IN MEMORIAM: TRIBUTES
I had two first meetings with Binyavanga Wainaina. The first was when he joined Carey Francis House (CF) in Lenana School as an incoming Fifth Former in the old A-level system. Binya turned CF into the house that produced prize-winning house plays in a rugby-crazed school. I was a Third Former, part of the first newly introduced 8-4-4 class, and he cast me in one of his theatre productions. The next year, my Fourth Form class and his Sixth Form class became existential enemies, fighting in corridors for control of the house, with one of my Fourth Form friends engineering a bullying scenario that ultimately led to the expulsion of one of his best friends. The two of us, however, continued exchanging books to read, he still cast me in the house play, and CF won the prize again. Binyavanga is the only Lenana schoolboy to have snuck out of school to present a play at the Alliance Française in the city. He did not tell the organizers that he was still a schoolboy and when his play was announced as the winner his major fear was that the school administration would find out.
I met Binyavanga Wainaina again in 2005 at his home-from-home in the Java Mama Ngina coffee house. Now he was Founding Editor at Kwani?, Caine Prize winner and larger than life. I had sent him a short story called “The Applications” from South Africa, where I was studying, and he had loved it. When I returned to Kenya we met and he asked me what I thought about Kwani? (there were already two issues out of the journal). I blurted out that it was great, but it needed to capture more of the post-2002 moment that had voted out a Kenyan 24-year political regime. I was fresh from journalism school and obsessed with creative non-fiction. I thought there was a lot the form could do with all that was being unearthed in the post-Moi Kenya commissions of enquiry of the time. Genge music was blowing up the airwaves, the comedy trio Redykyulass were gods. Sheng, the urban patois, was Kenya’s new muse. I did not realize that this really was an informal job interview of sorts.
The next time we met he told me about David Munyakei – the Kenya Central Bank whistleblower. Could I write a creative non-fiction piece based on this? And could I accompany him to hangout with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau; musicians and poets who he thought were the most talented wordsmiths in Kenya at the time, and the country’s equivalent of the Wu Tang clan? He was generous that way in opening up the Kwani? space for me. When I was finding my feet, he was the only one who did not take my criticism as a threat. He willed me into writing Munyakei’s story that would eventually become a book. He invited me to edit the next Kwani?, issue 3, and we called it the Sheng issue.
I quickly learned that everything with Binyavanga happened at warp speed but only starting in the afternoon and going deep into the night, an outright rejection of the Kenyan 9-5 ethos. He sat and started working in cafes from 4 p.m. In those days, the Kwani? office was at Queensway House and he favoured Trattoria, an Italian restaurant with outdoor seating. Work was meeting different people and talking Kenya and then the world. At this time he smoked Sportsman cigarettes incessantly. He continually drank coffee and then moved to Tusker beer. There, the Kwani? journal was commissioned and strategies were laid out to take over the world. He conducted interviews and ranted against anyone in Kenya he thought was policing who and what writers and literature could be. He obsessed about Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński’s racism. He asked me again and again what I thought had happened between Fourth Formers and Sixth Formers at Lenana school. He liked to work into the early hours of the morning and resurface again at the very earliest at lunchtime. And then another cycle would begin.
Even after having become perhaps the most visible new writer in Kenya after winning the Caine Prize, he spent most of his time in these years talking about the work of others. For such a confident and brash person on the outside, he could be very reticent about his own work. When stories that he’d written quietly emerged somewhere it was almost without notice, even for those who spent a lot of time with him. But the glimpses of him at work taught me how unserious I was about my own work. He was excruciatingly exacting with himself, much more so than with many writers he published. With his close writer friends he was as harsh as he was with himself. He would cut links with even the most talented if they showed too much laziness. The Kwani? production process was an exceedingly brutal one. He could decide at a whim that the look of the full journal was terrible and we had to start again. Many fell by the wayside, including close friends. But he also immediately recognized a good idea. When we were struggling with a look for the Kwani? book series, exhausted, I half jokingly said the series should look like the Kwanini? series. “That’s it,” he said.
He was generous to a fault with so many artists, not only writers. He would champion someone’s work both artistically and practically in incredible ways. Nothing was impossible for a writer for him. I remember him calling me to ask how we could sort out a visa for Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett to come to Kenya for a writing residency. Or Ugandan newspaper columnist Kalundi Serumaga telling me how Binyavanga had found him a small grant to help him continue building his arts centre. Or Binya housing a Ugandan poet who was a refugee in Kenya. He also not only instinctively understood how narrative worked, but more importantly, he had an unfailing knack for understanding the person who was writing it and how they could improve on a piece for Kwani?. And yet for all his kindness, his aesthetic standard was so fixed that he would never compromise. He did not mind being cruel if necessary. And so he made so many enemies, particularly with those who he found on the literary and cultural scene who had attained status the old fashioned Kenyan way, through networks of privilege and informal social circuit. He could not stand what he described as the textbook and campus literary mafia and their boiled sukuma wiki way of thinking.
Binyavanga was terribly funny when he chose to be but could also be a bad sport. When we quarrelled he shouted, “You 8-4-4s!”. Social media at times brought out the worst in him. It was the perfect space for fuelling a nature that could become obsessively pugilistic about everything. When there was no one to talk and rant with in the early hours of the morning, it was there for him—a space he let it all out.
