Ishmael Beah, author and former child soldier, comes to Baltimore

'Radiance of Tomorrow' explores Sierra Leone's attempts to rebuild itself after a decade-long civil war

  • Author Ishmael Beah will read from his new novel, "Radiance of Tomorrow" on April 28 at Johns Hopkins University
Author Ishmael Beah will read from his new novel, "Radiance… (Courtesy of John Madere,…)
April 26, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The author Ishmael Beah grew up listening to his grandmother tell folk tales that explained, among other things, why a spider has a narrow waist.

He quickly realized that beneath the whimsy were hidden life lessons he was expected to master.

"I would [sit] around the fire every evening and ask my grandmother what the stories meant, and she would refuse to tell me," Beah said. "The stories were like medicine. I was supposed to find the meanings for myself and let them strengthen me."

The boy needed all the strengthening he could get when he was kidnapped at age 13, drafted as a child soldier into Sierra Leone's civil war, and forced to commit atrocities. His memoir describes murders and mutilations he committed under duress.

In 1998, Beah was rescued by UNICEF and moved to the United States, where he finished school and prepared to become a writer. He now lives in New York City.

Echoes of his grandmother's stories can be found in Beah's best-selling 2007 memoir, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," and in his new novel, "Radiance of Tomorrow," which explores how his homeland tried to rebuild itself after the shooting stopped.

And like his grandmother's spider, the author doubtless will spin his own intricate webs when he speaks at the Johns Hopkins University on Monday.

"In our tradition, once you have told a story, it's no longer yours," Beah said in a recent phone interview (an edited version appears below). "You are just the shepherd. The story belongs to everyone who encounters it, and they take it in many different directions."

What inspired you to write a book about a country rebuilding itself in the aftermath of war?

The physical wounds of war sometimes are the easiest to heal. The psychological ones are more difficult: How do you learn to live together and rekindle your traditions? Can you go back to what your life was? And if you can't, what do you do?

There were all the questions that were in my head. I observed that people who had come to the United States and Europe seeking political asylum were sent back to Sierra Leone as soon as the war had ended on paper. The observers of peace and reconciliation didn't go outside the capital city. They said, "Oh, your country's good. You should go back."

But you have to go into the interior, where most of the devastation happened. Some of the fighters in the country are in the bushes, and they would not get the news until maybe months or a year later.

Were any parts of the novel taken from your own life? How about the character of the child soldier who sought forgiveness from his former victims?

The novel is not based very much on my own experience. I created this world and these characters, and they are a composite of many, many things that I observed.

The only trace of me might be the former child soldiers, Ernest and the Colonel. But those characters also were based on the 300,000 child soldiers around the world.

I never met any of my former victims, as Ernest did. But there are certain places in Sierra Leone that I go where people know I was active in the war. Sometimes they look at me a certain way.

Tell me about why you named your book "Radiance of Tomorrow."

I was trying to get at the hopeful quality of the people, the idea that what has yet to come tomorrow hasn't been tainted by everything that has happened. It still has the possibility of being good, and that's the hope that people live for. The changes may not be significant, but the people can still make little strides.

I also wanted to talk about this question of happiness, which oftentimes people think of as a continuum: I'm happy for two months in a row, or five months, with no interruption.

These characters understand that happiness is not that. It's not the absence of challenges in one's life. It's the ability to find beauty and hold on to these moments, to be passionate about watching a football match or going to a disco or listening to a story like there's no tomorrow.

You've spent more than half your life in the United States. Do you still feel like an immigrant?

Yes and no. I'm a Sierra Leonean with some American tendencies, and that will be true all my life. In Sierra Leone, one of the ways people test you when you go back home is to speak the language to you. If you cannot remember the language, they immediately consider you not one of them anymore. Language plays a key role in our culture.

Sierra Leone has about 15 languages and three dialects, and I grew up speaking about seven of them. I made sure that I remembered all my languages, even when I didn't have people to speak to initially. I would talk to myself in the evening when I was doing my homework. I just knew that if I forgot these languages, I would begin to lose my own identity.

Your prose is full of metaphors and vivid descriptions. How did your style evolve?

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