Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kenyan author attacks insularity of British fiction

"Binyavanga Wainaina says authors fail to tell 'universal' stories, leaving their books 'indigestible' for modern Africans." The Guardian.

I understand that Wainaina's words need some contextualization in order to understand where he's coming from. At any rate, it does appear that he makes the same mistake he accuses the West of: generalization, slippery slope, and perhaps, some degree of ideological antithetical positioning. When he claims that Africans don't understand British writing, what on earth, does he mean by African? Who, exactly, does not understand British writing? Wainaina? Kenyans? When has Wainaina become representative of Kenyans, and when have Kenyans become the sum of Africans? Has Wainaina read Ian McEwan?Julian Barnes? Zadie Smith? Monica Ali? And what, on earth, does he mean by "universal?"
As one who owes his life to good luck and the empathic gestures from Europeans during the Biafran war, I find it somewhat disturbing that Wainaina, who was born circa a decade after the Biafran war, and far removed from the scenes of Biafran horrors, would make a sweeping condemnation of rescue/aid agencies such as Oxfam. In my case, in 1968/69, it was the Irish aid agency "Concern" that saved me and many other famishing, kwashiorkor Biafran kids. Without Concern, and perhaps, Oxfam, I would have perhaps succumbed to the famine that was orchestrated by fellow Nigerians/Africans. Why would any person in his right mind ever condemn Bob Geldof for having responded to the human tragedy that took place in Ethiopia and Somalia? I am sincerely baffled. I get the impression that Wainaina's need to save the good image of Africa has blunted his sensibility to the pains of the African bodies. I only hope that this is a special case of an ideological pitfall, which time and intellectual maturation would take care of. But this, of course, does not imply my support of the contemporary African beggarly mindset. Quite the opposite. I have been saved so that I can help save others.

Listen to Binyavanga's interview on the books podcast


  1. Interesting. I am still yet to get his latest memoir to be able to know the way he really thinks. Hopefully, I should this week. It is only afterwards I can begin summing up the way this Kenyan writer really thinks.

  2. What I really hated was that this man should dare think he has the right to speak for educated Africans. He does not represent me in any way. You can have strong opinions but why put them across in such a churlish manner. 'We don't care about Oxfam.' What rubbish. What has he done to alleviate suffering in his country? Or any African country. And it's the we. Who made you spoke person? Tomorrow he'll be saying Africa is not one place then the day after he'll be talking as a we.

    And all this rubbish about African writers being forced to tell a certain story blah blah blah, it's not only African writers who are having trouble breaking into the traditional publishing world. Go and look at all the writers blogs and you will find that when anyone is fortunate enough to get a publisher, they show gratitude to their publishing house, not because it's the gratitude of an African to the West, but just because people are glad to get published. Publishing is difficult for everyone.

  3. I do find it odd that he would accuse others of generalization and then do the very same himself. He's certainly stirred up quite a bit of controversy, thus keeping his name around in new posts and discussions... and causing more to buy his book?

  4. this is a self-righteous author, good for nothing scum-bag. these are the people conning their ways into the literary history of African literature.