In his healthier days no one was as hardworking—he was always quietly writing another novel draft. By the time he finished One Day I will Write About This Place he’d destroyed several fiction manuscripts. Binyavanga’s creative impulse was his driving force and he very much made his own yardstick for cultural value. He famously rejected recognition as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum while through his work as Kwani? Editor financing a studio for Ukoo Flani Mau Mau and the hit songs “Angalia Saa” and “Mashairi”. He was the emotional force behind 24Nairobi and the only supporter of an unknown photographer, Nick Ysenburg, who appeared from nowhere on his doorstep wanting to produce a collection of photography and writing about the city featuring yet-to-be-known names such as Boniface Mwangi and James Muriuki. Meanwhile he was the only Kenyan writer to have appeared on Oprah.
There will always be debates about the founding of Kwani?: who, where, when? What about all the others who were there? In truth, no one spent as much time as he did getting things off the ground. He was the focal point who buzzed between the moving parts and that got it up and running. The writers. The small fledgling office. The board. The donors. The international writing community. Everybody else dipped in and out—they had grown-up jobs, other valid concerns, family. For Binya, Kwani? was all these things and more. He was the one that harangued writers to submit their stories to Kwani?, to submit for the Caine Prize. From this needling, Yvonne Owuor sent him a story called “Weight of Whispers” a week before the deadline. He harassed the whole Kwani? office day and night to get it published and sent to London. He told me when he saw the story he just knew.
When he took up a position at Union College in Upstate New York, Kwani? had ballooned into a journal, a literary festival, a Kwanini? series, a book series and a monthly open mic. And he let Kwani? breathe by leaving me to make my own mistakes as the new editor. He was unfailingly generous with his time when I asked. He continued to open doors in those years after he had left. When we met it was always like the old days—we spoke long and deep into the night. He drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and then we’d share beers. 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 Afrofuturism boom years before it happened. He recognised the genius of Just A Band when they were only known by a few in Nairobi and flew them to New York to be part of a mini-festival. He called me to tell me about amazing Nairobi photographer Msingi Sasis before anyone else was talking about him. As “How to Write About Africa” continued to generate critical attention, as One Day was named a 2011 New York Times notable book and he became in constant demand as a speaker internationally, Binyavanga remained a restless artist and his creative spirit an ever-wandering one. He was seriously considering a shift to becoming a curator rather than a writer before he fell ill in 2016. And he started writing a fantasy novel in Germany at the DAAD fellowship in 2017.
The first stroke happened weeks after he’d submitted the final manuscript of One Day I Will Write About This Place, years ago, and came as a complete shock to all his friends. It was as if he’d expended all his magnificent energy in the book. And in true Binyavanga fashion he could not quite decide what the book was—it was part memoir, part travelogue and part political rant. But read again the brilliant section about Ki-may, the Babel of his childhood for all who did not speak English. In One Day those who know him well can detect the Nakuru boy who was for many years still uncomfortable in Nairobi. And alongside that, the assured traveller who understood people so well that his character portraits were unforgettable. And yet there was a part of himself he had not given to that book.
When he published the lost chapter and came out publicly as gay it opened up both him as a person and his writing. One Day was made visible as a queer narrative. In the years that followed he seemed more comfortable with himself, given less to ranting and open to new experiences. He went to live in Touba, Senegal because he wanted to study their old trading ways. He fell in love with Nigeria and spoke about making Jo’burg his home because of the freedoms it offered the queer community that Nairobi did not. He wanted to travel on the continent, to write a book of essays about new obsessions such as the evangelist movement in Mpumalanga, South Africa and Islam in Senegal. Kwani? was not his last big venture. For several years he worked on getting the idea of a new digital genre series off the ground. These were the things that drove him, even if he will be known most outside the literary world for his hair and his style, as a radical who dared to be different.
He will be remembered by many for his great spirit, his bravery, his outspoken-ness. But most of all he needs to be remembered for the writing. “How to Write About Africa” has eaten much of that recognition and it still stuns me how limited the recognition of his writing oeuvre is. In 2017, Achal Prabhala and Issac Otidi Amuke archived much of this online. Here we can all read and remember, and, hopefully, now the world will now be able to access his broad range.
These last years were hard. Binyavanga loved to talk because that is how he thought. He talked himself into a thought. And without the ability to rant he wilted creatively. And yet how his body held firm with all the ailments he was suffering from was nothing short of a miracle. There was a constant searching look in his face as if he could not comprehend what had happened to him. But last August when I visited him with Yvonne Owuor, he seemed happier than ever. We shared literary gossip. I brought him news of old friends that he had not seen for a long time. I could not remember a Binya who let others talk and just listened but now he had little choice. That magnificent energy had continued catching up with itself and his body seemed to have shrunk. The confused searching look was gone and he thanked us for making him laugh, something he had not done for a long time. I will miss him. RIP Binyavanga Wainaina.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My beloved ‘Canga.’
There is nobody else remotely like you. Nobody.
With you, I felt so known, so understood. And there is no gift, in a friendship, more precious than this.
I cannot conceive of a future without you.
I will always remember your kindness and generosity, your grace, your courage in constantly trying to live the life you wanted to live, how you wanted to live it.
