Thursday, January 04, 2007

Someone who I am delighted to see on The Independent's list I discussed yesterday is Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina is an impressive mind and gifted writer, but he is also a real inspiration as to what can be accomplished with skill, vision and tenacity. In 2002 Wainaina won the Caine Prize (often referred to as the "African Booker") for his short story "Discovering Home." Here's a taster:

Somebody has locked themselves in the toilet. The upstairs bathroom is locked and Frank has disappeared with the keys. There is a small riot at the door, as drunk women with smudged lipstick and crooked wigs bang on the door.

There is always that point at a party when people are too drunk to be having fun; when strange smelly people are asleep on your bed; when the good booze runs out and there is only Sedgwick's Brown Sherry and a carton of sweet white wine; when you realise that all your flat-mates have gone and all this is your responsibility; when the DJ is slumped over the stereo and some strange person is playing "I'm a Barbie girl, in a Barbie Wo-o-orld" over and over again.

With the proceeds of the prize he set up an innovative website which he used to inspire and publish young Kenyan writers. This has rapidly expanded and he now publishes not only short stories online, but KWANI? is available in print and Wainaina is beginning to publish full-length books as well as the short story and cartoon format found in KWANI?. In December they produced a literary festival and they have begun running writers workshops - so lots of great, productive things happening.

Wainaina does travel to the UK fairly regularly: in 2005 he spoke at the British Library and 2006 at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, so do keep an eye out for him. In the meantime, if you don't like reading short stories online, you will find his prize-winning story "Discovering Home" in DISCOVERING HOME: A SELECTION OF WORKS FROM THE CAINE PRIZE FOR WRITING 2002 at the Africa Book Centre, along with copies of KWANI?. Each year the Caine Prize shortlisted stories are published in an anthology - a great taster of some of the new voices coming out of the continent (just search by Caine Prize on the ABC site, and all the anthologies available will pop up). The first Caine Prize winner in 2000, Leila Aboulela, has done very well with her titles THE TRANSLATOR, MINARET and COLOURED LIGHTS. The following year the winner was Helon Habila whose WAITING FOR AN ANGEL was a remarkable debut. I look forward with great anticipation to his second novel, MEASURING TIME, coming out in February this year.

Wainaina wrote a hilarious and biting piece in GRANTA 92: THE VIEW FROM AFRICA, extracted here:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular...

Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or 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.

Ouch! But so true. Granta has reproduced his piece in its entirety here, do take a look.

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