When the English department sought a new writer in residence a couple of years ago, it had a simple requirement.
“We were looking for a fiction writer of distinction,” said Harry Marten, the department chairman.
Few could have imagined their search would take them to Kenya. But with help from the outgoing visiting writer, Mikhail Iossel, and a strong push from former Union professor Ed Pavlic, the College found its writer: Binyavanga Wainaina.
Since then, the 36-year-old, in the second year of a three-year term as visiting writer, has been garnering attention worldwide. The Virginia Quarterly Review recently awarded Wainaina its 2006 top short fiction prize for “Ships in High Transit,” and in December, The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, named him one of the 50 best artists in Africa.
Last January, Wainaina's satirical piece for Granta, “How to Write about Africa,” became one of the literary magazine's most widely reprinted stories. It included advice on the collection of stereotypes and clichés authors could fall back on when writing about his homeland.
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country,” he wrote. “It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
In 2002, Wainaina won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, “Discovering Home.”
“He's at the absolute center of a whole new generation of artists and writers over there,'' said Pavlic, who in December spent three weeks in Kenya with Wainaina.
Pavlic, who left Union last year to teach creative writing at the University of Georgia, helped convince colleagues of Wainaina's worth. Pavlic was introduced to Wainaina through Iossel, who was aware of the African writer from a summer literary seminar Iossel directs in Kenya.
When Iossel went to Concordia University in Montreal, some here were skeptical about putting Wainaina, the founding editor of Kwani?, Africa's leading literary magazine, in front of a classroom. Even Wainaina was hesitant, saying, “teaching is not my vocation. I'm a writer.”
But the search committee quickly embraced Wainaina's talent. Wainaina started teaching at Union last winter, though he was delayed a few weeks because of visa issues. He will teach two terms each academic year, including “Workshop in Fiction” and “Contemporary African Fiction” this winter.
“He's got charisma and he's smart as the Dickens,'' said Marten. “He's truly a first-class writer.”
Wainaina wasn't always sure about the writing life. He tried other vocations, including running a catering business and restaurant, “but realized quickly I was not very good, so I always came back to writing.”
Students appreciate Wainaina's approach in the classroom.
“He challenges us,” said Danna DeBlasio '08. “He constantly makes us question things, not only in our writings, but life in general.”
Wainaina is working on his first book, a travel memoir about Kenya. He continues to attract a global following, especially through frequent appearances on the BBC, along with more awards. But there's one honor he declined: the World Economic Forum, based in Geneva, recently included him among 250 Young Global Leaders for 2007. Leaders are selected, in part, for “their potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world.”
Wainaina told the organization's founder, Professor Klaus Schwab, and Queen Rania of Jordan, the chairperson of the nominating committee, that he would skip the group's summit in China.
“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go anyway because we will get to be ‘validated' and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people,” he wrote. “And we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people – our “peers.” We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to.
“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.”