1) Did the book change your perception of Sierra Leone? If so, how?
About the characters
2) Why do you think the author chose to include such strong female voices within a narrative driven by a male protagonist?
3) What traits do Nadia and Mariama share? Which of these do you think come from their experiences in war? What are the primary differences between them, and their different reactions to the atrocities they witness?
4) Mariama often thought of her mother and during one of these times recalled her circumcision. Although she described the pain as horrible, her recollection of this experience was more positive than we might expect. Why do you think the author chose to write the experience this way? What does it tell us about Mariama and Sierra Leone culture?
5) How would you describe John and Nadia’s relationship? Do you think their reaction to Mariama’s diary, and John’s subsequent travels to Sierra Leone, are unusual? What do these actions tell you about their marriage?
6) Mariama and Rourke were both traumatized. Although Mariama’s trauma was objectively greater than Rourke’s, the author chose to give Rourke an undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mariama was apparently spared this psychological condition. Why?
About the author
7) The author is a professional psychologist. Do you think this affected the writing of the book? Are there passages that make this professional knowledge clear?
8) Do you think the scenes relating to Mariama’s circumcision and later rape are convincing? How do you think a male author wrote about such sensitive, female-oriented topics?
About the reading experience
9) Did you enjoy the book? What kept you reading despite some of the more harrowing scenes?
10) How did the interspersion of Mariama’s diary within John’s narrative affect your reading experience?
11) Why are books that discuss civil war and human rights abuses important? How do they affect our understanding of such circumstances?
12) What will you take from this book?
Q3) What traits do Nadia and Mariama share? Which of these do you think come from their experiences in war? What are the primary differences between them, and their different reactions to the atrocities they witness?
Michael Wuitchik: Nadia and Mariama are practical, no-nonsense women. They’ve witnessed death, experienced loss and feared for their lives. One of the differences is that Nadia initially copes by denying her past: she simply won’t go there. Mariama copes very differently. She writes about her experience and by doing so she deals with it on a daily basis. Mariama, in a natural and unassuming way, is her own therapist.
(Q4) Mariama often thought of her mother and during one of these times recalled her circumcision. Although she described the pain as horrible, her recollection of this experience was more positive than we might expect. Why do you think the author chose to write the experience this way? What does it tell us about Mariama and Sierra Leone culture?
Michael Wuitchik: During my trips to Sierra Leone I’ve spoken with a number of women about Bundu/Sandei societies. In a group, women will never speak of this. Private discussions are another matter, and women have been more forthcoming. Membership in Sandei society (and the clitoral excision that is part of the initiation) is seen as a rite of passage to womanhood and a practice that women describe as “becoming beautiful.” I am, however, personally aware of young women being pressured to become initiated. I believe many go into the initiation without knowing what to expect.
Men tell me, “we do not discuss such things: that is women’s business.” Membership in the secret society gives women, collectively, a power with men that they wouldn’t otherwise have. If a woman is abused by her husband, or if he commits adultery, the women’s society will often take him to task. Again, this is something I’ve witnessed. Disputes between individual women are also dealt with by the women’s society.
In Mariama’s case, I believe she would have associated her circumcision with becoming one with her mother and making her mother proud. As an author, my goal was to convey her experience as authentically as possible in a non-judgmental way. I believe the practice of clitoral circumcision will change, not with resolutions condemning the practice, but with true equality for women such that secret societies become unnecessary.
(Q5) How would you describe John and Nadia’s relationship? Do you think their reaction to Mariama’s diary, and John’s subsequent travels to Sierra Leone, are unusual? What do these actions tell you about their marriage?
Michael Wuitchik: John and Nadia have been living in denial. They’ve both been traumatized and their unstated agreement is to live without speaking about their past. The arrival of Mariama’s diary changes that for Nadia. She realizes that finding her boyfriend Goran’s remains helped her to move on. The diary, and her own psychological adaptation to becoming pregnant, trigger an act of faith: for her husband to move on, and to really be there for her, he must resolve his own issues. Nadia does something a lot of men or women wouldn’t do – she releases him to face his demons.
(Q6) Mariama and Rourke were both traumatized. Although Mariama’s trauma was objectively greater than Rourke’s, the author chose to give Rourke an undiagnosed PTSD. Mariama was apparently spared this psychological condition? Why?
Michael Wuitchik: Most people do not get PTSD after trauma. In my clinical practice as a psychologist I’ve noted that PTSD is very difficult to predict, however, the meaning of the trauma may play a significant role. Rourke’s experience of a little girl dying on the roadway was followed, on the same day, by his experience with Jolie and Mariama in the hallway of Connaught Hospital. Rourke had been addicted to the adrenaline rush of emergency medicine in conflict situations but this experience was, psychologically, the straw that broke the camel’s back. His vulnerability caught up with him and he perceived this as a personal failure.
Mariama had no such background. While the effect of dissociation on PTSD is controversial (some clinicians believe it makes one prone to PTSD), I believe the opposite can sometimes be true: Mariama dissociated during the most difficult times. After a brutal experience with the rebel Masquita she wrote, “My heart is beating, but it is not my own.”
Also, spiritual beliefs and her relationship with Kabande buffered her stress experience. Kabande was a continuous reminder of the good in the world.
(Q7) Did your career as a psychologist affect how you wrote each character?
Michael Wuitchik: Yes, very much so. I’ve always noticed that the extent of trauma isn’t the most critical factor in the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, most people don’t develop PTSD after trauma. In my novel, the Canadian physician Dr. John Rourke develops an undiagnosed PTSD while in Sierra Leone. He witnessed traumatic events but it was the meaning of these events that caused the disorder. Mariama Lahai, on the other hand, experienced far greater objective trauma at the hands of the rebels, but I didn’t give her a PTSD in the story. Mariama’s beliefs about life and family and God somehow buffered her. She had things to do: she needed to survive, and so she did.
(Q9) Some of the scenes in My Heart Is Not My Own are a harrowing, albeit accurate, description of the atrocities that occurred. What was your writing process when dealing with these acts? How did you prepare for writing about sexual assault from a female perspective?
I wrote that scene and other traumatic parts while in Sierra Leone. They are the scenes that often came spontaneously and which I have edited least. I sat at a corner table with paint peeling off the walls, but I had a beautiful view of the ocean. I may have wept when I wrote that scene and I may have drunk a little wine (I don’t usually drink when I write).
How did I write about sexual assault from a woman’s perspective? Somehow I had to let myself be Mariama. I let myself feel very vulnerable and scared. And I tried to write how she might have coped by dissociating from the physical experience. I tried to write something about the essence of her character, something her tormentors couldn’t take away from her.
(Q12) What do you hope readers take from the book?
Michael Wuitchik: I hope that readers are inspired by the resilience in Mariama and her courage to survive. I also hope readers appreciate the risks Rourke and Nadia took as a couple to find their own healing, both individually and as a couple. I believe there is something of these characters in all of us.
To arrange a book club interview with Michael Wuitchik, online or in person (where possible), contact Zoe Grams: firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 604 500 3822