How lucidly you saw things. How tender and excited you were with my baby daughter. Your teasing me about looking like the woman in the lux commercial at my wedding. Your deeply honest feedback on any drafts I sent you. That pause you gave, eyes downwards, before launching into one of your many instances of verbal pyrotechnics. Our vulnerability with each other. My laughing at your pronunciation of Igbo words. The way my family and friends came to love you and consider you one of us.
There is so much that is unbearable now.
I love you. Always. Rest well.
Dare Segun Falowo
Binyavanga was my first mother. Kaleidoscope mother. Refracting the light of us all and whirling always. They were my first mother in queerness and in literature. They pointed to my words and stories and said to me, “You’ve been hoarding gold,” and then they made me realize just how precious not only my words were, but the words of every writer trying to make sense of this continent that we call home. They told me to shoot for a beyond now. A futurity that would cast Africa as the pioneer it truly is. I did not oblige because I had lied to myself that I had no worth, but they did not stop trying until we saw no more of our old selves.
By osmosis, Binyavanga seeps into your being, by the motions of their mind, a collider far beyond what any of us could imagine, they somehow rewrite the perceptions of those who they direct that burning attention of theirs at. It is something to behold in a room full of people but in private conversation it becomes a marvel. They drew us under their wing one night and made us dream, us boys who were leaning back a bit too hard because our homes would see us as nothing more than abominations. We drank and they laughed and told stories that shook our stiff spines loose.
Binyavanga was our first mother. A human in-between, out and proud, who lived with their demons and wounds and managed to remain incandescent. A raw nerve of being, unashamed about their love of truth and ideas and men and drink. They lived and dressed and spoke and coexisted to fulfill what they saw in their imagination as a future for us. They have not only broken ground for all the queer people who will come after them, they have opened up new land, unearthed new soil. With the color of their body they have given us new ways to be and speak and new air to breathe.
They remains with us. Living cloud. Present ancestor ready to visit only if we are ready to push to the extent, to the edge where they danced, grace astride chaos.
They were always a tomorrow person, someone visiting from a time beyond this, to show us what happens when the fullness of empathy meets the power of the curious mind. They worked in hope that we would see a glimpse of that future of freedom and beauty.
I will leave you with a question they asked us once, and I hope you try to answer this question, if not in prose or poetry, then in your imaginations and in the ways you live your lives, especially if you are under a shroud cast by certain regressive societies that we (unfortunately) still call home,
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?
Thank you for your life and light, Binya.
Sleep well now.
Dare Segun Falowo.
One day I will write about this man
To pick a pen
Pick a word
Pick an imagery
A line appears…but
Chew on the pen a bit…
Crumple the paper,
A life of hesitations
A hesitating life, waiting for the next
Thought to come, to pick a pen, a word, a line
But, hesitate? Is that the right word?
Pause? Delay? Shilly-shally? Wait? Temporize?
I’ll go with temporize, it’s opaque enough to hide my tears. Yup! I am hiding my loss in words.
Pick a pen, a word, paper
Yes, pick a tense
Future perfect? No. That was always a mockery
Present continuous? That’s a wish
Past tense? But I cannot
Bring myself to think that’s all gone,
The big laugh, the beaming eyes when I quoted to you a line and said, Binya, you have a
beautiful mind, and you said I sounded unoriginal.
Will it help if I write about you in present continuous?
Don’t say, you already did
For if this is beating the queue on us, to be the first to a better world, spoiler alert, my friend, you were always already past, present and future. In our lives you shall always be continuous.
Binyavanga Wainaina. I never knew (nor knew of) a person more powerfully and crucially and lovingly and locally and globally and strugglingly and playfulpleasure-ingly a part of this world we share. So sad he’s gone from here (and he isn’t), so blessed and thankful to have been here with him and along with all the people he made known to me. Binya, my brother, my travelling partner, my teacher, my friend. Love, love always, love life, love each other. — Ed Pavlić
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
A Memory Palace for Brothers Who Flew Just Close Enough to the Sun & Created the Storm
I think of first encounters
A word a glance a recognition
This here is where we make our family
Of conversation that leaps with alacrity
To the beating heart of a matter
Of ideas that begin as declaration
And – over time and distance
Whirlwind into a reality that births continental rift
I have an idea
What if we…
Why don’t we …
You have to…
This is how…
I think of the conjuring of maelstrom
It’s now early that next morning and still
Shapes are being drawn in widening concentrics
And triangulations that will leave no one behind
As long as they can imagine fast and furious to that finish line
That only you can yet see
This is how
You have to
If we do this we will
I think of you, Binyavanga
Resplendent in electric coloured kaftan
Rainbow bleached hair
Manfully standing to my defence as your skirts swirled & your voice bellowed
That this one here is our own and I demand that you take more care
I think of an early Nairobi dawn taxi ride
Far out of your way to see me home safe
I think of a London doorstep & a woman
Who stopped in the street to take your hand
To say thank you, you saw me & I felt your gaze
And I heard you call out our name
I think of late evenings under skies at home and abroad
When you gathered us all together
This here is where we find family
Here, talk to this one and see what you will do
Here, go find this one and she will take the next steps with you
Here, bring these ones together and you will see what will happen
I have an idea
What if we
Why don’t we
This is how
I think of you calling me aside
Leaning over to whisper
What if I give this talk in my pink tutu
I really want to wear that skirt
And of shy delight and a twirl
Bare legs and golden shoes
And a challenge delivered to the capacity crowd
To do more and to do better and be bolder and
To do all this together
This is how
What we need is
I think of last attempts at conversation
When words once our powerful arsenal are now so hard to gather together
A loss incremental and relentless
We – those you once gathered to yourself and guided to each other – find we are already beginning to gather the memory of you in anticipation
This is where we found family
And as I receive the news that you are departed
This palace of memories of a brother who dared me
To fly just that much closer to catch the heat of the sun
Cascades and overwhelms
How do we
What should we
If we do it together we could
I think of a journey that snatches you
To be with those who have come before
The mothers and fathers who gave us being
The companions who departed along the way
The ancestors who sing your name in welcome and say come
From this place we will sit together and watch over
And see what they will do.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Devon, May 2019
Jeffery Renard Allen
Binya once told me that it’s hard to write about place in Africa. If that is true, it’s also true that it is hard to write about a big man, a man made of a thousand feelings and ideas and words.
