Hope in Small Things: An Interview with the late Binyavanga Wainaina (Tin House)

Author’s note: In 2005, I interviewed a young Kenyan writer named Binyavanga Wainaina. In the following years, he would go on to become an international celebrity, author and provocateur. Wainaina was brilliant, mercurial, deeply funny, and I still think back regularly on things he said. This interview ran in the now-defunct literary magazine Tin House in 2006. When Wainaiana died in 2019 at age 48, I wished everyone could read his words. Now here they are.

Binyavanga Wainaina, interviewed by Frank Bures

A few years ago, Binyavanga Wainaina was sitting in his apartment in the Kenyan megacity of Nairobi, seething. He had been waiting for his story to come out in a small American literary journal, when he realized he’d gotten the dates mixed up, and was in danger of missing the fast approaching deadline for the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, also considered “The African Booker,” the most prestigious literary prize in all of Africa.  When his story did finally come out, the journal printed the wrong version, an earlier draft with numerous mistakes, hardly something he wanted to send in for the prize. 

So he dusted off a piece he’d been working over for several years, a rolling, evocative and poignant travelogue called “Discovering Home” about his return to Kenya after living in South Africa for ten years, and about attending his grandparents sixtieth wedding anniversary in Uganda. 

Three days before the Caine deadline, Wainaina sent the story off to Rod Amis at G21, an online magazine he’d been writing for, and asked him to submit it for the Caine Prize.

Amis ran the piece and sent it in to the judges in the UK. But before long, Wainaina got a note saying they didn’t accept stories from internet journals because they were a serious prize.

“I sent them an irritated letter back,” Wainaina says, “saying ‘Now, if in the last twelve months, not a single collection of African writing–short stories–has been published in Africa, where do you think you’re going to get submissions from?”

They apparently couldn’t come up with a good answer.  After a silence, Wainaina was surprised to see his name on the shortlist.  He was even more surprised when he won.

Wainaina took his winnings and started a literary journal called “Kwani?,” (street Swahili for “So what?”), which has been blazing a new path for Kenyan and African literature ever since.  It’s now in it third edition, and the first two are still being reprinted. Kwani? is now expanding into books, with two scheduled to be published this year, and a TV show featuring writers reading and performing their stories, set to run later this year.

Kwani? Has cause quite a stir.  Wainaina himself launched a volley of salvos when he called the Kenyan intelligentsia  a “mafia of petty ideas” who “churn out endless literary essays, full of jargon and empty of creativity.”  He was singling out the academics and bureaucrats at the Kenya Institute of Education who kept recycling worn out post-colonial themes, like those in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Ole Kulet’s Is It Possible?, and the raft of bad liberation poetry that had come out of Makerere University years ago.  Their time had passed, and they had grown out of touch with the new, young urbanized, internationalized Kenya.  They were, Wainaina wrote,  “the shiny vaseline faces of progress,” who had sucked all the life out of Kenyan literature, and who still clung to their old ways with a vice grip.

Wainaina’s own work, and that of other Kwani? writers, is more concerned with the life on the streets of Nairobi today in all its color and complexity, than with the generals, wars, and occupiers which dominated the literature of the previous generations. In some ways, the Kenyan literary scene is like India’s twenty-five years ago, with Salman Rushdie leading a charge of young, rebellious urban writers out of the post-colonial era.

Wainaina doesn’t claim to be a revolutionary. But he certainly is creating something new and fresh, and helping inject new energy into Kenyan literature, and many young writers in other African countries have been inspired by his fearless writing and publishing. Frank Bures talked to him by phone in Nairobi, where he told us about old-man-ism, the Bling Bling writers and life the vampire state.

Frank Bures: Sounds like things are going well with Kwani?

Binyavanga Wainaina: I think so. It’s been a very busy year. We launched [Kwani? 03] in the UK. That went down very well. Sales are up, which is a good thing.  I’m becoming very commercial-minded these days.  But the readings themselves [in Nairobi] are working very well, and are starting to make an impact.  We have them every two weeks and it’s a full house.  So it looks good.

FB: That’s great. What’s your print run?

BW: For the first print run, we ran about 3000 copies.  We’re just about to enter the third print run for Kwani? 01, and the second for Kwani? 02. We’ve run out of Kwani? 02. 

FB: When you won the Caine Prize, did you already have the idea of starting Kwani?

