Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainain – I am a homosexual, mum
11 July, 2000.
This is not the right version of events.
Hey mum. I was putting my head on her shoulder, that last afternoon before she died. She was lying on her hospital bed. Kenyatta. Intensive Care. Critical Care. There. Because this time I will not be away in South Africa, fucking things up in that chaotic way of mine. I will arrive on time, and be there when she dies. My heart arrives on time. I am holding my dying mother’s hand. I am lifting her hand. Her hand will be swollen with diabetes. Her organs are failing. Hey mum. Ooooh. My mind sighs. My heart! I am whispering in her ear. She is awake, listening, soft calm loving, with my head right inside in her breathspace. She is so big – my mother, in this world, near the next world, each breath slow, but steady, as it should be. Inhale. She can carry everything. I will whisper, louder, in my minds-breath. To hers. She will listen, even if she doesn’t hear. Can she?
Mum. I will say. Muum? I will say. It grooves so easy, a breath, a noise out of my mouth, mixed up with her breath, and she exhales. My heart gasps sharp and now my mind screams, sharp, so so hurt so so angry.
“I have never thrown my heart at you mum. You have never asked me to.”
Only my mind says. This. Not my mouth. But surely the jerk of my breath and heart, there next to hers, has been registered? Is she letting me in?
Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear.
“I am a homosexual, mum.”
This is the right version of events.
I am living in South Africa, without having seen my mother for five years, even though she is sick, because I am afraid and ashamed, and because I will be thirty years old and possibly without a visa to return here if I leave. I am hurricaning to move my life so I can see her. But she is in Nakuru, collapsing, and they will be rushing her kidneys to Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi, where there will be a dialysis machine and a tropical storm of experts awaiting her.
Relatives will rush to see her and, organs will collapse, and machines will kick into action. I am rushing, winding up everything to leave South Africa. It will take two more days for me to leave, to fly out, when, in the morning of 11 July 2000, my uncle calls me to ask if I am sitting down.
“She’s gone, Ken.”
I will call my Auntie Grace in that family gathering nanosecond to find a way to cry urgently inside Baba, but they say he is crying and thundering and lightning in his 505 car around Nairobi because his wife is dead and nobody can find him for hours. Three days ago, he told me it was too late to come to see her. He told me to not risk losing my ability to return to South Africa by coming home for the funeral. I should not be travelling carelessly in that artist way of mine, without papers. Kenneth! He frowns on the phone. I cannot risk illegal deportation, he says, and losing everything. But it is my mother.
I am twenty nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life. One woman, successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to.
It will take me five years after my mother’s death to find a man who will give me a massage and some brief, paid-for love. In Earl’s Court, London. And I will be freed, and tell my best friend, who will surprise me by understanding, without understanding. I will tell him what I did, but not tell him I am gay. I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty nine, four years after that brief massage encounter. Today, it is 18 January 2013, and I am forty three.
Anyway. It will not be a hurricane of diabetes that kills mum inside Kenyatta Hospital Critical Care, before I have taken four steps to get on a plane to sit by her side.
Will leave a small window open the night before she dies, in the July Kenyatta Hospital cold.
It is my birthday today. 18 January 2013. Two years ago, on 11 July 2011, my father had a massive stroke and was brain dead in minutes. Exactly eleven years to the day my mother died. His heart beat for four days, but there was nothing to tell him.
I am five years old.
He stood there, in overalls, awkward, his chest a railway track of sweaty bumps, and little hard beads of hair. Everything about him is smooth-slow. Bits of brown on a cracked tooth, that endless long smile. A good thing for me the slow way he moves, because I am transparent to people’s patterns, and can trip so easily and fall into snarls and fear with jerky people. A long easy smile, he lifts me in the air and swings. He smells of diesel, and the world of all other people’s movements has disappeared. I am away from everybody for the first time in my life, and it is glorious, and then it is a tunnel of fear. There are no creaks in him, like a tractor he will climb any hill, steadily. If he walks away, now, with me, I will go with him forever. I know if he puts me down my legs will not move again. I am so ashamed, I stop myself from clinging. I jump away from him and avoid him forever. For twentysomething years, I even hug men awkwardly.
There will be this feeling again. Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it.
I am five when I close my self into a vague happiness that asks for nothing much from anybody. Absent-minded. Sweet. I am grateful for all love. I give it more than I receive it, often. I can be selfish. I masturbate a lot, and never allow myself to crack and grow my heart. I touch no men. I read books. I love my dad so much, my heart is learning to stretch.
I am a homosexual.
• This article first appeared on the website Africa is a Country and is republished with permission. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote the memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place