Review: These powerful, far-flung essays never stop moving

A woman sits in a chair, with a glass of water sitting on the arm, near a tent while taking notes in a book.
Aminatta Forna, author of “The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion,” on a writing assignment in Chyulu Hills National Park, Kenya, in 2008.
(John Christie)

On the Shelf

The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion

By Aminatta Forna
Groe: 272 pages, $26

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Just as lockdowns are beginning to ease, Aminatta Forna’s “The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion” arrives, a smart accompaniment to any travel, armchair or actual. It’s an essay collection, more memoir than a travelogue, but a memoir that takes us from Sierra Leone to the Shetland Islands, from Iran in 1978 on the verge of revolution to a Whole Foods outside Washington, D.C., in 2020. Bookstores are filled with personal essay collections; this one, by roving both farther and deeper than most, stands above.

Forna is an award-winning Sierra Leonean-slash-Scottish novelist-slash-journalist. Her heritage is unique but not singular, as she writes in the essay “Obama and the Renaissance Generation.” Forna puts Barack Obama’s parentage (Kenyan father, American mother) in the context of bright young men and women from Africa in the mid-20th century being sent to study in Europe so that they might come back and lead as colonial powers departed. The essay powerfully blends long history and small particulars, serving as both personal narrative and effective primer.

Forna’s father met her mother at a party in Scotland; they married and returned to Sierra Leone to raise their family. Things did not always go as planned, making Forna’s childhood one of periodic changes, involving British boarding schools and divorce. Her father’s later arrest and killing in Sierra Leone was the subject of her 2003 book “The Devil that Danced on the Water”; the focus in this book is, generally, outside those events.

A portrait of a woman graces the book cover for "The Window Seat: Notes From a Life in Motion," by Aminatta Forna
(Grove Press)

Forna shows us how her mother, “the most itinerant person I have ever known,” shaped her. “In leaving Scotland and going to live overseas in the 1960s, my mother rejected the script of a life with which she had been presented and wrote her own, which is the gift she bestowed upon her children,” Forna writes. She travels with her brother and mother to the Shetland Islands in the North Atlantic, exploring their Scottish — and distant Viking — heritage.

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It was her mother’s second marriage, to a U.N. official from New Zealand, that brought teenage Forna to Iran on the cusp of its revolution. Reading about her experiences there, in the essay “1979,” is illuminating for the way she portrays her subjective slice of history without an overdose of proscriptive hindsight. She recounts car rides, parties, the shifting rules around a backyard swimming pool. Her takeaway is about narrative: “I have long been interested in beginnings,” she writes. “I wonder if my interest originated in Iran when I was fifteen years old and I saw how when things start, they start small. The summer of 1979, the butterfly had already taken to the air.”

After living in London for many years as an adult, Forna moved with her family to Virginia for a position at Georgetown University. In “Crossroads,” she addresses race in America as a puzzled outsider. “The racially mixed family soon notices upon arriving … how comparatively rare such diversity has suddenly become. In the first week, a man photographs us as we walk three abreast down the Mall. The last time this happened to me was in London in the 1970s.” She then turns to Sierra Leone, writing about the slave trade and her family legacy. This is a marvelous essay, reported but also personal, starting in one place, shifting direction to another and winding up at a third with an unexpected revelation.

A woman walks in the sand.
Aminatta Forna in the Sahara desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, 2008.
(John Christie)

“Crossroads” originally appeared in Freeman’s in 2016; two-thirds of the essays have been previously published. The first, “The Last Vet,” appeared in 2010, about a vet in Freetown in Sierra Leone. The most recent was written a decade later during the pandemic. The pieces hold together, in part, because her work bears the mark of deep consideration. These essays take time. “What If You Gave an Inauguration and Nobody Came,” a funny chronicle of attending Donald Trump’s inauguration accompanied by a photo of her sitting on an empty bandstand, appeared a year later in 2018.

In recent years, the production of literary essays has metastasized so that something once rare is now a vast surplus overloading online reading outlets. When Forna dips into a subject that’s been widely addressed, such as insomnia in “The Watch” or the male gaze in “Power Walking,” the pieces fall a bit flat.

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Yet for the most part, she stands above the fray. She weaves in experiences that are so individual another essayist would make them the center of a piece, like the time she flew a plane on a loop-de-loop or when she had an audience with the Queen. Here they are part of the texture of her understanding of the world. Her work is intelligent, curious and broad.

Two late pieces feature animals: “Bruno” is about a chimp who famously escaped from his sanctuary in Sierra Leone; “The Wilder Things” considers London’s urban foxes and suburban America’s deer. Both essays have an underlying question about a drive toward freedom — one about escaping constraints, the other about living unexpectedly within them.

In her essay on Obama and her family, Forna mentions a disparaging term “anywheres,” meant to describe international professionals, “people whose sense of self is not rooted in a single place or readymade local identity.” This essay collection shows us, in various ways of defining home and understanding who we are, that being an anywhere is not a deficit; it’s an accomplishment.

Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times.