A Provocative Satirist Left a Pervasive Legacy, Influencing African Writing
The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina was many things in his short, frenetic life: memoirist and roving essayist, trailblazing editor and publisher, agitator and activist.
After winning the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, he used his prize money to finance a new literary journal, Kwani? (“So what?” in Nairobi slang), helping to promote a generation of Kenyan and African writers. His 2005 essay in the British literary journal Granta, “How to Write About Africa,” eviscerated timeworn Western tropes about Africa and African writing.
“African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life — but empty inside,” he wrote, adding, “Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well-rounded, complex characters.”
African literature would never be the same. Wainaina, who died in 2019 at age 48, became an outsize figure on the literary landscape, his omnivorous brilliance matched by ambition and vision on a continental scale. His body of work was influential but slim, overshadowed perhaps by his role as provocateur: In life, he published only one book, a memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place,” which was well received when it came out in 2011.
A posthumous collection, “How to Write About Africa: Collected Works,” published in the United States on June 6 by One World, sheds new light on the impressive range of his writing.
The Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, the author of “Dust” and “The Dragonfly Sea,” was one of several leading writers eager to reflect on Wainaina’s legacy over email. She described Wainaina as a “mediator, medium, artist and rocks-crusher” who “blasted open the avowedly abstruse doors to literary possibilities in the world for Kenyans and artists of African origin.”
The recent wave of African writing — from NoViolet Bulawayo, Okwiri Oduor, Eloghosa Osunde and others — has been richer in large part thanks to Wainaina’s rallying call, she and others said.
In “How to Write About Africa” the reader can see Wainaina developing his voice and style as he moves from post-apartheid South Africa in the 1990s back to Kenya and abroad, combining hybrids of personal and travel essays, short stories, dispatches, satirical lampoons, even food writing — with recipes. (He’s as acerbic on Swahili cuisine as he is on the adoption mania he dubs “the Angelina Jolification” of Africa.)
“I hadn’t realized the sheer scope of his nonfiction,” said the Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma, who, like Wainaina, has experimented with form, producing two highly original books of memoir, travel and reportage. “I think many writers on the African continent will be surprised by how much work he did — even if it was painfully short-lived.”
The Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett — whose satirical novel, “Blackass,” is indebted to Wainaina’s boldness — said over email that while Wainaina’s “deliciously subversive sense of humor” provided inspiration, he has recently re-evaluated Wainaina as a writer.
“During his lifetime, I always thought of him as a novelist who hadn’t yet published a novel,” Barrett said. “But since his passing, I’ve realized that the writing most readers go back to for glimpses of his genius are nonfiction.”
Wainaina’s Granta piece, his most famous work, had a somewhat inauspicious beginning. It started as a very long — and very funny — email he sent in 2005 to the magazine critiquing its 1994 “Africa” issue, which he saw, he later wrote, as featuring “every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” Matt Weiland, an editor at Granta, reached out to him and suggested turning the email into an essay for its new “Africa” issue.
In a tribute he wrote to Wainaina, Weiland said that “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.”
The published version sent shock waves around the world — it is the magazine’s most circulated article ever — and hit home with young African writers. Kwani?, which ceased publication before Wainaina’s death, inspired the Namibian author Rémy Ngamije to start his own literary magazine, Doek! He recalled how “cutting and incisive, witty and confrontational,” but also deeply revealing, the essay was.
“He helped expose a side of African writers that many did not know existed: that we were intimately aware of the dehumanizing nature of portrayals about us,” Ngamije said, “that we could poke fun at our oppressors and that we were not a literary void — we wrote back and we wrote hard.”
For the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, who first met Wainaina at an Africa-themed Aspen Summer Words festival in 2007, the essay became “an anthem” for a new generation of writers. “He spoke for us, put into words what we were all feeling,” she said, adding that “it made us laugh, but it also carried a sting of caution.” She remembered being impressed with Wainaina’s more serious and contemplative side.
“He was an intellectual,” she said. “Someone who could have become the Edward Said of Africa or the James Baldwin of our time.”
Indeed, there are many aspects of Wainaina to relish in “How to Write About Africa.” He is especially expressive when depicting Nairobi, a city that enraptured him. “The Kikuyu grass by the side of the road is crying silver tears the color of remembered light; Nairobi is a smoggy haze in the distance,” he writes in “Discovering Home.” “Soon the innocence that dresses itself in mist will be shoved aside by a confident sun, and the chase for money will reach its crescendo.”
At the same time, as Iduma points out, it is “difficult to think of a writer of his generation who was as Pan-African as he was.” His exuberant piece on the Togo team at the 2006 World Cup, “The Most Authentic, Blackest, Africanest Soccer Team,” builds to a thrilling conclusion as simultaneous celebrations break out “on wailing coral balconies in Zanzibar, in a dark, rumba-belting, militia-ridden bar in Lubumbashi, in rickety video shops in Dakar” and beyond.
“He had a gift for breezing through national borders like they were just lines in the sand,” Barrett said. “He was very Kenyan but also seemed as Nigerian, Ugandan, Senegalese and South African as the writers he sought out.”
And then there is the rush created by Wainaina’s language, which moves to its own syncopation. It’s barbed, playful, inventive. “What thrills me every time I read it,” Iduma said, “is the sense that Wainaina’s true gift was finding the rhythm within language, drumming up words until they sang.” In one piece, for example, he mocks “the history, the rumor, the myth, the praise, the double-eye” and “the crocodile-grinning farce” of leaders.
Wainaina was an original whose work offered a more expansive vision of African writing. He was not to be hemmed in. His 2014 essay “I Am a Homosexual, Mum” made clear his bravery as well and turned him into one of Africa’s most prominent critics of anti-gay discrimination. He defined himself on his own terms, not least in his writing.
Ngamije continues to see Wainaina’s spirit living on in Doek! and the movement he initiated.
“Binyavanga set in motion a new wave of curators and editors starting literary magazines on the continent that did not necessarily cater to a Western audience. There are many people who have written about the ‘death of Kwani?’ and the like, but Kwani? is not dead,” Ngamije said. “Like an African ancestor, it lives on in the literary afterlife, unseen but moving things around for those of us who work in this challenging but rewarding field.”
The same can be said of Wainaina.
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