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Still, I think we fool ourselves if we treat memoirs as less fictional than many other historical documents.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!]
Ishmael Beah wrote a popular memoir of his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. I’m just finishing the book, and Ishmael is an excellent storyteller who has been through harrowing times. I remember when the memoir was published, not long after the James Frey memoir was found to be largely fabricated. The publisher questioned Beah on the specificity of his memoir, and he reassured her that growing up in a culture rich with oral tradition had honed his memory.
A few days ago, the newspaper The Australian quoted a couple who claim to have discovered that the events in Beah’s book occurred over one year, rather than the three years he claims in his book. This would mean he was a soldier for a few months rather than two years. Beah denies this. Whether Beah was a child soldier is not in question.
Whether Beah is right or wrong, this points me to the question of what I want to get out of a memoir. Whether a particular detail is right or wrong doesn’t matter to me: I’m seeking to gain an broad understanding of the challenges faced by child soldiers (both during and after the war). If it turned out that Beah wasn’t a child soldier at all, that would affect my experience with the book. If he just got some dates wrong, that doesn’t affect much. Likewise with Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir recounting atrocities commited against Guatemala’s native peoples: even if it turned out to be a composite of many people’s experiences, no one denies that these atrocities took place.
Some memoirs, like Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight or Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, are just great stories, so whether they turn out to be perfectly factual or not is not terribly important. (Those elements of them that ring true are just as valuable as elements of novels that ring true: very valuable!)
With other memoirs, such as Gandhi’s or Nelson Mandela’s, much of what I’m seeking is to learn from the personal integrity and experience of this individual, so if I learned that these were consciously fabricated, I would be disappointed.
Ultimately, I believe all memoirs have an element of fiction, whether consciously constructed or not. We humans just don’t remember that well, and our perceptions of what we experience involve so many assumptions that ultimately we’re each writing our own novel. So maybe my novel can learn from someone else’s novel.