Binyavanga Wainaina’s Great Scatter of Work (Exclusive)

How to Write About Africa gathers vivid, powerful essays and fiction by the late Kenyan icon. Its editor Achal Prabhala talks compiling it, a second posthumous book, and an uncompleted novel. “Much is made of what he did for other writers, but it was his own writing that did it for me,” he said.
Binyavanga Wainaina by Allan Gichigi.

Binyavanga Wainaina by Allan Gichigi.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s Great Scatter of Work (Exclusive)

When Binyavanga Wainaina died almost exactly four years ago, on May 21, 2019, it seemed that other lives died with him: chances of a second book after his 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place, expectations of a novel he had been writing since the 2000s titled The Fallen World of Appearances, the two books he was contracted to write, one titled How to Write About Africa, and the other It’s Only a Matter of Acceleration Now.

I would argue, too, that it seemed like one of his big dreams died, also, his hopes of eventually being taken first as a writer. Not merely as a curator and the founding editor of Kwani?; not only as a powerful thinker behind two seminal essays 10 years apart, “How to Write About Africa” (2005) and “I Am a Homosexual, Mom” (2014); but as a writer of fiction and nonfiction who crossed genres, reimagined the familiar, and remixed language to suit his imagination, a questioner whose writing sought answers from the world yet reveled in its strangeness.

In an African literary culture invested more in artists than in the art, it was easy to avoid in-depth artistic engagement and drift into the shade of his galvanizing influence as a curator. There is a long litany of tributes that recount his larger-than-life presence and significance, but, ultimately, have little beyond the obvious to say about his writing. It has been painful to watch how the singular oeuvre of a truly exceptional talent did not seem to have survived him in the very conversation he helped shape.

He was never recognized, for instance, as the first major African writer to take speculative fiction into the Internet age, the first, regardless of genre, to even engage the online world in his stories. Or as the first major writer to — as simple as it sounds — freely describe, in basic detail, the naked body. He was never reappraised as so many more things.

Until now.

When I received a copy of How to Write About Africa: Collected Works, the new compilation of Binyavanga’s writing from the first 12 years of his life, from 1996 to 2008, I knew I needed to speak with its editor and asked to be put in touch with him. Achal Prabhala, a filmmaker, writer, and public health activist who works against monopolies, had known Binyavanga since 2005. Kenyan and Indian, they formed a tight, brotherly friendship.

“Much is made of what he did for other writers, his encouragement of them, his creation of them, and though this is all true – and I’m grateful for it – it was his own writing that did it for me,” Prabhala told me. “He noticed the ordinary things that surrounded him, and then described them with such beauty and love, that they turned into extraordinary things.”

Prabhala decided to compile the book because he could see the gap in Binyavanga’s legacy, and it hurt, so he reached out to the Wainaina family and the two publishers with whom Binyavanga signed the two-book deal in 2015: One World in the US and Hamish Hamilton in the UK. Another of Binyavanga’s close friends, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wrote the Introduction.

There are 25 pieces in How to Write About Africa, thematically organised in six sections, each of which has an mini introduction by Prabhala on where Binyavanga was, mentally and physically, at those points of his life: “The First Story,” “Away in South Africa and England,” “Discovering Home: Essays,” “Writing Kenya: Short Stories,” “Out of Africa: Essays,” and “A Continent of Satire.” The pieces themselves include the titular essay, his 2002 Caine Prize winning piece “Discovering Home,” and his first ever published short story “Binguni!”

The main character in “Binguni!” is a Zulu man called Jango, who dies in a car accident and finds himself in the “African Binguni, part of the Otherworld,” where souls “have complete freedom to explore just how mad they can be.” Published in 1996, it was anticipatory enough to engage the most disruptive development of our time, the infant Internet, with ancestors having email addresses.

It is a warm-up of the quirky, swervy elements that Binyavanga would come to butter into his prose: the attentive description of everyday life, the swerves in point-of-view, the attempts to capture uncapturable feelings and experiences. We see both the significant influence of American literature and politics on him as we do his efforts to Africanize it without taming its edges. Here is his description of Jango’s ancestor Mshale:

Dressed like a cross between Elvis and a Hollywood version of “What an African Warrior Should Look Like,” he wore a leopard-skin loincloth that had ridden up his thigh, leaving the head of a huge dangling penis clearly visible below the hem. A leather waistcoast studded with rhinestones barely covered his heavily muscled torso. His hair was dreadlocked, pomaded, and piled on his head — sort of an Elvis-becomes-a-Rastafari hairdo.

