Everything you need to know about Binyavanga Wainaina’s work, as the Kenyan author dies

Binyavanga Wainaina, one of the most influential figures in Kenyan literature, has died aged 48.

Tom Maliti, the chairman of the Kwani Trust which Wainaina founded, said he passed away on Tuesday night in Nairobi after an illness.

Wainaina will be remembered for his searing satire and moving essays, not to mention the fight for gay rights in Africa which became his life’s work. He won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story Discovering Home. After this, he set up the literary magazine Kwani? to promote work by Kenyan authors.

(Ben Curtis/AP)
(Ben Curtis/AP)

He dabbled in fiction, but will most likely be remembered for his works of non-fiction.

Wainaina was a master of satire, and often used his essays to skewer how the West saw Africa. His most famous one was called How to Write About Africa. In it, he gives a mock guide for how Western writers should portray the continent, showing just how reductive a lot of literature is.

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” it began. “Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.”

With such essays, he showed how lacking Western descriptions of Africa are, and how often they portray the continent as one homogeneous country.

Wainaina’s personal campaign for gay rights in Kenya extended into his writing. He came out publicly in 2014, a bold move considering Kenya criminalises homosexual behaviour (although there’s a long-awaiting ruling on May 24 on whether or not to scrap the laws).

He told the Associated Press in that year: “All people have dignity. There’s nobody who was born without a soul and a spirit. There is nobody who is a beast or an animal, right? Everyone, we, we homosexuals, are people and we need our oxygen to breathe.”

On his 43rd birthday he published an essay called I am a Homosexual, Mum in which he imagines coming out to his mother on her deathbed. It’s a heart-wrenching read, and shows the pain of having to hide your identity to your family because of the stigma – not to mention the laws of the country you’re from. It also shows the release Wainaina felt on imagining this situation, which no doubt resonated with the LGBTQ+ community.

For a look into Wainaina’s life and to experience his deeply personal writing, you can read his memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place.

- Press Association

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