, if someone sees you and encodes you and says, “I recognize my ethnicity in you,” and you’re a stranger in a public place, part of what they’re asking is like, “Can you collaborate? Let’s do this thing together.”

RS Is it a little bit like Kwaito music in South Africa? It cuts across ties, across race, is centered on youth and a postcolonial, post-strongman, fuck art and politics, let’s dance attitude?

BW Yes, yes.

RS So when you write, do you make a conscious decision to ever use Sheng or Kiswahili or anything outside of English? Language is so important to you, and there are so many different language influences on you, how do you decide what to use? What tools do you use?

BW In One Day there are what I’d call call–ups; things that are there for people who get them. They’re not deep or anything, but they are put in such a way that a certain kind of Kenyan would get them immediately. I can’t write or speak in Gikuyu, and I have no intent to write in Gikuyu, but I’m comfortable with Gikuyuness as a sensibility that has some claim over parts of me. But I say this in the book—and I have written about this quite a bit—there are emotional spaces that you cannot occupy in English in Kenya. I found this really interesting because English has a personality in Nigeria, for example. It’s not just pidgin; it’s a Lagos thing. A West African thing. In Kenya, on the other hand, partly because of colonial history, the space that English occupies is very separated. English is the language of authority, the language of importance, of going somewhere. You use it to wield power. Always. For example, on a table around the park, we switch from English to Kiswahili to other common languages we’ve picked up together in conversation quite easily.

RS When do you switch? Would you switch to one language to talk about, let’s say, politics versus music?

BW You can’t approach strangers in English almost anywhere in Kenya and visibly be of a different class than them. If you’re wealthier, or have more, and you’re speaking English to ask for directions, for instance, you’re announcing where you stand in relationship to them. So it’s just rude; you wouldn’t do it. You’d automatically code into Kiswahili and sometimes you’d code into a shared mother tongue, but Kiswahili’s acceptable enough. Whenever you speak Kiswahili, you are telling someone, “We are brothers. We are together in this.” And you can negotiate your way in and out. In English, class is always present.

RS I did an interview with Alberto Fuguet and Ariel Dorfman, who represent two different generations of Chilean writers. We were easily talking about literature, then it came to politics and they turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, we cannot speak about politics in English.” They got into a very heated conversation in Spanish and when it switched back to literature, they said, “Okay, we can talk to you in English.”

BW In Kenya people talk politics a lot in English. There’s a language of the news, of the national newspaper. The language of yesterday’s news is one we commonly develop; you can speak about it in Kiswahili, where it’s getting weirder and weirder lately. There are all these places in Kenya where people are negotiating for room for themselves. What you have since the violence in 2007 is a visible, tangible, growing language of a kind of ethnic consolidation, among certain tribes in particular. There’s a generation of Gikuyu, for example, that had never had that language until now. What I have been receiving for a while as a public writer, but mostly just as a person, is that, for instance, I’ll enter a taxi and we’ll start chitchatting about politics. There’ll come the time when this taxi driver will want to know where I’m standing. And in not indirect ways, but in Gikuyu now. “How come you’re not giving me approval to say we are in this together?” has become a common reproach.

RS In December of 2006, when I visited Nairobi, I brought with me the English copy of Ngũgĩ‘s Wizard of the Crow. It had only come out in Gikuyu in Kenya—the English translation that you did hadn’t appeared yet. It was really popular. People wanted that book because they couldn’t read it in Gikuyu but they could read it in English. It seemed very strange to me.

BW Martin Kimani, whom you know, went to visit his grandmother before she passed away. He took a copy of Ngũgĩ‘s book. The only thing she read in Gikuyu regularly was the Bible, but she started reading it and was like, “This is amazing!” She couldn’t put it down. Martin himself can’t read Gikuyu so that’s the other thing: only a certain generation is literate in Gikuyu or in their mother tongue, because the education system removed those languages. You have this strange situation where some people know their language very well; they were brought up in a village and know it orally, but they can’t read it. Now the new thing you’re seeing in political spaces is, for example, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta [the first prime minister and then president of independent Kenya] speaking publicly in Gikuyu. That was extraordinary. He’s a middle-class guy, and his Gikuyu is not only idiomatic, it’s good. His parents were traditional, he’s a nice little Westlands rich boy. He’s always spoken in an Amherst English and a slightly bad Kiswahili. But now he’s been anointed as heir to Mwai Kibaki [Kenya’s current president], and so he started rousing all these symbolic things.

RS For some reason, I was reminded of War and Peace. The Russian nobility all had French teachers; they all grew up writing in French, and as Napoleon is getting closer and closer to the border, they have to switch over to Russian and—

BW Oh!

RS They can’t do it. They don’t know how to write or read Russian. Russian is for common people. (laughter) You’ve been in the US for a few years now. Do you feel bi-country? Do you have a foot in both places? You have a great line in the book, “I’m in the habit of Kenya. I can’t just leave.” Where are you?

