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Thu January 9, 2014
Author Interviews

A Former Child Soldier Imagines 'Tomorrow' In Sierra Leone

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 10:21 am

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.


Interview Highlights

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 skill set 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 for 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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ishmael Beah was an adolescent when, as he's described it, rocket-propelled grenades introduced the people of his town to war. That was the mid-1990s.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In his memoir, "A Long Way Gone," Beah wrote of losing his parents and brothers to Sierra Leone's vicious civil war, fleeing and wandering the countryside with a band of boys until he was recruited as a child soldier by government forces. He told of a descent into hell, committing atrocities, as many child soldiers did on both sides of the conflict.

MONTAGNE: In his new novel, "Radiance of Tomorrow," Beah imagines a journey, this one after the war is done. When he joined me, we began at the beginning, with an old woman walking back into her town to ruined homes and scattered bones, until she spots an old friend who greets her with caution. He's studying her, and she realizes he's looking at her to see if she has her nose and her arms and her lips.

ISHMAEL BEAH: During Sierra Leone war, there was a lot of amputation going on, where people were mutilated in different parts of their body. So, if you hadn't seen somebody for many, many years, when you saw them - and as you see in this character, this old man, he refuses 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.

And also, there's a question, that 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 a 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, because holding a machete now has a newer way that you look at it. So, how do you change that image? How do you stop looking at it that way? But also the possibility of people find a way to come back together again with all of these difficulties, but it is not that easy.

MONTAGNE: Among the young people who show back up in this novel, one of the main ones is a teenage boy who calls himself Colonel, and he comes back leading a little troop of other kids. You can figure it out right from the beginning, he's been a child soldier. And he becomes the voice of justice for that town. Is that you? Do you see yourself in that character?

BEAH: I see a little bit of myself in that character, but also, it was one of the difficult characters to write, because I wanted to really have a little bit of a discussion through fiction about: What do you do with certain skill-set 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.

Sometimes, actually, the very things that you've learned - for example, surviving - to survive requires a remarkable intelligence. Also, being able to know that when one is selfish, what it does to society when one wants everything for themselves - knowing that and not wanting that to repeat itself - also knowing how to just 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.

MONTAGNE: Well, Colonel, this young former child soldier, has a chance to stand up for his people when something like a second war comes to town in the form of a mining company. I'm wondering if you could read a passage. It's when everyone realizes this mining company wants their village.

BEAH: Yes. (Reading) The crowd started shouting: We own this land. No one consulted us. The officials, shielded from the people by their armed guards and police, got into their vehicles and left the townspeople to their quarrels. That evening, the usual layer of clouds that summoned night to cloak the sky were broken into many pieces and struggled to make their call. Thus, the night, too, arrived at a defeated pace that deepened the gloominess of the town. Even the birds didn't chant. They just went quietly into their nests as if they know that they would soon have to find new homes.

MONTAGNE: That is a hugely painful moment in this story. But it's a beautiful way to describe it, and it seems like, throughout the book, nature is another character. It engages.

BEAH: I mean, you know, 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. For example, also, 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 was afraid of what was unfolding.

MONTAGNE: In the book, you talk about language. You talk about, say, the expression a nest of air would be what you might call a soccer ball. Expressions that might be just a word or two in English are given these poetic renderings. What else would you hear when you were a child in your town?

BEAH: 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. The example that you gave, 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.

MONTAGNE: This story - like, sadly, so many that find their way into the news - it doesn't seem able to have a happy, happy ending. But in the end, what seems to be important is that the tale gets told.

BEAH: 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. And also, 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's 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, is 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.

MONTAGNE: Ishmael Beah, thank you very much for joining us.

BEAH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The novel is called "Radiance of Tomorrow." You can read an excerpt at NPR.org. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.