Disability, Comics, and Entrepreneurship with Mugabi Byenkya: A Spoonie Authors Podcast

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Today we are joined by poet, novelist, and comics writer Mugabi Byenkya!

Mugabi Byenkya author headshot

Mugabi Byenkya is an award-winning writer, poet and occasional rapper.

Mugabi was longlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in 2015. His essays and poetry have been published in The Good Men Project, The Mighty, and Skin Deep, in addition to over 25 other publications. He has been interviewed on Voice of AmericaNTV UgandaAfrica In Dialogue and Brittle Paper, among 40 other media outlets.

In 2018, Mugabi was named one of 56 writers who has contributed to his native Uganda’s literary heritage in the 56 years since independence by Writivism. Dear Philomena was named a Ugandan bestseller in the same year.


Dianna Gunn: Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors Podcast, a podcast where we discuss the life and stories of different disabled authors. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn and joining us today is Mugabi Byenkya, an award-winning writer, poet, and occasional rapper, who was born in Nigeria to Ugandan parents, and is usually based—or is currently based—in Kampala. Mugabe was long listed for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in 2015, and his essays, poetry, and comics have been published in Carte Blanche, Best Canadian Poetry, and Skin Deep, along over 30, over 30 other productions, or publications. Oh god, I’m really bad at speaking today.

Mugabi Byenkya: No worries; go for it.

Dianna Gunn: He has been interviewed on Voice of America, NTV Uganda, and Brittle Paper, along with over 50 other media outlets. Hello, Mugabi!

Mugabi Byenkya: Hello. Pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, it is really great to have you. We had quite a bit of chaos trying to get a time set up for this interview. I feel that actually makes it the most the authentic Spoonie Authors Podcast interview yet because our Spoonie problems have caused many delays [laughs].

Mugabi Byenkya: [Laughs] Exactly. And yeah, it was one week it was me, one week was you, one week it was me, and one week was you. It was hilarious, the back and forth, but I appreciate you for being accommodating.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, and I’m really excited to finally have you here. So, let’s get started. Tell us what you’ve been working on lately.

Mugabi Byenkya: Lately, I’ve been working on more comics. I had my first, like, ever comic published a couple of months ago, which was huge for me because I’m a huge comic book nerd, and I have been since I was a child, and I have a massive collection of—between me and my brother—over 5000 comics [Dianna says, “Wow!”] and comics is always a dream. Yeah [laughs]. We’ve been—

Dianna Gunn: That’s awesome!

Mugabi Byenkya: Yeah, we’ve been collecting since ’98, was when I first got into it with him. And ever since then, all of our money, went to comics, pretty much, and I mean the older we got the more money we could spend, which is great. And so, comics was always like a lifelong goal, but I saw it as a far-off thing. And so, I was really excited to have that first one. It’s a two pager, published, and then through that and collaborating with my wonderful illustrator friend, Paul Bourgeois, I’m just trying to put out more individual one or two pagers and then eventually build up to a full length because that’s a lot easier on my body because I can’t write as much as I would to or used to. Whereas with the comics, it’s more so I just write a little something and then I give it to Paul to work his magic and together we create something so it’s a lot more accessible. [Dianna says, “That’s awesome!”] And that’s what I’m working on.

Dianna Gunn: What types of comics are they, like genre-wise?

Mugabi Byenkya: Um, Paul’s style is like very, um… it’s, I mean, it’s honestly like nothing I’d ever seen before. Um, they’re poems originally, and then Paul sort of transforms the poetry into comics that tell the story with the visuals and the lettering at the same time. Difficult for me to explain. Maybe you can link one of them whenever this goes live, but it’s basically visual poetry. It’s like a mix between—halfway between visual poetry and a comic, and I really it. It’s fun to work it.

Dianna Gunn: That sounds really cool. And are you planning… do you have a publisher for that, or are you going to be self-publishing them? 

Mugabi Byenkya: Um, well right now, I’m just trying to send them off to different publications and magazines that accept comics, so that I can get the individual pieces, get a couple of them published to build up some traction. And then after that, I’m looking for—I had my first one published in Carte Blanche, which is all Montreal-based magazine, which was great. And then just trying to get more added up and then I’m looking for and have my eyes on a couple publishers in terms of the long term, but I don’t want to put out a full-length comic, unless I can really push it to the best of my ability because I feel like my first book has led me to realize that I’m capable of a lot more with my work. And so, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t surpass that. And right now, because of my health, and because of the pandemic, I wouldn’t be able to push it even if I wanted to, and even if I was in a position to be meeting with a publisher, so I’m just taking my time with it.

