Books: Ismael Beah defends memoir

January 30, 2008 7:07:37 PM PST
Ishmael Beah, author of a best-selling memoir about his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, disputes newspaper reports that he had exaggerated his war service, telling The Associated Press on Wednesday that he will "stand by" what he wrote. The 27-year-old Beah, whose "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" has nearly 700,000 copies in print, has written that he spent more than two years in the government army during Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s. He is now an international spokesman for human rights who last fall was appointed UNICEF's Advocate for Children Affected by War.

But in a series of articles, The Australian has quoted several residents in and around Mattru Jong, not far from Beah's native Mogbwemo, questioning how long Beah actually served.

According to "A Long Way Gone," Beah, separated from his family when war struck, was driven first from Mogbwemo, then from Mattru Jong after rebels attacked in early 1993. Twelve years old at the time, he spent months wandering homeless with a few other boys and was eventually forced to fight for the government, serving more than two years before he was rescued by UNICEF in early 1996. He emigrated to the United States in 1998, graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and now lives in New York City.

According to The Australian, the Mattru Jong battle described by Beah actually happened in early 1995, making his time in the army at most a few months. Instead, the newspaper quotes residents who say that Beah was in school in 1993 and 1994. While no one is challenging the horror he endured, the altered timeline would affect the balance of a book praised as an unprecedented narrative of a child turned soldier.

"I have tried to think deeply about this," Beah, speaking by cell phone in London where he was promoting the paperback edition of the book, said in his first extended comments about the controversy since The Australian's first story appeared in Jan. 19-20 editions. "And my memory only gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that's what I stand by."

The Australian's investigation began after an Australian, Bob Lloyd, living in Sierra Leone and working near Mattru Jong, read the book and became aware of possible discrepancies. Lloyd confirmed the findings to the AP, but otherwise declined comment.

Beah's book was published in 2007 to great acclaim and some skepticism, with a handful of reviewers questioning how he could recall events that happened a decade earlier, when he was in his early-mid teens, continuously endangered and on the run and, by his own account, often under the influence of drugs.

"Who of us in our '20s could accurately summon up our day-by-day lives as preteens? As you read `A Long Way Gone,' the details allow you to distinguish precise recall from autobiographical blur," William Boyd, who called the book a landmark of wartime writing, wrote in The New York Times.

"The horror is duly registered, but its vagueness and generality don't add up to moments of lived personal history. Indeed, Beah's time in the army, and the accounts of the patrols and firefights he was caught up in, represent only a small portion of this book. And who can blame him? The blood-lust of a drug-crazed adolescent on the rampage with an assault rifle would challenge the descriptive powers of James Joyce."

Beah's whereabouts in 1993 and 1994 will likely remain a matter of conflicting memories, and not documented fact. Because of the civil war, records at his school were destroyed, as were copies of contemporary newspaper accounts.

The book itself is not widely available in Sierra Leone, and one Mattru Jong native quoted by The Australian, school principal Abdul Barrie, told the AP that he had never seen it until a journalist showed him a copy.

Barrie also said that rebels "made sporadic attacks and withdrawals on Mattru Jong from 1993 until January 1995, when the "whole town" was captured "and everybody left." He is the principal of the Centennial Secondary School, which Beah attended before fleeing Mattru Jong.

One report, a field study compiled by "No Peace Without Justice," a human rights organization, describes an attack on Mattru Jong that occurred in early 1995 and includes similarities to the conflict Beah dates to 1993. Both Beah and No Peace Without Justice say the attack was preceded by a Catholic official bearing a message of warning from rebels. In each case, government troops did not protect the town, allowing rebels to overrun it.

"It is a strange coincidence," Beah said of the report, but he added that the rebels had a history of carrying out attacks in similar ways. "It could be that they followed a formula."

Memoirs, of course, are a famously imperfect art form. Inaccuracies and omissions appear in classics by Henry Adams and Benjamin Franklin and countless other works. While few are reduced to proven deceit, such as James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," even the best books are only as reliable as memory itself.

Many memoirs include disclaimers at the front, saying that names or dates or the sequence of events have been changed, often to protect identities or prevent legal action. "A Long Way Gone" has no disclaimer. Beah says that while he did no research for the book, and kept no diary at the time he was a soldier, he did begin writing things down not long after he left Sierra Leone.

Still, the book is based entirely on memory.

"I wanted to write about how I felt about war," he says.

Beah said he has received several inquiries about films rights for "A Long Way Gone," but has so far not accepted any, because he didn't want a "Hollywood version" of his story. Meanwhile, he wants to write again about Sierra Leone, this time without the need of fact-checking or disclaimers: He wants to write fiction.