Aminatta Forna

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Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna at the awards ceremony of the LiBeraturpreis 2008 for her book "Ancestor Stones".
Forna in Frankfurt am Main, 2008
Born1964 (age 55–56)
Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland
OccupationAuthor, academic, commentator
Alma materUniversity College London
Notable worksThe Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest (2003);
Ancestor Stones (2006);
The Memory of Love (2010)
Notable awardsCommonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award 2011;
2014 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize (Fiction)
SpouseSimon Westcott

Aminatta Forna, OBE (born 1964) is a Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer. She is the author of a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water,[1][2] and four novels: Ancestor Stones (2006),[3] The Memory of Love (2010),[4] The Hired Man (2013)[5][6] and Happiness (2018). Her novel The Memory of Love was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for "Best Book" in 2011,[7][8] and was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.[9] Forna is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and was, until recently, Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.[10][11] She is currently Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.[12]

On 7 March 2014, Forna was announced as the recipient of the 2014 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize (Fiction).[13][14][15]

In 2015 Forna was part of the judging panel which awarded the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award to Yiyun Li.[16]

The finalists for the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature were announced in May 2015.[17][18] The list included Forna and writers, poets and playwrights from around the world. The majority of the finalists were women writers.[17][19]

Forna was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to literature.[20][21][22] Forna is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, sits on the advisory committee for the Royal Literary Fund and the Caine Prize for African Writing, has been a judge on several high-profile prize panels, including the 2017 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction[23] and continues to champion the work of up-and-coming diverse authors.[23][24][25][26] In 2019, the Scotiabank Giller Prize announced that Forna was one of the judges for the 2019 prize, an award of Cdn $140,000 for a Canadian writer.[27]

In March 2019, Forna's Happiness was shortlisted for the European Literature Prize, and in April 2019 was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) Ondaatje Prize and for the Jhalak Prize[28][29][30][31]

Commenting on her work in a wide-ranging interview with Keija Parssinen in World Literature Today, Forna said: "I think what novelists do is bring into relief something that’s been hiding in plain sight ... describing what it might look like from elsewhere, the view from elsewhere."[32]


Aminatta Forna was born in Bellshill, Scotland,[33] in 1964 to a Sierra Leonean father, Mohamed Forna, and a Scottish mother, Maureen Christison. When Forna was six months old the family travelled to Sierra Leone, where Mohamed Forna worked as a physician. He later became involved in politics and entered government, only to resign citing a growth in political violence and corruption. Between 1970 and 1973 he was imprisoned and declared an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience. Mohamed Forna was hanged on charges of treason in 1975.[34][35] The events of Forna's childhood and her investigation into the conspiracy surrounding her father's death are the subject of the memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water.[36] The trauma of her father's death is a contributing factor to the common theme of psychological trauma throughout many of her novels.

Forna studied law at University College London and was a Harkness Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2013 she assumed a post as Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.[37]

Between 1989 and 1999 Forna worked for the BBC, both in radio and television, as a reporter and documentary maker in the spheres of arts and politics. She is also known for her Africa documentaries: Through African Eyes (1995),[38] Africa Unmasked (2002)[39] and The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu (2009).[40] Forna is also a board member of the Royal National Theatre[41] and a judge for The Man Booker International Prize 2013.[42][43]

Forna is the founder of The Rogbonko Village Project, a charity begun as an initiative to build a school in a village in Sierra Leone.[44][45]

Aminatta Forna is married to the furniture designer Simon Westcott and lives in south-east London.[46]


Forna's work, both fiction and non-fiction, is typically concerned with the prelude and aftermath to war, memory, the conflict between private narratives and official histories, and examines how the gradual accretion of small, seemingly insignificant acts of betrayal find expression in full-scale horror.[47][48] In her fiction she employs multiple voices and shifting timelines.

The Devil that Danced on the Water[edit]

The Devil that Danced on the Water (2002), Forna's first book, received wide critical acclaim across the UK and the US. It was broadcast on BBC Radio and went on to become runner-up for the UK's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.[49] This memoir discusses the murder of her father, Mohamed Forna, as he was taken by the state secret police and was executed a year later. The anger and sadness of this traumatic event permeates through the writing in Forna's memoir.[50]

Ancestor Stones[edit]

Ancestor Stones, Forna's second book and first novel, won the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction in the US[51] and the Liberaturpreis[52] in Germany and was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award. The Washington Post named Ancestor Stones one of the most important books of 2006. In 2007, Forna was named by Vanity Fair magazine as one of Africa's best new writers.[53]

The Memory of Love[edit]

