One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2012

Ishmael Beah Foundation Didn’t File Tax Returns for 3 Years, IRS Says / Revokes Exemption for ‘A Long Way Gone’ Author’s Group

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The author of a bestseller billed as a “memoir” of a former “child soldier” may face thousands of dollars in penalties

By Janice Harayda

For years reporters have faulted the accuracy of some of the claims made by Ishmael Beah in his bestseller, A Long Way Gone. Now the Internal Revenue Service has faulted Beah’s fund-raising arm, the Ishmael Beah Foundation (IBF), for failing to comply with tax regulations.

The Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of the foundation after the IBF failed to file the required IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ for three years in a row, according to Guidestar, a leading provider of information on charities. Guidestar warns potential donors: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.” The IBF could face penalties of up to $10,000 per return ($50,000 if the IRS considers it a large organization) or up to 5 percent of its gross receipts per year, if the foundation hasn’t already paid such fines.

Guidestar’s comment that the foundation needs “further investigation” isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has followed closely the story of A Long Way Gone, a bestseller said to have sold at least 700,000 copies since the Sarah Crichton Books published it in 2007. Sarah Crichton bills Beah’s book as a “memoir” by someone who spent more than two years as a “child solider” after being forced at the age of 13 to join the Sierra Leone army during its civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

But some of Beah’s most important claims faced challenges from The Australian in Sydney, the Village Voice in New York, Sierra Eye in Sierra Leone, and other media. The questions raised by the book or news reports on it include:

Was Beah a “child soldier” and, if so, for how long? Beah says he fled his village and joined his government’s army after attacks occurred in his region in 1993. The attacks actually took place in 1995, the Australian learned from published reports and interviews in Sierra Leone. That would mean Beah was a soldier for much less time than he says. “Instead of being a child soldier for two years from the age of 13 he may for instance have been one for two months at 15, which at that time would have been too old to be technically considered a ‘child soldier’ under UN provisions outlawing the use of under-age combatants,” reporters for the Australian said. (The use of children under the age of 18 as soldiers was generally outlawed in 2002, when a multinational treaty raised the previous standard of 15 years set by the Geneva Conventions.)

Did Beah fabricate or embellish events? In a dramatic scene in A Long Way Gone, Beah says that a fight killed six people at a UNICEF-run refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after he arrived there as a refugee. UNICEF found no evidence that such a fight occurred, a spokesman told the Village Voice. Others have asked whether Beah sensationalized his story to please reporters, human rights activists, his editor, or Laura Simms, a professional storyteller whom he calls his “adoptive mother.” Those who have had questions include Neil Boothby, a distinguished scholar on children and war at Columbia University. “My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration,” Boothby told Graham Rayman of the Village Voice. “I’ve seen it over and over.” Children of war, he said, “are encouraged to tell the sensational stories.” Residents of Sierra Leone further challenged Beah’s accounts a Sierra Eye magazine article called “A Long Way Gone Is a Long Way From Truth” republished in the Concord Times of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. The Concord Times article requires a subscription, but One-Minute Book Reviews summarized some of the main points.

Are Beah’s parents and brothers alive? In A Long Way Gone Beah says that his parents and two brothers are dead, but his story leaves open the possibility that they may be alive. On the evidence of the book, he believes his parents are dead because he was told by by one man that they were in a house that burned down. When he went to investigate the blaze, he saw “heaps of ashes” but “no solid form of a body inside” in the charred dwelling. This account leaves open the possibility that his parents escaped from the house or that his sole informant was wrong and that they weren’t there at all. And since the publication of A Long Way Gone unconfirmed rumors have circulated that at least one of his brothers may be alive.

Did Beah use composite characters or pass off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own? Beah refused to answer when Rayman of the Village Voice asked if he had used composites or passed off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own. If he wasn’t pretending to have had others’ experiences, why not just say “no”?

Anyone who wants answers to such questions gained another way to ask them last fall. Ishmael Beah (@IshmaelBeah) joined Twitter in October and said tweet to his followers: “I am still trying to figure out what to post! Maybe I should ask you, what it is that you would like me to post on here?” Beah might start by explaining why he didn’t file tax returns for three years. He might also answer the question: How can we trust anything in him book when we can’t trust him to meet one of the fundamental responsibilities of every resident of the United States?

