Ishmael Beah is a Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist who rose to fame with his acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. His first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, was published in January 2014. Beah was born in Sierra Leone in 1980. He moved to the United States in 1998. In 2004 he graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in political science. He is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and has spoken before the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (CETO) at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, and many other NGO panels on children affected by the war. His work has appeared in VespertinePress and LIT magazine. In this interview with Diane Ninsiima Ndaba, he talks about his writing and growing up in Sierra Leone.
Tell us about your childhood, growing up in Sierra Leone before the civil war.
I grew up in a village in the southern part of Sierra Leone and my life was simple, happy and beautiful. I went to school, played football, and swam in the river when it was too hot, did my assignments by lamp or candlelight or sometimes got it done before nightfall. My grandmother and other elders told us children stories at night around the fire. Perhaps one of the ways that I could capture the feelings of my early childhood before the war was that I laughed with my entire being, you know the sort of laughter that makes you cry out of pure joy.
What dreams or aspirations did you have while growing up?
I wanted to become an economist and a pilot. I think the economist part was really what my father wanted as such a career choice was highly regarded. And becoming a pilot was more out of the fascination of watching the planes that often left trails of clouds in the sky above my village. After I saw an airplane fly low enough, I dreamt of learning to pilot one. However, I always found myself more excited about reading literature and writing even though I didn’t consider becoming a writer back then.
Given the challenges you went through as a child soldier and where you are now, what have you learned? Is it really possible to recover from the scars of war?
Yes, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be here or doing the things that I am doing now. With that said, it is a long and difficult process to recover from war and learn to live, not just to survive. Also, Hope needs some practical measures to sustain it. One cannot just sit around and be hopeful. In my case I was lucky to have opportunities, genuine ones that allowed me to rediscover myself, my mind and potential. If similar opportunities are granted to children coming out of war, they would certainly succeed. And of course this requires long-term planning, a quick fix won’t do it.
In what ways did your experience as a child soldier shape your life as a writer?
My war experiences shaped me as a human being, and therefore have had an impact on everything that I do in my life now. Specifically, as a writer, yes. For example, as a soldier, I learned to observe people with painstaking details and beyond their visible gestures and mannerisms and that has become useful for me as a writer.
Tell us about your memoir- A long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. When did you decide to share your story? Why?
I started writing my memoir in 2002 when I was an undergraduate student. I never intended to publish it but rather to prepare myself to be able to succinctly and eloquently speak about what had happened in my country Sierra Leone. I also wanted to put those memories down as I was acquiring newer ones away from home. The decision to publish the memoir came out of several frustrations about the lack of knowledge about the use of children in war and also the way my country, Sierra Leone, was presented as a place of only violence. I wanted to put a human face to the experience of being a child soldier so that people can become somewhat intimate with the life of a child in war, with a country at war. In addition, I wanted young people in particular to understand the nature of violence and what it does to all of us when we are consumed by it or find ourselves in circumstances that leaves us only with the choice of violence. We, former child soldiers were referred to as ‘time bombs, the lost generation,’ etc., and I wanted to correct some of those inaccurate assumptions, to put the necessary human context to how my country was negatively and sensationally portrayed to the point that when you said ‘Sierra Leone’ most people thought ‘war, amputation’ and just madness. We were presented in the media as a country that just woke up one morning and decided to have a war. My desire was then to introduce people to Sierra Leone before, during and after war and most importantly how war devastates communities, people and that no one wakes up one morning and decides to go to war just like that; there are things that lead up to it in society.
And lastly, my intention through all of this was to show the strength and resilience of the human spirit to outlive suffering of any sort, in particular my people.
The book soared to best selling lists in the year it was published and has also won the Quill Award in the Best Debut Author Category. The Washington Post described it as “a book everyone should read”. Did you expect such immense success?
I didn’t expect the success as I was a bit apprehensive about the fact that people may not want to read such a story. Regardless of that apprehension, I always write as though whatever I am working on will be the first and last thing that I write and come at it with that urgency and focus. So that was what I did with the writing of the memoir.
I was of course happy that the book became as successful as it did. It is every writer’s dream to have your work read by as many as possible and in this case I was even more excited because the issue of children and war was getting attention, a deeper one beyond just the artificial. I was bringing a story – even though it was mine, it was also a story about something bigger than me – to the doorsteps, the homes, mindset of the world.
Have you gone back home since the book was published? What reactions did you get about the book?
Yes, I went home even before the book was published and I still go often. I love my country and it is the only place where my spirit rests. My generation, those younger and a good number of the populations were proud that one of theirs had written about the war. Some people in the military weren’t happy about some of the things I disclosed. In general, my people were proud. The younger people in my country thought that I am much older as they had come to expect anything interesting to come from an older person, ‘a big man.’ At one time, I gave a talk at the Fourah Bay College the top university in my country. The audience was expecting someone much older. When I took the podium, I could see the confusion, and later delight, awe and confirmation on the faces of the youngsters that they too can do something more.
