I published Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in 2007. Ishmael was born in Sierra Leone, and A Long Way Gone tells the story of how he was swept up in a civil war when he was only twelve years old. Editing and publishing Ishmael has been one of the joys of my time at FSG, and his book remains a perennial favorite here and on the bestseller lists. A few weeks ago, Ishmael and I sat down to brunch near his home in Brooklyn, where he’s working on a new novel.
-Sarah Crichton, Publisher of Sarah Crichton Books
Crichton: So, Ishmael, it’s been a very hectic time for you since A Long Way Gone was published three years ago, but I gather you’re finally back writing again.
Ishmael Beah: Yes, for the first two years after the book came out, it was constant movement. I spent almost no time at all in New York. I was wondering why I had an apartment because I only came to it for one or two days, and then I was gone. I was talking to students at universities around the United States, traveling and speaking as a UNICEF ambassador and as an advocate for children affected by war and for the Network of Young People Affected by War, of which I am a founding member. I have also spoken on behalf of the Human Rights Watch children’s rights advisory committee, the UN office for Children and Armed Conflict . . . all with the aim of creating the political will needed to strengthen mechanisms and support to end the use of children in war and provide assistance to those children and youth affected by war.
Crichton: And the book was published in thirty-three territories, thirty-one languages—everything from Estonian to Korean, Hebrew to Hungarian—so I imagine you were busy visiting your foreign publishers, too.
Beah: Yes, I’ve traveled so much, I’ve almost lost count of how many days I’ve been gone, or all the places I’ve been. But I do know that I have hundreds of thousands of miles in frequent-flier programs.
Crichton:You’ll never have to buy a ticket again.
Beah: It’s true. So I have flown more than I thought I ever would in my life. And because of the constant movement I was unable to sit and write. But now I’m beginning to slow down. Now I’m trying to sit down more and carve out the time to write.
Crichton: That’s exciting for an editor and publisher to hear. Can I ask what you’re working on?
Beah: I can talk about it—but not in detail because it’s not really set in the way I want it yet. What I can say is that it’s fiction, and it’s mostly about post-conflict Sierra Leone. It’s about what has been happening there in the years since the media stopped paying attention to my country. When there’s conflict in a country, everyone gets interested in the place, but when the conflict ends, the media tends to feel there’s no longer a story to be told. But these times are really the most important times, because what happens during this post-conflict period can determine if the country goes back into conflict or not.
In the case of Sierra Leone, during the war a lot of things were lost. The traditional ways of living were tested, and in some cases failed. A lot of people no longer know how to carry on their lives anymore. The country’s very strange, based on what I saw as a child growing up there. Many people had become accustomed to a sheltered way of thinking about their lives, and now they have to change that. So Sierra Leone is now trying to find its identity. And no one knows exactly what that is.
I’m writing about these kinds of things, to shed light on what’s going on there.
Crichton: When did the conflicts stop in Sierra Leone?
Beah: The conflicts officially ended in 2002. So that’s many years ago. But of course since then problems have flared up here and there; and there are those who feel as if the conflict hasn’t ended because some of the political corruption that led to the conflict is still present. But the majority of the people are happy there’s no longer a war, even if things are difficult in a lot of ways. The country is definitely coming up.
Crichton: You’ve been back a lot?
Beah: Yes, I’ve been back many, many times. I actually spent last winter, the U.S. winter, there. (You know, I try to escape the winter when I can!) So I’ve been there quite a lot over the last few years.
These days, Sierra Leone is an interesting combination of Sierra Leoneans, expatriates, and foreigners. There’s a young woman there who used to live in Los Angeles and is in Freetown now, and who’s started a literary evening where people get together and read poetry and short stories, and musicians play, like an open mike. So last February, when I flew to Sierra Leone, I decided to surprise her and come to her evening and read something. It was really strange because it was the first time I had done a reading in Sierra Leone, and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. When I walked on the stage, everyone stood up and clapped (this is a room full of people). And I was really shocked; I didn’t think Sierra Leoneans knew my writing as much as it turns out they do. I read a poem called “Signals on Lion Mountain“—Sierra Leone means Lion Mountain. It is a poem that I had written before A Long Way Gone, and it is a really a succinct version of the book.