The Memory of Love, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award 2011,[54] was described by the judges as "a bold, deeply moving and accomplished novel" and Forna as "among the most talented writers in literature today";[8][55] The Memory of Love was also shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2012,[56] the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011[57] and the Warwick Prize for Writing.[58] The book was the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub, in discussion between Forna and James Naughtie.[59]

Girl Rising[edit]

Forna was one of 10 writers contributing to 10x10 Girl Rising.[60][61] The film tells the stories of 10 girls in 10 developing countries. The girls' stories are written by 10 acclaimed writers and narrated by 10 world-class actresses, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Freida Pinto and Cate Blanchett.[62] The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.[63] Forna wrote through the lens of Mariama, an intelligent woman who studies engineering in university and strives to extend the opportunity of education to young girls. Her role models are also advocates of education, including Sia Koroma, who is the First Lady of Sierra Leone.[64]

The Hired Man[edit]

The Hired Man, Forna's third novel, was published in the UK in March 2013.[65]

Critics praised Forna's forensic research and ability to evoke atmosphere, place, pacing, precision, powerful emotions, characterisations and atmosphere.[46][48][66][65][67][68][69][70][71][72][73] In the United States The Boston Globe stated that "not since "Remains of the Day" has an author so skilfully revealed the way history's layers are often invisible to all but its participants, who do what they must to survive".[49]


Happiness, Forna's fourth novel, published in the US in March, and in the UK in April 2018, explores themes of love, trauma, migration and belonging, the conflict between nature and civilisation, and how multi-layered experiences can grow resilience.[74] Psychiatrist Dr. Attila Asara of Ghana and Jean Turane of America meet by chance and grow from their newfound relationship. One of Attila's main arguments of the novel is that people try to live out a "wrinkle-free" life, although Attila argues that one must live in discomfort to live a full life. Attila compares trauma survivors and Turane's foxes: the foxes try and outsmart humans while trauma survivors outsmart the damage they went through to try and maintain a normal life.[75]

Happiness has featured on several recommended reading lists, including BBC Culture,[76] The Root,[77] The Guardian,[78] Irish Times,[79] and i News.[80]

The Star Tribune described Happiness as "a tightly focused two-hander".[81] The Financial Times review of Happiness said: "Forna is a risk-taker, a writer who doesn’t hold back from tackling big themes..." [82] The Washington Post described Forna as a "subtle and knowing" writer able to fold "weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch",[83] while The Seattle Times wrote: "Forna’s prose is precise ... stunning in its clarity".[84] Kirkus Reviews, featuring the author on its cover, wrote: "Low-key yet piercingly empathetic, Forna's latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective."[85] The Sunday Times review notes: "Forna circles.... Her path is never straight, she doubles back, crisscrosses ... she approaches the thought from elliptical angles, bringing moments of startling clarity. This walk is never dull."[86] The Observer′s Alex Preston wrote of Happiness: "It is as if the author has privileged access into multiple spheres of existence, learning the secret languages of each".[87] Reviewing Happiness in The Guardian, Diana Evans wrote that it "builds in resonance beyond the final page".[88] In The Spectator, Kate Webb wrote of Happiness: "Forna’s piercingly intelligent and interrogative novel ... registers tectonic shifts taking place in the world and provokes us to think anew about war, and what we take for peace and happiness."[89]

Happiness was featured on numerous international end-of-2018 round-ups as one of the best books of the year, including Kirkus Reviews,[90] the UK's Guardian,[91] and South Africa's Sunday Times.[92]

Happiness was longlisted for the European Literature Prize in March 2019, and shortlisted for both the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) Ondaatje Prize, and the Jhalak Prize in April 2019.[28][29][30][31]


  • The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest. Grove Press. 18 December 2003. ISBN 978-0-8021-4048-7.
  • Ancestor Stones. Atlantic Monthly Press. 14 August 2006. ISBN 978-0-87113-944-3.
  • The Memory of Love. Bloomsbury. April 2010. ISBN 978-1-4088-0813-9.
  • The Hired Man. Bloomsbury. March 2013. ISBN 978-1-4088-1877-0.
  • Happiness, Atlantic Monthly, March 2018. ISBN 978-0-8021-2755-6

Awards and honours[edit]


