Aminatta Forna in Conversation with John Freeman
Posted in 2021-2022 Readings and Talks
November 9, 2021 at 7:00PM ET
Location: Riggs Library, Healy Hall (Masks and Green GU360 Badge Required)
By Claire Messud. Harper’s Magazine.
“I am someone who can live (within reason) anywhere,” writes Aminatta Forna in her new book of essays, The Window Seat (Grove Press), and we have reason to believe her. The third child of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father, raised between those countries but also in various others around the globe (her stepfather was a New Zealand diplomat; the family lived in Zambia and Thailand, and was based in Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution), she now lives outside Washington, where she is a professor at Georgetown University, but remains an inveterate traveler. Gambia, Croatia, the Shetland Islands, New Orleans, Freetown, Isfahan—the world entire unfolds through Forna’s eyes.
Indeed, the collection’s title essay is about her love of flying and her long history in airplanes—including an adventure in her twenties that some (though not this reader) may envy, practicing loops at the controls of a friend’s light aircraft. Her evocation of the ease and limitations of air travel, along with its fascinating histories (who knew about the Universal Aunts, a British organization established a century ago to assist unaccompanied minors returning from outposts of empire?), provides an apt starting point for the reflections and diverse experiences included in this volume. She turns her eye upon Santigi, a domestic worker in her stepmother’s household in Sierra Leone, whose hopes for education eventually ended in drink; she profiles a passionate (and rare) vet in Freetown, who cares for the city’s dogs; and also profiles, with equal attention, a famous Sierra Leonean chimp named Bruno. She recalls returning from boarding school to a Tehran in revolution. With her mother and brother, she visits the ancestral croft on Unst, an outer Shetland island; she tracks foxes in her London backyard, and wolves and coyotes in western Massachusetts (an interest turned to fine novelistic ends in her 2018 book Happiness); she explores the realm of sleep, or rather sleeplessness, which plagued her for years; and records her experience of the 2016 inauguration in a piece entitled “What If You Gave an Inauguration and Nobody Came.” Longer essays are interspersed with short vignettes—about a distressing childhood experience at Disney on Ice; about the Toyota Hilux, a flatbed truck that is “the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47,” “beloved of farmers, construction crews, rebel armies, warlords, Somali pirates and Afghan insurgents”; about an encounter with a peanut-butter thief at a Whole Foods in Arlington, Virginia.
A former journalist (hence her pleasingly strong tethering to facts), Forna is known chiefly as a novelist and memoirist. The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2002) explores the 1975 execution, in Sierra Leone, of her charismatic political-activist father Mohamed Forna, when Aminatta was just eleven years old. With this collection, she proves a compelling essayist too, her voice direct, lucid, and fearless. All the pieces are enjoyable and often surprising, even when rather slight. But the most substantial ones are memorable—even unforgettable. They deftly straddle the personal and the political. “Obama and the Renaissance Generation” provides, for a North American readership less than familiar with recent African histories, an account—inspiring and dismaying in equal measure—of the nation-building ambitions of the midcentury generation to which Obama’s Kenyan father, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Ghanaian father, and Forna’s own father belonged. (All three men married white women—American in Obama’s case, British in the cases of Appiah and Forna.) In going to study in the United States, Obama’s father was unlike the others. Both Appiah and Forna traveled to the U.K., as did the novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Jomo Kenyatta (the first president of Kenya), Seretse Khama (the first president of Botswana), and Julius Nyerere (the first president of Tanzania). Forna also provides helpful political context—the legacy of British colonialism and the importance of Marxism in African liberation movements. She shows with ease just how inaccurate it is to believe that “no life could have been more the product of randomness than that of Barack Obama,” as David Maraniss wrote in his 2012 biography of the former president.
“Crossroads,” too, should be required reading. It is a meditation on Forna’s experience of moving to the United States in 2015 as a mixed-race woman in a mixed-race family of African and European heritage, informed by her Sierra Leonean legacy—which includes, of course, the slave trade (Amistad, the slave ship best known today through Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, set out from Bunce Island, Sierra Leone). Her particular perspective sheds light on the complexity of race in the United States; the essay follows her education in a history that is not straightforwardly her own, and yet is inescapable.
Forna writes about gender too, in particular in “Power Walking.” She opens the essay with the memory of being simultaneously catcalled and subjected to racist abuse while in London in the Eighties, and proceeds to examine the purposeful intrusion of the male gaze as a condition of and a means of control over women’s experiences. As she observes, and as all women know,
The relative vulnerability of women in public spaces limits our freedom of movement and our choices. Good practise in personal safety—telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night—all add up to an effective form of social control.