Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and Great Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. She is the award-winning author of the novels Happiness, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and a memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, and most recently the essay collection, The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion. Forna is the recipient of a Windham Campbell Award from Yale University, has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award 2011, a Hurston Wright Legacy Award the Liberaturpreis in Germany and the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, and was made OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2017. She is currently Director and Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.
Hame, From The Window Seat
In the Shetlands, tourists come for two reasons. There are the twitchers, for the islands are renowned for their birdlife—puffins in particular, and many other varieties of seabird: guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, and gannet, which nest in breeding grounds on the islands’ cliffs. The other kind of tourist, people like us, are here in search of the past.
Early one morning, I drew back the blackout curtain of the cabin I shared with my mother to a view of the cliffs at the southerly tip of the Shetland Mainland. Less than an hour after docking and driving the length of the island, a much smaller ferry carried us to Yell, an island made of peat, like a big peat patty, on which the most common activity (after fishing and fish farming) is, unsurprisingly, peat harvesting. At the other end of Yell we arrived to find the first ferry to Unst full and so we went to the ticket office to book ourselves onto the next available crossing. We had paid for a return ticket, but once aboard, the ferryman took our ticket but failed to return the stub. On the Shetlands you show your ticket on the way north but nobody bothers you for it on the way south: “For how else did you get there in the first place?” said the ferryman.
Haroldswick, so named for the Viking King Harald, of the famous Icelandic chronicle Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, which tells of his exploits—romantic, military, and religious in Sicily, Palestine, Jerusalem, and Novograd. Haroldswick is reputed to be the first place in the British Isles the Vikings disembarked from their longships and where they came to settle. There’s a reconstruction of a longship on the road into the hamlet. Longships were capable of carrying one hundred people as well as their animals. For several centuries the Vikings occupied themselves with raids on settlements as far north as Iceland and Greenland, south to Andalusia and the North African coast, east to the Black and Caspian Seas, and, at least once, west to Newfoundland. They guided their longships by the sun and stars and followed the migratory flight path of birds.
Most everyone on Unst has Viking, or at least Norse, blood. According to DNA test results, I carry 2 percent Norwegian blood. This puts me in the company of the nearly 30 percent of Shetlanders who carry Norse DNA. My grandfather’s last name was Christison, the distinctly Scandinavian “son of Christian.”
“We’re descended from Vikings,” my mother had told the ferryman on the way over, to which he had replied, “Aren’t we all?”
Alongside my DNA results, the company I used provided migratory maps of my ancestors, which showed other elements of my Scots family arriving in the Shetlands from the Highlands sometime between 1775 and 1800, around the time of the Highland Clearances. Thousands of families were evicted from their homes by wealthy landowners who wished to use the land for raising sheep. Many went to Canada and Australia, but more on that later. At least one part of my grandfather’s family traveled in the opposite direction, shipping out to the islands, to the Orkneys and Shetlands.
Continue reading from The Window Seat in Orion Magazine.
- Aminatta Forna’s website.
- Review: “Aminatta Forna’s essays about people and place and motion” by Daneet Steffens. The Boston Globe. 13 May 2021.
- “Review: These powerful, far-flung essays never stop moving” by Carolyn Kellogg. The Los Angeles Times. 18 May 2021.
Aminatta Forna in Conversation with John Freeman | November 9th, 2021
Aminatta Forna in Conversation with Sharon Gelman | September 25, 2018
Seminar with Marlon James and John Freeman | September 23, 2016
Reading with Marlon James and John Freeman | September 23, 2016
Conversation with John Freeman | November 17, 2015
Reading | October 27, 2015