Author Ami­natta Forna speaks the un­spo­ken, a Lan­nan Foundation event with nov­el­ist Laila Lalami


In the United States, de­spite cur­rent po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, civil war is the stuff of his­tory books. In other places — Nicaragua, Dar­fur, Bos­nia, and Iraq, to name a few — bomb­ings, kid­nap­pings, and bru­tal rape are a daily pos­si­bil­ity. There is a kind of in­no­cence to peo­ple from coun­tries un­af­fected by civil war, author Ami­natta Forna told Pasatiempo while re­lat­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend from Croa­tia about her most re­cent novel, The Hired Man (Blooms­bury, 2013).

The book is set in Croa­tia more than a decade af­ter the end of the Yu­goslav wars. Brits have be­gun to buy in­ex­pen­sive va­ca­tion homes in ar­eas af­fected by eth­nic cleans­ing. A fam­ily new to the fic­tional in­land vil­lage of Gost is be­friended by a neigh­bor, Duro, who helps them re­pair their di­lap­i­dated house. Forna’s friend de­scribed the Bri­tish char­ac­ters in the book as gen­tle in a way that only the Bri­tish can be. Forna re­marked, “He prob­a­bly would have said the same thing about Amer­i­cans. Peo­ple who have lived with war and op­pres­sion — we can be frus­trated by your in­no­cence, but we also envy it and want to pro­tect it.”

Forna was born in Scot­land and grew up in Sierra Leone, Bri­tain, Iran, Thai­land, and Zam­bia. She is the daugh­ter of Mo­hamed Forna, a doc­tor and po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dent in Sierra Leone who was killed a year af­ter be­ing taken into cus­tody by se­cret po­lice in 1974. She worked as a jour­nal­ist for the BBC for 10 years be­fore pub­lish­ing her first book, The Devil That Danced on Wa­ter (HarperCollins, 2002), a non­fic­tion ac­count of what hap­pened to her fa­ther, as pieced to­gether through re­search and fam­ily sto­ries. In this work, she seam­lessly weaves his­tor­i­cal fact with the evoca­tive na­ture of a novel: We see Mo­hamed’s med­i­cal prac­tice, po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, and dis­ap­pear­ance through the eyes of ten-year-old Ami­natta, yet we gain a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the com­pli­cated con­text for the up­heaval that oc­curs. Forna is also the author of the nov­els An­ces­tor

Stones (Grove Press, 2006) and The Mem­ory of Love (Grove Press, 2010). She reads from her work at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter (211 W. San Fran­cisco St.) at 7 p.m. on Wed­nes­day, Nov. 11. The read­ing, part of the Lan­nan Foundation’s Lit­er­ary Se­ries, is fol­lowed by a con­ver­sa­tion with Laila Lalami, author of three nov­els, in­clud­ing The

Moor’s Ac­count (Pan­theon Books, 2014), which won the Amer­i­can Book Award and the Arab Amer­i­can Book Award and was a fi­nal­ist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Forna sees her books as con­nected through a se­ries of non­lin­ear but linked ideas. She of­ten re­vis­its con­cepts that have cropped up in other books. “What leads me to write a book is that I’m try­ing to an­swer a ques­tion, though I don’t al­ways have it framed from the be­gin­ning. The over­all ques­tion I’ve tried to ex­plore in all my books is, How does a coun­try come to im­plode?” That ques­tion is clear in The Devil That Danced

on Wa­ter, which retells the events — start­ing in the early 1960s, when Sierra Leone gained in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain — that led to a civil war be­gin­ning in 1991. Sim­i­lar im­plo­sions took place in other African coun­tries around the same time. “It was that post­colo­nial melt­down, which I think we now have a much greater un­der­stand­ing of. I had to find out what hap­pened to my fa­ther and fig­ure out all the se­cret events that led up to that.”

Forna’s first novel, An­ces­tor Stones, is told from the points of view of four women — sis­ters with the same fa­ther but dif­fer­ent moth­ers in a polyg­a­mous fam­ily. Asana, Hawa, Mariama, and Serah are old women when they tell their sto­ries to their niece Abie, who has re­turned to West Africa from England af­ter years of civil war. “I was ask­ing how in­di­vid­ual lives are af­fected by big-P Pol­i­tics. Par­tic­u­larly in the West, it’s easy to think that pol­i­tics have noth­ing to do with your life.” Forna then quoted Per­i­cles: “Just be­cause you do not take an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics doesn’t mean pol­i­tics won’t take an in­ter­est in you.” She con­tin­ued, “I wanted to ex­am­ine how the lives of four women that could have been so sim­i­lar, be­cause they all came from the same fam­ily, were in fact im­pacted by what was hap­pen­ing around them.”

