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Binyavanga Wainaina on coming out: “This is not going to be very good for my love life”

The fearless Kenyan writer talks about the “lost” coming-out chapter from his memoir and the response in Africa and elsewhere.

Binyavanga Wainaina: “I didn’t want to come out in the New Yorker; it just felt wrong. It needed an African conversation”. (Photo: Phil Moore/Guardian)

The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina walks into the lecture room at the London School of Economics wearing a fluorescent yellow suit and a turquoise V-neck, eating a toastie from Pret A Manger. He washes it down with a coffee, standing by the lectern as the room fills up with students, journalists and admirers clutching his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, which is on sale by the door.

Without speaking, he has already broken the silence. “He’s so eccentric,” says Vincent, a programme-maker sitting on my right, who wants to interview Wainaina for Kenyan television. “He just doesn’t give a shit.”

On 18 January, his 43rd birthday, Wainaina published a “lost chapter” from his memoir – a short confessional essay entitled “I am a homosexual, Mum”. The piece reimagined the scene at his mother’s deathbed in Nairobi, where the writer whispered a truth about himself known “since I was five” into her ear.

Earlier, on 13 January, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria had quietly approved a law banning same-sex relationships, criminalising gay rights organisations and mandating 14-year prison sentences for those suspected of “homosexual acts”. On 24 February, Uganda followed suit. In reality, Wainaina didn’t tell his mother anything before she died. Visa troubles kept him stuck in South Africa, where he had been a student. Instead, he has decided to have the conversation now, through his writing – which is to say, in public. “This is not going to be very good for my love life,” says Wainaina, smoothing the thin blade of dyed blue hair on his head. “The small spaces will be relatively constricted for a while.”

Wainaina speaks animatedly on whatever subject springs to mind. He ranges widely and cracks jokes, becoming most serious when talking about tenses, verbs and literary style (he taught creative writing at Bard College in New York for nearly a decade before returning to Nairobi in 2013).

He had decided to make some kind of announcement nine months ago “but couldn’t find the right language for it”, he says. “I knew I didn’t want to come out in the New Yorker; it just felt wrong. It needed an African conversation.”

In the end, the chapter was published on the website Africa Is A Country, an intellectual platform for blogs that are “not about famine, Bono or Barack Obama”, but are often inspired by the satirical mode Wainaina pioneered in his 2005 essay “How to Write About Africa”.The piece went viral.

It was not only the “crazy laws” that provoked him to come out, but also his father’s death following a stroke in 2011 (Wainaina, too, has suffered a series of minor strokes recently that led to a brain angioplasty) and the deaths of two friends, both from Aids.

“One died in a sense just because he was too ashamed to tell anyone. He said he had throat cancer. This guy had worked as an Aids awareness counsellor with sex workers, but shame cannot be accounted for. It’s not an NGO project.”

After a reading from the next “lost” chapter, a woman at the back raises her hand to ask if homosexual persecution is not a contrivance used by men to claim asylum in the west. The crowd inhales sharply, but Wainaina laughs. “You could always do child soldier,” he says. “It’s very successful.”

Brushing the question aside, he is keen to stress that the reaction he has received has been mostly positive.

“My sense, actually, is that there’s some sense of normalisation going on after the Eighties and Nineties. It’s not toxic to say that things are shit any more. I felt that people were ready to have these conversations, and that’s been my experience.”

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.