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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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.