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Aspen Summer Words: An Interview with Ishmael Beah

Brandon Wenerd's picture

Best selling author of A Long Way Gone and international humanitarian advocate Ishmael Beah discusses his next book, reciting Shakespeare, adjusting to the quiet life in Aspen, and how he almost ended up an accountant.

It’s not the type of thing you expect to hear from an accomplished author. On the second day of the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, Ishmael Beah, the one-time child solider in the Sierra Leone civil war and author of A Long Way Gone, glanced around the room after being asked about his forthcoming novel. His eyes landed on his co-presenter, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and admitted, “I feel it is unhealthy for me to write another memoir.”

Despite a hushed murmur, most of the crowd nodded in mutual approval. Beah continued: “It’s exhausting to write and talk about myself all the time.” The Doerr-Hosier Center was filled with a consortium of accomplished authors, curious wordsmiths, book buyers, and retired benefactors who appeared to be hanging onto his every word. As a public speaker, Beah’s 1000-watt smile, electric charm, and enduring message can regal almost any crowd, be it college students or hard-line international diplomats. However, he’s not in Aspen for the summer to necessarily focus on humanitarian issues around the globe or to entertain; he’s here to write.

As the first ever writer-in-residence for the Aspen Writer’s Foundation, Beah is spending the summer in Aspen to get serious about writing a novel.

Earlier in the day, Beah participated in a panel discussion with other critically acclaimed authors. Along with Adichie, Beah took the stage with Colum McCann, David Davidar, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Binyavanga Wainaina to have a dialogue about the role of place in literature. Beah read from his poem “Skinless on Lion Mountain” about his first hand experience the Sierra Leone Civil War and reveled insights about his writing wizardry, including his opposition to using a Thesaurus so not to be distracted from crafting a natural narrative process.

A Long Way Gone is a harrowing, horrific, and heartfelt account of Beah’s experience as a child solider during the civil war in his native Sierra Leone, where he was fed lethal narcotics and forced to participate as an armed solider in the war as a means of survival. After the 2007 publication of A Long Way Gone, Beah was propelled onto best-seller lists and catapulted into the spotlight as an international advocate for children affected by war. Walter Isaacson, best selling historian and CEO of the Aspen Institute, contributed a jacket quote for the book, heralding it as “…a wrenching, beautiful, and mesmerizing tale. Beah's amazing saga provides a haunting lesson about how gentle folks can be capable of great brutalities as well goodness and courage. It will leave you breathless.”

Despite the breathtaking prose of tragedy and hardship in Sierra Leone, Beah’s gregarious smile and charm is contagious. The 28-year-old author’s intellect is lion-fierce and his message of suffering, redemption, compassion, and nonviolence poignantly resonate with a broad audience, even in a pleasure-seeking hideaway like Aspen where the nightmare of war rarely touches home.

A few days prior to the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, I met with Beah on a bluebird afternoon at Parallel 15, his favorite coffee shop, and turned on a recorder. The interview took place during his first week in Aspen as the official writer-in-residence with the Aspen Writer’s Foundation. We sipped ice coffee while discussing J.M. Coetzee, the African literary canon, hip-hop, and various biking trails.

I’m going to open up with a big question right from the start. As the writer-in-residence with the Aspen Writer’s Foundation, what are you working on? What’s your next step?

That is indeed a big question. One of the things that I’m doing – what I can generally tell you – is I’m working on my first novel, which would be fiction. I’m switching gears to working on fiction now. It is going to be set in Sierra Leone… And I’ve started. Those are the things I can generally tell you right now. For me, when the process is still young, I don’t like discussing too much about it. By the end of my time here, I may be able to read something from it, if possible. But during the literary festival here – I’m sure this question will come up. It will not be about the war in Sierra Leone.

One of the things I read before is when you were in the beginning stages of A Long Way Gone is that you were planning on it becoming a piece a fiction.

When I first began working on A Long Way Gone, I was in college and I was taking some creative writing classes. I didn’t want my peers in class to know that this was about me. So I just changed my name and everything else was the same, just to test it out the first time and see how people react to it. I think that’s why people think it started out as fiction. I didn’t know how people would react in the beginning. I wanted to test that. So I decided to pass it off and say ‘oh, this is a fiction piece,’ but little did I know that actually my professor and some of my classmates already knew my background. I had done a lot of things at the United Nations and UNICEF. They had already seen that online. I didn’t know that. So when I gave this to them under the guise of fiction, they’re just like ‘Yeah, we know.’ So then that basically ended. Because it’s a very personal thing , there’s a bit of fear -not necessarily fear, just worry – that I’m letting too many people into my life and I didn’t know how to do that. So there was this tendency that maybe I could just say its fiction.

