Born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain, Aminatta Forna spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. Her father, a doctor and political dissident, was hanged on charges of treason by the Sierra Leone regime in 1975 when she was just 11. Out of that and the ensuing civil war, her memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water was written, and later shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. She is also the award-winning author of novels Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love and most recently, The Hired Man.
Every culture has its great stories and storytellers, and in cultures which have been oppressed, stories are even more important in keeping alive the sense of self. Aminatta is one writer who has set out to safeguard the stories of Sierra Leone’s past. “With Ancestor Stones I set out to recreate the voices and narratives of a group of people who I had rarely seen represented in literature – older, rural women,” she says. “I did weeks of research among them, discovering details of lives that would be lost if someone like me had not incorporated them into stories.”
Frustrated with the idea that many Westerners think only certain things happen in Africa, Aminatta set her latest book The Hired Man in Croatia. “The former Yugoslavia attracted me for being in Europe, for the fact Westerners who were too afraid to set foot in Sierra Leone were happy to holiday in Croatia.” She has friends there, and was struck by the similarity of their experience of war as something which doesn’t end with a peace accord, and of people who continue to live with those who have betrayed them.
In this Centenary of the Great War, we’re also remembering the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Has the world learned anything since then? “The Rwandans have certainly learned a great deal and have done a huge amount to change the way people think in that country, to remember and yet to put the past behind them,” she says. “One has Paul Kagame to thank for that, but also a people who have committed the greatest act of forgiveness imaginable. I would say Sierra Leone comes second in that regard. But since our war did not go down ethnic lines, it was perhaps less difficult for us. What the Rwandans have achieved is astonishing. The rest of the world could learn a great deal from them.”
Among her distinguished academic posts, Aminatta is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and knows too well what it takes to become a master in the craft of writing. “10,000 hours is what it takes. There’s no way around it, unless you’re a genius in which case you probably still need 5,000. You need to find the time somehow. Also, remember being a writer is mostly about being alone in a room with people who don’t exist – for eight hours a day every day […] You have to want to be alone.”
Her writing space is a “lovely office” overlooking her garden in South East London, although she writes in all kinds of places. One of her most successful stories was written in the middle of a row of people in the cheap seats of a long haul flight. “I couldn’t even get out to go to the loo, but I managed to pull out my laptop and write with it on my knees and six hours flashed by. As for a schedule, I try to write during daylight hours so I can enjoy life with the rest of humanity.”
Aminatta Forna will be interviewed by author Catherine Dunne on Saturday 31st May at 5pm at St John’s Theatre. To book, please click here