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.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young’s writing has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, the 2017 Gerald Kraak Award, and nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. His fiction has appeared in Transition (“A Tenderer Blessing,” 2015), The Threepenny Review (“Mulumba,” 2016), and Pride and Prejudice: African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality (“You Sing of a Longing,” 2017), an anthology of The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation. His work further appears in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays, Africa in Dialogue, and Brittle Paper, where he is submissions editor. He is the editor of the Art Naija Series: a sequence of concept-based e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness. The first anthology, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (Oct., 2016) focuses on cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June, 2017) focuses on professions. He attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and currently teaches English at another Nigerian university. When bored, he blogs pop culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.

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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.

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