How to Write About Africa: Collected Works Shows Binyavanga Wainainas Legacy

Logo The New York TimesThe New York Times
2023-05-29 09:31:12  • 7 mins

Binyavanga Wainaina attacked insulting clichs in the essay, How to Write About Africa, in 2005. In a posthumous collection of the same name, his range as a writer is on display.

The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina was many things in his short, frenetic life: memoirist and roving essayist, trailblazing editor and publisher, agitator and activist.

After winning the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, he used his prize money to finance a new literary journal, Kwani? (So what? in Nairobi slang), helping to promote a generation of Kenyan and African writers. His 2005 essay in the British literary journal Granta, How to Write About Africa, eviscerated timeworn Western tropes about Africa and African writing.

African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life but empty inside, he wrote, adding, Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well-rounded, complex characters.

African literature would never be the same. Wainaina, who died in 2019 at age 48, became an outsize figure on the literary landscape, his omnivorous brilliance matched by ambition and vision on a continental scale. His body of work was influential but slim, overshadowed perhaps by his role as provocateur: In life, he published only one book, a memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, which was well received when it came out in 2011.

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