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Tribute to Binyavanga

Novuyo Tshuma

Go well, warrior! Go well, firebrand thinker! Your words illume your path.


Discovering Home.” Words breathe and hiss in staccato bursts, each sentence cuffed to the other as if by a chain link, yanked, every so often, by the narrative, a slice of wit here, a slab of humor there, jolting the reader, to attention, to discovery, to revelation. Words titillating the mind, moulding a simultaneous fear of and longing for home, yearning to come to terms with oneself, with what one is, with what one is not, the face behind the image behind the mirror behind the—


How to Write About Africa.” The whole Manichaean world is taken and crushed in the fist of a pen, word-bullets puncturing the skin, pink skin, brown skin, soft-hard-scabbed skin. Pellets of sweat shooting the face. The excitement of a palpitating heart ... Words that the tongue did not possess now suddenly sitting there, fury and ridicule deployed with a flare that both elevates and delights.


Oxfamming the Whole Black World.” Satire drips from every syllable, burning the skin. Hello kitty kitty kitty. Out in the world, one may feel powerless, trapped in a “dark Africa,” somebody else’s poor imagination of the world and one’s place in it. But here, on the page, words make one feel tall, and powerful. They cause a reckless cackle to erupt from deep in the belly, filling the soul with pleasure. A thrill at witnessing such a furious, eloquent middle-finger to the world.


May 2010. He walks into the Farafina Workshop, a shuffling gait, his beer belly protruding gently beneath a colourful shirt, raggedly dreadlocks spiking from his head. Chimamanda lights up, yells, “Binyavanga!” Her umber face breaks open as she leaps to her feet and gives him a hug. A mischievous smile spreads across his face. I stare and stare, and smile shyly. Later, in the evening, I see her sitting on his lap, an elbow balanced on his shoulder. He whispers something in her ear, and she flings back her head and laughs. I envy this boisterous laughter between writers, between friends, public laughter, private laughter, laughter as a loosening agent, expanding the spirit. This moment will stay with me; a glimpse of what it means to be writers who are friends, or friends who are writers.


He’s ranting at the Caine Prize. He’s talking institutions. Ecosystems. Challenging power. Dreaming new dreams. Audacious dreams. Rewriting Africa. His words are heady, the words of a drunken man, a man drunk on dreams. They are beautiful, and dangerous. In his art, his bold aspirations find expression. Always, he paints outside the box.

Where is the box? He says. I cannot see it.

See? The box is in your mind. There is no box.

He could have chosen to live and work anywhere in the world, finding eminence in an American or European institution. And yet, he chose to reside on the continent. To dream on the continent. Build on the continent—build the continent. He was ungovernable, a thing swelling, taking up space, filling old spaces in new ways, making things uncomfortable, perplexing everyone. Never easily recognizable, always creating, recreating, the world, himself, us.


Go well, warrior! Death is but a sojourn. We shall see you on the other side.


Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is the author of the novel House of Stone, winner of the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for Fiction with a Sense of Place, shortlisted for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, and longlisted for the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize and the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. Hailed by the Los Angeles Review of Books as a defining voice of her generation, she has been invited to give public lectures about House of Stone at various institutions, including Oxford University in the UK and the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden. In 2017, she received the Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Center Literary Arts Residency Award for her work. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2015), where she was a Maytag Fellow and a recipient of a Rydson Award for Excellence in Fiction, she is a native of Zimbabwe and has lived in South Africa and the USA. Shadows, her short story collection, was published to critical acclaim by Kwela in South Africa (2013) and awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize. Novuyo’s writing has been featured in numerous anthologies, most recently McSweeney’s, Ploughshares and The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. She is a co-founder and former Deputy Editor of the pan-African arts platform Jalada, and led Jalada’s editorial team on its first print anthology, the Jalada05/Transition 123 Fear Issue (June 2017)—which featured a cover based on Jordan Peele’s seminal movie, Get Out—in collaboration with the Harvard based Transition Magazine. Novuyo serves on the Editorial Advisory Board and is an editor at The Bare Life Review, a journal of refugee and immigrant literature based in San Fransisco. 


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