One-Minute Book Reviews

January 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About the Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for The Australian

Mr. Ishmael Beah
c/o Sarah Crichton Books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003

Dear Mr. Beah:

Nearly a year ago, One-Minute Book Reviews questioned how you could have seen some of the things you claim to have observed in A Long Way Gone, your gripping memoir of your experiences as a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. This site raised its questions first in a review of your book www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/ and then in a reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in his review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

More recently the newspaper The Australian raised questions about the timeline of your story www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23082274-2703,00.html. You responded to these by saying, in part, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputes this and challenges your criticism of the paper in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html.

In any case your response to The Australian was so prompt that I hope you will now be willing to respond to questions I raised last year. Some involve a scene on page 97 of A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) www.fsgbooks.com. You say that you and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” You write that you heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

My questions include: How could you and your friends have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? If you could see a rebel “nod” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels could not see you? In your time as a solider, did you take any any notes that would help you remember conversations in such detail? Or were you relying only on the “photographic memory” that you say in your book that you have? If you took notes, how did you hide them while you were a soldier and get them out of the country later on?

I would appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Sincerely,

Janice Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

8 Comments »

  1. Jan 29, 2008
    To Janice Harayda
    One-Minute Book Reviews

    Ten years of civil war with millions of victims in Sierra Leon didn’t get noticed right away but sure enough people are jumping up to condemn Ishmael so fast with out even hearing his explanation. He was there in person and he knows way better to what happened to his own life.

    No doubt, Ishmael is a talented young boy. For one, English language being not his first language, he remembered speeches from Shakespeare’s work at early age; I would give him credit for that.

    Anyways, my comment for your question regarding page 97 is … Ishmael and his friends were close enough to hear the conversation and to see the nodding of the rebels. Ishmael and his friends were possibly hiding by the coffee trees; eventually the rebels heard them too, when one of them moved but for hours they were move less.

    I would say Ishmael didn’t take notes as his life as a soldier was meaningless. He didn’t know he was going to survive it let alone write about it and make a great awareness. Lots of people wondered how he remembered the details. Come on now, who knows how much he forgot to write? He wrote what he remembered and I am sure his draft for this book was bigger before editing.

    Imagine yourself living in Africa and try to write about your country (western world), childhood, culture, weather, neighbors, community, school, family and friends, even with out having any of the hardships Ishmael went through. I am sure you would come up with bigger book. Sure, is hard to remember what you were told or learned at school but if you see it or better yet lived through it you don’t need “photographic memory” to write about it.

    I would love to read if Ishmael is not too busy to provide any clarification tho’.

    Syn

    Comment by syn95 — January 30, 2008 @ 1:18 am | Reply

  2. Syn,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. A few reactions:

    1) Condemning Beah “without even hearing his explanations”: A lot of us would love to hear Beah’s explanations, but he isn’t providing them. For instance, the Australian says its reporters “failed to find any supporting evidence for one of the book’s dramatic peaks: the death of six boy soldiers in a fight at a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in early 1996.” How can it be that there’s no evidence of the murder of six children in a camp run by UNICEF? Beah may have an explanation, but he’s not saying what it is.

    2) “No doubt, Ishmael is a talented young boy.” Beah is a 27-year-old adult. And one thing that may be happening is that people may feel they have to “protect” him as they would a child when he’s old enough to be responsible for what he wrote.

    3) I read the passage on page 97 over and over while writing my review and reading group guide. And it still makes no sense, whether they were hiding in the trees, grass or anywhere else. Beah writes of extraordinarily specific gestures that it appears you would have to be very close to see. And I just don’t see how, at that close range, they could have avoided detection for hours.

    But, like you, I would be very interested in any comments he has … thanks again for your comment.

    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 30, 2008 @ 2:03 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for replying

    Glad, Ishmael commented and it is clearer now.

    As far as I am concerned, it is a matter of a choice not “protection”. I choose to believe in what Ishmael said and everything made sense to me when I read the book.

    The Australians were wrong on saying they found Ishmael’s father and they could be wrong about anything else they said.

    Syn

    Comment by syn95 — January 31, 2008 @ 2:55 am | Reply

  4. Yes, the Australian did at first think Beah’s father was alive. But the newspaper admitted right away that it was wrong on that one. And unless I have missed one of his statements, Beah has never admitted that he might be wrong about anything. His position seems to be: I am 100% right, no matter what questions anybody raises.

    Apart from Beah’s unique situation, in life in general I am more inclined to believe people who admit that they may be sometimes wrong than people whose position is: “I am infallible.” To my knowledge Beah hasn’t so far admitted that he might be wrong. But perhaps that may change.

