January 27, 2014
Binyavanga Wainaina on coming out, homophobia, and the powers of the imagination
by Wah-Ming Chang
“I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty-nine.”
In 2002, the Kenyan intellectual, writer, and satirist Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing for the short story “Discovering Home” (part 1; part 2), which was later expanded into a memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. Last week he added a “lost” chapter to the memoir, titled “I am a homosexual, mum,” an elliptical story in which he comes out and also mourns his parents’ deaths, which occurred exactly eleven years apart. The story, a response to recent anti-gay laws in Africa, offers first a “not right” version of events (“I will arrive on time, and be there when [my mother] dies”) and then a “right” version (“[My father’s] heart beat for four days, but there was nothing to tell him”); in both versions he states plainly, fearfully, proudly, “I am a homosexual.” Wainaina moved back to Kenya last year after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the United States, including directing the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, and it took him eight months to decide how to make a public statement about his sexuality. What felt right was to publish “I am a homosexual, mum” on January 18, his forty-third birthday.
Accompanying this chapter is the documentary We Must Free Our Imaginations, in whose six parts Wainaina — eyes glittering, hair blue-pink, his expressions embracing variations of ecstasy, indignation, and mischief — underscores the fundamental need and right to access and activate our imaginations. The videos are listed and transcribed below. Take a look, a listen, a read.
1. Bring Me the Obedient Children:
I want to live a life of a free imagination. I want to work with people in and around this continent to make new, exciting things, to make sci-fi things, to make stories, and with pictures. I want this generation of young parents to have their kids see Africans writing their own stories, printing their own stories — that simple act is the most political act that one can have. I want to see a continent where every kind of person’s imagination does not have to look for being allowed. Me, I’m an African, and I’m a pan-Africanist. I want to see this continent change . . . I’m prepared even to say I’ve rewinded and I’ve confessed that I’m no longer a homosexual so long as you give me a contract that says I’m not photocopying — I’m not photocopying, I’m not photocopying. What you have is the same school that said, “Bring the obedient children of you Africans to this school so that you can become clerks. And then we drum a syllabus into you, make you go sing ‘God Save the Queen'” — it’s still the same idea. Actually you don’t have an imagination. You can’t imagine outside those parameters. You’re scared of imagining. We don’t have sci-fi. I can’t find sci-fi. People write stories, and all those stories are from the syllabus — the syllabus of I don’t know what you call: moral-boring, moral-flat, moral-crap. It’s horrible! And now where that’s happening is in the middle-class . . . Me, I came out because my friend died. And when they died, the parents were kicked out of the church in Kisumu . . . How do you have an educational system that makes us think and innovate? Why do I feel like I’ve gone places where you sit with a bunch of kids and they challenge you in class, and here, to challenge a thing in class is to be bringing, as my maths teacher used to call it, queer behavior: “That is very queer behavior. The syllabus is a bullet point, and if you don’t stay inside the syllabus, you will not pass your exam, and if you don’t pass your exam you will not go and work as a clerk and you will die a miserable, sad death. No, there are no options. The options in your life are when you are choosing your university selection.” . . . We are now killing each other, many of us, in all kinds of ways. It’s not so much that a gay and lesbian homosexual is dying, it’s that people are dying in exactly the same boundary that the muzungu made. The person who’s divided like this is killing the other one the way that person was divided up to now. That’s a bankruptcy of a certain kind of imagination that we have, and it’s our job, this generation, to say, “We are in charge of our fate, and we’re in charge of our future. And we can agree not to cooperate, but we agree that our ecosystem needs many kinds of things and many kinds of people in all kinds of ways.” And that’s not a peace deal, that’s an offense — you have to go into the offensive to make new things . . .
