What Fiction Can Reveal About the Fragile Fabric of Our Societies
Aminatta Forna on Over Two Decades of Literary Excavation of Sierra Leone’s Civil War
In 1999, when overnight I quit a good job to write The Devil That Danced on the Water, I did so in the grip of a fury. From the United Kingdom I had watched my paternal country of Sierra Leone, finally and after decades of oppression, erupt in a violence that had simmered too long.
For months my stepmother had lived with me in my London home as a refugee. Inside Sierra Leone a decade had passed in which no one had made contact with the remainder of my father’s family, who were caught behind rebel lines in the north of the country. When the government in Sierra Leone declared it was safe to return, I had put my stepmother on a plane home, a terrible mistake as it turned out.
Within weeks the rebel army of the RUF began what was intended as the final onslaught on Freetown. They called it “Operation No Living Thing.” On the telephone to my stepmother I heard the shells exploding nearby, the gunfire of the advancing rebel soldiers. All of this made me feel desperate and very afraid, but it was not the cause of my fury.
The fury came from listening to and watching the reports of the war by the Western press, who salivated over stories of mutilation, rape, child soldiers, forced marriage, and especially cannibalism, of which there were multiple accounts. What was missing was any apparent effort to understand or to report the causes of the war. There was no context, no history, no politics, just the senseless violence with which Africa had long been associated. I was then a reporter at BBC TV. My beat, though, was British politics and current affairs. The BBC was not the worst offender, by any means.
When I let it be known that I was from Sierra Leone, at least one correspondent sought my advice. Once I called in from home and corrected the pronunciation of Magburaka, where my father spent part of his childhood, while the presenter was on air. For another correspondent, I translated interviews with my people caught up in the January 6 invasion of Freetown. Still, even within the most responsible news organizations, there seemed to be little interest in the question of why this was happening.
Elsewhere, the world went on with its business. Barely a soul asked after my family, even among those whom I considered my friends. Perhaps Sierra Leone seemed too remote a land to appear as more than an abstraction, or perhaps the absence of peril in the lives of most of my London friends resulted in a failure of imagination. I know now that my experience is shared by many people who endure war remotely, whether those people are returning combatants or refugees.
War in Sierra Leone had been turned into a spectacle without ever becoming a tragedy.
I have often been asked how long it took me to write The Devil That Danced on the Water and I have replied that it took me two years and a lifetime. Two years, because that was the duration of time in which I researched and wrote it, as the furies snapped at my heels. A lifetime, because sometimes you have to see enough of the world to begin to understand it.
In her Nobel Prize speech, published later as the essay “Witness: The Inward Testimony,” Nadine Gordimer describes the task of the writer as the “transformation of events, motives, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.” And it was this “meaning,” viewed through the lens of subsequent events and the shock of war, at which it took me twenty-five years to arrive.
Following publication of the book, I returned to Sierra Leone year upon year. I gave talks at the schools and universities. I remember the first young man, a student, who approached me to tell me that he had heard me speak at Fourah Bay College and had then gone to talk to his parents. “Are these things true?” he had wanted to know. And his parents had replied, “Yes, they are true.” Then the young man had asked them why they had never told him and his parents had replied, “Because we were afraid.” This is the silence of oppression.
From that time on many young people came up to me in the street, or in a restaurant or store, or else wrote to me. All told the same story as the first young man, a story that they had never known. The silence of a generation had been broken. In time the history books used to teach schoolchildren in Sierra Leone would be rewritten to include the events related in The Devil That Danced on the Water.
A ‘meaning’ I have derived from writing this book is that certain patterns of historical events, sometimes including but not limited to cowing people into silence and terrorized inaction, could be repeated anywhere. What had begun as a quest to discover the truth behind my father’s murder would grow into a twenty-year investigation into the causes and effects of civil conflict.
In 2017, by then teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I was invited to lunch with Hillary Clinton shortly after she had lost the election to Donald Trump. I was seated next to one of her advisers, who listened with interest as I described my writing and where it had led me. I told her what I had learned of the signs of incipient and growing authoritarianism: control of the press and judiciary, co-option of the loyalty of the police and the army, rise of militias, manipulation of elections.
