It’s beginning to seem like Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay How to Write About Africa might be, after the Bible, the most read English-language text on the African continent. It skewered cliched writing with a roll call of stereotypes that appear to be obligatory in descriptions of the continent. “Readers will be put off,” he writes, “if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets – the African sunset is a must.”
The essay touched a nerve, and alongside the short story Discovering Home, which won the Caine prize for African Writing in 2002, established the Kenyan author as both a literary talent and an uncompromising commentator. But neither of these pieces fully does him justice. His death in 2019, at just 48, deprived us of a fierce talent, a real pan-African in both experience and orientation.
This collection of his writing – the first to be published since he died – makes it difficult not to feel the scale of the loss. Introduced by Wainaina’s friend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it shows us how deeply immersed the author was not just in Africa but in Africanness. What really inspired and moved him were those authentic things that snobbery and western taste sneered at or overlooked. In South Africa, where he spent a decade failing to get a good degree or buy a “sixteen valve car”, he ran a food stall and then a catering business. In adulthood, he seeks to rediscover the foods he grew up with, since abandoned and excluded by vendors who think African food is not “upmarket” enough. In the essay Food Slut, between long detailed recipes , Wainaina recalls the foods he ate as a child – the daily fare of plantains, as well as the urban innovations such as kebabs with crushed nuts and vetkoek (fried bread) with coconut. To him “the best cuisine that we have remains in villages and at townhall weddings and taxi ranks”.
A love for the basic infrastructure of African living is evident throughout. There is his infatuation with matatus – small buses common in Kenya and other parts of east Africa. He describes their evolution from ramshackle vehicles covered in psychedelic paintings to ones decked out with plasma TVs that play hip-hop videos. And in the short story According to Mwangi, a local oddball who regales kids in the street with stories before losing them to movies is more hallowed than the traditional purveyors of “oral litera-chuwa” taught at school.
But the stream-of-consciousness style that is Wainaina’s trademark is best suited to nonfiction. There is something tidal about it – it lends itself better to expressing the many layers of sentiment he is constantly trying to channel or understand. His love for African things and people sits alongside his anger at the elites who exploit them. His hope for and investment in the continent is coloured by disappointment. And so his tone switches between earnestness and cynicism, between breathless run-on passages and bitter spat-out sentences. Whether he is describing warm family reunions, the desperate, intractable civil war in South Sudan, or the absurdities of the international NGO industry, the plot comes second to his vivid descriptions and offbeat observations.
The collection ends with the famous Granta essay, but by that point it feels far tamer, and indeed more conventional, than the lesser-known Wainaina. He would probably hate that the piece has become a kind of piety, something that is wheeled out as a final word to scold people who don’t get the tone right on Africa. “I didn’t want to seek knowledge of African food out of anger,” he writes at one point. “I couldn’t see myself gulping okra with passion simply because it was a symbol of ‘Our Great and Demolished Past’. I enjoy food too much to insult it that way.” The same applies to his portrayal of Africa. He did not write about it in anger or to correct historical wrongs – he enjoyed the place too much to insult it that way.
• How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.