Looking Beyond: A Conversation with Aminatta Forna
By Sylvia BrownriggApril 9, 2022
After years as a journalist at the BBC, Forna published a searing family history, The Devil That Danced on the Water (2002), about growing up in Sierra Leone and the fate of her father, a doctor and politician imprisoned and executed when she was a child. Civil conflicts remain a frequent subject in Forna’s work, whether in fictions set in West Africa (2011’s The Memory of Love, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) or the Balkans. Her moving, richly textured novel Happiness (2018) traces a connection between two temporary London residents: a white American wildlife biologist studying urban foxes and a Ghanaian psychiatrist, expert on PTSD, in town for a conference.
Last year, Grove published The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion, a sharp, engaging collection of essays that are by turns analytic and personal, critical and playful (as when detailing an exhilarating experience piloting a small plane in a loop-the-loop). In one piece, Forna examines racial attitudes about Black and white people in South Africa, the United States, Sierra Leone, and the United Kingdom; in another, she explores the contrasting gender dynamics on display when a single woman walks along a city street in Freetown and in New York. When we spoke via Zoom in November, Forna was at her Virginia home, where she lives with her husband and son.
Author photo by Nina Subin.
SYLVIA BROWNRIGG: What was it like to bring out a book that is so much about movement in a time when movements were so constricted?
AMINATTA FORNA: It was so strange! When lockdown happened in March 2020, I had handed the book in and was entering the editing phase. We were homeschooling at that point, everything was online, so it seemed very serendipitous: okay, I’ve just got to edit this. And by late summer we were choosing covers.
But then it became obvious that there was not going to be a tour, I mean, a physical tour. And it was a very curious thing to sit and talk about a life in motion when you are stuck in one place. We couldn’t decide: will people be excited by this book now because we’ve all been stuck at home for a year, or is it going to feel like too much? I like to think that people were excited by it and drawn to it for that reason.
One of the things I’ve found interesting about friends who have had book events over the past two years is the way that Zoom has shrunk geographies. Anyone can attend them now, virtually.
There are a couple of what we call COVID premiums. I’m a director of the Lannan Center at Georgetown, and we were getting huge audiences. They were going up to 500, 700 people from all over the world … I’m not quite sure how it translates into the future, though. I mean, I would do almost anything not to be on Zoom nowadays!
I want to talk about how certain elements are treated differently in your essays and your fiction. In the novels of yours I know, the characters are so richly developed. Could you talk about the difference between a real person you write about in an essay — like Dr. Jalloh in “The Last Vet” — and a fictional character, who can be a combination —
— whom you imagine. Well, I think characters in fiction are composite people, aren’t they, because writers know people, and that is where we draw our information from.
So, when a novel is coming together, one of the things that makes it come together is meeting somebody, and something that person says or does will make me think about the conundrum of a character. These are glancing meetings, not drawn-out meetings. So, someone like Lockheart in The Memory of Love was inspired by a British psychologist working in Sierra Leone, and he really didn’t understand the way people in that country thought, and he didn’t understand the culture, and he didn’t understand the context. He was, in my view, probably doing more harm than good, though certainly imagining that he was doing good. And I went away and thought about what kind of background, what kind of patterns of thinking might someone like that have.
And then I think of Jean [in Happiness]: I wanted a wildlife biologist, to explore the idea of wildlife in the city, as you know. So, I went to stay with two wildlife biologists, and I also have a good friend who’s a wildlife biologist. And the thing I noticed about all three of them is this extreme independence. Ki was a wildlife biologist in Alaska and on her own for months and months at a time. She had to take her trash out, far from her house, and she had to take a gun every time she did it because she might encounter a grizzly …
My friend Rosa, who does appear in the essay collection, she’s a primatologist, and she spent years in the bush in Sierra Leone on her own, monitoring forest elephants and chimpanzees. I mean, I’m pretty independent, but I don’t have that level of independence! So, I noticed they all had that, an attribute I gave to Jean, but the second thing I noticed was that they all found human beings quite annoying! [Laughs.] In exactly the way I find human beings annoying, actually.