Funnily enough, I was just contacted two days ago because they’re trying to put together a program to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Sierra Leone’s independence, or something like that. They’re trying to add a literature component to the celebration and I just got a letter, saying, Hey, you are the top literary man from Sierra Leone [laughs]. I wanted to say, Hey, I’ve only written one book—it’s going to take a long time for me to write enough to become the top literary man!
Crichton: You’ve written fiction before, I know. And when you were an undergraduate at Oberlin College, you studied creative writing with a terrific novelist, Dan Chaon. I’m taking his novel with me on vacation.
Beah: His newest one? Await Your Reply?
Crichton: Yes. I started it and the first two pages scared the wits out of me; just a wild opener.
Beah: Stay with it. You’re going to like it.
Yes, I have written fiction before. Short. Twenty or forty pages. For me, it’s not a new territory. And although I’m writing fiction, I’m also writing about things that are real. These are events that are happening, but for the safety of the people I’m writing about, and for security issues, it seems best to fictionalize it. Whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, I always write about things I feel deeply passionate about because that’s the only way I can really do it well. If I write about something that I’m not deeply engaged in, it just doesn’t work.
Recently I was giving a talk, and someone asked if I would ever write a romance novel. It was a funny question. But then I thought, well, okay, maybe. I come from a different culture and it could work to my advantage or disadvantage. What I consider romantic may not necessarily be what other people consider romantic. I’ve lived in this culture long enough to test some of the hypotheses of what romance is to me on a few people, and it hasn’t worked out quite that well [laughs].
For example, in the context of Sierra Leone, romance could mean a woman cooking for a man and sending a dish to the man’s house as a sign of showing that she cares and that she loves the man. Whereas in the West if you ask some women to cook for you, they may think otherwise—they may think you see them as belonging to the kitchen and that sort of thing.
Crichton: I know people often ask if you would ever write a sequel to A Long Way Gone, picking up where you left off. Have you considered writing about what happened when you got to the United States?
Beah: Yes. A lot of people have been, well, not upset but kind of disappointed that the book ended the way it did. They wanted more of an ending. They wanted me to tell them the rest of my story. And I’m interested in doing that; I can see that it could be important to tell people what it’s like for a young man from an African country to come to this country, to experience a culture that is so foreign to him.
But writing a memoir is emotionally exhausting. I feel like I’ve needed a little break, you know? I actually already have pieces of it written—bits, here and there. As I’ve traveled for A Long Way Gone, I’ve been collecting memories that didn’t make it into the book, especially about what it was like arriving here. Yes, I think I’ll definitely write it at some point. I think it’s important to paint a picture of what my view of American culture was when I arrived.
Crichton: Here we are, having brunch on a summer Sunday in Brooklyn, and your book is back on the bestseller list! I must say, I find it tremendously moving how the book keeps finding a larger and larger audience. So many high-school and college students read it.
Beah: Yes, more and more schools keep assigning it, and I keep meeting teachers who say, “This is the first time this kid has ever finished reading a book.” It is beyond my own comprehension. The book has a life of its own.
And it’s not just students who come to talk to me about it. I’ve had many people, so many, come up to me who experienced what I experienced—they were in similar situations, or lost their families, or were child soldiers in different parts of the world. I have hundreds of letters from people in prison, who see themselves in the book. I get letters from veterans, recent veterans back from Iraq. People come up to me and say, “When I read this book I understood my husband, or my cousin, or my brother who was fighting in Iraq more now than they would ever be able to tell me. Thank you for that.” That was never my intention, but there you have it.
It’s amazing. I encounter all of these things on my travels.
Not too long ago, I was on a plane to Aspen. A woman was sitting next to me, and I could tell that she had recognized me and was thinking about saying something to me. And finally she said, “You are Ishmael Beah, and I don’t mean to disturb you, but I just have to tell you something.” She told me she and her husband had read the book, and they had been so moved by it, that they adopted a boy from Sierra Leone.
As I said, the book has a life of its own.