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Binyavanga, set the local literary scene ablaze

By Mbugua Ngunjiri | May 25th 2019 | 5 min read
The late Binyavanga Wainaina.

When Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Discovering Home, in 2002, Sunday Standard was running a throbbing literary platform on which he was a regular guest writer.

Being the only game in town then, the hottest literary debates found home in the newspaper, with Barrack Muluka leading the pack with his weekly column. Yours truly was a junior sub-editor here.

Then, an ambitious gardener with an obvious literary gift by the name Stanley Gazemba, penned his first novel titled the Stone Hills of Maragoli. Naturally, the book had to be reviewed in the famed literary forum and the task fell on a young reporter, fresh from college, one Kenneth Kwama.

Kwama did not hold back in his review and the editors loved it; he wrote what was on his mind.

That was before the storm broke.

Soon, a very harshly-worded rejoinder landed on our desk. The author was not happy with the review Kwama had penned and subjected the young reporter to a thorough tongue lashing. He stopped short of calling our reporter incompetent.

The man was Binyavanga Wainaina. Apparently, he had been part of the midwifing process for Gazemba’s book. Understandably, he was not happy to see the product of his sweat being mercilessly shredded in the literary forum.

So, who was this arrogant guy? No one had heard about the name Binyavanga before this. So he had won a prize no one had heard of before. Well, guys at our desk could not take Binyavanga’s ‘insolence’ lying down. We decided to give Kwama a right of reply and put this uppity Binyavanga in his place. Another person who unleashed a stinging missile directed at Binyavanga was Ng’ang’a Mbugua, currently the managing editor of Business Daily, and an award-winning author. 

Ng’ang’a then was a sub-editor at The Standard. In his piece, he kept asking, “What is this man (Binyavanga) all about?”

Strange name

Well, Kenya was soon to discover who this burly man with dreadlocks was all about. Let me correct that, the whole of Africa, and indeed the world, was about to feel the punch that was packed in Binyavanga’s unforgiving pen.

The man with the strange first name soon announced that he would use the prize money – for the Caine Award – to establish a writers’ movement, which he named Kwani?

Who does that? Couldn’t he just blow the money on good living and peacefully disappear into the horizon? Not Binya, as his friends called him. He was about to administer shock therapy on the comatose Kenyan writing scene, which was still hungover on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s writing. 

Then came the first edition of Kwani? Journal, which was like a cat thrown among pigeons. It sent much of the old school literary types into a spin. How dare Binya and his band of ‘ungrateful’ followers publish sheng in a literary journal?

Blasphemy! Shouted the literature professors in our universities. Sheng is a bastard language guilty of watering down proper languages like English and Kiswahili. What was worse, Binya was taking his blasphemous gospel to the slums of Dandora, Kibera and Mathare, where weed-smoking artistes were the headline acts.

Well, those who overcame the initial shock of reading sheng in a literary journal and one that was not written by proper university scholars soon realised that there was a formula to Kwani?’s madness. It was just that the medium had changed, but the stories packed all the desired literary qualities.

This was a refreshing type of writing that dispensed with the rules and encouraged the writers to have fun while writing.

A hilarious example of Kwani?’s disregard for established order manifested itself when during a prize-giving day of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, Binyavanga’s sister June Wanjiru was invited to the podium to recite a poem. I still treasure the look on the faces of invited guests, who included the cream of Kenya’s publishing, when she announced the title of her poem: ‘Mindfuck’.

Kwani? was in your face like that.

When the literary professors (Egara Kabaji dismissively called Kwaninites ‘literary gansters’) were cursing under their breaths, donors were loving the new revolutionary project. The Ford Foundation voted with their wallets and decided to generously bankroll the activities of Kwani?

Soon, everyone was envying this band of literary outlaws, with Binya as their high priest. Before long, they were flying to the capitals of the world, where everyone was taking note of what they were doing.

They even organised the annual Kwani? Litfest, which used to be held in the exotic location of Lamu, where world-famous literary figures would be invited over.

Even his harshest critics came to agree that the tireless Binyavanga had brought a revolution to Kenyan writing. Detractors secretly hoped for the time Kwani? would run out of steam and fizzle out altogether.

Growing influence

They were in for a surprise; another of Binya’s disciples, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, won the Caine Prize with her short story, Weight of Whispers. And to prove that it was not a fluke, Adhiambo went on to write the highly-acclaimed Dust and the recently launched, The Dragonfly Sea.

Many more writers owe their literary fortunes to Binya and Kwani?

Kwani? was in the same league with South Africa’s Chimurenga and Nigeria’s Cassava Republic, new outfits that were revolutionising writing in Africa.

Perhaps wary of Binyavanga’s growing influence, some donor busybodies decided to push him into the periphery, hoping to control and bring order to it. With new ‘formal structures’ in place and the old madness gone, the fire died down and Kwani? became boring; churning out bland write-ups no one found joy in.

Shorn off Kwani? Binyavanga became exposed, like a duck out of water. Try as he could, Binya could not recreate the old magic he had invented with Kwani?

A friend on Facebook, while mourning Binya wrote that the man had lived two lifetimes in his 48 years. Such was his monumental achievements.

Binyavanga was an iconoclast like the other literary ‘madman’ from Zimbabwe, Dambudzo Marechera, who died at the age of 38, but had managed to light blazing fires in the southern African literary scene. 

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