I first met Binyavanga in 2013. He came to the Granta office, hair shaved and dyed. Was it yellow, in part, and maybe purple? I can’t quite remember, but I do remember his warm dry hand, and his direct, complicit, gaze. We talked for a while, and then, laughing ironically, he asked me to sign the latest issue of Granta. No-one had ever asked me that before, and I was moved by the implicit intimacy of his request. We had already published his memoir, which I loved, One Day I will Write about this Place (2011), and, among others, a satirical piece for the magazine, ‘How to Write about Africa’ (2005). This started as a letter to the editor, protesting about Granta’s 1994 issue on Africa, which, he wrote, was ‘. . . populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known’. That’s probably right. I have that issue in front of me now – it’s mostly white voices, and ends with a piece by Nelson Mandela, filled with the sincerity of the time, Mandela’s particular tone, defining the moment of liberation: ‘Thus must we build on the common victory of the total emancipation of Africa to obtain new successes for our contintent as a whole and prevail over the currents that originate from the past, and ensure that the interregnum of humiliation symbolized by, among other things, the destruction of Carthage, is indeed consigned to the past, never to return. God bless Africa’.

Binyavanga’s ‘How to Write about Africa’ is a satire on objectifying platitudes, subtle, powerful, and mordantly funny. It’s our most widely read piece ever – we have published nothing that has been as influential or successful. I read from it at the launch of our 40th-Birthday Special at Shakespeare and Company in Paris the other week, and remembered Binya:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Durum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans. [. . .]

When your main character is in a desert of jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

The last time I saw him he had already had his first stroke. He was working on an ambitious undertaking, too ambitious, probably. He also sent me many pieces by other writers, generously advising and helping them. One, a prose poem about homophobia, ‘Africa’s Future has no Space for Stupid Black Men’, we published. But Binya needed help himself. He was sick, and he was tired. I want to say that he remained himself, in some essential way, but he would have hated that, seen it for what it was, a well-meaning cliché. I appreciated that stubborn spirit, the refusal to give in, as well as his warmth, directness, and intelligence. He saw through things, and came out the other side.

This is what he wrote, turning down a World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader Award’ in 2007:

‘I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go anyway because we will get to be “validated” and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people, and we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people – our ‘peers’. We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to.

The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative . . . It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am “going to significantly impact world affairs”.’

He could have become a poster-boy for liberal literary Africa, a ‘cultural personality’, but he resisted turning himself into anything other than what he was: a writer, and an editor. And yet he had a profound influence, through Kwani?, his literary magazine, through his refusal to accept the othering of Africa and Africans, through coming out in a homophobic society and through advocating for feminist principles, for the idea of ‘upright Africans’.

I look through all my emails from Binyavanga, mostly written on his phone, praising this writer or that, sending pieces, and yes, asking for help. I did help him – but did I help enough?

I don’t know. I wish he was still with us.


Image © Jerry Riley

The Ungrateful Refugee
How I Write My Books