I first met Binya in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2003 at a writers’ conference where we were both teaching; the only two black faculty members there. The director of the conference told me that Binya was the greatest African prose writer in the English language, a statement that I took as hyperbole. Little did I know.
I quickly learned that Binya was an extraordinary man, in many ways and on many levels. Back then, he was clearly trying to figure out some things about himself as a writer and an intellectual, but he also had his own mind, the kind of singular and idiosyncratic intellect that we call genius, a word befitting him.
Equally important, he had much to give, and to give to many. Please allow me to speak to what he gave me. Like many African Americans, “Africa” was little more than a romantic abstraction for me. Fair to say that Binya was kind enough to serve as my guide to the continent and to the literature of the continent, a generosity of spirit that made it clear to me that I had to spend as much time as I could on the continent. Of course, I often found my travels overwhelming and developed many bone-headed ideas, but over the years Binya always found a way to dispel me of these ideas, and he would always do so in a way that was somehow both matter-of fact and gentle.
On a larger scale, Binya lived a life testifying to the fact that a writer can indeed be a Renaissance man. Given his charisma, his energy, the time he spent being a teacher and a traveller and a curious social gadfly, and given that he was always in-demand, I often wondered how Binya found time to do the work, to sit down and write and write well and with distinction. He found a way.
I often teach my writing students a section from One Day I Will Write About This Place where Binya talks about discovering the word “water.” These pages blow my mind each time I read them, and my students have the same reaction. Why? I think it’s because these pages speak to the way that a writer must live in language to find himself in language. Often when Binya talked to me about a book project, he would say, “I’ve found the voice for this book.” Finding a voice is never an easy matter, but Binya made it look otherwise.
In closing, please allow me to tell you about the time I saw Binya and spent time with him, which was in Johannesburg two years ago. We spent time together on three separate occasions. On the most memorable day, our writer friend Niq Mhlongo gave us a tour of Soweto. At one point, we took some refreshments at Orlando Towers. There were four of us present, enjoying one another’s company, but Binya was the only one among us who had the courage to bungee jump from the top of the towers. He did so in an ankle-length dress, nylon socks, and leather shoes.
Later, Binya and I walked along Vilakazi Street, dropping into some of the shops, looking for things to buy. Anyone who knew Binya knew he had his own sense of style. So it was that we went into a little clothing and accessories shop, where a few items caught his eye. He gave me his purse to hold while he stood before a mirror and tried on a necklace fitted with an amulet that was pure Binya—big, audacious, and proudly African. He wore the amulet the next night when we had dinner at a restaurant in Maboneng, just he and I. We didn’t speak much, simply enjoyed a great meal of finely cut and cooked meat. I remember the way he would lean back in his chair from time to time and push his chest out, putting the amulet on display.
Dinner done, we got into a car on our way to a play at The Market Theater. I’m filled with regret now because, sleepy and full, I decided not to go to the play. In front of the theater, Binya exited the car. That was the last time I saw him.
Last October, I reached out to him. We exchanged a few texts, where he told me, among other things, that he wanted to come to America and do a PhD in African Literature: an exciting possibility.
We chatted about that some, then, shifting gears, I told him, “Please take care of yourself.”
He promised me that he would. I told him that I love him, and he wrote back, I love you too. These were our last words. But the conversation continues.
I have a thousand feelings for this man, Binyavanga Wainaina, so what I give you now is only a start. Someday I will write about him. For now, please allow me to speak directly to my friend, my comrade, my fellow worker of the Word, my brother.
Binya, I love you and I salute you.
Until we meet again…
I hosted a show with this giant, at the Univesity of Transkei’s Community Radio, UCRFM. I had always known Ken from a distance. You see, it is easier for me to call him by his middle name, because that makes him easier to handle in my memory, whereas Binyavanga is an African giant that I truly have no right to call my mate. Imagine calling Ngugi your buddy.
Even as we hosted the show, around 1996-97, I knew he was no average UCRFM DJ. He was quite comfortable talking about everything. All I needed to do was just point our conversation in a direction, and watch him carry it in such a graceful, professorial manner. Outside of our show, Ken was your average Umtata student, with a bag across his back, baggy jeans and dreadlocks, looking for fun, and I enjoyed drinking beer with him. He was a popular guy, he was funny, and received humour very well. I knew he liked writing, he talked about it a lot. Even used it once as an excuse not to give me woman advice when I had made a mess of it. “Me, I decided enough with girls. If I want to write and finish my writing, I need to focus.”
