The publisher has replaced an error-riddled map, but many questions about credibility remain
An altered map appears in the new paperback edition of A Long Way Gone that went on sale in some bookstores over the weekend – a tacit acknowledgement that the original had “seriously misleading errors,” as the Australian reported earlier this year. The map changes the shape of the journey taken by author Ishmael Beah, who says he was forced to serve as a child soldier after fleeing his village during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
But the paperback edition doesn’t ease the concerns about the overall credibility of the book, which have intensified since the hardcover version came out in early 2007. UNICEF said recently that it can’t confirm Beah’s claim that six people died in a fight in one of its rehabilitation camps in Sierra Leone, though the agency says it still believes he was a child soldier.
Here are some of the questions that the paperback edition fails to answer and that reporters, producers and others should ask Beah:
1. You refused to answer the question when a Village Voice reporter asked if you had used composite characters in your book or passed off others’ experiences as your own. Once again: Did you use composite characters or pass off others’ experiences as your own?
2. The cover of A Long Way Gone www.alongwaygone.com shows a child soldier dressed not in the colors of Sierra Leone but of nearby Niger, which also had a civil war in the 1990s. Where was the cover photo taken?
3. Do you still believe, as you claim in your book, that your parents are dead? Why?
4. You say that you concluded your parents were dead after a man named Gasemu — “who used to be one of the notorious single men in my town”– told you that your parents had been staying in a charred house and you saw ashes there. Gasemu does not sound like an impeccable source. Did you have other sources for where your parents were staying?
5. When you were told later that your parents couldn’t be found, why did you assume they had died and not gone into hiding or fled the country?
6. Do you still believe, as you claim in your book, that your two brothers are dead? Why?
7. You say you have learned “to forgive” yourself for the sadistic atrocities you inflicted on others. For example, you say you killed one man by slitting his throat with a bayonet. And you say you killed six prisoners this way: “ … they were all lined up, six of them, with their hands tied. I shot them on their feet and watched them suffer for an entire day before finally shooting them in the head so they would stop crying.” Should the families of your victims forgive you?
8. You met regularly with your editor, Sarah Crichton, while writing the book. How did that process work? After you met with Crichton, would she write up what you said and show you what she wrote? Or would you write up something and show her?
9. The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of A Long Way Gone says the world has about 300,000 child soldiers. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says “it not possible to give a global figure for the number of child soldiers” www.child-soldiers.org. The steering committee for the coalition consists of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, where you serve on an advisory committee. Why did you quote prominently a figure the coalition appears not to support? Have you cited the number in speeches or interviews? If your publisher used the number without your consent, do you repudiate its use? Was it a mistake to use it? Why was this figure removed from the paperback edition?
10. Laura Simms calls you her “adopted son” on her Web site www.laurasimms.com. Similarly, you referred to her as your “adoptive mother” in Publishers Weekly. Has Simms formally adopted you? If not, has she filed any petitions to adopt you that have not yet been approved?
11. Wikipedia says Simms is not your adoptive mother but your “foster mother” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. And the Wikipedia “Discussion” page for your entry suggests that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has protested other aspects of your listing en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Ishmael_Beah. (“The subject’s publisher has registered disquiet with the weight we give The Australian’s account here …”). Has your publisher protested the use of “foster mother” instead of “adopted mother”? Why or why not?
12. You say that six people died and several were wounded in a fight at a UNICEF camp that brought military and national police and ambulances to the scene. UNICEF has said it can’t confirm this. Can you explain why there might be no record of a brawl involving two police forces, health care workers and a United Nations agency, and all the people taking part in or watching the fight? If you made public the name of the camp location, others might come forward to confirm your account. Can you tell us the name of the camp? Or where it was situated? blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/03/unicef_cannot_c.php
13. Some of the concerns about the credibility of your book might go away if reporters could interview some of your fellow soldiers, whom you identify only by their first names. Can you provide few of their last names or other identifying details, such as where they lived, that could help reporters track them down?
14. What is your legal status in the United States? Are you a permanent resident or citizen? If you are a permanent resident, have you applied for U.S. citizenship? If you are a U.S. citizen, do you hold dual citizenship in Sierra Leone or another country?
15. Wikipedia lists your birthday as Nov. 23, 1980 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. Is this correct? If so, what evidence exists for it? Do you have a birth certificate or are you relying on your memory?
16. The map in the paperback edition of your book gives journey a different shape than the hardcover edition did. Is the new map accurate? Which of the two maps represents your journey?
17. One-Minute Book Reviews has repeatedly questioned a scene in which you say that you and your friends were close enough to the rebels t hear them clearly and observe small gestures such as nods, yet they couldn’t see you. How far were you from the rebels?
18. On January 24 this site had a post entitled “An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah.” You never answered this. But the post drew comments from someone named “Syn” who seemed be claiming to know your motives. Did you or someone in your family leave these comments? Have you ever left an anonymous comment on a blog? www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/
19. How did you continue your rehabilitation after you came to the U.S.? Did you have psychotherapy, and did it help you? If you don’t want to answer this question, can you explain why you wouldn’t want to answer a question that could help former child soldiers?
20. You say in A Long Way Gone that you have a “photographic memory.” Were any events described in the book based on what some people call “recovered memories” or memories retrieved through hypnosis?
You’ll find more questions in the reading group guide to A Long Way Gone posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05. The official publication date of the paperback edition of the book is Tuesday, August 5.
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.