African writers are in a privileged position – Aminatta Forna

By Gemma Ware

Posted on Thursday, 19 September 2013 14:23

“Our conversation was all about ‘Who do you know? Who did what?'” recalls the writer, who was born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and Sierra Leonean father.

“That’s the case of Sierra Leone – we all know people who did terrible things. What most nations don’t talk about is the people who did something, quite often because people are still scared of them.”

It is this propensity for outsiders to paper over the aftermath of civil conflict that Forna explores in her latest novel,The Hired Man (Bloomsbury Publishing), set in the fictional Croatian town of Gost.

Duro, a handyman, narrates the story of a British family that arrives one summer after buying a run-down cottage and hires him to fix it up as a holiday home.

As the summer unfolds, Duro slowly and meticulously remembers the elements of the past that the newcomers avoid.

Forna wrote the novel as much for the British – whose naivety around the subject of civil war, she says, truly stunned her – as for Sierra Leonean readers, to show the commonalities of human behaviour surrounding the two conflicts.

“I think most societies have a critical mass of people, it might be a minority, but a sufficient minority, for whom war is a wonderful opportunity. I think that’s the case in the former Yugoslavia and the case in Sierra Leone as well,” she says.

Forna says that her publishers were unsurprised by her decision to set a novel in Croatia.

She is dismissive of attempts to pigeonhole her as an African writer, saying Sierra Leone, like Croatia, was just a setting for her characters.

Yet, after setting three books in Sierra Leone, she acknowledges “it was a great honour” to be someone who could write about such a momentous time in that country’s history.

“African writers find themselves in an extraordinarily privileged position,” she says.

She recently finished nearly two years of reading as a judge for the Man Booker International Prize, during which she discovered “powerful voices and powerful emerging centres of literature”.

She argues that Nigeria and Kenya are developing a strong homegrown publishing industry, akin to what happened in South Asia.

“I have a barely concealed envy for the Nigerian writers because they can actually get royalties from their own market,” she says. ●

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