Aminatta Forna, born to a white Scottish mother and a black Sierra Leonean father in the early 1960s in Aberdeen, Scotland, at a time when interracial marriages were frowned upon or outlawed in many places, is the winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her book, “The Memory of Love.” Forna’s book, short-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, awarded for the best novel of the year written in English by a female writer, fails to win it, with 25-year-old Serbian-American author Téa Obreht the ultimate winner of the coveted prize. Undoubtedly, Aminatta Forna has blossomed into one of the best writers of our time, with the iteration in her works about her father’s homeland of Sierra Leone an integral part of who Forna is: a proud African, even if she has spent all of her adult life in the United Kingdom. Forna possesses that rare gift that allows her to use an African setting to weave together a tapestry of complex events that European and American, not to mention African, audiences find irresistible.
“The Memory of Love” is a story about love, friendship, suspicion, betrayal, the ravages and vestiges of war, mental illness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Kai and Tejani, best friends since childhood, attend university together, both graduating with medical degrees. They set their sights on the U.S.A., but only Tejani makes it out of the country and settles in Maryland. While a medical practitioner in Maryland, Tejani meets Helena, a white European woman. They fall in love. The relationship does not last, however, as the demands of life and of society push them in different directions. A biracial child herself, Forna lets the reader decipher the complexities of this relationship: the cruel antagonism toward interracial couples, an unbridgeable cultural divide, money, differing goals and pursuits? In the movie Mississippi Masala, we are reminded of the ostensibly innocuous, yet immensely powerful, words of a parent: people stick to their own kinds! It is not always a matter of racism, or ethnocentrism – people may simply be more comfortable with what is familiar or less complicated.
Kai and Mamakay meet at the university – and they fall in love. Mamakay’s father, Professor Cole, a scheming, shrewd man, destroys her daughter’s life when he betrays her, tricking her into divulging the names of her friends, who are student activists, a list Cole then turns over to Johnson, a government agent, leading to the arrest of Mamakay’s friends. The clandestine crusade against an oppressive government is temporarily disrupted. Mamakay soons drops out of school, no longer able to face her friends, many of them having been expelled from the university, or locked up on trumped-up charges. A livid Mamakay parts company with her father for good. She learns and plays the clarinet for a living. As Kai and Mamakay’s interests and life pursuits begin to diverge, their love affair also fizzles.
Saffia, an outrageously attractive woman, is married to Julius, a college professor and a colleague of Cole’s. When Cole meets Saffia the first time, he is swept off his feet by her beauty. Cole begins to worm his way into the lives of Julius and Saffia. He goes to places where he knows he will find the duo, and he eventually befriends them, with one nefarious goal in mind: to take Saffia from Julius. Julius, confident and ebullient, invites Cole to his house, where Cole meets Ade and Kekura, Julius’s best friends. Cole begins to visit Julius’s house regularly – he badly desires Saffia. The opportunity comes when Julius is arrested by government agents for alleged subversive activities. Julius is taken away to an undisclosed location, and neither Saffia nor Cole could find him, despite concerted inquiries. Soon, Cole is also arrested – but he is released after a few days, having agreed to “cooperate” with the authorities, at the urging of the Dean of Humanities at the university. Cole’s anger crystallizes when he discovers that Julius, Ade and Kekura are themselves activists who want the government out of power. His ego cannot accept the fact that Julius does not consider him inner-circle material enough to share secrets with him.
When Julius dies under mysterious circumstances, Cole feigns sadness around Saffia, but inside he is elated: his dream of seducing Saffia may soon become reality. He waits for the period of mourning to come to an end. He proposes to Saffia. She accepts – but not out of love, rather out of pecuniary necessity. Soon, Cole would discover that Saffia does not love him, and he grows bitter and desperate every day. He returns to the bosom and comfort of an old lover, Vanessa, as a way to numb the unspoken rejection he faces at home. Karmic retribution? Cole and Saffia eventually become the parents of Mamakay, but the couple grows apart even further. Cole is at his lover’s house when Saffia dies in a horrific car accident. Mamakay soon learns about it and hates her father even more. The damage to the relationship is irreparable.
Adrian, an English psychologist, like many foreigners at the time, volunteers to work in post-war Sierra Leone. He leaves behind in England a wife, Lisa, and a young daughter, Kate. He and Kai become friends – the expatriate psychologist and the local doctor. Adrian begins to interview victims of the war, sufferers of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Adrian is making little progress: he depends largely on the local staff to obtain the cooperation of his “patients.” He is overawed by the complexity of the task ahead – but he does not give up. Adrian becomes interested in Agnes, a mental patient, who typically checks herself in and out of the hospital. Adrian wants to know more about her, how she is able to control her own symptoms. What he does not know is that Agnes is fleeing from herself, a miserable and complicated life: Agnes’s daughter is married to a rebel who put Agnes’s husband to death! Yes, it is that complicated. Agnes prefers to stay away from the couple, but she has nowhere to go, so she occasionally checks into the mental hospital to ease her pain. Adrian does not know this fact.
