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Brightlingsea author Helena Nwaokolo with her novel, Passing Clouds

African experience inspires Helena's book

A Brightlingsea woman has published her first novel, using her experience of living in Nigeria in the 1970s as part of the story.

Helena Nwaokolo' s book, Passing Clouds tells the tale of Jenny, whose young life is "etched by myths and realities: the breaking of cultural convention; free-love; women's liberation, the Biafran War and mental illness".

"Passing Clouds is a story that has been with me for several years, it demanded to be told," said Helena, who married a man from Eastern Nigeria, or Biafra, and lived and worked there in the 1970s. Brightlingsea Info asked her to tell us more. She writes:

"A friend recently asked me what the story of Passing Clouds is about. What a question! It must be the one that most writers dread. My answer was a list which could have gone on and on but I got it down to, ‘a marriage, a war, a birth, a tragedy or two, mental illness and sisterhood.’ Many of the usual suspects.

I can remember as a child making up stories for myself to act out with playmates and, when they were not around, my dolls and teddies. There were few books in my busy home and those that were there were not to be touched by the little sister, me. I soon discovered the mobile library and can still recall the wonder of that treasury; can almost smell the booky interior. For my twelfth birthday I was given a hard backed, beautifully illustrated, copy of The Secret Garden. That was my very own treasure. These may be the concrete milestones (no pun intended) on my route into writing stories but for sure there are more abstract ones.

Fast forward a lifetime or two and I am retired with enough time, apparently, to do my own thing. I enrolled on a couple of continuous learning courses from the University of East Anglia and discovered then how important it was for me to write: for myself primarily but I began to have the confidence to share some of it too. I spent the last of my pension lump sum on a part-time post graduate degree in Creative Writing. That is where Passing Clouds was conceived.

The same person who gave me The Secret Garden told me I should write about my experiences of living in Nigeria during the 1970s. I didn’t want to write an autobiography but from somewhere came another woman’s story and this is what I wrote. It's a story of a time and a world that wasn’t all free love and cold war. There were other things happening in people’s lives; universal experiences of happiness and sorrow. From first page to the final proof took eight years. Many of those months were taken up not with writing but with lethargy and with life. The manuscript has had many revisions and some major structural changes.

My own passion for writing is complemented by a second passion which is to enable others to find their literary voice. Writing is a creative craft, it requires creativity (which I propose can most often be unearthed however deeply buried) and the understanding and practice of its craft. But it doesn’t have to involve spending money and years on study. Writing offers so much to individuals, I can easily become a bore when talking about it. I think anyone can write if they really want to. If you have the interest, just do it. It's a good feeling."

The book has been something of a Brightlingsea collaboration – the cover picture was taken by photographer Colm O'Laoi with typesetting and design by The Press Gang. Copies are available from Little Boat Gifts in New Street, or it can be ordered from Helena for £7 plus £2 postage by emailing [email protected]

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