Finding resilience in Sierra Leone
Thursday, Aug 22, 2013 06:00 am
When faced with severe trauma in our lives, some people seem to rise above it while others can become overwhelmed by it.
The result often defines our character, but what marks the difference between those who cope and those who struggle can often be described in many terms. But it is resilience that author Michael Wuitchik’s first novel, My Heart Is Not My Own, explores at length.
The former Canmore resident delves deep into the issue of how different people deal with trauma by telling the story of two people affected by civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. He is in Canmore next Tuesday (Aug. 27) at Communitea Cafe for a book reading, along with local band Eerie Green.
In the novel, Dr. John Rourke is a Canadian surgeon and a local nurse, Mariama Lahai, assists him at a hospital in Freetown until rebels take the city and the doctor is evacuated.
Ten years later, with no idea of what happened to Mariama, Rourke is sent a diary written by her and found in the war-torn country. But the diary ends abruptly, and Rourke, now a psychiatrist, begins a journey to find out what happened to her and that resurrects his own traumas from the war.
“I think we all have the capability of resilience that we are not aware of until we are confronted with a situation that challenges us to our core,” Wuitchik said. “Miriama was challenged to her absolute core; she couldn’t have been challenged any more than she was and for her it was about survival. She reached down to, I think, where she found hers was within the whole basis of her life and her traditions.
“Rourks’s trauma was, in a sense, more of a function of his view of the world and what he expected of himself.
“It is very interesting how the two narrative arcs come together, the context was the same in terms of this war, but how it affected them was somewhat different.”
Wuitchik’s book delves into the realities of warfare and its long-term effects on people. A trained psychiatrist who has visited Sierra Leone many times, he enjoyed writing the book over the past five years, but some scenes dealing with traumatic events in the story were difficult.
“Three of the most traumatic scenes in the book I wrote while in Sierra Leone and I remember weeping when I first wrote them. But they were some of the scenes I would write in one or two drafts, whereas much of the novel was re-edited probably over 20 times,” he said.
Those scenes were written in Miriama’s voice, which Wuitchik said came quite naturally to him. He said one of the reasons for that is that when he travelled to the country he seemed to fit into what he calls the “back veranda” of the culture in the provinces, which is where the women are.
“Men don’t hang out in the back veranda, but I can because I’m not a member of the society. So I did and the women took me in and would confide. Many of the things you read about in the book Sierra Leonians won’t talk to you about in a group, like secret societies, but individually they will,” he said.
Wuitchik said the book uses metaphors for the mystery of what lies beneath the surface of the everyday, including an African mask entrusted to Rourke by a doctor named Momodu, which belonged to a secret society.
“The mask was entirely fictional, but I used it as a sort of metaphor for the ‘underneath of things’ in Sierra Leone. “Most Sierra Leoneans believe in supernatural forces that affect everyday life.”
In the novel, both character’s trauma originates in the war, but they differ in terms of what affected them and how.
Wuitchik said Rourke felt he failed others at a time when they needed him, so it wasn’t his everyday survival that was threatened, but who he was as a person.
The village where Miriama ends her journey through the countryside in her diary is based on a real village that Wuitchik has a personal connection with called Sumvuya. He discovered the village after speaking with Canmore resident Elizabeth Tenga and her husband, who were refugees from the country, and the village they came from is nearby.
“This village in southern Sierra Leone near the Liberian border has kind of adopted me and we built a library one year and the next year we financially helped them build a school,” he said.
In February, Wuitchik will return to Sumvuya with his wife Shelley for her first visit to the country.
In researching the novel, Wuitchuk spoke with anthropologists from around the world and also spoke at with Tenga, who provided advice on dialect and sections of the book that spoke about midwifery.
Tenga will be with Wuitchuk on Tuesday to help with the book reading and provide a voice to Miriama.
Money raised will go toward solar powered reading lights for girls in the school that Wuitchuk sponsors.
Tickets for the book release event at Communitea on Tuesday (Aug. 27) are $5 in advance and $8 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.