I love the character of Jean. What’s great about fictional characters is that you can take those instincts you have about somebody you’ve met and then create the color yourself. Whereas to do the portrait of Dr. Jalloh …
Yes, it works differently. The way an essay comes together — usually I’ve been thinking about something. I had been thinking about Freetown dogs. Again, because I had met somebody from the West who was really critical, and said, “It’s awful, the way people here treat the dogs.” And I was astonished by this remark! I thought, “What are they seeing that I’m not seeing?” I mean, the dogs are mangy, and a little on the skinny side, but no one’s rounding them up and putting them in kill shelters, right? If you paid any attention at all, you’d see that people put food out for them at night. The dogs pertained to a household, but nobody “owned” dogs, in the way that Westerners own dogs.
So, I had been ruminating on this, and then I met Dr. Jalloh, and then it was [snaps fingers], “I’ve got it.” Because he was such a character, I knew that I could write the essay through him.
You also tell the story of his training in Moscow, and the way certain people from African countries were given scholarships to study elsewhere.
Yes, he’s a bit younger than my father [who studied in Aberdeen in the 1950s, where he met and married Forna’s white, Scottish mother; Forna expands on this history in her essay “Obama and the Renaissance Generation”]. So, if you look at how it goes: there’s a decade or so where we all go to Britain; there’s a decade or so where we all go to the Soviet bloc, and then … it’s China! China is still giving a lot of scholarships. And then before that, it was the Soviet bloc, and before that, it was the former colonial rulers. It’s a power game.
It’s interesting, the very different psychiatrist character of Attila Asare [in Happiness], a Ghanaian not bringing a Western blindness to his work.
The character of Attila was more directly inspired than any other character I’ve had. He was inspired by a man called Dr. Nahim, the only psychiatrist working in Sierra Leone during the war, well before the war and during the war, who ran the state mental institute. And it was he who set me off on my path of thinking about PTSD. I actually went up to the ward where the most severely traumatized people were, mostly drug-addicted ex-combatants, in a terrible state.
But you know, I really saw the difference between people who are traumatized and people who say they’re traumatized. There’s a very striking difference. We use the word far too lightly in the West. Very few of us are traumatized, and we shouldn’t claim to be, I think: it diminishes the experience of people who really are. I think it’s wrong.
I wanted to get back to wildness, a theme in the essays and the fiction. We encounter Jean in a Massachusetts wilderness, tracking coyotes; later, that work relates to a brilliant scene in London where all these immigrant workers are trying to help Jean track the whereabouts of a young boy who has run away in fear, after his mother was seized by immigration officials.
I wrote that first scene with Jean deliberately, so that it would evoke a scene with a wolf hunter, and you’d think she was hunting until you realize that 100-odd years have passed and now what we wanted to destroy we want to preserve. You know, in that quixotic way that humans have: trying to eradicate an animal, then trying to preserve it.
I was thinking about the city as a sort of layered cake, or whatever metaphor you want to use: just with so many elements that make it up. One group is elderly people, and another is children; and I was also interested in how animals survive, and how new arrivals survive.
The city seems to be made for certain people: it’s built for able-bodied, adult humans, right? There was, where I lived, an old people’s home in that location, by the Elephant and Castle. And I just thought, London is so unfriendly for elderly people. I’d written that scene as a radio short, of the worker who takes them out and shows them the sun. I changed it somewhat, but — sometimes I play around with characters or scenes in other forms before I finally decide to write a book.
And then, of course, because I lived where I did in London, I saw the foxes so much, and I thought, “Now you’re really doing this well!” [Laughs.] “You’ve got it sorted.”
It’s interesting because it’s a London novel with few native Londoners in it. The city is refracted through all the groups you just described: immigrants or visitors or children.
That is London! When I think about how many genuine Londoners I know, meaning people who have been there generationally: very few.
I also loved the essay “Hame” about your Scottish and Sierra Leonean ancestors. In the United States, I assume you get read as English, because of being educated in England, and yet what comes out strongly in that piece is your Scottish background.
Yes. I was giving a talk recently with my editor John Freeman; he came to Georgetown. A question from the audience was about identity: how does one hold on to one’s identity as one moves through the world? I said, “Well, you have to understand that it’s forever changing. You don’t have a single identity, and the minute you accept that, the happier you’ll be.”
