AMINATTA FORNA (Glasgow, 1964)

By Patricia Bastida Rodríguez (Universitat de les Illes Balears)

Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father, although after her parents’ divorce she spent long periods of her childhood in Sierra Leone, where her father remarried, alternating her stays there with her studies in a boarding school in Surrey (UK). Her father, Mohamed Sorie Forna, was a village boy who won a scholarship to train as a doctor in Scotland and in the 1970s became a minister in the dictatorial government of Siaka Stevens, the first President of Sierra Leone (1971-1985). Forna was taken from his home in Freetown one night on charges of treason for founding an opposing political party and was executed the following year, in 1975, when Aminatta was aged 11. This event marked her teenage years and in a way triggered her career as a writer decades later.

She studied law at University College London and later at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1989 to 1999 Forna was a broadcast journalist for the BBC, often reporting on African issues and presenting documentaries on Africa’s history and art such as “Through African Eyes” (BBC) in 1995, the Channel 4 series “Africa Unmasked” (2002) and in 2009 “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu” (BBC). It was in the late 1990s that she wrote her first book, the non-fiction volume Mother of All Myths. How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers (London, HarperCollins, 1998), where she explores modern motherhood examining Western perceptions in the 1980s and 1990s and its idealisation in mythology, history and literature.

In 2002 she published The Devil that Danced on the Water. A Daughter’s Memoir (London, HarperCollins), which constitutes an attempt to investigate the reasons behind her father’s death, hanged as a traitor after a most suspicious trial though considered a hero by those who knew him. With the help of her step-mother and other relatives in Sierra Leone, Forna manages to reconstruct the social context in which he died and the circumstances surrounding his trial, eventually identifying his killers after discovering that all the witnesses had been bribed to testify against him. The narrative, however, is not only an exercise of political remembrance, but also an attempt to come to terms with her own childhood and her confusion in those years. The Devil that Danced on the Water received wide acclaim both in the UK and the US and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2003. It was selected by the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Series and serialised on BBC Radio and The Sunday Times.

Forna’s first book of fiction is her novel Ancestor Stones (London, Bloomsbury), also focused on Sierra Leone. Its publication in 2006 awakened great critical interest in the literary world and among numerous reading groups which led to its being awarded the 2008 Hurston Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, the Literaturpreis in Germany and the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize 2010 for African women’s writing. It was also nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and selected by The Washington Post and The Listener Magazine as one of the best books published in 2006, as well as The New York Times Editors’ Choice.

In this novel a London-based African-British woman, Abie, explores her family past through the voices of her four aunties, daughters of four of the eleven wives of her grandfather, Gibril Umars Kholifa, a rich Sierra Leonean plantation owner. Through their alternating stories and reflections we get to know the difficult circumstances in which they lived and married, always competing with the other siblings in the household for their father’s attention and struggling to survive in a patriarchal world which was collapsing under Western influence and armed conflict. The violent past of Sierra Leone is thus revised through female eyes in a narrative which spans seven decades and is full of lyricism and female strength, leading to a more hopeful, empowering present in the new millenium.

Due to the success of Ancestor Stones, Forna was named in 2007 as one of African’s most promising new writers by Vanity Fair and in 2010 she published her most recent and most awarded work to date, The Memory of Love (London, Bloomsbury). This novel has received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011 and has been selected as one of the best books of the year by The Sunday Times, The Financial Times and The Sunday Telegraph, as well as The New York Times Editors’ Choice. It has also been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Warwick Prize for Writing and awarded a Kirkus star by the Kirkus Reviews.

In The Memory of Love Forna returns to Sierra Leone, but this time in the aftermath of its civil war in the 1990s, one of the bloodiest in modern Africa. Set in a Freetown hospital, the plot revolves around several characters: Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist who has travelled to that country to hide from his own conflicts and to treat psychologically-wounded people after the war – which makes a numerous group as a result of the special cruelty of the conflict –; Elias Cole, a retired university professor who becomes his patient; Kay Mansarai, a surgeon specialised in orthopedics whom Adrian befriends and who is also damaged by the horror he has witnessed; and Agnes, a woman who ends up in a mental hospital as a consequence of her experiences in the war. Despite their different circumstances, the four characters share painful memories which require healing and life experiences which have more in common than they think. Forna offers here a well-researched narrative which explores post-war trauma and surprises readers with its precise descriptions and the directness of its language.

Apart from her long fiction, which has been translated into several languages, Forna has also published essays, articles and short stories which have appeared in newspapers and journals such as Granta, The Sunday Times, The Observer and Vogue. She is also an occasional collaborator in Wasafiri and a member of the advisory committee of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her short story “Hayward’s Heath” was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2010. Forna is now a full-time writer and lives in London with her husband Simon Wescott, though she travels several times a year to Sierra Leone and her family’s village, Rogbonko, where she collaborates on a project whose aim is to promote escape from poverty by launching initiatives in the spheres of education, health, agriculture and infrastructure. This project, known as the Rogbonko Project, included the building of a primary school in 2002 on which Forna also cooperated. Thus, her outstanding contribution to African cultures is not only visible in the literary field, but also in the social sphere through her active participation in its development.

 

Official website:  http://www.aminattaforna.com/

Steffens, Daneet 2008: “Aminatta Forna Talks to Daneet Steffens”. Mslexia. For Women Who Write. Issue 38, Jul/Aug/Sep 2008. In http://www.mslexia.co.uk/magazine/interviews/interview_38.php

Umez, Uche Peter 2010: “Reminiscences: Interview with Aminatta Forna”. Sentinel Literary Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 1, October-December 2010. In http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/slq/4-1-oct2010/interviews/uche-peter-umez.html