    Thanks so much for your comment.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 31, 2008 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  5. Hi Janice,
    I have two comments/qestions:

    1. I wonder if you have read/ heard of a novella called “Moses, Citizen and Me” by Delia
    Jarrett-Macauley? A comment on the Speakeasy blog notes a ‘spooky’ resemblance between Beah’s Shakespeare-spouting character and one from the earlier novella (I had neither read nor heard of it): http://blog.awmonline.com.au/2008/01/22/ishmael-beahs-memoir-a-long-way-gone-not-factually-correct/*

    Interestingly, Beah gave an interview to the Times a few days later in which he stressed the prevalence of Shakespeare-spouting fighters in Sierra Leone.

    2. I also experienced some ‘spooky’ syntactical deja vu when I read syn95′s comments above. So I re-read the initial Australian article, ‘Africa’s War Child’, and found the following paragraphs…

    “She sent one email asking for more information, and then, after a gap of 12 days and an interchange Lloyd received another. Although it was signed “Laura”, it seemed to have been written by someone-else. The syntax is jerky, awkward. Punctuation is missing. Whereas the first email had clearly been written by someone who was a native English speaker and educated, this now read as if prepared by someone whose native language was not English.

    One sentence read: “Why you said in my letter that this man came to you and why you told Sarah that you sought out the boy’s father. And why you are passionate about reaching him. Is there something that you want?” It finally warns, “We are deeply concerned that this issue not go further than you, and Sarah, and myself.” THE Ishmael Beah saga is a puzzling tale complicated by what seems to be unquestioning and passionate belief in the young author from his publishers, guardian and agent.”

    Got me speculating as to whom you may have been conversing with???

    Comment by jasperpin — February 3, 2008 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  6. Jasperin: Oh, wow. Am I glad I looked away from the Super Bowl for a few minutes. I had completely missed that Speakeasy post.

    I’ll try to add to this comment after the game. (You know I live in New Jersey, right?) But in the meantime, a thousand thanks. Yours is possibly the most interesting comment I’ve had since I started this blog.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 3, 2008 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

  7. I wanted to comment on your previous “Questions for Ishmael Beah” but I can’t seem to navigate back to that page since you’ve updated it.

    I agree there are grounds to question the accuracy of this memoir, or of any document that claims to be history. Certainly there have been plenty of frauds over the years, something that you, being a novelist, are no doubt more aware of than myself.

    Still, I feel that you must reconsider some of the grounds on which you criticize Beah’s “truth”. He claims it is true because this is his subjective experience. Perhaps he did borrow experiences from other soldiers, but would this make it any less true?

    You want to criticize his sources, his reasonings for thinking his parents are dead. Do you honestly believe he can defend his sources? He’s was not a journalist, he was a child. Perhaps believing his parents were dead is not substantiated by anything other than belief, but if this is a belief that makes it easier for Beah to continue living, why should we bother questioning it?

    I also disagree that Beah should disclose the last names of some of his fellow child soldiers, simply so that journalists can ‘dig them up’ (I’m paraphrasing). These are people lives – I do not think it would be fair of Beah to give away these people’s identities merely for the whim of the media. In fact, I would expect that the first names of these individuals were already changed to protect their identity.

    Furthermore, as mentioned above, the details about hiding in the bushes were already explained in the book itself. Beah noted that because he and his comrades were so small, they were frequently able to hid in the bushes without being seen by adult soldiers. And honestly, to expect Beah to reply to your email, and then to use his lack of reply as some sort of indication of his guilt, is completely unreasonable.

    Finally, you’ve later criticized Beah’s writing abilities. As its been pointed out, he is not a Native English speaker. I think the authenticity of his language only reflects the authenticity of this book in general.

    Comment by scottv1 — December 14, 2008 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  8. It certainly does matter if Beah borrowed from others, because he has passed this book off as his own experiences. If he is now claiming he didn’t have these experiences, he would have been lying all along. And all readers who bought the book based on the idea that it consisted only of Beah’s experiences should be able to get their money back.

    Re: “Perhaps believing his parents were dead is not substantiated by anything other than belief, but if this is a belief that makes it easier for Beah to continue living, why should we bother questioning it?” Again, we should be questioning it because Ishmael Beah and his publishers have repeatedly told the world that this book is the story of a war orphan. If that is not the case, all the readers who bought this book thinking it was the story of a war orphan should be able to get their money back.

    And why on earth would thinking his parents were dead make it easier for Beah to “go on living”? Most of us would be overjoyed if we thought our parents had died horrible deaths and found out they were alive. You are suggesting that somehow it’s easier for Beah to go on living if he thinks his parents died horrible deaths. This is a peculiar idea, to say the least.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 14, 2008 @ 9:23 pm | Reply


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