And I told the story that I tell in “Crossroads,” about being in Timbuktu and having this discussion about whether Obama was perceived as Black or white. [In the piece, a Malian fixer asks a passing waiter: “‘Obama, black or white?’ and the waiter confirms: ‘White.’”] I said, “America’s the only place in the world where I’m English! The English don’t treat me as though I’m English…”
I remember when I first arrived, an American referring to me, “Well, you colonials…” Now, first of all, I didn’t know whether he meant “you colonials” as in colonized; I assumed he meant that I’d been colonized, or my country anyway, until he said, “No, you English. You colonials!” And I said [pointing], “I thought you were the colonials!” In my mind, American people of English descent are the colonials. Right? I mean, if you went to Kenya, they would be the colonials — that’s the colonial caste. So, I said: “I can happily say I come from two colonized countries, which is one more than you do — if indeed we take your interpretation!”
In my experience, a certain kind of English accent has a particular effect on Americans.
It is very triggering, I’ve noticed that! [Laughs.] I mean, I’ve actually found it very useful. Not specifically having an English accent but not having an American accent. People will tell me things they wouldn’t tell anyone else.
And you can almost move between worlds because nobody quite knows how to place you.
Yeah, exactly. No one knows what we’re thinking. But also, no one can assume what you’re thinking.
Back to telling stories fictionally and nonfictionally. One of the things that’s interesting to me in “Hame,” but also “Crossroads,” is that you’re uncovering stories of your own family … You could, and for all I know are going to, write a novel about that. But there’s also the specificity of rescuing the family history about your great-grandparents.
Because something is getting lost. I think the Shetlands and the Orkneys and Sierra Leone are very much alike; both my families were basically rural farming families. And in fact, both, it turned out, had invader blood — one from Mali, one from the Vikings! What I saw more starkly in Sierra Leone, but also again in Britain, is this shift from oral storytelling culture to written culture, and what has got lost in between. People used to know their family stories because those stories were just told to them as they were growing up. And as people became more literate, but also as families began to fracture by moving away from each other, those stories weren’t being so easily passed on.
I think people are not as invested in place now; they’re invested in story — they want to know the story of who they are. They don’t want to grow up in the same village and die there when they’re 95. But the continuum they’re looking for is the narrative continuum.
So, I’ve noticed people now saying when they meet you, instead of “Where are you from?” — a question that is so irksome, for so many reasons! — they often say, “What’s your story?”
But I was going to say, about nonfiction: I’m going to put myself out on a limb and predict a shift to creative nonfiction by a lot of novelists; creative nonfiction is increasingly where the drive is. But I also think that the heavy policing of the imagination that is taking place now is putting novelists off. And I’m not surprised. I mean, it’s so disappointing to me as someone who fought so hard to get out of pigeonholes that I was being shoved into that we’re all right back there again.
It seems to me that in the United States, or maybe this is a global phenomenon, that there’s been somewhat more openness and interest in African writers and African literature lately.
It’s been huge. There seems to be a massive amount of interest in writers of African descent, or from African countries right now. I don’t know whether it started in Britain or in the States — it’s English language, that’s for sure. I’m about to give a keynote at the African Studies Conference called “Writing in Englishes”: it’s about the Empire striking back and claiming English for itself. But not just that, it’s also about all the writers who now choose to write in English, either because of circumstance or because they’re obliged to, like Aleksandar Hemon, who’s Bosnian, who got stuck here after the war. Or there’s Xiaolu Guo, the Chinese writer who chose to write in English, or Yiyun Li.
So, it’s kind of interesting, what’s happened with English and the way writers are claiming it and reframing it and using it for their own purposes. It’s a long way from the days of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — of whom I’m a friend and a fan — who felt, you know, that writing in a colonial language was wrong.
I think that publishers have done a great job by looking beyond. I hope it continues!
Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of several acclaimed works of fiction: five novels, including Pages for You, its sequel, Pages for Her, and The Delivery Room; a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the World; and a book for middle-grade readers, Kepler’s Dream, which was adapted into a feature film in 2016.
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