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« on: February 16, 2014, 10:09:17 AM »

Binyavanga Wainaina interview: coming out in Kenya

When the writer published a lost chapter from his memoir titled 'I am a homosexual, Mum', it caused a sensation – and has placed him at the heart of the African debate on gay rights

Tim Adams

Sunday 16 February 2014

Binyavanga Wainaina made his name with a short and celebrated satire called "How to Write About Africa". It was the perfect anti-primer for any would-be "dark continent correspondent", skewering every cliche under the vast, red, setting savannah sun:

"Always use the words 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title," Wainaina advised, to begin with. "Never," he went on, "have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these…" Critically, he suggested, "Africa is the only continent you can love – take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed…"

Wainaina wrote this piece for Granta magazine in 2005, and it subsequently became a kind of calling card for him, leading indirectly to visiting lectureships in America (he was until recently director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, a post that came with a fine house by a lake in upstate New York) as well as star-turn invites to the global literary festival circuit (he lived for a winter in Hay-on-Wye, while studying for a masters in creative writing, and was anointed Field Marshal of Africa by the self-appointed local "king").

Wainaina provided another answer to his satirical corrective three years ago with an inspired first book, part memoir, part reportage, called One Day I Will Write About This Place. It was a sub-Saharan Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and confirmed Wainaina's voice as one authentic articulation of his complex "Africa rising" generation – often, like him, the sons and daughters of post-independence pioneers, who strove and suffered under cold-war-backed dictatorships – richly playful, combative, highly educated in post-colonial history and not suffering fools, particularly those bearing imposed solutions from the west. It was, I'd say, in this spirit, too, that on his 43rd birthday – 18 January this year – Binyavanga Wainaina wrote and published a lost chapter from his memoir entitled, "I am a homosexual, Mum".

The chapter was written as a blog for the influential literary magazine Kwani? (a Swahili expression meaning "so what?"), which Wainaina co-founded in Nairobi more than a decade ago, and was quickly republished around the world. The chapter imagined scenarios in which the writer told his mother on her deathbed – she died 13 years ago – that he was gay, and set them against what actually happened, which was that he had been stuck in South Africa with visa issues, having not seen his mum for five years, and arrived too late to tell her anything at all.

The piece had all the hallmarks of Wainaina's best writing; it was sharp, intimate, alive to all the Hollywood cliches of that particular well-worked mother-son drama, but it was significant mostly in this instance for its timing. It came out – he came out – at a moment when his country, Kenya, is ratcheting up its official and colloquial homophobic rhetoric. When its neighbour Uganda – his mother's home nation – has had before its parliament a bill introducing the death penalty for some homosexual acts and where a leading gay rights campaigner was not long ago murdered. And at a time when Nigeria – a country Wainaina is in the habit of visiting several times a year – has criminalised any same-sex relationship or its promotion, apparently giving official sanction to the beatings, whippings and stonings of gay men and lesbian women in the fundamentalist Islamic north of the country, and imposing mandatory 10-year jail terms elsewhere. Wainaina's lost chapter, then, was a pointed and deliberately provocative act.

Sitting on his terrace in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, in which slightly crumbling old-colonial bungalows like his are fenced among tropical woodland and scrub, Wainaina is anxious to provide more context for what he wrote. He is a vivid presence, mischievous and considered by turns, a big man, with a voice that ranges from a lifelong smoker's depth to sporadic giggled high notes. His head is shaved at the sides and the hair on top is dyed bright blue and crimson, matching the swirl of his cotton print trousers and the trim of his shirt. He leans forward on a low stool, cigarettes to hand. Friends, including his secretary, Isaac, come and go bearing laptops and coffee and breakfast.

I've asked him to elaborate on his decision to make his very public declaration, and he is unpicking it and its implications in his head.

"The strategy for me was very loose," he says. "I am not a chess player, but I had been thinking about it for months. We were burying a friend's mother on my birthday, and the night before I was determined that I was not going to sleep until the chapter was done."

That imperative had begun for him last year when a young friend, who had been living at his house, and whom he had helped fund through college, died. The man had been gay, and it is Wainaina's understanding that he died from an Aids-related illness, but he had felt unable to admit that even to his closest friends. The family line was that he suffered throat cancer. Wainaina returned home from New York for good in time for the funeral and decided, angry, that he should perhaps do some of his friend's talking for him. The news from Uganda, and then Nigeria, heightened that anger.

"If you are middle-class here, or international enough here, you can pretty much live as you want," he says, of his own circumstance. That was not so easy, though, still, for his young friend, and increasingly impossible for gay men and women in Nigeria and Uganda (and to differing degrees in the 36 other African countries in which homosexuality remains illegal). "It is an irony," he says, "that my friend had worked in the past for an NGO counselling people about the importance of being open about health issues, but he couldn't even tell us he was going through this thing. I thought, 'It is time: I have to write about it.'"

