Among writers of her generation, Aminatta Forna belongs in the higher ranks of critical acclaim. With her work translated into sixteen languages, she has been described, by the London Evening Standard, as “arguably the best writer of fiction” “about war and its aftermath.” She has also been praised in similar terms by the judges of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as being “among the most talented writers in literature today.”
A 2017 recipient of the Officer of the British Empire (OBE), Aminatta’s body of work has been honoured several times. In 2014, she won the $150,000 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, awarded annually by Yale University. In 2016, she was a finalist for the 2016 Neustadt Award.
But Aminatta isn’t only about writing. She is also a philanthropist. Shortly after her critically-acclaimed debut in 2002, she established, in 2003, a philanthropic initiative called The Rogbonko Project. The initiative’s mission is to build a school in Rogbonko, a Sierra Leonean village which as a result of the country’s civil war was cut off from the rest of the country for a decade and ran into serious economic decline. The charity she founded there runs educational, sanitation and maternal health projects.
Born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and Britain, with periods of her childhood spent in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Aminatta Forna has many places laying claim to her.
So what has Aminatta Forna been up to in the last one month? Here’s a look into the schedule of one of our busiest writers.
May 8: Aminatta celebrated her birthday. The following day she gave us one of those loveliest of Writer Moments when she posted on Facebook about her meeting with the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila and their discussion of his nonfiction book The Chibok Girls. This is the post she put up on Facebook.
Last weekend I had dinner with one of the heads of the Obama WH transition team. And yes, as bad as we feared. I went to a Kentucky Derby party where I spoke to a white working class British plumber wearing an England football shirt who told me he was quitting Britain. His wife is Polish. We made some sad jokes about Polish plumbers. My horse came in last. On Sunday I went for brunch in a Belgian restaurant and then spent the afternoon with Helon Habila and his lovely family, discussed the Chibok girls, Helon’s new book on their story and his plans to return the next day. Modern times.
May 24: 2015 Booker Prize winner Marlon James shared a link to “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu,” a 2015 BBC video narrated by Aminatta. It granted us an opportunity to see her visit to Timbuktu and her interviews with the scholars and keepers of the ancient city’s wealth of knowledge.
June 6: Aminatta took part in 1984 Live, an initiative that saw prominent cultural leaders take turns in reading different sections of George Orwell’s 1984 until the whole novel was finished. The invited readers—members of George Orwell’s family, editors, writers, journalists, critics, filmmakers and actors—“read sections of the book alongside members of the public to create the UK’s first ever live reading.” Aminatta’s turn began at 11:25 a.m. The event, organised by The Orwell Foundation and UCL Festival of Culture, lasted the whole day, and was held in Senate House, London, where the inspiration for the novel’s Ministry of Truth came from. The reading was meant to be “an act of subversion in itself” and saw the use of projection and actors from UCL so as to enable the audience “absorb the intrigue and horror of 1984.”
June 7: Aminatta attended the 2017 Baileys Prize ceremony where she was on the prize’s panel of judges, alongside co-founder Kate Mosse, the journalist Sam Baker, the comedian and author Sara Pascoe, and the presenter and broadcaster Katie Derham. The event was held at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The prize went to bookmakers’ favourite Naomi Alderman’s The Power. On the shortlist were Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Ayobami had been the second favourite to win. Her shortlisting made her the fourth African ever to be a finalist for the prize, after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2004, Aminatta herself in 2011, and the Ghanaian-Canadian Esi Edugyan in 2012.
June 8: Aminatta travelled to Oxford University to give a lecture open for free to the public. Her lecture was part of the university’s “Great Writers Inspire at Home” series, an effort to bring “contemporary British writers into conversation with readers to discuss how literature shapes our perceptions of the world today and our identities within it.” There, she sat with Ankhi Murkhejee, professor of English and World Literatures at the university, to discuss her 2011 Orange Prize-shortlisted second novel The Memory of Love. The workshop was divided into two sessions: during the first, she listened to members of the audience offer their reactions to her novel; during the second, she led the interaction, answering questions. The event was recorded for podcasting.
June 9: Aminatta was in Oslo, Norway for the launch of the third issue of the literary magazine Freeman’s. The event at the Litteraturhuset focused on the question of what makes home, particularly “in light of the current global refugee crisis and the increased visibility of homeless populations.” There, she sat with former Granta editor John Freeman, who founded Freeman’s, and the writers Rabih Alameddine and Kerri Arsenault for a conversation about “the politics of belonging and home, family and tribe.” Aminatta read from her essay in the magazine and then reflected on “the way the legacy of slavery breaks differently on each side of the Atlantic.” She explained how moving to the US and living with other people of Sierra Leonean ancestry allowed her to discover “a sharp distinction in how she claims her past and how others view that history through skin color.”
June 15-17: Aminatta attended the African Literature Association (ALA) Festival in Yale University where she was a Featured Author. The event’s keynote speakers were the Senegalese writer Boubacar Baris Diop and the Kenyan critic Simon Gikandi. Her first event was on June 16 when she took part in an Auditorium Event chaired by postcolonial literary researcher Joya Uraizee, after which she had a book signing. The following day, she took part in the WOCALA Caucus Lunch where she was Keynote Speaker.
Her first book, The Devil that Danced on the Water (HarperCollins 2002), is a memoir of her father’s execution on false treason charges during the civil war in Sierra Leone. A runner-up for the 2003 Samuel Johnson Prize, it was serialised on BBC Radio and in The Sunday Times and picked by Barnes & Noble for their Discover New Writers series.
Her second book and first novel, Ancestor Stones (Bloomsbury 2006), follows four women in a polygamous family in an unnamed West African country that has been suggested to be Sierra Leone. It won the 2007 Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, the 2008 Liberaturpreis, and the 2010 Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, and was nominated for the 2007 International Dublin IMPAC Award.
A The New York Times Editor’s Choice book, it made the Washington Post‘s Best Novels of 2006 list as well as The Listener Magazine‘s Best 10 Books of 2006.
Her third book and second novel, The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, April 2010), witnesses three lives—a dying man, a psychologist, and a doctor—colliding in a web of “friendship, war, and obsessive love.” The winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, it was a finalist for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, the 2011 Warwick Prize, the 2012 IMPAC Award, and the 2013 European Prize for Fiction. A New York Times Editor’s Choice, it was chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Financial Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and Times newspapers.
Her fourth book and third novel, The Hired Man, is a study of an Englishwoman and her two children who buy a farmhouse in a village in Croatia, a country torn by war, leaving the characters trapped in a circle of betrayal and secrets. Nominated for the 2014 IMPAC Award, it was a 2013 Barnes & Nobles Critics’ Choice and was named one of the best books of 2013 by The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, The Independent, and The Australian and the NZ Listener.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Folio Academy, Aminatta has been judge for the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the Caine Prize, the International Man Booker, and the Baileys Prize.
Forna is, at the moment, the Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She had been, in 2011 and 2013, the Sterling Brown Visiting Professor at Williams College Massachusetts.
Get more scoop on Aminatta Forna from her Website:
“Keeping Up With African Writers” is a new Brittle Paper series that shines light on the work of our leading authors, the work that they share with us on social media as well as activities we’ve gleaned from the Internet. The aim is partly to invite the literary community to engage with them not just as people who write but as social and cultural forces creating impact in overt and subtle ways.