TIA: You come to Nigeria quite often. This is probably your eleventh or twelfth time in the country…
Binyavanga: (cuts in) ninth maybe
Okay…what are your thoughts on Nigeria? How much has changed since your first time?
When I was in college, if you wanted to go from Nairobi to Lagos, you had to fly to London, wait three days for a flight to Lagos and pay 6,000 Dollars or some crazy sh*t. But since 1995 there are two flights a day to Nigeria. That is change. Every year I met different kind of Nigerians. The first time I met Nigerians who went: ‘Your country Kenya, I don’t know…we’re on our way to Dubai to buy Jewellery and make money. So your country is just a stopover on my way to India, China, Britain or anywhere money is.’ Now you meet different kinds of people. I met a very fat guy, young, rich—clearly—who said; ‘I moved to Nairobi from Nigeria because I’ve been sending my kids to school in England and they were becoming white people. The private schools in Nigeria are chaotic. They are good and bad, but there are good private schools that do British system in Nairobi which save me a lot of money’. What surprised me was that we sat for a while and he said: ‘So I moved, I closed my business, put my money in the bank, and moved to Nairobi with my wife so I can be near my daughter.
Are you suggesting that borders are now blurry?
Technology changes and growth of business has really opened the way for us to communicate and understand each other much more. We are in what I consider a very right time. I keep coming back because I get more excited. Each time I make better linkages and have easier conversations. Also, Nigerian news, every fight, every gossip, every scandal is in my Twitter, is in my Facebook and I understand them. Today I was listening to Wazobia radio station (a pidgin English radio station). Five years ago I was like ‘what is he speaking’, but now I realise I understand ninety per cent. I discovered I know pidgin because the software was sleeping inside of me (laughs). So I have three per cent Nigerianness in my body. That’s beautiful, you know.
Let us get your take on the music industry. I know there’s a lot of collaboration between the Nigerian and Kenyan music industry. For one, we know Victoria Kimani is signed on to a Nigerian-owned label. I know she is kind of big in Kenya…
Yeah. And she is signed on to Chocolate City, one of the biggest label here. What’s your thought on those kinds of collaborations between African creative industries?
Let me tell you about five years ago. I didn’t know…I knew Nollywood, but the Nigerian music industry was very young. So one day I was in a taxi driven by an old bad-tempered man who obviously doesn’t know hip hop, doesn’t know pop. It was six in the morning, there was traffic jam back to the city, and I asked why there was a traffic jam and he said; ‘These Nigerians called PSquare, they came yesterday. The place was full; people were throwing beer bottles, beating each other, dancing. All the youth, you see these youths, they caused the traffic jam’. This was at Kenyatta Conference Centre, a very big place and it was full. Without my knowing, the youth had started to look towards Nigeria. I don’t know where they got it, I don’t know when it came, but it was there. Ten years ago, I would tell young Kenyan musicians that are my friends that Nigerians are cool and the say ‘ahhh. You are going to go and die there. You will be killed at the airport,’ all those dramas. But now, they have all these role models that they see. If you talk to a kid of fourteen, they will be like ‘I want to start my production house, whatever. Chocolate City is cool’. This mutuality of media and construction of market is making new kinds of things. The sexiest thing is to have a rich Nigerian boyfriend in the music industry (laughs).
Talking about literature, what do you think about the whole Caine Prize debate, especially looking at how there seem to be a movement…last year we had more Nigerians on the shortlist, this year the baton seem to shift to Kenya…
(cuts in) you know…we are not sleeping (laughs).
For sure. But, do you think there was a wake up call for Kenyans to up their game after Nigeria got four of the five shortlist
I am going to take this first to another road because I think all you Nigerian literati are way too addicted to the Caine Prize. I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution. All these young people who are ending up in that place were built up by many people’s work. If there was no Saraba, if there was no Farafina workshop, if there was no Cassava republic, if there was no Tolu Ogunlesi meeting Nick in South Africa and then workshoping stories, if there was no Ivor Hartmann, if there were no thirty thousand Facebook groups that I know off or don’t know, there will be no Okwiri, there will be no Elnathan, etc. What is happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London while the vast majority of these institutions are vastly underfunded and vastly ungrown, and they are the ones who create the ground that is building these new writers. Why do I have to sit in interviews with Nigerian journalists who want to help Caine Prize get more money in the sixth richest country in the world?
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 and 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 to get money. They take press clipping from all Nigerian media and use that to source for funding. We need to focus on how we can grow our own ecosystem.
The Farafina Creative Writing Workshop is in its tenth year. What do you think about how far the workshop has come, the students that have passed through it and go on to do greater things? I was at the workshop two years ago and I remember being impressed by the quality of writers that were there. Also, looking at the Nigerian literaryscape, you’d find that many of the better known writers of the present generation passed through the workshop.