  1. ^ Brittain, Victoria (18 May 2002). "The Truth About Daddy". The Guardian. London.
  2. ^ "Aminatta Forna: 'My country had a war. It would be extraordinary not to want to write about that'", The Independent, 4 June 2011.
  3. ^ Renee Montagne,"'Ancestor Stones:' Life and War in Sierra Leone", NPR Books, 2 July 2007.
  4. ^ Sam Kiley (20 March 2010). "The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna". The Times. London.
  5. ^ "The Independent Bath Literature Festival". Archived from the original on 23 April 2013. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  6. ^ The Hired Man,
  7. ^ Commonwealth Prize. Archived 3 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ a b "Aminatta Forna wins Commonwealth Writers' honour", BBC News, 22 May 2011.
  9. ^ Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 shortlist.
  10. ^ Aminatta Forna page at Bloomsbury.
  11. ^ "Reading Africa", Williams.
  12. ^ "Lannan Foundation Chair in Poetics, 2015-2017", Georgetown University.
  13. ^ "Writers from seven countries awarded $150,000 Yale prize", Yale News, 7 March 2014.
  14. ^ "Aminatta Forna – Fiction 2014" Archived 17 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Windham Campbell Prizes.
  15. ^ Richard Lea, "Eight authors surprised by $150,000 Windham Campbell books prizes", The Guardian, 7 March 2014.
  16. ^ "The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award 2015", BookTrust.
  17. ^ a b c "Finalists for the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature", The Neustadt Prizes.
  18. ^ "Aminatta Forna Nominated for Neustadt International Prize", Windham Campbell Prizes, 28 May 2015.
  19. ^ "Finalists Announced for the 24th Neustadt International Prize for Literature", World Literature Today, 27 May 2015.
  20. ^ "No. 61803". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2016. p. N11.
  21. ^ a b "New Year's Honours 2017: CSV", Cabinet Office, 30 December 2016.
  22. ^ Ben Glaze, Nina Massey, Dan Bloom, Sally Wardle, "New Year's Honours 2017: Full list of great and good awarded for services to Britain", Daily Mirror, 31 December 2016.
  23. ^ a b "Judges", Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, 2016.
  24. ^ "Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors and Publishers in the UK Marketplace", The Royal Society of Literature, 16 April 2015.
  25. ^ Aminatta Forna, "Aminatta Forna: don’t judge a book by its author", The Guardian, 13 February 2015.
  26. ^ "Aminatta Forna", British Council – Literature.
  27. ^ 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury, Scotiabank Giller Prize.
  28. ^ a b "Longlist 2019", Europese Literatuurprijs.
  29. ^ a b Mark Chandler, "Forna and Abouzeid up for RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019", The Bookseller, 17 April 2019.
  30. ^ a b "Shortlist announced for 2019 Jhalak Prize for BAME writers", Books+Publishing, 8 April 2019.
  31. ^ a b Jhalak Prize, 2019.
  32. ^
  33. ^ Maggie Barry (8 May 2011). "Acclaimed author reveals secret Scottish roots in moving tribute". Daily Record. Scotland.
  34. ^ Sekou Daouda Bangura, "34 years after the execution of Mohamed Sorie Fornah and 14 others", The Patriotic Vanguard, 21 July 2009.
  35. ^ "Ex-officials on trial for treason in Africa", Washington Afro-American, 15 October 1974.
  36. ^ Anna Metcalfe, "Small Talk: Aminatta Forna" (interview), Financial Times, 26 April 2010.
  37. ^ Katie Allen (28 September 2012). "Weldon and Hensher head to Bath Spa". The Bookseller. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  38. ^ Through African Eyes (videorecording), written and directed by Aminatta Forna; a BBC/RM Arts co-production; Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
  39. ^ Africa Unmasked: The Black Man's Burden Archived 18 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine (2002), BFI.
  40. ^ The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu, BBC Four.
  41. ^ "National Theatre website". Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  42. ^ Aminatta Fora profile, The Man Booker Prize.
  43. ^ "The Man Booker International Prize 2013 – Judging Panel Announced", 2 December 2011.
  44. ^ "The Rogbonko Village Project in Sierra Leone", Aminatta Forna website.
  45. ^ "Aminatta Forna", OkayAfrica.
  46. ^ a b Nigel Farndale, "Aminatta Forna interview: unsilent witness", The Telegraph, 24 March 2013.
  47. ^ E. Ethelbert Miller (edited by John Feffer), "Interview with R. Victoria Arana", Foreign Policy in Focus, 10 April 2008.
  48. ^ a b Alfred Hickling, "The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna – review", The Guardian, 27 March 2013.
  49. ^ a b "Aminatta Forna" Archived 6 June 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Literature, The British Council.
