Reading Binyavanga Wainaina
By Wambui Mwangi
Recently, Binyavanga Wainaina gave a reading from his book in progress The Fallen World of Appearances at the University of Toronto.
He was in Toronto for perhaps a total of 50 hours. He came, he dazzled, he left his mark and he vanished.
In that time, brief as it was, he gave me a chance to reflect on the nature of talent, or gift.
What is it? What is it that makes one person, with roughly equivalent resources of life experiences and of lexical knowledge as any other, able to make the language soar and sing whilst others can barely make it mumble, much less speak?
What makes one person able to compel an out-of-body experience as the reader’s spirit follows the author’s imagination into the world of words? What is it that makes you catch your breath at the particular rhythm of a sentence, at the almost painful accuracy of a description, the poignancy of a phrase, the aptness of a word?
To get specific, what makes Binyavanga Wainaina’s work special, different, unique? I know it is because I feel it is, because the hairs on my forearms stand up and the back of my neck gets chills when I read him, but I wanted to know why this should be so.
I have read Discovering Home several times now, not only because I intend to teach it, but also because I wanted to find out what made this particular work wring my gut, press in on my lungs, cause ripples in my thoughts.
The frankly adoring looks on the faces of my students – and on the faces of many who were not my students-- were not unlike the expression on a puppy’s face when it discovers that you are hiding its very favourite treat somewhere on your person.
Surely people who play entire orchestral arrangements with words should be somehow marked—a vague blue light always shining around them, or a chiming sound preceding their every pronouncement.
Not this absolutely down to earth lovely generous wonderful friend of mine Binyavanga, who has the particular gift of making the person he is speaking to feel extraordinarily special because he focuses all his attention on you.
Not this person who listens more than he speaks and withholds judgement on all.
Where’s his sense of drama, for heaven’s sake? Where’s the goatee that he needs to stroke thoughtfully before making sonorous statements about the world and all the objects and subjects in it?
To put my musings in context, for some months past, the University of Toronto had hosted a much touted, highly expensive and celebrity-riddled series of events called “Writers and Readers in Dialogue: The literature of Africa and its Diaspora.”
Personages such as Tayeb Salih, Caryl Philips, Lynton Kwesi Johnson, Kofi Anyidoho, and so forth arrived in solemn gravitas and departed to even more solemn acclaim.
These famous ones were not giving readings; they were there to talk about themselves and their works.
I was somewhat underwhelmed. Not, I hasten to add, that I doubt their talent, but you see, I had just been reading Binyavanga Wainaina, and let us say that the comparative excitement engendered was heavily tilted in favour of the latter.
His visit was not part of this carefully produced lineup of celebrities—he came after the fact and indeed was only stopping over in Toronto to visit me, but I saw no reason why he also should not have his moment in the spotlight.
He met my friends and colleagues and students. He met people I had never seen before in my life. I was still thinking about the nature of talent, its vagaries and its manifestations. In particular, I was thinking about Binyavanga’s specific talent. It was whilst he was giving his reading that I understood.
Great literature is like a hallucinatory drug, a mind altering substance. I can get just as stoned from Dostoyevsky as from Soyinka; just as intoxicated by Marquez as by Armah.
However, when it comes to Binyavanga’s work, this sameness fails. It is quite different, and it is different in ways quite different from the difference between the others.
For the others draw me into their worlds, their ways of thinking, make me travel to strange places and meet exotic characters in other ages and spaces.
They draw me out, out of myself, out of what I know, out of my world and I follow where guided.
Binyavanga’s work does not do this. Binyavanga’s work draws me inwards, into the hidden spaces of my mind and my memories, into the heart of lightness peopled with characters called Postcolony, into the deep, demanding spaces of my own being.
Binyavanga forces the reader to become a neutron star, an imploded mental mass, immensely dense and unimaginably heavy and drawing inwards, inside, into micro spaces that span a lifetime of relationships and conversations.
I teach at the University of Toronto, and have often thought that my job was not to teach my students what the capital of Burkina Faso is, nor indeed about the Arusha Accord; this is what maps, libraries and the internet are for.
This vision of Africa, found in just about every respectable western publication, is simply nullified by Binyavanga’s work.
I do not say contradicted, nor even negated — that would imply that his work deigned to enter into dialogue with these other narratives.
No, Binyavanga’s work simply transcends them and leaves them in the ashes of their imaginary and ahistorical follies.
Whilst this western hubris may not be true of our venerated and undoubtedly hugely talented set of “internationally recognised” African writers, the wa Thiong’os and Salihs and Armahs and so forth, it is true that we who were not present or at least not present in the fullness of our consciousness in the times and places they write of, tend to visit them.
When I read works by this older generation of African writers, I am a guest of their imaginary, an observer, there to learn about their time and their sensibility.
I am alien to that which they write, even if they are writing about Kinoo, where my people are from, it is not any Kinoo that I have ever experienced, nor can ever hope to, outside of their pages.
So I was quite puzzled, having read Discovering Home to find that this sense of temporary engagement, this guest status, had absconded and was in a word, absent.
In fact, I sort of sat down in Discovering Home, and moved the furniture around. I got comfortable and took off my shoes. I was behaving in my mind as if, well, as if I was in my house.
In Discovering Home, I think I, well, there’s no other way to put it, I discovered home. An intellectual home, I mean, a language and a sensibility and a perception that is perhaps unique to the post-independence Kenyans, a linguistic appreciation that has roots in demanding Nairobi schools and even more demanding Nairobi streets.
So there he was, a friendly figure with a relaxed posture in a huge auditorium, conjuring images and vistas, summoning and dismissing voices and situations, playing my intestines like a harp—and then I got it. Or, his work got me, and then I got it.
An immediacy, a tactility—you can touch Binyavanga’s characters, you can smell his locations, you can feel the texture of the social relationships he brings to life. It is intensely, completely, present in the now.
I am not talking about the time period in which his imagination places us, although that is contemporary enough. If he chose to write a historical novel the work would still as tightly encompass the moment of the present breath, the infinite space between before and after.
I think Binyavanga Wainaina has captured our zeitgeist, our space in history, the spirit of our ideas and our points of reference.
This is Binyavanga’s gift: to present this age, this sensibility, with all its complexity and its global awareness compressed into local contexts, its contradictions, its helpless and chaotic magnitude .
This is the fierce flood that frightens with its clarity and its truth — the declaration of our time. He is the writer of the secrets of our souls.
Wainaina won The Caine Prize for African short stories in 2002. Discovering Home is published by Jovian Books.
Wambui Mwangi is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Canada. She blogs as MadkenyanWoman
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