Reading Africa

Reading Africa

Aminatta Forna, Williams College's Sterling Brown '22 Visiting Professor of Africana Studies
Aminatta Forna, Williams College's Sterling Brown '22 Visiting Professor of Africana Studies for the fall semester. Photo by Roman Iwasiwka

In researching her latest novel, The Memory of Love, Aminatta Forna came across an unsettling statistic about her homeland. According to Doctors Without Borders, 90 percent of Sierra Leone’s population suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the country’s 11-year civil war.

“This struck me as questionable,” Forna says. Not in the sense of the deep and lasting impact of the war, which killed 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002. But, rather, in the sense of the largely Western perspective underlying the aid organization’s finding.

“One has to think very hard about what life was like in Sierra Leone before the war,” says Forna, the college’s Sterling Brown ’22 Visiting Professor of Africana Studies. “Life in one of the poorest countries of the world is, by definition, traumatic. At what point do you say this is a psychosis or do you say, ‘Actually, this is life? Pain is life?’”

It’s one of many questions the acclaimed novelist and memoirist is exploring with the two dozen Williams students in her class “Introduction to African Literature: Witness Literature,” as they study not only the writings but also the history, politics and geography of the world’s second-largest continent.

Forna says there is a “distinct witness voice” flourishing in Africana writing, much of which is less than half a century old. That voice includes her own work, beginning with 2002’s The Devil That Danced on the Water, a memoir of how the execution of her dissident father at the hands of the Sierra Leonean government shaped both her life and that of her country. She was 10 years old when he died.

Historian Shanti Singham, chair of Williams’ Africana studies program, says Forna’s work, which also includes the novel Ancestor Stones (2006), reveals that she is “both a very engaged political writer—political with a small ‘p,’ she would say—and an activist herself.”

“Politics, activism and a meticulous, expressive use of language to move the human soul—these three characteristics are qualities of the best African thinkers and of Aminatta,” adds Singham, who contacted Forna in London last year to propose the idea of introducing an African literature class to the curriculum. “She was a natural fit with our program.”

For senior Nicole Shannon, a biology and anthropology major, Forna’s class has been a revelation. “I knew I would gain a lot from reading the academic literature,” says the Auburn, Ala., native who, despite her Nigerian heritage, “never learned much in a classroom setting about African history or culture.”

The works of fiction they studied, Shannon says, “present a face of Africa that is not ‘dumb, mindless, poor and helpless’ but is dynamic and unique from country to country, as it should be taught.”

Sophomore Rose Courteau of Arkansas says the class has her thinking more deeply about “the tension between integrating cultures and beliefs into a globalizing world without compromising them.”

Says Courteau, who’s interested in non-Western cultures but felt, as a white woman, “self-conscious about trying to understand them” before taking Forna’s class, “I definitely plan to take Africana studies next semester.”

Read more about Aminatta Forna on her website.