You feel old. I remember seeing Tolu Ogunlesi, who looked like twelve-years-old (I don’t know how old he was, but he looked twelve), in our fiction workshop. Now, when Tolu writes something, Goodluck Jonathan takes notice, people are worried, concerned. When Tolu speaks about Ebola, it becomes the standard to look at. Tolu has gone and done MFA. The spread of economies and doors that is being opened has nothing to do with prizes that people win or fiction that people write. Great fiction writing has come out of it, yes, but now they are everywhere. I call them the mafia of everything services. How many Farafina graduates are managing editing services? How many Farafina graduates are writing speeches for governors? How many of them are poets struggling to finish poetry manuscripts? How many of them, like Michael Okpanachi, who is seated right next to me here, has gone on to re-energise creative writing groups in Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, with more than a hundred active members, doing 30,000 things, after the workshop? And I provoke journalists again, how many of you are going to see what is going on there? To see how seriously these ideas are flowering? How many Farafina Workshop graduates volunteered to help out with the Port Harcourt World Book Capital thing? Are involved with Ake Festival,working behind the scenes with Lola, even if it was over whiskey? How many are editors, journalists? like, what’s the reach?
Let’s stick with literature. I know you have a keen interest in the development of speculative fiction across Africa. This is something we’ve talk about before and an interest we share. There seem to be a sudden interest, from mainstream publishers here, in genre fiction of the speculative type. Just last week, news of Cassava Republic’s interest was all over social media and we have that Afro-Futurism call for stories for a new anthology from Short Story Day Africa. I am also aware that Eghosa Imaseun, COO of Farafina, is very much interested in speculative fiction. Can we say the time for popular fiction has arrived?
I have a vested interest in this because I want to start a publishing house that will publish popular fiction and rethinking genre. Next year I want to host a workshop that will focus on creating good, digestible, thoughtful afrocentric speculative fiction in Senegal. Yes, the afrofuturism thing has become big. Of course, it started in America in the seventies with this jazzy movement that said people are from the moon or another planet and then a lot of what we now call afrofuturism started to come in via music through the sixties, seventies. Here, in the last seven to eight years it has become a ripening ideological movement. Many papers were written on it. Chimurenga, another sister publication of the Farafinas and Kwanis, was running essays about afrofuturism nearly nine years ago. I think they even did an entire edition about the topic. I like the fact that it is now being domesticated outside of academia, outside of the music industry and theoretical places, into thinking about popular culture and poplar fiction. Because what is really happening is that, our economies and our young people are transforming, becoming urbanised, and are seeing themselves in more complex ways, are interacting with technology in more complex ways. There is an anxiety and desire to probe our future and two-three years ago when I was doing sci-fi workshops here (Nigeria), all of us—myself included—were struggling to imagine this future. Some part of it makes you have to rethink your culture, some part makes you have to borrow someone’s culture to steal ideas, but we are now impatient. How many novels are there problematising the condition of the African child in a situation of war? Can you possibly read another one about the struggles of a child soldier? It’s not that it is not important but Ken Saro Wiwa did it, a few movies has been done, many writers have written about it, many Caine Prize shortlist writers have benefited. It’s Fine! It is done, agreed, it’s done, it’s written. Now, how can you even make me want to buy another one? Just be honest. So if you are coming to sit in front of a group bright young Nigerians and go: ‘I want to talk to you about child soldiers as the most important issue in Nigeria’, how many of them will believe you? Especially when they are like: ‘I am still trying to figure out how things will look when I am twenty five, what kind of world am I going to be in, because I am really concerned that I have nine editions of a phone coming out every six months, my city is transforming, my parents are still broke, I am passing my exam but I have no job, but also can take a USB stick and a thousand Naira and fill it up with all the movies I want’. What does that mean? The point is that these are the issues people around here have. There is a very big difference right now, with what is concerning people’s imagination and what writers are telling them is urgent for them.
I read a post from you online where you stated how welcomed you felt in Nigeria. I think you sent it from Afropolitan Vibes. I would like to know how the Nigerian intellectuals have related to you after all…
(cuts in) my gay drama?
Yes, after all that stuff.
I’ll put it like this, of course it was impossible to tell, when I came out in January there were too many thing going on. I was checking some Facebook pages, but after two days I was bored of checking to see who cares, who is saying what, and what people I’ve met think about me. I found out that many people I knew were quiet, as they digest, other people, I am sure privately were like: ‘what the f**k, I thought I knew this guy’. I know for a fact that many people I’ve known for the past seven years were already working privately to support Binyavanga, but I will never know that they had that conversation. Coming here now, I feel that many people have been preparing the ground for me. They are not telling me, but I know they are. It’s been amazing and easy. I’ve not had any issues.
