Spotlight On / Mawunyo Gbogbo

‘I think in order to write a compelling memoir, you need to leave your ego at the door and be vulnerable. That’s the most important element. I couldn’t have written Hip Hop & Hymns if I was too worried about what other people would think of me.’

In our Spotlight On series, we chat with a member of the Writing NSW community to celebrate their success and learn more about their writing practice. This month we put the spotlight on journalist and author, Mawunyo Gbogbo. Mawunyo spoke with Nevenya Cameron from Writing NSW about her memoir Hip Hop and Hymns,  memoir as an art-form, music, pop-culture and representation.

Your memoir Hip Hop & Hymns, which canvasses growing up and forging your media career as an African woman in Australia, has been described as ‘gripping’, ‘distinctive’ and ‘hard to put down’. What do you feel are the most important elements of writing a compelling memoir?

Thank you for your question. The key thing, to me, would be vulnerability & honesty. I think in order to write a compelling memoir, you need to leave your ego at the door and be vulnerable. That’s the most important element. I couldn’t have written Hip Hop & Hymns if I was too worried about what other people would think of me. There’s a lot in there that I find personally embarrassing, humiliating even. There are plenty of experiences in there that were extremely difficult to live through, let alone write about. There are moments that are incredibly heart wrenching. But there’s also great humour and lightness because that’s the way I get through things. If you don’t laugh sometimes, you’ll cry. I felt that if I was going to write a compelling book, I needed to show my readers respect and be honest. And people can see through bs anyway.

I also felt it was important for me to write the type of memoir I enjoy reading. There’s nothing worse than committing to a book, getting to the end of it and feeling cheated in some way – or even thinking – what did I just read? I love books that are ‘gripping,’ ‘distinctive’ and ‘hard to put down,’ and it’s such a thrill to have my book described in this way, and that comes down to working with my publisher to select the moments I was going to write about and how I was going to tell these stories.

By the time my book was released, I was already in my early 40s. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had done a lot of living in that 40-or-so years, and not all of it could fit in a 365-page book. I needed to be ruthless. If something wasn’t serving the overall narrative, it would end up on the cutting room floor. That trip to Jamaica was fun – even lifechanging in some ways – but did it move the story forward? No? Well, it had to go. I also love reading memoirs that incorporate dialogue and scenes, and so I made sure my book had both. That’s where my journals came in handy, as did the interviews I did with people from my life – family, friends, former colleagues – just to make sure our memories matched up and to get some perspective on how they saw some of our shared experiences.

Having worked in the mediums of journalistic non-fiction, songwriting and now fiction, what inspired you to choose memoir as the form to tell this story?

As a journalist, I can spot a good story when I see one and I knew I had a good story to tell. But I initially enrolled in a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS because I wanted to turn my story into a work of fiction. I was worried at the time about how some of the people in the story might react to being written about. By the time I finished my Master’s degree, however, I came to the conclusion that I needed to write my story as a memoir for two reasons. 1) I was sticking to the facts in my story anyway and just changing minor details, but the minor details I was changing made certain things in the story not make sense. For example, my main character confidently had a banging body – but then why did she feel the need to take diet pills when she was in New York? And 2) I realised that part of the reason my story was so compelling was that it’s true! So, I stripped everything back and wrote a memoir.

Hip hop music has always been a profound part of your life, with your internship at The Source magazine in New York sparking your career in music and culture journalism. How do you feel music and your writing practice speak to one another?

I write song lyrics in my spare time – so they’re literally intertwined there. And there’s a real rhythm and flow to feature writing. The way you structure your sentences can make a story easier to read. You wouldn’t repeatedly use sentences that are all the same length, for example. And there’s a real musicality to that. Editorially, my appreciation for so many different genres of music informs the research I do, the questions I ask artists, and the focal point of my storytelling.

Congratulations on having Hip Hop & Hymns optioned for TV! In the book, you highlight the extreme lack of diversity in Australian media. What do you think is important about representing more African faces on Australian screens?