BW I guess I’d say I’m in America because I’m not in England. Many African writers have started to feel that England no longer exerts an influence over African writing through its instruments, its institutions. The publishing houses are no longer there, the postcolonial cultural spaces are mostly dead, as is the Commonwealth. From the 1990s on, it seemed as if there wasn’t any room for us in England anymore. The idea of us as part of a larger cultural movement based in England—as writers whose imaginations were partly governed by events outside of England—was stale. We talk about that a lot. In a way, I ended up in America because there is more room here. The space is more expansive, diverse, and does not feel as brittle and tight-arsed as Europe does sometimes.

RS There are more opportunities, funding.

BW Yeah. Also, for instance, if you are Alain Mabanckou trying to be in France, you have to show your Frenchness to be acceptable to the establishment. Certainly there’ll be institutions and places that will embrace your Camaroonianness or your Congoleseness or something, but if you don’t have a Frenchness tick, you won’t have validity as an artist. England maybe was relying on the British Commonwealth, which often just means that you all went to an English-speaking school, and have common references—it’s the former British colonies that have no real power in the world today. That is not there anymore; so there’s this vacuum. For many of us, it was startling to be called up by some college and to be told, “Hello! Come to America for this series of readings or whatever. We want you to be a visiting writer.” I was shocked and charmed in a way; that couldn’t happen in England. As a former colonial nation, its institutions have had real trouble figuring out what to do with you. But for some reason, here there is some room, regardless of the usual complaints of “America is not international,” and so on and so forth. Do I feel American? No. Am I am an American writer? No. Do I plan to be? No. But there’s validity in being here in this space that I continue to derive some benefit from. There’s a lot of room here for me to talk on my own terms about what I do.

RS And what about the Center, its mission?

BW Bard is extraordinary. It has always been interested in international writing and arts, in general, so since I came here I’ve never had the feeling that I needed to explain my writing or why people like me exist. That really is valuable and surprising. I mean, I’m like, You mean, I can? Yeah? Oh! But I think that one of the more exciting things that’s happened in African writing, in English and probably in French too, is that there’s a new generation of people who have never left their home countries, who are not part of this “one-foot-in; half-diaspora; half-here, half-there,” kind of thing. They’re not confused like the rest of us. We are seeing a real, aggressive attack on writing in English by a new generation—a lot of them out of Nigeria, some out of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa—and they not only have their own sensibility, but a new kind of confidence. Many of them are children of new and dynamic megacities like Lagos, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. It’s exciting.

RS How does the Internet play into all this? You say in the book how you’re like a squirrel going on the Internet and looking for any opportunity and how important that was for you. That’s where you met Chimamanda Adichie.

BW Every break I’ve had somehow came via the Internet. When I first wrote “Discovering Home” I sent that by email to this guy called Andrew Unsworth. He was like, “How much do you want to get paid?” That was a break. “Discovering Home” I think, was the first work in the world published online to win a major literary prize. And since, with this younger group of writers, the biggest thing is a massive network of connected writers producing, creating, starting magazines, starting outlets online and offline, knowing each other. They’re African but they are not waving an African banner. You have all these young writers in Nigeria who know writers in Kenya because they met on Facebook and so-and-so’s workshop. You start to get the sense of this piling up of power and production, which is now larger than the sum of any parts you can see. That certainly has meant more to writing out of the continent than any other thing. There are 19–year–olds who’ve read all your work and they’re based in Zimbabwe.

RS When I was in Nairobi, it was amazing to see everybody reading online just because it’s so hard to get books or magazines across the borders. Kenyan readers were reading a lot of Nigerian writers, but online.

BW We’ve all got to go digital. There’s no question about it anymore. Print has to die.

RS What about Kwani?

BW We’ll continue producing in print because that’s what we have been doing. All these amassed networks . . . all these years African literary magazines like Farafina, Chimurenga, and others have managed to put things out in print. They have come to matter, to a point, but takeoff hasn’t been achieved yet. It’s gotta be digital. And that’s the next thing. The moment when people will be consuming their school texts on a digital device will be a big moment for us—as a generation, our things will be read.

RS Early on in your book you say, “I believe fiction is better than the real world.” Do you still feel that way?

BW Yeah, yeah.

RS You’d much rather be in a book than having to deal with—

BW Uhuru Kenyatta, yes. Most certainly. Unless I am writing about him.

Rob Spillman is editor and co-founder of Tin House, a 12-year-old bicoastal (Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Vogue among other periodicals. He edited Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing (2009).

Tags:
Language
Memoir
Childhood
Postcolonialism
Politics
African diaspora
Non-fiction
BOMB 116
Summer 2011
The cover of BOMB 116
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