The African literary world was dismayed to learn of the death of Binyavanga Wainaina on May 21, 2019 from stroke.
Time magazine in 2014 listed Binyavanga as one of the world’s hundred most influential people—for his writing, for his continued support of African arts, and for coming out as gay that year.
The story of his wide influence and charismatic character is being told on websites, on social media, and at a series of memorials being organized in Nairobi. This piece focuses on Binyavanga’s contributions to speculative fiction by Africans, while summarizing some of that wider story.
Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize back in 2002 for his story, “Discovering Home.” The money contributed to the functioning of the Kwani Trust and the Kwani? magazine, the collective labour of individuals such as Atsango Chesoni, Ebba Kalondo, Andia Kisia, Irene Wanjiru, Muthoni Wanyeki, and Rasna Warah.
For a time, the Trust published regular anthologies. At first edited by Binyavanga, then with Billy Kahora as managing editor, these became one of the most visible and authoritative literary ventures in Africa.
Amatesiro added a memoir of Binyavanga to his forthcoming interview in Strange Horizons. In it he said:
He was the first editor to publish my work: Kwani? 06 [Seven Yellow Brassieres for Fried Eggs, (2010)]. The first person I came out to in 2012 at the Lagos Resource Centre...
He was more Nigerian than we Nigerians; a Fela who wrote like Morrison, not Soyinka; Kenyan’s guarantee of a Nobel literary laureate before a sad and painful death that has made me so angry at the Binj for leaving without permission.
The Kwani Trust was the first publisher of the masterpiece Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a novel about a curse continuing from pre-colonial times. The novel won first place in the Kwani Manuscript Prize, and went on to win the Windham-Campbell Prize. Makumbi and I lived in the same city, and at the time she told me of Binyavanga’s kindness and support through a period of sudden success.
The Kwani Trust were also first publishers of Nikhil Singh’s extraordinary Taty Went West. It was a beautiful edition, with 145 of the author’s own illustrations. Other SFF-friendly authors such as Kiprop Kimutai benefitted from Kwani (he came in third in the Manuscript Project).
Billy Kahora worked as Kwani’s main editor for many years. Billy Kahora was also the editor of Imagine Africa 500, one of the best anthologies of African science fiction, published by Shadreck Chikoti. One of the most detailed and moving of the recent tributes to Binyavanga comes from Billy Kahora, just published in LitHub, where you can read the full and powerful text. Kahora notes:
He’d always have new obsessions, from the Leakeys and their legacy in Kenya to Nnedi Okorafor before she became well known. His advice was uncanny. Nobody understood African literary and cultural shifts better. He anticipated the Afro Futurism boom years before it happened.
And he started writing a fantasy novel in Germany at the DAAD fellowship in 2017.
So many authors speak of the personal help and encouragement given them by Binyavanga.
A Igoni Barrett met Binyavanga while organizing a reading series. In 2010, Binyavanga was a director of the Chinua Achebe Fellowship, and he encouraged Barrett to apply. Barrett got the fellowship, so was able to spend time out of Nigeria, in Nairobi. Barrett talks about what happened when he got home:
Then Binyavanga sent me an email. One of the conditions of the Fellowship was that I would send my work to them to show how I’d spent my time in Kenya. I had emailed my manuscript to Binyavanga, but I didn’t expect to hear from him. He’s a busy guy and even I don’t read every MS that comes into my inbox.
But about five days after, I get a phone call from a British number. I picked the call and it turns out to be Sarah Chalfant, head of the London office of the Wylie Agency.
Apparently Binyavanga had read my short story collection and liked it so much that he then emailed it to her and she’d read it and liked it so much that she offered to represent me.
Dare Segun Falawo met Binyavanga Wainaina through the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. Binyavanga helped him over a personal crisis during the workshop, and wrote on behalf of Dare to help him find employment and publication. In a WhatsApp conversation Falowo wrote:
He was a firm believer in science fiction as a way to map the future and bring about utopia. He told me to write more science fiction, that was his main advice to me, the most repeated.
For the memorial observances in Nairobi, Falawo wrote a tribute that ended with a question that Binyavanga had asked the Workshop:
How do we face all in front of us, and still build imaginative homes of beauty? How are we more than just the sum of the problem, the history? How do we make our future beautiful, but not hiding from the fullness of our experience?
Binyavanga had a close friendship with Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie. They were both leaders of the Farafina Creative Writing workshops where he was able to touch so many young writers’ lives. Another workshop participant was Mazi Nwonwu, co-founder of Omenana magazine. Nwonwu not only notes Binyavanga’s personal help, but credits him with encouraging Omenana itself.
On the third day when Binyavanga came and asked, ‘what do you do?’ I said I write science fiction and fantasy and he was like, ‘wow I’ve been waiting for someone to say that in the workshop.’
Then we had a very big conversation within the workshop about speculative fiction in Nigeria and Africa, by then AfroSF (the first of the series edited by Ivor Hartmann) was about to come out and I had a story in it.
After meeting Binyavanga, I complained to him, ‘Look I write these stories but no one publishes’. By then I wasn’t writing spec-fic anymore; I was writing literary fiction.
He then said I should send him one of these stories and I did; then he asked why I was not writing them anymore; and I said ‘People don’t publish them!’
