Aminatta Forna

Acclaimed Novelist & Memoirist
Commonwealth Writers' Prize
PEN Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Witness Literature
  • Transnational Writing
  • Writing Conflict
  • Writing Trauma
  • Politics and Literature
  • Empathy and Story
  • Fiction Versus Non-Fiction
  • An Evening with Aminatta Forna


“Forna is a born storyteller. Not since Remains of the Day has an author so skillfully revealed the way history’s layers are often invisible to all but its participants.”—John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“The real pleasure of Forna’s storytelling is in her scrutiny of her characters’ inner lives and her ability to connect their choices to the moral dilemmas of a traumatized society.”—The New Yorker

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and Great Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. She is the award-winning author of the novels Happiness, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and a memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water

Happiness (Grove Press 2018) is a skillful consideration on the interconnectedness of lives, our co-existence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness. About Happiness Salman Rushdie says, “Aminatta Forna expertly weaves her characters’ stories, past and present, in and out of the larger story of London, which becomes as rich a character as the human beings and, indeed, the foxes; and she makes us care deeply about them all, the foxes, the people and the city. A terrific novel.”

Forna first gained serious literary attention for her memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, in which she investigates the murder of her father, Mohamed Forna, a rising star in Sierra Leone’s fledgling democracy. Upon her return to the country to investigate his murder, Aminatta discovers the far-reaching conspiracy plot that sealed his tragic fate, and powerfully confronts the politicans and judges that were responsible. Interlaced with her own vivid childhood memories, the resulting story was praised as a “lucid, exacting memoir,” by The New Yorker and a “shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating, thoughtful,” by USA Today. A runner up for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2003, The Devil that Danced on the Water was also chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers series.

Ancestor Stones, her debut novel, encompasses a sweeping view of Africa in the 20th Century, told through the story of Abi, newly returned to Africa from England, and that of her four aunts, in whose divergent lives Forna renders the changes and upheavals of history, culminating in political turmoil. The Guardian declared, “here is a wonderfully ambitious novel written from the inside, opening up a particular society and delving deeply into the hearts, histories and minds of women.”

The Memory of Love is set in contemporary Sierra Leone at a hospital where the patients are coping with the wounds – both physical and psychological – from the previous century’s Civil War. A well-meaning British psychiatrist, attempting to do good in the country and escape his own painful past encounters the history of the country by befriending an elderly ex-professor whose account of the past suggests a sinister secret, and by his efforts to bring another patient out of a fuge state and into the present. The result is not only the clear-eyed and revealing look at the fallout from the previous century’s wars, but a “luminous tale of passion and betrayal,” according to The New York Times Book Review.

Aminatta is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Folio Academy. She has acted as judge for the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Bailey Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the Caine Prize and the International Man Booker Prize. In 2003 Aminatta established the Rogbonko Project to build a school in a village in Sierra Leone. The charity has also run a number of projects in the spheres of adult education, sanitation and maternal health.

Aminatta’s books have been translated into twenty two languages. Her essays have appeared in Freeman’s, Granta, The Guardian, LitHub, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Observer and Vogue. She has written stories for BBC radio and written and presented television documentaries including “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu” (BBC Television, 2009) and “Girl Rising” (CNN, 2013).

Aminatta is the recipient of a Windham Campbell Award from Yale University, has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award 2011, a Hurston Wright Legacy Award the Liberaturpreis in Germany and the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize. She has been a finalist for the Neustadt Prize for Literature, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the IMPAC Award and the Warwick Prize. Aminatta Forna was made OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2017. She is Director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and currently a judge for the 2019 Giller Prize. Happiness is currently long listed for the Ondaatje Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and the European Prize or Fiction.


Aminatta Forna is the award-winning author of the four novels HappinessThe Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and the critically acclaimed memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water. Her fiction has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award and the PEN Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, as has been short-listed for the Neustadt Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the IMPAC Award, the Warwick Prize and nominated for the European Prize for Fiction. Her memoir was serialized on BBC Radio and in The Sunday Times newspaper. Forna is currently a Lannan Visiting Chair at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

HAPPINESS (Novel, 2018)

“Not since Remains of the Day has an author so skillfully revealed the way history’s layers are often invisible to all but its participants . . . Gorgeous.”—John Freeman, Boston Globe on The Hired Man

London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. From this chance encounter, Aminatta Forna’s unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection.

Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his “niece” who hasn’t called home in a while. Ama has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing.

When, by chance, Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens—mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London—come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds.

Meanwhile a consulting case causes Attila to question the impact of his own ideas on trauma, the values of the society he finds himself in, and a grief of his own. In this delicate tale of love and loss, of cruelty and kindness, Forna asks us to consider the interconnectedness of lives, our co-existence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness.

THE HIRED MAN (Novel, 2014)

“Forna’s unwavering gaze compels a close look at the complexities of our shared histories.”—Ellah Allfrey, NPR (online)

An NPR, Boston Globe, and San Francisco Chronicle best book of the year, The Hired Man is an incisive, powerful novel of a small Croatian town and its dark wartime secrets, unwittingly brought into the light by a family of outsiders. Duro Kolak, a stoic lifelong resident of the Croatian village of Gost, is off on a morning’s hunt when he discovers that a British family has taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as their trusted confidant. But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as the friendship deepens, the volatile truths about the town’s past and the house’s former occupants whisper ever louder. A masterpiece of storytelling haunted by lost love and a restrained menace, The Hired Man confirms Aminatta Forna as one of our most important writers.

