- Afterword:Out of Place, Out of Time
On January 19, 2014, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina published “a lost chapter” from his heralded 2011 memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place on the website Africa Is a Country. As a writer, Wainaina has a magnificently complicated relation to the temporalities of memory and desire, history and fiction, the past and the future, easily apparent in the title of his memoir and equally running through this putatively lost chapter, which begins, “July 11, 2001. This is not the right version of events” (Wainaina, “I’m a Homosexual, Mum”).
This lost but now recovered chapter begins as if a diary entry with all the promise of immediacy, privacy, and sincerity that the diary form conventionally promises. Wainaina later exposes the ruse of this “lostness” when he writes in this, the lost chapter to a memoir published in 2011, “It is my birthday today. 18 January 2013.” The past for Wainaina is always being reimagined from the exigencies of the present. The chapter then imagines a historical conversation with his dying mother that never happened but culminates in the sentence “I am a homosexual, mum.” Next, readers are told that it is July 2001, the fake precision of the specific date of July 11 is abandoned and revealed as simply a ruse of truth production.
The lost/new chapter concludes with a series of dizzying temporal shifts. The first-person narrative voice in successive paragraphs is twenty-nine years old when his mother dies, then thirty-four, then thirty-nine, then forty-three, then forty-one when his father dies, and then “I am five years old,” then “maybe seven,” and then five again.
The palimpsest of Wainaina’s hurtling sexual biography gives readers no stable time from which to see a coming out narrative even though the claim of “I am a homosexual” appears twice at clinching moments in the piece. When does/did one become an African homosexual? An African lesbian? An African gay man? A queer African? Without risking nominalism, how much do these English language terms matter here?
As the title of the memoir may suggest again, Wainaina’s relation to the specificities of space are equally disorienting. Wainaina first came to global attention as the winner of the Caine Prize in 2003. The Caine Prize website claims, “On winning the Caine Prize, Binyavanga set up a literary magazine, Kwani?, to publish work by new Kenyan writers” (“2002 Binyavanga Wainaina”). In 2014, Wainaina famously attacked the Caine Prize: [End Page 186]
I want people to say, Okwiri, who won the Caine Prize, is the founder of Jalada, an online magazine that has won five prizes in the last year and published, I think, the most exciting fiction I’ve seen in ten years. Just that magazine, has more excitement than many known ones, but they are invisible. Seven years ago, I came here (Nigeria) and I felt nothing is going on in the online community in Kenya. Then Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma went and started Saraba. People there in Kenya smelled Saraba, made their own and that was it. Now, writers in America [are] approaching writers published in Saraba and these online magazines to give them fellowships abroad. Okwiri made her name long before the Caine Prize. I picked her for a long list of under-20 writers. I didn’t even know her then. Because the ecosystem is so big that you don’t even know each other anymore. Up until now, I’ve not met her and if I have, we bumped into each other. I know she wrote a review of my book launch, but I don’t remember meeting her. The idea that she won the Caine Prize and journalists now want to feed the fact that she was made by the Caine Prize is unmaking her. You ask any smart Kenyan writer who is in the game, they tell you Okwiri is the new be. And we are talking two years ago. We must lose this s**t. Give due credit but don’t go giving free money and free legitimacy. Because the Caine Prize right now needs your legitimacy...