Aminatta Forna: 'My country had a war. It would be extraordinary not to want to write about that'

Aminatta Forna has put Sierra Leone on the literary map. On the eve of the Orange Prize for Fiction, Boyd Tonkin meets her

since 2002, Aminatta Forna has somehow juggled her career as a writer of ever-rising stature and success with regular work on development programmes in her family village of Rogbonko, in central Sierra Leone. The Rogbonko project, which aims to revitalise a small community cut off between rebel lines during the civil wars that killed around 50,000 people during the decade after 1991, now takes in a thriving cashew-nut plantation, anti-malaria nets, wells, sanitation equipment, and "the last bit, which we're just doing now: maternal health". Forna reports that "the price of cashews has whizzed up" recently – as her husband (the furniture designer Simon Westcott) found out on a recent visit to help install a firebreak. The hike is good news for the plantation's nine satellite farms. "It will mean quite a difference to them."

But the Rogbonko revival first started with a school. One of its teachers had a son – a former soldier, like so many kids in a deeply wounded nation who had seen and done too much, too young. The teacher wanted him to come and live with her. "In these tiny communities, it's a tradition of hundreds of years that if, particularly, a young man wishes to come and live in the village, permission has to be sought. He has to find a sponsor," Forna explains.

The community granted the young veteran leave to remain. However, "he attacked two of the schoolgirls," in separate assaults. One managed to fight him off. The other one was raped. And the village had to deal with it. "After the second one, they said that he can't stay. In the last analysis, [the teacher] decided that she wanted to stay with her son, and that she would leave the village and leave the job. It wasn't done without a huge amount of discussion and heartache. There was genuine concern about what was going to happen to her and to this boy. But the village didn't have the capacity to deal with it. There was no police force."

The men of the village had managed to tie up the assailant, and left to seek the nearest official forces of law and order – 12 miles away. Despite their efforts, he escaped. In the aftermath of the conflict that set the (often under-age) insurgents of the Revolutionary United Front against an ailing state in killing-fields studded with "blood diamonds", Britain – which had helped to end the war with a military mission in 2000 that decisively exceeded its brief – became a prime source of civil as well as military aid. But advocates of the Big Society might ask if, when it comes to community cohesion, the flow of advice should sometimes run the other way.

Forty-seven-year-old Aminatta Forna's work, and life, bear eloquent witness to the burden of responsibility – and its rewards. Her second novel, The Memory of Love, braids the lives of three men all shaped and scarred by war in Sierra Leone into a subtle and involving character-study of friendship and commitment, conscience and betrayal. It has just won the overall Commonwealth Writers' Prize and is on the shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction – announced on Wednesday. "Labels are a bit of a bore, aren't they?" Forna says when I mention the assorted rubrics (African, woman, African woman...) that might pigeonhole her work. "I've certainly had my share of them." Yet she has no problem with the Orange rules, which in some quarters still kick up little swirls of malice: "I really don't know what all the fuss is about. Every prize is delineated in some way."

If she wins the Orange, this women-only honour will pass to a novel that investigates the inner lives of very different men with commanding insight and empathy. Adrian is the expat English psychologist who, in his sessions with traumatised veterans at a Freetown hospital, seeks to lay to rest troublesome ghosts of his own; Kai, the young surgeon torn between the bonds of home and the lure of abroad; and Julius, the enigmatic academic from the independence generation with heavy secrets to keep, or to tell. "I'd written Ancestor Stones" – Forna's debut novel, in 2006, in which the young Londoner Abie inherits a coffee plantation and comes to learn about the country of her forebears via the wisdom of her aunts. "That was all about women, and I'd had enough of them for a bit! I wanted it to be about men, and I wanted it to be about friendships," she says – and about the complicity or treachery between friends that, in times of hostility, can swell into matters of life and death. With Julius, and his shadowed past, "it was about looking at every tiny act of betrayal. And that's what grand horrors start with – tiny acts of betrayal".