The man even wore blue suede shoes.

Mumbling to himself in Zulu, he tugged the hem of the loincloth down and rearranged his organ. “Damned Internet!” he boomed.

In its maelstrom of imagination, a sharp, pioneering deviation from the prevalent template of African realist fiction, “Binguni!” has to be seen as one of the single most important pieces of writing out of the continent. The uncomfortable thing about it is that it ends with these prophetic lines: What a voice. Ripples as a pebble sank in deep waters. He could not have known.

“Binyavanga’s most underrated achievement, because his fiction is overshadowed by his non-fiction, is that there were no stock characters in his imagination,” Prabhala said. “His people are complex, contradictory, and utterly recognisable: not admirable, or noble, or the kind you want to uplift, or, God forbid, send a donation to. Maybe this made his fiction less attractive to a certain kind of reader, but it meant the world to me.”

This is not Prabhala’s first time editing Binyavanga. It was Prabhala who edited “I Am a Homosexual, Mom” and sent it out for publication.  

“His non-fiction was often as vivid as fiction,” he said. “His fiction, on the other hand, was often as documentary as non-fiction.”

In the interview below, he shares the journey to compiling and editing How to Write About Africa, finding Binyavanga’s earliest stories from the ‘90s, the likelihood of a second posthumous collection covering the last 11 years of his life, and rediscovering the late icon’s uncompleted novel.

Binyavanga Wainaina - How to Write About Africa

Your editor’s bio in the book says you met Binyavanga in 2005 through then Transition editor Michael Vazquez. In the Afterword, you specify that it was months after his Granta essay, from which this book takes its name. How would you describe your relationship with him?

Binyavanga wrote to me out of the blue in 2005, after reading a short essay I wrote in Sunday Times in South Africa on underground nightclubs and strip-clubs in Johannesburg. It was a really sweet email – he liked the essay, and he wrote to express his appreciation. At the same time, Michael Vazquez, a common friend of ours, had been trying to get us together, and he eventually succeeded.

We became surprisingly close, surprisingly quickly. The very first time we talked, I had to fight to leave the bar we were in and go to my room and sleep; I was exhilarated but also totally exhausted. And I suppose that first meeting defined our relationship. When I think of him, even now, I feel the same things: exhilaration and exhaustion.

He was not always the easiest person to know, but he will always be the most exciting person I have ever known. We’d have bitter fights and then slip right back into our friendship, often without resolving whatever it was we had fought over; we were a bit like siblings.

Our fights were ridiculous: I wanted that old mirror in his house in Karen, he didn’t want to part with it, then I forced him to, and now his whole life was ruined. Ruined! Or, did I not care for him enough to devote a month of my life to shipping him mid-century barber’s chairs, all the way from Bangalore to Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York, so that his rental cottage could look funkier than everyone else’s? But there was never any question in my head, at any point in our friendship, that I wouldn’t be there for him when he needed me.

I loved his work and his words had a psychedelic effect on me. But a curious thing happened as we became closer, which is that I was slightly less dazzled by his words than his person. He became the friend I loved more than the writer I admired. And it took until a few years after his death, when I edited this collection, for me to fall in love with his work again. I fell for it hard and good, and I now wish that I had expressed my love for his work more forcefully to him while he lived.

Achal Prabhala.
Achal Prabhala, who edited How to Write About Africa, is a filmmaker, writer, and public health activist living in India. Binyavanga “noticed the ordinary things that surrounded him, and then described them with such beauty and love, that they turned into extraordinary things,” he said.

When was the first time you edited his work?

We showed each other drafts of our work all the time for quick comments – I’m mainly a public health activist who works against monopolies, but I write a little, too. So I suppose I tinkered with bits of his writing frequently, though I hadn’t done so formally until one day in January, 2014, when he called me late into my night. (There’s a two-and-a-half hour time difference between Nairobi and Bangalore.) We spoke, of all things, about Christians and heathens, about semitic religion and paganism, and how these historical encounters, combined with the force of colonialism, came to affect how countries like ours think about homosexuality. It sounds very high-minded, but it was fun, and something that both of us had been thinking about for years.