BW: Well the idea to start Kwani? wasn’t mine. The idea was a woman’s called Wanjiru Kinyanjui, who is very dynamic–she’s a filmmaker and a writer–she said, oh, there is a meeting at this place, and there are workshops and we are doing these kinds of things, and we need to set up a journal. But it never really took off, and no one had any money.  We were all sort of coming off the nineties in Kenya, where doing things always seemed hard. It just seemed like a waste of time.  Nobody had any time. Nothing seemed positive.  But when the Caine Prize happened, it seemed like a lot of things could happen.  So there was a lot of energy galvanized around it.  A lot of people were like, so what are you going to do?  And I had already provoked all the publishers by telling them all they were fuckers and all that. So you paint yourself into a corner. That was sort of how it started.  I had a bit of money, and I just felt I had to dive in and get something done.  Just to make a book that I would love to read, and that’s got us inside it. 

FB: Do you think the bar has been set higher for literature in Kenya now?

BW: I wonder. I don’t know. Within the space called Nairobi–within the urban spaces–you have a generation of people who have a lot more self-confidence about who they are.   And whether or not whatever they are is pure, in those very Africanist terms people like to throw back at us, they are very confidence about expressing who they are. That is a significant shift from the seventies and eighties, where it was more about who do you need to be, who do you want to be?  A lot of the writing was telling people who they should be and what they should do, as opposed to trying to observe and deal with what people were.  So on that front, I think that has enormous implications for how we will express ourselves, and how books, materials, magazines, poems and  the like will be read and subscribed to.  Because I think that’s part of the difference is that people are subscribing to it.  When Kwani? came out, we sold seven hundred copies the first ten days. I couldn’t believe it, but we did.

FB: Some people have credited you personally with starting this Renaissance in Kenya. What do you think of that?

BW: I don’t think there is a Renaissance, really. I think there is activity.  I think there is great activity. It’s become a vibrant space and there is a lot happening.  And there are many reasons for that lot happening.  The first literary explosion I think–and it was an urban one–was the hip-hop movement, and how we put poetry to that and managed to distribute it around to people. We’re really more an offshoot of that excitement.

FB: An offshoot of the hip hop movement?

BW: Well, not so much the hip hop movement, but what people were doing with music. You just had people starting to say, I listen to [rapper] Kitu Sua. Kitu Sua is a poet.  When was the last time you had people saying, this is my sound, this is my time, this is the voice of my era? This person is mine.  I mean, we were brought up with the idea that literature was set books and school books and that sort of thing. It was a dirty word.  So they made the environment possible.  There just seemed to be so many things you could do, and nothing that you could not do.   In the Sunday Standard one guy called us the Bling Bling writers.  He is not happy about our presence.  He says something like we have confused identities and bloated egos. 

FB: And he doesn’t?

BW: No, he doesn’t.  [He says] ethically and morally we are not African and our foreign influences and interests are polluting the minds of the young people of Kenya, and they need to be retrained.  And he suggested that we take example from the spectacular life of a woman called Ursula Bloom, who wrote five hundred and sixty romance novels in her eighty year writing career. 

FB: Is he part of the “mafia of petty ideas?”

BW: Yes.  And there are more of them than you could possibly imagine.  They’re just all over the place.  It’s a very dangerous thing because, on the one hand, you have a whole class of people who, at one point–I wouldn’t actually call him one of them because he is sincere in a sense. But there are many people who are very cynical in how they approach these things, and it is very prevalent in our universities.  There is some incredible work happening within the universities, but it’s despite this very stifling environment, and a lot of old-man-ism, and pompos-ism and professor-ism, and a people who know nothing about his particular moment, but who would go incredible lengths to stop you from doing your PhD. in matatu [Kenyan bus] culture, because that is a wrong thing.  So that kind of thing is rife in Kenya.  The old-man-ism actually is the thing in Kenya that is the primary problem for people our age. Everywhere. In politics you see it–people who are bankrupt of ideas, who as some point, just from a kind of wariness, dedicated themselves to mediocrity.  They are smart people, but they just set a very low bar and hang onto it with their teeth and their nails and their toenails and everything. And they can be incredibly violent in any manner whatsoever, when you try to have any activity or any vibrancy. They are very powerful.

FB: Are they close to dying off?

