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Vol.4. No.1. October - December 2010





Reminiscences: Interview with Aminatta Forna


By Uche Peter Umez


 Award-winning writer, Aminatta Forna has been described in various terms, luminous and sweeping; even Vanity Fair named her as one of Africa's most promising new writers in 2007. Yet what I find most striking about her is not just her massive, critically-acclaimed talent as a writer, but the charm of her smile that radiates from deep within her soul. It is gracious, heartfelt, the smile. I imagine it lighting up my own face. Iím enthralled a moment, before I nudge myself to focus on what I came to do.


We sit on raffia-made chairs in her balcony, a table between us. The sound of metal grating against rock threatens to disrupt our conversation. Aminatta stands up, a bit irritated by the din. She looks over the balcony. The sound is coming from the other side of the wall. A sorry-looking building Ė in dire need of paint and polish Ė juts above our barbed-wire topped wall.  


Some frizzy darkish brown curls flip over her eyes as Aminatta shakes her head. She tucks them behind her ears with her fingers and says, ĎItís been like that since I checked in.í


I too have noticed that sound; the sound of renovation. Someone seems to have decided to be more enterprising, make good use of the land next to the hotel we are lodged in. Iíve also noticed that lots of hotels on this beachside vicinity have begun a refurbishing spree Ė probably anticipating a surge of tourists and vacationers.


"We should find somewhere else?" I ask, propping myself up a little, my palms flat against the chairís arms. From up the balcony my eyes sweep over the shimmering pool, the quiet thatch sheds overlooking the frothy beach.


"Naw." Aminatta sits back.


Easing back fully into my chair, I notice sheís slipped her book onto the table. Fat, exquisite, a book described as Ďimpossible to forget, or to confuse with any other memoir of tyrannical times....í by The Financial Times; a memoir regarded as evocative of Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits, and what Jason Cowley called an Ďimpressive contribution to the literature of post-colonial Africa.í


Aminatta Forna was barely 10 when her father ó a doctor and popular former cabinet minister ó was visited by the state secret police. Theyíd come to arrest him. His position against dictatorship was uncompromising; an unflagging democrat. A year later Mohammed Forna was executed for treason by a government decidedly bent on quashing every opposition and overturning democracy. The award-winning book, The Devil that Danced on the Water, is Aminatta's gripping account of childhood, the stormy days of post-colonial statehood, the events that presaged the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone , and the acceptance of her fatherís murder. The memoir was runner-up for Britain's most prestigious non-fiction award, the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2003 and serialised both for BBC Radio and in The Sunday Times newspaper. 


I reach for the book, then thumb a few pages. The only word I can say is, hmm. When I asked Aminatta what motivated her to embark on writing about her fatherís fate, why she related her experiences through memoir and not fiction, say, a novel, her gaze wanders briefly from my face, takes on a retrospective shade, and then she fixes her brown eyes on me, and replies that she specifically went back to Sierra Leone (she currently resides in UK) to discover the truth about her father, how he was murdered; the complicity and people involved. Therefore, the only form the narrative could take was a memoir.


"Memoir can combine various forms, including history and narrative journalism," she says. "Itís creative non-fiction, and I was particularly careful about getting my facts right. I spent 10 years at the BBC so getting my facts as accurately as possible was something I was already trained to do. I was able to connect the events of the 1960s to 1970s and the war which was just then taking place; a political meltdown which would eventually lead to war."


Itís very arduous finishing a short story, and who knows how long a memoir might take to complete, considering it is mostly non-fiction, fact and history, without the coloration of subjectivity. Aminatta says it took her two and half years to finish her breathtaking memoir. "It was broken slightly because of the war during which I couldnít go back to Sierra Leone . One year for the writing and the other one and half years to gather and crosscheck all the information," she reflects, shutting her eyes a moment. "I flew all over the world to do the research. I tracked people in Germany , US, UK and Sierra Leone , etc. Thankfully enough, lots of the facts and the political situation that was unfolding were detailed and documented by the British High Commission in Sierra Leone and held in the British government archives. I also got valuable material from the US State Department."


What was the challenge like? And how much objectivity is required in writing a memoir of such magnitude? Aminatta lifts her leg and places it on the edge of her chair, appearing easy in her U-neck beige blouse and flowing pants. "Hmm," she says, as though Iíve asked her a question that quite unsettles her. "Hmm. The challenge was life-changing. I went to Sierra Leone towards the end of the war and was raking up a lot of past and memories people didnít want to expose. You have to accept that what you discover may differ from what you believed. You have to split yourself in halves. And you have to write straight from the heart. A memoir is the authorís story, you arenít writing a textbook. Youíve to trust your heart and you have to be more honest than objective. Itís an honest business. The reader has to trust you."


I remember a recent meeting with Amanze Austin Akpuda, a poet, literary critic and scholar at Abia State University . He mentioned that every detail or milestone of oneís life should be documented, just in case one wished to write a memoir. I ask Aminatta for advice on writing a memoir; she says, "First, you must have a story. Memoir is not an autobiography which is about well-known people, and their entire story from birth to the present day. Memoir is a story told from life. Iím the narrator in my memoir, but the story was about my fatherís life. Iíll like to see a lot of people, African writers, attempt memoir. Itís a growing form, and we are in danger of allowing other people to tell our stories. We should be telling those stories."


