By Oluranti Olaose
Published: April 26th, 2018
My palms are slick with moisture by the time I step out of the subway station at Union Square. It’s a cool Friday evening in May and the square is its usual bustling self, packed with the omnipresent skateboarders, street vendors and dancers that make the place a tourist attraction. I scan the area quickly, hoping for a glance of the person I am meeting. When I fail to spot him immediately I reach for my phone and dial the number I have. As I wait for a response I can hear each ring intersperse with the runaway beating of my heart so I take a deep breath to calm my nerves. When the call is over, I head to his location under a tent outside a restaurant. Binyavanga Wainana is excited to see me for the first time but I am beyond ecstatic. He is pleasantly surprised by how tall I am and gives me a heartfelt hug before returning to his seat to resume being interviewed by a lady from some African correspondence blog.
Binyavanga Wainana is a Kenyan author, teacher and journalist best known for his autobiography and memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place. In January 2014, he came out publicly as gay in a poignant short piece titled I Am A Homosexual, Mum in which he detailed his coming to terms with the realization that he is attracted to men, and in the process rekindled the ongoing conversation about LGBT rights in Africa amidst the passing of harsh anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria at the time. Binyavanga’s piece resonated deeply with me being a gay African myself and empathizing strongly with some of the feelings he so vividly described. I was highly inspired by the sheer courage it must have taken for him to admit to being gay at a time when homophobia is a common and generally accepted sentiment in African society and government, a move even made more audacious by the fact that he still lives in Kenya. In doing so however, Binyavanga provided a much needed voice and physical representation for LGBT people in Africa, a community that is perpetually oppressed and shunned except when dragged forward for persecution. Last year, Binyavanga was included in Time’s 100 Most Influential People list for the year 2015, with his introduction written by his close friend and colleague, Chimamanda Adichie.
We first conversed via Twitter, after I sent him a message commending him for what he had done and expressing gratitude for speaking out on our behalf. He was genial and approachable from the start and we struck up a conversation that soon extended past Twitter to Skype calls, where his playful and avuncular demeanor became more apparent. Before long, he was offering me advice about dealing with family issues, possible career paths and school in a way that only someone who could fully comprehend my position could. He would also occasionally narrate some of his past experiences and adventures to me, which I found thoroughly entertaining.
We maintained a steady correspondence via email and Skype but never actually met until now. In fact, our meeting is not planned at all. He’s been in town for a few days attending events and giving interviews, but it’s his last night here and he returns to Kenya tomorrow morning. He’d decided to contact me through a mutual friend and I offered to meet him here and finally see him in the flesh for the first time. As I sit and listen to the lady interview him, I recall that I too am supposed to interview a mentor for this assignment and I fortunately happen to be in the presence of one. He consents to my interview without too much prodding. When I ask him if he ever gets weary of being interviewed incessantly, especially since winding up on Time’s Most Influential People list, he laughs and reassures me that he’s always prepared for constant scrutiny and conversation whenever he emerges from his long stretches of self-imposed reclusion. I listen to him astutely discuss literary and political events for a couple more hours till we are finally alone and have time to catch up on each other’s lives. We stop at Starbucks for some lattes and much needed quiet before we begin the interview.
It becomes apparent we are in for a refreshing interview when I ask him what he finds most valuable in life. He forgoes the usual cliches of family, wealth and health and responds without too much forethought: Accountability. “Not really integrity,” he distinguishes, “but to be accountable in the things you do, to be accountable to the society that depends on you, to family, in love and in your writing” He further clarifies that this is important to him so that he can take risks but also be prepared to lose. At first I am slightly bemused by his answer, wondering why of all the things important to him he would choose liability as most valuable. But as we progress I arrive at the realization that this is a man who lives most of his life for the good of others, a teacher who treasures the potential of young minds and an emphatic voice for the development of Africa as a continent. It is only rational that this self-appointed liability is what drives his work and career as a whole and has made him successful.
Success to Binyavanga is a couple of things, but achievements or fame is not one of them. Success he says, “is being able to take care of one’s self emotionally and spiritually and being able to feed one’s imagination and other metaphysical parts.” This is a quite unorthodox definition that sounds abstract to me at first but strikes me as profound on deeper thought. Having suffered bouts of depression myself, I’m all too familiar with the lethargy that comes with emotional malnutrition and a lack of imagination. In the absence of morale and mettle, it becomes arduous to accomplish anything worthwhile, therefore if one is able to take care of their ‘metaphysical parts’ they are indeed empowered for success. In addition, he defines success as being able to take care of anyone who may depend on you; and being able to show in a lifetime of success that you have impacted a change in your society. I recognize that he is alluding to the aforementioned liability that I am now certain forms the bulk of his ideology.