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

Comments on posts on One-Minute Book Reviews must relate directly to their content,  must contain no more than 250 words, and must  be civil.  They must also include a photo avatar, a first and last name, or a link to a site what includes these, unless their author is known to the proprietor of the site. Comments may not violate copyright, libel, defamation or other laws that apply. Any comment that does not meet these tests will be edited or deleted without advance notice.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 16, 2009

Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’ Is ‘A Long Way From Truth,’ Sierra Leonean Magazine Says in a Report That Raises ‘Serious Doubts’ About Its Story

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Anyone who still believes that Ishmael Beah was boy soldier may have doubts after reading the first comprehensive investigation by a Sierra Leonean journalist of the story told in A Long Way Gone, a book billed by its publisher as “a memoir” of Beah’s years as a fighter in his government’s army. Muctaru Wurie investigated Beah’s claims for a report published in the quarterly Sierra Eye and elsewhere. He concluded that A Long Way Gone is “a long way from truth.”

Wurie based his report on an analysis of the book and on interviews with experts on the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, including representatives of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, founded to bring “reconciliation and healing” to victims of the conflict. Beah says he was one of those victims and, based on that claim, and has had a lucrative writing and speaking career in the United States and elsewhere.

Sierra Eye has published a long list of mistakes and other disturbing flaws in A Long Way Gone that have created “serious doubts” among Sierra Leoneans about the book and add to and deepen the questions raised in the Australian by Shelley Gare, David Nason and Peter Wilson. In the West African magazine, Wurie says that Beah describes some events that “never happened.” A list of links to other articles that have challenged or raised questions related to Beah’s claims appears at the end of this post.

Wurie tried to speak with Beah or a representative of his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, but hit the stone wall faced by Graham Rayman of the Village Voice and others when he sought answers to questions about the book.

The most serious problems found by Wurie include:

Ishmael Beah says that when he was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in May 1997: “Someone came on the radio and announced himself as the new president of Sierra Leone. His name, he said, was Johnny Paul Koroma, and he was the leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council …”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “ … everyone who was here at that time knew that what was described as the most embarrassing coup broadcast of all time was delivered by the late Corporal [Tamba] Gborie, who was later convicted of treason and shot by firing squad.”

Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean scholar and journalist who has written regularly for Africa Week other publications, confirms that Gborie did the broadcast in his book A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Indiana Universiy Press, 2005).

Ishmael Beah says that after he arrived at a UNICEF camp for former child soldiers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1996, a fight broke out between those who had fought for the government and for rebels of Revolutionary United Front (RUF): “Six people were killed: two on our side and four on the rebel side; and several were wounded, including two of the men who had brought us [to the camp]. The military ambulances took off, wailing into the still newborn night with the dead and wounded.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “This never happened. I checked newspaper clippings at the Sierra Leone section library at the renowned Fourah Bay College and spoke to many journalists and NGO officials at the time, they all said they had no doubts such an incident never occurred.

“The fact that Ishmael wilfully omitted the name or location of the said centre in Freetown raised further doubts about an event no one here seems to recall.”

Wurie’s contention that the camp fight “never happened” meshes with a UNICEF  statement to the Village Voice that it couldn’t confirm that the fight occurred.

Ishmael Beah says: “The first time I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.”

Alhaji Samura, who was a transcriber for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is quoted as saying in Sierra Eye: “I have read reviews of A Long Way Gone and from what I can see, the book appears to be fictional. I can’t recall a time when someone gave a testimony that they saw the national army recruiting children openly in a town to fight along with them before 1997.”

Ishmael Beah says: “One evening, a neighbor who lived a few doors down from my uncle’s house was listening to a pirate radio station that accused the new government of crimes against civilians. A few minutes later, a truck full of soldiers stopped in front of the man’s house, dragged him, his wife, and his two older sons outside, shot them, and kicked their bodies into the nearby gutter.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye that the incident “never happened”:

“The incident that actually happened (but not mentioned in Ishmael’s book) and caught the attention of the public and international media was the one concerning the woman at Kissy who was listening to FM 98.1 and was later confronted by a soldier whom she defiantly challenged before she was shot. It was the talk of the town and several people flocked to see the dead woman lay on the ground bleeding profusely.

“An incident whereby a whole family was massacred would have raised more public notice –if it did happen. To ascertain this, I called former minister of information, Dr Julius Spencer who was the then head of FM 98.1. He told me clearly that there was not a time he recalled anything like that happened. Spencer, who also happens to be one of the leading literature scholars in the country, said though he has not read Ishmael’s book, the reviews he read makes him doubt if Ishmael depicted the truth in his work.”

