by Torkwase Igbana
Philomena Bivese-Djebah (PhD) is a certified marriage counsellor and founder of Joyful Tears Initiative, an NGO which focuses on helping women beat breast cancer. Her work with countless women battling the disease has led her to recognize a strong correlation between the quality of family relationships and breast cancer survival rates. In her debut novella, Ofunneka (SEVHAGE, 2018), she explores fiction as a means of capturing and sharing some of her deepest professional insights. In this conversation, she discusses her writing and the novel.
You are not so known in literary circles. So, in the light of this fresh work of yours, let us in on your background and life.
You’re right. I am not a fiction writer originally. I am a counsellor, or more specifically a relationship counsellor who went into breast cancer awareness & support on account of a fateful encounter with a sufferer. Ofunneka came in the course of my work. I never set out to write a novel. It is a summation of some of my work experiences which I feel compelled to share. So, you could say it came at its own time.
Ofunneka is a novel that borders on contemporary issues such as breast cancer, family struggles, empowerment enlightenment amongst others. Is there a particular motive why the novel steered towards such sensitive topical issues?
In my opinion, the Ofunneka story is not just contemporary. It is timeless. Humanity has had to deal with breast cancer, family pressures and empowerment issues from time immemorial. We are still dealing with them. I did not select to go into those areas. Those areas selected me. My motive was to tell not just an interesting story but also a useful one.
Ofunneka is a novel that is infused with a lot of Christian teachings and values, particularly leaning towards Catholicism. What is your religious background and to what extent has it influenced your writing?
I am a Catholic Christian. Naturally, a writer’s DNA is visible in his work. Ofunneka is a human story written from deep, personal convictions, but the issues covered are universal and I hope the perspectives are also.
As a marriage counsellor, has the exposure to the different marital cases you’ve worked with contributed to your writing?
The novel comes straight out of my experiences as a counsellor which I feel compelled to share for the common good.
One of the preoccupations of Ofunneka is female liberation through empowerment. Feminism, has largely served as a popular and effective tool in this liberation process. Perhaps you will elaborate your views on feminism.
I’m a woman, wife and mother who has been chastened by personal and professional experiences, I just think a woman should be treated right at all times and I hope that is how the book comes across.
Are there mentors that have influenced your life and writing?
Mentors, where will I begin from, Jesus, so many Saints, ordinary people who have done extraordinary things that has been impactful in my life. They are just too numerous to mention.
Which authors can be found on your nightstand?
My reading habits are quite omnivorous. I love a good book any day, whatever the genre.
Ofunneka is a narrative that expresses a deep insight into human relations and also traverses across diverse experiences. One would wonder how long it took to write the story.
It is more of a pick and drop experience.
How do you write? Is there a particular time or place you are more comfortable with?
I write whenever and wherever the spirit moves me. I have no particular time or place favourites. Sometimes the urge to write comes in very unusual places and times. I always keep a writing material or device handy. Sometimes, I put down my thoughts in a voice recorder and transcribe later.
Ofunneka ends on a surprising and rather unexpected note. Did you plan your plot and your characters or you allowed them unfold and discover themselves as you wrote?
I mostly allowed my characters to unfold as the story progressed and I relied on my instincts to decide how. Ending Ofunneka was one of the most difficult tasks of writing that novel. There were many re-writes and am still not sure whether I fully did justice to it.
Is Ofunneka your debut published literary work? And can we say it is a herald of more literary writings and what are you currently working on?
Ofunneka is my first published novel but I have been writing since I can remember. A friend saw the manuscript and insisted it had to be published. My archives are littered with all manner of writing. My undergraduate degree was in Dramatic arts, so my default mode of writing is for stage. I hope that seeing Ofunneka on book shelves will encourage me to come out of my shell and share more of my currently secret files.
Now, if there is one message you would want people to take from Ofunneka, what would it be?
I don’t think I should prescribe a message from the book for the reader. All I can say is, read and decide whatever message resonates with you.
To the writers out there still searching for a voice, any words for them?
Hmm. As a newly published novelist myself, I am still searching for my voice too. But this much I have learnt: Writing is a vocation, not a profession. It is not for the faint hearted. If you feel the itch, then write. And keep writing.
Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion?
Life is a journey, there will be curves and pot-holes, ask for support when it is required above all trust in God.
To order copies of Ofunneka, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org