'The Gilded Ones' Author Namina Forna On Fleeing
Sierra Leone And Confronting The American Dream
Sierra Leone And Confronting The American Dream
The first time I realised I’d just escaped a war, I was watching CNN. It was 1997, I was 10 years old, and I was crouched on the staircase, watching as a reporter covered the civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa, the homeland I’d left less than a year ago. They spoke with horror about how the atrocities happening were the worst they’d ever seen. Graphic images flashed behind them: gunfire, tanks, bodies lying dead in the streets.
As I watched it, I felt a peculiar, floating feeling. My physical body was there, on that staircase, but the rest of me was elsewhere. For the first time, I was putting together all the things I’d seen and then just as quickly forgotten during the last few years of my childhood.
Growing up, I was what you would call a master of escapism. Whenever I felt uncomfortable or scared, I disappeared into books, my safe place. Books were the only way I felt I had control over my world. I grew up in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. On the outside, I had a very privileged childhood. I lived in a beautiful home. I went to nice schools. I travelled to Europe every summer holiday. But it was a life built on unstable ground.
In April 1992, Valentine Strasser, a young military officer, seized the Sierra Leonean government, becoming the youngest head of state in the world. Afterwards, everything unravelled. First, my mother left, off to America to continue her legal education. Then, there was a curfew – no leaving the house after 6pm. And then there were the disappearances. My father was in politics, so when the war started, the people I knew were some of the first to go. I don’t remember how many, or even whom. My memory is generally not the best when it comes to this time, a common effect of childhood trauma. By the time my mother sent tickets for my middle sister and I to join her in America, I had grown skilled at ignoring anything I couldn’t comprehend.
Moving to America was difficult. For one, I was poor now. Back in Sierra Leone, my mother had her own thriving law practice, beautiful cars and clothes. In America, she had to start from the bottom up: she’d gone back to law school and was working around the clock as a waitress to make ends meet. She was always exhausted, always working – she used to be the most glamorous person in the world, but suddenly, the glamour was gone.
Then there was the fact that I was here to stay. I had arrived in America under the assumption I was visiting on a summer holiday. It was only when my mother began signing my sister and me up for school, that I realised I had been bamboozled. Georgia was now my home. But I absolutely hated it.
I couldn’t understand why the grass was so yellow and why the houses stood so far apart. Worst of all, the people in my new school – the teachers, in particular – didn’t seem to have a frame of reference for me: a little African girl who grew up in a war zone yet wasn’t a refugee, who’d lived in a nice house with a pool, yet now only had two pairs of clothes and shoes to wear to school.
After the first time I told the other children about my life back home – the house, the pet chimpanzee, the president who’d given me my favourite teddy bear – my teachers told my mother I was a pathological liar and suggested I needed testing and medication.
The Western imagination, I quickly came to find, is very limited when it comes to the African experience.
My background was something most people simply didn’t have a framework for. As far as everyone was concerned, I’d come from a place where I’d probably been swinging from vines and playing hopscotch on crocodiles. They also could not sympathise, or even notice when I began displaying very clear signs of trauma. But then, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t something that people even thought about back then. If it was mentioned, it was only in connection to soldiers coming back from war zones. There was no way I, an adolescent girl, could be experiencing something like that.
It was only when I began therapy in my mid-twenties that I understood the depths of my condition.
During my teenage years, however, I just knew that I always felt overwhelmed and fearful. To protect myself, I stopped talking and retreated into books and academics. I graduated valedictorian from my high school and, like every bookish person, immediately made plans to go to Harvard. Then my sister took me to Spelman College’s campus and I saw all the beautiful Black women there — the women who I aspired to be.
I immediately changed my plans.
Icame up with the idea for my debut novel, The Gilded Ones, as an undergrad at Spelman. During my time there, I wrestled with questions of femininity and identity – all subjects that had been weighing on me for some time. In Sierra Leone, it was clear cut. I was a woman, and therefore inferior. There were expectations to my gender, and they were rigid. But America, I had found, was just as brutal, albeit better at masking the signs of patriarchy. They may not have been forcing FGM on you, but abortion rights were always iffy, slut shaming was rampant, and girls were being asked to keep themselves 'pure' for the sake of God and 'personal respect'.
There was also my experience of war – an experience, which, sadly, is all too common for children around the globe. I didn’t realise it then, but I wrote The Gilded Ones as a form of catharsis, of holding up the most difficult issues in my life, and examining them from the safe, familiar lens of fantasy. In the book, a group of super-powered women who have been convinced that they are inferior and, in fact, demons by an ultra-patriarchal society, are forced into a war against actual demons to devastating effect. Imagine if the Dora Milaje from Black Panther were stuck in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, and said 'burn it all down'.
I wrote the first draft of the book around 2012, when conversations of #girlboss and #girlpower were basically omnipresent. I was 25 at the time, and so sure that this would be the book to finally launch my career. When I sent it out, however, I received rejection after rejection. Agents questioned, oh so subtly, 'Does the main character have to be – you know, Black?' During a portfolio exhibition, one agent told me to my face that none of my work would sell because there was no room in the industry for someone like me.
But writing was my dream, and I wanted, more than anything, to do for other children and young people across the world what my favourite authors had done for me – provide them with a safe place; one where they could broach the difficult questions in their lives through the safety of fantasy. So I resolved to use a pseudonym, as so many authors of colour have done before me.
Thankfully, I didn’t end up needing it. In 2017, I started seeing promos for Black Panther, and realised the time was right. I threw out the book and rewrote it from scratch in a month and a half. While I kept the idea of the story the same, I changed the series of events, eliminated and added characters, dug more deeply into feminist aspect of the book. It sold within days on the market.
ll told, it took me 12 years to finally sell a book. Twelve years of struggling, banging my head against a wall, knocking my fists against a barrier that simply wasn’t meant to open for me. But despite everything, I persisted.
I had role models to look up to: my mother, who created a thriving practice as a lawyer after having already had one in Sierra Leone. My eldest sister, who arrived in the United States by herself at age 15, got into college early, and then built a career as a doctor and philanthropist. If my mother could make it as a lawyer – again – if my sister could immigrate by herself at 15 and make a career, I could make it in publishing.
Sadly, most Black women do not have this opportunity. Writing is a career predicated by access to leisure time, opportunity, and privileged social networks. You have to have the time to write and a soft place to land if things don’t work out. Oftentimes, I think of all the other Black women who gave up because they were stymied by an industry that overlooked, underpaid, or downright ignored them. I think of all the books by Black authors that never sold – never even got a chance — because they couldn’t get through the door.
Thankfully, times are changing. Movies like Black Panther and books like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give have ushered in a renaissance of Black art and culture. Now it’s possible for young Black women to have a chance that I did not first time round – the chance to enter the industry early and build a thriving career onwards. And for this, I am grateful.
Namina Forna’s book 'The Gilded Ones' is out on February 4.