The last time I saw Binyavanga Wainaina was in Nairobi in 2016, and his hair was standout green. In Brooklyn where I live now, green, red, and blonde highlights on young gun afros has been in style at least since Frank Ocean blew up the template. But Binya was the first man I saw do it in Nairobi. We had lunch and a deep chat about making literary moves around the country, and around the continent, all on a sunny day at Java House. He was already a Caine Prize–winning author, a pan-African mover and shaker, one who had rocketed to international literary fame and then sought to build a meaningful life’s work back on the ground in his homeland. That word homeland is odious now to my American ear, thanks to “homeland security” and other right-wing newspeak terms that the post–September 11 world has given us.
The wider literary world knew Binyavanga Wainaina best for his essay “How To Write About Africa,” and many Kenyans of all ages knew him as the freewheeling founding editor of Kwani?, a Nairobi-based literary publication and social practice. I knew him best, however, for his pellucid memoir of growing up in Kenya (with a student sojourn in South Africa) in the 1980s. I will always hear the title of One Day I Will Write About This Place with the characteristic inflection Wainaina put on the word write: one part retribution, one part redemption. Call it the then and there of queer futurity, but it is so amazing and heart-rending to be, once again, here in that future.
“I’m not an afropolitan, I just dress like one,” Wainaina reportedly liked to quip, but he was dressed down that day. Still, his shock-tactic hair I understood as the O.G. afropunk gesture of the artistic rebel in a troublingly conformist, status-seeking, and deeply unequal city. I had come to know him stateside as the Chinua Achebe Professor at Bard College, and had gleaned a little intel on how the quiet, rural avant-garde holdout had been an aggravation in the department of English. Now he was back in Kenya, thinking about using art to help build pan-ethnic and transnational alliances. I told him how much I had loved reading his memoir and how much I valued the eye-opening discovery that—although we never knew each other at school—we were pretty much “age-mates” as the old heads say. In an early incident in his memoir, a proud neighbor in Nakuru throws trash in the doorway of his mother’s hair salon, the neighbor’s way (in young Binya’s eyes) of literalizing her contempt for this Ugandan woman who had made her way to Kenya. Wainaina and his siblings, as children, even invent a language—“kimay”—with which to encompass all the languages and peoples they hear around them, words and symbols they recognize without being able to understand. (In the North American academy, where I am currently perched, there is a vibrant and compelling emerging conversation between black and Native studies. Any such study of indigeneity could do worse that explore in careful and slow way the landscape of “kimay” in Nakuru in the 1980s, a language I also knew.)
Wainaina was in fine form the day we met, a mind on fire, and a cultural worker at the height of his powers. So the news this past week that we had lost him so early at age 48, of a stroke, hit my world hard. I had seen him in Berlin a couple years back, at one of the gatherings at Savvy Contemporary art gallery. He had suffered a racist attack while in Berlin, but was unbowed and determined to continue his sojourning. For many of us in diaspora, losing Binyavanga Wainaina felt like we were left with one less heartbeat in our chest. We have to spread his message to the world; we have the technology.