By Kimberly Day, Contributing Writer
Award winning author Aminatta Forna presented her speech, “Reversing the Gaze: Narrative as a Two Way Mirror” in the Landing on Wednesday November 30th. Through this presentation, Forna described the effects of literature and a story’s ability to break boundaries as well as the matter of a story having multiple points of view.
Forna stood confidently before the audience on the stage-lit platform behind a podium. She began by describing her life as a child, with her strong British accent she said, “I’ve grown up after two dictatorships,” and added, “I’ve seen people’s rights taken away.”
Forna’s career has been shaped by her past of being labeled and having grown up without her father, who was murdered when she was only 11. In a private interview, Forna said, “From the earliest age I’ve challenged labels,” which were placed on her for being from two cultures. Forna was born in Scotland but raised in Sierra Leone and Britain. As for her father, Forna described during her presentation that “he was a political activist and was killed by the government.”
Forna talked of how she was plagued by her father’s death, providing the example of going to a friend’s house, with the father saying “Where’s the girl you told me whose father was murdered?” she told the audience that she felt defined by his murder.
Shanee Stepakoff, Assistant Professor of Psychology, who aided in Forna’s campus appearance, said that Forna’s talk of her father’s wrongful death, “made me think about the ways that it’s possible to draw one’s personal experiences in order to point to larger social, political, and artistic truths.”
In her memoir, “The Devil that Danced on the Water,” Forna was able to take control of her father’s story where she was able to recount the details leading to his murder and tell the story from her own perspective as his daughter. Forna is also the author of “The Hired Man,” “The Memory of Love,” and “Ancestor Stones.”
Being from two cultures, Forna continuously described her dislike of racist ideas and those that are expressed in literature. She talked of how she read stories like Huckleberry Finn and White Fang as a child and said, “I simply didn’t see myself or the world in racial terms” and added, “I don’t think I ever believed those things were true.” Forna then made the point that those racist ideas in literature became a stereotypical symbolism for people of color and produced a feeling of inferiority in them.
On top of being a writer and author, Forna is a professor as well. She spoke about her experiences in the classroom pertaining to labels and stereotypes and quoted one of her students who said that when they came to America, the people “didn’t think we even had a car.”
Forna’s input about her teaching experiences sparked Stepakoff, she said “the presentation reminded me that in my teaching I need to assign readings from diverse authors and not only social science texts but also fiction,” she said, “because fiction offers a way of expressing something about the characters’ inner experience rather than merely their external actions.”
Through her experiences, Forna told the story of her life and how she grew to reject those labels and stereotypes that she not only experienced herself but witnessed others experience as well. Her decision to write was to shift this narrative, she said “The whole point of fiction is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else,” she added, “We should all be free and to write anyone we imagine.” In terms of the literature she had previously read, Forna said, “In the stories I read I was nonexistent, I simply wasn’t there.”
Stepakoff admired Forna’s will to produce her own story. She said, “I liked the way she implied that if you don’t see yourself and your experiences represented in existing literature you may want to write your own story rather than accept being presented as ‘other’.”
Stepakoff said that Forna’s presentation was “rich, stimulating, and insightful,” and said that it “fit remarkably well with the overall experience of the Stories Co-Lab that UMF has been engaged in this Fall semester.”
First-year student Megan White agreed with the success of Forna’s presentation. She said, “It was very intriguing and thought provoking,” and said, “I feel like it’s important to talk to other people from other cultures so you can get in their mindset.”
White, who is currently an undecided major, said that the presentation influenced her to think about taking on a major involving writing. She also said “it’s going to change how I do my characters because I do creative writing,” and that she plans to diversify her characters more now.
Forna’s presentation was capped off with a casual book signing to end the event. Her novels are available in the bookstore on campus for those who are interested to learn more about her and become familiar with her writing.