While doing a search for Indian-African fiction last week, I found the blog, Africa is a Country, and I immediately bookmarked it because of its geographically accurate blog title. It turns out Africa is in fact still a continent. On the bright side, most of the posts on the blog are about famine, Barack Obama, and Bono. Unless I misread their twitter bio.
This morning, I’m drinking spicy Mexican hot chocolate (thanks, Sona!), while my 3 year-old daughter decides to climb onto my shoulders and make monkey sounds (thanks, Kavya!). A link flashes up on my iphone’s twitter feed. No hashag. “I am a homosexual, Mum,” by Binyavanga Wainaina. As I begin reading, I’m immediately struck by the power of his words. It leaves me gobsmacked. After several hours of thinking about the haunting lyricism and the loneliness of his prose, all I can think of to describe the piece are a series of clichés: Heartbreaking, Beautiful. Powerful. Moving.
It’s difficult to categorize what this even is, aside from being a lost chapter from Binyavanga’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, which came out in 2011. It’s a letter to his mother. But it isn’t. It’s a coming out essay. And it isn’t.
It’s made even more heartbreaking, amidst the news of Nigeria’s persecution of homosexuals, including a public flogging of a 20 year-old, the lunacy of what’s happening in Uganda, on the heels of India stunning the world by repealing an outdated British colonial law making gay sex a criminal act (again). It’s going to have an obvious impact on the literature coming out of these regions.
I first learned of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing in a Guardian podcast just a few months ago (although it aired in 2011). At around the 9:15 mark, Binyavanga is asked the question of whether he intentionally kept the political situations out of the central thrust of the narrative, and his response made me want to stand up and clap. I was listening to it on my iphone on a NYC subway, so it probably wouldn’t have been all that strange. Here’s the exchange:
“There’s a whole lot of politics in the book. There’s the death of Kenyatta, there’s the rise of Moi, the fall of apartheid, there’s massacres in Rwanda, but they’re all off stage, always glimpsed on tv somewhere else. Did you want to keep this very much focused on the personal?”
“Yes. If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak, people have language and people have priorities . . . presidents come, they go. But I was just trying to have sex in South Africa at 18. As was everybody who was 18 in South Africa. They were not sitting around beating their chests about apartheid.”
There’s a satirical essay he wrote in Granta back in 2005, which is thankfully on Granta.com: How To Write About Africa, that could just as easily be written about any place or people exoticized and systematically othered.
It starts off with:
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.”
And it only gets better from there.