I was to learn close to two decades later that “One Day I Will Write About This Place” was the excuse he gave me.
Very decent excuse, I forgave him.
You’ve left your mark, mate, you’ve taught us to look at ourselves, love our continent more, and have left us not only the literary work you wrote, but the thousands of pages that you have inspired young writers to produce. Go Well Binya.
Poet. Lunatic. Lover.
These three – to represent hope, faith, and love, represent what Binyavanga Wainaina was to me. Everyone has a story about meeting, talking with, seeing, or reading some of his books or stories of his life, especially in the last couple of years. The truth is that everyone has a story about Binyavanga, a memory, an impression, touch or experience. All honest. All true. All down to earth. Like many of you, I too, have a story about Binyavanga. A great sinner once said: the only thing we go with after dying are relationships. I am glad this is true of so many out there and myself when it comes to Binyavanga.
A poet is a man who sees beneath the surface of things, seeing what others do not see–the ‘other.’ Poets help us hope that despite everything around us, we are more than just humans–we are persons, beings, vulnerable, hurt, happy.
Lunatics are the ones who take the extra step, with faith, into the great beyond. They leap into deeper waters–where it is much safer. They give up all for the greater goal. They are the radicals, the truth-sayers, the saints, the sinners, the mad men.
And finally, the lover is the one who gives their all, their lives, their experiences to others, to self, to something good, a greater good for humanity.
Binyavanga Wainaina. Poet. Lunatic. Lover.
My name is John Ryle. I teach at Bard College in New York, where Binyavanga also taught. I was Binya’s colleague for four years between 2009 and 2012, while he was Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for Writers and Artists at Bard.
I’d met him earlier – first remotely, and then face to face, on a cold winter’s night in upstate New York. Binya arrived in a blizzard, wearing a dark overcoat which he opened to reveal an electric blue suit and multi-coloured wax print shirt, clearly tailor-made. And shoes of red and green leather. Bright red shoes. In the snow! Like a cardinal bird.
Brightness and colour accompanied Binya wherever he went. With him words and thoughts and clothes were polychromatic. He seemed to carry with him the light of his home continent.
Before I met him, I’d already felt his influence. The season of literary fruitfulness in Kenya in the early 2000s was like the coming of the rain. And Binya, of course, was a prime mover. Sometime in 2003 I picked up a copy of the first issue of Kwani? in the Prestige Bookshop in Mama Ngina Street. Opening this strange-looking book I realised it was a magazine with a contents list of extraordinary writers from Kenya and elsewhere, most of whom I had not heard of. I had an electric sense of excitement and anticipation.
Binya came to Bard in 2009, six years later. And the sense of excitement was still there, maybe greater. It never diminished. I read One Day I Will Write About This Place, his coming-of-age memoir, in manuscript. And I knew that we had a star in our midst.
Bard College was no stranger to African writers, before or since. Chinua Achebe had taught there since 1990. And it was the Center established in his name by Jesse Shipley, a Bard professor, that Binya came to run. Since that time Nuruddin Farah, Teju Cole and Dinaw Mengestu have made their mark on Bard. But it was Binya’s sojourn that set the tone for engagement with the new era of writing in Africa, the continent-wide phenomenon that he helped kick-start. The students who flocked to spend time with him had to tolerate erratic time-keeping and frequent changes in the syllabus. But their reward was a close encounter with a kind of genius.
Binya returned to live in Africa in 2012. It was a time of difficulty for him, with the death of his father and his own health problems. And the death from AIDS of his young friend and protege, Kalota. Binya’s response to this time of tribulation was a reinvention of his public persona – now with blue lightning in his hair – an open recognition of his own nature that reverberated throughout the continent.
Binya’s coming-out was like a controlled explosion, startling even his closest friends. Many have lived gay lives in Africa, but outside South Africa only Binyavanga stood up and told it straight, braving homophobia and legal jeopardy alike. He opened the way for people across the continent to recognise and defend their right to be themselves. This is something that can’t be rolled back, whatever the Supreme Court of Kenya has decided.
America – most of America – is an easier place to be gay. And a more comfortable place to be a writer. But Binya chose to come home and stand his ground in Africa – as a writer and as a person.
I am lucky to have known him. My colleagues at Bard, past and present, are grieving as I am. Binya is mourned in every continent. His brilliance as a writer, his generous personality, his courageous participation in public life will continue to reverberate in our lives for a very long time.
Binyavanga burst into my life with great force in 2002 after winning the Caine Prize.
He quickly announced his plan to use this win to create something new and long-lasting to everyone he met: a literary journal. I listen to his wide-eyed, rapid fire excitement, secretly disguising the fact that I had no frigging idea what a “literally journal” was.
But that mattered little in the end – resistance to his plan was futile.
Like a magician pulling talent from a magic hat, Binyavanga gathered a growing number of exceptionally talented people, and a period of madly frenetic idea-sharing began over many Sundays in Ali Zaidi’s Loresho garden. It was an indescribably beautiful time. Years later I asked him, “How did you bring so many strangers together like that?”
He shrugged and admitted that he never quite realised, even when he stood in Ali’s kitchen messily creating new dishes like “sushi-ugali“, that he had whipped up a storm and stood in the eye of it.
That was Binyavanga for you.
