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Still, I think we fool ourselves if we treat memoirs as less fictional than many other historical documents.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!]