You have been quoted as saying that “Every story is a birth…” In what ways did your memoir influence your latest novel, Radiance of Tomorrow? How was the experience of writing a work of fiction different than working on a memoir?
Yes, because it was during the tour for the memoir that I began to think about writing Radiance of Tomorrow. This came out of my observations about how little people know about post war life. As soon as wars are said to be over the media attention and international interest shifts to the next horrific situation.
I have written fiction before; short stories mostly. However this was the first time that I embarked on writing a novel. I wanted to discuss a much neglected but very important question about what happens after war. Why and how do people return home, the struggles of trying to return to the country and people they had been, to repair their traditions and find the simplicity that once defined them.
There was one commonality in writing a novel and a memoir and that was the quest of finding the English equivalent of the many languages spoken in Sierra Leone. Both works were set in places with remarkable richness in language, gestures, sounds that were difficult to describe using the medium of English. I do like the challenge though and came out satisfied each time.
With the memoir, there were restrictions with the rendering of the timeline but the beauty and reward was discovering that the experience had its own natural structure. It was also very personal and hence difficult emotionally to return to what had happened and relive it so as to bring it to life for the readers. On the other hand with fiction there was more freedom to play with language, timeline and explore the imagination while looking at the many truths of all the characters involved. I could distance myself from things. I find joy in writing so for me it doesn’t really matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The discovery of language intrigues me every time.
Tell us a little more about Radiance of Tomorrow – the characters, the story plot and the message you hope the book will put across to the readers and the rest of the world.
All the characters in the novel are very complex in the sense that they are dealing with the past while trying to grab onto something in the future, while living in a present that is fragile and difficult. Some of the characters are young but with experiences that have provided them knowledge beyond their years. There is a tug of war between the old ways and something new that no one really has a strong grasp of. Thus, each character is a central protagonist to the truth on where things are in the novel. The characters range from elders, orphans, some former child soldiers, an amputated family of three, a young woman who returns with a child she had had during the war, families etc. They all return to their homeland and begin learning to live together as victims, perpetrators and those in between.
There are many messages in the novel but the central one is the importance of preserving what means the most in uncertain times.
You must be a very busy person given the advocacy work you do for UNICEF and many other organizations to bring attention to the plight of children and child soldiers affected by war around the world. How long did it take you to complete the novel?
It took three years and I actually completed it in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic where I was for many months while the country was at war. Sadly, the war continues and has heightened.
In your author’s note in ‘Radiance of Tomorrow’, you talk about the vast richness and expressiveness of your mother tongue, the Mende. Do you think some of this imagery is lost while writing in English? Or is it possible to merge two different cultures (in this case English and Mende) to write a great story, without losing the expressiveness of one’s mother tongue?
The oral tradition of my childhood was my first introduction to the narrative form. When you share a story orally, you have to capture the imagination of the listeners and bring them to the landscape of the story so that they can feel, smell, hear and be a part of it as intimately as possible. You have to use images and words that will leave imprints on the mind of your listener. And this is possible through careful usage of language, of parables, adages, of personifying even nature to color whatever is unfolding in the narrative. So when I write, I utilize some of these elements using the beauty of my languages and their various expressions that sparks the imagination.
To your question, yes some of the images are lost but I do the best I can to convey the feelings of those images that the English language is insufficient to describe. I am not trying to merge cultures but rather translating the richness of one using a different medium, English that is.
The novel is about preserving traditions and the things that mean the most to us; even in the most uncertain times. Is this your hope for Sierra Leone?
Preserving our own traditions is crucial to who we are. I believe it is only by understanding and embracing your own tradition that you are able to access and understand those of others and extract something positive from them. If you are not who you are, then what can you possibly be?
What influences you to write? Who are some of the other writers who have made a great influence on you?
In the words of Albert Camus, one of my favorite writers. “The role of a writer is not to represent those who make history but rather those who suffer it.” I write from that thinking. Most of all, my wife is my muse. She is the greatest influence in my life.
I read a lot and some influential writers are Achebe, Hemingway, Soyinka, Beckett, Camus, Coetzee, Danticat etc. I am currently reading works of Alain Mabanckou (Congolese, Brazzaville) and Mia Couto (Mozambican). They are both fantastic writers.
Do you read many books written by African writers? What authors would you highly recommend to someone interested in African literature?
Absolutely! There are many to recommend – Ben Okri, Bessie Head, Nuruddin Farah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Dambudzo Marechera, Buchi Emecheta, Hisham Matar, Ahmadou Kourouma, Ama Ata Aidoo and so on.
What are you working on now? Are you planning to continue writing fiction?
I am working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Yes, I will certainly continue to write fiction.