What is aminatta forna?

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: A Daughter's Quest,12 and four novels: Ancestor Stones (2006),3 The Memory of Love (2010),4 The Hired Man (2013)56 and Happiness (2018). Her novel The Memory of Love was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for "Best Book" in 2011,78 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.1011 She is currently Director and Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.12

Forna won the 2014 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize (fiction).131415

Forna was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to literature.161718 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 Fiction19 and continues to champion the work of up-and-coming diverse authors.20212223 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 Prize24252627


Aminatta Forna was born in Bellshill, Scotland,28 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 1975.2930 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.31 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.32

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),33 Africa Unmasked (2002)34 and The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu (2009).35 Forna is also a board member of the Royal National Theatre36 and a judge for The Man Booker International Prize 2013.3738

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.3940

Aminatta Forna is married to the furniture designer Simon Westcott and lives in south-east London.41


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.4243 In her fiction she employs multiple voices and shifting timelines.

The Devil that Danced on the Water

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.44 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.45

Ancestor Stones

Ancestor Stones, Forna's second book and first novel, won the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction in the US46 and the Literaturpreis47 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.48

The Memory of Love

The Memory of Love, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award 2011,49 was described by the judges as "a bold, deeply moving and accomplished novel" and Forna as "among the most talented writers in literature today";5051 The Memory of Love was also shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2012,52 the Orange Prize for Fiction 201153 and the Warwick Prize for Writing.54 The book was the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub, in discussion between Forna and James Naughtie.55

Girl Rising

Forna was one of 10 writers contributing to 10x10 Girl Rising.5657 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.58 The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.59 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.60

The Hired Man

The Hired Man, Forna's third novel, was published in the UK in March 2013.61

Critics praised Forna's forensic research and ability to evoke atmosphere, place, pacing, precision, powerful emotions, characterisations and atmosphere.6263646566676869707172 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".73


Happiness, Forna's fourth novel, published in the US in March 2018, 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 to outsmart humans while trauma survivors outsmart the damage they went through to try to 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 2019.93949596

The Window Seat

In December 2020, in a conversation with Maaza Mengiste published by LitHub, Forna revealed the cover of, and announced, that an essay collection named The Window Seat would be published in May 2021.97

In January 20201, LitHub listed The Window Seat as one of the most anticipated books of 2021,98 Harper's Magazine{{'}}s reviewer wrote: "With this collection, she proves a compelling essayist too, her voice direct, lucid, and fearless. All the pieces are enjoyable and often surprising, even when rather slight. But the most substantial ones are memorable—even unforgettable. They deftly straddle the personal and the political."99 The Boston Globe singled out Forna's "fine command over both language and life", also noting "her vivid, keenly observed anecdotes [which] make her tendency toward hope all the more reassuring."100 Time magazine selected The Window Seat as one of twelve "must read" books in May 2021.101 The Washington Independent Review of Books described The Window Seat as "a collection that defies convention. It may just be the perfect post-pandemic read, and Forna the ideal post-pandemic writer."102 The Los Angeles Times singled out Forna's ability to weave in "experiences that are so individual another essayist would make them the center of a piece, like the time she flew a plane on a loop-de-loop or when she had an audience with the Queen. Here they are part of the texture of her understanding of the world" and singled out The Window Seat as "intelligent, curious and broad."103 The New York Times review commented that "Forna's ruminations are deeply felt yet unsentimental ... whose wide-ranging subjects chart a path toward a kind of freedom, to be at home, always elsewhere."104


  • Happiness, Atlantic Monthly, March 2018.

Awards and honours


External links

Original source: aminatta forna. Shared with Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License


  1. "Aminatta Forna: 'My country had a war. It would be extraordinary not to want to write about that'", The Independent, 4 June 2011.

  2. Renee Montagne,"'Ancestor Stones:' Life and War in Sierra Leone", NPR Books, 2 July 2007.

  3. The Hired Man, Aminattaforna.com

  4. Commonwealth Prize.

  5. "Aminatta Forna wins Commonwealth Writers' honour", BBC News, 22 May 2011.

  6. Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 shortlist.

  7. Aminatta Forna page at Bloomsbury.

  8. "Reading Africa", Williams.

  9. "Aminatta Forna", Georgetown University.

  10. "Writers from seven countries awarded $150,000 Yale prize", Yale News, 7 March 2014.

  11. "Aminatta Forna – Fiction 2014" , Windham Campbell Prizes.

  12. Richard Lea, "Eight authors surprised by $150,000 Windham Campbell books prizes", The Guardian, 7 March 2014.

  13. "New Year's Honours 2017: CSV", Cabinet Office, 30 December 2016.

  14. 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.

  15. "Judges", Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, 2016.

  16. "Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors and Publishers in the UK Marketplace", The Royal Society of Literature, 16 April 2015.

  17. Aminatta Forna, "Aminatta Forna: don't judge a book by its author", The Guardian, 13 February 2015.

  18. "Aminatta Forna", British Council – Literature.

  19. "Longlist 2019", Europese Literatuurprijs.

  20. Mark Chandler, "Forna and Abouzeid up for RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019", The Bookseller, 17 April 2019.

