Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, will be a guest at the 2017 Babishai Poetry Festival.

As part of the countdown to the 2017 Babishai Poetry Festival in Uganda, the organisers are conducting a series of interviews on their guests and on writers whose works have made a landmark. The festival will be held on 4-6 August 2017.

Here, one of the guests, Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, discusses how he became an artist, the reception of his book, the writers he admires, and the place of the Ugandan writer on the global literary scene.

The event flyer.

Interviewer

What were some of the pivotal moments that shaped your path to the arts?

Mugabi Byenkya

The year was 1994. I vividly remember running up to my siblings after lunch, super excited to play. To my dismay, my siblings were all curled up on chairs in the sitting room reading. Reading. I was like “Lets play!” And my siblings replied, “No we’re reading.” Reading. What the heck was this reading thing that it could more fun than playing with me? I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread and couldn’t fathom anything being preferable to playing with me. So I went to my mom and asked her to teach me how to read.

Several months later, after slogging through numerous intense reading lessons, I discovered the one thing that was indeed superior to playing with me. Reading. After months of more intense lessons, I discovered the one thing that was superior to reading. Writing.

Interviewer

Is Dear Philomena an extraction of your biography?

Mugabi Byenkya

Dear Philomena is not an extraction of my biography in the literal sense. It is the story of one year of my life but it is not told conventionally. The novel employs magical realism to tell the story and therefore cannot be fully interpreted as a direct extraction of my biography.

Interviewer

What were some of your most rewarding moments when writing the book?

Mugabi Byenkya

Catharsis. The book was incredibly difficult to write as I share some of my most vulnerable moments and deepest fears. I had just been through one of the worst years of my life when I started writing the book. The writing process was a way to process all the pain I had experienced and putting all that pain to paper was an incredibly catharthic experience.

Interviewer

What were some of your most challenging moments when writing the book?

Mugabi Byenkya

While initially writing Dear Philomena, I could barely write for fifteen minutes every other day. Fifteen minutes of writing on alternate days would induce violent seizures and migraines. I often wondered if it was worth it. Now that I’ve built up my strength and endurance, now that I could write a whole book, now that I could share my vulnerability and story with the world, I honestly still don’t think it was worth all it put me through. However, at least I got something of substance and meaning out of it that has impacted so many people and causing the start of so many important conversations on vulnerability. 

Interviewer

What are your thoughts on art for social change?

Mugabi Byenkya

I believe that art is part of a multifaceted approach for social change. I can’t speak to the relative importance of art versus other mediums for social change such as politics, economics, science and the inherent/intertwined art within these mediums. Art has always been political and a medium for social change; nonetheless, not all art is overtly political. Not all art should be analyzed through the lens of social change.  

Interviewer

What are some of the most encouraging comments on your book?

Mugabi Byenkya

Some people who have read my book have cried several times while reading it. The fact that my writing elicited such a visceral reaction touched me more than they know.

Interviewer

What have most readers misunderstood about your work?

Mugabi Byenkya

Most readers haven’t necessarily misunderstood but have had varying interpretations of the character of Philomena. This is what I had hoped for, as I deliberately left her to be ambiguous.

Interviewer

What are three things your book mostly wants to portray?

Mugabi Byenkya

That Vulnerability is strength. That some things can never be surmounted. That it’s okay not to be okay.

Interviewer

Is writing and completing a well-received book, everything you dreamed it would be?

Mugabi Byenkya

I’ve been dreaming of writing and completing a well-received book for 21 years. Even writing down the fact that it was well-received feels strange because a part of me is still in a state of disbelief. The other part of me has ingrained Baganda modesty inherited from my mother and is cringing over the admission that my book has been well-received. It honestly still feels surreal and hasn’t fully sunk in. I don’t know if it ever fully will but I do know that it is an even more sensational feeling than I dreamed it would be.

Interviewer

Who are some of the writers whose works you admire?

Mugabi Byenkya

Isabel Allende; Louis Sachar; Brian Michael Bendis; Chris Claremont; Stan Lee; G. Willow Wilson; John Keats; Doreen Baingana; Oscar Wilde; Neil Simon; Bell Hooks; Nasir Jones; Fatimah Warner and Victor Byenkya.

Interviewer 

At what age should creative writing be introduced in a child?

Mugabi Byenkya

As early as humanly possible 😊.

Interviewer

How can Ugandan writers become more relevant to the global market?

Mugabi Byenkya

Eish. That’s a tough question. I’m honestly not sure of how Ugandan writers can become more relevant to the global market, save by telling a good story in an original way and not being afraid to experiment. I feel like writers who carry any sort of “ethnic” label are burdened by the struggles and stories of their people and feel a need to represent on behalf of their people that a lot of Western white writers don’t feel. Don’t be afraid to experiment with things labeled “stereotypically un-African” like science fiction. Tell a good story, tell it well, market it well, promote it well and sell it well.

Interviewer

Should we blame our Government for the limited literary infrastructures in our country?

Mugabi Byenkya

I’m not the best person to answer this question as I have spent the majority of my life not living in Uganda.

Interviewer

If you had unlimited resources for a day, how would you use it?

Mugabi Byenkya

Pay off the education and medical debts my family has accrued as well as the debts of everyone I possibly could. This may lead to economic issues down the line but the burden of debt is crushing and the ability to provide some relief to that would be amazing.

Interviewer

If your book were a drink, what would it be?

Mugabi Byenkya

A shot of whiskey neat mixed with Tabasco sauce.

Interviewer

Any parting remarks?

Mugabi Byenkya

“Be who you want to be, not who you are.” Many thanks.

Tags: , , ,

About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba, Nigeria and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A finalist for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, his short stories include: “A Tenderer Blessing,” which appears in Transition Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015; “Mulumba,” which appears in The Threepenny Review; and “You Sing of a Longing,” which was shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award and appears in Pride and Prejudice, an anthology by The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation. His essays appear in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and in Brittle Paper where he is Deputy Editor. His interviews appear in Africa in Dialogue, Bakwa Magazine, SPRINNG, and Dwartonline. He is the editor of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (October 2016), focuses on Nigerian cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. A postgraduate student of African Studies, he currently teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, Nigeria. When bored, he blogs pop culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."

Archives

A Kenyan Tank Engine Joins The Hit Children’s TV Show Thomas & Friends

nintchdbpict000360191926

Thomas the Tank Engine is the fictional character in Reverent Wilbert Awdry’s The Railway Series about steam locomotives. Thomas who […]

The Fall of the Gods | Chapter 6: Ise | by Anthony Azekwoh | #TFOG

anthony-Azekwoh-fall-of-the-gods-1-e1502690904876

Ebe onye dara ka chi ya kwaturu ya. Where one falls is where his god pushed him down. *** Emeka […]

Our Favorite Sci-Fi Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu Publishes a Children’s Book

wanuri kahiu wooden camel 2

For those of you who are desperately and constantly in search of African children’s books, Wanuri Kahiu’s recent collaboration with […]

Akwaeke Emezi and Uzodinma Had a Moment

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 5.14.25 PM

Akwaeke Emezi is, in more ways than one, the writer we all want to be. Her debut novel is still […]

An Ode to Depression | Victor Enite Abu

14395331431_1727aab52d_o

Some mornings, getting out of bed feels like carrying ten bags of cement. Other mornings, you float through space, watching […]

The Brittle Paper Award for Essays/Think Pieces: Meet the Nominees

billy kahora

To mark our seventh anniversary on August 1, 2017, we announced the inaugural Brittle Paper Literary Awards, to recognize the finest, original pieces of […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.