Interview with Mugabi Byenkya on Dear Philomena, Life, Pain and Literature

When I read Mugabi Byenkya’s Dear Philomena, I was sucked into this warp hole of the experience of pain and the things that come with it -loneliness, depression, self-doubt and more. Here was an author whose experience and mine were not too far apart. His experience brought an appreciation to how different people deal with pain. His book was very personal but also very candid. It was unprecedented but so far it has been received well. I was privileged to have him respond to my questions on him, his experience, his take on literature in Africa and Uganda, and more. Enjoy the interview.

  1. Your look is very distinctive. And I think the first thing I noticed about you was the white frames. Is this is a #BlackBoyJoy thing or …coz I do not know too many people with white frames.

The white frames are actually a complete accident! I ordered my glasses online and requested translucent frames but when they arrived they were white frames! I didn’t want to go through the hassle of returning them and the white frames started to grow on me so I kept them They have now become a distinctive part of my brand/persona due to the book cover, and they are easily recognizable so they are here to stay!

  1. I wonder if you know J Givens. He and you sorta look alike. How much has rap/hiphop and generally music influenced your writing?
J Givens. (Pic :Rapzilla)
J Givens. (Pic :Rapzilla)

I had actually never heard of J Givens and never received the comparison until you mentioned him in your book review and then I checked out his music. I like his stuff! I write to music and Dear Philomena frequently mentions various songs that are either a reflection or effect of my mood at that point in the book. The book has a running soundtrack of sorts that I posted on my YouTube channel and I strongly encourage readers to listen to the songs mentioned as they read the book for a poignant reading experience that will hopefully enable readers to tap into my writing process.

 I strongly encourage readers to listen to the songs mentioned as they read the book for a poignant reading experience that will hopefully enable readers to tap into my writing process.

  1. Tell me about your process. In the novel, somewhere you write and say you have started writing your novel. Is this a book you wrote while going through that challenging period?

I remember a few years ago I could barely write for 15 minutes every other day. As a result of this miniscule amount of writing, I suffered from violent seizures and migraines. I often wondered if it was worth it. Now that I’ve built up my strength and endurance and could write a whole book and share my vulnerability and story with the world, I honestly still don’t think it was worth all it put me through. But at least I got something of substance and meaning out of it. Something that is impacting so many people and causing the start of so many important conversations on vulnerability.

The novel that I mention writing in Dear Philomena is actually a completely different novel! I ended up putting said novel on hold and hope to resume writing it soon. I would rather keep details on that novel to the minimum as I determine which direction to go. I did however enjoy the intricacies and inception involved as I wrote a novel within a novel 😉

  1. Reading the book, I found a new term – “able-bodied privilege”. To be honest, the only privilege I had known hitherto had been male privilege and white privilege. Is this something that is getting on in more liberated communities? Tell me, how did this term come about?

Privilege

I’m not sure how exactly the term able-bodied privilege came about but the above privilege wheel and the following YouTube video and article can explain privilege better than I can 🙂
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRiWgx4sHGg |  http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/what-is-privilege/

…reliving that and the sense of powerlessness that she felt and still feels, deeply hurts.

  1. Your characters share names with some of the people in the acknowledgements. Was this a tribute to your friends? Were you throwing shade on some? 

The characters in the books sharing names with people in the acknowledgements was definitely a tribute and NOT throwing shade. I named the doctors after good friends I made while living in DC as a tribute to them and because I didn’t want to get sued by the actual doctors who mistreated me LOL. I named the hospitals in the book after loved ones who have passed on as an homage to the dearly departed and to avoid potential legal ramifications.

  1. What was the most important message that you wanted to share. You touched on issues of race, sexism, religion and sexuality. Was there an overarching message you wanted to share with your readers?

The most important message I wanted to share with readers has become my personal mantra of sorts: vulnerability is strength

  1. “You have to have the right fit with a therapist.” Mental health issues have been gaining more traction lately but still a lot of us think it is a matter of seeing a counsellor or a therapist. In the phrase above, what were you saying about the process of dealing with mental health?

Therapy is a lot like dating. Sometimes you go on a date and things don’t click for one reason or the other. Sometimes you can go on a date with someone who is attractive but you aren’t attracted to them. Sometimes you are attracted to someone and things go great in your opinion but the other person does not feel the same way. The journey of finding a partner that you can have a healthy and committed long-term relationship with is not always a simple one. I believe that similarly, when searching for a therapist or counselor you should make sure that they are the right fit because if they are not things can go awry similar to failed relationships.