At the end of that conversation, when I – as usual – was about to drop dead (it was 3 a.m. in India), he casually mentioned he was thinking of coming out. I had known he was gay from the time I met him – he also told me that immediately. I’m queer enough myself, and felt comfortable telling him so; maybe that helped. The very first time I stayed at his house in Nairobi, his boyfriend at the time was also staying with us. I’m not sure Binyavanga was ever in the closet – he was endearingly open.

But an essay declaring he was gay? It was thrilling. He asked if I could take a look at it, and then send it on to close friends of ours, Ntone Edjabe and Sean Jacobs, the people behind Chimurenga and Africa Is a Country, which are the magazines he wanted his essay to go to.

I woke up early, read the essay, and burst into tears (I’m sure, at least partly as the result of a severe lack of sleep). I called and told him it was beautiful. Binyavanga, meanwhile, had not slept a wink. He asked me to edit it and send it out to be published immediately. I asked him if he wanted to see it before it went out, and he said no, and furthermore, that he was switching off his phone and going offline for the day. It was his birthday.

Editing that essay was nerve-wracking. I had a few hours to work, but Binyavanga used this wonderful future-past-continuous tense that was all his own, and it was infernally difficult to figure out the difference between intention and carelessness. I showed the finished text to my partner and explained what it was. My partner helpfully said, “Well, I hope you haven’t messed it up then.”

A few hours later, “I Am a Homosexual, Mum” set the world on fire.

How did the idea to compile this book come about? And how difficult was it, given how much of his work was scattered online and in print?

Binyavanga has three siblings, James, June, and Melissa, and they loved and protected him throughout his life. A few months after he died, they began thinking about his work and what to do with it.

At the same time, Binyavanga’s agent and publishers – Hamish Hamilton in the UK and One World in the US – were sitting on two contracts he had signed a few years before he died, for two collections of work, that he was unable to fulfil in his lifetime.

The third piece to this story is that a few years before he died, Binyavanga was keen to move to Johannesburg, a city he loved, where, as a gay man, he could live with all the dignity and freedom he deserved. One practical problem was that he needed a job. He wanted one at Wits – the University of the Witwatersrand. I live in South Africa for part of the year. He asked me for help in selling himself to Wits, and I organised a public talk for him. I also put together an archive of his work, at his request. The job did not materialise, but the archive remained.

So it turned out that I was accidentally in possession of a comprehensive collection of his work. His siblings and I were close, having met each other through the decades in Kenya and India, and they asked me to edit the book. His agent was all in, and his publishers could not have been more encouraging. James, June, and Melissa gave me complete freedom to shape the book, and I remain grateful for their trust.

I thoroughly enjoyed putting together this collection. But it was the process of writing an afterword to the book that moved me the most, because it took me back to when we first met; to the Binyavanga of 2005, to the person I was in awe of because he could seemingly do anything he wanted, straddling the world like a twenty-first-century Colossus.

Was it hard to find his work? Binyavanga had the most devoted friends, readers, and editors, so the moment I started looking for things he had written, help came pouring in. The hardest pieces to find were the earliest, and that’s because memory on the Internet is a slippery thing.

Binyavanga’s earliest writing was published online, but in places no one remembers now. One of those places was G21: The World’s Magazine, as it described itself, an astonishing enterprise run by Rod Amis, an African American from New Orleans who cultivated writers from around the world and consistently paid them a hundred dollars for every contribution, despite not being wealthy himself. Rod Amis died in the early aughts, and with him, the G21 website.

To find those early essays and stories, I went to Internet Archive, which is a kind of Library of Alexandria for digital culture. It’s not an easy place to search – you have to know exactly what you’re looking for to find it – but it does have an unrelenting memory. I found all the G21 essays there, and also a remarkable short story called “Binguni!” —the first story Binyavanga ever wrote, a magical-realist take on the African afterlife which he was convinced was lost forever.

I can truthfully say that this book would not have existed had Internet Archive not existed. So, thank you, Brewster Kahle, and all the good people who run that miraculous institution.

How much editing went into the pieces? Was anything changed from the originals? Did you have to look for and compare drafts of specific pieces?

