more on whether it matters if Ishmael Beah was telling the truth

A few weeks ago I blogged about whether it was important if Ishmael Beah’s account was not entirely accurate is his memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.  Chris Blattman has posted some thoughtful remarks on the topic.  I agree with his conclusion that it’s “better, I think, to take Dave Eggers’ approach, who penned a superb novel, What is the What, from the real experiences of a young refugee in southern Sudan.”

Still, I think we fool ourselves if we treat memoirs as less fictional than many other historical documents.  So while we wait for writers to admit to their novelization, I recommend a hearty helping of skepticism and a recognition of what we care about.  If Ishmael Beah has incorporated others’ stories within his, then his account still teaches me about the experiences of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone: That is what I was looking for anyway.  If, however, he has invented aspects of the tale, it’s more problematic.  I have no way of knowing, and so I enjoy the tale and assume it resembles the experience of boy soldiers.  Like any other non-fiction account would.

[Historian Aaron Sachs has a great piece on how a newspaper morphed his experience of encountering a dead body while out walking from fact to sort-of-fact.  Unfortunately, the piece is not available on-line so I can’t send you to it, but if you happen to be at Yale, check out “Cold, Hard, Facts,” Palimpsest, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 2003).  The first page of Sachs’s piece is available as a sample.  What a tease!]

5 thoughts on “more on whether it matters if Ishmael Beah was telling the truth”

  1. These comments on the Beah controversy are among the most thoughtful I’ve read on the Web. Thank you for posting them.

    You mentioned in an earlier post that nobody is questioning whether Beah was a child soldier. Perhaps not directly. But the question “Was Beah ever a soldier?’ lies at the heart of the discrepanies the Australian found between dates in “A Long Way Gone” and dates provided by others. Beah says he was a soldier for more than two years. The Austrlian found that Beah’s village suffered its main attack two years after he says it did. This raises the question: If two years have disappeared, when was Beah a child solider? The dates speak directly enough to the issue of when and how Beah could have been a child soldier.

  2. You are absolutely correct. My impression of the Australian evidence earlier was that it was clear he had been a child soldier at some point. But I am not sure of that. In fact, I don’t know anything about Ishmael Beah. So I stick with my strategy of putting a little more weight on this than on novels like Beasts of No Nation and Moses, Citizen, and Me, since I think it has a higher chance of being true. But those are just odds…

  3. I would like to see Beah clear the air for once and all by agreeing to appear on 60 Minutes. I find him reprehensible, and all who prop him up (Starbucks and the UN) are only turning a blind eye to what amounts to lies and deceit in his account. When I think of the real victims of war in Sierra Leone I feel such anger that this man has claied to be the spokesman for a cause for which he has only benefited by telling lies. The book is so shot through with factual errors that I really can’tunderstand why he is still out there propagating this cocked up story. Look, it it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, if it looks like a duck…it’sa duck. Beah should be named for what his is…a quack.

  4. When I first read this book, in 2007, I loved it. I reviewed it on my blog on Multiply and gave it five stars, I mentioned it in a blog post I wrote on child soldiers, and so on. In retrospect, I am amazed at my own gullibility. As someone who knows something of military history and who wasn’t taken in by Guy Sajer’s concocted Wehrmacht memoir “The Forgotten Soldier”, it is amazing and shameful that I suspended disbelief so much that I got taken in by this book. Re-reading it now, I notice all the vague statements, the clear exaggerations, the utter lack of actual verifiable facts (for instance, which unit did Beah serve in?), the made-for-Western-audience end (good American woman saves poor African boy), etc, and I’m mortified. It doesn’t actually require the Australians to point out the date mismatchs for me to roundly condemn Beah as a fraud, and I’m not at all surprised that the Child Soldier Coalition has declared him an impostor.

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