A Long Way Gone had such an impact on people partly because the experience of being a reader involved not wanting it to be a true story; you want it to be a piece of fiction, which is the horrific beauty of the book. After putting so much of yourself and such a huge part of your life out there, is it difficult to switch gears into writing fiction now?

It’s not difficult necessarily switching gears because before I’d actually written short fiction, though not book length fiction. It is not necessarily difficult in that sense. What is difficult is the fact that I’ve been traveling constantly since the book first came out. One of the good and bad things about having a book do well is when you write, you want it to do well. But then after it does, you don’t have time to write. So I think one of the difficult things is to sort of get into that way of writing again, that sort of pattern of sitting down four hours, five hours to write which is something I’ve gotten out of the habit because of constantly traveling and speaking about this book.

I think that is the difficulty now, hence why I came to a place like Aspen. I didn’t think I could do it in New York where I live because there are too many distractions. I wanted to come somewhere where it is quiet but also where I have less social obligations. For me, anything that I write about is always so personal to me, even if it is fiction. Even though I’m writing fiction about Sierra Leone, it’s about things that happened to people in Sierra Leone; people who don’t want me to write about them and put their name on it. So I always write things that are very personal. This requires me to have a kind of loneliness to be able to do it. The difficulty really now is just sitting down to do it.

Right, right.

I’ve gotten out of the habit. I think a lot of people are under the impression that once you’ve written a book or you are a writer, it’s so easy to just sit down and write. I think it’s so difficult to sit down and write. I can think about so many things that I want to do not to sit down and write. But it’s working out.

Do you feel like having Aspen is the sort of environment you’ve been looking for to work in?

Well, I’m still adjusting. There are a few things going on. There’s a festival (Aspen Writer’s Foundation Summer Words). Even though I live in Brooklyn, I’m also from a place in New York where it’s a more city-like environment. You can go out to a store at like 11 or 12 at night and there’s a store right there to pick up juice. And now I’m in a place where that’s not necessarily the case. I mean, the market (in Aspen) is open until midnight, that I know.

So I’m also trying to adjust as a young man who has now lived in the city and has constantly moved now for the last two and a half to three years. I’ve constantly moved. There is this restlessness that I need to come to terms with before settling down and having a work habit and adjusting to a new environment. So there is all of that, but it’s working out. But I think it will be a very contusive place for me to write because… I’ve been going on some bike rides and things like that and its quiet where I’m staying, so I think it will work out.

While you were traveling in promotion for A Long Way Gone, did you begin to throw around the idea for this next project? When did the seed for the novel start germinating?

Well, the seed starting germinating with my visits back home. Even during the time when my book came out, I would go back. I go back quite often. This year I haven’t been able to go but I at least try to go twice every year. It’s my travel back home to see what post-conflict Sierra Leone is now and what’s happening everywhere around the country, not just in the capital city. That’s really where it began to give rise. Even just traveling and speaking about the book, I would encounter people who still felt Sierra Leone had a civil war to this day. There’s a pattern with main, big stream media – the big networks – who are only willing to cover an African country when there’s war. When the war ends, no one is interested in cover it, even though there are still people living there. The post-conflict is actually quite important to cover because that will determine whether the country topples back into the madness they just came from. So I think traveling and having people ask those kinds of questions… Like when I was on a talk, there were a few times when I would say I was just back in Sierra Leone and people would say ‘you go back to Sierra Leone?!’ ‘Well, yes. It’s my country, it’s my home. The war has ended.’ I feel safer there than in New York. So that’s sort of where – and also these questions that came up – that’s where the seed of the next book has really started.

One of the things that you’ve done back in Sierra Leone is you’ve built a school, correct?

Yes. One of the things I wanted to show after I wrote this book is… it is not only the stories of it but to show anyone given the opportunity – particularly educational opportunity or any kind of opportunity – will be able to do well with their lives. So in order for me to show that, I didn’t only need to show that in the international community, but also back home. And also when I was writing this book, I wanted to do it not for myself because I got here, I went to school, I could have gone to law school. I didn’t have to write this book. My life would still be better in its own right. I didn’t want people to forget about those people who weren’t as fortunate as I was to leave Sierra Leone and have access to education. So, in order for me to… sort of put my… what’s the expression?

Put your money where your mouth is?

