‘I like writing male characters—I don’t have to get them home safely at the end of the chapter’—An interview with Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna sat down with The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town to talk about her new novel, Happiness, the question of authenticity in fiction, and why she believes the word ‘trauma’ is overused.

Forna was born in Scotland and grew up in Sierra Leone and Britain, although she spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. She is the author of the novels Happiness (2018), The Hired Man (2014), The Memory of Love (2010) and Ancestor Stones (2006), and the memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water.

Her books have won multiple awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award, the PEN Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Liberaturpreis in Germany, the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize.

Aminatta Forna
Bloomsbury, 2018

Jennifer Malec for The JRB: I’d like to start by asking you about the opening of Happiness, the story of the wolfer, which takes place in the eighteen-thirties in Massachusetts, and contrasts with the main plot of the book, which is set in the present day in London. It took me by surprise, and it wasn’t how I was expecting the story to begin, but I think it’s one of my favourite parts of the novel. Why did you decide to begin the book with this story?

Aminatta Forna: I was about halfway through the novel when I had the idea for that scene with the wolfer, the killing of the last wolf, which links into the story of Jean, the coyote and fox conservationist; where she comes from in the States is where that takes place. I’d been reading a lot about coyotes, and a good deal about foxes and wolves. I’d read Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men. But then I came across an old nineteenth-century book called something like The Guide to Hunting and Trapping Wolves, the memoir of a wolfer. And I was really struck by it. The book is based on the allegory of the different groups that inhabit the city, the animals, the immigrants, the other residents. I was really struck by how people hunted and treated wolves in those days. They demonised them to the most extraordinary extent in order to justify this slaughter. Now, of course, we’ve effectively wiped out wolves, and the new animal that is despised is the coyote. But I really wanted to show that connection between the past and present in Jean’s story, how communities respond to the wild. It’s not even that the wolves or the coyotes were a threat, it seems to be an overwhelming desire to control the environment, and control it at any cost to the other creatures with whom we share it.

The JRB: The damage that is done by the wolves is not as grave as the reaction.

Aminatta Forna: Exactly, it’s an overreaction. And then of course once you move a predator from the top of the heap everything else changes. So it was the killing of wolves that allowed the coyotes to thrive. Coyotes are very different from wolves because where wolves were wiped out by humans, every attempt to wipe out coyotes has failed, they’re just really, really good at surviving. So I kind of liked that, that human beings had met their match. [laughs]

The JRB: It positions a modern story in an older narrative. The wolfer is a great character, but he’s also very cruel and heartless towards these poor creatures, and we think of ourselves as being better than that, but actually you show that nothing has really changed.

Aminatta Forna: It’s making those connections. These are historically shaped events, it isn’t just yesterday that foxes moved into London, there’s a whole sequence of events that made that possible.

The JRB: All through the book people are trying to push the natural world out of their space. This seems to relate to Attila’s work as well, with the idea that for what we could call the ‘first world city dwellers’, trauma and violence are seen as ‘unnatural’, whereas Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works in war zones, has seen enough of human nature to know that suffering is part of life, and does not preclude happiness.

