Myne Whitman is a Nigerian born and United States based writer, poet and blogger. Recently, she came out with her first novel, A Heart To Mend, a fictional narrative, which seeks to revive the fading romance form in nation’s narrative oeuvre. In this e-mail interview, the novelist, Nkem Okotcha, who prefers to write with the Pen name, Myne Whitman, a transliteration of her real names, brilliantly and critically responds to some engaging issues raised from the deep journey around her narrative universe. She spoke to McPhilips Nwachukwu.
Nkem, tell me about yourself, about your world of childhood and growing up and how the experiences helped to shape your adult visions?
I am a Nigerian blogger, writer and poet. I am also the author of A Heart to Mend, my first novel. I live in Seattle with my husband and write full time. I write mostly romance and love poems though recently I have been trying my pen at literary short stories. I am currently working on my next novel, also a romance. ..
I was born at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Enugu, Nigeria and I grew up in that city till my middle secondary school. I attended Ekulu Primary School, Queens School Enugu, Special Science School Agulu and Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.
I remember as a child studying a lot, reading everything I could lay my hands on, and then trying to play the rest of the time. My mother was a school teacher and my father worked for the electoral commission, so the love of reading and education came from them and from the environment of Enugu, which is a part an academic and civil service city.
This early background made me very cosmopolitan because I went to school with people from all across the country and outside. Reading a lot makes me sometimes come across as quiet but I do like a good loud debate too, having watched my father and his friends talk politics and football. In three words, I will describe myself as friendly, caring and fun-loving. I realized early on through books that it was possible to be whoever and do whatever you wanted to do. I learnt to stretch my wings even further when I first left the country. I have been a teacher, NGO consultant, banker, skate-hire attendant, and researcher and have worked for the government both in Nigeria and Scotland.
Your real name is Nkem, which in Igbo means Mine. Etymologically , nkem in Igbo pre-supposes both affection, if you like, deep love and possession. And also the title of your work is A Heart to Mend. What have names got to do with your story and whose heart is being mended?
LOL…let me say here that none of my characters is based on me or anyone I know in particular but on a cumulative of my experience. My name has nothing to do with the story, and as you can see I did not even publish under my real name. That said, I love my name and what it means. There is a longer form of course, but I have been called the short form for as long as I can remember by everyone around me including my parents. It was funny when, as I grew older, I realized that it was also a term of romantic endearment between couples.
In A Heart to Mend, the hearts being mended are those of my characters, Edward and Gladys. They’re just people of my imaginings, though since I try to make my stories as real as possible, they also share our fears and hopes, our victories and our pain. Some people say they seem free from some of the usual constraints we real persons face, but if you look closely, you may even recognize one or more of them. For these readers who also identify with the book and the themes/characters in it, I hope their hearts will be mended too.
At another level, locations have a way of affecting one’s state of mind and heart. How has both your home and diaspora experiences helped in shaping the tenor of this narrative?
The narrative of A Heart to mend is very instinctive, you know, from my heart and from my head too. I believe my writing has been shaped more from growing up in Nigeria than the few years I have lived outside the country. You should bear in mind that I am practically a novice at writing. I entered this writing business, really, from outside. My entire background has been in sciences; I studied biological science for my first degree, then public health research for my masters. I’ve never had any formal training in writing. So what I write is from my own personal makeup, and less from what I have picked up in writing books and online courses, which go more toward the craft.
Who I am, my identity, has been more influenced by my Nigerian experience. There was so much to draw from especially in terms of storytelling. There were so many books around me, from the children’s stories in Sugar Girl, Eze goes to school, born with a Silver Spoon, etc to Pacesetters and through to the African Writers Series.
There were also the soaps we watched like Checkmate and ripples and of course Nollywood. The western worldview crept in not through my time outside Nigeria but via the works of Enid Blyton, the Lady Bird fairytales, Mills & Boon, James Hadley Chase and the movies I saw, from both Hollywood and Bollywood. I always had that storytelling instinct, and through all these channels, I always looked for the story. So now, when I write, what I do is to find the kernel of a story and then tell it.
Why did you write A Heart To Mend ?
First and foremost I wanted to write a story of love and finding oneself. I also felt that there were not enough romance novels set in contemporary Nigeria, and that I could do something to change that. Therefore, a lot of these themes in A Heart to Mend are motivated by events or stories I’ve heard or read about in real life Nigeria of the last few years. The characters and issues dealt with in the book are therefore meant to be relevant for contemporary life and relationships.
Again, I have always been intrigued by the principle of unconditional love. When I started reading the Mills and Boon Romance novels as a young adult, their stories had a big influence on me and my writing. My imagined and written stories changed from adventures to romance. So now that I decided on full time writing, I was moved to go back to that genre.
In a world that is plagued by unquantified hate tendencies, with wars and rumours of war becoming familiar ring tones. Tell me, from where does one begin to mend afflicted hearts?
I agree with you about the sort of world we live in nowadays. This stress of this tumultuous life has indeed led to many people experiencing heartbreak in one form or the other. In my opinion, one can begin to mend these broken hearts through talking or writing about love.
