The first time I saw you, I didn’t know anything about you. I was in my second year of high school. Apparently, our school’s career teacher had invited you over to speak to us about something that I honestly don’t remember. It was a Tuesday evening. Probably around 4.30 p.m. This I could tell from the dipping angle of the scorching Kikuyu sun.
The day’s classes were over, and I was dog-tired so, I didn’t give two shits about whatever was going on. I secured a seat at the back bench of the school chapel and immersed myself in some novel as you roared on and on about God-knows-what on stage. On the day, there were about one thousand four hundred students in that chapel, and I was just one tired Form Two seated at the extreme back of it. It didn’t really matter whether I followed the conversation or not. I was a speck in a sea of dust.
Naturally, as the case was with a lot of events that happened in high school, I forgot about your talk as soon as it ended. Your session, just like the rest of the career talks, easily slipped out of my mind as I went back to the mundane routine of cramming biological concepts and French vocabulary in order to pass the coming exams. A bright kid in a bright school. A speck in a sea of dust. And so, the banalities of life resumed up until three months later when you were in the Kenyan news headlines.
The papers said that you had fled the country to Nigeria – the land of all the African groovy music – after you shocked the world with your confirmed homosexuality. The school atmosphere was tense. The students were seething with rage, a palpable anger that was directed to both the career teacher and the school administration. We were the brightest kids in the country, the creme de la creme. In a few years’ time, we dreamt of assuming office, taking over the steering wheel which would determine the direction that Kenya would take. We had no time to sit down and listen to homosexuals telling us about career choices!
Binyavanga, let me tell you a small truth. I listened in on all these conversations, never contributing. My lack of contribution was not because I was self-righteous, no. I did not know what it meant to be homosexual. See, I had come from a rural public primary school where no one cared whether you finished your assignments or sat for your exams let alone your sexual preferences. In fact, sex was a taboo in itself, a topic that we all shied away from. So, when the papers said that you had confirmed that you were a homosexual, I had to look it up in the cyber cafe. I had to find out what that meant so that I could at least be able to contribute to the conversations going on in school. Surprisingly, after figuring out what it meant to be a homosexual, I sort of admired you. I admired your boldness, coming out in a place as socially dangerous as Kenya. For me, this wasn’t a case of homosexuality.
Looking back, I appreciate that this is a memoir, a representation of the author’s mind – fresh and without edits. See, we never have linear thoughts – ideas are always crisscrossing in our heads and by choosing this sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style portrayed just that.
This was a scenario in which you believed in yourself regardless of what the rest of the people around you said. I looked back to the times when I had stifled my true persona, a choice guided majorly by the desire to belong. I wondered how many people around me did the same – how many men and women lost their true self as they struggled to fit in. See, you challenged me to take a step towards accepting myself, but I cannot say I reached the pinnacle. It is an ongoing journey – an arduous one at that.
Two years later, I stumbled upon your book, ‘One Day I Will Write About This Place.’ I was drawn in when I saw your name on the book’s cover. I remember rushing home excitedly with the intention of sitting down to devour your words. I wanted to know, desperately, what kind of life events led to your admirable boldness. Was it the way your parents raised you? Was it your experiences while in school? Did you at any point ever fear of telling people who you truly were or had you, from the word go, been that person who always and unconditionally chose themselves over what the society demanded of them? I ached to know.
I will not lie Binya, you confused me with this book. Your writing style was different, unique even. You juxtaposed paragraph-long sentences with one-worded ones. In some instances, you would be telling me about your playing with your sisters, then you would drop in there a random sentence like ‘Kenya is not Uganda.’ You left my head reeling as I tried to wrap my brain around the point you were trying to put across in your ‘haphazard’ writing. In retrospect, I am, slowly and gently, beginning to believe that literature, just like any other form of art, demands one to be in a specific mental/ psychological disposition in order to appreciate it fully.
Not that I didn’t know this before; I did, though on a theoretical level. And yet, we know that most of the times, practical and theory are two different, stand-alone galaxies. Looking back, I appreciate that this is a memoir, a representation of the author’s mind – fresh and without edits. See, we never have linear thoughts – ideas are always crisscrossing in our heads and by choosing this sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style portrayed just that.
Binyavanga, a lot has been said about you already. I scrolled through my Instagram on the day when you passed on and saw all the RIP posts. It was shocking, the news of your death that is. You know how one feels when they are punched in the stomach? Almost like someone squeezed all the air out of your lungs and blocked your nose such that you are not breathing? That is how it felt for me when a friend WhatsApped me the tragic news. All in all, you were loved by many. You were (and will continue to be) revered in the literary world. Your selflessness (when you chose to dedicate the proceeds of your Caine Prize to establishing Kwani? in order to give the Kenyan authors a voice) will always be remembered.
Any time you look at us from wherever you are, I hope you smile. I hope you are pleased with the legacy that you have left behind you. I hope your heart is filled with joy, and I hope that you do rest in eternal peace.
Jesse Solomon is an African Literature enthusiast, critic, and blogger based in Nairobi.