2. This Ecstasy of Madness:
As the thing got more and more repressive, fear just started coming. I remember I was in Mano, and then I hear about this very good-looking pastor . . . and all the girls in the high school were like, “He’s so cool, he’s so cool.” But then these new words started coming in, and the first one was “demon.” And the school went into a panic fever because they heard some girls had demons, and then they were chucked from there . . . Now there are all these demons which were entering people. Then once you remove that demon, everything’s going to be okay. Of course, the whole truth was: everybody knew, in the rational place, that our economy was just going upside-down . . . and you have no explanation for the failure. How can you have an explanation when you have a one-party state, when you have one president, you have one news? So you can’t depart from inside that world to stand outside and say, “It’s because somebody is messing with us. So it must be your neighbor. It’s the neighbor doing those things.” . . . So of course you start getting the feeling that there are these forces. And then of course there are these brokers of the forces. The brokers basically are pastors. Their job was to say, “Listen — me, I control these forces, and I’ve been given power because I went to Nigeria for Bible study, and inside Nigeria there are demons who run it like a kingdom, which is ruling the whole of Africa. And so I came back and I’ve been taught how to handle these forces.” . . . So people go demon-hunting. People bring their children to remove the demons . . . Your heart needs solace — fine. Guys needed the solace. It was a terrible, terrible time. Through that period of time, how many middle-class people of my age saw people die of AIDS, and the whole story gets hidden away? How many people went mad with stress and demonology? How many disappeared? Can we count the people we lost — really lost — like who lost their head inside that crazy place removing demons? Do I remember sitting, coming back after 1992, to hear a pastor tell his congregation, “God tells you to be dutiful to your leader.” He said so! In a church! So my mum was like, “I’m not voting, because this multiparty thing is now you’re not being dutiful to your leader.” There’s no such thing as analysis. There’s no such thing as evidence of your own eye. Once you remove your demon, prosperity will shower upon you. And look at me, I’m prosperous . . . So my mum took me to a funeral of a guy — let’s call the guy Paul. Paul was much older than me, and he had a tragic story about him, when I was a kid: he was sixteen, and he had taken the car, and then he knocked a kid and the kid died. So now Paul is knocked back — hit-and-run . . . Nobody really knows this story, because he was found dead. So of course by this time, the parents have entered this church — their business is no longer a business, it’s now empty, they’re paying the rent and then they are praying the whole day. So we go for a funeral. First, the whole angle of the testimony was: “We really don’t know if in that microsecond, before that car hit him, he confessed his sins and then he’s gone to heaven. But I must tell you that if he did not, he’s burning in hell right now.” And there are the parents clapping in this ecstasy of madness . . . My head just checked out . . . Me, I’m dedicated to a rational, secular life . . . I don’t want to touch a god in my life at all.
3. The Demon Next Door:
I believe that Africa is rising. There’s a kind of a spirit, a level of creativity, that’s growing, and that creativity itself is always under risk from the Puritans. Now, I’m not interested in saying that the Puritans must go away. Everybody has Puritans. In a family it’s always nice to have one or two. In a society it’s always nice to have many. It’s okay. I’m an African, I was brought up here, my home is here . . . Being an Afropolitan, I am here to stay. I want to live inside an ecosystem where people go and say not that there’s a demon next door but “There’s a thing I don’t understand next door, and I don’t have to understand it. Because that person’s right to be a demon the way they want is theirs. And me, I have mine. And if my values are strong, I don’t need to go running to beat, arrest, or peep inside people’s bedrooms.” Let me tell you the most comical statement: “We need to eradicate homosexuality.” So what do you do? You go inside and be like, “We will take a spectrometer, and that spectrometer will look inside your heart, in your bedroom . . . everywhere. Inside. And it will look for seeds, and then we shall remove it, because that way we can eradicate it from our society.” [Laughs.] So I’m like, “How? Using what — demonology? medical practice? cultural analysis?” [Answer:] “Because we have done research. And inside that research, we have found out that this continent with three thousand languages and cultures (and me, I’ve never even stepped outside my own tribe), it has never been African.” . . . At the same time you don’t leave your mental headspace of what you call your place: “I just knew something was wrong. With those people, they are very strange.” Now that’s the tribe next door. And then you’re like, “But Africans, they have never done homosexuality . . . We have done a survey. [Laughs.] We have done a survey! It is not in our cultural value.” . . . You’ve got to appreciate with a sense of humor genuine stupidity when it hits you. You’ve got to laugh when it arrives and when it’s spoken . . . But the thing is, we are just here. Me, I’m not going away. I’m here. So you deal.