Ishmael Beah says that when he left Sierra Leone for Guinea after being removed from the fighting: “The immigration officers were asking for three hundred leones, almost two months’ pay, to put a departure stamp on passports.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “The fact is that the average monthly salary was far above that. Le 300 could only get you a pint of soft drink by the time. In fact, a US dollar is exchanged for around Le 800.”

Wurie said he wanted to ask Beah or his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, how “someone who claims to be a native of the country, and also participated in the war, could have gotten it so wrong on so many aspects.” But he hit a stone wall at the firm that issued the book.

“I called twice and mailed them thrice but I only got a promise that they will get back to me which they never did,” he writes. “In fact, I’m still waiting today.”

You may also want to read these articles that raise questions about A Long Way Gone:

“Boy Soldier of Fortune,” the Village Voice, March 18, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah Foundation Didn’t File Tax Returns for 3 Years, IRS Says,”  One-Minute Book Reviews, April 8, 2012.

“UNICEF Can’t Confirm Beah’s Camp Brawl Claim,” the Village Voice, March 19, 2008.

“An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for the Australian,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Jan. 24, 2o08.

Ishmael Beah Says He Was Shot ‘Three Times in My Left Foot’ But Suffered No Serious Damage,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 12, 2008.

“More Questions About Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Jan. 29, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah Ducks Question About Whether He Used Composite Characters or Passed Off Others’ Experiences as His Own,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Apr. 18, 2008.

“Wikipedia Claims Laura Simms Is Ishmael Beah’s ‘Foster Mother,’ Not His ‘Adoptive Mother,’ As He Claims,” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 11, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Wikipedia Entry – a Point-by-Point Response for Reporters, Producers and Book Groups and Others Seeking Facts About the Author of ‘A Long Way Gone,’” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 14, 2008.

“Ex-child soldier’s literary best seller is ‘factually flawed,'” The Observer (UK), Jan. 20, 2008.

“School Report Shoots Holes in Child Soldier’s Bloody Tale,” the Sunday Times (London), Feb. 3, 2008.

“Australian Newspaper Questions Ishmael Beah’s Memory,” GalleyCat, Jan. 21, 2008.

“The OTHER Book About Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 4, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Parents May Be Alive and ‘No One Knows Where They Are,’ Wikipedia Says — Entry Contradicts Author’s Statements in the New York Times and Elsewhere,” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 10, 2008.

“Does the Cover of ‘A Long Way’ Gone Show a Soldier in Niger or Another African Country Instead of Sierra Leone? Why Isn’t the Location Identified?,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 27, 2008.

“Out of the Mouth of a Babe Soldier” (Quotes from Ishmael Beah’s book and interviews that appear contradictory), One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 5, 2008.

Whitewash on ABC’s ‘Nightline’ — Cynthia McFadden Wimps Out in Interviewing Ishmael Beah About the Truthfulness of his ‘A Long Way Gone,'” One-Minute Book Reviews, Aug. 7, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah May Have Had ‘Nagging Doubts’ About His Story, Wikipedia Reports — A World Exclusive for the Online Encyclopedia? Or Was It Sucker-Punched?” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 2, 2008.

“New Paperback Edition Doesn’t Ease Concerns About ‘A Long Way Gone’ — Questions Reporters, Producers and You, the Reader Should Ask Ishmael Beah,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Aug. 3, 2008.

“Chasing Ishmael – Truth, Racism, the US Media and Blockbuster Publishing,” The Sydney Papers, Autumn 2008.

The links to the articles below in the Australian have expired. Many of the points they make are covered in the articles listed above:

“Beah’s Credibility a Long Way Gone,” the Australian, Feb. 2, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Flaws Poetic License,” the Australian, Jan. 21, 2008.

“Web of Facts Unravel Child Soldier’s Tale,” the Australian, January 21, 2008.

“Child Soldier Questions Beah’s Tale,” the Australian, January 25, 2008.

“US Critics ‘Wanted to Believe’ Child Soldier’s Tale,” the Australian, Jan. 30, 2008.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and has written for many American newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. She is a former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in New Jersey.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 5, 2009

Imprint Blight in American Book Publishing

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The colophon of the respected Margaret K. McElderry imprint.

On this site I focus on the quality of the writing in books and generally avoid reporting on unrelated publishing news or gossip. But an article in today’s New York Times involves a trend that’s been on my mind for years: the proliferation of imprints at major publishing firms.

