A writer whose childhood was spent variously in Scotland, Sierra Leone, Great Britain, Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Aminatta Forna truly embodies what it means to be a global author. Though she spent a significant portion of her formative years in Sierra Leone, she was educated in England, first attending boarding school there and then acquiring her law degree from University College London. She has written three novels, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, a memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, and many short stories, which have been featured in publications such as The Observer and Vogue. She is a professor at England’s Bath Spa University and has served as Williams College’s Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor. Forna’s works, which vary in place and time but consistently focus on the struggles of war and its aftermath, have received many accolades, including features on the New York Times list of Editor’s Choice books. Equally as impressive, her books have been translated into fifteen languages worldwide, Since Forna was awarded Yale’s Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize in March, her professional journey has also brought her to New Haven. WEEKEND gave her a call to talk about her influences and inspirations, the story behind her famous memoir, and the challenges of the writing process.
Q. How has your global perspective influenced your writing?
A. I think the most simple and straightforward way that it’s influenced my writing is because it has influenced my world outlook, which is that I have grown up knowing that there are multiple different ways of looking at the same thing and there is no one way of looking at anything.
Q. What has been the greatest source of inspiration from your life on your work?
A. I think there’s the event that triggered most of my writing and thinking, which was the civil war in Sierra Leone. I applied an understanding of the world to a conflict in an African country and it has come out of that and my father, who was a political prisoner in the 1970s. I’ve applied that understanding to all kinds of other subject matter — my last novel was set in Croatia, [so] I looked closely at that war. I think sometimes we’re having world conversations and I try to understand what those different places are. Some people live in a place of safety and some don’t. I live in both worlds: I live in a place of extreme safety in central London and I spend a lot of time in an unsafe place. I feel safer as a woman wandering around Sierra Leone than wandering around Britain, but when we talk about national level catastrophes, Sierra Leone is much less safe than the UK.
Q. Do you think that experiencing and witnessing struggle is necessary for good writing?
A. No, I don’t. I think it’s a sensibility. There’s a wonderful essay on witness literature by Nadine Gordimer from which I have drawn lots of inspiration over the years. She has said you do not need to witness these things. If you’re not a writer, no amount of witnessing or experiencing is going to change that. You might find different avenues, but writing is an act of imagination and that’s the way one should think about it. My experience channels my imagination in various directions.
Q. Why did you decide to write a memoir?
A. I wrote it for my family and my country, really. That’s the short answer. Writing is the way to understand things and I think both memoir and fiction are different forms of literature. We had a civil conflict and [Sierra Leone] was reeling because we’d seen ourselves as a very peaceful nation. My father had been a political prisoner because he had foreseen what would happen and opposed the dictatorship, and he had the foresight to write it down in a letter to the nation. I wrote my first book, “The Devil that Danced on the Water,” as a memoir for my country and family so that they could come to [understand] what I had come to understand. Why [did I choose memoir]? Because I am a writer and because I thought it was an accessible form to tell the story. I’m the narrator, but it’s my father’s story. I’m glad to say it has had an impact in Sierra Leone, and it did open the way to understanding what had happened.
Q. Which themes play the most prominent role across your various works?
A. The main theme in my writing is causality: themes of connectedness of things. Sometimes when I’m giving a talk, I say the ideas for my book come from a single question, and certainly a question that has occurred throughout all of them is ‘Where do things start?’. Everything starts somewhere, and the overarching theme is causality and interconnectedness, and beyond that trauma and resilience and the idea of resilience as a catalyst of greater emotional empathy.
Q. What do you find to be the hardest part of the writing process in general?
A. Well, it’s all difficult! If it was easy something would be going wrong (laughs). I think probably the most difficult part is the admission that a piece is not working. I was having a conversation with another novelist today at the London Library and I told her I had just junked 30,000 words, and she said she once junked 60,000. My students definitely find it hardest to let go of a piece of writing that isn’t working. The moment when you decide to do it is extremely painful, but then you wake up the next morning feeling liberated.