Binyavanga Wainaina: “If you donate to Oxfam, don’t buy my book”

The Times of London
Iconoclastic and bitingly funny, Binyavanga Wainaina turns clichés about Africa on their head. Tristan McConnell meets him in Nairobi


Into the groove: Binyavanga Wainaina at home in Nairobi (Times photographer, Tugela Ridley)

The door is open. Inside the apartment eviscerated suitcases lie on the floor. Mugs and glasses, books and an iPad clutter the dining table. Yesterday’s socks and shoes are dumped by the sofa. In the open-plan kitchen among half-unpacked shopping bags and a stack of unwashed plates stands a stocky, barrel-bellied man with orange and blue-striped hair wearing a towel.

“Sorry!” Binyavanga Wainaina calls out cheerfully. “I woke up 20 minutes ago. It was a late night.” It is just after 10am and, anyway, Wainaina is not supposed to be having late nights. The 40-year-old writer inherited diabetes from his mother and clogged arteries from his father and in April suffered a stroke. There is a mini-pharmacy of prescription-pill bottles on the mantelpiece, cigarette ends on the balcony and a mostly drunk bottle of 12-year-old Glenfiddich single malt on the dining table.

His doctor has ordered him to spend more time playing tennis and less time trawling bars, but Wainaina is better suited to holding court than being on one. “I’m not seen in the bars as much as I used to be, which is a shame,” he says, with a mournful look. “My bad days are over, basically.” Realising that he is underdressed, he bustles out, apologising, and then in again a few minutes later, still talking, dressed in wide-legged jeans and a loose, African-print shirt.

Next month Wainaina’s first full-length book, a memoir of growing up middle class in postcolonial Kenya, will be published in Britain. When it was released in the US this summer, One Day I Will Write About This Place was included on Oprah Winfrey’s Summer Reading List, and sales took off. The memoir grew out of Wainaina’s 2002 Caine Prize-winning short story, Discovering Home. In the intervening years he has worked on a novel “on and off” for five years until “it fell by the wayside, and that’s where it’s sitting”, abandoned, as he maps out a new, different novel. Wainaina is impatient, easily distracted.

He has written for National Geographic and Vanity Fair magazines, and stories for Granta and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He founded the literary journal Kwani? (meaning so what? in Sheng, the street slang that is the language of Nairobi’s slums) and began teaching at Bard College in New York State, where he is director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists.

In the book, Wainaina’s upbringing in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Nakuru was comfortable and familiar. He is a dreamy boy who reads voraciously, is obsessed with the 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man and the film Ghostbusters. The common tropes of writing about Africa, such as tribe or music or Idi Amin, are there, but as flavours, not defining ingredients. His life is, well, normal. “I was a kid brought up in the television age, watching shit like everyone else. I was also a kid in a country that is unbelievably amazing and diverse and crazy and violent and wonderful and loving and speaks 70-something languages and they all sound like noises around you, and that’s true too.”

Edging out of childhood, tribe and difference begin to matter. As he prepares for secondary school in the 1980s there is a new government led by a Kalenjin president, and smart Kikuyu children, such as Wainaina, are no longer selected for the good schools. In 2007-08, tribe in Kenya became a matter of life and death. A disputed election triggered ethnic violence that killed more than 1,200 people. Machete-wielding gangs turned on their neighbours and the worst stereotypes of tribal Africa were confirmed.

Wainaina acknowledges that tribe is here to stay, but hopes that it will cease to be something around which politicians can organise. “People have been speaking 4,000 languages in Africa for 4,000 years. You go to Nigeria where generations of people have gone to Harvard and they’re writing Yoruba poetry,” he says. “Will tribe ever not matter? Are you kidding me? What we are does not go away.”

After the eye-opening horror of the previous election, “There’s no Kenyan who is not aware that the same kind of divide-and-rule politics based on tribe that came from colonial times is the same one that our leaders use to maintain their power,” he says. “I am a Kikuyu, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m not a PNU supporter,” he says, referring to the party led by the current President, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. Kenya invaded Somalia this month to hunt down Islamist insurgents who the Government blames for a string of violent kidnappings of foreigners. Wainaina describes the decision to invade as “stupid and probably unconstitutional”.

In his writing, Wainaina mostly steers away from politics and timeworn African issues, such as development, poverty and HIV/Aids (“Most teenagers in Africa are not talking about Aids, they’re talking about trying to get a f***,” he says). Rather, he is focused on language and what he can do with it. His life is retold in a cascade of words, sounds and flights of fancy. When established language falls short he invents new words and phrases.

“I’m into texture more than issues,” he says. “I really like playing with language and am good at it when I’m in the groove.

“I was brought up in postcolonial Kenya, sitting in class and everything in the books was ‘My Laaand in Kenyaaa’ … ‘Hiiighlaaand Kenyaaa’,” he says channelling an upper-class twit. They were all written by the Old Africa Hand, the Africa Expert, that was the entire world. It was on TV, in the movies, then Out of Africa came and every f***ing café in Kenya was called Karen Blixen!” he says.

The African world Wainaina inhabited bore no resemblance to the one described by outsiders. His frustration at this found its expression in his 2005 satire How to Write about Africa, an acerbic guide, published by Granta magazine, which gave free rein to his mischievous side. Its inspiration was anger at Granta’s previous Africa issue in which only a handful of the dozen featured writers were Africans. To date it is Granta’s most requested essay.

In 2007 Wainaina rejected a World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader’ award. The first he knew of it was an email from the organisers praising his unspecified ‘important cultural work’.

“It was so obvious from the letter that they had no clue who I was.” he says. His rejection letter was posted online and added to his reputation as a rebel.

Despite his railing, Wainaina does not want to be pigeonholed as an African writer himself. “I wanted my first book to come out and be mine, not Africa’s, my language, the English I made my own,” he says. “I wrote this book so people can enjoy it. Not so that people can understand the problems of Africa.” As he gets into his stride, his voice rises and a teasing smile begins to spread. “I am asking people to read it not because you want it on your coffee table as proof that you care, that you donate to Oxfam or any of that sh**. Just enjoy the damn thing because you like to read a damn good book. If you donated money to Oxfam, don’t buy my book!”