Dianna Gunn: That’s what publishing is. It’s a lot of time.

Mugabi Byenkya: Umhm. And I’ve learned from lessons in the past that if I tried to rush or try to go for the first opportunity or go for what is being sort of pushed on me without really sussing it out… It sometimes leads to being taken advantage of, so I’m trying to do better with being more cautious with any sort of publication arrangements that I get into.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. There are a lot of people out there who are looking to take advantage of eager writers and also a lot of the more traditional publishing contracts and models are really not friendly to the writers. So, it is really important to pay attention to who you’re looking at publishing with and what their contracts are and what they can actually provide you.

Mugabi Byenkya: Definitely. And especially if I feel if you’re a lot more established, you have more power in what you can say and what you can determine, but I have been doing this for like five years now, and I’m happy with where I am, but I don’t have the power to demand, you know, to a major publisher to “my way or the highway,” and I want full creative control and everything, so I have to finesse the situations.

Dianna Gunn: So, tell us about this first book. Let’s go back a bit, I guess.

Mugabi Byenkya: Sure thing. So, my first book is called Dear Philomena. And it’s epistolary novel-memoir. It’s largely a memoir but has fictional elements. I think they call it autofiction. There are lots of different names for the sort of writing it is, but it’s a series of conversations. So, the whole book is the story of a year of my life. I to call it the story of two strokes, one boy, one girl, and a whole lot of magical realism. Because the story basically begins with my birth, and when I was in my mother’s womb, the doctors did the ultrasound, and they told her congratulations are expecting a baby girl, and she was super excited, super happy because she wanted two boys and two girls, and she was getting that because she had my sister, my two brothers, and she was expecting the second girl to round up the quartet, and she had this whole dream since she was a child to have two boys, two girls and girl-boy-boy-girl, in that order. So, she went out bought a bunch pink dresses, frilly bonnets, got super excited and picked up the name Philomena for her baby girl. And when she gave birth, the doctors assigned me with the male gender and “congratulations, new baby boy.” My mother was super shocked, super surprised, and she was… she ended up putting me in all those pink dresses and frilly bonnets because [Dianna laughs softly], I mean [laughs], she shouldn’t buy them for nothing and…

Dianna Gunn: She spent the money on them; might as well make sure they get used.

Mugabi Byenkya: Exactly. [Dianna laughs] And I ended up in some of my sister’s hand-me-down dresses, and she really raised me as like her baby Philomena and once I outgrew those, she sorts things out. But as a result of that, I was raised in a more feminine manner than other boys. And so, I’ve always had this story. Throughout my life. My mom told me the story over and over again of “the woman who you’re supposed to be.” And so, at the end of 2014, when I was really going through it because I unfortunately suffered from two back-to-back strokes, I started writing these letters to Philomena, to the woman I was supposed to be. And those letters ended up getting flushed out and turned into basically text message conversations, which is the majority of the book, with me texting Philomena and Philomena texting me. Us calling each other. You get peeks into my diary, you get peeks into my social media, you get music that we share back and forth, and there’s like a running soundtrack throughout the book. So, it’s a lot of things. It’s an unconventional narrative, but I found that working within that was—it constrained me in a way that led to great creativity because I feel with most of my full-length writing projects, I like being constrained in a certain way that I have to figure out creative ways to tell the story. Because when you’re telling a story through conversation, you can’t rely on all the tricks and things that you would with a normal novel, because it’s hard to tell description, for example, through a quick observation, and so you constrain it that way and challenge it that way. It was a great experiment and a lot of fun, very cathartic.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, I was just gonna ask if writing that book was cathartic and helped you process certainly the whole experience of having this idea of Philomena, but also processing strokes that you had.

Mugabi Byenkya: Massively, massively, definitely. I went through a lot of gaslighting and racism from the medical industry. And so, there was a lot of every single doctor I went to telling me I’m “crazy” and then me believing I’m “crazy” because if every single doctor tells me I’m “crazy,” then I must be “crazy.” And a lot of thoughts going through my mind, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of grief, of grieving the body I used to have compared to what I have now, and writing was incredibly cathartic. And it was painful. It was physically painful because Spoonie life. But ultimately, while I was writing it, I was full of regrets. And was it worth everything it’s putting my body through? But now in hindsight, I used to say that I’m not sure it was worth it, but now that it’s six years after the events of the book—five, six years after we went through the book—I can confidently say that it was worth it. And it did help me with processing, getting my feelings out and sort of leaving that chapter as a chapter in the past, so that I can move forward with my new life and newfound limitations.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah. And were you a writer before your health issues started happening, or is that really what got you into writing?

