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African Writers’ Corner

An interview with Binyavanga Wainaina

Mildred K Barya

2009-06-18, Issue 438

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With this year's Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist now announced, Mildred Kiconco Barya interviews Binyavanga Wainaina, the 2002 winner of the prize. The winner of the 2009 prize will be announced at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 6 July.

Binyavanga Wainaina was born in Nakuru, Kenya, in 1971. His story, 'Discovering Home', won the Caine Prize in 2002. He is the founding editor of Kwani?, a literary magazine, and contributes regularly to South Africa’s leading online newspaper, The Mail & Guardian. He has also written for The East African, National Geographic, The Sunday Times (South Africa), Granta, The New York Times and The Guardian (UK). In 2007, he was writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York. In the autumn of 2008, he was in residence at Williams College where he taught Creative Writing while working on a novel. Currently he is a Bard Fellow and the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Why do you write?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Because I have been reading a book a day since I was six … was addicted to fiction, and I believe fiction is better than the real world.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: At what age did you start writing creatively?


MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What are the thematic concerns in your writing?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I am interested in how human beings find ways to be stable and search for goodness in a chaotic world. How we arrange ourselves and relate to each other fascinates me.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What inspired you to write 'Discovering Home'?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: It started as an email sent to a friend describing a trip to Uganda, then I worked on it as a memorial to my mother after she died.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How did you know about the Caine Prize?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I saw Helon Habila interviewed on Kenyan television.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What was your initial response when you won the Caine Prize?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: When the prize was announced, Wangui wa Goro, a writer and a translator of Ngugi’s work, stood up and started singing a praise song, there in [Oxford's] Bodleian library. I started to cry.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What has been happening or not happening since winning the Caine?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I co-founded Kwani?, and tried to open up opportunities for new writers.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to rewrite your submitted story what would you change?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Everything. I love to rewrite.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How often do you revise or redraft your stories?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Ten, twelve times or more…

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How do you deal with a writer’s rejections?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: These days I don’t feel anything.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Apart from writing, what else do you do and why?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I run the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College, where I am going to start an online master's programme for creative writers. I love creating opportunity for new talent.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Forty years from now where do you see yourself?


MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your best quote?


MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Which five authors do you admire most and why?

i - Kojo Laing, writer of 'Search Sweet Country', the greatest novel to come out of Africa.
ii - Saul Bellow – love his riff and sentences...
iii - Ahmadou Kourouma, 'Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote', was a beautifully structured novel, and worked sooo well.
iv - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 'Half of a Yellow Sun', is a book of true commitment and love – I love many things about it, most of all I love the idea of somebody writing about Biafra, which happened after she was born. A huge task, fraught with risks, but she did it.
v - Chinua Achebe – I love all his work, feel very privileged to work with him at Bard College.
vi - Witold Gombrowicz – love his absurd, dense books, with so many tiny human and natural transactions…

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: List your favourite five books.

i – 'Search Sweet Country' by Kojo Laing.
ii – 'The Street of Crocodiles' by Bruno Shultz.
iii – 'Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote' by Ahmadou Kouruma.
iv – 'A Way in the World' by V.S. Naipaul.
v – 'Mission To Kala' – still the funniest book. So funny.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your vision?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I shall spend my life answering that…

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What genre do you read most and why?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. Why? Because I am addicted to it.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to make a wish right now what would it be?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: To finish my novel!

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

I'm yet to read Binyavanga's story but I wil. And he was in lagos, Nig. with Adichie for a workshop and that's really selfless. I love creative writing and i'ld love to go for MFA grad school. There are many things l could write about and people who are there, keep me inspired.

Orji Chinelo

Huge profile and it is very interesting that Binyavanga wants to give back through the online MA in Creative Writing programme...Please keep us posted on that.

Good to know his favourite writers too.

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