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Tuesday, January 22, 2008 4:39 pm
A Long Way Gone a Little Bit Off?
Posted by: Keir Graff

According to a recent report in The Australian (“Africa’s war child,” by Shelley Gare, Peter Wilson, and David Nason), the timeline is wrong in Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The story of how the discrepancies came to light–and the responses of Beah’s publisher and guardian–are both fascinating and troubling. And while the book’s success and Beah’s visibility ensure that there will be a lot more talk about this, it’s likely to be a lot more delicate than the James Frey proceedings–as well it should be. Even if, as the article suggests, Beah’s time as a soldier lasted months, not years, no child should have to experience that kind of horror for even a moment. There are other questions worth asking, though.

If confirmed, the revelations do not mean Beah’s tale isn’t truly terrible. They don’t mean that he hasn’t been through experiences that most of us in the developed world will never have to face even in our nightmares. They don’t detract from the fact that, as his New York agent Ira Silverberg told Inquirer, of the inspiring book, “Beautiful things have come from the success he has seen.

He’s changing policy now; he testified before (the US) Congress; fought for the rights of the 300,000 …”

But this does raise questions about the way Ishmael Beah’s book came about and how thoroughly his story was checked out.

Does our enduring hunger for authentic stories, for human symbols, and for stories of redemption cause us to vet some stories less thoroughly than others? Interestingly, Frey’s own troubles triggered a halfhearted fact-check.

In an earlier interview with The Los Angeles Times, Crichton said she had asked Beah to vouch for the accuracy of his story after the memoirist James Frey had confessed to making up material in his own book. Times reporter Josh Getlin wrote: “Crichton was willing to take the leap after Beah assured her that he has a ‘photographic memory’. He reminded her that he had grown up in a culture with a long-standing oral tradition and had learned to tell stories from memory around a fire.”

(An interesting and probably unrelated side note is that Beah’s agent is Ira Silverberg, who also repped JT Leroy.)

A follow-up article yesterday (“Ishmael Beah’s flaws ‘poetic licence,’” by David Nason and Shelley Gare) featured thoughtful remarks from Dan Chaon (You Remind Me of Me, 2004) who, as a creative writing professor, helped Beah shape his first draft. Given his own interests as a novelist, Chaon was more interested in the storytelling than the dateline:

“If it turns out there are factual errors, I wouldn’t necessarily be all that concerned about it,” said Professor Chaon of Ohio’s Oberlin College.

“I don’t think the book is being presented as a piece of journalism. It’s being presented as a memoir.”

This seems to be the increasingly accepted point of view: in a memoir, expect some inaccuracy. And I can certainly agree with that. Without perfect memory, no memoirist is going to be as good as a reporter. (And lots of reporters have been reported to have their own problems.) But when the memoir isn’t about the writer’s wacky family–indeed, when the memoir has its own effect on world events–it would behoove the publisher to fact-check it as carefully as possible, knowing the kind of scrutiny it’s going to come under. And if some of the facts are in doubt, just say so.

I wouldn’t take a young person’s word about their experiences verbatim, regardless of what their experiences have been–but that doesn’t mean I’d discount the essential truth of their experience, either.

7 Responses to “A Long Way Gone a Little Bit Off?”
  1. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Ishmael Beah: “my story is all true” Says:

    [...] « A Long Way Gone a Little Bit Off? [...]

  2. T. Lee Says:

    I’m following this story very closely, and appreciate your distinction between memoirist and journalist. You may be interested in this: http://benpeek.livejournal.com/633864.html, where Chaon responds to being misquoted in The Australian.

  3. Keir Says:

    Thanks for the link, T. Chaon’s claim that he was misquoted (see, I’m using the journalistic “claim” and “alleged” etc.) certainly adds some, um, clarity? I haven’t had time to read much more than the back-and-forth between the Australian reporters, Beah, and FSG, but I think things are likely to get muddier before they get clearer.

    Of course, given the difficulty of discussing any important issue in a way that everyone would regard as the “truth,” I’m now thinking that we should publish journalism in the “memoir” category, too. Just kidding.

  4. Dominic Says:

    Even if I were inclioned to believe Beah’s book, his refuttal in the Australian was a bit too full on for me, and only adds to my feeling that he is having us on. Time for him to sit down and reflect on what he has done by his own hand.

  5. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Think Twice before Taking on the Australian Press Says:

    [...] Those who’ve been following this story on other blogs (this was a link in previous comments) know that Dan Chaon has said that he was “radically misquoted.” Shelley Gare of the The Australian writes that colleague David Nason has sent a transcript of his interview with Chaon to Chaon and asked him to explain how he was misquoted. It will be interesting to see if they publish their transcript–especially interesting if they include the audio. [...]

  6. JML Says:

    I find this whole question absurd. Did these people actually read any of Beah’s book? It is about being a young child, brainwashed and strung out on drugs. How can you expect 100% factual accuracy? That’s like chastising Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” because according to reports by an Australian newspaper, the people in the casino did not actually transform into giant lizards.

    How can anyone who claims to enjoy reading make a concerted effort to turn cartographic discrepancies into means for an “investigation”? This is a classic case of establishment critics who know nothing about writing and nothing about subjectivity, knocking on a young writer for no reason. Shame on them.

  7. Keir Says:

    Well, you make a good point, JML, but bear in mind that the Australian reporters aren’t critics, they’re reporters. And they didn’t set out to fact-check Beah’s book–they stumbled across the errors in reporting another story. And Beah himself says it’s all true.

    I agree with your larger point that the point of Beah’s book is sadly getting lost in all of this point-counterpoint. But I don’t think there’s any shame in a reporter digging for truth–and there wouldn’t be any shame in Beah saying he couldn’t remember a few things, either.


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