Yes. That’s the expression – I’m still learning these expressions. In order for me to do that, I wanted to also show people that when a person like me has an opportunity and lives abroad, it is very important to go back home and help as much as you can. Because the tendency is that a lot of us can come and be successful and they stay. And then what happens is no one goes back to help. I’m not just talking about politically but even in local things. For example, where I built the school is not in my village that I grew up in – it’s near it. There are three villages around there where kids had to walk six or seven miles to school, one-way, every morning. I imagine when I was a kid, I had to do some of that stuff and it was very difficult. But then I could build a school for them so they don’t have to do that walk. One of the things I do is I have a foundation to give scholarships to kids so they can go to school. I feel what changed my life, besides coming out of the war alive and going through rehabilitation, is having access to an opportunity to go to school So I want to provide that for other people. I wanted to make sure people have access so they are able to do things with their lives, you know?

In my country, the older people do not expect much of the young in terms of how much you can impact society. So the young have also come to belittle their own contribution to society. When I went to the lunch at the school, I was sitting there and there was a guy who was introducing everyone and he was looking for the guy who built the school. I was sitting right next to him. He was an older gentleman and a big man. I was laughing because – to me – this is really interesting because he’s not expecting that somebody like me could do that, you know? So when the young people see that, then they begin to have faith in their own capacity as well in terms of anything they can do in their community. So these are some of the things I’m promoting in doing what I’m doing.

That’s fantastic. I’d like to get back to your initial interest in writing and literature and the path of your literary voice. There is this very poignant moment in A Long Way Gone where you recite lines from Julies Caesar to your commander. I’m assuming you sort of grew up familiar with Shakespeare.

Oh yes.

Do you feel like Shakespeare helped to spearhead your interest in literature?

Oh most certainly. One of the things you have to realize, it’s not just me, anyone who went to school in Sierra Leone for even a year or two or three years – something like that – they would know something about Shakespeare. Obviously because of our colonial heritage but one of the reasons why, this was one of the history of literature that was heavily taught in our school systems. I knew how to say like ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,’ without even knowing what it meant. Just the sound made sense, you know? When I went to school as a young boy in Sierra Leone, I loved literature. I loved Shakespeare reading - the Julies Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet. It was also a pride to recite lines from this. It showed you had a mastery of the English language.

But, frankly, I loved literature but I never thought I would be a writer. Because when you go to school, the way my culture had been built based on our colonial history, everyone wants to be a doctor, an economist, or a scientist. Those are like the things people do. So if you went to school and said, ‘Hey! I want to be a writer!’ – Your parents would pull you out and say, ‘This one is useless. He’s not going to be able to do anything with his life.’ You know? It’s the same here but it’s even worst over there. There’s no room. So even though I loved writing when I was in school and I was good at it when I was younger, I never really wanted to pursue it. I actually wanted to be an accountant, which I knew would not work out because I’m so bad at math.

But, besides reading Shakespeare, the first time I read at 6 in primary school, I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the first time I read about a boy who was one of the main characters, Jim Hawkins. He went on the ship and it completely blew my mind as a kid and I was like ‘this is quite amazing.’ I was pretty invested in all that stuff and I also grew up with a lot of oral tradition – storytelling and all that stuff.

When you started writing A Long Way Gone in college, was the process cathartic?

It was.

Almost like a purging in a way?

It was like that because it allowed me to go to so many places that I haven’t been able to go to that I didn’t allow myself to go to, that I hadn’t talked to anyone about. Everyone knew only generalities of my life story and that was it. So this was the first time I delved back into that life experience and it just couldn’t stop. It was just coming out and out and out and out. Actually, when I finished the book – before I graduated from college I finished it – the rough draft I had was 500 pages long, 1.5 spacing which is much bigger than the final version of it. I had to cut some things and edit. But when I graduated, I had the manuscript and thought ‘Oh okay…. so I wrote a book. Whatever.’ So I started studying for the LSAT to go to law school. My initial goal wasn’t to publish it, so it was just to write it for myself really. So then my professor said, ‘You know, you’ve written this book. You might as well show it to a few agents.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about the book world.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t I edit for a little bit.’ So I edited quite a bit and I started showing off to agents. Some people had different visions and I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that.’ I finally found an agent who said, ‘Let me show it to this publishing house – they may be interested.’ I was actually studying for the LSAT and working a Himalayan Art Museum in New York. Again, I was still pursuing my law school stuff and then the book came out. When the book came out, I think they had two and a half months of book talk for me. But as soon as the book hits, it got out of control.

Really, I think this may have had a part of it…So I went from just being this kid who was working at a Himalayan Art Museum trying to go to law school to all of the sudden being this big… It was very shocking for me.