He said, ‘why don’t you create a portal?’, and I said that I had thought about that, maybe a Facebook page, and he said that I should do anything and let him know and then I went back and thought hard about it.
Ntone Edjabe is the key man in the Chimurenga collective. Edjabe gives Binyavanga Wainaina credit for inspiring Chimurenga to become an ongoing periodical and not just a one-off.
So Binyavanga sends me this story called 'Re-Discovering Home.' He had just gone back to Kenya, but we lived and worked together. He ran the café on the first floor. (Of the market building where they both worked.) So he goes back to Nairobi and writes this piece about homecoming. That gives me the feeling OK; we can do a second collection built around his piece. We call it Chimurenga Volume Two. Up to that point, I am not thinking of it as a periodical.
So it’s still 2002, a few months after the first volume. We’d get up to Volume Six and say OK, get the fuck out of here, we are running a magazine. So let’s just organize ourselves a little bit. ‘We’ are the first contributors and editors and designers.
Chimurenga was alert to the looming presence of Afrofuturism. In 2008 it published a double issue on black technology with speculative fiction by Peter Kalu, Doreen Baingana, Stacy Hardy, and one Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.
In 2013 the Chimurenga newspaper The Chronic published Binyavanga’s interview with B Kojo Laing. It’s one of only three or four long searching interviews with this extraordinary Ghanaian author of interstitial and science fiction (B Kojo Laing passed in 2017, another recent loss).
Binyavanga was always a vocal supporter of speculative fiction. In a 2014 interview with Mazi Nwonwu published in This is Africa, he said:
I have a vested interest in this because I want to start a publishing house that will publish popular fiction and rethinking genre. Next year I want to host a workshop that will focus on creating good, digestible, thoughtful afrocentric speculative fiction in Senegal. Yes, the afrofuturism thing has become big.
When the next generation of Kenyan writers founded a publishing venue of their own, Jalada, the pan-African collective, Binyavanga, far from being threatened, graced their 2015 Afrofuture(s) anthology with a speculative story of his own, “Boonoonoonoos little bit Boonoonoonoos.”
The Prelude to Afrofuture(s), published in 2014, consisted entirely of Binyavanga’s wildly imaginative commentary on the work of artist Wangechi Mutu. The commentary, in the form of footnotes, is both an imagined biography of the artist and of Kenyan culture. Moses Kilolo, in the Endnote, says:
The Prelude which features Binyavanga Wainana’s profile of Wangeci Mutu and her art is a perfect expression of this shared dream among African artists to redefine how we envision future Africa.
In 2015 the judges for the anthology Africa39 were tasked with selecting the thirty-nine best sub-Saharan writers (in English). They selected from a longlist of writers that Binyavanga had drawn up. That this literary anthology included so much speculative work is down in part to him—the final selection included A Igoni Barrett, Mehul Gohil, Clifton Cachagua, and Shadreck Chikoti.
For all his good works, we have to hope that Binyavanga will be best remembered for his writing. The best way to get hold of his work is to go to the home page of the website PlanetBinya. His bitterly ironic short essay “How to Write About Africa” published in Granta in 2005 still resonates—though we have to hope it’s also done such a good job that most publishers have moved on. Indeed, The Guardian published a satire on how journalism was treating Africa in “How Not to Write About Africa in 2012.”
“How to Be an African” and another stinging piece of sarcasm attacks exoticization and appropriation Africans and African culture.
One Day I Will Write About This Place is his best-known longer work. It’s a memoir like no other, one that in places writes about the young Binyavanga as if he were a character in a novel. Granta also published an excerpt from One Day I will Write About this Place in 2011.
Finally of course there is the 2014 addition to One Day... published in both Chimurenga and Africa Is a Country in 2014. “I am a homosexual, mum” is subtitled ‘A lost chapter from One Day I Will Write About This Place.’ It transformed how many people read the memoir and thought of Binyavanga. His later acknowledgement of his HIV status also opened discussion and made things easier for others.
I remember him reading from the sequel to One Day I Will Write About This Place at the London School of Economics. The room was packed, mostly with Africans. The piece he chose was unlike anything I’d encountered—a kind of a memoir in which Binyavanga impersonated the stream of consciousness of his own father. The writing was laced with metaphors drawn from science. I remember Higgs Boson and quantum entanglements in the text.
Almost none of the questions from the audience were about the new work. It was all about his coming out. One angry lady asked him why he was talking about sex—Africans don’t talk about sex. “Oh of course not, no, never.” Binyavanga smiled and some of the audience laughed. “What African countries have you been to?” Some one asked why he had come out. His response was “citizenship”. He had returned to Kenya and felt that it was his civic duty. He was robust at fending off the questions, and seemed to have a reasonably fun time.
There must be about fifty million queer Africans (five percent of a billion people), but not one of them had written the extraordinary work we’d just heard. What he had to say about being queer in Africa was important. But being a spokesperson seemed to be crowding out his writing.
Afterwards I was able to talk briefly to him. I didn’t want to talk about Africa with a capital A or gay politics, so I asked him why he thought so many writers were using present tense instead of past tense.
“YouTube,” he said with no hesitation. “You can watch TV shows from your childhood. It makes everything present tense.” An off-the-cuff answer that was headspinning. The implication was that the internet was changing how we see time—a rather speculative idea.
We have to hope that that second volume of imaginative memoirs will be published. And please God a manuscript of that fantasy novel is found.