A Forensic Level of Honesty: Aminatta Forna and Nicole Rizzuto

“There came a point in my life … where I realized that almost every narrative, whatever it came from, that dealt with an African country was pretty much a rewriting of ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

Aminatta Forna, author of Ancestor Stones (2006), Happiness (2018)and most recently The Window Seat (2021) joins Georgetown professor Nicole Rizzuto and host Aarthi Vadde for a wide-ranging conversation about reversing the gaze. Born in Sierra Leone, Aminatta is of Scottish and Malian ancestry and grew up around the world. Her mixed upbringing led her to develop a prismatic view of identity and, though she accepts the moniker of “African writer,” she rejects the double-standard of authenticity it implies. She also chafes against the Conradian image of Africa, which infused so many of her own literary encounters with her home continent. In response to these distortions, Aminatta describes developing a “forensic level of honesty” that allowed her to re-encounter Sierra Leone on her own terms. She also learned to look back at those who would look at her.

Reversing the gaze extends not only from Africa to Europe but also to the human-animal divide. Aminatta and Rizzuto reconsider Western stereotypes around African animal cruelty, what it means to portray animal consciousness, and what the treatment of dogs in Sierra Leone and foxes in London tells us about what those societies value. Finally, Aminatta reads from Ancestor Stones and offers a chilling vision of the civil war in Sierra Leone through the dissociated perspective of a character inspired by the women who lived through it. Listeners will feel the “underground rising” in Aminatta’s memorable phrase.


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View a transcript of the episode here.



Mentioned in this Episode

  • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Dr. Gudush Jalloh, veterinarian in Sierra Leone and subject of Forna’s essay “The Last Vet”
  • Pablo Picasso, Bull’s Head
  • Forna, Happiness
  • Forna, The Hired Man
  • Temne, the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone; also the name of one of the official languages of Sierra Leone