In Conversation: Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna has been described as a writer of startling talent and in 2007, Vanity Fair praised her as one of Africa’s most promising new writers. The Memory of Love, her second novel is set against the backdrop of the Sierra Leonean civil war but with a twist. Forna weaves in real events like the Moon Landings of 1969 with brilliance through her use of flashbacks. In her own words, Aminatta Forna and what she wants readers to take away from The Memory of Love.
Belinda: What inspired The Memory Of Love?
Aminatta Forna: With something as complex as a novel inspiration comes from many places. I remember having the first strand of the idea after talking to a friend from Argentina. She grew up during the Dirty War of the 1970‘s when tens of thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Her family was not affected, even though her father was an academic/an intellectual. As she grew older she began to wonder what her father must have done to survive, what compromises – or worse – he’d had to make. I feel the same when I look at people in Sierra Leone, in any country which has known political repression. You have to ask: What did you do? What did you fail to do? What could you have done?
Belinda: Elias Cole, Adrian and Kai, all have stories which serve as the lens through which we see life in the place you have written about… What’s the story about Freetown/ Sierra Leone and your background that you wanted to get across to your reader or anyone who picks up your book?
Aminatta Forna: The book isn’t about my background. Nor is it about Sierra Leone. It is about people – characters – who happen to live in Sierra Leone. To say it is about me or my background would certainly be a mistake. To say it is about Sierra Leone would be only the most superficial interpretation. It is a book about war. About how countries implode and the many acts or omissions that bring them to that point. It is about the aftermath of war. In theory I could have set it in any number of places.
Belinda: You explore different themes in the book, from the effects of war to political disorder, mental health, self discovery, and love among many others. However, a few things stood out for me; the issue of mental health, the obsessive love and of course the disconnection the different characters feel to their lives in order to get on. What points of discussion/emotions did you want to evoke with your new book?
Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love is first and foremost a story and readers will take what they want from it. Mental health, obsessive love: these are merely themes of which there are many. I think if the book has a central idea, it is the notion of conscience as both a shared and individual responsibility.
Belinda: Relationships is a a strong theme that comes through in your book, what did you want to explore/examine through the different characters and the relationship they had with each other?
Aminatta Forna: A writer doesn’t start with a list of abstract points or issues and then try to weave them into a novel. Some writers begin with character, some begin with plot. I begin with character and all characters interrelate. Adrian’s relationship with his wife is part of the reason he goes to work abroad. Kai’s relationship with Abass is what makes it hard for him to leave. Adrian’s falling in love with Mamakay makes him see the country in a new way, with the eyes of a lover. Elias is in love with Saffia, but his real obsession is Julius. Our relationships are what make us and are often the motive behind the actions we take.
Belinda: How important is it for you as a writer to bring different of emotional facets into your work?
Aminatta Forna: Writing is all about the re-creation of emotion and understanding the emotions of others.
Belinda: The book has a reasonable amount of history in it, from the Moon landings to the war and of course, people trying to get on after the war. Did you set out to infuse so much of history right up until the war and the baggage that came with it when you started writing?
Aminatta Forna: The book was set against real events and therefore within a particular time frame. The early story is set in the late 1960’s before the war. The later story is set in 2001 towards the end of the war. The moon landing was in 1969 during the Cold War contemporaneous with the early story. It was a time of hope and fear throughout the world as well as in Africa. I think people in the West tend to of Africa as somehow apart from world events, as though those events that occur on the continent do so in isolation.
Belinda: You have lived in Sierra Leone and know the place better than those of us who only ever hear about it from the news media, what’s the story about the people and their zeal to get on after the brutal war that left so many dislocated and with a lot of challenges, some of which you touch on in your book, that you wanted to tell the readers?
Aminatta Forna: Headlines do a great deal to dehumanise people who live in Africa. War affects people in pretty much the same way the world over. The point of fiction is to go beyond the surface. I think wars end when people are exhausted by them, including those who had a hand in starting them. After a war people just want their lives back. This is not always possible.
Belinda: Did you find you were more objective when writing because you were away from the situation?
Aminatta Forna: Not that far away. I go there twice a year, I have a lot of family there and projects. This is my third book set in Sierra Leone in the decade since the war, I write as much as possible in situ.
Belinda: What do you want readers to take away from the book after reading The Memory of Love?
Aminatta Forna: I would like them to imagine themselves in the place of any of the book’s characters, to ask themselves what they would have done in the same situation. To understand ourselves better is the reason we read.
About The Author: Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone/the UK. An award winning writer, her first book, The Devil That Danced On Water – a memoir and first novel, Ancestor Stones, both received critical acclaim.
The Memory of Love is published by Bloomsbury.
Images courtesy of Bloomsbury/Aminatta Forna
A feature article about Aminatta Forna and her book, The Memory of Love appeared in the book review section of the New African Woman, edition 6. Do grab a copy!