Have You Got a Heart to Mend?

By Mary Ekah, THISDAY Newspaper 7/9/2010

Nigerian author, based in the United Kingdom has just written a captivating novel with Nigerian characters and setting that presents the gripping tale of a young woman finding her feet in the world and how her life intersects with that of the wealthy egoist she met. This main story line runs through the subplots of a tear-soaked family reunion and high-powered company acquisitions. MARY EKAH spoke with the author in Lagos recently

Nkem Okotcha also known as “Myne Whitman is a Nigerian writer whose first novel “A Heart to Mend”, has just been self published through AuthorHouse. Myne Whitman is a name she coined herself while still in secondary school and is a play on the transliterated words of her maiden name - Nkem Okotcha.

Going by her pen name, Myne Whitman, one would assume Okotcha is sort of running away from her identity, but this she refuted strongly. “Myne Whitman is a pen name which I prefer to use for my writing. I don't think it means I'm running from my identity unless you're referring to the fact that I use it to preserve my real identity. I use Myne Whitman for several reasons including for privacy due to the romance which I write and because the use of pen names is very common in that genre.

'I also like the choice which the use of pen names confers on people in the arts. I could give you several writers, singers and painters who used and continue to use pseudonyms”, she explained. And so, she prefers to keep her real name for personal and future professional use only.

“I am sure you are aware that I do not try to dissociate from the name. I make it clear that it is a pseudonym and what my real names are. After that however, I prefer the persona of Myne Whitman to remain in the author limelight while the real Nkem Okotcha, takes the back seat.

“I am not into writing for fame or to propagate my name, I just want people to enjoy my writing and the stories I tell. I do not want them to be bothered by my own history, wondering if they know me or why I write what I do. Let's just say I'll like to keep that element of privacy around my real personality”, the authored further said of her pen name.

Whitman, who describes herself as quiet and laid-back, does like a good loud debate sometimes. “In three words, I will describe myself as friendly, caring and fun-loving”, said the author who has been a teacher, consultant, banker, skate-hire attendant, researcher and civil servant.

After a postgraduate degree and a few years in Edinburgh, Scotland, Whitman now lives in the United States with her husband. Growing up in Enugu, Nigeria in the 1980's, Whitman was a child studying a lot and reading everything she could lay her hands on books. Her latest novel, “A Heart to Mend” tells the story of Gladys, a young woman who is trying to find her feet in the world. She meets Edward and they fall in love. The book talks about the obstacles they face, how they over come it and how they eventually live happily ever after.

Her novel, she said is like her typical romance novel but this time, it is coached in a subplot that makes the novel a suspense.
What situations informed her to write “A Heart to Mend? “From when I was young, I have always wanted to write an engrossing story. I also felt that there were not enough romance novels set in contemporary Nigeria, and that I could do something to address that.

Her book, Whitman said stands out, for several reasons, from romantic fictional work that comes from different parts of Nigeria, Africa or the world, on the grounds that her style of writing is very simple and direct. “There isn't a lot of beating around the bush - you see the plot taking place and you are able to follow the characters, get in tune with the characters and you start to feel as though you know them personally as you identify with them”, she said.

Whitman, who has been writing for a very long time, has written mostly fiction even though she has done some poetry too along the line. “I believe we are all living the real life, so fiction takes you away from the day to day grind of life. So you are able to see life through another person's eyes, you are able to visit another country, another period of time, you can do anything with fiction and your imagination.”

Nigerians tend to escape reality a little bit too easily and by working within this genre, one would assume that Whitman is actually supporting some form of escapism in Nigerian. “I do not necessarily agree. You can tell fictional stories and pass a very deep message through your fiction. My novel passes several messages through the themes it handles. It deals with themes of legitimacy, social class, improper marriages where women are treated like chattel and controlled by a domineering husband. These are issues that I feel that are topics within the Nigerian culture,” she noted.

The romantic author who said it took her roughly a year to write her “A Heart to Mend”, revealed further that she had already had a short story of about a thousand words before she decided to make it a full-length novel. “I already had the story but what took a year was making it a full length novel and polishing it up,” she said.

Whitman, as she chose to be addressed, started writing when she was still in primary school. “I started reading a lot around that time too, so one could say it was a natural progression. I wrote children's adventures because I read more books like that. In my secondary school, I stopped writing, but during my years in the university, I restarted writing and got people to read my books and they loved it.”

Whitman's “A Heart to Mend”, she said has characters that are all fictional. “None of my characters is based on myself or any one I know but on a cumulative of my world view and experience. Other than that, they're just people of my imaginings and therefore may seem free from some of the usual constraints we real persons face. However, since I try to make my stories as real as possible, they also share our fears and hopes, our victories and our pain. If you look closely, you may even recognise one or more of them.”

One of the ideas that is found very interesting in her book is the intercultural relationship that took place between the main characters, Edward and Gladys. And Whitman thinks intercultural relationship is still a big deal in today's Nigeria.

“I think it is still a big deal and that was why I explored this theme, it's still the source of tension and conflict, and these are important elements of an engaging story. The relationship between Edward and Gladys' stand out because of the obstacles they face and of course, it challenges the norms of the Nigerian society; especially where cross-cultural relationships are concerned. That was an element of Nigerian society and the world at large that I wanted to question. I also think that cross-cultural relationships will continue to be a source of drama as long as human beings feel more comfortable associating with people of the same culture and social class”, she explained.

Her book, Whitman revealed is self-published. “I started sending out queries to a few literary agents and publishers when I had the chapter one to three ready and continued doing this up till chapter ten. At the same time, I was reading other authors' comments and ideas on other ways of publishing and in the end I decided to try the self-publishing route. AuthorHouse is seen as one of the best in the market and they have not disappointed me in any way”, the author said.

A Heart to Mend will bring tears to the eyes and cheers at the end especially for those who have experienced the search for a career or tumultuous family and emotional relationships. Readers will be pleasantly surprised by the description of Lagos, the Nigerian stock market, and other business intrigues.

Her book, Whitman said is to portray the message that our past should not dictate our present or our future, but that we should open up ourselves to other people and let them try to be with us. “People should really work on their relationship to have a happy balance”, she stressed.


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