Sometimes he made me furious – he could be overwhelmingly opinionated. Then… I would stop and breathe in how grateful I was to feel this alive. Binyavanga had arrived and we were about have our ideas about friendships and love seriously challenged. Together we went on a flurry of cerebral expeditions—untangling female hair, peering into African sexuality, attacking rituals and religion, and declaring democracy dead (was it ever alive?) over many, many, many drinks. We fought about everything – after all, he had assembled a group as passionate and opinionated as he himself was. So being together could sometimes hurt – why wouldn’t it? We were imagining new worlds and new ways of being. Stop and consider how it felt to step out of the boxes we had been born into and define the world afresh, as conquerors with so many divergent minds. The world was ours to take.
And for a time, we tried our very best to do just that.
Upon reflection, perhaps each of us was still just trying to figure out who the hell we were and where we were going. And in the journey, each place we gathered in felt like home.
I’ve never had a friend like Binj, and will likely never again.
He stayed with me in my apartment in Kileleshwa on many occasions: time that added up, over the years, into some of the most colourful months of my life. That apartment—painted yellow green and red with my own hands, complete with palm and footprints!—became a crazily wonderful hotbed of debate and discovery. What a time! It’s a wonder I wasn’t evicted! None of us were married—strange given all our advanced ages—so it was fine. A kind of home for delayed dreamers with fiery but vaguely undefined ambitions to change the world.
It was not unusual for him to rock up at my home and at midnight with plan. One night, he insisted that we drive to River Road after midnight to see what he believed to be the most beautiful street in Nairobi. Another night he insisted I pick him up and bring him back to my place to watch a very dense and incomprehensible (to me at the time) film from Afghanistan he had stumbled upon. “Kenyans need to make movies like this! Like this!”, he declared when the movie ended at nearly 4am. I sleepily agreed to everything just to make it all end. But later, for days and weeks and months later I thought… Wow. What a film.
What impressed him most was when people took what culturally was theirs, and expressed it without sanitizing. He felt we were too heavily influenced by Victorian etiquette and celebrated original stories authored by authentic voices. He set out like an anthropologist, to every corner of the world to experience new philosophies, words, people and cultures. He traversed the earth with a nonchalant ease – home was often wherever he felt alive. He would call from all kinds of places at all kinds of hours—Cameroon, Senegal, up-state New York, Russia—to urgently transmit an insight or urgent idea. Truth be told, sometimes I would hear my phone ring at 2am and groan as I awoke, wondering where he might be calling from this time and what fantastic story I was about to hear.
Life with Binya was not always pretty, but it was always exceedingly deeply felt and lived. I will never, ever know a fraction of the full scope of his life or the magnitude of his friendships, achievements or passions. Mine is just one account out of hundreds of accounts of whom Binyavanga was.
I am but one witness of and participant in his fabulous, intense life.
This continent does not produce many humans like this.
What we do here in Kenya is take big minds, big thinkers big ideas and we squash them into the ground. We ignore and minimize them. We neglect and mock them. The tender-preneurs are king… the visionaries and independent artists are but poor foolish minstrels who should be flogged for their wasteful musings. If Binyavanga was born in Nigeria I believe right now the state would be planning a national funeral for him. But in Kenya, we minimize. “Reputable” broadcasters announce his death by scouring the internet to find the TED talk where he is wearing a tutu and describe his passing using the most derogatory words possible.
Binyavanga was many things: a radical writer and artist, a loving son, brother and uncle, a brilliant thinker, a gay activist, a deep thinker, a philanthropist, a tennis player with bewildering stamina, a demanding, die-hard friend, an enthusiastic dancer… and more.
I had the immense privilege of spending a lot of time with him in the intensely good and vibrant first 12 years after I met him. But also I struggle with the deep shame of not being with him much in the last few years where he suffered so much.
I hope he can forgive me for this. I hope I can forgive myself for this. I loved him deeply and will carry him in my heart and head until the day I die.
I would want more time with Binya; one more beer, one more rant. There is a nagging disquiet that I should have turned up more. After all, there is only a finite number of moments you can share with anyone you care for.
I first met him when he launched his book, One Day I Will Write About This Place. He was a sparkling conversationalist, fascinating us with his ease in making us laugh, with his confidence in answering difficult questions. When I finished reading the book, I wrote to him, saying that the book “made me realize that all the little things that make my life as a Kenyan are worthy of being told and are worthy of being written about.”
I told him that the book made me feel at home with all my senses and feelings. I meant each word.
We would later become friends. He asked me to apply to Chimamanda Adichie’s Farafina Workshop, where he taught us close-reading, a reading habit that stuck and which has immensely improved my writing. Lagos was a second home to him. He moved through its streets as if he was meant to be there. He knew where beer was cheap, where the DJ played the latest Nigerian music. He talked easily to each person he met.
When, as young African writers, we formed Jalada Africa, a Pan-African Writers’ Collective whose purpose was to execute literary projects quickly and efficiently, we were following the same vision that Binyavanga had when he formed Kwani?, which was to create space for us to tell our stories unapologetically. Binyavanga was invested in all our projects, and was never shy in asking us to stretch its contours, to be bold. When we launched our Sex and Afro-futures anthologies, he tweeted, saying that the future was here. He spoke of our themes as being fresh and exciting, and he muscled his way with literary gatekeepers to give us access.
