Aminatta Forna interview:
Aminatta Forna’s father was tortured and then hanged for ‘treason’ when she was a little girl. But there was no way those responsible were ever going to intimidate her. Nigel Farndale meets a novelist whose life and courage are even more remarkable than her work.Photo: KATE PETERS
Talking over her shoulder as she brews a pot of coffee in her kitchen in south-east London, Aminatta Forna tells me she is so hopeless at multitasking she recently answered her mobile while tapping her numbers into a cashpoint, and then walked away without waiting for her money.
It’s a surprising admission because the 48-year-old novelist is together enough to have a law degree from UCL, and to have been the founder of a village school and farming project in Sierra Leone, a fellow at Berkeley and a judge of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
Then again, her life is not without its paradoxes. Although she is, well, a woman – a rather elegant and striking one – she does have a decidedly masculine prose style. The narrator of her new novel, indeed, is a man. And some of his descriptions, such as him feeling ‘a tightening in my balls’, had me wondering how she knows this stuff.
‘Well, I do have a husband,’ she says with a laugh. ‘But the curious thing is, I do feel more comfortable writing in a male voice and I think it’s possibly because I am, actually, a man! Growing up in the 1970s, I was envious of my brother’s Action Man, so I made a parachute for my Barbie and threw her out of the window. I was very much a tomboy and passed as a boy for quite a long time, until I was about 14. I wanted to be a boy because life looked palpably more fun that way. Even the clothes boys got to wear were more practical.’
Now framed in the bay window of her sitting-room, Forna keeps looking up the road outside to where the first blossoms of spring are emerging. As she talks she alternates between being in profile in this way to making full eye contact. She’s confiding and has an easy laugh, but you can sense the iron in her soul.
Forna in Sierra Leone in 2004 with her late aunt and her cousin, Adama
The Hired Man, her third novel, is set in Croatia, in a small community still living with the memory of war. The narrator hunts deer and there are descriptions of him firing his rifle, which, I suggest, can only have come from first-hand experience. ‘Yes, I learnt to shoot as part of my research,’ she confirms. ‘I went to the range at Bisley in Surrey and I’m now a National Rifle Association member. The man who taught me was a former police marksman. It gave me a whole other view of guns, as well as of my narrator. To shoot, you have to be in control of yourself. The best shots are able to squeeze the trigger between heartbeats.
At first I was knocked off my feet by the gun, but by the end I could hit targets at a kilometre range.’ Her husband, Simon, a furniture designer, enters, says hello and tells Forna he is popping out.
‘Simon gets invited shooting all the time,’ she says when he has gone. ‘It’s so unfair! Just because he’s a man! I discovered that the American military have a lot of female snipers. I think it’s to do with their calmness. Certainly, of the couples I took to Bisley it was the women who were the better shots. I would never make a good sniper, though, because the telescope calibrations would defeat me. I’m no good at maths.’
Her research is always this thorough. She also went to the former Yugoslavia to travel the roads she was writing about, as well as to meet the people. For her last novel, The Memory of Love, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, she travelled to Sierra Leone (where she had been partly raised, when not at her English boarding-school) and spent time in the hospital there watching amputations. She also observed the counselling offered by psychologists for post-traumatic stress, another strand of the book (which also has male narrators and shifting time signatures, and deals with the aftermath of war). ‘One similarity between the wars in Sierra Leone and Croatia is that they used the weapons they had access to,’ she says. ‘So in Croatia they had access to hunting rifles, and that’s why it was characterised by sniping, whereas in Sierra Leone they had machetes because they were farmers. Low-tech. That’s why that war was characterised by amputations.’
If you have a war fought on your land, she reckons, you never get away from the echoes of it. ‘The British usually think of war as something fought “over there”. For the Yugoslavians and Sierra Leoneans it was “over here”, and both were about betrayal.’
The big difference between the wars was that there was no ethnic cleansing in Sierra Leone, she adds. But rape was used as a weapon in both. ‘Many of the Yugoslavian women who were raped knew the men who were raping them. And in Sierra Leone they were often connected with personal grudges. When we heard the terrible stories about the war happening in neighbouring Liberia we were sitting there thinking, “We’re not like that.”’
I notice she refers to Sierra Leoneans as ‘we’. Yet she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and is married to an Englishman. She tells me that when she is there they don’t see her as black and when she’s here they don’t see her as white. Sounds like she is in a sort of racial limbo, I say. ‘Sometimes when I’m talking of both cultures I use “we” for both. I say “we British” and “we Sierra” Leoneans, because I identify with both. I feel black in one place and white in the other, which tells you a lot about human nature.’