Long after Kai and Mamakay end their relationship, Adrian meets Mamakay. They eventually begin a love affair. When Kai finds out, he says nothing to Adrian, choosing instead to suppress his rage. Adrian notices that Kai is avoiding him; he does not find out why. The two men live in their separate worlds for a long time. Mamakay becomes pregnant – with Adrian’s baby, of course. Mamakay dies in childbirth, under Kai’s watch, from internal bleeding. Now, Kai decides it is time to confront Adrian. The confrontation is nasty, but they soon resolve their differences. The “chubby and bronze” child survives, now being reared by Kai’s aunts.
Adrian’s efforts in Sierra Leone are largely unsuccessful, because he is unable to bring down the rigid walls that the post-war victims of rape, abuse, hunger, and exploitation have erected around themselves. He is unable to help the once boy-soldiers conscripted by bloodthirsty and merciless rebels and forced to carry out the most reprehensible of acts against their fellow citizens, fellow Sierra Leoneans, for that matter. These men, once boys, have become victims of their own infernal traits – they hear voices and are unable to sleep at night.
Adrian returns to England, but his marriage does not survive. He still has Kate all right, but his bronze-skinned daughter he leaves behind in Sierra Leone, exactly the way Mamakay would have wanted it.
“The Memory of Love” is an excellent book, but there are a few things worth noting. Is it realistic of Forna to expect her readers to accept, on face value, that Kai would simply sit idly by while his friend, Adrian, seduces his ex-lover, Mamakay, without a word of protestation, more so because Kai spends a lot of time in Adrian’s apartment? Would jealousy not provoke a person into complaining about the awkwardness of such a relationship? Is Adrian’s wooing of Mamakay symptomatic of neo-colonialism? After all, Adrian is married. He has a woman; he wants more women. More than once, someone tells Adrian that his presence in Sierra Leone is pointless, more of an egotistical undertaking than any attempt to help the suffering people of Sierra Leone.
Kai goes to great lengths to obtain a visa to join Tejani in the U.S.A. He attends an interview at the U.S. Embassy and undergoes a medical. The visa is finally issued. And, suddenly, Kai changes his mind and does not leave. Is it guilt? Is Forna suggesting that people must remain where they are born? Kai is a medical practitioner, and his reasons for wanting to travel to the U.S.A. – to improve his knowledge in the medical field, to acquire more experience – are legitimate, on the surface. Is Kai a “traitor” for wanting to leave Sierra Leone, since Forna tells us that only a few doctors are left to care for the distressed population? Tejani returns to Sierra Leone. Is it patriotism? An epiphanic decision? He has complained about the cold weather in Maryland. Is he trying to give back to his country of birth, after all?
Kai is hypnotized by Adrian. A soul-cleansing act? Does the hypnosis liberate Kai from the negative effects of war? And from the pain of a lack of social order, even as his country teeters on the verge of a colossal collapse? The physical and mental torture that Kai undergoes when rebels – actually, boy-soldiers young enough to be in middle school – drag him out of the hospital to assist their wounded comrades has made him irritable and unable to sleep. Does he change his mind about leaving Sierra Leone because of the “therapeutic” effects of the hypnosis? A placation of the soul? A congealment of faith?
The Sierra Leonean war – and Forna’s complaints – is reminiscent of Ghana’s past: the controversial insurrection in June 1979, and the treasonable overthrow of a legitimate government in the twilight of 1981. Alas, the unprecedented barbarism unleashed on Ghanaians by fellow Ghanaians, the latter aided criminally by the barrages from the barrels of Kalashnikovs; the culture of silence that turned men into children, unable to decry the immoral and ignominious acts of an illegitimate government; the humiliation of our mothers, stripped naked and lashed on decrepit benches in public. Who can forget those dark moments of our immediate past? These are the concerns of Aminatta Forna; these are the concerns of the contemporary Ghanaian. We cannot both envision and mold a prosperous and fair society, unless we revisit the atrocities of the past and tell the story as accurately as we remember it. By so doing, history will help us avoid the mistakes of the past.
Aminatta Forna leaves the reader yearning for more in this never-to-be-forgotten rendition of the compendium of human emotions: on the one hand, the darkness of the human heart, greed, envy, pillage, and carnage; on the other hand, love, hope, perseverance, restoration, and the radiance of humaneness.
The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, is pursuing a doctoral degree in Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. He holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from the same university. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at email@example.com.