I edited with a light touch. Many of the essays and stories in this book were previously published in some of the world’s leading magazines and journals, so there was little or nothing to be done with them. Some of his earlier writing, and all of his unpublished writing, required some work, but this was easy to do – having spent fifteen years largely living inside his head, I did not find it hard to edit as though I was still inside it.

What was more important than tinkering with his sentences was creating a map to his work that new readers would want to follow: a map of his writing, which turned out to be a map of his life. Hannah Chukwu, formerly of Hamish Hamilton and now of Dialogue Books, had great ideas for how to do this. Hence, the sections in the book, some of which are chronological, others, geographical.

We added a glossary, which I’m proud of. One of the reasons Binyavanga’s fiction is so vivid is because the characters speak like real people who live real lives. And one of the ways in which his characters do that is by mixing up languages, as Binyavanga himself did when writing in his own voice – especially when the resulting work was for a primarily Kenyan audience. The base is English, but the language is full of expressions and words from Swahili and Sheng, exactly as it should be.

I hate explanatory interruptions in the text; like footnotes, they kill the natural flow of words and imbue them with all the glamour of a school textbook. Still, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that Pan-African and global readers might want to know what those words and phrases mean. So I turned to his sister, June, and together we constructed what I think is a genuinely useful glossary, with real meanings rather than mere dictionary definitions.

Much of the conversation around Binyavanga has quickly become about his personality. I feel that his actual writing has been left behind, which is why this book is so important. Was that a motivation for you?

I think you’re right. His outsize personality, which he had a shrewd sense of – and which, later in his life, he sometimes used as a way to distract from his own writer’s block – might have got in the way of his audience treating him primarily as a writer. I think he saw himself, at his core, as a writer.

But the other reason his personality might have overshadowed his body of work is that it was distributed across magazines, newspapers, and books across the world, many in the African continent, none of them easily accessible. If you were a fan of Binyavanga’s writing, you really had to search for it, and even then, you could easily come up empty-handed.

The astonishing velocity of those two essays, “How to Write About Africa” and “I Am a Homosexual, Mum,” which certainly contributed to his personality cult, also perplexed me. They’re brilliant, of course, and any writer would sell their soul to produce anything that can endure as deeply and widely in the world. But it meant his other, quieter, and in my opinion, more astonishing writing had to lie in the shadow of these colossal essays. I found that frustrating, and I guess you’re right again; it was certainly one of the reasons I was motivated to edit this book.

Almost every word Binyavanga wrote in his lifetime deeply impacted me. I know his words had the same effect on many others, but we are a small tribe. I suppose some of the motivation to edit this book was selfish, in that I hoped having it out there would lead to fewer blank stares when I talked about him and how his writing changed my life.

The book ranges widely in terms of subject matter — literature, immigration, politics, football, food — all united in a sensibility of Pan-African love and energetic prose. You’ve followed his work closely over the years, but what, reading them together, did you observe in the character of his thinking that you had not noticed before?

I used to read Binyavanga instinctively. I can’t read, or consume art, any other way; I don’t know how to. I’m not a critic, and I’m not a professional editor. But having edited this book, I think about his work differently now.

First, he had an incredible sense of place, without ever losing his place in the world. He was of Nakuru, of Kenya, of East Africa, of the entire African continent, and the world – and he belonged to all these places at once. He could write of Nakuru in a worldly way, and, in doing so, make the world a more cosmopolitan place.

Second, he noticed the ordinary things that surrounded him, and then described them with such beauty and love, that they turned into extraordinary things. His ability to do this was hypnotic and I was sometimes afraid of reading him: what new thing was I going to become obsessed with, having never noticed it before?

Third, he was an iconoclast, and always found his own way  to the core of any place on the planet. Can you imagine anyone else who might analyse Togo’s authoritarian politics by describing the construction of female undergarments in the country? I cannot.

The book omits four essays that are necessary in understanding his evolution as a thinker and feeler. We just talked about “I Am Homosexual, Mom” but it is not here. The book also does not have the beautifully experimental “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane.” There are further two essays he sent me to publish in 2017 when I was elsewhere. The first, he said, is another “lost chapter” from One Day I Will Write About This Place. It had no title when he sent it, so I titled it “Chapter Thirty-Three” and he did not object. The last, which I had to edit, he titled “A Letter to All Kenyans from Binyavanga Wainaina or Binyavanga wa Muigai.” When Andrea Pura shared news of the book with me, I told her as well. Was it a decision to exclude the first two? And what happens to the last two? I think they are crucial to understanding who Binyavanga was in his final years.

