Wartime loves and betrayals: Aminatta Forna's new novel casts a fresh light on old war wounds
Friday 02 April 2010
There is every reason a visitor ringing Aminatta Forna's doorbell might expect to hear the tocsin sound of dogs barking in the background as she treads towards the door. She has spoken of her two beloved lurchers in past interviews and recently wrote a moving Granta essay about stray dogs in Sierra Leone - where she was partly raised – in which she described how the sliding scale of humanity towards these lost, bedraggled beasts was symptomatic of kinship during social unrest. "In a time of lies," she added, in reference to the country's near decade-long civil war, begun in 1991, "I found honesty and loyalty among the dogs."
But Forna is, surprisingly, not accompanied by her lurchers as she appears at the door of her South London townhouse. "They died," she says, hands in the air. Mab, who at 15 was blind ("I'd be leading a blind dog up the street instead of the other way round!"), went first, and then, a year ago, Tonkolili, named after the Northern province in Sierra Leone, suffered what some would view as a reassuringly middle-class death: a heart attack in the midst of a dinner party, surrounded by, one imagines, a brood of mourning friends, bottles of red wine and a polenta dish.
"It was sad but it was also a little farcical," Forna says , in strikingly clear enunciation - perfected at Malvern Girls College as a boarder, she reveals later - which holds no hint of the rhotic R's of her Scottish mother, nor the African lilt of her late Sierra Leonian father.
It is a voice that would have been perfect in her former career as a BBC TV journalist. She worked on The Late Show, before giving it up in 1999 to write The Devil That Danced on the Water, a Samuel Johnson Prize-nominated memoir of her childhood which recalls her dissident father's disappearance, imprisonment and death, when she was just 11. That was in 2003, after which she turned to fiction with Ancestor Stones – although some insisted on reading this as an extended memoir.
With the publication of her latest work of fiction, The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, £17.99), based in Sierra Leone and dramatising the nation's fractured sensibilities in the aftermath of the civil war, she wants to clear up a few enduring errors.
She was, most definitely, not the female protagonist of Ancestor Stones - Abie - who goes to Africa to trace the family trajectories of four aunts, as many reviews mistakenly suggested. "Everyone thinks I have a coffee plantation in Sierra Leone but I have a cashew crop project. I wrote about a woman who owns a coffee plantation! When you are talking about a woman writer coming from a hot country, there's a complete assumption that she is writing about her own life.
"I don't see anyone doing that to Ian McEwan or Sebastian Faulks. Does anyone assume McEwan was stalked by someone with an erotic obsession (Enduring Love), or that he didn't have sex on his wedding night (On Chesil Beach)? It's because we are always assumed to be testifying in some grand way. It's maddening!" she says, jumping up from her seat in the kitchen and pacing, agitatedly, as if cursing the reviewers for these ants in her pants.
For all these false claims of autobiography informing her fiction, she says the book was, ironically, an example in which life imitated art. "The model for [her cashew farm] the Kholifa Estate, was the fictional one. Through the process of writing, Ancestor Stones came the idea for it - cashew nuts were more viable than coffee."
Her research for The Memory of Love was typically first-hand - guided perhaps by her journalistic training. She took her field work to a psychiatric hospital and an operating theatre in Freetown, following specialists, talking to patients and observing amputations for the novel, in which the drama partly revolves around the patients' memories of civil war horrors, which are as raw as their physical wounds.
"I broke my Achilles tendon in 2004 in Sierra Leone and I didn't want to go main city hospital. More people come out dead than alive," she jokes.
"It was soon after the war and the other nearest hospital was run by Italian volunteers. A hospital is a good place to set various dilemmas. I went back (after I recovered) and I kept asking them 'can I go into the operating theatre?' I'm a doctor's daughter. I'm not squeamish at all. The first operation I saw was an amputation above the knee. The leg was put in a bucket on the floor. It's funny what the body looks like on the inside... a Sunday roast."
