African Writers’ Corner
An interview with Binyavanga Wainaina
Mildred K Barya
2009-06-18, Issue 438
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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?
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Fourteen.
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?
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Writing.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your best quote?
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Too many.
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!
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