Ishmael Beah was just barely a teenager when his town became engulfed in Sierra Leone’s civil war in the mid-1990s. In his 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone, Beah describes how, after he lost his parents and brothers to the conflict, he wandered the countryside with a band of boys and was recruited as a child soldier by government forces. The memoir describes the hellish atrocities committed by child soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Beah talks with NPR’s Renee Montagne about his debut novel Radiance of Tomorrow, in which he imagines a shattered community struggling to rebuild itself after war.
On one character who greets an old friend with caution
During Sierra Leone’s war, there was a lot of amputation going on where people were mutilated in different parts of their body. …As you see in this character, this old man, he refused to look at his friend, and when he finally found the courage to lift his head, he was checking to make sure if she was intact. And if she wasn’t intact, if he was ready to take this burden of what she may look like — what she may be missing — into his memory.
On the fundamental ways people are changed by war
How do you move into the future while the past is still trying to pull at you very strongly? Because so many things have changed — so many images, so many ways people relate to each other. For example, before the war in this village, if a boy or young man was walking on the path with a machete, it would be only looked at that boy was coming from a farm. But because of the war, now when you see a young person carrying a machete, people are afraid to pass them on the path. … So how do you change that image? How do you stop looking at it that way?
On misconceptions about the “rehabilitation” of former child soldiers
What do you do with certain skillset and certain habits and certain things that you’ve acquired during war? Sometimes some of these things don’t need to be washed out of you, as most people will think whenever they see a former child soldier. They will think, “Oh, you need complete rehabilitation. You need to forget everything that happened in order to have a life.” No, sometimes you don’t.
… Survival requires a remarkable intelligence. Also being able to know that when one is selfish, what it does to society. When one wants everything from themselves — knowing that and not wanting that to repeat itself. Also knowing how to resist people trampling all over you as a human being and dehumanizing you. Some of these things can be used for positive force. Some of the things that young people learn during war — even though I don’t want anybody to go to war — can be refocused in a positive way, so I wanted to play with that a little bit.
On nature as a character in the story
I grew up in this landscape, and so I saw how nature behaved based on what was unfolding on the landscape itself. And particularly during the war … when the gunshots were taking over the town — even the sounds in the atmosphere — the birds no longer sang as they did in the morning. So you can feel that nature itself is afraid of what was unfolding.
On the beauty of Mende, his mother tongue
Sierra Leone has so many different languages, and most of these languages — the way they are spoken — are very image-driven, so things are said beautifully. … When you look at a ball, we describe the components that make a ball. So you say, “a nest of air,” or “a vessel that carries air.”
And so as a kid, I already had a sense of narrative structure orally. You have to capture the imagination of somebody to bring them to the landscape of the story so that they can be there with you and smell, feel, hear and be a part of the experience very intimately.
I’ll give another example: You know, how you say, “night came suddenly”? In Mende, which is my mother tongue, you say, “the sky rolled over and changed its sides.” You know, so these are some of the expressions that you have as a kid that anybody would say.
On redefining the happy ending
Yes, certainly the happy ending necessarily doesn’t mean that you know everybody goes prancing in the sunlight and dancing. Sometimes it’s the possibility of things about to change, or people’s consciousness have changed to a certain extent, you know?
… What I try to say in this book is that people who live in certain conditions actually understand what true happiness is and take that moment whenever it is — even if it is only one minute, 30 seconds — to actually be truly happy because they know it’s a rarity in many places. That actually to have it — to have that moment of peace, it’s precious. They understand that, and so when they’re happy, they’re genuinely happy. That’s also a strength of my people. Otherwise, we would not be able to survive some of the things that have happened on this continent.