Romance novels are all about love, in its various manifestations: between parents and their children, between siblings and most importantly, between a man and a woman. As so many songs say, love is truly beautiful and it does make the world go around. When one strips basic human behavior to its barest form, you find that we’re all looking for love in one way or another.
You might be surprised that what you wrote as a simple romantic form is giving rise to some socio political reading. But seriously, can there be a real love story in what seems to be a hopeless and hate inhabited world?
Yes there can. In a romance novel, the two major characters cannot develop satisfying, romantic relationships between each other unless they have some understanding of love. The love story starts from when they lack love but desire it for themselves to when they have full knowledge of it and their lives have been changed. It is the same in real life.
Also, if we say there can be no love stories, do we mean that all the people that get married everyday do not love each other? I don’t think this is so. Therefore, love and romance give hope and makes life worth living. Love is the only way to overcome hate and hopelessness.
By the way, I understood that your story is set in Nigeria. And from the reviews I have read about the novel, it does appear that the entire tapestry and universe of the story is Nigeria and about Nigerians. What are your intentions in doing this?
The primary intention was to contribute to the writing of the romance genre in Nigerian literature. I grew up reading books like Evbu, My Love of the Pacesetters fame, written by Helen Ovbiagele but they disappeared along the line. There has been a sort of renaissance in the writing and book publishing industry in Nigeria and I wanted to add my voice in a unique way.
May be home sickness? you want to use the narrative thread to heal home nostalgia?
Well, I won’t deny that I get homesick for Nigeria and my family and friends back here but my writing is not about that. I have been writing long before I relocated which was just a few years ago and I know that I can always visit when I want. The nostalgia that has a hand in my writing has to be that of reading books set in Nigeria and written by Nigerians. I read a lot of those and I want the younger generation to have that experience too which I believe is a good one, even as we talk about rebranding Nigeria and recreating a positive national identity.
One would have really expected to read your Diaspora experience about love. Don’t you think it is high time African writers began to write trans Atlantic narratives?
Of course there are African writers who write about their diaspora narrative. For example, a lot of the short stories in Chimamanda Adichie’s collection, This thing Around Your Neck, are from her immigrant experience in America or a fictionalized version of it. Several other writers, including Seffi Atta, Teju Cole and Jude Dibia have also explored the theme in their novels.
The truth is that each writer has to seek for a voice that matches their world view and mine, as I have come to see, comes out best writing about Nigeria and Nigerians. That said however, the narrative in A Heart to Mend, has the major characters travelling between Nigeria, London and New York.
That was exactly what classic hate writers of Europe like Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, Ridder Haggard and their brothers did in such novels like Heart of Darkness, Mister Johnson, King Solomon’s Mine, She among others. Is there anything wrong about writing back to them, through such experiences as yours?
Such Experiences as mine? LOL…I don’t understand what you mean by that o. My experiences in the United Kingdom and the States have been quite good. Apart from that, my novels are not autobiographies, so it’s not about me. Also, I do not write to add to the hate and discrimination in the world but to add love and romance. For now, I will leave political writing and rebuttals of racism to others who choose to do so.
Also I choose to go forward instead of backwards. You see, those writers you mentioned wrote for the days they lived in and I believe the world as a whole has moved on from those days. I read Rider Haggard’s king Solomon’s Mines and She as a teenager and they were basically adventure stories. Of course the rise of the civil rights movement in America in the sixties and seventies meant that those writers received a lot of flak for their portrayal of Africans in their books. Chinua Achebe wrote “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in 1975 as a response to Joseph Conrad. All this was before I was born.
How’s the novel doing in terms of reception?
A Heart to Mend has been very well received indeed as the mails continue to pour in from different parts of the world. One of the advantages of Authorhouse as a self-publishing company is that they have a very wide reach. So A Heart to mend is available from Canada, to the United States, England, India, and from South Africa and Indonesia to Australia. The publishers called me recently to encourage me to hurry up with my second book because they want us to ride the wave this one is creating. I told them that this is just the beginning, lol…
To what extent has the new communication media of facebook, twitter and blogging helped in promoting the novel?
Having a blog, (which recently won several awards including Blog of the Year at the Nigerian Blog Awards) really helped me in my writing especially with the feedback and critique I got from my readers. The fact is that the world has come to terms with the internet age and other less conventional means of getting a book to an audience are beginning to take root. Talk about eBooks, kindles and Nooks and other such technology.
Also my blog was part of the reason I decided to publish. I had such a loyal following that I wanted to give them a chance to read the complete story. Most of them had been following it on my blog and were very supportive. It was through the support of fellow bloggers that I did my first blog tour and all the publicity that came with that. After that I joined Facebook and Twitter and the following has been growing since.
What is your program for the novel for the home market?
A Heart to Mend had a public presentation in Lagos in April and was very well received. There has been several articles and features in the daily Newspapers in the country since then and the Nigerian Publishers are doing their best with the distribution. So far they are very happy with the reception the book has been getting. They have fans calling them up or metting them half way in order to get the book. A lot of them had found out about the book online from my blog, Youtube, Facebook or Twitter.
The book is currently available in several cities including Lagos, Ibadan, Ife, Abuja, Maiduguri, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and some Nigerian online resellers like Walahi.com, Kalahari.com.ng, Naijareads.com, among others. I get emails from some people who have read it praising it and asking for more.