Beyond Physical Coexistence: Aminatta Forna’s “Happiness”

August 12, 2018   •   By Mariatu Santiago


Aminatta Forna

ON DECEMBER 2017, I went to Sierra Leone for the first time in my 24 years of life. Of course, I was met with pure glee by some, for the mere fact that I was connecting with the place my mother calls home. I was also met with confusion by others. Many mused on the safety of the continent and what it means to travel to an African country reeling from an epidemic and natural disaster. Yet, I knew Sierra Leone’s recent history was not their identity and that for all of the wahala or yagba (problems) in the country, there is still happiness. I wanted to see the beaches my cousins talked about, the dry-fish my mother loved and hear the music unavailable to us in the States. I wanted outsiders to know that after trauma, there is room for happiness. But I can’t say that as eloquently as Aminatta Forna can. Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, is a comprehensive tale of love, prejudicial conflict, coexistence between man and nature, and the success we invite when we embrace good and bad experiences.

Forna reveals Happiness’s diverse cast of characters through flashbacks and inner monologues. In a little over 300 pages, she pushes back against the “nameless and faceless” people of Africa. Characters like James and Komba, Abdul, Ayo, Olu, Tano, and Ama, to name a few, add layers to London’s immigrants. In the desperate search for Tano, Jean and Attila rely on a network of street-sweepers, wardens, and street performers from around the world. We see characters like Komba the warden, once a troubled boy, morph into a man who escaped conflict in Sierra Leone to then attend school; and Osman, the Bosnian street performer who considers the importance of foxes in his struggle to find peace amid violence. Attila proves to be the most well-crafted character: through him, Forna builds a case against common images of Africa and the dangers we invite when we starve out diverse narratives from the continent.

Although despair lives with Dr. Attila Asare, the Ghanaian-born psychologist never makes suffering his identity. We meet Attila as he arrives in London for a conference on psychology. Once a clinical psychologist, he now offers expertise on post-traumatic recovery around the world in places such as Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Turkish-Syrian border. Although war looms over him, the big, hulking African still finds happiness when he eats at a Cuban restaurant, listens to Ecuadorian music, or watches dancers of a distant culture. We also see in flashback his previous experiences of happiness.

But Forna acknowledges the realities of the world. As Attila searches for Tano, he ponders the innocence of childhood. In one section, Attila “seemed to remember a sense of fearlessness as a child, for lacking the knowledge of death, he supposed, for still believing bad things happened only to other people. How long you held onto that particular belief depended on where you were born.” Here, Attila, hardened by conflict, acknowledges the reality that childhood is different in different places as a result of external dangers.

As we get to know Attila’s former lover and revered colleague, Rose Lennox, Attila comes to life as a pensive man. Through Rose, Forna shares Attila’s youth, the boy before the man. Now, Rose has a degenerative illness and cannot remember Attila. She forgets his nickname, his face, and all the things she once loved about him. His interactions with her remind him of his days as a young student in London. Attila opines after the relationship he had with Rose throughout the book, revealing a man already reeling in heartache from the loss of his wife.

While the memories of Rose linger, Jean Turane brings a welcome change to Attila’s life — during a serendipitous walk on Waterloo Bridge, Attila bumps into Bostonian biologist Jean. London’s fox population is on the rise, and while locals fear them, Jean advocates on behalf of the condemned animal. Attila is drawn to Jean’s fierce independence and dedication to animals. Like the foxes, Attila is a stranger in someone else’s land while migration and globalization has made aspects of multiple cultures his home. And Jean’s appeal is simple: we must learn to live together. Of course, truth is powerful but fear proves even more powerful when an overzealous politician, akin to our number 45, stifles her efforts.

Happiness shows us why we must embrace coexistence and how this works in practice. Globalization and forced migration push individuals to travel across the world. As a result of our changing demographics, embracing each other is the only way forward. Through multilayered narratives and stories that move beyond stereotypes, we can make coexistence that much more feasible. Given that it was only until recently that immigrant mothers were separated from their children under the guise of immigration reform fueled by ill-informed mania, Forna reminds us that division and false assumptions are regressive. We need to move away from stereotypes and understand a people for all of their varied experiences, as Attila implores us to do.

Although she is Scottish and Sierra Leonean, Forna is able to render Jean, a white American biologist, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychologist, flawlessly. She captures Jean’s painful loneliness of a mother distanced from her son, both literally and figuratively. In Forna’s DC book talk at Politics and Prose, she noted the discrepancy between her existence as a Scottish/Sierra Leonean woman and the cast of Happiness. She aptly noted that characters serve as vehicles to tell a larger story. That she isn’t a white woman or a black man, American or Ghanian, a biologist or a psychologist does not hinder Happiness.

Perhaps because Forna’s experiences anchor these disparate expatriates close to home makes for a good read. Her first book, The Devil That Danced on Water, was a memoir detailing her search for the truth behind the death of her father, Mohamed Forna, during, at the time, war-torn Sierra Leone. Her books handle the historical wounds of conflict but, as a writer, she refuses to relegate herself to African narratives exclusively, as should be. In 2014, she wrote The Angel of Mexico City, which follows a boy’s life in Mexico City, again showing her reverence for different narratives. Aminatta Forna has famously noted the importance of writers of African heritage to change the narrative. In a 2017 extract of her keynote to the African Studies Association, shared in the Guardian, she argues: “Lost narratives must be retrieved, those that have been omitted must be replaced. We must resist the attempts of others to define us.” Forna successfully fulfills this edict in Happiness.

By the end of Happiness, coexistence moves beyond the literal sense of the word. At the podium of his psychiatry conference in Aldwych, Attila urges psychiatrists to recognize that trauma does not negate happiness but rather from trauma we can still be happy. Forna ultimately implores readers to understand complexities of any people and to accept coexistence — be it with various cultures or internally — as we learn to live with our experiences, good and bad. In an interview with, Forna states:

The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse — that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition.

Yet the fact that there are “unhappy” experiences should be understood as a layer of history and not a resigned fate. It is by understanding these complexities, be it physical or metaphorical, that communities can peacefully coexist.


Mariatu Santiago works at New America, a DC-based think tank. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international relations with a focus in international development in sub-Saharan Africa from American University.