“Americans like happiness a lot… I like to be happy and like to pursue happiness, but I’m not American in the sense that if you don’t find happiness your life is crap,” he says when asked what happiness means to him, after which we have to pause for loud bursts of laughter. Instead, he relates that he “wants to be 70 and tired, and collapse on a beach somewhere” with the knowledge that he may have had a hard life but surmounted it and now can talk about it. He feels he is innately happy, and even when he is not he is hardly inconsolable. He also points out that the pursuit of happiness as some distant nirvana is an American fallacy, one that makes them “spend all their money and visit 17 psychiatrists” in the quest for happiness. Rather, he maintains that he finds happiness in basic tangible things such as reading, writing, good health and comfort. His observation about the American obsession with happiness is a truthful one I have come to witness myself. A good deal of Africans learn to find happiness in small mercies like a cool rain on a hot night when there’s no electricity, or from the actual comfort that comes with access to basic amenities like constant electricity and clean water. Americans however do not have to concern themselves with frivolities like these, and so look for satisfaction further outwards. According to Binya though, “happiness is the feeling of satisfaction when you have struggled, not necessarily succeeded in your goals. Succeeding isn’t the point, and in the future you don’t remember how you won but the failures and the experience that comes with them”
Binyavanga is no stranger to struggling, having contended with himself for years about his feelings for men and other trying issues. His first direction for dealing with hardships is to find a passion. “I was reading all the time,” he reminisces, “so much so that I didn’t realize I was in pain because I had somewhere to escape”. Reading and writing have helped him with being unafraid of loneliness, which he says is rare for people his age. Having realized he was different from a young age, he confides that he made a contract with being alone all his life a long while ago, but knew that he would find solace in reading and writing. I find myself wishing I had been given this advice when I spent a year of school staring blankly at the dorm room ceiling in a depressive haze. Recalling his father’s modesty, he admits not only that he inherited a sense of duty from his father, but that we all have a duty to suffer tough times and make sacrifices to make things better. This duty is not to spend countless hours and large sums of money in church like many Africans tend to, he clarifies, but the sort that made him come out as gay and resign to be alone because he wants to be a good person and live a good life. His second direction is to have a firm set of principles, which helps in dealing with adversity because it keeps you grounded during turbulent times. Lastly, he advises having a regular schedule when major catastrophes happen because staying active helps you work through your pain at its own rate rather than having it disable you. It breaks the problem into parts because you have to deal with it around your schedule, like he had to when planning his father’s funeral.
I ask him what advice he would give to his younger self and he laughs heartily before telling me he wishes he took more risks. He also wishes he trusted himself and chose to become a writer earlier rather than the 12 years it took him to decide. Instead, he says, he spent time trying to conform to what his parents, teachers and society wanted him to be, which is a common occurrence in African society. From very young, children are given a specific or a narrow range of occupations considered by society as lucrative or prestigious (which of course includes medicine, law, engineering and more recently I.T) to aspire to, rather than encouraged to discover their passions or interests for themselves. This leaves a lot of them marooned in career paths that they would never be in had they not been coerced into them. This even happened to me somewhat and I ended up studying geology, a course I had no interest in, for three years only to satisfy my parents. I performed poorly as one would expect and even had a hard time choosing a new course of study when given the opportunity because I had never actually taken the time to figure out what my own interests and skills were. It is this uncertainty that leads me to ask him the most important question yet.
As a teacher, Binya says that he understands that in African education the choices you make in secondary school (especially the choice between art, commerce and science disciplines you make in your third year) follow you like ghosts after, but that in the US it is not the same. He also points out that sexual maturity in humans occurs around 18 – 23, and it is during this time that they begin to discover themselves outside of their parents, hence making that the time to try and test things as much as possible. He encourages me to take full advantage of the freedom that the American college system offers, and not be scared to try as many disciplines as I desire. As a caveat he adds that I only have to maintain good base grades which will give me the flexibility to shift course as often as I have to. I’m relieved to hear this because I have long felt inadequate for not knowing what specific career to subscribe to and assumed that I should know by now. But hearing him confirm that it’s okay, even prudent to try everything till you find what works for you gives me a renewed sense of focus and confidence. According to him, experience is what truly counts and it is wise to put yourself in as many job industries and gather as much versatile experience by 30, as the 20s are the best time to make mistakes. He says that by 30, if one has had enough experience and a Master’s degree, the right choice would be obvious because it will be the one you enjoyed most. He reiterates that putting one’s self in uncertain situations and coming out the other side is what gives resilience that will become crucial as one grows older. In closing, he admonishes me to enjoy the knowledge of my first year in school and to keep my grades up.
The interview ends just as the Starbucks employees are closing up for the night, and we stroll to Duane Reade to get him a pack of cigarettes, which he admits are his only vice. We spent a lot of time talking, but it was undoubtedly one of the turning points of my life; his advice, especially on career choice, have given me hope and determination and made us even closer in a way. I find myself grateful to know someone as special as he is, more so that he replied that very first Twitter message. One general observation I’ve made after our time together is that he is a fountain of wisdom that springs from a pool of core African wisdom and values, but shoots past the traditionalism and close mindedness that often keeps them subdued. This wisdom combined with passion and an optimistic disposition makes him as good a person as any to represent the LGBT community in Africa, which he does tactfully and sagaciously. Before we say our goodbyes, he promises me he will be back in June to attend an event which he invites me to as well. I leave him at the train platform with a hug and he buries himself in a book before I am even out of sight.