Beyond Physical Coexistence: Aminatta Forna’s “Happiness”

We see characters like Komba the warden, once a troubled boy, morph into a man who escaped conflict in Sierra Leone to then attend school; and Osman, the Bosnian street performer who considers the importance of foxes in his struggle to find peace amid violence. Globalization and forced migration push individuals to travel across the world. In a little over 300 pages, she pushes back against the “nameless and faceless” people of Africa. In an interview with, Forna states:
The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse — that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. Once a clinical psychologist, he now offers expertise on post-traumatic recovery around the world in places such as Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Turkish-Syrian border. In the desperate search for Tano, Jean and Attila rely on a network of street-sweepers, wardens, and street performers from around the world. But Forna acknowledges the realities of the world. In 2014, she wrote The Angel of Mexico City, which follows a boy’s life in Mexico City, again showing her reverence for different narratives. We meet Attila as he arrives in London for a conference on psychology. We must resist the attempts of others to define us.” Forna successfully fulfills this edict in Happiness. That she isn’t a white woman or a black man, American or Ghanian, a biologist or a psychologist does not hinder Happiness. I wanted to see the beaches my cousins talked about, the dry-fish my mother loved and hear the music unavailable to us in the States. She aptly noted that characters serve as vehicles to tell a larger story. Yet the fact that there are “unhappy” experiences should be understood as a layer of history and not a resigned fate. In Forna’s DC book talk at Politics and Prose, she noted the discrepancy between her existence as a Scottish/Sierra Leonean woman and the cast of Happiness. Of course, I was met with pure glee by some, for the mere fact that I was connecting with the place my mother calls home. As we get to know Attila’s former lover and revered colleague, Rose Lennox, Attila comes to life as a pensive man. Attila proves to be the most well-crafted character: through him, Forna builds a case against common images of Africa and the dangers we invite when we starve out diverse narratives from the continent. I wanted outsiders to know that after trauma, there is room for happiness. London’s fox population is on the rise, and while locals fear them, Jean advocates on behalf of the condemned animal. She captures Jean’s painful loneliness of a mother distanced from her son, both literally and figuratively. How long you held onto that particular belief depended on where you were born.” Here, Attila, hardened by conflict, acknowledges the reality that childhood is different in different places as a result of external dangers. Perhaps because Forna’s experiences anchor these disparate expatriates close to home makes for a good read. In one section, Attila “seemed to remember a sense of fearlessness as a child, for lacking the knowledge of death, he supposed, for still believing bad things happened only to other people. Happiness shows us why we must embrace coexistence and how this works in practice. While the memories of Rose linger, Jean Turane brings a welcome change to Attila’s life — during a serendipitous walk on Waterloo Bridge, Attila bumps into Bostonian biologist Jean. Attila Asare, the Ghanaian-born psychologist never makes suffering his identity. She forgets his nickname, his face, and all the things she once loved about him. Although despair lives with Dr. Attila opines after the relationship he had with Rose throughout the book, revealing a man already reeling in heartache from the loss of his wife. Now, Rose has a degenerative illness and cannot remember Attila. As Attila searches for Tano, he ponders the innocence of childhood. Many mused on the safety of the continent and what it means to travel to an African country reeling from an epidemic and natural disaster. His interactions with her remind him of his days as a young student in London. And Jean’s appeal is simple: we must learn to live together. Although she is Scottish and Sierra Leonean, Forna is able to render Jean, a white American biologist, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychologist, flawlessly. Aminatta Forna has famously noted the importance of writers of African heritage to change the narrative. In a 2017 extract of her keynote to the African Studies Association, shared in the Guardian, she argues: “Lost narratives must be retrieved, those that have been omitted must be replaced. We need to move away from stereotypes and understand a people for all of their varied experiences, as Attila implores us to do. Like the foxes, Attila is a stranger in someone else’s land while migration and globalization has made aspects of multiple cultures his home. Attila is drawn to Jean’s fierce independence and dedication to animals. Forna reveals Happiness’s diverse cast of characters through flashbacks and inner monologues. Characters like James and Komba, Abdul, Ayo, Olu, Tano, and Ama, to name a few, add layers to London’s immigrants. Yet, I knew Sierra Leone’s recent history was not their identity and that for all of the wahala or yagba (problems) in the country, there is still happiness. Through Rose, Forna shares Attila’s youth, the boy before the man. At the podium of his psychiatry conference in Aldwych, Attila urges psychiatrists to recognize that trauma does not negate happiness but rather from trauma we can still be happy. ¤
Mariatu Santiago works at New America, a DC-based think tank. By the end of Happiness, coexistence moves beyond the literal sense of the word. AUGUST 12, 2018
ON DECEMBER 2017, I went to Sierra Leone for the first time in my 24 years of life. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition. Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, is a comprehensive tale of love, prejudicial conflict, coexistence between man and nature, and the success we invite when we embrace good and bad experiences. Forna ultimately implores readers to understand complexities of any people and to accept coexistence — be it with various cultures or internally — as we learn to live with our experiences, good and bad. I was also met with confusion by others. But I can’t say that as eloquently as Aminatta Forna can. We also see in flashback his previous experiences of happiness. Given that it was only until recently that immigrant mothers were separated from their children under the guise of immigration reform fueled by ill-informed mania, Forna reminds us that division and false assumptions are regressive. Although war looms over him, the big, hulking African still finds happiness when he eats at a Cuban restaurant, listens to Ecuadorian music, or watches dancers of a distant culture. Through multilayered narratives and stories that move beyond stereotypes, we can make coexistence that much more feasible. As a result of our changing demographics, embracing each other is the only way forward. Her first book, The Devil That Danced on Water, was a memoir detailing her search for the truth behind the death of her father, Mohamed Forna, during, at the time, war-torn Sierra Leone. Her books handle the historical wounds of conflict but, as a writer, she refuses to relegate herself to African narratives exclusively, as should be. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international relations with a focus in international development in sub-Saharan Africa from American University. Of course, truth is powerful but fear proves even more powerful when an overzealous politician, akin to our number 45, stifles her efforts. It is by understanding these complexities, be it physical or metaphorical, that communities can peacefully coexist.