Aminatta Forna: I call those city people you’re describing ‘bubble dwellers’. Because Western cities are these extraordinary bubbles in which everything is controlled—you don’t even get rained on. It’s the most controlled environment. Nobody wants extremes of emotion and definitely not negative feelings. When I used to travel to and from London and Freetown, a couple of my friends who lived in Freetown said, ‘How do you cope with going back there when you’ve been here?’ It’s very interesting, because the Londoners never asked me how I coped in Freetown. My friends in London had no connection to a developing country, I used to just disappear like magic and then reappear like magic, and they didn’t really think about where I was and what I was doing, it seemed to be beyond the scope of their imagination. [laughs] But when I was in Sierra Leone people used to be quite interested in the fact that I was going to go back to this very sanitised environment and how I was going to cope with that. So I thought of myself as exiting the bubble and re-entering the bubble. It’s kind of like The Matrix in some ways, or those science fiction movies where you go into an alternate reality because nobody can cope with real life. One of the starkest differences in terms of what we’re talking about is animals in the city. I wrote a piece in Granta called ‘The Last Vet’ that is all about the dogs in Sierra Leone—nobody cares, it’s a non-issue, having the dogs there. You drive along and suddenly there’s a long line of traffic and you realise it’s because a dog is sleeping the road and everyone’s going round it. Recently I was giving a talk, at the Edinburgh Festival, and a woman put up her hand and said she had worked for an NGO in Sierra Leone and she was really scared of the dogs in Freetown, and I said, ‘You’re the only person I know who’s afraid of the dogs in Freetown!’ They’re so benign. But that is the classic response, isn’t it? They shouldn’t be here, I don’t like them being here, therefore I want them moved away.

The JRB: The Memory of Love is a book about trauma and loss, and Happiness is a book about, well, happiness. You’ve said that you see these books working together.

Aminatta Forna: I think they’re a two-hander. But all my books have dealt with war and trauma.

The JRB: So why specifically those two? Apart from the overlapping characters.

Aminatta Forna: Well, it all came down to one scene in The Memory of Love, a very short scene involving Attila and Adrian, a British psychologist who is working in the hospital. Attila is a little bit prickly towards Adrian, I mean he gives him the space to do what he wants, but he challenges Adrian’s views, his assumptions. Adrian is working with some war-affected men, and at one point Attila asks him what it is he wants for them, and Adrian says, I want them to have what everybody has, to be able to marry and have a home and have a job. So Attila says jump in the car and I’ll drive you into town. He tells Adrian about an NGO that came to Sierra Leone and diagnosed ninety-nine per cent of the population as suffering from PTSD. And they go off into town, and Attila goes via a slum, a place called Crew Bay, and he stops the car and he says, this is where those men come from. So when you say you want them to have a life and a home and a job, how is that going to be possible? And he finishes off by saying, ‘You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.’

I try to the best of my ability to write for multiple audiences, I do not write for one group or the other group, and I try to look at things in the round. And that’s helped significantly by my transnationality. Obviously I can’t do it all, but I do my very best. But this particular scene … I did not anticipate that it would be read by non-Westerners in one way, and Westerners in another way. The non-Westerners took it to mean Attila was being arch, and challenging the notion of trauma. All the non-Westerners took that to mean, don’t be ridiculous, ninety-nine per cent of the people in this country are not suffering from a disorder. But all the Westerners took it literally. It came out with the critics, they took it literally, and I noticed that so did my audiences. So I found that really interesting. I started to think, gosh, here’s this double-think. What one group takes as normality, the other group takes as being unbearable.

The JRB: So the non-Western group was rejecting the categorisation completely?

Aminatta Forna: Yes: people are surviving, they don’t have a disorder. And I think also the other thing they were rejecting was the idea that this was a mental health issue. So what Attila was saying to Adrian is that what people need is hope. You don’t have to treat these people for a mental health disorder, you need to change the conditions of their existence. A while back I was contacted by an academic who was writing a monograph on my work, and he said he was having a disagreement with his peer reviewer, and it all came down to this scene. And the peer reviewer we assume to be a Westerner, because this was in America; the academic was Sierra Leonean but was teaching at an American university.

The JRB: Was this Ernest Cole? Space and Trauma in the Writings of Aminatta Forna?

Aminatta Forna: Yes. So the peer reviewer was taking it literally and Ernest Cole was taking it the way I described, that Attila is challenging the notion of trauma. And even with the admission of authorial intent, the peer reviewer still refused to back down.

The JRB: So you responded and told him what you thought?

Aminatta Forna: Yes, I responded to Ernest Cole and said this is how I see this scene, and armed with this he went back to the publisher, and the peer reviewer still said no. [laughs] And I know there are questions around authorial intent, and academics say you can only work with the text.

