Why Kenya's Best-Known Writer Decided To Come Out
Binyavanga Wainaina is one of Kenya's best-known writers. Now he is one of the most prominent figures in Africa to announce that he's gay.
Wainaina did so Saturday, his 43rd birthday, in a piece posted on several websites, "I Am A Homosexual, Mum."
The title comes from a conversation he imagined, but did not have, with his mother back in 2000, when she was dying in a Kenyan hospital from complications related to diabetes.
In reality, Wainaina was living in South Africa at the time and did not make it back to Kenya before his mother died. He never told her he was gay.
But in his piece, he writes, "I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five."
He followed that up with a series of YouTube videos, called "We Must Free Our Imaginations," posted Tuesday.
His declaration comes at a time when many African countries are enacting strict anti-gay laws on a continent that has long discriminated against gays.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Kenya. Uganda and Nigeria recently passed measures that were widely criticized by human rights groups. In Nigeria, the president signed the measure into law. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign it, citing technical reasons, then went on to call homosexuality an "abnormality."
Speaking on NPR's Tell Me More on Thursday, Wainaina said he decided to come out because, "I wanted to generate a conversation among Africans."
"If you're ready to share, you are ready to share," he said. "So I was ready to share."
In 2011, Wainaina's father was dying. And as with his mother, Wainaina regretted not telling him about being gay.
"Sometimes I feel like your parents are hostage to you much more than you are hostage to them, and so, the fear of sort of, wounding them, for me, I think, was a big thing," he said. "But then, this is the opportunity to test their hearts the way I didn't give myself the opportunity to test their hearts."
Wainaina also said he contemplated coming out while working on a memoir called One Day I Will Write About This Place (published in the U.S. by Grey Wolf Press). He didn't, but with all the attention focused on the recent laws in Uganda and Nigeria, he felt the time was right.
"While finishing (the book), I'd really kind of contemplated talking about being gay, and then I thought, in that kind of, sort of, writerly way, 'Oh my God, I don't think my language is ready or lyrical enough to start talking about that sort of thing.' So I was finding reasons and excuses for a long time, but I think sometimes you're just ready. So I feel like I kind of did this because there's a lot going on in Nigeria with the new laws and so on, but really, in a certain way, by the time I was hitting that 'send' button to my friends to put it up on platforms, I felt, this is one of the most successfully put together and honest pieces I've ever written."
Asked what he'd say to a young man struggling with his sexuality in Africa, Wainaina said:
"Sending you all the love possible. There's love in this world. That's the only thing I can say. Take good care of yourself. Trust yourself. Always live and work with trusted people. And love. And love. We love you very, very much."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. You know, for some, a birthday can be a good time to take stock of your life, maybe decide to take a risk or do something bold and new. When award-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina turned 43, he chose to celebrate by coming out. A couple of years ago, Wainaina released his memoir "One Day I Will Write About This Place." And this past weekend, he published a very honest unpublished chapter from that book titled "I'm a homosexual, mum." He followed it up with a series of short films "We Must Free Our Imaginations," or as he called it on Twitter "What I have to Say About Being Gay." Here's a little clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "WHAT I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT BEING GAY")
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: How do you want your child schooled? How do you want your child for you to imagine? When you make your child fear things outside their window, things they can't see, yeah, you've trapped your child. You've just trapped your child to be unable to imagine because you trapped your head into imagining fears.
HEADLEE: As African countries are moving to further criminalize homosexuality, his honesty has earned him both criticism and praise. And Binyavanga Wainaina joins me now to talk more about it. Welcome.
HEADLEE: Let me start, if I could, by reading a little bit from your essay. You write this - I'm 29. It is 11, July 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was 5. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life, one woman successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to. That kind of honesty, frankly, is, I think, arresting for the reader and very effective. And I wonder what brought you to be able to share with that kind of frankness.
WAINAINA: I don't know. I guess if you're ready to share, you're ready to share. So I was ready to share. Or maybe it was 4 o'clock in the morning. I was ready to share.
HEADLEE: Maybe both.
WAINAINA: Maybe both.
HEADLEE: The essay is not just about your coming out, but it's also about your relationship with both your mother and your father. And I wonder - they've both passed away by the time this essay was released. And I wonder if you feel as though you yourself have a better relationship with their memory now, having published this essay?
WAINAINA: Yes, and no. I mean, I think, this essay wasn't those - oh, my goodness, you are not a good parent to me, kind of piece at all. And my memories of my parents are foreign. In fact, most of my feeling is that in both my mother's case and especially in my father's case, you know - I mean, the last conversation I had before he died, he pretty much opened the door wide for me to bring it up. And sometimes I feel like your parents are a hostage to you much more than you're hostage to them. And so the fear of sort of wounding them, for me, I think was a big thing. But then, this is the opportunity to test their hearts the way I didn't give myself the opportunity to test their hearts.