Many of the new imprints bear the names of their editors. And — to oversimplify a bit — they allow the editors to go out on a limb and buy books that reflect their tastes even if others at their firms dislike them. That freedom is in theory a good thing, because it allows editors to acquire worthy books that may be too narrow to appeal to staff members who might otherwise have to sign off on them. And some imprints have a longstanding reputation for high quality, such as the Margaret K. McElderry children’s imprint at Simon & Schuster.

But named imprints can also remove some of the checks-and-balances at publishing firms. And recently they have produced at least two books so tarnished by questions of credibility that they should never have been published in the form in which they reached stores: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (from Nan Talese Books at Doubleday) and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (from Sarah Crichton Books) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

I won’t belabor this point here, but if you’re interested in imprint blight in book publishing, I’ve put up a series of tweets about them on my Twitter feed. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

October 31, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – What Sarah Palin Has in Common With Ishmael Beah

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Watching how tightly the McCain campaign has controlled the media access to Sarah Palin, I thought: Where have I seen something like this before? Answer: the publicity campaign for A Long Way Gone, which Ishmael Beah continues to bill as a memoir of his years as a child soldier despite serious challenges to the credibility of many of his claims. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has done with Beah what McCain has done with Palin: Restrict speeches and interviews severely, offering them mainly to safe audiences and journalists. Beah has never been interviewed by an American broadcaster who has asked tough questions and followed up on them as directly as Charles Gibson and Katie Couric did with Palin. Cynthia McFadden – one of the few who had a chance to do it – wimped out unabashedly in her interview with Beah earlier this year on Nightline. blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/08/nightlines_bad.php.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 7, 2008

Whitewash on ABC’s ‘Nightline’ – Cynthia McFadden Wimps Out in Interviewing Ishmael Beah About the Truthfulness of His ‘A Long Way Gone’

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Is it a coincidence that Cynthia McFadden’s recent Nightline whitewash of the questions about the credibility of A Long Way Gone (a Sarah Crichton book) came so soon after she listed Apples and Oranges (a Sarah Crichton book) first among her favorite books of the summer at www.wowowow.com/post/cynthia-mcfadden-my-stepsons-book-69835? Or is this another example of literary backscratching? As we try to sort it out, Graham Rayman has posted a good analysis of what went wrong with McFadden’s timid and one-sided Aug. 5 story on Ishmael Beah, who says he spent more than two years child soldier in Sierra Leone (“Nightline’s Bad Journalism 101”) blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/08/nightlines_bad.php. You’ll find questions she could have asked here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/03.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 3, 2008

New Paperback Edition Doesn’t Ease Concerns About ‘A Long Way Gone’ — Questions Reporters, Producers and You, the Reader, Should Ask Ishmael Beah

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:45 pm
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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.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 18, 2008

Ishmael Beah Ducks Question About Whether He Used Composite Characters or Passed Off Others’ Experiences as His Own

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am
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For weeks Ishmael Beah and his handlers have been attacking the professionalism of Australian reporters who raised questions about the credibility of A Long Way Gone. Now Beah has used a similar tactic on the gifted Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman, who first wrote about the controversy in the March 18 issue of the alternate weekly www.villagevoice.com/news/0812,boy_soldier,381308,1.html.

Rayman caught up with the author when he spoke about his book at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He asked Beah, who claims to have spent more than two years as a child solider in Sierra Leone, if he had used composite characters or taken events that had happened to others and presented them as his own.

“You should ask Peter Wilson that question. I’m sure he gave you all these questions,” Beah said, according to a story in the April 15 issue of the Voice. Beah was referring to a reporter for the Australian who visited Sierra Leone and could find no evidence of a fatal brawl at a UNICEF camp described in A Long Way Gone.

Rayman responded in the article:

“Beah was wrong in assuming that the questions were fed to the Voice by Wilson, but his response suggested that he is flustered by the doubts that have been raised about his book.”

Here’s my question for Beah: If he didn’t use composite characters or pass off others’ experiences as his own, why didn’t he settle the matter right then by saying “no” instead of insulting Rayman’s professionalism by implying that he couldn’t have thought of his questions on his own?