The JRB: The author is dead.

Aminatta Forna: Yes, and it’s been an increasingly interesting question now that so many living authors are being studied.

The JRB: So you didn’t decide to just step away and say, I’m not going to get involved?

Aminatta Forna: No, I just said, if you’re asking, this is what it was. It’s entirely up to you what you write, but if you’re asking this is what my intention was—I didn’t think it was that big an issue until the publisher and the peer reviewer refused to accept it. So Cole moved to a different publisher. And I just thought that was quite fascinating. In fact, I did say to him, you’re going to enjoy the next book.

The JRB: ‘Trauma’ is something of a buzzword at the moment, but your books were at the vanguard of the trend.

Aminatta Forna: And now I’m writing against it. I’ve switched. I mean, I think the word is overused, and I think it’s misused. One of the problems is that it gets used to describe the event. There’s medical trauma, for example a head trauma, and that is used to describe a physical impact on the body. But what people do is they take that word and they apply it to a mental health situation, to describe the event. But to be traumatised is a response to the event, it’s not the event. We need a new and more thoughtful language around trauma. I’ve been contacted by quite a few people in the mental health profession saying thank goodness somebody is saying not everything is necessarily traumatising. Some people have traumatic responses to things, but it doesn’t mean we’re all horribly damaged because our lives haven’t been perfect. A psychotherapist wrote to me and said people’s insistence that everything was traumatising was standing in the way of him being able to deal with people who were genuinely requiring of his help.

The JRB: Living in Johannesburg, one of the things you often hear is that living there is very bad for you because you’re in a constant state of fear—you’re on constant alert, which causes stress and it’s unnatural. But humans have always lived in those conditions—

Aminatta Forna: Yes, we used to have animals prowling around! At the end of Happiness, when Attila is thinking about it all—

The JRB: I loved that part.

Aminatta Forna: I do think it’s that return to childhood. That somehow we think our lives should be like childhood. That is the perfect state of complete innocence, of complete safety, of complete security, with this sort of unblemished mind. It’s seductive, but it’s lunacy.

The JRB: Will Self was complaining recently in the Guardian about ‘the dumb kidult era we’re currently having to endure’, with adults reading Harry Potter and the glorification of childishness. We don’t want to grow up.

Aminatta Forna: Hmm. I’ll have to dwell on that. I don’t know if any of that is new, although it’s more sentimentalised than it ever was.

The JRB: There was a lovely quotation from a recent interview where you said, ‘What fiction does best is to offer the opportunity to interrogate the way we live through the self.’ The context was you naming some of your favourite books, but it occurred to me that this is also what you do in your own work. Why do you think fiction is the ideal form for this kind of interrogation, and do you think it is possible through non-fiction?

Aminatta Forna: I love non-fiction and I write it—I write essays, and I wrote a memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water—but I think they have different purposes. I mean, these things are overlapping, but the difference with fiction is that fiction allows you to go inside the character’s mind, and therefore you can walk the walk with the character, and that’s what I really try to do. When I was a young reader, I wasn’t attracted particularly by plot, or setting, I didn’t read genre novels, I mean I read the usual trash that a lot of kids do, but the books that I was most attracted to were literary fiction. In retrospect what I liked about them was the way they made me think about something. To me, thinking was the greater part of reading. One of the things I find quite frustrating is that we’re in this fast reading culture at the moment—have you read, have you read, have you read?

The JRB: People are even listening to audiobooks at triple speed to get through them faster.

Aminatta Forna: If you read like that, unless you’re a genius—it’s such a rare, rare skill to be able to take in a book so quickly. And the way people measure how well educated they are by how many books they’ve read.

The JRB: It’s even become gamified now, with those ‘hundred book challenges’, where people try to read a hundred books in a year.