The most important message I wanted to share with readers has become my personal mantra of sorts: vulnerability is strength

  1. In your book you talk about a black doctor being more helpful than a white doctor. Do you think racism is something that will ever go away?

I honestly don’t know. In order for racism to go away, the racist institutions and systems worldwide that uphold white supremacy would have to go away, which I don’t see happening anytime soon. What I do hope is that people worldwide can become more cognizant of the various privileges and marginalization’s that we all occupy and work towards amplifying marginalized voices.

  1. You lost your father at a very young age. And from the book it clearly affected you. You have portion in the book where you talk to him. Was this you fleshing out how much you missed him?

The portion of the book where I talk to my father actually happened! The book is a true life factual account of a year of my life, so everything that happens to me is true. I remember sitting in church at a loss for what to do and hearing my father speak to me clear as crystal. He said “listen to your mother”. So I listened.

  1. How important is it having a father in your opinion? Do you think the little time you had with him shaped your world views?

In an interview with the New York Times, Barack Obama (who like me grew up largely without a father) says:
“There’s a wonderful quote that I thought was L.B.J.’s, but I could never verify it: “Every man is either trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes.” I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, in the absence of an immediate role model, what it meant to be a man — or in my case, a black man or a man of mixed race in this society. But as Bryan said, there’s no checklist. It’s only later you realize the things you may have done in search of that absent father.”

It’s ok not be ok.

Dear Philomena is currently in all major book stores in Kampala.
Dear Philomena is currently in all major book stores in Kampala.

This resonated with me incredibly strongly and is a succinct explanation of the importance of a father in particularly a mans life. There are a multitude of things that I have done and still do in search of an absent father. I eat papaya regularly because it was my fathers favourite fruit. I grow my beard out because my father did. I have an affinity for brown because it was my fathers favourite colour. My father left me many things including ‘manhood’ lessons that he used to sit me and my brothers down for. The little time I had with him definitely shaped my world views as he taught me the importance of: feminism, vulnerability, change and the definition of what it means to be a man: a constant state of flux.

  1. “Might you have an idea how your “Mama Bear” took all of this in? For example reading some things in your book that she might not have had first hand access to?”

Mama Bear had a lot of difficulty taking all of this in. She has honestly yet to read the book as it is too much to bear for her. I was incredibly honest with her during the year of my life that ‘Dear Philomena,’ is set in so she heard of most of what happened in the book first hand. Nonetheless, reliving that and the sense of powerlessness that she felt and still feels, deeply hurts.

People holding space for me and walking through fire for and with me, saved my life.

  1. Philomena felt like a thank you note to all the people in your life who have kept you strong. How important do you think people are in keeping us alive?

I would definitely not be alive if it wasn’t for the people that I have in my life. I’m not sure who originated this quote but “a friend is someone who sings the song of your heart to you when your memory fails” rings incredibly true. I reminisce of the multitude of near-death experiences that I have encountered thus far and people got me through every single time. More importantly, the emotional and mental anguish I have experienced that led to suicidal lows could not have been crawled out of without the love, validation and support of my wonderful friends and family. People holding space for me and walking through fire for and with me, saved my life.

  1. Do you ever feel like Philomena, the daughter you replaced?

My mother often jokes that I was wasted on a boy LOL. I have several feminine features from my long curly eyelashes, to slender legs etc. haha and she jokes that they would be better suited on the girl I was supposed to be. All jokes aside, I do often feel like Philomena largely because I don’t believe in gender roles. I believe in the social construction of gender. I believe that gender is socially constructed and the different ways we raise boys and girls leads to differences in the genders, not inherent biological differences. Thus, I have been working to unpack the ways that I was raised as a boy and eliminate the negative, amplify the positive and wholeheartedly and fully embrace my femininity, masculinity and everything in between.

  1. Care to tell us about the other Philomena in your life?

I deliberately left the character of Philomena as very ambiguous and open to interpretation. Truth be told, Philomena morphed during the writing process to become a lot of things to me that I will detail below.

  1. Philomena is who I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be born as a girl and given the name Philomena. My mother has repeated this story to me throughout my childhood and part of me always wondered what life would have been like had I been a girl named Philomena.
  2. Philomena is representative of my femininity
  3. Philomena is a combination of several close female friends and representative of the love and friendship they provided during a year I was supposed to die but somehow lived through.
  4. I am Philomena
  5. Ironically enough, my girlfriends middle name is Philomena! We started dating after the book was out and the book was in no way written for her but life works in mysterious ways 🙂
  6. Philomena is the perfect friend. Someone who can’t really exist but is full of love, validation and support. She is what I aspire to in friendships/relationships.