Binyavanga believed in me before I believed in myself. He got the scope of my work, and the questions it asked, without me articulating this to him. He suggested to me books to read, and those that were in his collection, he gave to me. He introduced me to African writers working on themes similar to mine, and in this way I made friends with writers across the continent and the diaspora. He lauded me on social media, calling me a talented writer whose work is achingly beautiful and whose words sang like honey. He said I would be huge. Validation from an elder, as ephemeral as it may seem, is liberating.
He was an empath. In a pub in Johannesburg, perhaps sensing my discomfort that my work was not coming out fast enough, he told me that he only published his stories in his 30s and he never had any gainful employment before that. He looked at me and smiled, when he saw it dawn on me, that my best was yet to come, despite all the years that I felt I had lost.
June, his sister, contacted me to visit him in hospital. I stumbled my way to the ICU section at Aga Khan Hospital, Parklands. It was him on the bed, much thinner, but still having the expressions on his face that were familiar to him. I held his hand and read him How To Write About Africa. He kept frowning as I read, perhaps eager to interrupt and respond, as he was wont to do. When I finished reading, I told him that he was a good man, who had stood by me and us all, and that we were all grateful for this. I told him that I was so lucky to have met him. That the best gift was to be in existence at the same epoch of time as him, and to have learnt from him.
He was uniquely, fiercely talented. A mutual friend of ours, the writer Ed Pavlić, once said to me: “You can give give Binya a beer bottle cap, and he’ll find forty different ways to say something interesting about it.”
That was absolutely true. He was organically incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. He could be wrong at times, like all of us, but never dull or unoriginal. In all of the years I’ve known him—and we first met in 2002, in Nairobi—I’ve never heard him say anything trivial, uninteresting, trite. Being around him always meant finding yourself in the presence of an exceptionally lively, energetic and powerful mind constantly manifesting itself in thoughtful, oft-provocative and paradoxical, invariably interesting, fast-paced sentences. He was writing in his mind in the process of speaking; he was speaking in the process of writing in his mind.
His appetite for life was unquenchable. He was strong-willed, self-confident and assertive, sharply focussed and goal-oriented, hard-edged in standing up for what he felt was right and against what he felt was wrong—but he was also soft-hearted and, as befits any complex mind, full of necessary human doubt. Above all, he was kind—an exceptionally good person, what Jews call a mensch: someone you can always rely on, someone unflinchingly honest and deeply decent, highly principled, fearless—someone who rejoices in others’ happiness, selflessly relishes others’ successes. He was relentless in promoting and praising young African writers whose work he liked. He sent me and others in literary circles in North America a steady stream of his younger peers’ stories, essays and novel excerpts. He…
My god, what a very good man he was, and how strongly I am going to miss him. It is inconceivable that we’ll never hear his voice, his happy laughter. He was a strong force for good in the world, and he was entirely unique, one of a kind. We will never see the likes of him again.
I am writing this with tears in my eyes, but I am also reminding myself that I should be thankful to my life for having met him and been his friend in the first place. From that one afternoon in 2002, in the now-defunct Yaya Centre coffee shop, where the Nairobi-based Australian journalist, the late Betty Caplan, pointed at the large young man a table away and said to me: “This is someone you should meet—he is at the very heart of the new literary community in this country”—and before I could get up to come over to introduce myself and tell him about my thoughts on organizing a literary program in Kenya, he was already rising to his feet and saying, “Is this a literary conversation I’m hearing?”—and through years of joint projects and adventures in Nairobi, in Lamu, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in New York and Montreal.
Grateful to have known him. Grateful to have been his friend. Grateful to have been among the incalculable number of those whose life he touched.
Goodbye and thank you. Peace be with you. All my love to you. I will never forget you.
Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ
Binyavanga was my generation’s conscience, our James Baldwin and Achebe rolled up in one and now he is gone. He passed away after suffering a stroke at a Nairobi Hospital on Tuesday night. I knew he wasn’t doing well, but death?
Chinua Achebe died when he was 83 and Binyavanga was only 48, a number that strikes me hard because we were born one month apart—he still had half of a lifetime to write and agitate for a better world. But even so, the only way I can understand him is as my generation’s Achebe. That is a writer who not only produced seminal work, but also contributed to and shaped the African literary tradition into what it is today. In the sense of their being a before and after Achebe, we now have, tragically, a before and after Binyavanga.
I intentionally emphasize the YA. Saying his name this way forces me to keep my mouth open and breathe out air. BinYA, whom I affectionately called My Pumpkin, advocated for everyone to breathe out full breaths. The kind of breath that reminds you of GOD’s love and the love all around. BinYA exuded love even when he was flaming you on social media. His intensity was grounded in his love and fierce advocacy for love and staunch battle against anything that stood in its way. He fought for love so hard because he knew what a love deferred and a love denied felt like. He was able to see and experience love in words, images, sounds, movement, faces and places. He connected people all over the globe with love as his aim.
During his more cogent moments recently we pondered ways to link people throughout the diaspora. In 2017, he shared the essay he spoke for the first time since his stroke in 2015. I don’t think Binya will mind me sharing his opening words “Ubuntu. South African word meaning people-hood. The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. In Kiswahili, “utu”. It is a Bantu language concept.”
I hope in the midst of our sadness we find a way to dance and smile and write and draw and build and create. Binya would want us to come together and celebrate and discover and find and explore our entire selves with mouths open to breathe out and take in full breaths.
