A former child soldier who survived the civil war in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah famously described the violence of his youth in harrowing detail in his best-selling memoir from 2007, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. But as much as the world wanted to read that story, of the war and its atrocities, there was another story that tugged at him, one that he found his audience didn’t think much about: What happens after such violence?
“In my country, after the war ended, I felt like nobody wanted to hear about it anymore,” Beah says. “I started having spontaneous discussions with people, and I realized that most people didn’t really know that after the war ended, people just went back—and their lives were pretty good. That’s where the story started kicking in for me.”
But despite the praise UNICEF Ambassador Beah received for his memoir, he says he wasn’t tempted to follow up his first book with a second memoir. “For me, writing two memoirs in a row is not a healthy decision,” he says. “After the first one, I felt like I needed a break.”
But that doesn’t mean his new novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, is Beah’s first foray into fiction. He has long told and written stories, and says he was eager to return to the freedom fiction allows. “I found that writing a memoir is more restrictive to some extent,” he says. “You can’t play with anything, with the imagination. You have to stick to the facts. With fiction I found that I had a freedom to play with the language more, too.”
Part of that play entails incorporating his native tongue into the book as well. Beah explains in an author’s note preceding the novel that he comes from an oral tradition, and that the languages spoken in Sierra Leone are necessarily figurative and expressive. “I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things that I really want to say in Mende,” Beah writes. “For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say ‘night came suddenly’; you would say ‘the sky rolled over and changed its sides.’ ” Beah’s decision to include these expressive descriptors rather than change them to their English counterparts creates a novel that buzzes with beautiful, figurative language.
Beah wasn’t always encouraged to express himself in Mende, though. “I grew up, because I went to a British school, being told that English was the only medium through which you could to express yourself,” Beah says. “I believed that until I started really writing and I realized it wasn’t always sufficient. It’s a great language but sometimes there are certain feelings and temperaments that are very hard to describe.”
Not that Beah isn’t up for the challenge; in fact, this word play is his favorite part of writing. “I find it rewarding and challenging to always try to find the right combination of words and images and feelings for the readers so that they can be there,” he says.
In this case, there is a village in Sierra Leone whose inhabitants are returning home after civil war. Beah says he first imagined what it must’ve been like for his grandmother to return home after being away for several years. His fiction always starts with character first: “I initially think about the characters—their age, their gender, their mannerisms, what they look like, where they are—and then the story starts to come from them. They themselves begin to demand the way I write the story.”
The ability to listen to his characters stems also from the oral tradition of his culture, Beah says. “Oral tradition has had a huge impact on me as a writer even before I ever had the dream of becoming a writer,” Beah says. “When you’re being told a story, the method forces you to listen deeply; you have to internalize the story to make sure you’re really listening.”
He says this ties directly to writing: “You also have to be a great listener, in a way, to become a writer. You have to be a great listener and a great observer. For me, the idea of stories is that they are only important if you can share them, if you can pass them on. They live on beyond all of us, so the passing on of them, the internalizing of them, that’s what makes the story worthwhile.”
Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her fiction has been published in Parcel, Twelve Stories and Corium Magazine. She’s at work on her first novel.