Philomena is the perfect friend. Someone who can’t really exist but is full of love, validation and support. She is what I aspire to in friendships/relationships.

  1. How did you feel the book would be received? Have your expectations been met?

I was honestly not expecting much from the reception of my book. I was expecting to sell copies to family and friends and had a goal of 100 copies sold. I ended up exceeding this goal in the first week due to a highly successful kickstarter campaign which was supported by my wonderful family and friends. I now have over 400 copies sold, my book has been distributed across 5 continents, it is in over 10 bookstores and I’m currently on my first book tour. The book reception has completely exceeded my expectations. I’m absolutely floored and still in a state of disbelief at how incredibly surreal all of the support I have received thus far has been. Feedback on the story has been incredible as well and I’m usually not sure how to react. Most people who have read the book have cried several times while reading it, it’s caused people to reach out to family members and friends they had given up on and created important conversations on vulnerability. My main expectation was to start more conversations on vulnerability and that has been achieved.

Mugabi Byenkya with a fan.
Mugabi Byenkya with a fan.
  1. Would you like your book to be known as African Literature or are you beyond dichotomies? Actually, what are your views on dichotomization of literature, seeing as your book spans a number of communities?

I am proud to be African and my African identity shapes me and the way I move through the world.  I am African, I wrote a piece of literature and therefore my book is African literature. I am also incredibly proud and honoured to be included in a legacy that includes greats like Nuruddin Farrah, Wole Soyinka and Nnedi Okarafor.

I believe the dichotomization of literature can be combatted through the acknowledgement and practice of intersectionality. “Intersectionality is a term coined by the African-American civil rights advocate  Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppressiondomination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include genderracesocial classethnicitynationalitysexual orientationreligionagemental disabilityphysical disabilitymental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality). My book does span a number of communities and my book acknowledges that. I am disabled, I am black, I am African, I am a man, I am Catholic etc. and these various identities intersect with no one dominant identity. Literature cannot be dichotomized because everything is inherently intersectional.

 I am African, I wrote a piece of literature and therefore my book is African literature. 

  1. Any thoughts on the Ugandan literary community?

I have immense gratitude and love for the Ugandan literary community for embracing me wholeheartedly in the way that they did. I arrived in Kampala in March knowing absolutely no one in the Ugandan literary community with no idea how to establish my book in Kampala. The Ugandan literary community welcomed me with open arms, I have fostered incredible connections with amazing people. The Ugandan literary community is incredibly tight knit, full of artists supporting other artists and undergoing a renaissance of sorts that it feels wonderful to be a part of.

  1. Are there plans for another book? More plans for the current book?

I plan on revisiting and completing the aforementioned novel within the novel and I have a poetry collection I’m slowly working on as well. No plans on releasing another book until next year at the earliest as I plan on spending the rest of the year promoting, marketing and selling Dear Philomena. My goal is to sell 1000 copies by a year from the release date and hopefully it will be actualized! Currently, I’m on the second stop of a 20 stop North American book tour which I still can’t believe to be honest. Follow along my adventures:
Twitter – @mugabsb
Instagram – @mugabs
Facebook – @mugabsb
Blog – www.theysaidishouldtalkmore.wordpress.com

  1. What would you tell someone going through something similar in their life? Disease is something we often deal with privately but you have matched it strength for strength. For other people, readers out there dealing with chronic pain issues, mental health issues, terminal illness issues, what word of encouragement would you give them?

It’s ok not be ok.

  1. Any last word?

Last night I couldn’t fall asleep until 5am because of how much pain I was in. I slept until 11am and woke up unable to move. I couldn’t get out of bed until 3pm because of seizures, pain and fatigue. I eventually gained enough energy and fortitude to get out of bed and had to cancel my plans to visit my friend because I was unable to. I still struggle every single day. I doubt myself. I give up. I fail. You can’t overcome everything in life, but you can learn to manage and adjust.

Read my review of Dear Philomena. You can purchase a copy of Mugabi Byenkya’s Dear Philomena at Turn the Page.

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9 thoughts on “Interview with Mugabi Byenkya on Dear Philomena, Life, Pain and Literature

  1. Dear Philomena is a drug that every one human, at one point in life,must stop and take. Thanks for sharing your story, Mugabi. And thank you for the initiative, Joel. Vulnerability is strength indeed.

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