A Tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina

03 Jun 2019
A Tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina

PEN SA is saddened by the loss of Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina, who died on 21 May 2019 at the age of 48 following a stroke. Simultaneously, we are emboldened by the legacy he has left as a proudly African writer, thinker and activist.

He contributed creative and practical energies toward curating and cultivating burgeoning talent on the continent through Kwani?, shortly after the critical acclaim of ‘Discovering Home’, won the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa in 2002, and provided an increasingly global platform for African voices.

Wainaina offered a critical voice for African literature and culture, satirising – in ‘How to Write About Africa,’  one of the most influential cultural essays of this oeuvre – the stereotypical portrayals of the continent that pandered to international audiences. His memoir, One Day I will Write About This Place (2011), preceded Wainaina’s LGBT+ activism that continues to place the personal, critical and cultural in conversation.

In ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum’, an imagined confession to his late mother at her deathbed, Wainana offered a voice that continued to advocate for acceptance of homosexuality on the continent in opposition to increasing anti-gay legislation and public sentiment accruing throughout Africa in 2014. Wainaina persisted in challenging stereotypical portrayals of both Africa and homosexuality throughout the following years, disclosing a positive HIV status in 2016 and the intention to marry his partner in 2018, public acts of love, acceptance and courage.

Wainana’s biography traverses the African, European and North American literary, cultural and public spheres. Having studied in South Africa, working in travel and food writing there, as well as studying in England and writing out of various locations in the US, Wainaina continued to publish critical essays, creative works and journalism throughout an illustrious career.

Wainaina set a standard for discourse on African literature and culture and remains a presence driving conversation on the Continent into our future.

PEN SA members remember Wainaina

“You would meet him for five minutes and feel as though you had known him your whole life because of the way he opened himself up to people, the way he had no filter. It was the best thing about him, but also the worst. Sometimes those around him whom he embraced so generously would not always be well meaning.

Even as I mourn his death, I think of Binyavanga Kenneth Wainaina with love, glad to have known him and been loved by him,” PEN SA professional member, Zukiswa Wanner wrote in a beautiful tribute to her friend titled ‘A life spent rewriting Africa‘ for the Mail & Guardian.

“As Africans – not actually Africans only – the world has lost a very great literary giant. He was one of the very few people I’ve known who was committed to building spaces for other writers,” PEN SA professional member, Niq Mhlongo shared in a warm and humorous conversation with Eusebius McKaiser shortly after Wainaina’s death.