The Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina is the author of the memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. He teaches creative writing and is the director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at Bard College in the U.S. He was in Lagos recently to help teach fiction to young writers from all over Africa in the NB/Farafina Trust Creative Writers Workshop, which ended with a literary event at the Grand Ballroom of Eko Hotel and Suites. He took time to speak with ANOTE AJELUOROU on some issues regarding literary engagement on the continent. Excerpts:
What is the state of writing in Kenya at the moment?
I think these are the most exciting times since the 1990s. There’s a lot of new, independent publishing going on; online writing is very vibrant, dynamic and fast-changing. A lot of writers are now writing poetry, writing fiction, writing for TV and films and a lot of things. There are online publishers like Kwani? and many others going on.
How has your memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place been received in Kenya?
Good! I think we sold close to 500 copies the first day at the launch. It has actually been wonderful; I’m very, very happy. I can’t be happier.
Tell us something about your directorship at the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at Bard College,U.S.?
It’s wonderful. We’re in the middle of a project called Pilgrimages, where we’re taking 13 African writers to 13 cities to write 13 books. It’s going to come in a series in a couple of years. I’ll be writing about Accra, Ghana; so many different writers are writing about other cities. The idea came from the African World Cup that was held in South Africa in 2010; we just want to celebrate our cities and for Africans to be able to say, ‘I know my place’, especially when we meet in a place like London or Paris.
We can cay that the books are compatriots as they explain these cities both to those who reside in them and others coming to them.
Ngugu wa Thiong’o is the most prominent writer to have come out of Kenya. What is your relationship with him?
Oh, lovely, lovely! Oh gosh; I’m mean, I became an Ngugu fan very early. I can’t even begin to explain how much he has affected me. You can’t imagine how very profound his influence on me is. And, his works tower very high, and continues to dominate.
And you are from a minority tribe…
No, no; I’m Kikuyu, too, like Ngugu. But Kikuyu is not a majority either. You can’t even plan down one agenda along clan lines in Kenya; there are different clans, of course. The numbers are there, but not a majority.
In your book, you talked about the violence that erupted in the last election. How much has Kenyans learnt from that horrific experience?
On the question of the violence that happened in Kenya, we hope that it is something that will not happen again. It shook us from our complete complacency. It’s sad that such experience happens often in Africa. The issue is that there’s a lot of bad politics and corruption and laxity in the polity, especially among the political elite in Africa. The violence raised the stakes for us. So, it was bad, but it was good for us in the long run.
So, it will make us to grow stronger and help us to learn to accommodate one another in the future.
Most of the literary voices on the African continent are coming from outside the continent. Writers like you, Chimamanda Adichie and many others reside abroad. Is this a good development?
The thing is that people make a mistake because they don’t know where you are. I think Chimamanda resides more here in Nigeria; I spend most of my time in Kenya; in fact, six months of the year and I travel all over the continent. We come back a lot; I retain my Kenyan passport; I don’t have a Green Card. I don’t have an American passport. We propagate African literature wherever we are, in Africa and wherever.
What has happened is that many people are returning and finding their way and are giving back. And what is more important; let’s not talk about the writers that are out there. There is an exciting new generation of writers that have come out of Africa in the last few years, who are homegrown talents that are going international.
So, what’s next after One Day I Will Write About This Place?
I don’t now; it could be anything, maybe science fiction. I’ll surprise you. Science fiction because I like to try new things; I love doing new things. So, look out!
IN January 2007, Wainaina was nominated by the World Economic Forum as a "Young Global Leader" - an award given to people for "their potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world." He subsequently declined the award. In his rejection letter, he wrote: "I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go anyway because we will get to be 'validated' and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people, and we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people – our 'peers'. We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to.
“The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative...it would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am 'going to significantly impact world affairs”.