Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina brings his colourful personality to this interview held on the sidelines of the Port Harcourt Book Festival. He talks about how winning the Caine Prize has impacted on his life and writing, his thoughts on the future of books and what he considers ‘evil’ in the writing business. This is vintage Binyavanga.
Binyavanga Wainaina, shall we start with your controversial view on books . . .
Which controversial views now?
You mentioned in a panel discussion that print books are a dead item. How would you justify that statement?
Ah! (laughs) I am still struggling to understand how that view is controversial at all. We are now in 2013. In 2005, I had lunch with the then New York Times editor who told me the growth rate for subscription for the newspaper had gone to zero for people under 30. That was almost 10 years ago. So that’s why I am trying to understand why these issues are controversial because they have entered the dead centre of mainstream publishing. They are questions that people who work in policy, education have recognised so we have passed the point because it was nine or seven years ago that libraries were deciding not to order print books and changed their budgets, created reading rooms for digital applications. There is no one that’s signed up to create the processes of production for a future which includes print as a significant option. So to pretend there is a conversation is to be in those hangovers that do not make sense anymore, right? That’s one. Two: we are Africans and one of the things that we have is a great adoption of digital technologies in many forms and for many applications, right? We’ve never seen tools so accessible that equalise the pigmy in the middle of the Congo and the man in the Banana Island, how do we imagine ourselves to be democrats or even concerned for people in the future when to get my text, I have to go through trees in Norway, through printers in London, through tax breaks, ships to get my poetry manuscript to 12 people. There is no sense in the idea at all. So my question really is: why do we insist on perpetuating this conversation? We have been having this conversation on panels since 2000 and we all came to the same conclusion. I don’t see any conversation to be had. The technology to maintain the print books for the few people who want it exists but for the government to be planning policies around print is an enormous waste.
And you are positive Africa is going to cope with these changes considering our vagaries and the failures of our various systems?
That is the good thing. I think the biggest operation in Kenya is exams. It attracts buses, missteps, floods. You watch the news during national exams and see what’s put out. To get apps out on a mobile phone is just to click, right? And I have 5, 000 books on my mobile phone, all I need to do is click. So even if there are going to be leakages and corruption in the system, it will be at a much higher level of efficacy by several hundred folds already. As a starting point, it’s far beyond where we are in natural existence. It’s a very important thing for one to start to accept very quickly game changing technology, you don’t hesitate. When the railway hiccupped and coughed just one minute, within 30 years, half the world had railways. So while we are having this conversation on this continent, Korea had this conversation adopted long before everyone else. They were having novels on mobile phones by the year 2000. There is only one simple reason books continue to remain in print in Kenya; it’s that the school education publishers make billions of shillings and they are not wildly enthusiastic because there are feeder communities of suppliers, sycophants, ministry of education officials and so on and so forth. It’s so massive. Three months ago, one of the wealthiest and biggest educational publishers called me up and told me we are stuck, we don’t know what to do. The government has told us it’s going to be digital content for standard one kids and there are 12 months to go. We have all these people, they have retooled their infrastructure but they don’t know how to think of the digital world. They have signed up like 30 new editors because it’s been announced that if you don’t shape up, you will be like the cassette tape in the rubbish bin. The speed at which that changeover is happening over the last three years is remarkable. Between now and next year, the conversation would have drastically escalated. The musical industry has gone digital and left us behind. In 2030 there will be someone who would want to publish his poetry collection and release it to nine people.
Let’s talk about your country, Kenya, and its literary tradition. There seems to be a huge gap between generations of writers. You had the Ngugi generation and for a long time not much was heard from Kenya until you came along. What happened in between?
Okay. There was no gap. I think there was a gap of visibility because I guess Ngugi, Grace Ogot’s generation, which was in the ’60s, by the early ’70s there were vibrant writers who were building good reputations and were known internationally like Meja Mwangi, Charles Mamwa, John Ruganda who was Ugandan but lived and practiced in Kenya. They were very many. The tap started to run dry, I would say, in the mid ’80s as political repression reached its pinnacle and the country became dull. There was also a big transition when the multinational publishing industry and their distribution system collapsed or gave up and said there is no future in Africa and the publishing industry became very school book oriented and independent publishing kind of died. It didn’t mean there wasn’t much writing going on but there was no structure to carry it. What this generation, which started in 2002, had very much the fact that Kwani? was out within the first year of our democratic elections so the amount of writing that came out after our first democratic elections transformed publishing. So there was something very political about that idea.
Was it the absence of this structures that inspired you to set up Kwani?
It was just a very bad feeling of frustration that existing publishers and writers associations were bureaucratic, boring, you know, obsessed with who-is-the-treasurer kind of thinking. That was one. Two: in 2002, the year that I won the Caine Prize, I had tried to have a meeting with a sub-editor of a subeditor of a publishing house, right? And I came all the way to Nairobi with very little money from my home town of Nakuro for a 9am meeting and I was ringing the bell at the office and I was being told she was busy. And I couldn’t afford to stay in that hotel past six. After being in communication with someone for three months, the thing gets bankrupt. You hear of people waiting for three years before getting notification that we can’t publish your work. But you have to remember that my story that won the Caine Prize was a story published quickly on the internet, so already people were feeling the energy of speeded up structures and how you can do things well and at high quality without all these bureaucracy and files and forms and so on. But also watching the music industry, there were people releasing albums, kids, 17 years old, and you are sitting here complaining that no one is doing anything for you.
