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An Interview With An Author - Helena Nwaokolo

Regular readers will probably remember I wrote a review of Helena's debut novel Passing Clouds several months ago. As the kindle version is now available, and today is the day I am heading off on a retreat that she's organised for our local writing group, it seemed an appropriate day on which to share an interview I did with her about her book.

One of the things I loved about the book was that Jenny was in many ways, ahead of her time. Issues surrounding race were huge in the 1960s and marriages between people of different races were relatively uncommon. You allude to this in the book through the reactions of her family, but were you conscious of more recent events like the Black Lives Matter movement when you were writing/editing the book?

The idea for the novel was first developed when I was studying for my Masters in 2012. I had my own collection of letters which was the germ of the first thoughts and I had become very interested in Afro-American female writers such as Toni Morrison, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston, so I was able to write my dissertation on aspects of these authors’ work which impacted on my thinking in writing the novel. I have always been very aware of contrasting views on non-Africans writing about Africa and issues around inter-racial marriages which produced dual ethnicity children. (I still believe that, as Waynetta in The Slobs, Kathy Burke’s desire for a ‘brown baby’ was one of the first oblique attacks on racism to be broadcast, although I’m not sure how intentional that was.) My university tutor put me in contact with a professor from a different faculty, herself of dual heritage, her knowledge and understanding of the history of racism and inter-racial partnerships was invaluable in giving me the confidence in pursuing the themes I had in mind.

More recent events across the world such as the fury caused by George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and my fairly recent experiences of volunteering with refugees in Calais, convinced me of a need to allow the ordinary reader opportunities to view the reality of such important issues from a point of view rarely aired. Much of Jenny’s early experience of ‘crossing the cultural line’ can be put in an historical context but I know for sure that such experiences are still an everyday occurrence. My final editing very much had this in mind.

Jenny is also an incredibly strong woman. She takes what life throws at her and makes the best she can out of it. She acknowledges when things are difficult, but perseveres with her ambitions for a better life. Adichie once said, "I think of myself as a storyteller but I would not mind at all if someone were to think of me as a feminist writer... I'm very feminist in the way I look at the world, and that world view must somehow be part of my work." Would you apply the same criteria to your own writing? How important do you think it is that there are strong female-driven stories?

When I was living in Nigeria, I had the time to do a lot of writing; journals, diary entries, essays, beginnings of novels and so on. These were all for my own eyes only. I also did a lot or reading and began to realise how few female writers were recognised as making serious contributions to literary life. Those who were, usually came from highly privileged, privately educated backgrounds. Where were the working class, state educated female voices? I still have the essay on this topic started while sitting in my air conditioned sitting room in my Nigerian home. But this was a long time ago and things have changed through several stages of evolution. Its now easy to walk into a bookshop or log onto your Kindle with a choice of entertaining, informative, sometimes thought provoking work by a variety of female authors. So although I don’t wear any of the normal feminist labels I do feel strongly that the voices of ordinary women, wherever they call home, must continue to be heard and this can only happen if they are encouraged/enabled to find that voice.

Although complicated issues are brought up throughout the story, both in terms of Jenny’s relationship and the civil war in Nigeria, at its heart the book is a story about love. There are the obvious relationships Jenny has, but it’s also about friendship and family and it reminded me of listening to Ingrid Persaud talking about her book ‘Love After Love’ when she said that the love of friends and family often comes second to romantic love in fiction writing. Did you begin the book with the intention of drawing out Jenny’s relationships with her friends and family, or was it something that developed as you were writing in order to highlight the issues within her more romantic relationships?

One intention, but by no means the primary one, was to explore the concept of ‘sisterhood’. In some of the early research I carried out, I came across the idea of intersectionality. My reading was mostly concerned with this in the context of black women but it soon became possible to apply it more widely. It appeared to me that there are many sectors where the roles, responsibilities, perceptions, behaviours etc., of all women, cross. This idea led me to explore how women from very different backgrounds and with vastly different life experiences and aspirations, could flourish within a sisterhood of understanding and mutual support. The incidents of the nursing bra and the painted toenails were two of my conscious attempts at this. Jenny’s sister-in-laws displayed a different model of womanhood which eased her assimilation into her new life. Their sisterhood reflected that of Sue and Gina earlier in her life. The early tensions between Jenny and her family are exacerbated by her choice of partners. As she grows into womanhood and motherhood there are hints that she begins to understand where their objections were based: in the social culture of the times and, perversely, in their love for her. The core of her survival is in the solid relationships which her family (new and old) and her friends offer. They cannot replace those that her romantic heart craves but they offer the necessary scaffold to hold her together throughout.

Your time in Nigeria obviously had a profound impact on you. The descriptions of the countryside were so vivid and almost poetically described. Location is obviously a hugely important part of any work of fiction and when I read it, it felt like I was there in the car with them. What is it about those places that made them stick in your mind for so many years?

Thank you for these comments. My initial journey to Nigeria was my first flight and only my second time abroad. My very first impression of the country was from the parched landscape as we approached the airport. As I stood at the ‘plane door a toddler balanced on my hip and a three year old clutching my hand, We were engulfed in tropical heat and humidity. From then on I was entranced by my surroundings – the dusty landscapes and the colourful market traders – just two of the many visions lodged in my memory. Its an obvious thing to say but then, for me, it was a sudden realisation that I was somewhere very different, like nowhere else I knew. When I visited another African nation decades later, the familiar difference struck me again. I was comfortable among the landscape and the people.

On your recommendation I’ve read a few of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. Two of them were mentioned by celebrity readers on the first series of ‘Between The Covers’ as being books that blew them away. What do you think it is about them that makes them so authentic and vivid?

I think this is the hardest question to answer! I enjoy any novel that immerses me in the world of someone else. If it has elegance in its writing and leaves me thoughtful and\or questioning, so much the better. What I think Adiche, in addition to elegance and questions, brings to the reader is a quiet insistence that the reader takes proper regard of the true essence of people and places in her writing. Her accuracy in the portrayal of her characters, their interactions and the everyday details of the environment gives the reader confidence to enter this new world.

Purple Hibiscus was the first book by Adiche that I read. It gave me much cause for thought about my own time in a similar family situation. It also presented me with more questions around cultural practices and behaviours which may seem strange to Western eyes but which have solid foundations in the lives and histories of others. Adiche’s subsequent works tell different stories, harsh sometimes, surprising too but still told in a language elegantly simple and in places quite beautiful.

Passing Clouds is available on Kindle here. If you would prefer a hard copy, drop me a line via the website and I'll pass your details on to Helena.

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