Somebody has locked themselves in the toilet. The upstairs bathroom is locked and Frank has disappeared with the keys. There is a small riot at the door, as drunk women with smudged lipstick and crooked wigs bang on the door. I have been working here, in Observatory, Cape Town, for 2 years and rarely breached the boundary of my clique.
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Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina is inexhaustible, a public intellectual very much engaged with the literary and political worlds. It is an impressionistic memoir of the mutability of place and language, told in the first-person present so that, as readers, we are taken through his post-colonial childhood by a hyperobservant, sensitive guide.
It moves from his discovery of the power of fiction to college in South Africa, where he started writing in earnest. For a week, writers and editors from across Africa exchanged ideas, shared stories, and generally had a great time.
In the center of it all was Wainaina. On one of those nights, at around 4 AM, I had to crash and begged leave. We needed to leave my Brooklyn house by 9 AM.
They returned in a cab at AM. And he killed it on the panel. Four years later, on a gray April afternoon, I spoke with Wainaina in a coffee shop near Bard, where, not surprisingly, he seemed to know everyone by name.
And what made you choose the first-person present form? It was the first thing I ever published—in a South African newspaper. It won the Caine Prize and so forth. It went like that. So from the beginning the idea was immediacy; I knew when I set out to write this, although it took a long, long time—.
Five, six years of many, many collapses. I wanted to try to write a riskier book. I was feeling a little cramped with all these new expectations—you know, to write a big Africa book that fulfills the Postcolonial Condition and so on … Finding a language for the imagination of childhood occupied me a lot. Ultimately those portions became the heart of the book at some point when some of the wilder sections collapsed under the weight of their ambitions; I had to whittle many down, kill some, and weave other sections back into a rewritten manuscript.
I have enjoyed desecrating it—I can distress the sanctimoniousness that sometimes surrounds it. That feeling of community with other similarly addicted people is very strong. The moment you have been published and recognized for whatever reason, and your name is bandied about around Africa and in writing circles, you end up in certain places.
You end up in London a lot. This has been decided. Somehow you end up in Paris a lot too. And then little other places. Some writers met Africa early. It happened to me as a student in South Africa where I met Ghanaians, Ugandans, and all these professionals. I belonged to a community around them and then developed a sensibility, because, all of a sudden, I would find myself knowing what happened in the Ghanaian election, for instance.
More than anything else, I feel I belong to an African network of writers. I feel a sense of duty and service to it, which has, by a mixture of many things, started to inform my own politics and ideas of myself as a writer. Here are the networks and paths. I really liked her way of creating texture and place. More than the quest for something to write about or the desire to make a scene work, the issue for me was how much I trusted the aesthetic of that breathing nine—year—old person I carried around.
I have an extraordinary memory of my childhood. Like, I can put events and a certain aesthetic wrapping above my left shoulder and look at them, and feel separate from them, but know them enough to write about them.
The challenge is to write my way into that space somehow. That creative voice is part of me more than anything else. Was there any one person or group of people that gave you the go ahead to write what you really wanted to write, how you really wanted to write it?
I had a teacher in primary school called Mr. He was my English teacher briefly, but he was also the music guy. He used to do guitar, piano, which I was terrible at. I did not know that I wanted to be a writer at all.
But I was always writing in my head and that world was always the one I lived in more than any other one. Pursuing that world was the first thing I did when I started writing. You discover more from meeting Ng? You discover how much they were also looking for the same thing as you. As a young writer, you always think, No, they were trying to recreate the Marxist state. Not that they are wacky or dreamy people.
The feeling of kindredness coming from a very quick meeting. That is a beautiful thing and a surprise, too. There were people from Cameroon, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, the Congo, writers from across Africa, and it would go all night because everybody was talking.
You mentioned music; I like how the Congo rumba filters through your book. We all recognized a certain forgotten childhood in that song, a certain distant pain, a distant mood. It was amazing; all of us there were inside that same moment. Part of being in Kenya is being able to place people in some kind of geography in your imagination, though you have no idea what they are saying. Is it a lingua franca? But Sheng itself and its variations have always been insider languages.
Different parts of Nairobi have their Sheng which, as part of its own design, exists partly to lock strangers out. Language is so important to you, and there are so many different language influences on you, how do you decide what to use? What tools do you use? But I say this in the book—and I have written about this quite a bit—there are emotional spaces that you cannot occupy in English in Kenya. I found this really interesting because English has a personality in Nigeria, for example.
A West African thing. In Kenya, on the other hand, partly because of colonial history, the space that English occupies is very separated. English is the language of authority, the language of importance, of going somewhere.
You use it to wield power. We are together in this. In English, class is always present. There are all these places in Kenya where people are negotiating for room for themselves. What you have since the violence in is a visible, tangible, growing language of a kind of ethnic consolidation, among certain tribes in particular. And in not indirect ways, but in Gikuyu now.
It was really popular. It seemed very strange to me. That was extraordinary. The Russian nobility all had French teachers; they all grew up writing in French, and as Napoleon is getting closer and closer to the border, they have to switch over to Russian and—. Russian is for common people. Do you feel bi-country? Do you have a foot in both places? Many African writers have started to feel that England no longer exerts an influence over African writing through its instruments, its institutions.
The publishing houses are no longer there, the postcolonial cultural spaces are mostly dead, as is the Commonwealth. The idea of us as part of a larger cultural movement based in England—as writers whose imaginations were partly governed by events outside of England—was stale. We talk about that a lot. In a way, I ended up in America because there is more room here. The space is more expansive, diverse, and does not feel as brittle and tight-arsed as Europe does sometimes.
Come to America for this series of readings or whatever. We want you to be a visiting writer. As a former colonial nation, its institutions have had real trouble figuring out what to do with you.
Do I feel American? Am I am an American writer? Do I plan to be? That really is valuable and surprising. We are seeing a real, aggressive attack on writing in English by a new generation—a lot of them out of Nigeria, some out of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa—and they not only have their own sensibility, but a new kind of confidence. Many of them are children of new and dynamic megacities like Lagos, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. And since, with this younger group of writers, the biggest thing is a massive network of connected writers producing, creating, starting magazines, starting outlets online and offline, knowing each other.
You start to get the sense of this piling up of power and production, which is now larger than the sum of any parts you can see. That certainly has meant more to writing out of the continent than any other thing. Kenyan readers were reading a lot of Nigerian writers, but online. Print has to die.
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