Forna with her mother in Scotland, 1968
People who are black would see someone of mixed race as being mostly white, she reckons, whereas someone white would see them as mostly black. ‘It always astonishes me that people from either group can’t see I’m mixed race, because to me it is obvious. I clearly look half and half. I remember overhearing a black woman in Sierra Leone say, “Yes, you can almost see the black in her.” They see I’m different but they assume there are just different shades of white people.’
Her ambition in both books was to write about the silence that defines communities torn apart by war. Breaking the silence was also the theme for the memoir she wrote before she became a novelist – the facts, indeed, she needed to get out of her system before she could write fiction.
Called The Devil that Danced on the Water, it dealt with her father’s untimely death. He was a Sierra Leonean doctor who had come to Scotland to do his medical training. When he returned to Africa he was drawn into politics, and the regime tortured and bribed four men into bearing false witness against him. He was hanged for ‘treason’ in 1975.
Forna was 11 at the time and her memoir was her attempt to find out what really happened to him, because no one would tell her. ‘My stepmother [her parents had divorced and remarried] found it too difficult to talk about, so it went unsaid. I think she probably thought we were too young to understand and also, because of the political situation, it was hard to talk about it.’
She named names in the memoir, though; did that make her nervous? ‘Boy, did it. The only person I let read the book before publication was my stepmother because she still lives out there. Privately I thought I would change any name she wanted changing but I wouldn’t offer it in advance. She just put a tick on it and said, “Very good, darling.”’
Actually, she changed one name. ‘One of the witnesses at my father’s trial who had been paid to lie. He was a nasty character who did it for money and promotion and he complained to me that he was never paid. I changed his name because he was a poor man and vulnerable to the kind of anger and revenge lynchings you get on the streets after a civil war.’
Was that tantamount to forgiveness on her part? ‘I don’t wish him harm but I can’t forgive him. He didn’t apologise to me. I protected him because I didn’t want his blood on my hands. But forgiveness? No.’
I’ve read that she is a chronic insomniac; how is she sleeping at the moment? ‘I do all the sleep hygiene things – don’t drink coffee after midday, earplugs and so on, then – bang! – four o’clock in the morning and I am wide awake. It’s all about the nuttiness of making us sleep in this eight-hour period, the Industrial Revolution and working in the hours of daylight. What’s annoying about it is that it is useless time when you are lying awake, because you feel too fractured to work, you just want to go back to sleep. I heard of one writer who went to bed at 10 then got back up to write at two. Then went to sleep at four. But I couldn’t do that. I don’t really like the silence at night. I like the life going on around me. I find absolute silence too eerie.’
She thinks the insomnia and the writing are linked because she doesn’t remember being an insomniac when she worked as a journalist at the BBC for 10 years. ‘It became chronic when I was writing The Devil that Danced on the Water.’
A psychologist might say there was a connection there. ‘I can see why they might. It was such a difficult book to write. I used to dream about my father coming back. It had all been a misunderstanding and he was in hiding. After I wrote that book I did stop having that dream.’
She’d laid him to rest? ‘I’m very nervous about anything that looks like psychotherapy in writing. Writing disturbs more than it settles. I teach a course on memoir writing and always start by saying, “It’s not therapy. You may come out of it far more upset than you were when you went in.”’
Aminatta Forna with her father in Sierra Leone in 1966. He was hanged for ‘treason’ in 1975
Before she started researching her memoir, her sister warned her to be careful, in case what she found out was worse than what they had assumed had happened. ‘And she was right. I went in search of evil and found it. And it was worse than I had imagined it would be. I never imagined that people would have stood by and let such a thing happen. I always assumed it would be more difficult for people to kill him than it was.’
In the 1990s did she find the civil war in Sierra Leone traumatic to follow on the news? ‘No, but I was traumatised by the sheer indifference to it here. During the war I was here and my stepmother was there. I would telephone and hear the shells and gunfire in the background. I could hear the advance of the rebels, but the thing that shocked me, and I still haven’t got over, is how few of my friends rang me to find if my family were OK. It taught me something about the Western mindset. It was on the news every night yet people couldn’t relate those events to the one person from Sierra Leone they knew. People who knew my parents. One close friend rang up during the invasion to tell me her mother’s dog had died and she was upset.
I said, “I thought you were ringing me about Sierra Leone.” It pretty much ended that friendship.’ Last year the Liberian politician Charles Taylor was convicted of crimes against humanity in the Hague for his part in the war in Sierra Leone. Did that give her some closure? ‘Not as much as you would think. But writing the memoir did. What came out of it for me was that I had no more questions.’
I cannot say the same, but as our photographer is waiting patiently downstairs we have to draw the interview to a close. A fascinating life story, though. And a fine (and manly) writer.
The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna, is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99