26
Wed, Jun
6 New Articles

“I’M A HOMOSEXUAL, MUM”: BINYAVANGA WAINAINA (1971-2019)

General News

Binyavanga Wainaina, one of Africa’s best-known authors and gay rights activists, has died. The Kenyan author died on Tuesday night in Nairobi at the age of 48 after a short illness.

Binyavanga Wainaina, one of Africa’s best-known authors and gay rights activists, has died. The Kenyan author died on Tuesday night in Nairobi at the age of 48 after a short illness.

His death was confirmed by Tom Maliti, chairman of the Kwani Trust, which the author founded.

Wainaina was born in the booming Rift Valley, one of Kenya’s then eight provinces. Following his education at the University of Transkei in South Africa and the University of East Anglia in England, he worked in South Africa for a few years as a freelance food and travel writer.

He was the founding editor of Kwani?, the first literary magazine in East Africa since the legendary Transition, founded in the 1960s. Kwani, a Swahili expression which means “so what?” launched in 2003, and has since become an important source of new writing from Africa.

He was given an award in 2003 by the Kenya Publishers’ Association, recognising his contribution to the country’s literature. Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa”, published in Granta magazine in 2006, introduced him to the world. He subsequently wrote for everyone from the East African, National Geographic and the Sunday Times of South Africa to Granta, the New York Times, Chimurenga and the Guardian (UK).

Coming out

In 2014 Wainaina made headlines around the world when he disclosed publicly through a short essay, published to mark his 43rd birthday, that he was gay. The activist described his “coming out” essay as the “lost chapter” of his 2011 memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

He came out during a period when Kenya was intensifying its official and everyday homophobic language, while its neighbour Uganda had its parliament introduce a death penalty bill for certain homosexual acts and Nigeria criminalised any same-sex relationships or the promotion of homosexuality.

The lost chapter “I Am a Homosexual, Mum” was written as a blog for the influential literary magazine that he co-founded in Nairobi, and was quickly republished internationally. The chapter reimagines scenarios in which the writer tells his mother on her deathbed, 13 years earlier, that he is gay, and sets them against what actually happened, which was that he had been stuck in South Africa and arrived too late to tell her anything at all.

“Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear,” he wrote.

In an interview with the Guardian, the writer explained his decision finally to complete his essay and publish it at dawn the night before a gay friend’s funeral. He said he made the decision because of his friend’s ironic inability to come out as a homosexual and explain the cause of the ailment from which he was suffering to his family, even though he worked for an NGO counselling people about the importance of being open about health issues.

Trashing clichés