Binyavanga & Ngugi Interviewed.14/11/2007
Binyavanga Wainaina is a literary legend in his home country Kenya and abroad. Author of “How To Write About Africa” and founding editor of “Kwani?”, a Kenyan magazine responsible for launching some of the continent’s greatest writers,- Wainaina has given many budding authors an outlet for their work.
Almost always wearing bright African print shirts and sporadically swearing, Wainaina is an unexpected character. Currently, he is the Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at Bard College in New York. His aim is to discover new African authors and help launch them both regionally and internationally. His familiarity with authors and publishers from Cape Town to Nairobi, Kampala to Lagos puts him at the center of the so-called ‘African literary renaissance.’
However, while undoubtedly a key leader of this reinvigorated literary movement, Wainaina repeatedly denies its existence. He wants African authors to be recognised for the very “aesthetic” of their work, not their political leanings or their arrival from a wayward ‘Dark Continent.” In short, he loathes the term ‘African literature.’
“[African writers] have been ghettoized. They don’t exist in world literature as other books do because it’s African. We call it African literature, what the … is African literature? It’s like you have to be culturally dutiful,” he says.
When he was younger, Wainaina explains, reading African authors was like pulling teeth or “eating spinach.” It was something you had to do - like reading often stale Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood in North Americans high schools. The focus was never on the quality of writing, but on the identity of the author.
Adding insult to injury, Westerners continue to coddle the African continent: one massive ‘country’ whose borders offer no delimitation from one area to the next; a region spanned only by conflict, domestic violence and poverty. Separating this identity - which is almost all of the time stereotyped and generalised - from an African author’s short story or novel - seems an impossible battle
So what’s the key?
“By wit, by writing,” says Wainaina. During colonial times, Anglophone African writers had an easy time doing the latter. Companies that dealt in exam distribution and printing also published authors like Okot p’Bitek regionally.
However, as the 1970s set in, borders were solidified and military dictators took power from the intellectual elite. Gone were the Kwane Nkrumahs who encouraged an argumentative middle class. Anglophone Africa was no longer a fluid region.
Reversing the Western perception of African writing has thus proved hard. While the 1990s brought multi-party democracies and a free press, many authors remain stifled. Uganda, in particular, has a tenuous history. One that is closely related to the aid industry, which Wainaina severely berates in “How to Write about Africa”.
“You go to Kibera, the capital of aid in Kenya, and people still don’t have a clue what the … it’s all about. Because Kenya had a vibrant middle class long before the donors came,” says Wainaina, “Uganda was in trouble because it was caught just coming out of war. Its new middle class was created inside that [aid] language. I love Uganda, it’s my second family, but I find this horrible, all this ‘I want to do awareness, I want to build a CBO’.”
To get out of this rut, Wainaina encourages all authors to dig into the essence of humanity and to refrain from censoring themselves. He says a culture of politeness means that many Ugandans refrain from expressing themselves and instead try to fit the requirements of Western publishing companies (or perhaps the dry language of NGOs).
“Not wanting to rock the boat is strong in Kampala and so there’s something wrong with you when you step away and be radical,” he says, “This is really dangerous: you are starting to see the real talent leave Uganda. It’s not the first time. And what is horrible is there seems to be no regret or reaction from the powers that be. They don’t know that the fastest way to kill a city is to let your best artists leave.” Recently, Ugandan writer and broadcaster Kalundi Serumaga was arrested by the Ugandan government after the stand-off between Museveni and the Kingdom of Buganda. “Kwani?” and others assert that he was arrested and tortured unlawfully.
Considering the reluctance of some governments to endorse an intellectual movement, there also needs to be a mechanism to circumvent this repression and reach all Africans, whatever their location or economic status. Wainaina suggests the cell phone:
“Books in mobile phones. You have to realise that this digital phone is like the printing press. For the first time there is a actually a market. You can find 100,000,000 people who live within Kenya and Nigeria on the same platform like Zain,” he explains, “You can write the most quirky, wacky thing ever and find your initial 30,000 people who will pay 100 shillings to read it.”
By bringing ‘African literature’ home, African authors and readers might have the opportunity to define their own literary movement, primarily within the quality of their work. As African readers read fellow African writers, the emphasis put on war and poverty is lessened. Instead, the ‘ordinary stories’ become important. Individual African countries begin developing their own cultural identities internally. And, in the long run, intellectual freedom will help deliver democratic freedom.