A BBC journalist for a decade before she left to write, Forna, who lives in south London, does her background research and puts in time in the field. "I get a very vague idea and – perhaps because I once was a journalist, or perhaps because that's what made me want to be a journalist – I go off and explore it for a bit, rather than mapping out a plot and then filling in the research." With The Memory of Love, one spark ignited when she tore an Achilles tendon on a Sierra Leone beach – "not my proudest moment" – and found herself looking at the inside of a Freetown hospital. Later, she returned to observe the counselling offered by psychologists for post-traumatic stress and so absorbed "the whole dynamic of this one place where you could control outcomes, or at least try to, in a country that had fallen into chaos".

Yet Forna is an author of fiction – and a thoroughly accomplished one – not an autobiographer or a documentarist in disguise. Another trigger for The Memory of Love came not from anywhere in Africa but from the author's talk with an Argentinian friend in the Orangery at Kensington Palace about a professor who had denied his role in that country's "dirty war". The novelist transforms, not transcribes, the common experience of oppression, resistance – and betrayal.

Yet she still often finds herself bracketed as a testifying witness to purely African ordeals. She says that "it's always something I'm a bit conflicted about. Obviously, I want to write about these things. And it is sometimes a privilege". Her own background licenses, without critical challenges, a deep-rooted exploration of her country's and her continent's affairs. "In a sense, it's liberated me from the whole gender issue. I don't have to write sex-and-shopping novels to be published!" At the same time, she runs the risk "of what Chimamanda Adichie [from Nigeria, a previous Orange victor] called in a lecture the 'danger of a single story'".

Aminatta Forna did begin with a single story – one that, for many writers, might have lasted them a creative lifetime. It concerns an idealistic young medical student from colonial west Africa who trains in Scotland, marries a local woman and – in the chilly climate of the 1950s – suffers the rebuffs of that epoch. For years, the family shuttle between two continents. Their Glasgow-born daughter goes to boarding-school here – but the marriage breaks up, and the doctor re-marries a woman from his country, who becomes the girl's inspirational stepmother. He enters politics and rises to Cabinet level, only to be arrested as the political wind shifts. Then he returns to power, a popular and incorruptible minister of finance under an increasingly despotic president. Eventually, the state tortures witnesses into bearing false witness against him. In 1974, he says goodbye to his 10-year-old girl, promising to return. He never does. On 19 July 1975, Dr Mohamed Sorie Forna was hanged for treason after the regime of President Siaka Stevens had concocted a coup plot and extorted accusations.

This scorchingly tragic narrative propelled the memoir that Dr Forna's daughter Aminatta – London University law graduate and BBC international reporter – published in 2002. The Devil That Danced on the Water almost won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and should have done so. Its success prompted a move to long-haul authorship. Yet Aminatta, as "a good professional-class African", was supposed to have stuck with the law. When she joined the BBC, her family tolerated this eccentricity: "Journalism was not highly regarded, but at least it was the BBC... When I quit the BBC to write full-time, they simply couldn't believe it. They were always supportive and they are now very proud. But it's certainly some surprise to them!"

From the outset, Forna could draw on reserves of family drama and trauma that – for the very worst of reasons – utterly trump the petty crises in the armoury of almost all literary wannabes. Yet the memoir moved and impressed readers with its steely objectivity and firm dedication to historical memory. "What happened to my father and my family was part of the whole bigger picture," Forna says. "What ultimately happened is that my country had a war. I think it would be extraordinary, as a writer, not to want to write about that."

In this collective context, the notion of a private "catharsis" through literature sounds to her like a poor joke. "It just doesn't work like that," Forna scoffs at "this mad therapy-minded culture... the idea that the mental health of the writer is what we're talking about here." With The Devil that Danced on the Water, "the most important thing for me was what it did for my stepmother, because she had been the enemy of the regime for 25 years. People she had once called her friends wouldn't talk to her. When my father was first killed, she couldn't get a job or rent an apartment. So it made a dramatic difference to her."

