Words Hannah Pool Illustration Dragon76
This article was first published in Issue 14 of ARISE Magazine
Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay How To Write About Africa has become Granta magazine’s most requested feature since its publication in 2005. Opening with the line: “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” Wainaina pulled no punches in his mockery of the way Western authors portray the continent. The essay went viral, as did a short film featuring Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou narrating the piece (below).
Described as one of Africa’s young literary stars by Vanity Fair, Wainaina has just published his first book, One Day I Will Write About This Place. The memoir takes us through his middle-class Kenyan childhood, his winning of the Caine prize for African literature and his time in Uganda and South Africa. The founder of Kenyan literary magazine Kwani? and director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers And Artists at Bard College, New York, Wainaina sat down with ARISE to share his thoughts on literature, language and readers who “care”.
There is a pressure on African writers to write a big Africa book. It’s not that I don’t want to be the next Chinua Achebe, I could if I was 78 and wanting to write a book to respond to colonialism. But I’m not.
As far as literature is concerned, the West sees Africans as objects; we don’t have anything to say for ourselves. If we are happy then we are a happy object, or suffering objects or empowering objects or sustainable objects, but we are objects.
I love playing with language. It’s what I use to communicate my imagination. That is what I have done in books since I was five and
I intend to continue.
I spoke to Djimon Hounsou on the phone for about 12 seconds before he filmed the monologue of my essay. He told me, “I like your essay very much.” I like Djimon – he scored me many points with African women from all around the world!
In the US, they changed the title of the work from How To Write About Africa to How Not To Write About Africa because Americans don’t do irony and sarcasm. They also cut the essay short because they wanted to keep it to two minutes. And they wanted an innocent child next to Djimon because America does innocent white children with big eyes a lot.
Writers are always griping about “they”: they the publishers, they the public, they the media and so on but a lot of us end up internally conceiving of books based on the restrictions that have been given to us, which is self-censorship.
I’m not in this game as a victim; I’m in this game to write forever. You earn the right to write, you earn the right to sing and you earn the right to be listened to.
Senses and imagination matter, they are more important to every single African than famine. In the middle of the famine, when you are crawling up to the point of death, your imagination is fully alive in your language.
I’m not interested in acquiring a single reader in the West, or anywhere for that matter, who buys my books because they ‘care’ about Africa. I don’t give the remotest piece of a shit. I can do without the money, the love, the anything. If you want to enter and share my world then great, but don’t buy my books because you ‘care’.
Language is just a vehicle to carry things and English happens to be mine, having grown up in Kenya, a country with 70 languages and all kinds of interesting postcolonial things going on. My mum’s from Uganda and my dad’s from Kenya – they don’t speak the same language so we grew up speaking English. But I was surrounded by all these other languages. They have sound, they have music, they have body language and all this other embedded intelligence that I find really fascinating.
As an ambitious writer you’re always conscious of the fact that many readers will only consume literature in English,
they are coming from monolingual societies. The challenge for me now is how to make my prose coherent, coded and universal inside
all these possible worlds. There are parts in this book that are more difficult for non-Kenyans to understand but I didn’t want to tone it down, I wanted it to be full on, I didn’t want to explain everything.
I am a reader of fiction not memoir. I have read enough British satirical fiction to know how to write something the British public would giggle at, laugh at, feel guilty about.
When I won the Caine prize in 2002 I had already been writing for four or five years. I was a broke-ass student when Granta offered me the deal for my new book. I was delighted as it bought me time to get to the next stage of my writing. I wanted to build a language and a vehicle that was more me, rather than me sounding like others, I wanted to be more mature. I like trying new things, which is what I did with this book.
I wanted my first book to reflect what kind of writer I am and the type of writer I intend to be. It’s a completely different book to the one I started writing. It went through a mega mess, I’m a messy, messy writer so I write many versions.
I ended up writing about my own life because it was safe, so I could experiment with style. I could get into it immediately, take a lot of risks with it, without worrying about my fictional character backfiring. I love the idea of language and the idea of perpetual uncertainty, of the kinds of people language makes, the texture in all these in-between places. I like the idea of being a character of my own childhood in the present tense, with my English speaking to me and to others, like books spoke to me as a child. It’s my world and my language.
It can be an unbearable privilege to write. I think it’s the same for most artists in general. We don’t live in the world where people are making a shitload of money. We are trying to enter a very managed, powerful world.
One Day I Will Write About This Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina [Granta, £15.99] out now