Thank you so much! I am very excited that the TV, film and stage rights have been acquired for Hip Hop & Hymns, and I couldn’t be happier that its Typecast Entertainment who have acquired those rights, led by company founders Tony Briggs, who created and wrote The Sapphires, and Damienne Pradier. I feel it’s in very safe hands.

It’s 2024 and I don’t see myself represented on screen in the Australian media. As for scripted TV, it’s rare to see Black people represented on screen there too. There are plenty of creatives from the African diaspora in Australia – writers, actors, producers, directors, journalists too – we just need to be given a chance.

First and foremost, I am a fan. I watch television. I watch movies. I listen to the radio and podcasts. There are lots and lots of people like me who are hungry for content. So, TV execs really should look at this practically. How are you going to run a business and ignore half your clientele? Do so at your own peril, I say. We will vote with our remotes. With the UN estimating that by 2050, one in four people will be African, now is the time to get on board, pay attention and serve your audience, or fade into irrelevance.

Your memoir portrays not only your own experiences of racism, but those of your Indigenous partner, Tyce. How did you balance representing both these experiences in your memoir?

I didn’t set out to write a book about racism, and I haven’t. Hip Hop & Hymns is about so much more. But in representing my experiences and the experiences of those close to me, like Tyce, it was inevitable that racism would be part of my story.

I was raised in Muswellbrook, NSW where the Indigenous population is 11.7%. Nationally, it’s 3.8%, so that makes the Indigenous population in Muswellbrook about three times the national average. Meanwhile, the African population didn’t stretch much further than my immediate family. Given the White Australia policy didn’t end till 1973, it goes without saying that Tyce and I would both have experiences with racism.

Tyce was locked up at such a young age, and he’s been caught up in a cycle of recidivism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are dramatically overrepresented in youth detention. In 2023, First Nations young people were 29 times more likely to be in detention that non-Indigenous youth. Indigenous children don’t have more criminal tendencies than the rest of the population, so this suggests they’re being targeted by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Victims of crime should care about this the most, because figures show a huge percentage of juveniles released from detention are in jail again within 12 months. Hopefully, people can empathise with Tyce’s journey and realise that the solutions we have now are just not working. So, isn’t it about time we explored new solutions and look to people who have dedicated their lives to finding a better way?

In Hip Hop & Hymns, you also see Tyce’s mother open up to me with a firsthand account of the Stolen Generations, which can sometimes be relegated in people’s minds to the distant past, when in actual fact, it wasn’t that long ago.

These issues come up organically through the people you meet in my story. They’re not forced. Simply by sharing some of my interactions with Tyce, you get a glimpse into some of the issues he’s faced, alongside what I have had to deal with, which includes systemic and institutionalised racism in my chosen field of employment – the media.

With a novel currently in the works, what do you find challenging about writing fiction compared with writing memoir?

The hardest thing is second guessing myself with plot points, given I’m making it up and not drawing entirely from experience. In saying that, there are a lot of truth bombs in my novel.

Which Australian writers are you currently drawing inspiration from as you work on your first work of long-form fiction?

I’m currently reading The Youngest Son by John Byrnes and I’m really enjoying it. I’m inspired by the characterisation in that novel and his ability to hook you in and keep you turning those pages. I’m curious to find out how it all plays out. I’m also inspired by debut author Holly Gramazio who wrote The Husbands. What a brilliant idea – an attic that produces an endless supply of husbands! Also, I think it would be remiss of me not to mention the novel that ultimately inspired me to keep writing and that’s Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang. She’s not an Australian author, but I did go and see her speak at the Sydney Opera House! I love that book so much. It rekindled my love for reading and, crucially, reminded me of why I write, while sparking my creativity.

Mawunyo Gbogbo is the author of the memoir Hip Hop & Hymns, published by Penguin Random House. The TV, film and stage rights for Hip Hop & Hymns have been acquired by Typecast Entertainment. Mawunyo has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years and is an ABC journalist specialising in popular culture. She is currently working on her second book and debut novel. Discover more about Mawunyo here and follow her journalistic career here.

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