With her second novel, The Memory of Love, winning accolades, Aminatta Forna opens up about writing and more.
Aminatta Forna's latest novel, The Memory of Love is set, like both her earlier works, in Africa, dealing with the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, where Forna grew up. The book — a poignant story about human emotions, follies and obsessive love — has won her many accolades. It was awarded the Commonwealth Prize for ‘Best Book', selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times and Times and short-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize.
You've written about extremely complex and poignant human emotions and follies. How difficult was it to write about such varied characters?
The Memory of Love took three years and was extremely challenging to write. The research alone took many months. The complexity of the narrative structure presented challenges; having three interweaving narratives. And, of course, the subject matter. As a writer you have to force yourself to face difficult questions every day, questions most people avoid or turn away from. It's what we do.
The book is essentially a novel about people. But it is also a novel about a specific period in your country's history. How was it to recreate memories of that time and weave them in?
I am of dual heritage — British mother and Sierra Leonian father — so I have two countries and I was writing about them both. Though the book is set in Sierra Leone, Adrian is a very British character. I portrayed the country in part through his eyes — the visitor — and in part through the experience of the people around him. I don't rely on memories any more than Ian McEwan used his knowledge of the British countryside to write Chesil Beach or Atonement. No episodes of my own specific memories appear in The Memory of Love. Mostly it's in the detail; the beer people drank, the music they listened to. But equally I could have looked that stuff up or asked somebody.
How easy, or difficult, was it to write about your own people, your own country?
Much easier. Seriously, I suppose writing about a difficult period in the recent past in a country where you have lived carries its risks, because you're asking people to scrutinise their own choices. This was deliberate on my part. Not everyone likes it, because not everybody behaved honourably. But this is one purpose of literature; to try to make sense of the past.
You weren't always a writer. What got you started?
I read law at university. Good African families are like good Indian families. We were all raised to study either medicine or law. I enjoyed writing in my school days and could lose myself for hours composing stories. Later I joined the BBC and became a broadcast reporter and documentary maker. I love narrative, but I found the BBC very limiting. Those who commissioned the programmes were very risk-averse; the tastes of middle England dictated everything. I resigned and left to write The Devil that Danced on the Water in 1999, while the war in Sierra Leone was at its height. I guess, though I was not conscious of this, my frustrations had reached a zenith. The book was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize and I never looked back. I moved from memoir to fiction. Nadine Gordimer has written that it is the role and duty of the writer “to bear inward witness”, for the power to transform traumatic events through literature is the “awesome responsibility of their endowment with the seventh sense of the imagination”. I think that sums it up. There are some things only literature can do.
Your book won several accolades. What do you think gave it that universal appeal?
Definitely the characters. People come to care about them. People stop me to talk about Elias Cole; some hate him, some love him, some think he is funny, some think he is foul, some empathise and some are repelled. Kai Mansaray too. He is less controversial; a lot of readers - mostly women - ask if I will return to his story in a future novel.
Who are the authors you read? Any Indians on that list?
After visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival two years ago, I am aware how few Indian authors we are exposed to in Britain though, of course, there are many more now than before. My husband travelled in India for many years and is a big fan of Rohinton Mistry. I read all Rushdie's work years ago and the lyricism and grandeur stay with me still. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things deploys language in the most wonderful way. I am about to embark of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, because the reviews of the new book have been so brilliant. I am stunned by the scale of his ambition. I read Vikram Seth many years ago and interviewed him when I was still working as a journalist. He told me to husband my time and be careful to whom I gave it. Best advice I ever had about writing.
You've got a lot of tags: war author, African author... What defines your work?
I get asked about the tags but, to be honest, they are rarely — if ever — applied to me in practice. The only one that is, is the “African author” tag. Most readers don't respond to my work that way, at all. I can't begin to say what defines my work. I'll leave that to posterity.