Wainaina had originally pictured a longer, polemical article. He finally found his way of writing it at one in the morning, "when my mind wakes up". He pressed send at 4am, went to sleep, and the following day went to his friend's mother's funeral, got a bit drunk afterwards, and it wasn't until that evening, when somebody said, "Look at all this shit about you on Twitter!" that he fully remembered, "Oh yes, I wrote that thing."

He had decided not to comment further for 48 hours. "I wanted people to digest it a bit," he says, "before I had microphones in my face asking, 'What's the difference between bestiality and homosexuality?'" Partly as a result, the coverage in all the more serious African papers he read was broadly sympathetic, though there was the raft of inevitable antagonistic comment online.

One question, given his apparently open and confessional spirit, has to be: why did it take him so long, why didn't he include the chapter in his memoir to start with?

He's not sure he has an answer. He says he knew he was gay from about five years old, though he might not then have had the language to describe it. The early part of his book is all about his sense of quirky difference from his elder brother and younger sisters. His siblings used to tease him for his daydreaming, for acting weird, for having "lost his marbles" and he rolled those transparent glass taunts around in his head. That sense of being an observer, of being alive in language more than reality, was part of it.

"That feeling was always there," he says now. "In kindergarten, we had this Irish Catholic headmistress called Sister Leonie, and I remember she would tell us, say, to put the crayons in the box. I remember thinking, 'Why is everyone finding this so easy? Why should the crayons be in the box?' It's like I was always not quite sure even how to move in space somehow; I would watch people and then copy them. I found it really hard to walk straight. My brother was always on at me for walking off the pavement. I guess I always expected people to bring me back into line."

He finds retrospective comedy in his book in some of the cultural imports he was obsessed by in the Kenyan living room of his boyhood: Abba, Pam Ewing from Dallas, Grizzly Adams ("It was always scary but comforting adult males with me"), and "the one with the beard in the Bee Gees". He wanted to be Michael Jackson, for the shiny clothes as much as the moonwalking. ("Is there a kind of gay committee that sits down and decides these things that you will be attracted to?") From those camp beginnings, however, he remained celibate – as a homosexual, at least – until he was 33. He got depressed and locked himself in his room for months on end reading novels during disastrous years studying accountancy, to please his father, in South Africa. He found some release from that depression by starting to "scribble fiction" in his mid-20s. Partly, he says, he could not have told his mum he was gay at 30, as he fantasised, because by the time she died he had never touched a man sexually, though he was already, he says, with a laugh, a "quite significant user of internet pornography".

Eventually, 10 years ago, while staying at the house of his oldest friend in London, Wainaina says, "I found this great website, Black Orpheus, hired a hooker, got a massage, quick wank, and that was that." Later he was having a beer with his friend and he told him what had happened. The friend just looked at him. "I said, 'I'm not gay, it was just a bit strange'," he recalls, "and my friend looked at me some more. And I thought, 'Oh, OK' and we carried on drinking. After that," he says, "it was pretty easy." (Though he also admits not calling himself gay until he was 39).

Would it, I ask, be possible for a young Kenyan to make that admission to a friend in Nairobi rather than in London?

"The circumstances clearly differ from person to person," he says. "I can recognise, travelling around the continent, that there is no standard reaction. I know a guy, for example, the most visible effeminate gay man you can imagine, who runs a hair salon and supports his entire family in his village; he openly has his boyfriend, husband, and it is never an issue. I recently met a young man in Mombasa who had been brought up in the most disconnected, remote village. On the last day of primary school his mom brought him a magazine of wedding pictures and it was like, 'Are you the husband or are you the wife?' He told me he pointed to the wife, and his mother said, 'Fine, no problem.' When he went to boarding school, he was completely open about being gay simply on the strength of feeling of his mother's sanction. And, perhaps because of the confident way he carried himself, he said it was never a problem. But then you equally hear of other cases, where people are told, 'Never come home again', or they are found wives and forced to marry."

Talking to Wainaina, just off the plane from London, I'm wary of falling into "how to write about Africa" generalisations. Still, I risk one by noting how on my last working visit to Ghana, in October, I'd been struck by how quickly homophobia seemed to come up in different conversations. Local men, mostly businessmen, worldly in every respect, would apparently feel the need to make some crude gay-bashing comment soon after introductions. Twice I was asked directly, not quite joking, how I could believe sex between men was natural. The implication was that homosexuality was a European import, encouraged by liberals (of whom I seemed to have been identified as the representative), and alien to the African male. It was very far from a representative sample, but why, I wonder of Wainaina, did the subject seem so very raw in African societies now?

