AMUKE: How Binyavanga pulled me out of myself and made me a writer

Friday May 31 2019

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina gives a speech to mark Kwani?'s 10-year anniversary at the Kenyatta University business centre conference room on November 28, 2013. FILE PHOTO | NMG


After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda, I returned to Kenya in 2010, broke and broken.

My student activism at the University of Nairobi and its ramifications, including the assassination of two of my comrades, had sent me on a whirlwind which no one had prepared me for. And so sitting in a safe house on Nairobi’s Chania Road in Kilimani, I started writing a memoir.

Much as I had majored in Literature as an undergraduate — where I barely attended lecturers (story for another day) —I had no writing experience.

And so I ended up writing over 600,000 words, imagining ours had been a reincarnation of the golden era of student activism, which the world needed to know about.

Years later, when I understood how publishing works, I would joke with a Nigerian friend how I had written the biggest pile of garbage, my garbage, and we would laugh at how verbose I could get.

It was while grappling with my 600,000 words that I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was writing a memoir on student activism and asylum seeking, and their first reaction was that no one would be interested in publishing my story.


In my recollection, few things have hurt the way that remark did. And so I decided to share my story with a literary authority, someone who could tell me if it was indeed all garbage and that I should forget about it, or if within that pile of garbage there lay something salvageable, which could be turned into a worthwhile work of Literature.

I sat and thought hard about the person whose judgment would decide the fate of my 600,000 words, and my wandering mind settled on Binyavanga Wainaina, at the time director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York.

I went on Facebook and wrote Binyavanga one of those I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, which I was sure he received hundreds of daily. Would he be interested in hearing more about my project?

Binyavanga responded in under 10 minutes. He was busy, but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his e-mail address, and asked me to send him a chapter. Within 30 minutes, Binyavanga had e-mailed me back.

‘‘Where are you?’’ he wrote. ‘‘Are you safe?’’

Under a month later – loads of e-mails in between on how he wanted to give me a writing fellowship at the Achebe Center for me to complete my memoir – Binyavanga and I met in Nairobi and spoke for 10 hours straight.

The next day, he invited me to a party in his house, where he introduced me to his high flying literati friends as a promising Kenyan writer, in his usual exuberant way.

That day, at the party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.

Isaac Otidi Amuke is a writer and journalist.