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?”
“There’s an issue of access to British literature in the first place,” she continued, “a question of both price and distribution. In order to understand a literature you’ve got to be able to read it, but you’ve got to want to read it and think it’s relevant.”
The unique status of English as a global language gives our writers an enormous advantage, she added, but we’re wrong to assume our literature is universally relevant – a point brought home to her by a recent trip to China.
“I was very struck by the fact that the New York Times Book Review is where they look to find out about English literature,” she said. “It’s very American-facing.”
But despite America’s economic and cultural dominance, she rejected the suggestion that Britain doesn’t have a global literature, citing the international success of writers such as Ian McEwan, Chris Cleave and Zadie Smith.
“While it’s natural for readers around the world to look to America, there are British writers who have found a global audience,” she said.
According to Wainaina, African writers face a similar lack of comprehension when their books are published in the UK.
“I am acutely aware as is pretty much any African writer that the moment you start saying things in English … [you have to] explain why you did not talk about female genital mutilation in Africa … and all those things. Those are just not things I or we are really concerned about,” he said.
The rhetoric of pity, which began in the 1980s, “is something which every educated African finds great, great offence in”.
“We are not interested in Oxfam, we are not interested in Tony Blair, we are not interested in what Oxfam is doing for Africa, we are not interested in what aid donors are doing, we are not interested in the partnership those people have with global media to be the voice of Africa to the world,” he said. “We never have been. We don’t talk about it, we don’t discuss it.”
Like authors all around the world, African writers are interested in the lives of the people around them, he continued.
“If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.”
To read more about Binyavanga and his work, clock over to the Guardian
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