Book Review: Dear Philomena by Mugabi Byenkya

This review tries very hard not to have spoilers.

When Mugabi began to recite a poem on the launch of his book on Saturday 3rd June, at 32 Degrees East, Kansanga, I’d have thought he was J Givens if I had not been watching. His style, akin to the American rapper’s piqued my interest. Perhaps it was intentional because even the novel starts with a rap verse –

““They’re calling me the Kunta Kinte of Rap! Claiming a brother from the continent never spit it as confident as that.” I rapped along to 3-Card, as my head bopped to the beat and my fingers clacked on the keys.”

Donned in a light army green shirt with an image of his book cover on it, glasses with white frames, a wholesome beard and flowing smiles, Mugabi Byenkya, tall and lean bodied, began to give a background to his debut novel in a cosy room filled with mostly poets, his family and his friends.“@gabster” as he refers to his social media self in his book was expressing himself as fascinatingly as the guy on the cover of his book.

You cannot not find the cover of this book interesting. A face split into two with snail mail flowing between the two parts. If the cover doesn’t reveal that what he’s talking about is a “split personality”, perhaps the prologue will give you a hint and the epilogue confirm it.

In an unprecedented style, Mugabi storifies a trying period in his life as he addresses key issues of chronic pain, mental illness and depression. It’s not something that Mugabi keeps from you until a later time in the novel, no, the story of his experience with strokes starts right from the first chapter, that is, “February 2001”.

The novel is laid out in 15 chapters which are 14 months (one repeated); Feb 2001 being the first time he has a stroke, Dec 2014 being the second time and the next 12 months detailing the complications he deals with which include constant seizures, pain episodes, weakness, insomnia, his seemingly vain search for the right diagnosis, his frustrations with doctors who seem to be on a guessing game, even friends who cannot bear his new condition.

He drops some very short but deep phrases, like “It’s pathetic what overexertion entails these days.” And anyone who has chronic pain can relate. I can because I know that a shower, writing for 20 minutes, standing up can make you relapse into pain. So when he speaks of friends who don’t understand as having “able-bodied privilege”, it makes perfect sense to me.

The story is told in a series of conversations Mugabi has with Philomena, by text message, snail mail and calls, as well as with himself by way of writing in his diary and social media under the handle “@gabster”.

The influence of music is felt with several world famous artists coming up in conversation. His own artistry expressed in a long poem he writes to Philomena expressing his discontent with loss, pain, generally the ugly side of the human condition.

There are other themes like racism, sexuality and the influence of theism. At one point Mugabi remarks how the book of Job should have been named the book of Mugabi. Philomena on the other hand always adds an Islamic greeting when wishing him to get better and it is clear that we have Islam and Catholicism interacting on a very intimate yet non-offending level.

There is a heavy undertone for bi-sexuality throughout the novel but perhaps that is something the reader will decide on.

As you listen to the conversations (having read the prologue) you keep wondering, is there really a friendship as close and as personal as this? That could there indeed be a friend who sticks closer than a brother (the way the Bible puts it?) Someone that never gets tired of your endless venting and whining and complaining and only always offers the right things to say? Writes you letters and sends you gifts?

And you are constantly saying no, because of the prologue, and in fact, the epilogue. It cannot be. Decidedly, the moment you get to the “Acknowledgements”, the characters in the conversations make sense. And you realise what Philomena means. What it means to those struggling with depression. What it means to those dealing with pain. What it means to Byenkya.

The device Byenkya uses to relay his message is very clever. Right from the cover, to the background story of his birth, the characters and the acknowledgements, you feel that if this came through to him in such a trying time, we should definitely expect some more enjoyable stuff from this stroke survivor.

Pages:  216
Publisher :Discovering Diversity Publishing
Year: 2017
ISBN : 9781773530031

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