4. A Thousand Years of Hate:
The word “sodomy” is the most Victorian word ever. If you want to talk about a Victorian word, when you hear an African say “sodomites,” the world is supposed to shake. You understand? I’m just saying: what’s the word for “sodomite” in our languages? Because that word “sodomite” came because the Victorians came and said, “These Africans have many queer behaviors. They just married twelve people, and then tomorrow they’re going to worship. Then they’re just dancing aimlessly. And I’m sure in the middle of the night they’re performing sodomy.” The only countries in the world where there are anti-sodomy laws are countries that were colonized by the Victorians. The Chinese don’t have anti-sodomy laws. Thailand never had them. Only Nigeria, Kenya, India — same places where people inherited that idea so now when you think about that idea, you’re like . . . And then somehow, mysteriously, it is never African. And I’m like, “No. They put that law because they were suspecting you are.” . . . So now what’s happening in Nigeria is everyone is against somebody else. Someone has been promoted in your office: [that] he was seen talking and holding someone’s hand for eight minutes now, according to the law in Nigeria, is evidence to say that you can be in prison. If you have a friend who once said to you, “I had one homosexual act,” that is consorting, in the law in Nigeria . . . Have you seen photographs of burning bodies, of people being thrust out and people gleefully posting them on Facebook, that two naked people are found in a room? And then you must take them to the public square and you beat the shit out of them naked, and then you’re like, “You see? We are in the process of eradicating homosexuality.” How many lives get destroyed? How many middle-class people take their children into mental hospitals? It’s now forty years since even doctors stopped doing that thing where they used to call electroshock therapy, where they take homosexuals and fry your brain so you become a zombie, so you can be a dutiful son. I’m not interested in gay marriage. If that thing comes three generations from now, that is cool . . . Already there are four states in Nigeria where you’re going to be stoned to death by law if you’re even suspected of [homosexuality]. That’s Sharia law. That’s like shit-from-a-thousand-years-ago hate. And now, we’re like, “Hey, we are modern people who are implementing policies, and it’s now 2013, Africa Rising, we are implementing.” When you look at a map of gay rights around the world, why is ours bright red and then there are ones that are a soft, gentle blue everywhere else? Because guys are like . . . “You know what, it’s not worth it . . . Just choose not to like it.” What people do, it’s not complicated, it’s that thing they used to do called witch-burning, witch hunt . . . We saw within twenty-four hours guys being rounded up in Nigeria for vague suspicions. Guys were being whipped. So now if you and your wife are doing it the wrong way inside, and she goes and reports you, is that sodomy? Give me the book about demonology and how demonology is important for building roads, schools, and imagination . . . Give me data that says that the people who speak three thousand languages in this continent — you have communities of twenty-five million — who belong to one kingdom . . . So what’s an African society? At least do the data . . .