Aminatta Forna: Yes, and people are reading a book a day, and I just think that is completely purposeless. I mean if you read one of my books in a day I just don’t really know what you’d get out of it. When I meet people who have read my books very fast, in conversation I discover that they haven’t really read them. They’ve read for plot, but they haven’t really—

The JRB: Ruminated.

Aminatta Forna: Yes, ruminated. Remember the slow-cooking campaign? I think we should have a slow reading campaign. It’s one of the things I try to do with my students, is get them to sit down and slow down and interrogate the text and think about what the writer is asking you to think about.

The JRB: It’s not an easy habit to break. But we were talking about fiction and non-fiction.

Aminatta Forna: Yes, when comparing fiction and non-fiction, because I do both, and I see them as part of the same thing—I deal with many of the same themes, just in two different forms—and I think the difference is that non-fiction deals with the question of what is, and ruminates around that, and fiction deals with the question what if: What if you were in this situation, what if you were this person, what if you were faced with these choices? I’m not saying that non-fiction cannot do that, but I would argue it’s a less wieldy tool. I can’t think of a non-fiction book that’s really done that.

The JRB: I suppose someone like Geoff Dyer, who I interviewed at the Open Book Festival a few years ago, blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, as do a number of authors in that vein.

Aminatta Forna: Well, I mean if you start blurring the lines you can do whatever you want. But if we’re really talking about what I think of as the contract with the reader, I try not to blur the lines. I mean obviously my novels are realist, set in a realist background, but the people don’t exist, crucially, and the events didn’t happen to them. I try to keep the two things distinct, and I think the contract with the reader when you’re writing a work of non-fiction—and to me this is important, I know plenty of people don’t think it’s important, but to me it is important—is that you say, ‘I am telling you this with as much factual accuracy as I can.’ This is a story truly told. It doesn’t mean I’m going to get every single fact right, and we all know there’s no such thing as ultimate truth. But I’m deeply uncomfortable with writers who make up passages and events in works of non-fiction. I feel it’s important for readers to understand what the deal is.

The JRB: There’s no such thing as ultimate truth, but I’d add that when you’re writing a non-fiction book you’re writing from a certain perspective with a certain agenda.

Aminatta Forna: Well, you’re just writing what you understand. It’s subjective truth.

The JRB: But there might an agenda, conscious or unconscious.

Aminatta Forna: That could be true of anything.

The JRB: But with non-fiction you expect it to be true: the truth.

Aminatta Forna: I’m not sure what you mean.

The JRB: Well, for example, if you have a member of a political party writing a biography of one of the founders of that party, it’s going to be different from a member of an opposition party writing that biography.

Aminatta Forna: I think that’s all rather unavoidable. We all have our biases. I wrote a political memoir of my father and I just said ‘it’s our story’. I think the solution is that you have to have multiple narratives. We’ve lived in a country that has told the opposite story for twenty-five years, and I published our account. And then you leave it to the reader.

The JRB: So do you try and work to make sure that those biases aren’t dominant?

Aminatta Forna: I do. Yes. But I’m not sure to what extent we’re all completely in control of our biases. I mean I have a liberal bias, you could say. I think if you want your readers to trust you it’s important that they understand the effort is there, they need to know your intentions. Sometimes in The Devil that Danced on the Water I would say—I don’t know why or how that happened, I never found out. But the facts that I did collect I tried to put together in a way that made sense to me and to the reader.

The JRB: And then fiction, as you say, exists through character.

Aminatta Forna: Yes, and the contract with the reader in fiction is non-existent. It says, ‘I’m going to tell you a whole string of lies and you may or may not be provoked into thought or entertained, but you can’t rely on any of this.’ [laughs] It’s a different game that’s being played, it’s a game of the imagination, a game of immersion, a game of trying on different lives and imagining what it might be like to inhabit those lives.

The JRB: I was going to ask you if Attila was based on a real person, but now I’m glad I didn’t. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the author of Kintu, was in Joburg recently and she was saying that people are more willing to believe the figures in her historical novel than they are willing to believe facts from history books, and that you almost have a kind of historical responsibility if you’re writing historical fiction.

