Read African Writers: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna

ancestor stonessierra leoneA young woman living in the U.K. receives a letter informing her that her grandfather’s coffee plantation now belongs to her. The letter has no return address. “Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeroes.” When she returns to her unnamed West African home country (actually Sierra Leone), four of her aunts — all daughters to polygamous wives of the same man — share their life stories. And so, Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer Aminatta Forna’s novel, Ancestor Stones, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But the stories give Forna the opportunity to explore diverse nooks and crannies of Sierra Leonean life, from the 1920s up to the turn of the century. Forna’s prose is beautiful as usual. (My favorite of hers remains The Memory of Love, a later novel) I initially had some trouble keeping track of the different stories; as Bernardine Evaristo wrote in the Guardian, “it’s easy to get lost.” But once I surrendered myself to the flow, enjoying each story as it came, I could appreciate — again in the words of Evaristo — Forna’s “inspired storytelling and beautifully crafted prose.” Ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Two passages take place at polling stations, in sharp contrast. In one, early on, a young woman manages a polling center. “With an hour to go before the election was over, two votes lay in the cavern of the ballot box, like visitors in an empty church. So I spent the remainder of the time filling it up: creating signatures and using up the fingers of one hand and then the other and finally each of my toes to create fictional thumb prints. At six o’clock I closed the door and waited for the box to be collected. I kept my inky hands folded behind my back while the men heaved it into the back of a van along with the others.” It turned out that most of the country voted along ethnic lines, with the exception of this one polling center. Later in the book, a middle-aged woman manages a polling center with her friend and soldiers seek to steal the votes, but she stands firm, only to see the country descend into violence. The book is filled with finely observed moments such as these.

Go read The Memory of Love first. But if you want more Forna — and I’m betting you will — come back and read Ancestor Stones.

Bits and pieces
  • A major character in The Memory of Love makes an earlier, minor appearance here in Ancestor Stones — psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart!
  • Wise advice on marriage from one mother in the book: “My mother told me: ‘Before you are married keep both eyes open and after you are married close one eye.'”
  • On humor: “Gradually I learned what hardships people bore by the things they joked about.”
  • On becoming like your parents: “I had spent my whole life trying not to be like my mother. I had taken the opposite path and hurried along it, all the time looking over my shoulder instead of ahead, so that I failed to see how the path curved back again in the same direction.”
  • On Lagos — where one character makes a visit: “Lagos! It smelled quite like our city, and it looked and sounded a bit like it, too. But, oh, in every other way the difference between them was immense. Our city was a simple melody, whistled by a solitary man. Lagos was one hundred pipes, horns and drummers.”
  • On elections: “When, in a tarnished voice, he announced we were to have elections for the first time in many years few believed it, and many didn’t hear at all because they had given up listening a long, long time ago.”
  • On unkind words: “Quarrels end, but words once uttered never die.”
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