By Tahirah A
When I got the hardcover copy of Aminatta Forna’s most recent novel,The Memory of Love, it came highly recommended, not because it had just won one award and was shortlisted for another, but because I was promised that the story would move me. It did not disappoint. She has created a book that will make you think and affect you long after you might have finished reading it.
In her work, characters and the world they inhabit are expertly and deeply created, sumptuous detail is given, the internal workings and landscapes of her characters are drawn out. Showing and not telling, but with precision, beautiful language and ease, we experience what they have been through, what they have seen and what they have felt. What results is the abiding fact that people and their stories, their very lives are inextricable from the happenings around them, the politics, the wars and even the small details of everyday living.
Sierra Leone has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, having experienced decades long war, the tentacles of which have touched Aminatta herself personally, a deep source of inspiration for her work. From the Devil that Danced on Water, a memoir examining her past, to Memory of Love, a story of war, love and redemption, the threads of her own history can be seen, but her gift means that the stories of the people she tells are timeless and always affecting.
The following questions arise from my curiosity about her approach as a writer, her inspiration and events that had occurred immediately after I had read The Memory of Love.
Reading through past interviews I observed that you admit how methodically you research your ideas before you begin a novel, allowing the research shape the plot rather than the other way round. How do you decide what ideas to pursue or discard?
The research is obviously shaped by my initial ideas, but I prefer to go and explore a field rather than go into it with hard and fast ideas. I had to go to hospital in Sierra Leone when I broke my Achilles tendon. As I sat waiting to be treated I knew I had found the book’s setting. Later, by spending time in the same hospital, I conceived the character of Kai, a man who can mend people’s limbs with his hands, who can literally make them walk again. I was interested in contrasting this with Adrian’s task of trying to heal their minds.
Memory of Love is written primarily from the viewpoint of men. One, English and the others African. How was it creating authentically male viewpoints, especially with Elias Cole who spends a significant portion of the book gripped in the throes of unrequited love?
We live in times obsessed with trying to prove gender difference and make as much of it as we can. We can talk about why that is another time. I don’t happen to think men and women are all that different. To me gender is an experience, not an innate characteristic. For example, men have a great deal more freedom, especially physical freedom. That makes a big difference to how they operate in the world. So male characters can do things which a woman would not, or at least would think twice. For Adrian this assumption however goes wrong on at least one occasion. For a writer it’s a matter of switching your view point and inhabiting their experience. For a writer who happens to be female there is the advantage that we are everywhere surrounded by the male viewpoint. I would have thought that for a male writer to create a female character would be much more challenging.
I think unrequited love feels just about the same for all sufferers.
A reviewer mentions that your work in this book, and maybe previous ones, brings to mind, “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene. I feel there are certain themes that differ; Graham Greene described himself as a catholic writer after all. Are you a fan? Is there any truth to this for you?
The reviewer was being lazy, frankly, saying so simply because the two books share a setting. I think my work has far, far more in common with Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy or Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. But you would have to look obliquely at the themes to see that, and that’s harder than just jumping on the location. I am a fan of The End of the Affair, but it has nothing to do with my writing.
Who are you favourite authors, living or dead?
I can’t say because it changes, but Michael Onaatje and Pat Barker are perennial favourites.
For a totally superficial question. Can you tell us something true about you and something that’s a lie?
Well I think I sing and dance well.
The characters of Saffia, and Lisa, the wife of Adrian are not as fleshed out as some of the other characters in the book. Is this deliberate? Or a reflection of how they are perceived by the men observing them?
They are minor characters compared to Kai, Adrian and Elias Cole, hence less detailed. You can’t give every character equal space. Lisa wasn’t important to the plot at all, except that she gave you a clue as to what Adrian might be escaping from.
How do you respond to labels as a writer
We all hate them. Sloppy thinking.
Are you working on anything currently?
Yes, set in another war.
Are there any glaring differences between writing works of fiction or nonfiction, if so, what are they?
Broadly speaking in non-fiction the challenge is to tell the story with what facts you have. If the story happened some time in the past, that might not always be easy: information may be lost forever, you have to find ways to work around that. Broadly speaking, though, you always know what story you are telling. With fiction the facts are there to be imagined, but you can easily lose track of the story you are trying to tell or it may turn into something else.
I thoroughly enjoyed how much research you put into the psychological aspects of war and how seamlessly it blends into the story. What is your take on the management of mental illness in Africa?
Africa is a large place. Maybe we should just start with Sierra Leone, where mental illness is mainly managed within the community, as opposed to the health professions and institutions. The psychiatrist who helped me with most of my research in Sierra Leone felt that this was a much better way, and some Western countries are trying to get back to that. This chap ran the mental hospital where I did my research. He was pretty fed up with the assumptions Westerners held about populations in countries like Sierra Leone, constantly representing them as primitive. He felt we were far more civilised in the way we deal with people with mental health problems than Westerners. Because people lack formal education and a language to describe behaviours, they will use words like ‘possessed’ or ‘crossed.’ It’s a way of talking. I never met anyone who actually believed in demonic possession, except ironically, fanatical Christians. The psychiatrist told me people would do anything to keep their family member at home, and only brought them to him when they became unmanageable, usually if they became violent. They would very rarely let a woman be institutionalised. The character of Attila owes no small amount to this impressive man.
From the point of “receipt” of an idea and through the entire process of writing until its completion and the nominations and the eventual Commonwealth win, what was your most abiding memory of creating Memory of Love?
The character of Elias Cole came to me when I was sitting in a restaurant talking to a friend about Argentina. He grew out of something she said about her own father, who I have never met. Briefly I imagined setting the book in Argentina, but when I spent time in Sierra Leone after the war researching and writing The Devil that Danced on the Water I met the same kinds of characters – people who had done nothing to stop what was happening and yet did not see themselves as responsible, who were complicit even.
Is there any book you wish you could have written?
That would be a sad way to live. No, I just carry on trying to improve my writing.
What is your take on the current upheaval that took place in London as a resident? And some of the jarring commentary from historians and other members of the media? As a former journalist with the BBC how would you have reacted?
We saw it in Sierra Leone. When people high up steal and get away with it, other people feel they can do the same. The ordinary thieves go to prison, the ones who wear suits don’t.
Aminatta Forna is the award-winning author of The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones and The Devil that Danced on the Water.
This interview was originally published on www.guerillabasement.com in 2011