Her stepmother had read the entire book in advance, "because there were issues of security for her". Forna had named many names. Yet "all she did was to put a tick at the end and say, 'Very good, darling'. She chose not to have any name changed, which was very brave of her." In Sierra Leone, Forna later talked about this resurrected past to auditoriums packed with rapt young listeners. Afterwards, "they had gone to their parents and said, 'Did these things happen?'. And their parents had said, 'Yes'. And they said, 'But you never told us'. And the parents said, 'Well, we were too scared'. That breaking of the silence was really the big thing."

Forna believes that her decision to write a memoir of these excruciating events cleared the road to fiction. Otherwise, "the story would have kept on re-appearing". I wonder, though, how much Forna – a strikingly assured and authoritative presence, in a style that has little to do with everyday authorial vanity – continues to act and think as her father's daughter. In urban Sierra Leone, "everybody knows who he is: certainly above a certain generation, but then since the writing of The Devil... in the new generation too – because of course his name was obliterated from everything. It's absolutely part of who I am." In her village, however, it's the memory of her grandfather that matters more: "He was regional chief in that area. You're really talking about the difference between two different systems. In the city, it's my father – he was part of the modern – and my grandfather was part of the old."

"I was brought up," she makes clear, "in a household where you stood up to be counted." Bucks had to be grabbed, not passed. "My family's a ruling family." Almost a case of noblesse oblige, then? She laughs. "Without the big country estate to go with it!"

Next, Forna will carry her responsibility to artistic truth and reconciliation to the Balkans, in a novel-in-progress suggested by the similarities between distant theatres of war. At a Christmas party hosted by friends from the region, they pooled their experience of strife, and "the more we talked about it, the more we discovered that in every way these wars were very similar. When it came down to war, it was really about wanting your neighbour's car or house." For her, such cross-border affinities between the survivors of social breakdown should force the question, "What do you call normal?". Not uninterrupted calm and affluence, she answers, as spring sun-bathers lounge in the square outside the Soho offices of her publishers. "What's normal is actually to experience war and oppression."

Yet, equally universal, hope endures. Forna reports that people in Sierra Leone have come together in the wake of war with a rare determination to cooperate again. The sheer intimacy of the conflict made its sequels both "worse and better", she says. "It means that the conventional psychology of coming in and telling everybody to talk about it is probably not a very good idea... On the other hand, in Sierra Leone the scale of forgiveness has been stunning. That's what has come about from the fact that neighbour did this to neighbour."

Without any "ethnic cleansing" to separate the parties, former antagonists have had to reconcile: "They forgave because they had to. There was just no choice." Forna adds that, "In my own family, one was a member of the infamous West Side Boys. After the war, another member of our family came to me wanting to report him to the war crimes tribunal. He committed atrocities, of that I am certain. But the upshot was that the tribunal elected only to try a small number of those 'most responsible'. Everyone else has had to make their own peace. Including us." Whether in the page of her fiction or among the farmers of her village, that tough work continues. And I leave recalling a line from a great poem by another author who has looked into the core of conflict, and imagined a way through it, Seamus Heaney's The Harvest Bow: "The end of art is peace".

'The Memory of Love' by Aminatta Forna is published by Bloomsbury

Orange Prize hits

2010

The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver's 670-page epic beat off stiff competition from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall to scoop last year's award.

2007

Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set during the Nigerian civil war, Adichie's novel was favourite to win, and achieved rare unanimity among the prize's judges.

2006

On Beauty

Zadie Smith

Using EM Forster's Howards End as a loose template, Smith's third novel failed to win the Booker but was recognised by the Orange prize judges.

2005

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver

Sales shot up for Shriver's tale of a murderous teenager after its Orange win. Now a movie starring Tilda Swinton. The novel was also voted Britain's favourite-ever Orange winner in 2010.

1996

A Spell of Winter

Helen Dunmore

Winner of the first Orange Prize, Dunmore's novel was a wartime tale of incestuous sibling love.

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