Binyavanga Wainaina

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How to write about Africa – Binyavanga Wainaina

How to write about Africa – Binyavanga Wainaina
Where does one start? This eclectic collection of essays and articles effectively summarises the career of Binyavanga Wainaina. From Kenya to Transkei for education, to South Africa as student and illegal resident, and back to Kenya as a food fundi and journalist where he died aged 48 in 2019.

The book was recommended to me by a history colleague during one of our then regular discussions about Africa being ignored or, more often, being misrepresented by those who claim to know the continent. Binyavanga tells it as it is, often tongue in cheek. This, mainly in four essays, in a section called ‘A continent of satire’. The other section I enjoyed reading was ‘Away in South Africa and England’, three chapters on being an outsider in Cape Town, food, and Cured of England.

Binyavanga was a survivor – finding ways to make the situation work for him, despite all the odds being stacked against him. While his story is unique, there are similarities with many others, most of whom have, or would, not consider putting their experience down on paper.

See what the New York Times says about him.
And read his essay on How to write about Africa on Grant

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Breaking the Mould

Why follow the crowd? I don’t understand authors who insist on writing to formulae. Yes, there is a place for formulaic writing – for those who don’t want to concentrate. I remember as a teenager spending many a Saturday morning in the bath with a Barbara Cartland or Mills and Boon. I knew within an 90mins I’d be finished the book and would have some peace and quiet before the onslaught of family life again. As a younger adult, television programmes such as Poirot and Murder She Wrote, allowed me to get on with other things whilst keeping an eye on what was happening – I knew I was not going to miss a vital clue. But when it comes to reading, I want to break from the mould. I want each page to be a discovery and to challenge my thinking. I like writers who break the mould.

Authors break the mould in different ways. I never know what Doris Lessing’s next book is going to be about and in what style, although it does appear that aspects of feminism are a common theme (no guarantee though). (I don’t read the blurb before buying or starting a book – which makes opening a book to read even more adventurous). Similarly, John Samson has not (yet) written two books in the same genre or style. And then there is Sue Hampton‘s collections of short stories. Robbie Cheadle (and here) is another author who experiments with different styles and genres.

Others break the mould through their experiences or have a message to pass on:
Problems faced by African writers – Binyavanga Wainaina
Heaven’s Rage – Leslie Tate

More recently I heard about John Boyne who has written diverse works such as The History of Loneliness and The house of special purpose as well as children’s books. He’s now on my list (thank goodness he was highly recommended to me – I don’t think the covers would have convinced me).

first published 10 August 2017, updated 2024