So you feel writers need to do more for themselves than sit down and complain?
The refrain that says the problem in Nigeria is that writers are not being published, I say two things to the idea: I would say to make indigenous publishing work was a great act of the ’60s. It was necessary to create an instant body of work so that people don’t continue consuming all that white stuff, right? And so there were subsidies, loans, grants and many, many things to get books to people. But somewhere inside there came the idea of an entitlement to be published. Which, when you look at the moral question about it, of course we want our countries flooded with books and ideas, who can debate that? You can’t have any meaningful country without such an idea but the history of publishing has its own specificity. Publishers are people who love books, sometimes they are even writers themselves who go and take money without even thinking they are going to make profit and surprise themselves that they do. So the assumption that those infrastructures are just there to serve you don’t make sense. But in the last 10 years, what Kwani? Saraba and other people have shown is that you don’t have to wait for oga. There is no oga to wait for. That a small group of enterprising and dynamic people can set up their own publishing house and distribute and sell makes meaning. If there are 500 small publishing houses producing 12 books a year all over Nigeria, then you are in a position to start saying literature is booming.
Interestingly your book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, there was quite a long wait for it before it came out. What’s the story?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am a slow writer.
Was that really the reason?
Kind of, you know. There is no simple answer to the question. It would have been nice if I had a ready novel manuscript when I won the Caine Prize. I had one, had a publishing contract with a South African publisher called Kwela on a sort of funny novel, and I was so excited that it was going to be published. But the moment the Caine Prize thing came, my impatience with the quality of writing had climbed quite a lot and I was really eager to experiment a lot more, stretch my stuff a lot more and so on and so forth. But of course that process of institution building was thrilling and consuming so the Kwani? thing took four years of my life to make. Not much writing happened in that period. There were lots of editing, a lot of structure building, drama, running around chasing invoices, learning how a printer works and so on. It had to be done now-now-now. I have no regrets about it. But more than anything else, it was really important for me to find a strong voice and style that I felt fully comfortable with, like a more versatile way to carry words. That was very important to me and it took me a long time to find what platform I felt could carry that book.
And it turns out you bring out a memoir and the language has thrilled many people, myself included, was it really that hard finding that voice?
Yes and no. I think it was hard to feel confident . . . this is the best way to put it, when Tiger Woods changed his swing, you see what I am saying? There is this way you are making sentences up to that point of 2002 and 2003 and had a kind of big aesthetic feeling of impatience that my sentences and phrases are not carrying fully what I want them to carry. I knew what I wanted to do in my head, but to get confidence in the practice of all these change words meant I had to get into the habit of writing like that. So basically I had to rebuild a style like you had to rebuild the swing but of course now when you are rebuilding the swing and you hit the ball, it goes wayward, you know. That’s really how it was. Now it’s a style that I am very comfortable in and I feel it can stretch and do a lot of things Now what I don’t know is amending the style enough for the novel I am working on, the hangover becomes . . . I have been thinking too much of myself as a character and so rendering other characters now, they end up having too much of my own voice. That’s Binya’s problem now. It’s very frustrating but I love doing it.
And I have heard rumours that your next book will be out in 10 years. Is that true?
No, oh God! No. I want to have a full workable draft by mid next year and these last few months it’s been moving really well and so I am quite happy with it. What I have discovered is that my writing cycles last around 10 years. What I am working on now is the frame of the language I am going to be using and sort of the approaches, maybe I will use the first person or the third person for the next 10 years, and be less involved in dramatic institutions or Bard or whatever. Embed myself at home rather than be schizophrenic, half here and half there. So I want to kind of write from within the continent for that period of 10 years.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer, what was the defining moment for you?
The moment someone paid me 240 rands. I was so afraid of risking and failing at writing that I had to be forced. So when I had no money and suddenly I had an opportunity of making money for eating and living, and I had no visa and nothing and I was living in South Africa and when the world did not fall apart when I wrote something that wasn’t good, writing became easier to do but I knew that the best job in the world is a writer as early as when I was seven.
You are quite popular for your interactions with younger writers through the regular workshops you have here in Nigeria and through other forums. If you have one advice for upcoming writers, what would it be?
Don’t be a fucking victim. The continent is for you to make. That whole thing of the publishers don’t, I don’t . . . can you link me up with publishers abroad? And I am like, tell me the name of one publisher abroad. You can’t be living in the age of Google and cheap internet where you can find out the resources available to you as a young African writer through the social network and other avenues, waiting for your father to make the policy or arrangements for you is immoral. In fact it is evil. It’s your job to make it. That hustle must stop. You can’t say I am upset because Cassava Republic or Farafina rejected my manuscript. Get four, five friends and set up one. You have 150m people, you need another 50 publishers before you can say you are anywhere.