  21. "Shortlist announced for 2019 Jhalak Prize for BAME writers", Books+Publishing, 8 April 2019.

  22. Jhalak Prize, 2019.

  23. Sekou Daouda Bangura, "34 years after the execution of Mohamed Sorie Fornah and 14 others", The Patriotic Vanguard, 21 July 2009.

  24. "Ex-officials on trial for treason in Africa", Washington Afro-American, 15 October 1974.

  25. Anna Metcalfe, "Small Talk: Aminatta Forna" (interview), Financial Times, 26 April 2010.

  26. [http://siris-libraries.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!554175!0#focus Through African Eyes] (videorecording), written and directed by Aminatta Forna; a BBC/RM Arts co-production; Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

  27. Africa Unmasked: The Black Man's Burden (2002), BFI.

  28. The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu, BBC Four.

  29. Aminatta Fora profile, The Man Booker Prize.

  30. "The Man Booker International Prize 2013 – Judging Panel Announced", 2 December 2011.

  31. "The Rogbonko Village Project in Sierra Leone", Aminatta Forna website.

  32. "Aminatta Forna", OkayAfrica.

  33. Nigel Farndale, "Aminatta Forna interview: unsilent witness", The Telegraph, 24 March 2013.

  34. E. Ethelbert Miller (edited by John Feffer), "Interview with R. Victoria Arana", Foreign Policy in Focus, 10 April 2008.

  35. Alfred Hickling, "The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna – review", The Guardian, 27 March 2013.

  36. "Aminatta Forna" , Literature, The British Council.

  37. :de:LiBeraturpreis

  38. Commonwealth Foundation website.

  39. "Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2011 winners revealed", 21 May 2011.

  40. "Shortlist 2012 – International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award", 12 April 2012.

  41. Warwick Prize for Writing, 2011 shortlist.

  42. "Aminatta Forna - The Memory of Love", Bookclub, BBC Sounds, 1 September 2019.

  43. "Quality learning shouldn't be a pipe dream" , 10x10, 19 June 2012.

  44. Vanessa Thorpe, "A-list stars support unique project to highlight need to educate girls", The Observer, 3 March 2013.

  45. 10x10 Presents "Girl Rising".

  46. Adrian Turpin, "We chip away at the past", Financial Times, 19 April 2013.

  47. Helen Dunmore, "The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna", The Times, 23 March 2013.

  48. Hannah McGill, Book review: The Hired Man – Aminatta Forna, The Scotsman, 27 March 2013.

  49. "The Hired Man" (review), Kirkus Reviews, 28 August 2013.

  50. "The Hired Man" (review), Publishers Weekly, 2 September

  51. Manasi Subramaniam, "Burying the ghosts of the past, brick by brick" (review), The Sunday Guardian, 31 August 2013.

  52. Nigel Featherstone, "Eking beauty from the decay", Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 2013.

  53. Geordie Williamson, "Brutal past bleeds into the present", The Australian, 11 May 2013.

  54. "Alternative Booker: Lindsey Hilsum on The Hired Man – video", Channel 4 News, 11 October 2013.

  55. Happiness on Aminatta Forna website.

  56. Jane Ciabattari, "Ten books to read in 2018", BBC Culture, 19 December 2017.

  57. Hope Wabuke, "These New and Upcoming Books by Black Authors Will Give You Life in These Perilous Times", The Root, 11 February 2018.

  58. Alex Preston, "Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Leïla Slimani … the best fiction for 2018", The Guardian, 31 December 2017.

  59. Arminta Wallace, "Books to look out for in 2018", Irish Times, 30 December 2017.

  60. Anita Sethi, "The biggest books of 2018", i News, 2 January 2018.

  61. Malcolm Forbes, "Review: 'Happiness,' by Aminatta Forna", Star Tribune, 9 March 2018.

  62. "Happiness by Aminatta Forna — the London that foxes know", Financial Times.

  63. Anna Mundow, "'Happiness': An exquisite novel about how chance and love connect us", The Washington Post, 8 March 2018.

  64. David Takami, "Aminatta Forna's novel 'Happiness' begins as a mystery, becomes a romance", The Seattle Times, 17 March 2018.

  65. Happiness (review), Kirkus Review, 12 December 2017.

  66. Lucy Atkin, "Book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna", The Sunday Times, 25 March 2018.

  67. Alex Preston, "Happiness by Aminatta Forna review – in search of somewhere special", The Observer, 3 April 2018.

  68. Diana Evans, "Happiness by Aminatta Forna review – love in the urban wilderness", The Guardian, 5 April 2018.

  69. Kate Webb, "Our sheltered lives have made us overly fearful: Aminatta Forna's Happiness reviewed", The Spectator, 21 April 2018.

  70. "Best Fiction of 2018 To Get Your Book Club Talking". Kirkus, December 2018.

  71. Aminatta Forna, "Love, hate and hypocrisy: the best books about animals and humans", The Guardian, 31 December 2018.

  72. "Books of the year 2018", Sunday Times, 10 December 2018.

  73. "BBC National Short Story Award in partnership with Booktrust 2010".

  74. "Finalists for the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature", The Neustadt Prizes.

  75. "The Women", OkayAfrica.