Wainaina Has No Right To Speak For All Africans
I am treading in dangerous waters here as I know that Binyavanga Wainaina has become an icon and a standard-bearer for Kenyan if not African writing and a spokesman for the way that Africans want to be represented in the wider world.
However, in a recent podcast on The Guardian books, an, extract of which was published in the paper as “Kenyan Author Attacks the Insularity of British Fiction” (November 18), he made some highly questionable statements about the state of writing in the former empire and about the way that Africans respond to the “culture of pity” that has emerged in the post-colonial period.
In some ways he is in a good position to speak, having won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 and having now progressed to direct the Chinua Achebe Centre for Writers and Artists at Bard College, NY. His scathing Granta essay “How Not to Write About Africa” attacked the mealy- mouthed picture that has emerged of a continent full of fly-ridden children standing in line for food, wars, tribal savagery and obsessions with “saving” the people by means of so-called Aid, NGO assistance, or pleading publicity about drought and famine.
As someone who has spent a great deal of time in Africa, I agree with his sentiments, but then the truth of the matter is that good news is no news. The way the press operates is to constantly push images of negativity down our throats, to such a degree that many people have turned away from watching serious news analysis in favour of the ubiquitous Big Brother, Masterchef or Strictly Come Dancing types of programmes which offer momentary diversions from real life and throw the whole business of politics into a large dustbin.
With that wonderful Kenyan burr and distinctive accentuation, he rhetorically pronounced: “We are not interested in Oxfam, we are not interested in Tony Blair, we are not interested in what Oxfam is doing for America, we are not interested in what aid donors are doing....we never have been. We don’t talk about it, we don’t discuss it.”
Like authors all around the world, African writers were interested in the lives of people around them. “If you ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa I would say that it is that people love, people, fuck, people kiss, people speak.”
Now if memory doesn’t fail me, Wainaina’s winning story wasn’t particularly about any of these things. It was about himself. And the section he read out from his newest offering, “One Day I Will Write about this Place” was singularly lacking in the sounds of other voices. He described a matatu ride with his usual panache and eloquence, but no words came out of the mouths of the touts who slapped the sides of their vehicles like Western cowboys, no rhythms of the Kikuyu or Kalenjin that he claims they are speaking.
Compare that to the marvellous dialogue in “Petals of Blood” where Ngugi spent pages recounting the conversation that took place in Kikuyu about matters that went far beyond kissing and fucking, and that dealt with issues of power, authority and identity. Yet the novel was written in English as were those of John Kiriamiti, Mucere Mugo, Meja Mwangi and the plays of Francis Imbuga to name but a few of the first generation of writers.
Elsewhere, Bessie Head, Naruddin Farah, and of course the great Achebe himself have created living believable African worlds for us that go far beyond the simplistic and macho “We kiss we fuck” notion that actually does the image of Africa no good at all since there are many out there who imagine that that is actually all Africans do. Leave Hemingway alone, Binya.
What, I want to ask, gives Wainana permission to speak on behalf of all Africans? Where does the royal “we” come from? Who is an African writer these days and who is a British one given that we inhabit each others’ spaces? Wainaina lives in the United States. Chinua Achebe has also lived there for many years where dotted around the country are pockets of real interest in African studies.
Indiana is a good example. Where will you find those in Kenya? The marvellous John Mbiti, whose “Stories of the Akamba” is a literary masterpiece is a pastor and professor in Bern, Switzerland. And I know for a fact, having read many manuscripts, that contrary to some skeptics, there are good writers aplenty out there whose only chance of been read is to be picked up by “Kwani?” Or “Storymoja”, both of which are very short of funds and personnel.
It is only when the millionaires of Africa like Uhuru Kenyatta begin seeing the value of art and literature and investing in it that things will change. Why doesn’t Wainaina ask why the late Wangari Maathai had to run begging to the British company Routledge to publish her autobiography “Unbowed”? The answer is that local publishers are only interested in textbooks. They all sit on manuscripts for years without even giving a polite nod to the author that they are still being assessed.
Being back in Britain, where he studied at the University of East Anglia’s writing school several years ago, Mr Wainana can’t resist taking a swipe. Kenyans “can’t get the codes” of contemporary British writers, he complains. His father’s generation could but these inept writers haven’t been able to engage a global audience. What codes? And who, incidentally, is a British writer nowadays? He doesn’t offer a single example.
Now take Chimanande Ngochie Adichie– the brilliant young Nigerian who has settled in the UK because she has found a sympathetic home for her work which at its best, draws on her childhood in Nigeria. There is long-time British Nigerian Ben Okri, an indisputably world-class novelist and essayist. Or the Jamaican- born poet Zephaniah who has been entertaining huge audiences with live poetry for decades. Ugandan novelist Moses Ishegawa now lives in Amsterdam.
Sadly, all this talent has left African shores because of the reluctance of big rich men (or women) to put money into writing. There is always the counterargument which is hard to deny that hungry bellies must be filled first. But read the great Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” to discover what the hunger for art can mean.
By contrast, Arundati Roy, activist and writer, has stayed in India where there is a thriving English book culture. And I take umbrage at the idea that we all want to read only what is at the ends of our noses. I have as much interest in reading new Australian, Zimbabwean, Turkish and Pakistani writers as I do in reading a new book by Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan or Chris Cleave.
I am curious about the whole world, not just about my doorstep which currently happens to be Istanbul, a city full of books, many of them in English. Great books sketch a vision of another world. They are not based on negativity and hatred. Grow up, Binya. And start listening.