THE MEMORY OF LOVE (Novel, 2010)

“Fate and tragedy intertwine in this stunning and powerful portrait of a country in the aftermath of a decade of civil war.” —Booklist

At the core of this novel is the brave and beating heart, at once vulnerable and determined, unwilling to let go of all it has ever loved.”— New York Times Book Review

In contemporary Sierra Leone, a devastating civil war has left an entire populace with secrets to keep. In the capital hospital, a gifted young surgeon is plagued by demons that are beginning to threaten his livelihood. Elsewhere in the hospital lies a dying man who was young during the country’s turbulent postcolonial years and has stories to tell that are far from heroic. As past and present intersect in the buzzing city, these men are drawn unwittingly closer by a British psychologist with good intentions, and into the path of one woman at the center of their stories. A work of breathtaking writing and rare wisdom, The Memory of Love seamlessly weaves together two generations of African life to create a story of loss, absolution, and the indelible effects of the past—and, in the end, the very nature of love.

THE DEVIL THAT DANCED ON THE WATER (Memoir, 2002)

“A shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating and thoughtful.” —USA Today

Aminatta Forna’s intensely personal history is a passionate and vivid account of an idyllic childhood which became the stuff of nightmare. As a child she witnessed the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, danger, flight, the bitterness of exile in Britain and the terrible consequences of her dissident father’s stand against tyranny. Mohamed Forna was a man of unimpeachable integrity and enchanting charisma. As Sierra Leone faced its future as a fledgling democracy, he was a new star in the political firmament, a man who had been one of the first black students to come to Britain after the war. He stole the heart of Aminatta’s mother to the dismay of her Presbyterian parents and returned with her to Sierra Leone. But as Aminatta Forna shows with compelling clarity, the old Africa was torn apart by new ways of western parliamentary democracy, which gave birth only to dictatorships and corruption of hitherto undreamed-of magnitude. It was not long before Mohamed Forna languished in jail as a prisoner of conscience, and worse to follow. Aminatta’s search for the truth that shaped both her childhood and the nation’s destiny began among the country’s elite and took her into the heart of rebel territory. Determined to break the silence surrounding her father’s fate, she ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that penetrated the highest reaches of government and forced the nation’s politicians and judiciary to confront their guilt. The Devil that Danced on the Water is a book of pain and anger and sorrow, written with tremendous dignity and beautiful precision: a remarkable, and important, story of Africa.

ANCESTOR STONES (Novel, 2006)

“Forna’s work sheds light on the history of a long-struggling nation.” —Publishers Weekly

Aminatta Forna, whose moving and gorgeously written memoir garnered international attention, has seamlessly turned her hand to fiction in Ancestor Stones a powerful, sensuous novel that beautifully captures Africa’s past century and her present, and the legacy that her daughters take with them wherever they live. Abie returns home from England to West Africa to visit her family after years of civil war, and to reclaim the family plantation, Kholifa Estates, formerly owned by her grandfather. There to meet her are her aunts: Asana, Mariama, Hawa, and Serah, and so begins her gathering of the family and the country’s history through the tales of her aunts. Asana, lost twin and head wife’s daughter. Hawa, motherless child and manipulator of her own misfortune. Mariama, who sees what lies beyond. And Serah, follower of a Western made dream. Set against the backdrop of a nation’s descent into chaos, it is the take a family and four women’s attempts to alter the course of their own destiny. A wonderful achievement recalling The God of Small Things and The Joy Luck Club, it establishes Aminatta Forna as a gifted novelist.


THE MEMORY OF LOVE (Novel Excerpt)

On the iron-framed bed a single, scant sheet has moulded itself into the form of the human beneath. On top of the bedside cabinet, a small pile of spiral-bound notebooks sits alongside a vase of flowers, bright-coloured and plastic. The notebooks are worn from handling, the leaves ripped with damp. In the atmosphere of the room the memories of a man float and form. The man in the bed is telling a story. His name is Elias Cole.

Adrian listens. He is new here.

Elias Cole says:

I heard a song a morning as walked to college. It came to me across the radio playing on a stall I passed. A song from far away, about a lost love. At least so I imagined, I didn’t understand the words, only the melody. But in the low notes I could hear the loss this man had suffered. And in the high note I understood too that it was a song about something that could never be. I had no wept in years. But I did, there and then, on the side of a dusty street, surrounded by strangers. The melody stayed with me for years.

THE DEVIL THAT DANCED ON THE WATER (Memoir Excerpt)

In the early morning he stands in the doorway of his hut and listens for the distant rumble. The cool air bears the earthy scent of promised rain. From the verandah above I can see the plume of red dust rising in the lorry’s wake long before the man with the pickaxe who waits below me hears the engine. I am ten years old. It is July 30th 1974. I am watching a dust devil heading for my home. It writhes as it chases the driver around the rocky lanes, towering above the truck, forcing the vehicle away from the main routes, past the tumble of houses towards the edge of the precipice where we live. Now I can hear its roar begin, at first low and deep it rises to a shrieking cacophony. And suddenly, silence. The driver swings out of the cab down below. Behind him the devil slumps to the ground and waits.