Were you scared? With all the anti-gay laws, did you fear that the government might move to stop you from coming in?
One funny thing that happened was, because I had helped build the Port Harcourt World Book Capital longlist, (they had announced it before I came out. I didn’t tell them. I had thought about and I was like: ‘it’s too complicated’) so I was waiting quietly to here if they are going to stop emailing me, or the governor will say never, never. But they sent me this invitation and said: ‘we are having this launch in April, are you coming?’ And I was like, are you people watching BBC? That was a big signal to me that there were enough people, who I don’t know, clearing political grounds for that. I deeply regret not coming. That I didn’t come was not because of fear. I really was overwhelmed at that time, because things were changing so fast; I had to be here, I had to be there. Of course, in Kenya, because of the fact that I had come out in public, all of a sudden people were being evicted from their residencies. I am in Congo in a meeting and I am being told, ‘Binya, you know, four people called yesterday to say their landlady saw this thing in the news yesterday and they are about to be evicted’. There were so many things to deal with. My general idea is that I like adventures, I am a fearful person, I don’t believe in conquering fear. Living in fear is a condition of being a conscious human being. You don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by it, you can’t conquer it. You find a way to live with it. So, this process helped me find a way to live with it, because there was too much to do. Maybe five years from now I will go: ‘what was I thinking?’
What was the reaction like in Kenya?
Of course, the Pentecostals went mad. All the many anonymous-fake-name-youths-activists, George church, Peter church, Jane church came to Facebook to find my page so that they can say Sodom and Gomorrah, you are a demon of the universe and so on and so forth. Some of it was funny. It wasn’t dangerous because nobody actually sent me a private message to say: ‘worry for your life. We’re coming for you’. I went to TV with one member of parliament and a pastor—the TV station had promised me I was going to speak with an intellectual so we could have a good debate, but they jump-start me with a crazy Pentecostal mafia and an MP from my ethnic group. The TV station was also Kikuyu, my tribe—they sandwiched me there live in the news and while I was still waiting I said ‘wait, this is a plan’, because the MP started off with ‘arrest him now’. I felt the MP was acting like a hyena, after a carcass to feed. This is live, 9 o’clock news, and everyone is watching. I sat and watched them talk about arresting him, stoning him and what have you, then I stood up with my mic, live on TV, and said; ‘ You people, since you read one verse of the chapter and you talk about stoning, which is medieval, clearly you have a lot to say to each other, to feed all your vultures, so continue feeding them, me I haven’t had supper, I am gone’.
On live TV?
Yeah. That was the only dangerous moment. The TV station panicked. They called me back to say they are going to remove them, that they will do one on one interview. I refused.
You see, I was already a public figure, not D’Banj, but with enough people. So, many people were confused about figuring out how to go about answering what I am, but it is very difficult to deny what work I’ve done and how what many of us had done represented Kenya. So it left people confused and uncertain, even angry, and still maybe angry. But not ‘finish him!’. I am not worried about if they come. Now there is a new bill…the same guy has drafted a bill saying the Nigerians have not done enough, we are going to do more.
Binya, there is a question that needs asking: beyond the political class, who we know need to push these bills to appear in touch, and the church, whose doctrine demands it, do you think the man on the African street cares much about what people do with each other?
You know if you read the surveys you hear that 99.99% are in favour of destroying homosexuals, but when you give people the choice to take action, it becomes more difficult. People can make the public proclamations, but when your family members are involved it becomes a different thing. I believe the problem comes down to religion, simple. We’ve come to see, from where Boko Haram resides to where mad, crazy Pentecostal churches from Lagos to Nairobi reside, that in the mixture of things, woundedness, anger, fear about belonging, that the most complex and diverse society in the world, the oldest in the world, is being told to standardise. So someone in Nigeria today is being burnt because they were seen worshiping a river God. And we never hear about it. We all know all these things are there, and the person who burnt him was there worshiping the river god the night before and then put on the church cloth. There is a very big battle going on for ourselves to allow ourselves to be diverse. Homosexuality is only one percent of it. I am not defending the right of homosexuality to occupy the headline; I must defend the guy who is defending the river God as well as defend the person who is defending Jesus. However, not when Jesus is pouring gasoline on all of us and setting it alight. I will never support that Jesus. The Jesus who is supposed to standardise us, is not supposed to tell us physics doesn’t matter. The same one that will tell you to burn your physics or pour salt over Ebola will be the same person that will say burn your river god. It’s a kind of madness of insecurity in changing times.
Think it’s best we leave it here Binya. I am impressed with your words. I am not supposed to be impressed because I have heard it all before, but I am. So thank you for sharing your time.