Forna returns to the conflicts of the past

‘Even the middle classes are hit by war’

Warwick Prize shortlisted author Aminatta Forna tells Matthew Bell why she keeps returning to the conflicts of her past

Cycling around the quiet lanes of Key West, the writers’ village in Florida where Ernest Hemingway loved to fish, you forget that Guantanamo Bay is only 90 miles away. Wobble down the main drag, past the jaunty bars and ice cream parlours, and the “war on terror” couldn’t feel more distant.

In a way, it’s an appropriate place to find Aminatta Forna, the author of The Memory of Love, one of six books short-listed for the biennial Warwick Prize. Central to her novel is that feeling of a disconnect between the serenity of the surface and what lies beneath.

Like both her previous books – one a memoir, the other a novel – The Memory of Love is set in Africa, and deals with the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, where she grew up. Soon after her birth in Glasgow in 1964, her parents moved to Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital where, 11 years later, her father, Mohamed, was hanged for his political views.

Rwanda, Sudan, Liberia – to Western eyes, Africa can look like a continent in a permanent state of conflict. But to Forna, growing up in a middle-class academic family, such violence seemed just as distant. “When the war was raging in Liberia, we in Sierra Leone genuinely did not believe we were capable of it,” she says. “I often remember and hold on to that thought. Because I think that’s what everybody in the world thinks. We always think, ‘Oh, somebody else can do that’.”

The Memory of Love is set in a hospital in the early 2000s, just after the war’s end, where the stories of a handful of seemingly disparate characters prove to be interconnected. One of these is Elias Cole, a dying former lecturer who, with the help of a pile of yellowing diaries, relates his past to Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist working in the hospital. The memories are buried, but the graves are shallow. The reminiscences of a frail old man evolve into a confession, in which we learn that his inactivity during the war had dire consequences.

The novel drew universal praise when it came out last spring, drawing particularly high plaudits for its style, structure and detailed research. It is a slow-burn narrative, exploring complex themes of friendship, loss, betrayal and jealousy, and you can’t help putting it down with a sigh. It is not, though, a sentimental novel, and Forna’s writing has been described as “scientific” in its clarity.

“I don’t see writing as therapy,” she laughs when I ask whether the novel was as affecting to write as it is to read. “When you write about those sorts of issues, you have to have thought quite a lot about them already. One wouldn’t wish to be out of control with one’s emotions on the page.” Forna is a disciplinarian. She came to novels via 12 years at a British boarding school, a degree in law at University College London, and 10 years as a journalist working for the BBC. The greatest contribution to her writing, though, was perhaps her peripatetic childhood: her mother remarried, to a New Zealand diplomat who worked for the UN, and as well as Britain and Sierra Leone, she spent time in Thailand, Iran and Zambia.

Read full article @ The Independent

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~ by eneryvibes on 1,February 20, 2011.

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