What you need to know:
An expanded edition of his beloved satirical article on how the West prefers its Africa served in African writing is also expected to come from Hamish Hamilton (a UK-based imprint of Penguin) in 2017. How to Write about Africa is among
Binyavanga’s Granta articles, the others being excerpts from his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011).
In a world where good Kenyan writing is hard to come by, it’s great news, indeed, that Hamish Hamilton have announced the release of Binyavanga Wainaina’s new book in 2019.
According to the Bookseller magazine, Wainaina’s It Is Only a Matter of Acceleration Now is based on travels and interviews across Africa. Critics will likely compare it with V.S. Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now, a travelogue reputed for its author’s dim view of India, his ancestral home.
Unlike Naipaul, Binyavanga speaks passionately against the misrepresentation of Africa in western academic and media platforms. Going by Wainaina’s interview with the Senegalese politician, entertainer, and entrepreneur Youssou N’Dour appearing in the
South African journal Chimurenga and possibly to be included in the book, It Is Only a Matter of Acceleration Now will radiate hope in the future of Africa.
In the Chimurenga article, Wainaina comes up with an innovative style of transcribing interviews, in which the unspoken feelings and thoughts of the interviewer are playfully included in the text. In the transcribed witty thoughts of the interviewer, we get to
hear the contrast between the world of the interviewees and the Kenyan situation. We can’t wait to read more of such pieces.
An expanded edition of his beloved satirical article on how the West prefers its Africa served in African writing is also expected to come from Hamish Hamilton (a UK-based imprint of Penguin) in 2017. How to Write about Africa is among Binyavanga’s Granta articles, the others being excerpts from his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011).
Binyavanga and fellow Caine Prize-winners Okwiri Oduor and Yvonne Owuor are among the most gifted prose writers we are blessed to have in this country. This places a unique burden on them: we need to be hearing from them more often.
Granted, my favourite author today started writing when she was far older than these young 21st-century Kenyan experimenters. The 1928-born British novelist Anita Brookner was 53 years old when she published her first novel, A Start In Life (also titled The Debut in some editions), in 1981. She has published 24 novels since then.
WRITERS NEED TO BE CONSTANTLY VISIBLE
Like Coetzee, Brookner is rarely seen in public or giving interviews. But we are operating in a different world, where writers need to be constantly visible and to be present to speak against the many things going wrong in Kenya.
Ngugi started publishing when he was fairly young. He was 26 when he published Weep Not, Child in 1964. The River Between came out a year later, A Grain of Wheat in 1967. It is only after Matigari (1986) that he started spacing the novels out. To grow the region’s literature, our few talented writers should be more prolific.
I think Binyavanga is the new Ngugi. If you haven’t had a chance to read his articles in Granta yet, please fetch all the three of them now and enjoy this feast of superb writing by our Kenya’s very best.
One of the Granta pieces, “Gikuyu, for Gikuyu, of Gikuyu,” pokes fun at our proclivity for tribalism. Sadly, the narrative presents the grim fact about Kenyan life, where we read everything primarily through a tribal lens.
Wainaina presents tribalism as a mundane phenomenon, so intricately woven into our social fabric that sometimes we don’t notice ourselves as perpetrators of the vice.
Binyavanga suggests that, though tribalism is banal and crass, you’ll encounter it even among people who on the surface look sophisticated and work in classy nodes of cosmopolitan travel, such as a Kenyan airport. I suspect tribalism is a malaise that afflicts even writers and critics, but Binyavanga deftly rises above it.
Best known as the founder of the journal Kwani?, Binyavanga has written several essays, short stories, and a memoir. The ‘Gikuyu’ article has remained my favourite piece of writing by the award-winning writer since Granta published it in 2008.
Even when it finally appeared as the 29th chapter of his magnificently written memoir, the Granta version remains my favourite.
I can’t fully explain why I love the piece in its Granta edition. Maybe it’s because, like an author’s reading from a book, the excerpt suggests what Binyavanga viewed as most urgent and representative in his memoir at the time.
When it was published, tribalism and ethnic identities were what most Kenyans were thinking about in the wake of post-election violence in 2007/2008. Tribalism is still the thing on everyone’s lips today.
The other reason I enjoy the excerpt, although I have an electronic edition of Binyavanga’s memoir accompanying me whenever I go, is that Granta is a platform where some of the best authors I’ve read were published in their earlier days: Sylvia Plath, Salman Rushdie, and Ben Okri.
The UK-based journal was founded in 1889 as a students’ periodical at the Cambridge University. It would be a good model for our college students’ publications; two centuries from now, these small publications could be the Granta of their time, publishing writers across the globe.
Our similar journals shouldn’t be allowed to die like Ghala, Joliso, and other significant periodicals. The running Kenyan journals should be made available online for global visibility as well; I can read Granta on my dear old phone anywhere in the world.
I like Binyavanga in his Granta form also probably because journals and periodicals have been the most instrumental in developing African literature. It’s in similar magazines that almost all Africa’s canonical writers cut their teeth.
In a true cosmopolitan spirit, Binyavanga brilliantly avoids accusing “tribes” other than his own of ethnocentric bad manners. The narrator identifies with the Gikuyu ethnicity only tentatively; he doesn’t embrace it as tightly as those he sees as using it to denigrate other Kenyans. He also insists that his identity is drawn from different places.
At the time of narration, the Gikuyu assume themselves to be in power because one of their own, Mwai Kibaki, is the head of state. They feel entitled to discriminate against other “tribes”, which they have coined unflattering epithets for.
Binyavanga suggests that this attitude contributed to the violence that the country witnessed after the bungled 2007 election.
As Kenyans, we know that tribalism exists across the ethnic divide. But by dwelling on the weaknesses of his own community, Wainaina effectively casts an inward ethnic gaze towards his own people to urge us to critique our own negative habits and discriminatory practices. Only then can we criticise the tribalism of others.
Binyavanga also teaches us another important lesson: By being critical of Kibaki’s Kenya, the writer is urging Kenyan intellectuals to be the first to strongly criticise a politician from the intellectuals’ community when he or she mismanages the country or opens his or her big mouth to utter ethnically populist nonsense against other Kenyan ethnic groups.
Wainaina is an inspirational, courageous intellectual, who deals with topics that other people would give a wide berth.
This is why as a writer Binyavanga needs to be more prolific and vocal for the sake of Kenyan writing. For all the talk about cutting-edge scholarship in our universities, the academy favours stability, silence, and the status quo.
It is people like Binyavanga who can bring freshness to the Kenyan literary discussions.
Given his wealth of experience, linguistic gifts, and global networks, we’d like to hear from Binyavanga more often from within Kenya. We can’t wait until 2019 to hear his thoughts about the problems facing us.
Of course, for a writer with unique talents like Binyavanga’s, the wait between one work and the next will definitely pay off. But Wainaina shouldn’t keep quiet too long.