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Ode to literary gangster Binyavanga Wainaina



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I discovered Binyavanga Wainaina at the dawn of this century. This was immediately after the announcement that he had won the 2002 Caine Prize for literature for his story Discovering Home. The man who broke the news to me was none other than the late Prof Francis Imbuga, who quickly summoned me to join him in a local mabatini juicing corner to celebrate the Kenyan winner of the prestigious prize.

I got hold of the story and read it again and again. I was first fascinated by its structure and the beautiful prose. The author’s eye for detail and the nuances of many variegated thoughts, images and themes blew me off the ground. The painting of each scene convinced me that Binyavanga was a master storyteller. I could not fail to recognise his subtle humour and his care for grammatical felicity.

It was the kind of story that could even appeal to Prof Henry Indangasi, who despises anything that does not come with advanced literary aesthetics. Binyavanga’s appearance breathed fresh air into the Kenyan literary scene, especially on the big question of identity.

Binyavanga happened on the Kenyan literary scene at the most exciting moment in the country’s history. At that time, Barrack Muluka and yours truly were trying to excite the public about the value of literature and the arts.

Through our weekly columns, we generated debates that pulled literature from the ivory tower down to the streets. Mundia Muchiri, our editor, was the man behind this drive. I was also running two programmes on KBC radio, “Books and Bookmen” and “Culture Talk”, which were dedicated to literature and cultural matters. Our enterprise bore fruit and now media houses rely on literature and the arts to sell.

Without hesitation, I can say the years 2000 to 2010 marked the golden era of our literary growth. And it was within this epoch that Binyavanga founded the Kwani? Foundation and made significant contribution. I engaged Binyavanga and his comrades at Kwani? on a number of issues. This helped grow literary space and theory. He inspired young writers and filled them with his kind of passion for literature.

Binyavanga brought to the Kenyan literary high table a new outfit and attracted an army of youngsters who wished to write and to be published. Unlike the older generation of Kenyan writers who rarely met, Kwani? writers had weekly readings. The typical demeanour we know of writers as withdrawn, self-effacing and generally humble did not apply to the Kwani? fraternity. They were loud and reckless in their utterances and they dismissed any literary effort that had come before them. That is when I started firing salvos at the group, and they did not like it.

I saw in Binyavanga and the entire Kwani? brigade a streak of juvenile arrogance. I argued that they had failed to tame their success. After bursting into the limelight, they could not contain themselves. I advised that creative writers cannot display a perverse sense of self-importance. Why? I have always believed that a writer is like a god, a creator of universes that he sensibly populates. He gives his characters mixed fortunes, brings happiness, sorrow and joy to each one of them in various measures. The writer chooses to destroy some of them, and I think in order to do all these, the writer has to be reflective.

I saw Binyavanga’s Kwani? brigade as comprising the third generation of Kenyan writers who were yet to capture the enduring spirit and values that we cherish. They lacked humility and their “bling bling” attitude made me feel they had a false view of themselves. It was their dismissive nature of anything that came before them that irked me. I even invited them to my classes on literary theory so that they could learn to drop their gangster approach to literary production and criticism.

Granted, Binyavanga’s Kwani? offered a parallel discursive arena where members of a hitherto nondescript group invented and circulated counter-discourses that formulated oppositional interpretations of their identities, bloated egos and interests that somehow helped to enrich our literary tradition. But what I could not accept was for them to claim to be the quintessential apotheosis of our imaginative endeavours. Having christened them “literary gangsters”, Kwani? had to fight back. Tony Mochama, one of the brigade’s generals, even wrote a poetry anthology entitled What if I am a Literary Gangster.

Disturbed by my incessant questioning of their enterprise, Binyavanga chose to address me in a public letter published in the media. In fine prose, he outlined the philosophical foundation of Kwani? This letter helped me unpack our fallen hero.

Binyavanga believed in pluralism of thought. He argued that Kenya was not a “one party or one literature state” and that we ought to give space to a variety of voices to thrive. He was critical of all those who imagined that they were the be-all and end-all of literature. That is why he built Kwani? as an alternative space for writers to express themselves. I think Binyavanga’s letter was simply a cry for inclusivity and accommodation of various orientations of people in society.

Binyavanga outlined the success of the Kwani? 1 and Kwani? 2 journals to me. He was not shy to publish pieces in Sheng. As an editor of Kwani? he always wanted to grow writers and mix different experiences, having recognised that “Kenya is a dynamic and fast changing space”.

One enduring characteristic of Binyavanga was that he was brutally honest. He confessed in the letter to me that he belonged to a “generation of people who had had enough of being told always what to do what not to be, what not to speak”. He was a rebel with a cause, even if you do not agree with his cause.

I respected Binyavanga and admired his openness and generosity in growing the Kenyan literary space. We shared a passion for literature.

With measured sarcasm, he wrote to me: “Thank you Mr Kabaji for bringing your reasoned and coherent contributions, which has left me with much to think about”.

And not long ago, we were hosted by KBC in a joint interview and the session was simply amazing. As we debated cultural and literary issues, I noted his rare wit and intelligence.

Kenya has lost one of its best writers. This is the man who used the money he earned from the Cain Prize to start the Kwani Foundation to help grow Kenyan literature. He was the first Kenyan to win the prize.

Unknown to many people, Binyavanga edited Yvonne Owour’s Weight of Whispers, the second Kenyan story to win the Cain Prize. He was a selfless soul. He has bequeathed us a number of works that will immortalise him, including: Discovering Home, How to Write about Africa, and One Day I Will Write About This Place.

But much has been written and said about Binyavanga’s sexuality. Unfortunately, I cannot talk about such things. I didn’t spend many years in school to be peeping through people’s windows to see what they do in their bedrooms.

Binyavanga and I operated at a higher attic level characterised by high-voltage thinking. I leave such prattles to social media dimwits and incurable dullards.

Kabaji is a professor of literary communication at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and president of the Creative Writers Association of Kenya [email protected]

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