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