Kenyan writer, publisher and Caine Prize winner, Binyavanga Wainaina, talks about the prize, literature in Africa and his love for Nigerian food including moin-moin and point and kill.
KENYAN writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, was among the foreign guests that participated at the maiden Ake Arts and Book Festival held last year in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
That trip, however, was not his first to Nigeria as he had been here several times previously. He has facilitated editions of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop organised by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and sponsored by Nigerian Breweries; he has also been in town for other literary engagements.
He promptly obliged when approached for a chat.
One day I will write about this place
Wainaina, at just 42, has already written his memoirs titled ‘One Day I will Write About This Place’. The work was published in 2011 but isn’t it a bit too early for him to write his memoirs?
There is nothing strange or false in the memoirs, assures the 2002 Caine Prize winner. “Everything is true,” he reiterates. “People mistake memoir for autobiography but they are not the same thing. In a memoir, you are free to have things that are truthful to your imagination; what were you thinking about, what were you dreaming about, what were you feeling. So, there is nothing fictional in the book”
Asked why it took him more than five years to write and publish the memoir though he had become famous much earlier, the founding editor of Kwani? a Kenyan publishing firm explains that: “Because I came back and had to set up an institution and that institution was a bitch to build. You are publishing new people, you are learning how to print, you are doing fund raisings, and you are working with all kinds of talented writers; that occupied a good five years of doing nothing which I enjoyed very much.
“Besides, I feel we really don’t have the luxury of saying I just want to be a writer alone. There are good platforms, internet and everything else to grow the way quality works are produced and distributed around the continent and I think it’s the job of everyone to do it. The musicians have done it, the comedians have done it and it’s time for the writers to stop complaining about publishers and do something.
“So, if it takes me seven years to produce my memoir and I leave an institution that’s growing, that’s a service. That’s an essential service to grow our readership. They say there is over 70million new middle class in Africa in the last 10 years. Who is producing for them? Go and build your industry! No one else is going to build it for us.”
Bohemian like most creative people, the Kenyan is not too happy with the way young writers are obsessing about the Caine Prize and why they are always commenting on it. But could it be that his apathetic attitude to the coveted prize is due to the fact that he had won it in the past?
His response: “I had been an active writer for seven years before I won the Caine Prize, and a fairly well known one. I think it’s very important for us Africans to have some pride; don’t go and pick a prize that is given out in London and imagine it’s the beginning, middle and the end. Young writers, Africans going on twitter to obsess about the Caine Prize as if it occupies so much African territory! I’m very proud to have won the Caine Prize but it has not occupied much of my work and imagination, and it should not. People should stop obsessing on twitter and start their own prizes. That’s my challenge to this generation I don’t think it’s a good thing to obsess about the prize. The Caine Prize is not the golden stool of the Asanti Kingdom.”
Having been involved in mentoring students across Africa, the director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, US is happy with the blossoming of talents on the continent.
“There is unbelievable talent around,” he declares happily. “There is more talent than has ever been in the life cycle of writing. And the younger ones are getting better and aggressive.
They are really good. I meet them all the time. They are starting to scare us. They are coming for us and that’s good. That’s the way it should be.
“I stopped. Food journalism became a very competitive thing for me; it’s something that demanded a certain kind of attention which I didn’t have anymore because I really wanted to grow my career. So when I am taking my pension-if ever I get one, I will start collecting again. But I enjoy Nigerian food. Moin-moin is my favourite African dish. I love it. I love many things but moin-moin is my number one.
“The flavour is perfect. It’s kind of spicy, I like the fishes tucked inside it; the use of black eyed-peas, just the texture. The flavour is healthy; it’s just perfect food. I love many things in Nigeria but that’s one. ‘Point and kill’, I love as well. I love ogbono soup; maybe some of the swallows are a bit hard but the porridges, I love all of them. There are very few things in Nigeria to eat that I don’t love so far and I still want to discover many.”