Aminatta Forna: The teaching of history in school is a very contested area, which is why I think perhaps people don’t have confidence in it. In every single country one group or another has a fight to have their side of the story recognised. I went to school in Britain, where Empire is not taught at all, and I just find it extraordinary. I teach in the United States and my students don’t know the history of slavery.

I do experience biographical confusion. In my novel The Ancestor Stones a woman inherits a plantation, and having researched farming in West Africa in enormous detail in order to write those sections, I then started a plantation as a social enterprise, along with a school—

The JRB: That’s the Rogbonko Village Project?

Aminatta Forna: Right, and Kholifa Estates is the plantation, I named it after the one in the book, you see. And everyone then—which I didn’t anticipate—started to assume that I had inherited the plantation and had therefore written the book.

But I do try to make sure that the background to my fiction is factually accurate. In The Memory of Love, and Happiness, the whole discussion around PTSD is drawn from genuine debates within the world of psychology.

The JRB: Do you read academic papers and things like that?

Aminatta Forna: Oh, yes, forensically, on PTSD, forensically. I really went into it for a long time. I spent some time in a mental health institution in Sierra Leone as an observer.

The JRB: In Happiness you write characters from all over the world, America, Ghana, Nigeria, Bosnia. Your previous novel, The Hired Man, is set in a tiny Croatian village. Do you think about the question of authenticity when writing your characters? Or do you think the question of authenticity is overstated?

Aminatta Forna: It doesn’t hold water to me. First of all, we’re talking about something which is an act of imagination anyway, we’re talking about imaginative art. And it’s quite fascinating how the idea of authenticity sticks to novels but not, say, plays, film, poetry, ballet. It seems to have become very much attached to novels but not any other art form. Perhaps it’s because there is one author. But I think that people have to treat novels as an act of the imagination. If what you’re looking for is something called ‘authenticity’—and I feel the same way about the cultural appropriation debate—then stick to non-fiction. That’s got a different deal. If you read The Hired Man, or any of my characters that are not half-Sierra Leonean, half-Scottish, and middle-aged women, and you are unimpressed by them then by all means put the book down. I come to it with the belief that people aren’t that different. That’s what I essentially come to it with. However, people have different experiences. So, for example, in writing male characters what’s interesting is the considerable amount of freedom men have compared to women. The reason I like writing male characters it is that I don’t have to get them home safely at the end of the chapter. Women live extremely constrained lives compared to men, so as characters it’s harder to move them around the page. If you look at Victorian women’s fiction that’s why it was all domestic.

The JRB: ‘Let us take a turn about the room.’

Aminatta Forna: Exactly. And you had to make them a tomboy if they were going to do anything. But what you have to do if you’re creating a character that’s not like you is use your imagination. What if? I also think your sex makes a big difference to how you live in the world, and therefore to your patterns of behaviour and your patterns of thinking. And environment makes a big difference. With The Hired Man, the main character Duro is a rural person, he’s completely the opposite of a bubble dweller, he really understands his environment and he lives within it. So his whole pattern of thinking is going to be very much affected by that. I’d always wondered why the Yugoslav War seemed to happen so fast, it spread like wildfire, it was so quick off the ground. In Sierra Leone it seemed to take ages, we just sort of lived in this terrible situation with a dictator for ages before things erupted. And then I was speaking to a friend of mine who’d reported on both wars, and he said the reason it moved so fast in the former Yugoslavia is because every man was a hunter, it was a hunting society, every man owned a gun and knew how to use it. And of course they had military service. So the difference between Sierra Leone and Croatia, you’re looking at farmers who live on the land and wait for the seasons, versus hunters who go out and hunt. So Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia basically had standing armies, whereas Sierra Leone didn’t have a standing army. As soon as he said that, which was a comment made in passing, the character of Duro started to coalesce.

