We recently talked with Aminatta Forna about her Granta essay “The Last Vet,” which follows the work of Dr. Gudush Jalloh in his clinic at Freetown, Sierra Leone. Forna, who has produced television programs, written a memoir and penned prize-winning fiction, uses her piece on Jalloh to consider the treatment of dogs in one of the poorest countries on earth. In the following excerpts from our email exchange, she discusses editors who have lost their nerve, the use of scenes in fiction and nonfiction, and how the work of a single person can illuminate aspects of a whole country.
Q: As someone who is a novelist as well as a journalist, do you approach writing fiction and nonfiction in similar or dissimilar ways?
A: There are distinct similarities. As a journalist I have a facility with and love of research. As a documentary maker and reporter what I loved most about my job was the opportunity it gave me to enter the lives of others, people I might never have met. In my novels I imagine those lives, nevertheless my imagination is rooted in research. Many of my creative ideas arise during that period of research.
I am often asked which books have inspired me as a novelist. My answer is that my inspiration has always come from life. At the level of the page there are also similarities. A piece of fiction or non-fiction has to have a shape, an arc as well as a certain momentum, as well as shared tools: characters, scenes, summary, dialogue. Non-fiction has more room for exposition and musing, though a novel written in the first person may also contain musing. As you can see there is a lot of crossover.
Q: You had met Dr. Jalloh back in 2004. At what point did you decide to do a story on him?
A: When I heard of his wider work with street dogs. I already knew he was a man of extraordinary empathy with a profound love of animals. His work with street dogs and his understanding of the inter-relationship between animals and humans, the link between animal and human rights, took the story beyond the merely sentimental. I saw it as a way of telling the story of a country, a city and one man’s vocation. His story also tells us a great deal about ourselves, here in the West.
Q: Did you write the piece and then sell it, or did you pitch it first?
A: I pitched it first. I was extremely lucky that John Freeman, editor of Granta understood the idea immediately. The story was the result of successful commissioning as well as writing. I am not sure who else would have commissioned it. It would have seemed too left field. Editors seem to have tunnel vision when it comes to stories from Africa. He also gave me the freedom to write it as I saw it.
Journalism has changed a great deal since I joined the BBC in 1989. One of the changes is that commissioning editors have lost their nerve. They want all the elements of a story pinned down in advance and are obsessed with written proposals. This has done a great deal to stifle the creative process.
Q: In “The Last Vet,” your reflections on Dr. Jalloh are interspersed with striking descriptive passages. How do you think about balancing these cinematic details with exposition and narration?
A: My writing is very much scene led—both in fiction and non-fiction. I find this helps the narrative flow, keeps the reader engaged and helps me keep control of the subject matter. Within a scene I will then take the reader aside to tell another part of the story. Sometimes a reader needs to know certain facts or details to understand the story better, and it is always tricky trying to find ways of doing this that don’t interrupt the story telling.
When I was writing my memoir of my father and country The Devil that Danced on the Water, I needed to give readers a grounding in the history and politics of a small African state most people knew very little about. I learned to let the scene lead and the rest would find its place.
Q: Is there anything else you wish you had done but couldn’t or didn’t, or any obstacles to writing this story that we wouldn’t know about from reading it?
A: No. And do you know what a pleasure it is to be able to say that?