While she speaks in that breezy, indulgent voice of hers, I catch a whiff of spicy stew emanating from somewhere below the balcony. I glance down. I sight the white-clad Ghanaian steward setting down on the table the varied dishes for guests near the poolside. I canít make out what the meals are, but I can picture some beef greased and spiced with peppers, curry, thyme and Knorr.  


"Smells nice,"  Aminatta says.


"Yeah." I nod. Thereís a short silence, and then I tell her that memoir is not a popular genre in African literature. Everybody is writing novels, short fiction, and childrenís literature. Memoir suffers the same fate as plays. In Africa , every young writer wants to write a novel or short story. So what does she think is responsible for this situation?  


"I think writers in the West have only just started to explore the possibilities of memoirs. I think itís simply a matter of letting writers in Africa know about the possibilities of this genre. Itís very creative and intellectual; it still takes all your skills as a writer. Perhaps, even more Ė to hold your readerís attention. You canít be lazy about it because itís true." Aminatta goes on to explain that she likes memoirs for all the reasons sheís just explained above. "And novels. All good writing is about revealing more than is apparent. And I think the novel takes that further than any other form. I wrote my memoir for my father, my family, my country and my continent. And these are powerful motives. The motive for writing a novel is to make people think in a way they have never thought before."


Aminatta also wrote Ancestor Stones  Ė a novel, Publishers Weekly, called it a Ďsweeping portrayal of the lives of five Sierra Leonean women.í The novel made New York Times Editor's Choice book, was selected by the Washington Post as one of the Best Novels of 2006 and one of The Listener Magazine's Best 10 Books of 2006. Ancestor Stones narrate the lives of four women:  Asana, Mariama, Hawa and Serah Kholifa married to a wealthy plantation owner in an Africa country where change is just beginning to arrive. Asana, lost twin and head-wife's daughter. Hawa, motherless child and manipulator of her own misfortune. Mariama, who sees what lies beyond this world. And Serah, follower of a Western-made dream.


Aminatta hasnít decided yet to come up with another memoir, but she has just finished the manuscript of a second novel and handed it to her editor before flying to attend the Caine Workshop in Ghana . The novel (already on sale) is called, The Memory of Love . It tells the stories of two love affairs. One takes place before a war, and the other after the same war. It reveals how both are interconnected. Itís also about how every action we take affects the world around us. It is set mostly in Sierra Leone . 


Aminatta has successfully navigated from non-fiction to fiction, married her memoirist skills to becoming an accomplished novelist. Nonetheless, she feels itís almost impossible to choose what the most challenging aspect of writing fiction is. Everything about writing is challenging. "I think itís the grind, to sit down and write every day, sometimes for years until you finish a piece of writing. Lots of people tell me they have ideas for a novel. Lots of people tell me they have started a novel. Only a few finish a novel. And I think the thing is to keep believing and writing."


As one of the facilitators of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop, I try to plumb her experience, what itís been like. Her eyes shine like light on glass as she reveals her feelings: "Though itís been hard work. What it has revealed to me is that there is a great deal of talent in Africa . But I think itís evident that what the African writers are missing is the opportunity to read a great deal. And that has got to do with the lack of availability of libraries and books and research facilities. The most commercially successful books are published in the US and Britain , and the young Africa writers donít get to read them, donít even have access to them at all. Notwithstanding, itís been great being a part of the group, great reading stories from around the continent, which we just donít get to hear in Europe. Moreover, I think the participants in the workshop have been supportive of each other. Everybody seems to be engaged in a common cause."


I have only attended one workshop, except the virtual ones on-line, which I didnít take seriously at any rate. Aminatta thinks workshops can be very useful for certain writers. "What a writer needs the most is time and space. And as Virginia Woolf said, 'a room of oneís own.í African writers have the greatest challenge in finding that because of the economic problems and extended family demands. And I think being able to gather writers for two weeks and let them share experiences and aspirations is a valuable thing. The greatest gift to any writer would be a stipend and a year off. But in the absence of that, a 2-week workshop is a pretty good gift."


I feel very honoured to be mentored by her and Jamal Mahjoub, though I wish it were a month-long workshop, so I could learn more about the craft of writing. She offers me some advice anyway; I swear Iím going to take it very, very seriously. Aminatta opens her palm and lifts it up, so itís at eye-level with my gaze. At first I think sheís about making some sleight-of-hand flourish, but she ticks off her fingers one by one, enumerating the advice:


#1 Ė Believe in your own voice.

#2 Ė Believe your story is worth telling.

#3 Ė Write every day.

#4 Ė Read as much as you can.

#5 Ė Keep a small notebook and write all your thoughts and observations, for they will surely come useful some day.

#6 - Lastly, donít be afraid. Fear is the biggest inhibitor to writing. Donít lose hope.


Then she flashes me that smile of hers. And inside of me I feel the sun burst as I slide my camera out of my pocket and look up at her with an exuberant smile.  SLQ



UCHECHUKWU PETER UMEZURIKE has been published on-line and in print and has participated in residencies in US, Ghana, India and Switzerland as well as picked up a couple of awards for his creative writing. He is currently working on a children's novel, The Runaway Hero, and an adult fiction. 




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