Readersforum's Blog

November 19, 2011

Kenyan author attacks insularity of British fiction

Binyavanga Wainaina says authors fail to tell ‘universal’ stories, leaving their books ‘indigestible’ for modern Africans.

Binyavanga Wainaina: 'Britain itself has not been able to produce literature that’s global, even though it had a global empire' Photograph: Jerry Riley

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?”

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October 30, 2011

Alexandra Fuller’s top 10 African memoirs

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From JM Coetzee to Nelson Mandela, the author chooses her favourite ‘performances of courage and honesty’ that have come out of the continent.

“The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty. Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict.

“What is often shocking, but very effective, is the humour evident in so many of these works, laughter being an essential survival technique for so many Africans (and of her writers). The act of writing is also a defiant way of asserting, “I was born. I am here. I will remain.” In places of chronic instability, the memoir is an anchor of words to an experience and place and a way to bear witness; to expose and perhaps even explain the atrocities of war, racism, tribalism and cronyism. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, my own memoirs of Africa, are written from a white African point of view, but explore the ways in which the land possesses all of us who love it – regardless of ethnicity – and the ways in which laughter can make palatable life’s unendurable losses.”

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