When talk­ing about The Mem­ory of Love, which she con­sid­ers a coun­ter­point to The Devil

That Danced on Wa­ter, Forna ref­er­enced Nadine Gordimer, the South African nov­el­ist who re­ceived the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1991 for her writ­ing about apartheid. “I’m slightly para­phras­ing here, but she once said that non­fic­tion re­veals the lies, but only fic­tion can lead us to a greater truth. I would say that sums up the rea­son I moved to fic­tion and have never de­parted from it, apart from the oc­ca­sional es­say.”

While The Devil That Danced on Wa­ter is about what hap­pened to peo­ple who op­posed those in power, The Mem­ory of Love looks at peo­ple who did noth­ing. “It ex­plores how some­one ar­rives at that de­ci­sion. Where is the line be­tween neu­tral­ity, com­plic­ity, and cul­pa­bil­ity? What story do they tell them­selves af­ter­ward about what they did or didn’t do?”

The civil war in Sierra Leone be­gan the same year as the civil war in Croa­tia, and the coun­tries are sim­i­lar in terms of pop­u­la­tion size, land mass, coast­lines, and nat­u­ral beauty. Yet the two wars were cov­ered by the Western me­dia very dif­fer­ently, Forna ex­plained. Sierra Leone was pre­sented as a trib­ally based con­flict even though it wasn’t, while the Yu­goslav wars were an­a­lyzed in terms of pol­i­tics even though the fac­tions broke down along eth­nic lines. Forna was al­ready in­ter­ested in the con­flict there when she ran across an ad­ver­tise­ment in a mag­a­zine for cheap va­ca­tion homes in Croa­tia. The coun­try was try­ing to bol­ster its tourist econ­omy, but Forna was struck by what this brought up about the prove­nance of the empty houses. News pho­tos of aban­doned homes were em­blem­atic of the war, and she thought one would have to be quite cold­hearted to snap up such a prop­erty, given that some­one might have been vi­o­lently forced out of it. In The Hired Man, Laura, the mother of two teenagers, is a westerner in a coun­try she is sat­is­fied not un­der­stand­ing. The fields of wild­flow­ers she gushes over are im­pas­si­ble due to old land mines, but Duro doesn’t ex­plain this to her, just as he doesn’t ex­plain his his­tory in the house she’s bought. He’s ex­pe­ri­enced loss so tremen­dous that there’s no place to be­gin the story.

“When western­ers ar­rived in the wake of the war in Sierra Leone, we all had this knowl­edge of what had hap­pened,” Forna said. “We knew there was an ele­phant in the room, but we were ig­nor­ing it — we’d learned to live with it. But time and time again, some­thing would hap­pen and it would be ob­vi­ous that western­ers didn’t even know the ele­phant was there.”

Forna lives in England and has taught and trav­eled in the U.S. for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. When asked about Amer­i­can cur­rent events, she said she sees a pat­tern we might want to note. “While you haven’t had a long-term dic­ta­tor­ship in this coun­try, there has been mas­sive eco­nomic down­turn. Ev­ery war — in Sierra Leone, in the former Yu­goslavia, the Sec­ond World War — was pre­ceded by eco­nomic down­turn. That gives rise to ex­trem­ism. When you see politi­cians ab­so­lutely cold­blood­edly us­ing other eth­nic groups in or­der to find scape­goats — this is hap­pen­ing in Bri­tain, too, and I firmly be­lieve this is what Don­ald Trump is do­ing — you’re look­ing for some­one to hate, some­body you can look at so that all of that frus­tra­tion sud­denly gets a place to go. I don’t think this coun­try will go to civil war any­time soon, but there are lots of guns around. It’s a frightening time, and I think we have to be very aware that mo­ments like th­ese can be game-chang­ers in his­tory.”

The over­all ques­tion I’ve tried to ex­plore in all my books is, How does a coun­try come to im­plode? — Ami­natta Forna

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