Friday, February 27, 2015

Aminatta Forna: don’t judge a book by its author

‘I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer’ … Aminatta Forna on her frustration at the book world’s obsession with labels and identity 

Aminatta Forna
No longer chasing butterflies … Aminatta Forna. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
When I was a child I did not want to be a writer. Instead, I wanted to be many things. When I was seven I wanted to be an inventor. A few years later, and several career changes on, my new determination was to become a wildlife biologist. At my British school the opportunities to study wildlife were limited and so I settled for trying to collect butterflies, which I chased with a net and bottle, but which I rarely caught. Then I discovered there existed gatherings where enthusiasts could buy and swap specimens, and this seemed an altogether easier way to acquire a collection. I remember the first time I went to a fair, held in a town hall, rows and rows of glass display cases, the collectors and visitors bent over them. And inside, the butterflies, pinned down with open wings, labelled with both their Latin and common names. Each case held a single species. Cynthia cardui or Painted Lady. Papilio machaon britannicus Seitz or Swallowtail. Nymphalis antiopa or Camberwell Beauty. I only had enough money to buy one specimen, and so I chose a Swallowtail. I loved the trailing shape of the wings, the royal purple border and what looked like an eye on each wing. Over time I added to my collection, but I did not bother with labels, I couldn’t remember the Latin names anyway; I just arranged them any way I liked and I spent hours looking at them.
Butterflies illustration

Illustration: Robin Heighway-Bury at
Over the months that followed I went off the idea of being a wildlife biologist. It was the Latin names as well as the emphasis on collecting, categorising, labelling, which in the end just didn’t seem that much fun. I decided I’d rather be a vet. And of course, many years later, once I figured out that what I loved more than anything else was trying on different lives, I became a writer and that allowed me to sit in a room and be a wildlife biologist one day, if I pleased, and an inventor the next.
The first book I wrote was a memoir of my father, who had been a political prisoner in Sierra Leone when I was a child. I was propelled into writing it by the civil war in that country, my father’s country and the place I spent a good number of my childhood years. I wanted to know how the country I had known, seemingly so peace-loving and so beautiful, had imploded into violence. For my country to have a war and for me, a writer, not to write about it seemed to me a gross dereliction of duty. I was propelled into writing by war and I have written about war ever since.

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