Forna also examinesWestern perceptions of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mainly through the character of Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist who hopes to heal minds. The question his presence poses is whether the European therapeutic model can be applied to a country like Sierra Leone. "There were certainly many ill-advised attempts to do that and they didn't work," says Forna. "There was a psychologist who went into a village to talk about their experiences openly and ended up increasing the anger. It's civil war, so you're living with the people who did this to you afterwards."
One storyline hammers this idea home most starkly. The character of Agnes "was based on a true story. I heard about a woman who came back from a refugee camp in Guinea to find her daughter married to the man who had killed her husband. It's such an extraordinary situation because it's civil war. It's literally on your doorstep and in your house. I wanted to ask what this would do to you."
As well as being a story about love and war, it is an ideological examination of personal responsibility in a time of political repression, focusing not only on the idealists who died for their cause but the justifications by those who betrayed these ideals for the sake of personal preservation.
This latter discussion of betrayal is one that is currently raging not just in Sierra Leone but in other countries which have shaken off authoritarian regimes, says Forna. "When I talk in Germany and South America and Spain, no-one has difficulty in grasping what I am talking about."
The idea came to her even before she had published her memoir. "I was having lunch with a friend of mine from Argentina in 2000. I told her I was writing an account of my father's life and death. She had grown up in the years of the Dirty War in Argentina. She was in her forties at the time, but during her thirties, she had begun to look at her father and ask herself 'when so many people went missing, how did you manage to survive with your career in tact?'" This question is one of her novel's key themes. The character who betrays the cause – Elias Cole – is representative of those who chose to take the path of least resistance.
"A friend of mine in Sierra Leone confronted her father a few years ago. Her father said he couldn't have done anything" against the ruling party "because he had children. But I said to her my father had children and he would have said the opposite thing, that he had to do something because he had children. You have to stand up because you have children, even if your children lose you."
What The Memory of Love captures most lyrically, alongside the betrayal, is the firebrand generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s, educated in the West, who returned to their home countries filled with ambitions to make the world a better place.
"That generation offered Africa phenomenal hope." The writerWole Soyinka "called it the 'renaissance generation'. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by them, people I never met again. They had such a passionate idea of a better world. I thought everybody in the world was like that. A lot were killed or imprisoned. Barack Obama's father was part of the renaissance generation, given a scholarship out of Africa, a belated attempt by the UK and America to prepare the country for independence - by taking the brightest out... So was Soyinka and my father. They came back with a very clear-eyed view of colonialism."
Forna – who at 45 is fresh-faced, ebullient, undimmed by a decade of insomnia – herself appears to have found a sense of home even while shuttling between cultures. She lives in London, but helps run the school in Sierra Leone that her grandfather founded in the 1920s (the Rogbonko Village School, whose funding campaign was supported by The Independent in 2002) as well as the Kholifa Estate cashew plantation, and she teaches at the university whenever she has the opportunity.
Her childhood appears to have contained far more shuttling. She divided her time between her father's home in Freetown and boarding school in Britain after her parents split up when she was a child. Her father's story, a devastating one which ended in his hanging, is one she interrogated in her memoir - she said then she wanted to know who had killed her father - although of course it will never be fully exorcised.
Although the memoir received considerable critical acclaim in the Western world (some compared her voice to the Orange Prize-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Vanity Fair magazine later named her as one of the most promising new writers in 2007), but the impact in Sierra Leone was unprecedented. Her exploration of her father's death opened up a Pandora's Box among her generation, who began asking questions they had not dared ask before. "It was like a bomb. I broke the silence and it was nerve-wracking for me. I didn't know how it was going to go down but it absolutely galvanised a generation.
"I gave talks at the university and people were standing in the aisles. It re-wrote history. It wasn't just about my father. There were plenty of other people who were excised from history. Now they are all coming back into it."
So what now, for the so-called "African writer" who hates this limiting classification. "What makes you an African writer?" she says. "I'm half Scottish!"
There's a finished children's story, based in Mexico City - and featuring a dog! - and a future walk on the Scottish side, with no sight of Africa on the horizon. "I'm thinking of writing about the Shetland and Orkney Islands. My mother has been doing research into the family - and we were Viking offspring."
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