SCHENECTADY -- Hands sawing the air and lilting Kenyan accent yo-yoing from basso profundo to falsetto, Binyavanga Wainaina stares down the 12 white faces in the Union College classroom and tries to rock their world.
"I think you guys are scared of this book," Wainaina says, half taunting, before breaking into a wide grin.
The day's topic in Wainaina's class on contemporary African literature is Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," a novel that examines imperial oppression of Africans during an epic journey up the Congo River.
Binyavanga Wainaina (pronounced Bin-yuh-VON-ga Why-NINE-uh), "Bin" for short, has addressed similar themes in his own essays, short stories and a novella, which have been widely published and praised.
In an acidly sardonic essay last year in the British literary magazine, Granta, he offers advice on how to write about Africa.
"Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize," he writes. "An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress."
Wainaina is Union's visiting writer. He writes in English but also speaks Swahili and Zulu. Born in the Kenyan provincial agricultural town of Nakuru, he is a member of the Gikuyu tribe, Ugandan on his mother's side, and great-grandson of a Gikuyu tribal leader who had 25 wives.
At Union, he's jabbing a fist into the heart of whiteness.
On a campus set apart from the city that surrounds it, Wainaina -- which means "shaky shaky" in Gikuyu -- has brought a fresh perspective to Union, where 3 percent of its 2,100 students are African-American.
"The strange part isn't the whiteness of the college so much as it is trying to deal with smart students who are so sheltered from reality," he says.
"I hope Binyavanga startles students into a kind of awakening," says Harry Marten, chairman of the English department, which brought Wainaina to Union as a visiting writer through 2008.
"Union has a very powerful comfort zone and he's damned good at challenging that," Marten says.
Wainaina has his students read an essay by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who attacked Conrad's classic text as an ugly exercise in literary racism. As a follow-up, Wainaina assigns them to write two essays on "Heart of Darkness," one arguing that the novel is racist and the other that it is not.
"First and foremost, we're attacking dogma," Wainana says. "There are no easy answers. Well thought-out confusion is great."
Wainaina has grown animated again, his hefty bulk twitching beneath a brightly colored African shirt cloaked in a gray wool sweater. His tight braids swing as he speaks rapid fire, rolling his R's like a snare drum across a blend of accents and dialects from the half-dozen languages he speaks. He pauses frequently to make sure the students are following his argument.
One or two of the students nod tentatively.
"Cool," he says. "Cool."
They read their essays in class, which are mostly tepid reiterations of the flood of critical pieces on "Heart of Darkness," easily found using Google.
"Achebe's attack on this book is a polemic and sometimes a polemic is necessary," he tells the class. "Achebe isn't the whole answer to Conrad. There are a whole world of answers out there and I want you to voice yours."
During a break at the midway point of the class, Wainaina smokes a cigarette outside. He shivers, coatless, in the chilly air.
"I prefer the bite of the cold as long as there's sun," he says. "I don't like winters in London, where it's the same gray, cool, damp weather every day."
The passion Wainaina brings to his writing and teaching is striking a chord in students at Union.
"It's a lot different than my other classes," says Mariel Fox, a sophomore from Rockville, Md. "He wants to hear our opinions and he brings his own enthusiasm and new insights to every class."
Teaching college in Schenectady was not in Wainaina's career plan.
He was living in Nairobi, a founding director of Kwani?, an online and print literary journal featuring the work of Kenya's most promising young writers.
In fact, he'd never taught at the college level before.
"I was a bit nervous about doing this because I was off the grid in Nairobi and wanting to stay there," he says.
"He's really talented as a teacher, is extremely well-read and is able to talk intelligently about a dizzying array of issues in the world," says Ed Pavlic, a former Union professor who helped bring Wainaina to campus.
Wainaina's work was introduced to Pavlic by Mikhail Iossel, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who was a visiting writer at Union in the late 1990s. Iossel met Wainaina in Nairobi.
"It was beautiful to see Binyavanga in action in Nairobi, where he's an important figure in a booming art and literature scene," says Pavlic, director of the creative writing program at the University of Georgia.
Wainaina is 36, single and has two sisters and a brother. His parents have civil service jobs. They urged him to leave Nakuru during a period of political upheaval to study business at a university in South Africa.
"I spent several years failing miserably in commerce," he says, sipping a cup of extra-strong, double-bagged black tea from Starbucks in the campus center.
"I thought I had it in me to be a yuppie, but I guess I didn't," he says with a shrug.
The failed businessman discovered a latent talent for writing fiction and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia in England.
In 2006, he won the Virginia Quarterly Review's prize for short fiction for his story, "Ships in High Transit," a dark comedy set in a resort in Mombasa, Kenya, that probes the merging of local black scam artists and drunken white tourists.
Queen Rania of Jordan selected Wainaina to attend a Young Global Leader 2007 Summit in Dalian, China, which he declined in a letter shot through with satire: "It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am 'going to significantly impact world affairs,' " he wrote the queen.
At Union, Wainaina is putting the finishing touches on his first book, billed as a travel memoir about Kenya, which will be published in the United Kingdom and the United States. He's working on it while living in a big house that the college owns in the GE Realty Plot.
"I hope my book offers an amusing perspective because I didn't want to write a Kenya 101 book," he says.
He's published a novella and short stories, but has so far been afraid to tackle fiction's long form. His aborted novel remains shut away in a desk drawer, taunting him, reminding him of his "shaky shaky" status as a would-be novelist.
"I was a huge reader growing up, and I've got a thousand novels running around in my head," Wainaina says. "For me, the novel is the final form, and writing one is intimidating. Everything I've done so far is just a warm-up to that."