HEADLEE: So you're also very active on social media. You have a wide audience of people that you write to and that respond to you. I'm sure there was an equal measure of both good and bad in people's responses. What reaction kind of stood out for you?
WAINAINA: Oh, gosh. It's going take a couple of years to try to - all I was just seeing was - it was just very strange. Look, you know, there are three phases of things. What happens is of course you have the people's friends of friends on Facebook and things that end up on my Facebook. And I'm not very good at doing these sorts of privacy settings and things like that. So of course, like, it's always an opportunity to kind of troll call across the place. And I'm generally not very good at listening to troll callers, so I ignored that. But on Twitter, I think most of the vast majority of the responses were positive on my timeline. But I have not been checking it obsessively. I haven't checked it at all today. But I got a huge amount of love from people and support. And I think the important thing I think for me was, I'm interested in the audience who read what I posted because thinking about - I called them, you know the "Glee" speculators that are like, oh, my god, oh, my god, did you hear this? You know. That's not useful.
HEADLEE: People who respond without having read.
WAINAINA: So for people who read it, there are amazing response. I posted the chapter free for anybody to use. What had happened is, you know, my book - I wrote a book, as you said, a memoir, "One Day I'll Write About This Place." It's published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press. And, you know, it received good reviews and so on and so forth. And while finishing it, I really kind of contemplated, you know, talking about being gay. And then I thought, in that kind of sort of writerly way, oh, my God, I don't think my language is ready or lyrical enough to start talking about - you know, that sort of thing.
So I was finding reasons and excuses for a long time, but I think sometimes you're just ready. So I feel like I kind of did this because there's a lot going on in Nigeria with the new laws and so on and so forth. But really, in a certain way, by the time I was hitting that send button to, you know, my friends to put it up on platform, I felt this is one of the most successfully, put-together and honest pieces I've ever written. Oh, cool. So, you know, writer's vantages are strange things.
HEADLEE: Well, you mentioned Nigeria, and obviously, it's been in the news quite a bit with their new anti-gay laws. Gay men have been arrested there. What - are you worried about possibly when you travel to Nigeria what could happen?
WAINAINA: That's not entirely clear to me. I mean, on one hand, I'm like, OK, it's not Eastern Europe. There are not going to be, like, photos of me on billboards saying, when you see this man, arrest immediately. I don't know yet. I haven't planned that far. There wasn't a large strategy. But I go to Nigeria and teach workshop there every year. And, well, I satisfy all criteria in the new law of being somebody arrestable. So I don't know.
HEADLEE: Why did you make the videos to accompany it? What was it that you wanted the videos to accomplish that the essay didn't?
WAINAINA: I'm a writer, and I'm an imaginative person. And I think I kind of had a feeling, having been in the media before, that the media kind of deals in sort of, you know, nice things, but bullet points, you know. In the heart of gay homophobia darkness in Africa, Binyavanga writes of peace. Binyavanga explained how homophobia in Africa works. And then you're like, oh, gosh. Now how do I do that in 17 seconds?
So it was very important to me that first, that these things - I didn't want this story published in The New Yorker or in some magazine abroad or anything. I wanted to put it out for people to share. I wanted to generate a conversation among Africans. I wanted to put up a documentary the day before - just talk around the issues in a certain way. So it's a kind of, like, a little bit less our issue than - you know, I sometimes get the sense that it's this thing of, my God, you Africans are very homophobic. I'm going to go and report it to the West. That sort of thing. I didn't want that much of that. And I think that, you know, it did provoke - it did provoke a healthy conversation and a lot - a huge, huge amount of love and support. Like, I'll be answering DM's and e-mails and all kinds of things for months.
HEADLEE: A DM being a direct message. I wonder what you would say to a young man in Africa who may be too frightened, especially by all the things that are going on there in Nigeria and other places, and some of the homophobia that he perhaps sees every day. What would you say to young man struggling with his own sexuality?
WAINAINA: I'm sending you all the love possible. There's love in this world, and that's the only thing I can say. Take good care of yourself. Trust yourself. Always live and work with trusted people, and love and love. We love you very, very much - love you very, very much.
HEADLEE: Binyavanga Wainaina is the author of "One Day I Will Write About This Place." His essay "I'm a homosexual, mum" is published on various blogs, and you can catch his videos online as well. He joined us from the BBC's bureau in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you so much.
WAINAINA: Thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.