Binyavanga Wainaina, the great Kenyan writer, bestselling memoirist, queer icon, beloved literary influencer, and arguably the most gifted prose writer of his generation, has passed on at 48. His family has confirmed that he died at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 May, at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, after a short illness. For years, there have been concerns over his health, following a stroke he suffered in 2015.
His brother James Wainaina spoke to the BBC:
We are in a life celebration mood, we’re looking at this from a human level; it’s a human story. Allow that humanness to shine, people are hurting. He passed on last night at a hospital after a period of really fighting. But it is what it is now, we’re still trying to come to terms with that.
Born on January 18, 1971, in Nakuru, Binyavanga was schooled at Mang’u High School and Lenana School. He studied commerce at the University of Transkei and obtained an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Binyavanga came to literary fame when his short story, “Discovering Home,” won the Caine Prize in 2002. The following year, with his prize money, he was instrumental in the founding of Kwani? collective and magazine, becoming its founding editor. His only published book, the memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011) was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, making it a bestseller. He has taught at Williams College, Union College, and the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, and was Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College, U.S.A. He is the recipient of numerous honours and fellowships, including from Lannan Foundation, Africa’s Out!, and DAAD.
In January 2007, Binyavanga caused a stir by rejecting his nomination by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader—a recognition for people with “the potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world”—stating in a letter to Queen Rania of Jordan that:
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’.
In January 2014, in response to a spate of homophobic laws sweeping across African countries, Binyavanga came out as gay in a memoir titled “I Am Homosexual, Mum.” That year, he was included in TIME Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
We published his work at Brittle Paper: a short story, “Alien Taste” (2016); a political essay “A Letter to All Kenyans from Binyavanga Wainaina or Binyavanga wa Muigai” (2017); and the last chapter of his memoir, “Chapter Thirty-Three” (2017). His short story in Expound, “Ships in High Transit” (2016), was a finalist for the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Fiction; and his memoir in Granta, “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane” (2017), was a finalist for the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Creative Nonfiction. For his 46th birthday in 2017, we published a birthday post and then birthday tributes by writers impacted by him.
In 2017, a website, planetbinya.org, run by Isaac Otidi Amuke, collected everything he had published since the late 1990s. The last public announcement he made, in May 2018, was his engagement to his boyfriend and their planned wedding this year.
Affectionately called The Binj, Binyavanga was passionate, outspoken, caring, and a fierce Pan-Africanist. He had remarkable charisma and was an uncle figure to many writers across the continent. An absolute force of nature, his impact on the contemporary African literary scene has been unique and profoundly decisive.
An expert in traditional and modern African cuisine and for sometime a food and travel writer, he collected more than 13,000 recipes around the continent.
May he rest in brilliance.