(Pause and then take a long breath out when reading) AHHHHHHHHHHH
Binya, my darling. You came into this world like a hurrycane, from which I will always be shook. I’m sitting here thinking about how full inloving you did life, how full inloving you did friendship, and meaning, and geographies. How full inloving you did language, how you did language to make us all see how we could do language, so full inloving, so new, so urgent, so playful, you did language in ways that made us imagine new worlds, full, full, so full of inloving.
I miss you Binya. I missed you. I have missed you. I will miss you. I am missing you.
I’m sitting here thinking about how your writing always played with tenses, like you somehow knew we would have to reckon with them some day. I’m sitting here, missing you, and reckoning now with the present and the past and the future tense of you.
I will remember you always in the present tense.
We’re standing at a bus stop at 2am. I’m telling you about my work and my fragile understanding of home, and I’m anxious, and you are intense, and you make me question everything. We are in your home in Karen, with Isaac. You are fashioning your latest threads from Senegal and telling me stories. You’ve just taught me how to cook ugali. You are sitting in my installation The Matter of Memory, and listening to my parents talk about home, and you are crying, and you are making me feel home in a way no one else has, and belonging means something different now, something more reachable, more to do with how we choose to live, and to love, and to speak. You taught and you teach and you will teach me that from that day, to this, to all future days.
You Skype me urgently and tell me to research fractals.
You Skype me urgently and tell me to come meet you in New York.
You Skype me urgently and tell me that you are in love.
We dance and drink and gossip at that outdoor bar on River Road. You’re in London to do Hard Talk. You’ve just released The Lost Chapter, and we have dinner, a curry, with Ike Anya, and afterwards we go to that bar and you light a cigarette, but it’s London, and there are rules, and you are breaking them. Do you remember? The manager, he’s furious, and you lean in, and place your hand on his shoulder, cigarette still lit, and cajole him with a story that only you both can hear. Do you remember how his face alters, and he’s mesmerised, and he full belly laughs and forgets all the rules.
You charmed the whole world Binya, and broke all its rules. You gifted us so much. You gave us strength. You are future tense. I love you.
Binya was one of the two most globally recognized literary celebrities we’ve had on campus. He was brilliantly insightful, hilarious, profound and expansive in his understanding, and generous. He liked sitting in the back of your car because he loved being driven; he shared the outrage of tea-partyers when the too-big-to-fail corporations were bailed out. He wrote and wrote and laughed and made friends all over the place and cultivated writers and musicians and artists and mentored in innumerable ways. I first met him when Jesse Shipley brought him on a visit to campus. Binya would give me phenomenal advice about being in the world. Though his time in an official capacity at Bard was short, he merits far more than these few words. Follow this link to a rich biography of this amazing person and his work: http://www.planetbinya.org
I love Binyavanga. I love him with my whole heart. I am grateful for the periods of my life that I shared with him. Over the years Binya taught me a lot about love, about generosity, about courage, about ambition. There were also complicated times that Binya and I shared, and sometimes Binya experienced pain, and that was difficult to watch and be around. I know many of us bled with Binyavanga—he bled with many of us, as well. My heart is aching. I will miss Binyavanga. I love my friend. I love you, Binyavanga. Rest in Peace, brother.
Binya, I miss you and crying isn’t helping. I don’t know who will eulogise me properly. They will try but without you, they will miss so much that I did with you, and because of you. The first time I saw you, 31 years ago, your face was hidden behind a book. Your secret place from where you emerged, ever more frequently as the years went by, to wreak havoc on boiled sukuma minds.
The best trick anyone has ever played on me belongs to you. It was prep time. I was bored, as usual. You whispered me into an empty French room, burst into tears, and told me the Truth. You were Mobutu Sese Seko’s son. Sent to exile to be hidden by the Wainainas from assassins. You suspected they would try poison in the school dining hall. I fell hook, line and sinker. You savoured it for a week with a straight face. It was hilarious and cruel, and believable. I wish you were here for me to remind you, again, of my revenge.
When our first born was born, without my knowing, you were outside the house for eight hours waiting. You protected me, and those you loved fiercely and you needed a lot of protection. The balance was never quite right but it swung from end to end. At the end of your life, it had swung away from you. I am sorry.
You knew you were talented, what a monumental confidence you had in this fact, and the world agreed. You also had other less known but unique talents, like your tongue could touch your nose. You made sushi with Ugali. You were tough and very strong. You mattered the world to me, and to so many others. You made your life matter, and you were a gift. I will miss you for the rest of my life.
I did try in the last several years to express my love, my admiration of you, and just how much your friendship meant to me. I did not do it nearly enough.
In some cases, with close friendships, I feel lucky to have such people in my world. With you, for so many years, you *were* my world. It was a wonderful world. You gave me confidence, and you gave me everything.
I have honestly never felt a connection so profound, so deep, so expansive, and so meaningful, as I did with you. I do not know of a single other person I can call and expect to speak to for at least five hours – about everything, including, especially, punk literature in early 1990s Moscow.
I can’t imagine a world without you. I wasn’t sure I could write a tribute. I’m still not sure I can. I started this short note in the past tense, but as you can see, I can’t even keep that up. You are here. You will be here for a long time. Don’t complain. In my world, I call the shots, and in my world, you live forever in the present tense.
IN MEMORIAM: PICTURES