Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
While his memoir was being called one of the best books about Africa ever, Binyavanga Wainaina felt there was something missing — the book left out his love life.
This year, he published what he called a “lost chapter” from that memoir, in which he imagines telling his mother before she dies that he is gay. In part, he writes:
Mum. I will say. Muum? I will say. It grooves so easy, a breath, a noise out of my mouth, mixed up with her breath, and she exhales. My heart gasps sharp and now my mind screams, sharp, so so hurt so so angry.
“I have never thrown my heart at you mum. You have never asked me to.”
Only my mind says. This. Not my mouth. But surely the jerk of my breath and heart, there next to hers, has been registered? Is she letting me in?
Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear.
“I am a homosexual, mum.”
With those words, Wainaina became one of the few public figures in Africa to come out of the closet. And he did it at at time when violence against homosexuality is growing on the continent.
Wainaina speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young from his home in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina's 2011 book about growing up in Kenya, "One Day I Will Write About This Place," is called one of the best about Africa ever. One reviewer called it up a stand-up-and-cheer, coming-of-age memoir. But this coming-of-age memoir was missing his coming out, a chapter that he published just this year at the age of 43.
It is a love letter to his mother, who died, and the words he'd wished he'd said to her: I am a homosexual, Mom. In those words, Binyavanga also told the world at a time when there are laws against homosexuality. In African countries like Nigeria and Uganda, just being homosexual can be fatal. Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina has lived around the world. He was writer in residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, but he's recently returned to Nairobi, where he grow up and where we reached him on Skype to ask him about "The Lost Chapter," the title of his coming-out piece. Binyavanga, welcome.
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Thank you.
YOUNG: What propelled that writing?
WAINAINA: Oh gosh, many things. You know, I decided to come out, and I didn't like what I was writing at all, and so about 2 in the morning, it sort of - I just sort of started to see. So of course it was exciting to write.
YOUNG: Well, it's a conversation with your mother, but what else did you want to tell people about not being able to come out?
WAINAINA: Well, I wrote this thing partly because I came back, and it's not that I'd been away, but I'd been - I call it bipolar for a long time, and I got tired of it. And there's a certain way that being a fairly well-known international guy with, you know, a reasonably decent income who can travel anywhere in the world, it insulated me from the costs of being gay.
The costs are not like you're put to death and destruction for, you know - people party, they laugh, they kiss, who are gay here in Nairobi all the time. So it's not the doom and gloom that the Western media want to think of it, like death on the streets, and...
WAINAINA: But for me it was - I lost a friend. I lost a close friend. He died of AIDS, you know, very young, he was 23. He had been staying in my house, and it just struck home in a certain way that that insulation itself makes it impossible for you to be a citizen, an artist in a certain way. And I wanted to know that I can live here.
I already knew I can because I have all my life, in one way or another, but live here in a closer, more (unintelligible) and slightly more comfortable way. Then of course there was the laws going on in Nigeria and Uganda.
YOUNG: Just a little bit more about, you know, this idea that as you write, you've known you were homosexual since you were five and yet I think you didn't say the word gay until you were 39 and that this kind of keeping this locked in yourself had to have been locking in a certain part of, as I think you just said, had to have been locking in a certain part of your artistry and your writing.
WAINAINA: Sure. I have just been loved, right, all my life in many ways. And I feel that my life has been precious and useful, and I'm very happy about it, and I'm happy about the book, where I hadn't come out, either. But different seasons of your life give different impetus. I want not to be alone. I'm a curious person in many ways, and I want to examine in a more public way what it means to be gay.
I want to write about it. I knew I wanted to write about it as early as five years ago. I was nervous about the language, and so on and so forth.
YOUNG: Well, you know, it's funny because re-reading your stunning book through this new prism, I see you as a child differently, as a five-year-old dressing up in your mother's clothes, you know, with your sister or in school playing a prostitute with a heart of gold. We read the book differently now.
WAINAINA: Yes, I do, too. I mean, like I wasn't maybe mildly conscious of all those sorts of implications then. So that's been interesting and fun.
YOUNG: Well, and it is, and it's - as you said, it's not a child, it's a child exploring.
WAINAINA: Oh quite a lot. Things suddenly get out of your control, and in my sense, the sense of getting out of control now was more feeling, at 40, that I've come at a time that I have to be responsible to a public. That's why I came back home. To do that means being back in the '60s, when, you know, there are all these things to do.
YOUNG: Well as you said, the news from some countries in Africa also gave you an urgency: Nigeria signing the anti-gay bill into law, Uganda's anti-gay bill. You call the Nigerian bill Nazi-like. We're not broad-brushing the whole continent, but there are definitely two countries in which this is a huge, urgent problem.
WAINAINA: Yeah, you know, I always hedge my bets when I'm saying these things because you always kind of feel the surge from America with a white, shining sword to come and fix it, and that's not my politics at all. We fix our own things here, please, just like you do.
WAINAINA: I need to put that in brackets.
YOUNG: Well, I'm going to jump in to say you put it into a provocative article in Granta, how to write about Africa. And that's one of the things you say, that when Westerners write about issues in Africa, it is with the triumphal we are going to save the starving Africans or the persecuted gay Africans or, you know, pick your category.
WAINAINA: Yeah, so I mean, there's all kinds of things going on in the world right now. In Russia there are things going on. The president of Uganda announced that he's going to play with Russia and tell America to go F themselves, and then everyone is talking about homosexuality is a (unintelligible). So these are political things, too. And they're serious things. They are things, you know, in nations that are growing now very fast and changing very rapidly.
I am very happy that there's a constitutional petition, which has a good chance of winning in Uganda for example, and that they are building on one in Nigeria, for example, and that the movement in Uganda in particular is quiet strong, the LGBT movement, right. But we are all here fighting for - like any human being, for not just dignity and not just freedom from being killed. It's to feel as a free spirit in space and time, right, to imagine your own futures. It's just the work that people do. I'm concerned about the death penalty in Texas, too, my dear.
WAINAINA: I mean, I'm concerned about somebody may be beaten and stoned in Uganda. We all are, right. I'm concerned about the fact that women can't walk safely in the streets of Nairobi. I'm interested in the fact that they can, any time of the day and night, in Addis Ababa. There are people being picked up by the United States from Kenya to go places we don't know who are Muslim, right. I'm concerned about them, right.
I'm concerned, too, that these Al-Shabab guys are in my country doing things that we don't know, right. I'm a writer, and I'm a person, and these things are there in front of us, right. So this is just the stuff of life.
YOUNG: Well, Binyavanga Wainaina, what's been the response to "The Lost Chapter"?
WAINAINA: The usual homophobes we are used to make their noises, of course, but I haven't been threatened in any way. The positive response from all manner of Africans is huge. It just continues. It's meant all kinds of conversations. And so for me it's been great. It felt that if I helped move the world around me two millimeters, that's a good result.
YOUNG: Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina. His memoir is "One Day I Will Write About This Place." We'll also link you to his other writings in Granta and "The Lost Chapter." Binyavanga, thank you so much.
WAINAINA: Thank you, thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: Much more to come. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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