There was one more element, most crucially: a transformational leader, someone both charismatic and deadly. In the case of Sierra Leone this had been Foday Sankoh. In Yugoslavia the ambitions of Slobodan Milošević had placed the country on the course to war. The woman appeared to be listening with a great deal of interest. So, I concluded, these were the reasons I was worried about the United States of America.
My companion looked at me and frowned, then she swatted the air with the back of her hand and pronounced: “Not in freedom-loving America!” I wonder what she thinks now. Even then, Donald Trump had begun to discredit the mainstream press and to promote his own ‘truth’ on social media. He was wooing the military by bringing generals into his administration and was seeking control of the judiciary by appointing federal judges at breakneck speed.
Four years after that conversation, on the day before the invasion of the Capitol on (coincidentally also) January 6, I sent a text to an American friend in London: “Are you ready for the coup?” I was only half joking. He would later ask me how I’d known, and all I could say is that I had spent a long time thinking about the ways in which a country strays from the path of peace.
In Sierra Leone in the 1980s, even as war raged in neighboring Liberia, people did not believe it could happen to us. We Sierra Leonians saw ourselves as essentially peace-loving, even if our leaders were venal. If anything, our problem was that we were too passive. But when things begin, they must begin somewhere. There is a schema, one that might be traced from the first flap of the butterfly’s wings to the hurricane.
On a noticeboard in my office, for a long time, I had taped a handwritten note to myself with the lines “Nonfiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth,” which is true, I think, of a certain type of story. Two novels set in Sierra Leone followed The Devil That Danced on the Water. I continued to explore the themes of civil conflict in fiction.
Fiction allowed me to reach for a deeper, less literal kind of truth. Ancestor Stones took the reader back to pre-colonial times to examine the century-long antecedents of state collapse. The Memory of Love examined the immediate prelude and the aftermath to the war and the silence of censorship, of self-censorship, of trauma, but also of complicity. How did a generation account for their actions, or inaction, to the generation whom they had failed?
The road to conflict may be long or short. Sometimes countries find their way back. Certain events may tip a country finally into war, chief among them an economic crisis. In time, my attention moved out of Africa and turned to the former Yugoslavia for the reason that the war that led to the collapse of that union had been almost exactly contemporaneous with the war in Sierra Leone (Yugoslavia 1991–2001; Sierra Leone 1991–2002). Though just as savage, the Yugoslav conflict had been reported completely differently, with both causes and consequences analyzed in forensic detail.
The war in the former Yugoslavia encompassed several nations. I chose to concentrate on Croatia, because there were striking parallels between Croatia and Sierra Leone. The first is size: Sierra Leone is 22,000 square miles, Croatia 28,000. At the start of the wars in 1991, the population of each country was around 4 million. Both are coastal countries of outstanding natural beauty, with a chiefly peasant population and a rural economy supplemented by tourism. Then, of course, there is the key similarity, the one that drew me in the first place—both nations had endured decades of authoritarianism, followed by economic free fall and, finally, civil war.
I have friends from the former Yugoslavia and we talked about our similar experiences. I was interested, too, in the differences. The war in Sierra Leone had never gone down ethnic or nationalist lines, despite the misreporting of the war as “tribal.”
In contrast the war in Yugoslavia had indeed been fought along viciously exploited ethnic divides. The war in Sierra Leone had begun after thirty years of exploitation of people and resources by a corrupt regime; it had been a slow burn. The war in Yugoslavia had been, comparatively, fast burning. A friend who had reported there commented: “The reason those wars kicked off so fast was because every man had a gun and knew how to use it.” This helped answer my question about speed. Men in Yugoslavia had been obliged to do military service, making for a supply of trained citizens who could be recruited into the militias that characterized that war. A nation in which guns are easily available is a tinderbox relative to one in which people have little access to high-powered weaponry.In the end most of us develop the characteristics that help us overcome the bad things that have happened.
