“Why did you write about it, then,” said the man, “if you don’t want to talk about it?” I was on holiday with my husband and we were having dinner at the house of a friend. Evidently, she had told the man something about me because he began asking questions almost as soon as we sat down to eat. When I said I was on holiday, trying to relax, and that I didn’t want to answer his questions, he grew indignant. My decision to tell my story publicly—a decision I had made fifteen years earlier—meant to him that I was public property. This is not unusual. I have grown to understand it, though I have not entirely grown used to it, just as I have grown to understand that people have their own ideas of who and what I ought to be, wounded victim or heroic survivor.
At one minute past midnight on July 19, 1975, my father was hanged. For twenty-seven years, I told no one about it. Then I published a memoir. I have lived with the aftermath of that decision ever since, as does anyone who has published their own story, who has unwrapped what had previously been concealed: the skinned inner self dragged out and, shrinking in the light, placed beneath the bright hot gaze of strangers.
We had kept silent about the death of my father—my brother, sister, stepmother, and I. The youngest sibling, I was eleven when it happened, and I knew from the earliest, instinctively, that our story was not something to share with strangers. In Sierra Leone, the entire country knew what had happened to us, but in Britain, where we later went to live, nobody knew. We could go incognito, and we did. All the same, we talked about it compulsively, we three siblings, whispering among ourselves. I remember once, when I was in my twenties, the three of us sitting in a fashionable London wine-bar whispering memories of our father. Why did we do that?
At the time, I took it for granted that we needed to whisper, in order to keep our story private. But other, more sinister, reasons became obvious once I started to investigate the conditions of our shared childhood. Our father, Mohamed S. Forna, a Sierra Leonian medical doctor, political activist, and the most prominent opponent of the country’s rising dictator, had been under constant scrutiny: watched, followed, and spied on even by members of our own household staff. Silence was a habit I was born into. When my father spoke, he did so publicly. His judicial murder was the president’s response, his message to the nation that this was where such actions got you. He silenced my father, and in time the silence spread to every person in the country.
War came, as my father had predicted it would—an implosion of rage and violence which went on for more than ten years, finally ending in 2002. Cracks had appeared in the wall of the country’s silence, but still no words were spoken. That was the year I published my memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, an account of my father’s life and death and of Sierra Leone’s recent history. The impact was greater than I had imagined: newspaper and radio interviews, public engagements, serialization, a TV documentary. Nowhere was the desire to hear me discuss what I had written about greater than in Sierra Leone. In a talk I gave at the university, those who could not get into the auditorium sat on the grass outside and listened through the open windows.
Back then, there were not a great many memoirs on the market. The decade and a half that has passed since has seen a resurgence in the form. Today, there is no subject I can think of that has not been excavated by the modern memoir: family, relationships, childhood abuse, both physical and mental illness, sexual adventure, sexual assault, sexual identity, addiction, bereavement, divorce, childhood, coming of age, mothers and motherhood, fathers and fatherhood, siblings, home, travel, exile, war, each of the decades from the 1950s on.
In the months after I published mine, people I knew seemed to look at me in a new way, as though I was totally different from the person they thought they knew—which was, in some ways, true. Others read the book and seemed promptly to forget everything they had read. Sometimes, in later and unrelated conversations, they would ask me a question to which they knew the answer because they had already read it. I have done this, too: separated the person and the author of a memoir as though they were entirely different.
You must also, once your book is published, deal with the reactions of strangers. I received hundreds of letters from readers who said my book had affected them. I always wrote back, more than once I even met with a correspondent.
I once had lunch with a South African woman who had written to me, whose life was shaped by the disappearance of her father. She had never shared her story because, she said, the family was ashamed. They had been wealthy; she and her mother felt that if their story became known, suspicion might somehow fall on her father’s business dealings. They relocated to Britain and told nobody. I remembered our own years of silence. One of the reasons I didn’t tell most of my friends was the worry that people would see my father as having been guilty of something.
The letters, now more often emails, have never stopped. Very occasionally, I have felt daunted by the idea of dealing with another person’s loss. I try not to let it show, and I hope I am successful in this, because once you have written your story, you become seen as a “survivor” and other people will reach out for you.
There were also those people who were crass, or unthinking, or downright prurient, to whom my life had become spectacle. They expected me to talk on demand about those events I had written about, as if I was on stage. I had written about events and experiences that are painful to talk about, but which I felt must nevertheless be described. That is the simplest reason people write about themselves—because talking hurts too much.
