Binyavanga Wainaina says authors fail to tell ‘universal’ stories, leaving their books ‘indigestible’ for modern Africans.
By Richard Lea
The prize-winning Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina has attacked the insularity of British authors, describing their work as “indigestible” for Kenyan readers, and suggesting that “you’d struggle to find any significant books that come out of Britain” about the African experience.
Speaking on the Guardian books podcast, he praised the “amazing work that can speak to the diversity within Britain”, but argued that British writers have failed to meet the challenge of finding “codes that are more universal”.
“The generation of my dad could have gotten the English codes,” he said. “We can’t anymore.”
“I can read it because I am familiarised,” he continued. “But as a writer I recognise it is still indigestible, and there are Kenyans – who are English-speaking Kenyans, educated Kenyans – who will not and cannot get the codes.”
Wainaina, who won the Caine prize for African writing in 2002, argued that a generation brought up on Hollywood movies understands American writers rather better.
“It becomes a question of how and why Britain itself has not been able to produce literature that’s global, even though it had a global empire,” he said.
For Rebecca Carter, an editor at translated literature imprint Harvill Secker, the suggestion that British writers are difficult for Kenyan readers comes as no surprise.
“We don’t feel that we have to understand French or Italian literature,” she said, “so why should Kenyan readers be interested in British writers?”