Even though The Hired Man hasn’t been translated into Croatian—which is an economic thing, it’s in Slovenian but not Croatian—I’ve been invited there several times, and they are not having this authenticity debate, that’s number one, but also they feel I was sufficiently qualified to write the book because I’d had a war. We’re so wrapped up in race as being a point of difference, but if you look at Croatia and you look at Sierra Leone, you’re looking at countries that are the same size, that have a rural, agricultural economy, a rural population mainly, that have a coastal region, places of extreme physical beauty, that both endured twenty-five years of dictatorship followed by a sharp economic downfall. So actually the countries are very much the same. My Croatian friends feel that we are the ones who are alike and the British are the ones who are different. Whereas the British feel they and the Croatians must be alike because they are Europeans, and the Sierra Leoneans are different. But the most important thing to remember is that novels are imaginative works, it’s really not that different from writing a play, you’re creating a setting and a character and a story. You’re bringing your imagination to it. And I think it’s really important that we do cross-fertilise. I think it’s really important that The Hired Man was written from a different perspective, because I was in a position to see both the similarities and the differences of the two wars. And that’s what the book does, it’s not doing anything else, it’s not called The True Story of a Croatian Peasant. [laughs]

The JRB: I read that you grew up reading South African fiction, André Brink, Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer, and I was wondering how that came about?

Aminatta Forna: I was reading a lot of South American literature as well. Because of the particular circumstances of my childhood I was attracted to reading political narratives. We didn’t have our own body of work in Sierra Leone, and British writers were not tackling those subjects, but South American writers were tackling those subjects and particularly South African writers were tackling those subjects. So I surmise retrospectively that that’s what was attracting me to it. I have this experience of political oppression, I want to read these books. And I really do admire the South African writers of that period. In Britain, our entire knowledge of apartheid came from these novelists. Of course there would be reports and journalists were working here, but the apartheid state was so successful at closing down the information coming out of South Africa, it was extreme. I was a big part of the anti-apartheid movement—though everybody was when I was a student, I’m claiming nothing in particular—

The JRB: Paul Gilroy was here recently, and he was remembering his youth in London and hearing rioters in Notting Hill in 1976 chanting ‘Soweto, Soweto’. It seems if you came of age in England at that time you were involved.

Aminatta Forna: Every single person. That’s what you did on your weekends, you went out and protested against apartheid, you did not buy Cape oranges and you did not bank at Barclays, and we all took part in the boycott of consumer goods and sang ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. Everybody in the eighties, that was The Cause. And everything I understood about how apartheid operated on a daily basis was from South African writers. My boyfriend at university, his father was South African, and while he was not a total apologist for the regime, he was a bit of an apologist for the regime. He would make that argument that it wasn’t discriminatory, it was simply a separation of the races. So it was only in reading those novels that you realised exactly how the system worked, that it wasn’t simply geographical separation, it was subjugation and separation and exploitation of labour.

The JRB: Were you getting those books from the library? They were mostly banned here, but apparently freely available to you.

Aminatta Forna: I gave the Nadine Gordimer Lecture in Johannesburg a few years ago and that’s one of the things I talked about. That’s also why it was mainly the English writers, wasn’t it, because the English writers could get an overseas publication deal. So the books were being published in Britain but they weren’t being published here and they weren’t available here, and the Afrikaner writers were in a different position.

The JRB: That’s one of the reasons Brink started writing in English, I believe. Have you noticed any changes in South Africa since your last visit?

Aminatta Forna: It’s completely different. I was first here twenty years ago. It’s a heck of a lot more alive now. Before when I was here it was more like the States, where you would go to a restaurant and it would be all white, or all black. And that’s what America is still like. America is a post-apartheid nation. It’s so much more mixed here now. Some of my friends are a bit negative, and I know you’ve got your own difficulties with government and so on, but on the ground it feels so … right.


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