“The Window Seat,” Aminatta Forna’s new book of essays, opens with its exhilarating eponymous piece, encompassing her heady childhood experiences of flying internationally as an unaccompanied minor as well as the giddy experience of executing a loop de loop in a light aircraft. Both perceptive and informative, that essay sets the tone for the rest of this collection, in which Forna delves into a dynamic tapestry of resonant topics: the various elements that she explores in her fiction — migration, war and its aftermath, familial love, friendship, curiosity, resilience — are equally present in her nonfiction.
The author of four novels as well as her terrific 2002 memoir, “The Devil That Danced on the Water,” Forna retains a lightness of touch and depth of insight in her writing, alongside perceptible senses of both self-awareness and humor (“… I have the sort of face,” she writes in the essay “Ice,” “that makes people think I am kindlier than I am.”)
New essays and previously published ones — part of Forna’s work over the past decade — nestle easily and complementarily together here, offering a revealing glimpse into the author’s peripatetic life, commitment to family and community, and deep appreciation for life’s oddities, quirks, and moments of human compassion.
Whether she’s recording her musings about insomnia, sleep, and the magical dead of night in “The Watch”; realizing she’s driving the wrong kind of car in “Technicals”; or paying eloquent tribute to an extended-family friend in “Santigi”; Forna’s perspective covers the salient, often momentous details, as well as a larger picture of the world and of her place in it: “I was back in England on the day of his funeral,” she writes in “Santigi.” “I couldn’t go, so I sat at my desk and I did what writers do. I wrote this instead.”
She’s just as incisive on the insidious, far-reaching control of colonialism — as well as on the promise that the post-colonial world held for an entire generation. In “Obama and the Renaissance Generation,” she describes the ideas, ideals, and faith held by her Sierra Leonean medical doctor and political activist father and his colleagues, of a better, stronger, more equal world: “Their real courage lay in the fact that they did not surrender, that they tried to do what they had promised themselves and their countries they would.”
Forna has a clear aptitude for being at home wherever she lands, whether that might be in Iran on the cusp of revolution as a Che Guevara-sweatshirt-sporting-teenager; in rural Massachusetts and suburban Virginia as a visiting professor; or exploring her mother’s family’s roots in Shetland. That essay, the terrific “Hame,” follows Forna, her brother, and their mother as they visit sites of their family history, a history which features the Scottish Highlands, Shetland, Orkney, and, for some, a return to the mainland. It’s a lovely piece about origins, migration, and travel, and contains a cool moment of pragmatic, local, no-nonsense humor — something Forna clearly appreciates — on a northern-bound ferry: “’We’re descended from Vikings,’ my mother had told the ferryman on the way over, to which he had replied, ‘Aren’t we all?’ "
In “Crossroads,” another expansive essay, Forna’s starting point is from the vantage of boarding a flight to DC:
“Dotted among the white faces were a good many black ones; DC is a city with a majority Black population. I looked at the passengers and thought: My God, the ancestors of the white people on this plane enslaved the ancestors of the Black people and brought them to America.
A crime so large and yet there they were, the perpetrators and victims, reading in-flight magazines and sipping water from plastic cups.”
In that same essay she also delineates the slavery-related culinary connections between Sierra Leone, South Carolina’s Gullah culture, and Louisiana, part of her Sierra Leonean history, and her own realization of the critical importance of sharing family stories.
Forna’s compassionate streak, her interest in what humanizes us, is apparent throughout — see “The Vixen” section in “Wilder Things” — and particularly so in “The Last Vet,” which details an experience in Sierra Leone in which Forna had to go to extraordinary lengths to help her dog, Mathilda, an animal she’d adopted off the street. She includes the reaction of an expat’s to her story, bothered by what he saw as a “waste of time and resources on an animal in a country where people had so little.” But he was wrong, says Forna:
“The people who had helped Mathilda … they were Africans. They lived in the poorest country in the world. We were all of us two years out of a decade of civil war. We had survived the darkest place and we had all lost a great deal. … I did not see foolishness or indulgence in all those people coming together on a single day to save the life of a street dog. What I saw was compassion, a sense of community, the sweetening of a soured spirit. In other words: I saw hope.”
Forna has a fine command over both language and life — her sense of agency is pleasurably palpable — and her vivid, keenly observed anecdotes make her tendency toward hope all the more reassuring. Her perceptive investigation of the meaning of home and its multiple locations is perhaps most concisely expressed in “In Timbuktu,” a gem of a story that, at a mere 75 words, is replete with a joy for life in all its vagaries, idiocies, and human connectivity, a fitting microcosm of this evocative, provocative essay collection.
The Window Seat: Notes From a Life in Motion
Grove, 272 pages, $26
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.