BW: People in positions like that don’t die.  You find their skeletons clinging on fifty years later.  These people die when they lose power, man. They lose their job and then they die. Otherwise they just don’t die. They’re going to have to be taken out forcibly.  Like safari ants.  When a safari ant bites you, they say to pinch off the body at the neck. They leave their claws in you, but at least you have rendered them nonfunctional for a period of time. [Laughs] They’re not going anywhere.  Like our President. He’s just tottering like a golf ball. But now that he’s in there, man, if he had no limbs, no organs, no nothing, he’s just not going anywhere. 

FB: You mean Mwai Kibaki?

BW: Yeah.

FB: Do you think the new vibrancy coincided with the fall of [President Daniel Arap] Moi?

BW: It coincided with the buildup to the fall of Moi.  The most exciting times, in a sense, were in the 1990s, when people had just decided enough was enough.  It just seemed that all was possible. People were united because they had a common enemy. There was a lot going on. But as it happens with things like literary production, it doesn’t happen while the exciting times are there.  It happens after.  You’re too busy running around, gossiping about the fall of the government.   But what has happened is that leftover feeling is the thing that sort of motors you along.  That’s why I say it’s not a Renaissance.  What has happened is at the beginning there is a sort of shift.  And then that process is going to have it’s nasty periods and it’s great periods.  But the process is irrevocable. 

FB: Well, Kwani? is doing well, so it must be reflecting people’s lives in a way that people weren’t doing before, do you think?

BW: I don’t know. In what way?

FB: Maybe in a way that’s more honest, or more playful, or more relevant.

BW: Well, books have been being published for a long time to satisfy the policemen in the Kenyan Institute of Education, and get in the school set of books. So publishers long, long ago abandoned the idea that they had to impress the reading public.  They were like, fuck, what reading public?  So I just knew, like any Kenyan who loves reading, [what they publish] is going to be boring, edifying things that tell you important things about your life, about being a pure African, and I don’t know who and what nonsense.  And it always assumes that you are a blank space that needs feeding, because you don’t know shit. It’s not conversing with you, it’s not talking with you. It’s talking at you. There are piles of that.  So no, we don’t take ourselves quite that seriously.  The literary critics from the university say we are mixing high and low in an unseemly manner.  “How dare you put academic papers next to cartoons.  Are you mad?”  But they are not joking.  They are serious.  If they could put a burning order, they would put it tomorrow.

FB: We have that to a certain extent here.

BW: It’s the way of the world.  They defend their territory.

FB: Yes, they carve out their little island of ideas that’s theirs and won’t let anyone on it. It will be interesting to see how you find it when you come to the US [Wainaina will be visiting write-in-residence at Union College in the spring of 2006].

BW: Oh, I’m sure I will find it. I know people will defend their territory violently. And I’ve had a few small battles already to know this. But the space is bigger.   So it’s not like you have to be stuck in the same cramped room with them.  It’s like, okay, now I’ve got my space and you can stay in yours.  What has happened in Kenya is that people have an idea that the space is limited. The space actually isn’t limited, because these spaces are never limited.  So the reaction we get from some is that, ‘you’re muscling in on our territory.’ and we’re like, what territory exactly? One guy was like, “You’re shouting too loudly.  You need to be humble like Ursula Bloom, who had fifty operations for bone cancer, because me and my people we are quiet and we do our thing and we are quiet and we enter international peer reviews and whatever.”  And I was like, that’s nice. What has that got to do with me?  I’m just publishing a book, and marketing it aggressively, and having readings. You’re welcome to come or not come.  It’s very simple. I can’t believe how much it’s threatened some people.  And not just older people. Even younger people who are like, “It just must go away. It must go away. It’s wrong.  It’s wrong.  It’s wrong.  I don’t know why it’s wrong, but it has too many cartoons.  Why do you have so many cartoons?”  [laughs] 

FB: You really touched a nerve.

BW: Oh yes, many nerves. 

FB: Well, it can’t be bad publicity.

BW: No, it’s lovely.  That’s what I said in my response.  While you guys are raging on, sales are up. Thank you very much. Just keep it going! And if you need me to add anything as well, I will do it.

FB: Are there a lot of writers in Kenya, who are not being published, who are just writing in their notebooks? 

BW: Oh yeah.  We get over six hundred submissions per issue.  I meet new writers every week.  People submit, they post, they SMS [text message], they phone, they come to our readings.  Books and manuscripts. Piles of manuscripts.  Yeah, there is a lot of that.