Otosirieze, I am glad you asked this question.

This book is the first of two collections of his work. We designed the book to cover the first half of his career, roughly from 1996 to 2008. Perhaps this point is too subtly conveyed, and I am sorry if this is so. My concluding essay to the book begins when he was born – stitched together by talking to his siblings and old friends – and ends about the time he publishes “How to Write About Africa.”

There is plenty – plenty – of amazing work, including the essays you mention here, that will hopefully be published in a second volume of his collected work. There was just too much to fit into one book, and I am glad we phased it in two instalments. We are especially keen to bring new readers to his work. Besides the sheer volume of the exercise, the scale and expanse of his writing career might have been simply too overwhelming to confront all at once.

In short, everything you miss from the second half of his career is coming soon, fingers crossed.

The fourth section of the book, “Writing Kenya: Short Stories,” is all fiction. There are five stories in it and, with the opening story, six overall in the book, alongside 19 nonfiction pieces. How did you arrive at the decision to categorize his nonfiction and fiction? And will his fiction be compiled as well?

When we were arranging this collection of his work, and thinking about the next, we had a few choices. One of those choices was to split his work into genre, into fiction and non-fiction. I instinctively recoiled at that idea, because it wasn’t who he was, or how he went about his creative life. His non-fiction was often as vivid as fiction; his fiction, on the other hand, was often as documentary as non-fiction. He wrote essays and stories together, so why not publish them together?

I’m glad we did. There is less fiction than non-fiction in this collection, partly because of what was available to us at the time of going to press. The reason both his fiction and his satire are labelled so is to provide the reader, especially the new reader, a clear path: there was no reason to be coy and create unnecessary confusion.

I love his fiction to an unreasonable extent. His stories have a narcotic effect on me; they make me giddy – they sing and dance in my head. I am annoyed more people haven’t read his stories, and I’m delighted that they will now be able to. They are, really, among his finest achievements.

Why do you think he never completed a novel?

Ah, the funny thing about this question is that he may have, indeed, completed a novel. Or very nearly so.

All through the aughts, if you ever read a description of him, it invariably declared he was working on a novel, tentatively titled “The Fallen World of Appearances.” The title is from a line in a Saul Bellow book, which is another reason I admired him, just like I admire people who got through Middlemarch: he had managed to read at least one whole Saul Bellow book. (I’ve never managed to get through one, or Middlemarch, but God bless those who have).

He did not talk about it much, and if it came up, he waved it away, as one of the many things germinating in the Binyavanga-verse, which was a vast garden of potential plants.

Then he died, and I assumed nothing had come of the novel.

In the middle of last year,  I got in touch with a friend of mine, Parselelo Kantai, who is among the finest writers I know. Binyavanga used to share drafts of his work with Parsa. I made one last attempt: did he know anything about the novel? Parsa and I spoke, and he remembered seeing an early draft of it. He thought he might still have some of those early emails from Binyavanga, stored in an old hard drive, which he had packed up and put away.

He spent a couple of days going through boxes, and then, several old hard drives, and finally: eureka. There it was.

I imagine you thought of his legacy in compiling this book. What do you want readers to remember Binyavanga for the most?

Everyone everywhere in the world has that one writer or artist who made their world possible. For most Indians, for instance, that writer is probably Salman Rushdie – he’s usually referred to as the person who made the Indian novel possible. It’s a preposterous assertion, of course, as though Indians writing in India, in Indian languages, for hundreds of years, don’t count, but there is still something to it, for the kind of permission that a writer can give for a whole life system to come out of the shadows.

For me, in my life, the person who made my world possible was Binyavanga Wainaina. He breathed life into my world. He gave me a direction and a vocabulary and a syntax that is so firm, it feels like it was always there.

In the afterword to the book you hold in your hands, I wrote this:

To be sure, I grew up thousands of miles away from him, in another country on another continent. But I recognized his predicament because it was mine too: the impossible and almost civilizational chasm that separated expectation and circumstance. The ambition to prove here is just as significant as there without enough power to; the desire to engage the world without anywhere near the means to.

I meant it. Binyavanga made my world exciting and valuable by conjuring his own into existence. ♦

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