As a 13-year-old boy caught up in the Sierra Leone Civil War, Ishmael Beah lost his village and his family. For a time, he also lost his humanity.
“I was conscripted into the government’s army, given an AK-47, a steady supply of drugs and ordered to kill,” he said by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
For three years he lived that way in the jungles of his West African homeland until he was finally released. He wrote about that time in the 2007 book “A Long Way Gone,” which was a publishing phenomenon and has now sold over 1.5 million copies.
“When that book came out I never thought it would be so popular,” Beah said. “I thought many people would be afraid of the topic, but I think readers admired the strength of the human spirit in that book and the way we can triumph over such difficulties. I think that book also reminded people to be thankful for what they have.”
He was also pleased that the book resonated with young people and is now being taught in many schools throughout the world. “Young people who read this book tell me they now appreciate what they have more. They know it’s not such a big deal if their father didn’t buy them the latest iPhone. This book is also a reminder that violence has the ability to completely take away our humanity, and it can happen to all of us.”
WHEN: Reading, 8 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Filene Recital Hall, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 682-4200
Beah has now published his first book of fiction “Radiance of Tomorrow” (Sarah Crichton Books, $25, 256 pages). “Both books presented challenges,” he said. “With my first book, I lived it, and I had some reluctance to go back into that world, but I knew it would be good for me psychologically.”
Freedom in fiction
With the novel, he had created that world and couldn’t wait to get back to it every day. “Writing fiction was more free. I could play around with the language. With nonfiction, I was concerned with the singular truth. The first book forced me to write in the voice of a child and the feelings I had at that time. It was a matter-of-fact writing style intended to allow the readers to feel the emotion of what was happening.”
This new book focuses on villagers who have returned to their homes after the war in Sierra Leone to rebuild their lives. “Home is home regardless of what happened there. I also wanted to explore what happiness is. We’re never happy for an entire day. Things upset us. Human nature always presents challenges, but we need to take those moments of happiness and truly appreciate them. That’s what these characters in this new book do.”
Beah mentioned that attitude is typical in most African nations. “Are we going to spend our entire day worrying about something that might or might not happen? If we do then we will miss so many of those simple joys found in everyday life.”
He also wanted to write a story that illustrates the importance of the elders in a community. “When you have access to the older generation, you learn so many things — wisdom, knowledge — and you get a transfer of experience. You learn about their mistakes and hopefully you won’t make the same ones. In so many countries today we keep the elders away from the younger generation, and that’s a tragedy.”
The novel also concerns the struggle with how to balance a successful business and not have it destroy a nation’s culture. “In countries like Sierra Leone, there are so many wonderful natural resources, but you can’t let a business come in and take those resources and destroy the villages and the their water supply. That type of devastation is even worse than war. In war people know they will come home at some point and re-build, but if the land is destroyed you have now lost your ancestral heritage.”
He feels blessed to have survived his childhood and to be so successful today. “My early childhood had a lot to do with how I’ve turned out,” said Beah. “As a young boy growing up I had a strong sense of community. I felt truly loved and I was genuinely happy.”
After he came out of the war he again encountered people who loved him and showed him what it meant to be a human being. “I once again had a family, and now I don’t get so upset anymore about those little things. I’ve seen so many horrible things, and I won’t let those little problems ruin my day.”
Beah is also a UNICEF Ambassador, and he travels the world talking about the horrors children face who have been affected by war. “I tell these young people that nothing is permanent, and there is always the possibility for change. Young people have a remarkable resilience, and I like to tell them what my father used to tell me, ‘If you’re alive there’s a possibility that something good is about to happen.’”