RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This Fourth of July week, we bring you a series of conversations with writers pondering how war is transformed into art - conversations with writers who've made conflict their subject. War and literature takes us to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, beginning with Aminatta Forna.
Her childhood was shaped by conflict. She was just 11 when her father was hanged for treason in Sierra Leone. His real crime was being a popular leader of the opposition in a country sinking under one-man rule and headed for civil war.
The young Aminatta fled with her family to Britain, and from there she gazed back until she could return as an adult to write a memoir, and then a novel. The novel, "Ancestor Stones," tells the story of an unnamed country in West Africa, seen through the lives of four sisters spanning eight decades.
Ms. AMINATTA FORNA (Author, "Ancestor Stones"): The book is set in Sierra Leone. I chose not to name it when I wrote the novel, because I simply wanted people to enter the stories and not overlay upon them what they thought they knew about Sierra Leone. By that time, of course, the country had endured this terrible civil war, and the images on television of summary executions of amputees and child soldiers was more or less what everybody - most people knew about the country. And I didn't want those thoughts to be uppermost in the reader's mind when they began, because we were going to begin in a world that you probably wouldn't recognize - you certainly wouldn't recognize from the television footage.
MONTAGNE: There is a story in this novel, "Ancestor Stones," that sort of suggests how war can be so random. It's a story told by one of the four sisters - one of the characters - and it starts at a checkpoint.
Ms. FORNA: This is a story told by Mariama, and it's about the invasion of the city in which she's living by the rebel soldiers. The city is Freetown. And Marianna lived with that constant fear that people do live with in an occupied city, where you are powerless. But at some point, people have to leave their houses. They have to go in search of food. Marianna finds herself at a checkpoint, and a young woman behind her, these soldiers take her out of the cue, they arrest her and they deal with her.
(Reading) "People knew the killers came in all guises - as men, as women, even in the form of sweet-faced children. The officer in charge ordered them to be executed there and then in front of us. The soldiers stripped them, forced them to kneel. They shot her first then him. She was a pretty girl, flawless skin and angled cheekbones. I remember because I wondered, in that moment, if the soldiers who were away from home, away from their loved ones in this desperate, dark and ugly land were not somehow outraged by the way she looked. It made them want to kill her."
What has transpired is there's been accusation more against this young woman, that she is a rebel. The accuser is somebody who once lost a man to this beautiful young woman.
MONTAGNE: Would a woman tell a story about a moment in where this story, for instance, differently than a man would tell this story?
Ms. FORNA: Well, I find it to be so, because I spoke to a lot of women about their experiences of war. The only way to research this book was to go to Sierra Leone. And I spent a year simply talking to every woman who would speak to me about her experiences, you know, both of growing up in that country and also particularly of the war. The experience of war is different for women -that's one thing. Every woman in that country lived under the constant threat of rape and sexual assault.
In my family's village, on a single day when the rebels invaded, every single woman was raped, and some of them were taken away. So I think that when men talk about war - and certainly I did talk to a lot of men about their experience of the civil war - it was very much about what they did and where they were. And this area was taken over, and then I went here. Whereas the women talked much more about the emotional truths of war, what was really happening, as opposed to what was simply happening in newsreel terms.
And I think that's what Mariama sees. She can see how war brings everybody down to the lowest common denominator. It doesn't - you know, it produces very few heroes.
MONTAGNE: There's another scene that you write about that it's actually quite sweet, and can almost be funny. This is another one of the sisters who's in a U.N.-run refugee camp. And the women are nearly starving, and they're standing with their cups waiting to get rations of food. And it turns out that there's something else in the boxes.
Ms. FORNA: When the cases are opened, when the cases of fruit are opened, they discovered that there's been a mixed up, and that the boxes are actually full of lipstick.
MONTAGNE: And you said, in bright gold cases.
Ms. FORNA: That's right.
(Reading) "The men in blue helmets immediately surrounded the vehicle and prepared for a riot. All of us had such hunger in our bellies. But a moment later they pushed back their helmets and lowered their sunglasses, to make sure what they were seeing was really true. The women rushed forward, myself among them, to snatch up these shining lipsticks. The many miles between us and our lost homes, our rotting feet, the grass and leaves with which we had tried to line our stomachs, the emptiness of the future - for a short while, all was forgotten. We stood in the sun, laughing and ribbing each other, painting our mouths in vivid colors."
MONTAGNE: It's funny that almost makes you want to cry more than the more tragic scenes in the book.
Ms. FORNA: I think the women in that story - in it, they find their moment of joy, but they also find their moment of becoming individuals again. War does reduce people to terrible circumstances, and it's that attempt to hold on to moments of pleasure, moments of joy in these tiny things.
MONTAGNE: What is it that you can say in a novel about war that you couldn't say or do in a work of nonfiction or a memoir?
Ms. FORNA: Well, in a work nonfiction or memoir, you simply have the story that you have to tell, and you can't inhabit people's lives. You can't have them speak directly to the reader. The two pieces that I've read today actually are true, anecdotally. Now, I was able to take those two stories and imagine the context around them and the emotional truth behind them. But if I had used a mere work of nonfiction, I would never be able to do that. So it allows you to go much more deeply into how human beings really are, you know - what is the essence of us.
MONTAGNE: Aminatta Forna's novel is called "Ancestor Stones." Tomorrow, we hear from a novelist swept up in the troubles of Northern Ireland, and at 18, sentenced to life in prison.
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MONTAGNE: You can read an excerpt from "Ancestor Stones" at npr.org.
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