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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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.