  50. ^ Forna, Aminatta. "Aminatta Forna". Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  51. ^ Thompson, Bob (3 November 2007). "New Chapters in the Story of Africa's People Are Honored". The Washington Post.
  52. ^ de:LiBeraturpreis[circular reference]
  53. ^ Akbar, Arifa (2 April 2010). "Wartime loves and betrayals: Aminatta Forna's new novel casts a fresh light on old war wounds". The Independent. London.
  54. ^ Commonwealth Foundation website. Archived 3 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  55. ^ "Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011 winners revealed", 21 May 2011.
  56. ^ "Shortlist 2012 – International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award", 12 April 2012.
  57. ^ "Orange prize for fiction, Books, Fiction (Books genre), Culture, Emma Donoghue". The Guardian. London. 12 April 2011.
  58. ^ Warwick Prize for Writing, 2011 shortlist.
  59. ^ "Aminatta Forna - The Memory of Love", Bookclub, BBC Sounds, 1 September 2019.
  60. ^ "10 Writers, 10x10". Archived from the original on 14 August 2012. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
  61. ^ "Quality learning shouldn't be a pipe dream" Archived 12 July 2012 at the Wayback Machine, 10x10, 19 June 2012.
  62. ^ Vanessa Thorpe, "A-list stars support unique project to highlight need to educate girls", The Observer, 3 March 2013.
  63. ^ 10x10 Presents "Girl Rising".
  64. ^ "Girl Rising - Meet The Girls". Girl Rising. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  65. ^ a b Helen Dunmore, "The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna", The Times, 23 March 2013.
  66. ^ Adrian Turpin, "We chip away at the past", Financial Times, 19 April 2013.
  67. ^ Hannah McGill, Book review: The Hired Man – Aminatta Forna, The Scotsman, 27 March 2013.
  68. ^ "The Hired Man" (review), Kirkus Reviews, 28 August 2013.
  69. ^ "The Hired Man£ (review), Publishers Weekly, 2 September 2013.
  70. ^ Manasi Subramaniam, "Burying the ghosts of the past, brick by brick" (review), The Sunday Guardian, 31 August 2013.
  71. ^ Nigel Featherstone, "Eking beauty from the decay", Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 2013.
  72. ^ Geordie Williamson, "Brutal past bleeds into the present", The Australian, 11 May 2013.
  73. ^ "Alternative Booker: Lindsey Hilsum on The Hired Man – video", Channel 4 News, 11 October 2013.
  74. ^ Happiness on Aminatta Forna website.
  75. ^ Finn, Melanie (20 April 2018). "When a Young Immigrant Vanishes in London, Can a Wildlife Biologist Help?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  76. ^ Jane Ciabattari, "Ten books to read in 2018", BBC Culture, 19 December 2017.
  77. ^ Hope Wabuke, "These New and Upcoming Books by Black Authors Will Give You Life in These Perilous Times", The Root, 11 February 2018.
  78. ^ Alex Preston, "Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Leïla Slimani … the best fiction for 2018", The Guardian, 31 December 2017.
  79. ^ Arminta Wallace, "Books to look out for in 2018", Irish Times, 30 December 2017.
  80. ^ Anita Sethi, "The biggest books of 2018", i News, 2 January 2018.
  81. ^ Malcolm Forbes, "Review: 'Happiness,' by Aminatta Forna", Star Tribune, 9 March 2018.
  82. ^ "Happiness by Aminatta Forna — the London that foxes know", Financial Times.
  83. ^ Anna Mundow, "‘Happiness’: An exquisite novel about how chance and love connect us", The Washington Post, 8 March 2018.
  84. ^ David Takami, "Aminatta Forna’s novel ‘Happiness’ begins as a mystery, becomes a romance", The Seattle Times, 17 March 2018.
  85. ^ Happiness (review), Kirkus Review, 12 December 2017.
  86. ^ Lucy Atkin, "Book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna", The Sunday Times, 25 March 2018.
  87. ^ Alex Preston, "Happiness by Aminatta Forna review – in search of somewhere special", The Observer, 3 April 2018.
  88. ^ Diana Evans, "Happiness by Aminatta Forna review – love in the urban wilderness", The Guardian, 5 April 2018.
  89. ^ Kate Webb, "Our sheltered lives have made us overly fearful: Aminatta Forna’s Happiness reviewed", The Spectator, 21 April 2018.
  90. ^ "Best Fiction of 2018 To Get Your Book Club Talking". Kirkus, December 2018.
  91. ^ Aminatta Forna, "Love, hate and hypocrisy: the best books about animals and humans", The Guardian, 31 December 2018.
  92. ^ "Books of the year 2018", Sunday Times, 10 December 2018.
  93. ^ "BBC National Short Story Award in partnership with Booktrust 2010".
  94. ^ "Prize Citation for Aminatta Forna". Windham–Campbell Literature Prize. 7 March 2014. Archived from the original on 17 November 2018. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  95. ^ "The Women", OkayAfrica.

External links[edit]