Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina died in May 2019 at the young age of 48 but, in his short lifetime, he made as many gains for African literature as he did for the visibility of LGBTQ people in East Africa. He infused the position of the artist in Kenyan society with a unique power by multiplying art by politics and personal expression by social activism, in a world where artists are expected to occupy boxes that compartmentalise those things, not combine them.
I first heard of Wainaina when he wrote a satirical essay for Granta magazine in 2005 called ‘How to Write About Africa’. In it, he effectively skewered all the clichés about Africa that Western writers and journalists are known to employ when they write about the ‘dark continent’. “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” the essay started off, bitingly. “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 ... Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with.”
I remember how reading this essay electrified me: not only was it achingly funny, but it was also a laser-targeted evisceration of people who deal in the stereotypes that give birth to these clichés in writing. I was just as guilty as the writers Wainaina was targeting but, while he upbraided them for dealing in those clichés, I felt caught out for believing them because I hadn’t bothered to seek out writers from African countries who were the more authentic voices.
Instead, as a child of colonialism, I had believed the testimony of those Western writers and journalists, counted on them to go to a continent I’d never seen and report back. After all, we had all been raised to think of white people as the authorities on everything. And it took decades after the end of colonialism for the true voices of Africa — such as Wainaina’s — to proliferate and grow loud enough to be heard in our different corners of the world.
But the essay had another effect: it made writers in nations such as Kenya and Pakistan think about what kinds of stereotypes and clichés were being used to write about our own countries by outsiders. While Wainaina’s essay went on to become one of Granta’s best-loved pieces, it spawned several imitations, including a later Granta piece, ‘How to Write About Pakistan’. In this, four Pakistani writers put together a list of rules and boxes to tick: “Must have mangoes. Must have maids who serve mangoes. Maids must have affairs with man servants who steal mangoes.” And so on.
While this was a light-hearted homage, the original made a powerful statement about what Africa is, as much as what it is not. Moreover, Wainaina used the essay’s mocking, satirical voice to disguise a deep and righteous anger at his home continent having been so badly misrepresented, its image so wickedly manipulated, in order to prolong the inferior status with which Western colonialism had seemed to curse Africa. And it was a proud challenge to the world: to be brave enough to drop the clichés and the prejudice and understand Africa by listening to its own storytellers.
Wainaina rejected external validation in favour of the internal validation that comes from knowing that one is acting completely in line with one’s artistic and personal integrity.
Wainaina had won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 with his short story ‘Discovering Home’. With the money from the Caine Prize, he set up the groundbreaking literary magazine Kwani? which showcased the work of emerging East African writers. He wrote a novel and a memoir, held prestigious residencies and professorships and travelled the world to hone his literary craft. Wherever he went, he found himself as a sort of Kenyan ambassador, adept in the art of cultural diplomacy. He bore the burden of this representation with dignity, inspiring a new generation of young writers in the process while redefining an entire continent, as Maaza Mengiste recalls in a vignette on Literary Hub.
There was another side to Wainaina’s life and work: he became one of Kenya’s most prominent LGBTQ activists. Wainaina himself was gay, but only came out in 2014 after the death of a close friend from HIV. Subsequently, he disclosed that he, too, was HIV positive. In true literary style, he revealed his sexuality in the form of a beautifully written essay, ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum’. Kenya has strict laws against homosexuality that are being challenged today, but around the time that Wainaina came out, he established himself as one of the country’s most prominent voices in favour of rights and protections for queer people.
He achieved this by refusing to keep his silence and live in relative safety as queer, but not out. Instead, he used his powerful voice and his status to raise awareness about the issues and discrimination faced by LGBTQ people. It was a singularly courageous step for a man known as one of Africa’s literary giants; another was to refuse an award from the World Economic Forum naming him a Young Global Leader.
Wainaina rejected external validation in favour of the internal validation that comes from knowing that one is acting completely in line with one’s artistic and personal integrity. I wish I had been lucky enough to meet him. I would have learned earlier the lesson that true artists do not set out to achieve global impact; instead, they focus on their corner of the world in which to enact change. Yet this more humble act is the one that truly benefits the world.
The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 16th, 2019