FB: What’s the quality like?

BW: Well, bad mostly.  I’d say 70%–no, 50%–is just bad. Just vanity on the page. I’d say 20% is mediocre.  And I’d say maybe 30% is people trying to do interesting things, and that if they were corrected they could go well. And I’d say maybe every six months, I receive something from three or four people that blows my socks off. People I’ve never heard of before, and who’ve never been published before. 

FB: Would you say there is any thread running through the new Kenyan writing?

BW: There are many things.  I think you’ll find that many of the new writers are intolerant of pomposity. You feel you need to puncture it. We are suspicious of easy answers.  We are–we call it–culturally flexible, which means that you’ve made yourself be able to be comfortable in different settings and in different places, because that’s the way the reality is.  You’re less inclined to want to write literature that tells people what to be, and more to write about people and how they are.

FB: There seem to be a lot of good writers coming out of Africa right now, and everybody says there’s more coming. 

BW: Oh yeah, for me there is just no doubt about it.  Already, among Kenyans in the next three years you’re going to see five or six major novels coming out.  I’ve seen some already.  And people are signing deals left, right, and center.

FB: When I was in Tanzania and Kenya, in the nineties it seemed like kind of a graveyard as far as literature went. So this is really exciting.

BW: We’ll see how it goes. Nairobi never ceases to surprise me. I talk to a lot of people who are in their teens and early twenties, and these kids are so sussed out.  They come from a whole other place. So compared to what we are doing now, the stuff that they are going to be doing–we are just the beginning.   I keep having these horrible thoughts that it’s going to be like Perestroika, whereas the guy who started it has just been run over by these trucks full of people and left stranded in Odesa drinking vodka for the rest of his life.

FB:And that’s you.

BW: Yeah. They’re not messing about, these kids. 

FB: I was reading something where you were saying that you come from a generation, not like Mr. Kibaki, where you expect nothing. What did you mean by that?

BW: I mean, I’m sorry to say this, but that generation are a bunch of entitled fucks.  They just can’t get over the fact that they were number one in their little missionary school, and they thought that they were going to inherit the earth. These twenty-eight-year-olds were made presidents and ministers and they thought the world was theirs to manufacture. That idea offends me. And it offends our generation pretty strongly.  So yeah, I expect nothing. That’s not to say that I am cynical or look badly upon the world.  It’s just that good things that come to me come by surprise.  I don’t feel entitled to have anything or inherit anything.   One friend of mine called [post-colonial Kenya] a vampire state.  Basically what these people were doing was just polishing their fangs and just thrusting them into our throats and they’ve been sitting there sucking for the last forty years. And they’re not just sucking money.  They’re sucking ideas, sucking satisfaction, sucking their egos, sucking that feeling of insecurity that they had–that there were white people who were more important than them in the colonial world. They were just sucking, sucking everything from us.

FB: And that is ended now?

BW: That project is dead.  They are still in authority, but essentially all the things that make up how they have managed to hold it have gone. They don’t have control over media any more.  They don’t have control over what we think, what we do, what we say.  They don’t have control over what we are. And their generation is getting old and feeble.  And they must just go.

FB: So is Kwani? the stake in the heart of the vampire state?

BW: It’s not ‘the’ stake. It’s a stake. Like I said, I don’t have big ambitions. If it manages it, well and good.  It’s just that I, like all of my generation, are very wary of clean and easy answers.  Like you just thrust in the stake and the battle is all over and we have beaten authoritarian reign. It’s not going to be like that.  All we are saying is that there’s this possible new way. Check it out.  And we make our small space. And hopefully if 100 million people can be doing their small thing in one way or another, whatever it is, that is how you move forward. You take one small step forward. Then you take another small step forward. There’s no other way. There’s no short cut.

FB: You said in “Discovering Home” that when you came back to Kenya, you found people so way beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness. 

BW: [Laughs]  Yeah.  That was the nineties.  Are we cynical now?  Not in the sense that we don’t think things are not going somewhere.  I don’t think people are not hopeful.  I’ve never thought that. In the nineties, we almost crossed the line.  We almost crossed the line to where you had a critical mass of people saying this is not a viable country and now it’s everybody for himself.  Which has happened elsewhere.  But we didn’t get there.

FB: So no now there is a kind of hope? 

BW: There is not a hope in big things. There is a hope in small things.