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Civil conflict and the memories it leaves behind
Aminatta Forna. (Photo: Jonathan Ring.)

Civil conflict and the memories it leaves behind

African-Scottish writer Aminatta Forna is known for works that chronicle societies’ descent into violence and the consequences that individuals must live with in the aftermath. She will read from her new novel “The Hired Man” at UCLA on October 15th.

Peggy McInerny Email PeggyMcInerny

International Institute, October 1, 2013 — The life and sensibility of award-winning writer Aminatta Forna bridges two continents (Europe and Africa), two countries (United Kingdom and Sierra Leone), two races and multiple careers: lawyer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, writer and professor. 
 
The author of a memoir and three novels that have won an array of literary prizes, Forna’s works examine how societies implode into civil violence. They have been translated into 15 languages. 
 
Forna also writes essays, articles and short stories, as well as for film, television and radio. In fact, she is one of the screenwriters for the new film “Girl Rising,” which chronicles the impact of education on disadvantaged girls in the developing world (see below). 
 
Her first book, “The Devil that Danced on the Water” (2002), is a memoir that investigates how her physician-politician father was framed, imprisoned and eventually hung for treason in Sierra Leone (in 1975), when Forna was 11 years old. 
 
The memoir was a runner-up for the U.K. Samuel Johnson Prize and was serialized on both BBC Radio and in “The Sunday Times.” The book was highly popular in Sierra Leone and sparked a national dialogue about the war. 
 
In a 2012 interview with The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, Forna noted, “I don’t think of my childhood as traumatic really. I think that my childhood had painful experiences — there was loss, there was pain, there was grief but I’m rather of the view that what happened to me was not unusual in the world that I came from.”
 
From memoir to fiction
 
Forna’s first two novels, “Ancestor Stones” (2006) and “The Memory of Love” (2010) offer different perspectives on the civil war in Sierra Leone. The first novel describes 80 years in the lives of four sisters in a fictional African country whose experience echoes that of contemporary Sierra Leone. The book won the Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction and Germany’s Liberaturpreis, among other commendations.
 
“The Memory of Love” takes place in Sierra Leone proper and centers on characters who have survived the civil war and the foreign psychologist with whom they interact. The book won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award for 2011 and was a runner-up for the Orange Prize. Both “The Sunday Telegraph” and “The Financial Times” selected the novel as one of the best books of the year.
 
Forna’s third novel, “The Hired Man,” takes a leap to the Balkans. Published earlier this year in the United Kingdom (and on October 1 in the United States), it tells the story of the relationship between a British family who has purchased a vacation house in Croatia and the local man they engage to help them do repairs and renovation. 
 
As the novel progresses, the truth emerges about what happened in the town during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, revealing a picture of how people learn to live with their pasts — and with one another — after civil conflict.
 
In an interview with The Telegraph earlier this year, Forna remarked, “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.”
 
In a recent email exchange, she commented on whether Western and non-Western readers react differently to her work. “The split is not between Western and non-Western readers,” she says, “It is between those with an experience or understanding of conflict, in particular, civil conflict. Hence, readers in Spain and Sri Lanka alike have a much deeper recognition of the world I have created than, say, British readers. 
 
“I find a tendency to create a false dichotomy between the West and the majority of the world. Spain was a dictatorship until 1975 and the effects of the Spanish Civil War are still being played out. Portugal had a coup in 1974,” she adds.
 
Cosmopolitan perspective rooted in specific experience
 
The daughter of a Sierra Leonean father and a Scottish mother, Forna was raised between the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone, but also spent time as a child in Thailand, Zambia and Iran thanks to two stepfathers who were both diplomats. 
 
Educated in British boarding schools, she graduated from the University College of London with a degree in law. Rather than practice law, however, she worked as a journalist at the BBC for 10 years before turning to writing full-time. 
 
Although she resides in London, Forna regularly spends time in Sierra Leone, where she runs the Rogbonko Project, a charitable organization that engages in educational, healthcare and sanitation initiatives in the town that her grandfather founded. 
 
She also travels frequently to literary festivals around the world, including in Sri Lanka, Colombia, India and Kenya. “I was at the festival now known as the Hay Storymoja Festival [in Kenya] a few years ago,” she says. 
 
“Tragically,” she comments, “the festival this year was partly cancelled because of the shootings and hostage taking in Westgate Mall in Nairobi. One of the continent's leading poets who was attending the festival was killed there, Ghana's Kofi Awoonor. [We] writers are pretty shocked by that right now.”
 
At the Galle Writers Festival in Sri Lanka in 2012, she says, “I gave three talks to audiences of 300–600 people. Although we were ostensibly talking about the civil war in Sierra Leone, in reality we were talking about the Sri Lankan civil war. People wanted to share their experience and hear mine.” 
 

 
 
Forna doesn’t just speak at literary festivals, she also teaches. “When I was in Nairobi for the festival... I took the time to teach a weeklong workshop. It was wonderful opportunity to meet young people and help them hone their skills,” she narrates. “They have so many wonderful stories to tell. With a little input and guidance, their growth as writers in the course of a week was exponential.”
 
Teaching is now a big part of her life. A professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom, Forna is currently teaching African literature at Williams College in Massachusetts, where she is Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor. 
 
Asked if it is difficult to convey the importance of history to American students, she responds, “I would say Britain wears its past very heavily (and somewhat selectively). That's a great deal to do with the sense that the country's best years are behind it. In the U.S. there is a sense that this is a country at the height of its political, cultural and economic power, and so the past seems less important.
 
“Here,” she continues, “the present and the future seem more important than the past. Very few young people in either country have a strong sense of international history, which I expect has to do with the school curricula. In my African literature course at Williams College, when I teach a literary work, I also teach the history of the country it comes from in order to give the story context.“
 
Ms. Forna’s appearance at UCLA on October will be cosponsored by UCLA’s Mellon Postdoctoral Program in Humanities, Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the African Studies Center.
 
“Girl Rising” will be screened at UCLA on Wednesday, October 30, at 7:30 pm at the James Bridges Theater in Melntiz Hall; no reservations are needed. Made as part of a global action campaign for girls’ education, the film showcases how education has transformed the lives of nine young girls born into unforgiving circumstances. It is narrated by a roster of famous actresses. 
 
Posted on October 1 and updated October 16, 2013.

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