Mawunyo Gbogbo on her debut memoir—it can be scary baring your soul

Today we’re in conversation with the fantastic Mawunyo Gbogbo for our ‘Behind the Book’ segment. Mawunyo was born in Ghana, raised in Muswellbrook in the NSW Hunter Valley, and now calls Sydney home. She has previously won a UN Media Peace Award for her work as an associate producer for Insight on SBS TV.

Currently, Mawunyo works as a music and pop culture reporter for Double J and ABC News. Her debut memoir – Hip Hop & Hymns, is out by Penguin Books Australia and is available at all leading bookstores. 

When did you first think of writing your memoir- Hip Hop & Hymns?

Mawunyo- In 2001, I went through some shit – and I thought back then – if I get through all of this in one piece, I really should write about it someday. Especially given that’s what I do – I write. I certainly couldn’t have written about it back then – it was too raw. But with some distance and reflection, it’s quite a powerful story. I enrolled in a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS with the goal of getting it all out on the page. But that wasn’t the right time either, even once I’d completed that course in 2008. The story was yet to fully evolve to the story it is now. Now is definitely the right time to tell this story. 

You’ve beautifully and with utmost honesty talked about the vulnerabilities in life. How did you gather the courage?

Mawunyo- Thank you for saying that. It wasn’t easy – but at the end of the day being brave was a choice. And it was one I had to make early and stick with. There was no other way to write this book. Hip hop artists talk all the time about being real and I wanted to appeal to the type of reader who values authenticity. And I also think it’s pretty easy to see through bullshit. But it can be scary baring your soul like that. It can be scary being your true self. Because to some people, this is just entertainment – which is fine, my story is entertaining – but it’s also my life. Some real shit went down. I believe there’s no point in writing a memoir unless you’re going to have that respect for your readers and dig deep. When I think about the memoirs I’ve loved reading – they were brutally honest. I can also recall reading memoirs that aren’t revelatory at all – and I was bored. Reading widely gave me a good lesson in what to do and what not to do.

Would you say writing this memoir was therapeutic for you?

Mawunyo- It was in a way – but it was also hard work. My biggest takeaway would be everything happens for a reason. I look back at my life and I can see how one thing led to another led to another… and how even in my darkest moments – there was always light at the end of the tunnel – there was always a lesson to be learnt. When you see your life on the page, you realise that if that really shitty, horribly devastating thing didn’t happen in March, you wouldn’t be the person you are in September.

Did you have to go through some initial rejections while getting your book published?

Mawunyo- Yeah! By the publisher that published my book – Penguin Random House! I first met with my publisher on Valentine’s Day one year, but where was the love? But really, they said no initially. I don’t think it even went to Acquisitions. I guess I made enough of an impression though that when I asked my agent to approach them again (by then I had written more and finessed what I had), they had another look at my manuscript and made an offer.

How does it feel to see the labour of your love at the bookstores?

Mawunyo- It’s the best feeling in the world. The equivalent of a musician hearing their song on the radio! Seeing someone reading it on the train – now, that would be like being invited onto the radio station you’ve listened to your whole life! I can’t wait till the day I see that. I have visited quite a few bookstores – I’ve been popping in, signing copies and giving booksellers a bit of a spiel on what Hip Hop & Hymns is about if they’re unsure. My favourite visit so far has been to Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill. They knew I was coming – I always call ahead – but they swear they hadn’t altered their display to factor that in. My book was in their window! And I was featured in the Gleebooks newsletter that week. Made my day! 

Photo Credit- Frederick McHenry

How many rewrites did you have to go through while writing Hip Hop & Hymns?

Mawunyo- Writing is all about re-writing – so the answer to that question is a hell of a lot. I had a weird naming system when it came to my files so it’s difficult to tell – but at a guess – I would say I wrote maybe 50 drafts. 

Looking back at your journey, is there anything you’d want to say to your younger self?

Mawunyo- Of course! There’s a paragraph in my book where I’m reflecting as an adult on my confused teenage state, and I write: 

“What I wish somebody had told me then was some guys just weren’t worth my time, but there was going to be someone out there who was. And girl, pick some better stuff to listen to – or at least don’t take what you’re listening to so literally.”

In context, I was listening to the grittiest of gritty hip hop and internalising much of the misogyny. You couldn’t have kept me away from that stuff as a teenager, so I would just tell my younger self to listen to it differently – to treat it like entertainment, not gospel and to be a little kinder to myself. I’d add: “You’re gorgeous, you’re desirable, you’re the shit. Believe that – because the guy you’re crushing on certainly does.” 

What do you wish to convey to your readers through this book?

Mawunyo- Everyone will take away something different – but I guess what I want to convey is this is just one story within a rich tapestry of stories from my community. It isn’t representative of the whole community – there are many people with vastly different experiences to mine. I want people to go away thinking that was a satisfying read, and to seek more stories by other authors in my community – and if you can’t find them, demand them. If you’re part of the community – write one yourself. There are many great storytellers whose stories also deserve to be told. I also wanted to convey that this is a complicated story with lots of threads – but every little thing is there for a reason. There’s nothing superfluous in this story. If it didn’t belong, it was discarded in a previous edit. So, the story you have today is the story that’s meant to be.

Is there any unfulfilled dream for you?

Mawunyo- I want to be a reporter for 60 Minutes.

What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?

Mawunyo- My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Love that book.

Do you have any tips for the new aspiring writers who are working on their first book?

Mawunyo- I actually lead a workshop for writers of African descent at the Max Webber Library in Blacktown in Sydney’s West once a fortnight. I share lots of tips in this class, and to join, all you need to do is go to the WestWords website and email Chris. If you can’t make it to the library, you can join virtually. That’s my tip – join a community of writers. Join a workshop where you can get feedback on your work, as well as learn all the rules – so you can break them. It’s easier to break the rules when you know what they are.

Lastly, what are you working on next?

Mawunyo- I’m focused on making sure people know about Hip Hop & Hymns so they can grab a copy, get their family and friends a copy and tell their colleagues about it. That’s my focus. It’s all about Hip Hop & Hymns right now. That’s where I’m directing my energy. Hip Hop & Hymns is the now and next of what I’m up to.

Hip Hop and Hymns was published on 31st May 2022 by Penguin Books Australia. You can purchase the book here.