After the shock of A Long Way Gone’s success, did you feel pressure that you were representing the face of this massive thing way beyond…

There was a little bit of pressure, but before I wrote the book, I’d spoken about this experience. Wherever I’ve done it, I’ve tried to say that ‘I’m not doing this for myself.’ So I had that idea generally, but all the sudden I became an international face. I’ll tell you, the first time that happened was when an excerpt of the book was published in the New York Times magazine, front page. So when I went to get my picture taken for this, I didn’t actually know they were going to put my face on the cover. I didn’t know these things. So all of the sudden – I was not in the country actually, I was in France at a conference about child solders – and then the thing came up. Even in France people started recognizing me. I said, ‘What I have gotten myself into?’ So it was really overwhelming at the beginning not knowing what to do. Like I’ll be on the train and there will be people either reading the book or the magazine article and my face is like looking back at me and I’m trying to look the other way. These are things that I had to get use to quite a lot.

At some of the readings that you had in New York and else where, you had experiences with other people in adulthood now who have come from war torn countries. Your book’s success has been an almost cathartic experience for them as well. What is this experience like?

The book began to do a lot of things I never anticipated. First of all I never anticipated it getting published and then all this stuff happened but I remember my first reading was actually at a Starbucks and there was a women – I think she was from Nepal where there is also an issue of child and young people abuse – she was a young women and she had been in that experience. It was the first time she could say it to anyone and she felt like she could do that because she had read my book. She raised her hand and I thought she was going to ask a question and she started crying and talking about her own experience. Then I began to realize, shortly after this, places I would go … I’d even have people who had fought in the Vietnam War who would come and talk to me who had never spoken to their families about it. For some reason, the book began to do things I never thought it would do and it was really difficult because I didn’t know how to respond, honestly. I didn’t know how to respond to things. But then I realized I didn’t need to respond. Some of these people they just realized it was now okay to say something about this experience.

So you were like a floodgate?

Yes. So then, traveling now… It had inspired… like there is this young women from Sierra Leone who wrote about her experiences. She was amputated during the war. It inspired her to write a book. There is another guy from Sudan. He wrote a book about his experience. All of these people began to do these things now. So, again, for me, these are really times when I began to understand the power of words. The power of them; when they touch people, when they get a hold of people’s hearts, what happens when you share your story and the way that I did mine. I began to discover these things about myself, what the story was doing, how people were connecting to it. Like when I wrote about growing up and being introduced to hip hop music through The Sugarhill Gang, for me, that was what happened to me so that was what I wrote about. I didn’t think that would have an impact on some people over in America. So later on I was in Chicago and some kids came in who were in gangs and left and to them, this was the part of the book where they felt… ‘Wow. I am the same age as you. And I was listening to the same music as you. But you were in a different part of the world going through something…’ I never felt those connections when I was writing. I was just writing. So all of the sudden this book was making these things, was bringing out these things in people that I had never… To the point that traveling, in a sense, became easier because I still have a Sierra Leone passport. Before when I would travel I would get a lot of hassle. But there were times when I would show up at the airport and everyone would be ‘Oh! It’s you!’ and they wouldn’t check me very much. So I didn’t anticipate a lot of the things that happened.

That’s such a huge experience. In the wake of the giant wave that just happened, as you’re working on your next book, what are you mentally preparing yourself for?

There is a pressure. There’s a huge pressure. Already people begin to ask ‘So what’s next, what’s it going to be like? Is it going to be as good?’ And obliviously my readers think about what’s next. There’s a lot of pressure in that sense. But what I always do is I’m going to write it in the same way I wrote A Long Way Gone, in the sense of I’m going to write it for myself. I’m going to write about what I deeply care about in Sierra Leone and what I think is important for people to know.

To thy own self be true?

Ha! Exactly. You got it. So I’m going to do that, the same idea, and then I’m going to see what happens. The thing I keep reminding people is I’m never going to write another A Long Way Gone again. I’m going to do my best to write something incredible and that’s it. We’ll see how it goes. I’m always true to myself in the sense that whatever I write, I don’t do a half-half work. I give it my all.

Do you feel like your career is beginning to transition? Do you feel like you are kind of undergoing a career shift, in a way?

I don’t necessarily think it is a huge career shift. The book that I wrote was a literary piece of work even though it was a personal story. A lot of people also had this idea that maybe I should write a sequel to the book because a lot of people think it ended so abruptly and wanted more. I refuse to do that. I don’t want people to always think of me as the guy who writes memoirs. I feel like what I wrote, even though it was a memoir, was effective because of the way I wrote it. I could have written it a completely different way and it wouldn’t have had the same impact that it did.

