Former child soldier Ishmael Beah on language, violence, and writing

As I mentioned in my blog post a week and a half ago, I got the amazing opportunity to see Ishmael Beah give a speech at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in Philadelphia. (No, I’m not a librarian…you have to get a special degree for that).

Beah, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is the author of probably the finest war child memoir to emerge from that strange and twisted sub-genre:  Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a  Boy Soldier.  It became a massive bestseller thanks to its well-crafted account of the events preceding and following the civil war in Sierra Leone–and of course the nightmare that was the war itself. It’s since been translated into over 30 languages, and even found its way onto the syllabus for my anthropology class on youth & violence. It’s a solid piece of writing, and introspective, too.

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Now Beah is 33, but he still closely resembles the young, radiant-looking boy on the back cover of his memoir. Regrettably, this was the best photo I took of Beah at the conference. Not entirely my fault this time; as you can see, they kept the room pretty dark.

Beah is a beautiful speaker; you get the sense that he selects each word and tries out its flavor and assesses its context before deciding to use it. So, rather than presenting his speech as the patchwork of notes I managed to take, I’m going to use a technique that I learned in a nonfiction writing class where we were encouraged to take liberties with putting paragraphs of spoken words together. Please note, then, that what’s written below is rarely an exact quote, but rather a general sense of the story Beah told.

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Beah

We didn’t have many books growing up in Sierra Leone. The teachers were the ones with textbooks, which they’d read out loud to the entire class. If you wanted to read the book yourself, you had to work to befriend the teacher.  You would go to the teacher’s house, and it would be very strict–you had to wash your hands before you could touch the book and you’d be watched the entire time. So those teachers, because they had control over the books–they were my first idea of a librarian.

I remember that Shakespeare was a staple. That’s unsurprising; after all, Shakespeare is a staple in every former British colony. All of us were quite good at memorization; we could recite huge passages of his plays. It has helped my capacity to remember things even now, significantly later down the road. My favorite book was Treasure Island. After the war started and my childhood was over, books were even harder to find.

Unfortunately the situation with books in Sierra Leone is not much different today. They are very expensive. We don’t have printing presses in Sierra Leone, so we import most of them from the UK.  Then they are sold in Sierra Leone at UK prices, which makes them impossible for people to buy. As a result, if one person manages to buy a book, they will make illegal copies so that everyone can read it.

When I go to Sierra Leone, I put copies of my book in the libraries there so that at least they are available. You can donate books through the foundation Books for Africa. But not just any books–they need to be relevant books.

When I came to the United States, people kept asking me for my report card. I didn’t have one. I mean, that is not what you think of when there is a war outside your house. “Oh, I hear the guns, they are shooting–what should I grab? Oh! Can’t forget my report card!” [Laughs] So no, I did not have one. In fact I wrote an essay about why I did not have a report card and that is how I got into the United Nations’ International School.

I learned English in a very formal way, by reading Shakespeare, and  when I came to the U.S. I had to learn how to speak more informally. In Sierra Leone, people are always actively listening to your choice of words. If you make a mistake, they will correct you while you are speaking. There is an affection for language there; it is considered an art form.

I began writing when I was at Oberlin College. I was studying political science, but there was a fictional short story competition and the prize was something like $3,000. That was a lot of money to me, so I entered the contest and ended up winning. Of course, all of the creative writing students were upset that someone in political science had won their contest [Laughs]. The story I wrote, called “At Noon,” was about how the government in Sierra Leone would conduct bombing raids every day at 12:00. The rebels would be distracted by the bombs and rush to defend their stockpile, and everyone in the village would have to quickly start up a fire and cook their food. Because if the rebels were around when you were eating or preparing food, they would just take it from you.

After that, my professors encouraged me to continue writing. I had the manuscript for A Long Way Gone finished by the time I graduated. I wrote it for myself, to remember what had happened to me. I never intended to publish it. Of course, when it was eventually published, I had some careful conversations with my friends. “I have written this book and it is about to be published, and there are some things that perhaps you should know about me before it comes out…” [Laughs] It did change the way certain people felt about me. Some became afraid. I could never predict how they would react.

When you are touched by violence, afterward you always try to resist it. You are no longer fascinated by it in any way. The media pays attention to bloodshed. They swoop in and try to capture the blood while it is being spilled, and then when it is over, they move on to the next area. They never stay to see what happens after the violence has ended. There is never any discussion of what it is like to go back to your village or your home, and it is a very difficult process.

The dynamic between elders and children changes permanently. In war, children are used to spread violence. Before the war, if you were walking down the path and you saw a young boy with a machete, you would think, Oh, he’s going to work in the field. After the war, there was a lot of connotation added to that image. It becomes something scary. And by asking certain questions, you re-open wounds. It’s very hard to have conversations after a war.

I do go back to Sierra Leone quite often. My spirit rests there more than any other place. It is very peaceful there, and safer now than New York is, because everyone there knows what violence is, and has been touched by it, and they are no longer fascinated by it but actively resist it. Today I consider myself Sierra Leonean with some American tendencies.

My new novel Radiance of Tomorrow is not written in conventional English. I thought of the story in my mother tongue, Mende. I grew up thinking my language was not suited for literature because it is an oral language.  But English was not sufficient for saying the things I wanted to say. I believe that language fits landscape, and I was hoping to evoke a different setting, the setting of Sierra Leone, by using different expressions.

Nature is not a bystander in my narrative; it is personified. Happiness is not a continuum in this book. There are moments of happiness, but happiness is not defined as the absence of a challenge. I was able to ask many questions in this book, and the beauty of fiction is that you don’t have to answer all of them.

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As I said, the above narrative is not verbatim, though there are some direct quotes sprinkled throughout (i.e., the particularly elegant bits). Amazingly, Beah was giving away free promotional copies of his new novel. It is signed and waiting on my bookshelf, ready to be absorbed.

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9 thoughts on “Former child soldier Ishmael Beah on language, violence, and writing

      1. I hope it’s good! I really wanted more at the “end” of his story. It seemed like getting back to the US, transitioning to New York and a new family would be a story worth reading. Let me know!

  1. That’s pretty amazing that you wrote all that out! I should put his book on my to-read list. I have considered it, but refrained once out of fear that the subject matter would be too difficult to read.

    1. The subject matter is definitely difficult, as are parts of the book. But it’s not particularly hard to read mostly because it’s quite well-written. And there are little reflections sprinkled throughout that you wouldn’t expect in the middle of a war novel. It’s also hopeful in the sense that you know he gets out and ends up being successful in many ways. So, in short, I highly recommend it!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that the post resonated with you, and furthermore, glad that you thought I managed to capture Beah’s sentiments accurately. I only wish you’d been able to hear the speech itself! He’s much more eloquent than I was able to get across here.

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