What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reading Questions

The Fog of MemoirThe feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone.

Ishmael Beah. Click image to expand.On Jan. 19, the Australian, Rupert Murdoch's Aussie broadsheet, published a 4,600-word investigation challenging the credibility of the child-soldier memoir A Long Way Gone. Author Ishmael Beah's heart-wrenching account of Sierra Leone's civil war and the two years he spent as a cocaine-addicted teenage killer achieved instant literary acclaim after its publication last winter and was selected as the inaugural title in Starbucks' reading club. Into its 35th printing, A Long Way Gonehas sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide. Beah, 27, now travels the world as a UNICEF ambassador raising awareness for the plight of child soldiers.

To Read the whole article:

This raises some interesting points, but really, with all the horrors and blood that has spilt in Africa and Sierra Leone is this the best discussion we can have? No matter the truth of Ishmael's story or not - which I as well wondered how he could remember it all so clearly - the fact of the matter is that his story is real somewhere and to someone. What he describes in his book has happened, and we need to be doing something about that, not about if one story has 100% accuracy. Whether the boy was a child soldier for two years or two months - does it matter? It must have been horrible. Let us focus on that.


  1. Tim, Sorry but it does matter because there are Sierra Leonean child soldiers out there who went through horrific experiences for years and years - but they can't tell their story because Ishmael Beah has already published his, and cornered the market. What's more, Beah is now living a very successful life. Think of the child soldiers out there who, having suffered for two years or more, are not recovering so well.. and so think something must be wrong with them. What astonishes me about this debate - and you're certainly one of many to make this argument - is that no-one would dream of saying that say, it didn't matter if someone published a highly exaggerated and factually incorrect memoir about being in the Auschwitz death camp, or in the twin towers on September 11. In those cases, people would be - rightly - horrified that someone should capitalise on those occasions, and take attention away from people who had suffered terrible extremes. And yet, people like you think it's perfectly okay for Beah to do this with his experiences in Africa. It's really a kind of "reverse racism". Think about it.
    Incidentally, Graham Rayman in The Village Voice wrote a far better and nuanced account of the dispute over Beah's memoirs. http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-03-18/news/boy-soldier/

  2. I think you greatly misunderstood my comment. I am not saying it is ok for someone to capitalize off of a story like this. What I am saying is that there is a much bigger picture to look at than an argument that will never come to any secure conclusion. To me, the point of this book is specifically for all the people that were child soldiers. SOMEONE told their story. This is what is important. Liberties are taken within the media everyday, decisions made about what is important and what should be covered or how. My point with this, and I think you are far off base in your interpretation of me, is that the true issue we should be discussing here is how we can help ALL of the former and current child soldiers throughout Africa, not whether one story or its story teller experienced everything he wrote - because it is no stretch to believe these things happened to people. To me if the messenger shows up in rags or the finest of silks, it doesn't really matter if the message says the world will end in five minutes.

    If Beah is capitalizing on something he didn't do, I certainly wouldn't condone that dishonesty, but who is to say one side is right or wrong? Only one person knows that - and he's not talking. That argument will be waged forever, and I just choose not to partake in it, especially as even without an answer to that argument we STILL CANdo something about child soldiers today. And no matter the validity of his story, truth or fiction, 'the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone' was read by over 600,000 people. That is 600,000 people that are more aware of the situation children faced in Sierra Leone's civil war. There is no way that kind of awareness can not find some way to help the other child soldiers in Sierra Leone. For this reason alone I choose not even engage in that validity argument. A story told is a story heard.

    Do you think the survivors of Auschwitz or Sept 11th would care why people helped them? No they would just care that they got help... and awareness is help.

  3. I feel the need to jump in here and comment. I have read Beah's memoir. I love memoirs and search them out on Amazon and where ever I can find them. My feeling is that if I read enough memoirs about enough situations - whether in Sierra Leone or elsewhere - I am a good judge. If Ishmael feels as though/writes as though it was two years, then so be it. If the other child soldiers don't feel they can tell their stories because he did - then they just need to be encouraged to write them and put them out there - every story is different. It also sounds like an excuse. I want to hear them all - then I will decide. If there is something to decide that is of consequence in terms of decisions, I will make the decisions. It is the totality of the whole story that is important. Young people suffered - lets support them and help them move on. For some it may be writing a memoir. For others it maybe spending time with other child soldiers and talking. Who are we to say? The most important thing we can do is get off our high horses and stop making judgements. Let's encourage the people of Sierra Leone to get on with their lives and to do it in a way that best helps them with their need to heal and their need to help others heal. We need to look at the big picture - not pick over the small details about one person and how they told their story.