The award-winning Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, is many things to many people. For some, including myself, he is simply one of the most imaginative and gifted writers at work today. For others, and again I include myself in this list, he is a pan-African cultural hero, an almost folkloric figure with the capacity to not only constantly surprise his readers, but also inspire collective forward motion. This is no small feat.
Binyavanga Wainaina deploys language like small bombs wrapped in exquisite paper. When he published his landmark satirical essay on how (not) to write about Africa, it felt nothing short of a revolutionary act in a literary landscape where so many Western writers and readers felt compelled to view and present Africa as a ‘dark continent’ devoid of creative thinkers and overflowing with disease and chaotic, inexplicable violence. Wainaina has always waged war against cliché, and in doing so has inspired a generation of emerging African writers like myself to create beyond borders policed both by self and others.
When Wainaina came out as a proud gay man a few years ago, he once again pulverized cultural stereotypes in a graceful, elegant way that made headlines around the world. In person, Wainaina carries himself with confidence, humility and a sense of cheeky joie de vivre.
I first met Wainaina in the summer of 2012, at a pub in Notting Hill, London, and over the course of several hours we drank, ate, smoked, talked and laughed. Wainaina is a connoisseur of crisp bon mots and we cracked jokes about everything. Separated by geography, we didn’t see each other again for another two years until a few weeks ago when he was back in London, where I live, for work purposes.
During his brief time in the city we decided to do a video interview, which would be filmed by the acclaimed Iranian director and photographer, Bahareh Hosseini. On an unusually warm October weekend we all convened in a small film studio in Clapham, South London. Wainaina, who was exhausted from his other work engagements, was a wonderful sport, and we drank, ate and talked for hours in front of the camera. The resulting short film is a portrait of two gay African writers being as honest and vulnerable as the camera allowed.
After we wrapped up the shoot and Wainaina left the studio, my lasting impression of him was someone incredibly kind-hearted and fun. And this is really the image we wanted to capture. Binyavanga Wainaina may be a cultural phenomenon but he sees the world through a playful lens – albeit one spiked with a rigorous moral and intellectual power.
I hope you enjoy our filmed conversation and witness the generosity of spirit that makes this man so special.
Directed and edited by BAHAREH HOSSEINI.
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA is illustrated by DIRIYE OSMAN.