5. Africans Are Natural:
Charles Darwin and this thing called evolution. All the books that those white people were writing [said]: “When you go to Africa, evolution happens like this: There are apes. Then near the apes there are Africans, then there’s a white man standing [upright].” So that person who founded the first churches — that’s how they thought here . . . That sensibility filters into something. So for example, you go on Facebook and you’re talking about homosexuality, and you find somebody with three degrees, who went to a good school, saying, “Africans are natural. And that is why homosexuality is bad — Africans are just natural.” Which means: “Africans are ‘close to nature.'” Which is coming from: “These Africans are near apes.” So now you don’t see whose job you’re doing for free. Because me, I’ve never seen no natural human homo sapiens. Those are people who make what they are, who control their fate, who imagine their fate. There’s no such thing as “Africans are natural.” Dogs are natural. Grass is natural . . . What the hell is this thing? It is such a deep, embedded self-hate, and I was brought up to hate myself like that, to look outside the window and see people making loud noises at night and being like “Great. Those Africans. Great, great, great.” . . . Everyone who ever existed in Africa, until muzungu came here, is in hell, burning. Unnatural burning. I’m not opening a church, I am not interested in conversions — I’m interested in a conversation . . . In a town with a wool warehouse, where there’s no more wool coming as our economy starts tanking, we walked one day on a free Saturday, and I counted twenty-seven churches built with the money of Africans. Twenty-seven. The way the churches are built is so nice. Poor people paid to build churches that are beautiful and expensive. But the places you are supposed to build for your children’s imagination to grow to build new things, I don’t see them. So I ask the Pentecostal movement: “What have you built?” . . . Where do we innovate? Where do we make new things? . . . There’s a pastor who made people eat grass. Grass! And then, in Uganda, there’s this entire group of people who committed suicide to go to heaven, because they felt lost in a world where there is no accountability, there’s bad politics, leaders are messing with you — so of course, the same pastor who goes drinking in the club with those guys is like, “The problem is you . . . If you eat grass, if you pray and remove the demon that’s inside you, you become a proper citizen, because it’s not people like me who are messing you.” What new thing do you make? How many pastors are you worth? A hundred million? Those Nigerian ones fly in planes — fleets and fleets of planes. And the church gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and you are living in more and more misery, sitting there being told the problem is you . . . Just show me one alliance you guys can build, then you say we have a program, because it’s been twenty years of this stuff. I want to see: Where are your results? Can you give, in bullet points, clearly, what are your objectives? “We have removed 1.2 million demons from Africans . . . We have built churches, we have occupied plots from slum to slum to place. We have built what? We have a factory that makes a new idea.” One. Even three, five, seven — I am sure there are some, I’m not saying they are not there. They are there. I actually do know they are there. But that’s not the trend. And that’s not the space. So it becomes easier when you tell your parishioner, “So, in the name of Jesus Christ, I want to go outside and to eradicate homosexuality.”
6. China Will Own Us:
I actually think [Pentecostalism] is an amazing thing . . . I’m always interested in even challenging yourself in how you think . . . It’s about the wedge of people saying that these other things cannot exist in our society and that we must act to remove them. The only act you can do to remove them is to perform violence. Only. There is no other way. You must actually go and perform violence . . . When you are saying about the idea of the imagination — of course there is imagination! You go and sit in one of those churches, you hear their stories . . . But now we have just reached a point, and the point is quite simple: we are going to be owned by China if we don’t make new things. To make new things, we have to imagine. It’s just simple . . . India right now produces more patents than anywhere in the world. [They] had a cultural revival. [They] had an intellectual revival, which was chaotic . . . You started to see Indian writers “arrive” in the global space like a fever . . . All I’m saying is that we have to free our imaginations, and it’s going to be messy — it’s okay to be messy. That process of learning to grow your imagination, it has to be messy. You want a cultural revival where guys just start writing mad novels in every language and making mad crazy movies . . . And politicians, generally, when they have not dug the well in your school, the best way that they can come is to start to say, “The elections are coming. I was supposed to dig a well in the school, but I am more concerned that . . . first we have to eradicate rampant lesbianism.” . . . So now you forget the well in the school. Nigeria is running an election in one year — Jonathan Goodluck is in dogs. He might lose. The fastest thing to do to rally the troops is listen to all the Pentecostals and all the fanatical Muslims — that is a few ten million — and for six months they’re like, “You know Jonathan, he’s a good person. Even if he has not done anything else, even if there is no electricity working in Lagos, he’s helping us to eradicate homosexuality, and then Nigeria will grow.” Fine. Right now money is pouring from all parts of the world into Africa, even when it doesn’t have a mission. To make a business requires imagination . . . which doesn’t really come from the middle classes, because we have been trained not to imagine . . . We know how well and quickly to react, but it comes as a surprise when it comes to acting and imagining. So how do you want your child schooled? How do you want your child to imagine? When you make your child fear things outside their window, things they can’t see, you’ve trapped your child to be unable to imagine, because you’ve trapped your child into imagining fears.
Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.