My friend’s remark led me to understand something else, too. The war in the former Yugoslavia became a sniper’s war. Civilians were shot and killed by the thousands in cities under siege by men in the surrounding hills. Yugoslavia was a nation of hunters; Sierra Leone is a nation of farmers. The war in Sierra Leone had been characterized by amputations: the rebel army hacked off people’s limbs. When people go to war they pick up the weapon at hand, be it a machete or a rifle.
As time went by I became interested in the ways in which a population survives the aftermath of a civil conflict, when you must continue to live side by side with your enemy (as in the case of Sierra Leone) or with the knowledge of what you have done to them (as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, where communities were ‘ethnically cleansed’ in the form of mass deportation and murder).
In The Memory of Love, two of my main characters are trauma specialists, and in the years of writing those books I spent many hundreds of hours talking to victims and those who try to help them. Early in my research, a Sierra Leonian psychiatrist had remarked to me, “These people will be all right, you know.” He was talking about the mental health of most of the population over the medium to long term. He thought that trauma diagnoses were being applied too widely and too quickly, in particular by Western aid workers.
His views echoed those of the French psychologist Boris Cyrulnik. Cyrulnik lost his parents in the Holocaust and worked professionally with many survivors of genocide. He challenged the orthodoxy that pain necessarily equals trauma. Instead, he argued that emotional vulnerability could be transformed into emotional strength. He called this ‘resilience.’
In May of 2014, I received an email from a woman asking if she might put me in touch with a former political detainee from Sudan. Sudan was then under the rule of the longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. In 2013, Ezekiel (the name he used) and three other men had been arrested and charged with treason. They were held in custody at the National Security Headquarters, where on many days they heard rifles being fired within the compound, which they feared were the sounds of prisoners being executed.
One day a guard gave the prisoners each a copy of The Devil That Danced on the Water with the order to read it. The men did as they were instructed, but they also took to discussing the book among themselves. They saw the obvious parallels between their story and that of my father, and they concluded that both the book and the gunfire were part of a process of psychological intimidation. “They were trying to tell us that the same fate awaited us as had awaited your father.” But far from inviting despair, the book “had the opposite effect.” It renewed the strength of their convictions. They promised that, when and if they were ever released, they would find the author of this book and tell her about the inspiration they had derived from it.
Following the collapse of the government case against them, Ezekiel fled into exile. Soon afterwards he began his search for me. Omar al-Bashir, the dictator, would eventually be unseated in a popular uprising in 2019.
A positive temperament, an inclination to humor, the passage of time, being surrounded by people who care but do not “catastrophize” and by a society that does not turn every adversity into an existential question (why me?) but accepts that sometimes “shit happens”—all these factors help. In the end most of us develop the characteristics that help us overcome the bad things that have happened. Thus, my twenty-year enquiry into the causes and effects of civil conflict ended with a novel called Happiness.
To write a memoir is to live in the minds of readers as the person you were in the pages of the book, all of which leads me to a question readers often ask me. What happened to the members of my family after the events in the book were over? Here is the answer. In my father’s last will, written shortly before he was executed, he stated the wish that we children should be reunited with our mother. An international search for her took place, about which we, the children, were kept mostly in ignorance until one day we were summoned before a lawyer and asked if we remembered anything at all about our grandparents in Aberdeen. Anything at all, he said, perhaps the part of town where they lived? To which we replied: “Gran and Grandad live at 38 Gairn Terrace.” And so our mother, who was living in Zambia with her husband, the New Zealander, was found.
My mother is now in her eighties and retired in New Zealand. My brother and sister both have families of their own. Morlai, along with my husband, Simon, and myself, established a primary school in Rogbonko, a village founded by my grandfather where my father was born. Immediately following the war and the years of missed schooling, not a single child was able to read or write. Today Rogbonko Village School boasts university graduates among its alumni. And as for my stepmother, Yabome, she has lived quietly and contentedly in Sierra Leone ever since.
From The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (20th Anniversary Edition) by Aminatta Forna. Copyright © 2023. Available from Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.