I want to write fiction because I want people to see that I’m not just a memoirist – I’m also a writer. In that sense, there is going to be a shift in the way people look at what I write. I love literature and I want to write literature, whether it’s about myself personally or some other people. I want excellence in literature, because when I read I want excellence. So when I write, I want excellence as well. I’m not settling for less. So I think there may be a shift in that sense. People may be expecting that it will be personal again but this time it’s not going to be personal. And then maybe I’ll come back to personal. Honestly, personal is very exhausting. When you write about yourself personally, you have to talk about yourself constantly and I want to rest from that. I could go on with a personal narrative, but for me that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in writing something that’s excellent. We’ll see how it goes.

One last question. Having gone through your experiences as a child solider and everything described in A Long Way Gone, how do you think this changes your worldview about other conflicts or humanitarian crises popping up in the news cycle around the world?

That’s a big question. What I always say to people is I would never recommend my experiences to anyone. But nonetheless, because it has happened, it had allowed me to look at the world differently and to appreciate certain things differently. Perhaps to have more of an understanding and compassion for things that if I’d never have had nearly experience, it would just come and go.

For me, one of the things I’ve seen – what happened in Sierra Leone, what happened in Uganda, what happened in Columbia – these things are possible anywhere in the world. Anywhere. Because when people have lost faith in the ability of their own lives; when they have sort of fallen down below the thresh hold of human dignity, they can do anything with their lives. When the war started in Liberia, in Sierra Leone we use to think ‘Oh, the war will never reach us. We’re such a nice people, we would never do such a thing.’ But all of us have the capacity to reach that. When we begin to understand that, when we see that, when we acknowledge that, I think that’s when we can begin to look for the root causes of what lead people to behave a particularly way. Sometimes we can easily judge from the outside and say ‘Hey, those people are capable of that; we will never reach that.’ The things my life took be through, the things I was suppose to be a part of, I would never have thought I was capable of doing it. I meet people who say, ‘Well if I was in your position, I would have never done that.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. You have the luxury to say that now. Because you’re not in that position I was in.’ When I was not in that position, I would say the same thing that you were saying. ‘Oh yeah, I would rather do this before I do that.’ But you never know how you may react.

To answer your question, when I see these things, I think about what leads people to behave a particular way. What pushes people and how can we all look at that. And more importantly, it makes me worry that as human beings, we still haven’t come to understand the fact that the value of all of our lives is the same, regardless of where we are and the conditions in which we may live in. I don’t think we’ve understood that yet as human beings. Because once we do that, I think this whole idea of humanizing everything will actually take a strong root. People still believe some peoples' lives are more valuable than others.

But also I have more of an understanding of politics and things because of where I’m coming from. For example, when a politician stands up to say ‘We’re going to allocate five billion to African AIDS problems.’ Everyone is like ‘Yay! U-S-A.’ But I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t believe that.’ You can be giving 50 billion dollars but if you don’t explain to me whom you are giving it to and how it is going to be used, then I know you actually aren’t even interested in the issue. If you have it lined out, then I know you have given it thought. But the average person who doesn’t know much about politics, who doesn’t know how the system can manipulate people from the top and how it can affect the little guy at the bottom, which is what happened in my life. I didn’t know much about politics growing up. What happened at the top reached my life and changed the course of my life tremendously. So I think because of that experience it gives me this kind of view of the world.

And also, lastly, I’ve come to also understand the way people speak about politics, the way people speak about things that happen in other parts of the world, sometimes they suck up the humanity out of it. This way people don’t feel that it is everyone’s problems. For example if people say, in Iraq, when people say ‘We have civilian causalities, some soldiers died in Iraq,’ or ‘50 troops who were lost.’ That word ‘troops:’ it doesn’t have any human element to it. If you and I were to watch television and we see ‘troops,’ you can easily go to have a hamburger afterwards and say ‘forget it.’ But if that was to be explained to you that that troop was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s child, if you were to personally be connected to that, you would not want that to happen. Because of my experience I’ve seen the rhetoric of how they can gloss over what is really happening. What is civilian causality in a war? It means that somebody who is not meant to be in the war is killed. A child who is five or six has watched their father get killed in front of them. How does that affect the rest of their life? How do they function within the context of humanity? For me, those are the things that I see. When I see that, that’s when I worry. So, because of my experience, it allows me to actually see things in a very different light.