To read Rayman’s April 15 story on Beah’s talk at John Jay, Google “Rayman + Beah + John Jay.” [I will insert a working link here as soon as I can.] Rayman asked Beah about the fatal brawl that he claims occurred at a UNICEF camp and Beah replied cryptically, “There was so much that happened in the war that was not recorded,” but again offered no proof that the incident occurred. I am quoted in Rayman’s earlier story in the controversy.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2008

UNICEF Can’t Confirm Beah’s Claims About Camp Deaths

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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A Long Way Gone has taken another hit. In a recent article in the Village Voice, Graham Rayman raised fresh questions about the book that Ishmael Beah calls a memoir of his years in the army of Sierra Leone, although neither Beah nor his publisher has provided proof that he was ever a child soldier. One disputed scene in A Long Way Gone was first challenged in The Australian:

“In one instance, Beah describes in vivid detail a deadly brawl between two rival factions of child soldiers in a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in January of 1996. Six teens died, Beah recalls—but The Australian could find no one in Freetown who could remember the incident, and no official report of the fight. Reporters who covered the civil war told The Australian that it would have gotten enormous attention at the time.”

UNICEF didn’t respond to a request for a comment in time for the print deadlines for the Voice. But the United Nations agency said later that it can’t confirm Beah’s account of the fight that left six dead. In a Voice blog, Michael Clancy quoted UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele as saying:

“According to our preliminary investigation, while there were fatal incidents in camps, we are unable to provide independent confirmation that the incident took place” blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/03/unicef_cannot_c.php

UNICEF still sees A Long Way Gone as “a credible account of the tragedy of recruitment of children into armed groups, told by one who undoubtedly experienced this abuse firsthand,” Keele said. But apparently UNICEF can’t provide proof that Beah was ever a soldier, either. And at this point, the agency is hardly unbiased: Just before The Australian first challenged the credibility of the A Long Way Gone, UNICEF named Beah its advocate for children affected by war. So any admission of doubt about the book would reflect as badly on the agency as on the author.

If UNICEF sees A Long Way Gone as “credible,” you have to wonder what it would find too far-fetched to believe, given that the book brims with passages like this one quoted in the comments on Rayman’s story:

“Beah admits to many viewings of the Rambo movies, and it echoes in lines like this: ‘First we had to get rid of the attackers in the trees, which we did by spraying bullets into the branches to make the rebels fall off them. Those who didn’t immediately die we shot before they landed on the ground.’ “

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 19, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Story ‘Threatens to Blow Into a Million Little Pieces,’ Cover Story in the Village Voice Says

Filed under: News,Newspapers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:53 pm
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Graham Rayman has a wonderful cover story in the new issue of the Village Voice on the escalating controversy about the credibility of A Long Way Gone. Rayman’s article is by far the best by an American reporter on the bestseller by Ishmael Beah, who claims to have been a boy soldier in Sierra Leone for more than two years www.villagevoice.com/news/0812,boy_soldier,381308,1.html.

The Voice story (in which I am quoted) includes a fascinating interview with Neil Boothby, an expert on children and war at Columbia University who has worked with young refugees in Darfur, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Boothby told Rayman that he had avoided commenting on A Long Way Gone because he saw Beah as a courageous spokesman and didn’t want to undermine any “human-rights momentum” the book generated. Nonetheless, Boothby said:

“I think what [Beah] has done is meet with UNICEF, journalists, and others, and he told stories, and people responded to certain stories enthusiastically. That has encouraged him to come out with an account that has sensationalism, a bit of bravado, and some inaccuracies. To me, the key question is whether there’s enough accuracy to make the story credible.”

Boothby also said:

“My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration. I’ve seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories. It’s not surprising that that could be the case here.

“The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?”

Beah has maintained that there is no exaggeration and his story is “all true.”

Rayman’s article has many other thought-provoking comments like Boothby’s and, for its intelligence and clarity of vision, surpasses anything on Beah that has appeared in the New York Times and other daily newspapers. Don’t miss the Voice story if you’re confused about the claims and counter-claims for the book or if you belong to a reading group that’s considering it.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 11, 2008

Wikipedia Claims Laura Simms is Ishmael Beah’s ‘Foster’ Mother, Not His ‘Adoptive’ Mother, As He Says – Was He Adopted or Wasn’t He?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:58 am
Tags: , , , , ,

The latest mystery in the Ishmael Beah controversy is: Was he adopted or wasn’t he? The author of A Long Way Gone said in a recent statement released by Publishers Weekly that professional storyteller Laura Simms is his “adoptive” mother www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html. But the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been saying for months Simms is his “foster” mother en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. Anybody can edit an entry on Wikipedia, including Beah and his publicists, and they could have changed this if it was wrong. So why don’t the statements match?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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