He pauses, before giving me a brief lesson in political history. "Partly homophobia is seasonal," he suggests, "particularly with regards to election seasons. And it comes in different packages. Sometimes it is packaged with abortion, for example, what they call a wedge issue, a for or against."

Given the caveat that the cultural history is different in Islamic parts of Africa, Wainaina believes those currents of bigotry are best understood by examining the recent patterns of church-going. "In any forum where people discuss the issues – in the media, or in conversation – you will quickly hear almost the exact wording that has been distributed and disseminated in the churches," he says. "Most importantly, the Pentecostal churches, which have in turn influenced Catholic and Anglican because they are shouting loudest and growing fastest."

That language was no accident. It entered Africa in the late 1980s on the back of the heavily funded right-wing Pentecostal movement, mostly imported from the rapture-obsessed white southern churches of America. "They came in the last days of those dictatorships in the 1980s, and they came with presidential sanction," he says. "From Malawi to Zambia to here to wherever. Those churches talked a lot about obeying your leaders, and about the mortal dangers of decadent influences bringing in abortion and homosexuality." They used the fear and reality of HIV, often pictured as vengeance, to back up their preaching.

In Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria charismatic churches are now everywhere. As in their American heartlands, the more extreme often preach how to remove, among many other demons, the demon of homosexuality from your child. "Their language," Wainaina argues, "has invaded every bit of oxygen here. And because of the Christian church's perceived legitimacy – there are far more Anglicans for example in Nigeria and Uganda than anywhere [which explains Lambeth's continuing self-destruction over gay marriage] – that language attracts politicians."

Nigeria under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who spends a lot of time courting the born-again, has become a case in point. "Listen," Wainaina says, "your nation is being polarised between Islamic militants and Pentecostal reactionaries: what is the single issue they can agree on and unite around? Your economic miracle is stalling, your popularity is tanking, and so in your desperation you create not just an anti-gay law but you blink your eyes to a wave of thuggery, beatings, whippings and everything else. Then you have that shit run on CNN and people suggest that it is part of a programme 'to eradicate western influences', and the beatings are to save young men from themselves."

In Uganda, where President Museveni last month eventually refused to sign his parliament's bill, which would have led to life sentences in jail for gay couples, and the death penalty for HIV-positive gay men having sex, the politics goes back much further. Museveni's published justification for his refusal was that there were better ways than prison of "saving" gay people from an "abnormality" he believed was created by the "random breeding of western societies" or, in women, by "sexual starvation". A century ago, however, it was those western societies, or particularly British colonials and Catholic missionaries, making that argument in reverse. The last ruling monarch of the Buganda people, Kabaka Mwama II, was apparently gay. His "bestial enslavement" of 23 young courtiers was used to justify his overthrow and the seizing of his territories by colonial forces. Many of those 23 men became Christian converts and martyrs for plotting against the king. They were the first African saints and the unity of Ugandan state and its church were, Wainaina argues, forged from the propaganda of their homosexual suffering.

"That sexual secret has been simmering at the heart of Ugandan identity ever since," he suggests. "It goes very deep." (That long internalised schism perhaps also helps to explain why, in Google's 2013 Zeitgeist survey, Ugandans searched for "homosexuality" more than any other nation on earth; Kenyans were third.)

One of the compelling things about Wainaina's book is that he lived with many of these political shifts in his own family history. Part of his anger with the extreme evangelical church is directed at the pastor who persuaded his mother to stop her treatment for diabetes and put her faith in Jesus for a cure, a decision that contributed to her early death. Her faith was itself, he suggests, a political gesture. She became born again, along with other middle-class friends in Nairobi, at about the time Daniel Arap Moi enforced his brutal dictatorship and destroyed the Kenyan economy in the mid-1980s. "My parents' retirement plans and all they had worked for were suddenly pretty worthless," Wainaina recalls. "When the ground shifts so suddenly like that, your polite Catholic God is no good; you might need a bigger saviour." There is a chapter in Wainaina's book in which his mother takes in a local crippled boy to live with them and be charismatically healed in church. He and the young Wainaina compete awkwardly for her attention for weeks, until the crippled boy eventually, literally, crawls away.

One possibility for a fully paid-up Afropolitan like Wainaina might have been to decamp permanently abroad and to fight those historical battles in newspaper columns and at literary festivals. His decision to come out, though, was the same kind of impulse as his decision last year to return home from his wandering life in America.

Full article: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/16/binyavanga-wainaina-gay-rights-kenya-africa
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