novelist and poet
Helena Nwaokolo was one of the first contributors to Makarelle, so when we found out she’d recently published her first novel, ‘Passing Clouds’ we were incredibly keen to have a chat to her about it.
Helena has an MA in Creative Writing and runs her local writing group in Brightlingsea. The group began life because of a workshop Helena ran as a ‘Winterfest’ event. ‘Winterfest’ is a Brightlingsea-based festival run every February to raise awareness of mental health issues and money for mental health work locally, as well as for ‘Mind’.
Helena's poem, ‘Back To The Beginning’ was published in our Spring 2021 edition. (You can access it here on page 48.)
You mention in the introduction to your book that you were influenced by the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I could certainly detect that in your style of writing, particularly in the sections that described the Nigerian countryside. What is it about her writing that attracted you?
Adichie creates worlds that have a resonance for me. Her family are from the same ethnic group as my husband and the descriptions of family life, traditions and aspirations are very familiar. She writes about important issues at both individual, societal, even global, levels in a quiet voice that somehow demands attention. Her writing informs, moves, and entertains using language as succulent as the mangoes I harvested from my Ibadan garden. Although each phrase must have been purposefully crafted, her craft is invisible. The narratives flow through descriptions of people and places. Reading her work, I rarely need to go back to a previous page or section to check my understanding or her meaning. Her voice is strong, consistent and subtle. Her writing stays with me.
When we discussed the book in our writing group we talked quite a lot about the ethics of writing, particularly in terms of telling stories from cultures that are not our own. You obviously lived in Nigeria for some time and drew on your own experiences when writing the book, but were you aware of the potential issues when you were writing it, or was it something you only considered once your first draft was done?
I knew from the outset that I was stepping into waters full of potential dangers. I did a fair amount of research both online and directly in conversations with individuals who were able to share their views that were often shaped from their life experiences. I sent an early draft to my Nigerian brother-in-law for his comments and discussed some of the more current issues with my youngest daughter whose work gives her wide insights into matters of race in the modern world. She obviously has dual ethnicity herself, she has travelled widely across Africa and Asia and I have learned to trust the objectivity of her opinions. However, I am still concerned that somewhere in my novel, I have inadvertently done exactly what I am anxious to avoid. I genuinely welcome comments on this from any reader.
Also in the introduction, you make it very clear that although you share some experiences with Jenny, her story is very much hers, not yours. Was having the two confused something you were worried about?
This is a great question.
There were times when I was deep in constructing some of the minor scenes, that I had to do a rewrite because I allowed my own voice to take over. This became apparent when I returned to a passage after a period of time. This is why I ‘walk away’ from my writing for periods of a week or more. The core narrative of Jenny’s life, the abortion, Obi’s birth, the trials of Chi’s mental decline, the suicide, and the sisterhood with her sisters-in-law are complete fiction and so it was easy to keep those quite separate. As Bruce Springsteen says about his song lyrics, ‘I was just walking in someone else’s shoes’.
This is your first novel. Can you tell us something about the process of writing it? For example, was it difficult to switch from short stories and poems to something so much longer?
When I started the novel I had no intention of writing it. It came from an exercise set by a tutor. As soon as I had written the required number of words, I was committed to making the story. It grew from there. Obviously many of the descriptive passages in London and Nigeria had been stored in my memory. I did have a collection of old letters and when I read them I surprised myself at how reluctant I had been to tell the whole truth of my life.
The final manuscript was very different from the first draft. It is now basically set in chronological order, with flashbacks, and in the first person. Originally it jumped between time and place but I realised there was no literary reason for this and chronological order made more sense for the reader. It started in first person and I changed it to third and then back to first!
I have several short stories that I have considered turning into novels. They are stories where I have introduced characters that have a bigger story to tell. Some short stories are happy within themselves. For me poems are such a different form and fulfil different needs for writer and reader. When a writing idea surfaces I know instantly whether it will be a piece of prose or poetry.
Having now got that first novel under your belt, so to speak, what would be your advice for someone just beginning theirs?
Every writer has their own way of working, I did very little planning at the outset but as the story became more complex, I needed to keep myself of the right track. I found that developing a clear idea of what each chapter had to say helped immensely. That is not to say I didn’t go back and change some of them.
For the major issues e.g., details of the civil war, I did extensive research and the chapters that deal with that are a mixture of factual detail and how I imagined the recorded events might have played out for individual families.
I guess the only helpful advice for someone setting out, is find a strong story, invent ‘real’ characters, get the details right and believe in yourself and the tale you have to tell. Just write.
Aside from Adichie, who we’ve already mentioned, which other authors have either influenced your writing or are ones you think everyone should read?
I am entranced by Toni Morrison’s work. Her stories are universal but set in the background of Afro-American history. They are often harrowing but I have found the most wonderful passages in her work, particularly Beloved. Other authors who have had an impact on me and therefore probably influenced my writing are Kamila Shastrie, Tracie Chevalier, and Helen Dunn. But there are many others.
The all-important question now is, what next? Are you planning to write another novel? If so, can you give us any hints what it’s going to be about?
Since finishing the novel I have been enjoying short stories and poetry again but I am mentally planning the next longer piece. At my age, I can’t afford the eight years it took me first time round!
But this time I see a clearer road ahead. The new narrative will be based loosely on my paternal grandparents’ early married life. I have been researching a particular part of that online and in visiting the town they lived in then. They experienced enough drama for me to try to write their life story but I have some other ideas which will move away from the personal record.
Lastly, as our theme for the next issue is ‘Tattoo’, do you have any? If so, what are they? If not and you were going to get one, what would you choose and why?
I don’t have a tattoo but I saw one on a younger person just before the pandemic struck which almost tempted me to indulge myself. It was a small, delicately drawn tattoo of a tree reaching from the back of the heel, about three inches up the back of the leg – I keep thinking about it…
About ‘Passing Clouds’
The pattern of Jenny’s young life is etched by myths and realities: the breaking of cultural convention; free-love; women’s liberation; the Biafran War and mental illness. Years later the turmoils of her life at home and in Africa finally begin to make sense.
Copies of ‘Passing Clouds’ are £7 plus P&P (these can be signed if required). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info or to purchase a copy.
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