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Aminatta Forna, first Sierra Leonean to win Commonwealth Best Book prize

By  | 25 May 2011 at 05:13 | 619 views

Aminatta Forna has earned the Commonwealth Best Book Prize for her latest novel ‘Memory of Love’ published in January 2011 by Bloomsbury press. The story’s setting is crafted on thread made in Sierra Leone, a nation that went through a decade-long grueling civil war.

Memory of Love revolves mainly around a few characters whose lives intertwine through the course of generations, and through whose eyes and voices the story unfolds.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, of Scottish and Sierra Leonean parents, Aminatta (photo) grew up in Sierra Leone, where her late father Dr. Mohamed Sorie Forna was a cabinet minister in the government and turbulent reign of Siaka Stevens, the nation’s first president. Stevens would later execute Forna (who had resigned from his position as Finance minister) and several others for an alleged treason plot that he claimed attempted to overthrow him. The trial was dramatic and gloomy, filled with nail biting and fear.

According to the judges, Aminatta’s book is an "immensely powerful portrayal of human resilience" which "delicately delves into the courageous lives of those haunted by the indelible effects of Sierra Leone’s past." The book highlights the courage of those who have experienced the worst of the embattled country. It also gives a glimmer of hope and optimism for the West African country. Forna, who lives in London, still visits relatives in Sierra Leone, conducts workshops for budding writers, visit schools, and has been involved in development projects there.

New Zealander Craig Cliff won Best First Book Winner for his work, A Man Melting, which weaves outlandish concepts with everyday incidents across 18 short stories.

Governor-General Quentin Bryce presented the awards at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Saturday evening to mark the 25th year of the literary Prize. Both winners were chosen among a group of four finalists, representing Australia, the United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Danny Sriskandarajah, Commonwealth Foundation interim director, said the winners represent the best the commonwealth’s authors.

"In its 25th year, the Prize embodies the commonwealth at its best," Mr Sriskandarajah said in a statement. "It unearths the best writing from across 54 countries, promoting dialogue and understanding on an international scale. The connecting thread in the book is Elias Cole, an ailing academic, who has sought out Adrian, a young British psychiatrist working at the local hospital. Cole narrates his life (and much of the story), introducing voices and characters from the past. From Cole’s recollections, we learn of his obsession with Saffia the wife of one of his colleagues, and the great lengths he goes to in order to be near her. As fate would have it, Saffia’s husband Julius passes on and Cole finally is free to marry the woman he has so deeply desired. To Cole’s disappointment, he and Saffia fail to achieve anything near to the kind of intimacy that he knew Saffia had with Julius.

“I touch her back. For a few seconds, until she turns to me, she is utterly immobile… She places her arms around me. But there is something held back…The truth, if you want it, was that it had never bothered me…But no longer…

Instead I am remembering a day… And this, the truth now, is what I was thinking. That, until the truck driver laughed his filthy laugh, I had been unable to place the sounds we both heard. They were unfamiliar to me because I had no idea what a woman’s pleasure sounded like… This is what I remember as I lie with Saffia.” Over the course of his sessions with Cole, Adrian eventually figures what is going on. Cole is trying to come to terms with what has gone wrong in his life, while rationalizing his own shortcomings and culpability.

“Here in the land of the mute, Elias Cole has elected to talk. It has never occurred to Adrian to ask why, just as he never questions the presence of a patient in his office, only asks how he might be able to help them. The difference between Elias Cole and the men at the hospital is that Cole is educated. The more education a person has received, the more capable of articulating their experiences they are: Also of intellectualizing them, of course.” Away from his time with Cole, Adrian sees many other patients who come in for psychiatric help – like Agnes, the woman who keeps wandering in search of a gold necklace, and Adecali, the young man who is prone to violent eruptions and who cannot stand the smell of roasting meat. He is determined to do what he can to help them confront their demons and return to normal life. But as Attila the head of the hospital warns him, “normal” is a relative term.

“A few years back a medical team came here. They were here to survey the population… Do you know what they concluded?…The conclusion they reached was that ninety-nine percent of the population was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder….

When I ask you what you expect to achieve for these men, you say you want to return them to normality? Yours? Mine?....Anyway, you carry on with your work. Just remember what it is you are returning them to.” Meanwhile, Adrian becomes friends with Kai, a young Sierra Leonean doctor, with whom they share an apartment at the hospital. A brilliant doctor, Kai is unmarried, and fully dedicated to his work. He, however, suffers from an inability to sleep – a fact that betrays his dark past. Fate ties the two together as their lives become entangled both professionally and personally.

‘Memory of Love’ has many running themes playing out at different levels, all against the background of a war that has taken a huge toll on the country. While the stories and encounters involving the central characters are deeply moving, what lurks in the shadows is even more gripping. It is the disturbing stories, the memories that remain silent, the ones that keep people like Kai awake through the night, portraying Forna’s book as brilliant, moving and powerful. Aminatta’s recent international laurel has cemented her place among Africa’s most exciting writing talents.

Roland Bankole Marke © 2011

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