Binyavanga and swinging from pathos to bathos: The follies of non-conformity

What you need to know:

  • The ultimate tragedy of Binyavanga’s documentary is the ease with which he slides into a diatribe against Pentecostals — as if homosexuality can only be popularised by bashing something or someone else’s conformity.

I am concerned about the literary import of Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming out. Not the legal or the social or the economic or political value of his revelations this week, just the literary quality and impact of his telling; a narrative of epic proportions. 

His essay, “I am a homosexual, Mum”, first published in the Chimurenga Chronic, is tender and it is sincere. The construction of his sentences is brilliant, fresh, new and bold; designed to reignite the ways in which we use the written word to communicate our deepest thoughts. 

“Only my mind says. This. Not my mouth.” This staccato hesitation is later replaced by a gallant and fluent revelation; an open coming to terms with himself and the checkered world of his upbringing.

“Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months.”

Even the most hard-hearted critic of homosexuality cannot fail to be moved by the art and the honesty of this writing; its slow contemplation and its earnest candour. In literary criticism, we call its effect, pathos.

There is a deep sense of sorrow that arises from the tragedy of losing two parents, 11 years apart, in circumstances that are as haunting as they are painful. But there is also a sadness that Binyavanga draws out of his reader in the deliberate non-combative way in which he sheds light on his struggle to understand and to accept himself.

He casts real understanding on the emotional and the psycho-social experience of becoming and of being gay in an unyielding society. 

Genius gone rogue?

But everything that this essay does to provide knowledge, to cultivate compassion and to build tolerance, is all at once demolished by a “documentary” released on You-tube on Wednesday this week.

This documentary, We Must Free Our Imaginations, (or as he called it on Twitter, What I Have to Say About Being Gay), is filled with bathos at so many levels (

Here Binyavanga might be striving to dismantle boundaries and definitions at all levels including those of literary genres.

But then, cheapening and trivialising artistic mediums does not, ultimately, improve anyone’s appreciation of creativity.

In Literature, bathos is a dangerous downhill. It is a descent from the exalted and the accomplished to the abyss of the trivial and the ludicrous. Each one of the titles of this six part “documentary” is a quote from Binyavanga’s long and frighteningly convoluted tirade against the hypocrisies of Africa’s discourse on homosexuality.

The quotes are as clever as they are memorable. But they represent isolated flashes of brilliance in a text that is neither articulate nor lucid. Binyavanga struggles too hard to be profound, repetitively swinging from mimicry and lazy stereotyping to banal imagery that does nothing to enlighten. His style is unworthy, an injustice to his subject. 

Bathos can be employed deliberately for comic effect, but that is not what Binyavanga achieves here. Neither his subject nor his medium call for the kind of anti-climax that artistic bathos invites. So in the end, he mocks his own abilities, selling them for a pittance called “going viral” when the urgency of his cause demanded clear and articulate messaging. 

Binyavanga is a bard of many talents. He is a master of literary allusion and an observant student of nuance and of character. To see him turn a subject that is both grave and urgent into a caricature of uninformed bar-room chatter or vapid FM radio talk breaks the heart.

What is the future of creativity when accomplished writers reduce themselves to twisted mimicry and unfortunate irony when incisive reflection is always available to them with their vast arsenal of metaphor and imagery?

By its very definition, documentary is a genre that sets out to explain and to investigate. It relishes memory and it thoughtfully organises the sequence of events, the seen and unforeseen relationships we call cause and effect.

Through montage and sampled soundtracks, documentary imaginatively (re)creates scenes and characters; it challenges our knowledge of them and tells a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. In this video, where is Binyavanga’s story?

His arguments are scattered, off-hand generalities. His depiction of Kenya’s past is limited, simplistic and unresearched. His knowledge of homosexuality in colonial and post-colonial Kenya is either non-existent or it has been unwisely excluded. And yet, there is so much that he could have done to tell the story of being gay in the past and today.

Documentary is not a praise song (never mind that corporate organisations and self-serving NGOs think infomercials are the same thing as documentaries). It is about unseen archives and creative interrogation.

The ultimate tragedy

The ultimate tragedy of Binyavanga’s documentary is the ease with which he slides into a diatribe against Pentecostals — as if homosexuality can only be popularised by bashing something or someone else’s conformity.

What a sad reversal! Using the same whip of blind rage and fearful hate to lash out at the equally bigoted irrationality of his religious adversaries. 

The runaway intrusion of religion — particularly the deafening, fanatical kind — into every sphere of life in Africa today has reached levels that need a sober public conversation. Mimicking evangelical concern with demons as Binyavanga does won’t do. Rubbishing the reasons why people cling to faith does not enlighten or mitigate.

Whoever is responsible for selling to Binyavanga the idea of an unscripted outburst and marketing it as a documentary — as a frozen image without backdrop or colour, without memory or reasoned debate — owes Binyavanga and his audiences an unreserved apology.

Its blandness trashes the genre of documentary and its longwinded commentary minimises the power of the spoken word.

But if the idea of this video was Binyavanga’s himself, then he needs to take a deep breath and recommit himself to his own ideals about the need to free our imagination, to raise the bar on creativity and to reward virtuous non-conformity. Art is excellence.

Art is careful reflection and incisive commentary. Art does not abuse and neither does it hate. It elevates and it liberates. And most of all, it does not liberate by taking new prisoners in a reverse and twisted kind of revenge comparable only to anti-racist racism.

You cannot call for a freeing of the imagination and then refuse to conform to the principles of the very thing you serve — creativity.