The Political is Personal: Women Writing about War

As a girl of 10, Aminatta Forna watched her father, a physician who also founded an opposition party to Siaka Stevens’ government in Sierra Leone, being taken away by the state secret police. Her first book, The Devil that Danced on the Water (2003), describes her experience of his imprisonment from 1970-73 and the search for those who hanged Mohamed Forna for treason in 1975. Of necessity, Forna introduces the conflict between private narratives and official histories, inviting her reader to experience the uncertainty, injustice, and profound trauma of war through the written word.

In her latest novel, The Memory of Love (2010), Aminatta Forna again takes up the devastating effects of the conflict in Sierra Leone. However, she reminds her reader that people not only struggle and die, but also live, love, and dream in times of war. Indeed, she goes further to assert that individuals sculpt their character and refine their integrity in relation to events on the national stage. She introduces both the idealists who died for their cause and those who betrayed ideals for the sake of personal preservation.

In a sense, Aminatta Forna simultaneously turns Carol Hanisch’s oft-cited claim, “The personal is political,” on its head and, conversely, also reasserts its truth. She demonstrates through her writing that the political is also deeply personal, even while reasserting the intended connotation of Hanisch’s statement: the personal and political inevitably intersect in the power relationships that characterize national governance, especially in times of profound oppression and civil resistance.

Forna’s unique insight into the complex interweaving of personal with public renders a poignant, at times, cynical commentator on the slow, traumatic political processes of resistance, liberation, and reform. Her truth-telling by way of fiction and memoir affords some sense of imaginative liberation from the trauma of state-sponsored violence and the failure of fellow citizens – be they fellow countrymen or members of their global family – to deal effectively with oppression, extrajudicial murder, rape, and other extraordinary acts of injustice and violence perpetrated during civil conflict.

Forna poses and responds to an uncomfortable question concerning one’s personal relationship to broader political struggle against state-sponsored oppression and armed violence. In a recent interview, speaking of her father’s murder by the state secret police for his efforts to oppose violence, corruption, and autocracy, she explores the choice he made to be a political actor rather than to remain silent out of fear for his own life and the fate of his children. Forna inquires, “When you do nothing, what do your children inherit? They inherit nothing.”

Reflecting on 2010, hardly a year in which great strides were made to address state-sponsored oppression, militarism, violence against women, and human rights abuses, the polished writing of Aminatta Forna and her peers who take up the subject of women, families, and the legacy of war seem a powerful antidote to potential myopia and amnesia that could allow us to forget the legacies of Forna's father and people like him who courageously and unselfconsciously pursue a legacy of justice and peace.

Aminatta Forna will be speaking as part of the I.M.O.W. Speakers' Series on Wednesday, January 26th at the World Affairs Council Auditorium. To find out more about this event, click here.