“I feel like a car accident everyone is slowing down to look at,” remarked a writer who, like me, had written an account of her activist father’s assassination, which had taken place when she was a teenager. We were walking to the stage at a literary festival where I was about to interview her. “I didn’t expect the interest to be so,” she searched for the word, “pornographic.”
I came to think of the small group of people I knew who had endured similar experiences as the “Murdered Parents Club.” In each other’s company, we could talk without having to explain or defend ourselves, without feeling like an exhibit in the museum of humankind. The “club” consisted of the aforementioned writer; a close friend whose activist mother disappeared on pilgrimage in India; a Colombian whose father was murdered by paramilitaries outside their family home; a Nigerian journalist whose father was executed. We could talk and even laugh among ourselves in a way that was impossible in front of others.
The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.
In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.
For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way. My sister, over lunch a few months after the memoir was published, mused: “You help to kill somebody and you think you’ve got away with it, and then, twenty-five years later, the telephone rings.”
It’s not hard to see why memoir is so popular. For readers in constant search of “authenticity,” the true memoir trumps the fictional novel. These people may have experienced relatively little adversity or danger in their lives. Another kind of reader who particularly values the memoir is one who has endured a fate similar to the writer’s. She or he may be the survivor of domestic abuse, perhaps, or of illness, or crime. The memoir acts for this reader as testimony; it confirms the reality of her or his own experience, and offers courage and the possibility of comfort.
The question I am most frequently asked is whether I found writing the memoir therapeutic. I encounter this most commonly among Western audiences, perhaps because the culture puts the self first and foremost. When I teach classes on memoir, I begin them all in the same way: “This is not therapy. If you want therapy, go and see a therapist.” I have had one woman stand up and leave. She thanked me later. She had realized in that moment that therapy was, in fact, what she needed.
The writing of a memoir can be a test in mental courage. In the long months of putting pen to paper, you must return to immerse in, and endure, the very thing that caused you the most pain. You must pick at the scabs of old wounds and pour vinegar on them. Writing can be a way of handling the experience of loss, trauma, or pain, but it comes with no guarantees. “Be careful,” said my sister when I began. “Because what you find out may be worse than we already think we know.”
An early newspaper review came close to destroying my relationship with my mother. The reviewer seemed less interested in addressing the political oppression, judicial murder, and civil war that is the book’s focus, than in weighing my mother’s abilities as a parent, very unfairly in my view. My mother was working overseas at the time and her copy of the finished book hadn’t arrived when a third party alerted her to the review. It hurt her badly, and she did not speak to me for a long time. When she did attempt to re-establish contact, I’m afraid I had become angry and didn’t see her for many more months.
Sometimes, not being written about is worse than being written about. I once heard Will Fiennes, the author of The Snow Geese, describe how he had left all mention of his mother out of his original manuscript (in which he describes his relationship with his father and their shared love of ornithology) because, in his view, she was a very private person. When he gave his mother a draft of it, she initially responded in a complimentary fashion, but after he pressed her, she eventually asked: “But where am I?” Fiennes told the audience that as a result there were at least three “totally gratuitous” mentions of his mother in the final version.
I knew a woman who, after her husband’s untimely death, found in his diaries an account of a long affair he had been conducting, along with descriptions of his boredom with family life. She wrote a raw, furious memoir about the impact of that discovery on herself and her family. Her agent told her it was brilliant. Then she asked, “Now, do you really want to publish this?” The woman realized that in her heart she didn’t and took her manuscript back. We would all wish for a friend as decent as her agent.
The judgment is a fine one. I once knew both the writer of a sex memoir and her former partner; the end of their relationship had triggered her sexual wanderings for the next year. Before the book was published, she sent him a copy. He wrote back to her, he told me: “I hope it sells by the truck load and you never regret writing it.”
To be the author of a memoir is to become a confessional for other people. All over the world, people tell me their stories: the high-end male sex worker, the girl held by a rebel army for three years, the man with African-American forebears who “passed” as white, the woman with the conman father, the girl who nearly ate and drank herself to death, the woman born in a concentration camp. Sometimes, sharing their stories with me is all they want, and it is enough. Sometimes, they want a wider recognition for their stories. To them, I say this: write, but only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences every day for the rest of your life.