Mugabi Byenkya: That’s what spurred me into… No actually, I was a writer before, yeah. The health issues spurred me into publishing. But I’ve been writing since I was a child. I remember when I read my first book, I fell in love with stories and storytelling. Started, you know, writing short stories and poetry as a kid. But that was all private, was all stuff I didn’t share. Writing that I did share was music. I used to write rap songs, and I rapped them in music videos, and my friends, occasionally performed, and that was my more public-facing writing. And then the poetry was more so like spoken word, which I got into heavy performing, and I was a member of the poetry slam scene, still am, for a while. And so, the health more so prompted the public because I was dealing my impending potential deaths because after the strokes were real touch and go, very volatile situation, and I’ve had all the doctors say I was gonna die, and my family said I was gonna die, all my friends said I was gonna die… And I’d always had a dream of being an author but shunted it to a Plan B or a side project or side hustle because not the most practical career…

Dianna Gunn: [Laughs] Oh really? [Laughter] You’re telling me writers aren’t rich?

Mugabi Byenkya: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, the 1% are the JK Rowlings of this world, you know? But It’s strange how people see the 1% of writers as representative of all of us. Because so many of my friends and family think I’m massively successful when it’s like: I live in my mom’s house [laughs]. Like, we all know this, and we all know that I’m massively disabled, and most of the time I’m out of it. But it’s like you put out a book and people—especially because I’ve toured extensively—people see, the whole writing thing is like something that is really not for most people. And so, I was very much pressured into getting a more sustainable and practical career in STEM. Well, that’s what my background is academically. And the strokes stopped that because academia and the departmental sciences were no longer accessible to me, but writing was because writing is something going on time, something I can do for like 15 minutes, you know, maybe one day, and then maybe put in another 15 minutes. And I don’t know, a lot of disabled people and Spoonies, I find, are kind of forced into entrepreneurship because everything else is inaccessible to us. And so, I feel a similar thing happened to me.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, for sure. I’ve heard a few stories like that on this podcast, and it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with. I was recently offered a full-time job and while I am mostly a freelance by choice, there’s definitely a factor at this point. I’m not 100% Sure I could work a full-time job that expects me to work within certain hours.

Mugabi Byenkya: Umhm. It’s a struggle. Like, I had a full-time job for a couple of months. I was teaching and every Friday like clockwork, I would wake up and go into a seizure and have to call in sick, and I was lucky that a lot of those Fridays happened to be public holidays, but a couple of them, I couldn’t make it, and I just saw it wasn’t sustainable for my body after a term. Because I got a lot worse health-wise after that.

Dianna Gunn: So, on that note? Do you have any advice for disabled writers who are just getting into writing and looking to tell stories, especially like their own stories?

Mugabi Byenkya: Yes. Um, I mean, there are a lot of wonderful publications that center disabled writers that are edited by disabled people that are run by disabled people, and so I would encourage any disabled writers who are looking to tell their stories to look into most publications, and maybe start submitting some stuff or disabled writers’ groups, because there are quite a few. Just to build that community of people who get it. And also, I’d encourage any disabled writers to just not put ableist, like, don’t live your life by ableist standards, as critical as that is because I struggle with that a lot. I try my best to unlearn and unpack because all the demands and deadlines that able-bodied people can function by; a lot of times we can’t, and I feel going easy on ourselves is imperative to the writing process.

Dianna Gunn: Absolutely. Awesome. So that wraps us up, but before we go, where can people go to find out more about you and maybe to grab a copy of Dear Philomena?

Mugabi Byenkya: People can go to my website which is http://www.mugabibyenkya.com. There’s a link to buy both eBook and paperback there. And if you’d like to follow me on social media, my Instagram is mugabs. Twitter is MugabsB. And my Facebook page is the same: MugabsB. And I have a whole bunch of publications as well that are available in a bunch of different magazines and publications that you could find on a website to read through for free!

Dianna Gunn: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been lovely having you and good luck with the rest of this year. Kick its ass!

Mugabi Byenkya: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate ya.

Dianna Gunn: Thank you for listening to this episode of Spoonie Authors Podcast. This podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network. An initiative dedicated to building community among disabled creatives. Join the community by participating in the Spoonie Authors Chat on Twitter at 1pm EST, every Sunday. Just search for the hashtag #SpoonieAuthChat. We look forward to meeting you!

Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Modified for clarity by Cait Gordon.

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