Your Ishmael Beah Update
Posted by: Keir Graff
Last week, in his first “extended comments” on the controversy, Ishmael Beah (A Long Way Gone) spoke to Associated Press writer Hillel Italie and said…well, he’s still standing by his story (“Boy soldier defends his book“):
“I have tried to think deeply about this…And my memory only gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that’s what I stand by.”
Meanwhile, the Australians are still digging, and as Beah refuses to budge, their headlines are getting testier (“Beah’s credibility a long way gone,” by Peter Wilson):
AUTHOR Ishmael Beah’s bestselling account of his time as a child soldier was proved factually flawed last night by a document found in a remote Sierra Leone schoolhouse.
The school results for March 1993 showed the popular author attended the Centennial Secondary School throughout the January-March term, a time when he claimed in his heartrending book A Long Way Gone that he was already roaming the countryside as a child refugee.
(His grades were nothing to be ashamed of, however–he was second in a class of 47.)
Peter Wilson also details his own frustrated efforts to speak with Beah (“Thanks for the memories“). But he quotes from a speech at the Oxford Union (from which Wilson was barred) in which Beah said:
“How can I remember every single detail of the horrors that happened to me but forget simple dates? That’s ridiculous, but that’s the allegations that are being made.
“When you try and stand for certain things people try to find ways to bring you down.”
One of the saddest things about this whole sad story is that, were Beah to simply say, “I remember clearly the horrors that happened to me, though I have forgotten some dates and specific details,” it would be over. The more he insists on his accuracy, the more determined the reporters become to prove their own accuracy–and the further we all get from the real tragedy of the child soldiers.
Update to the update:
Also standing by Beah: Starbucks (“Starbucks defends Beah sponsorship,” by David Nason).
Update to the update to the update:
Bryan Appleyard has some interesting links on his blog, to two versions of a piece he did for the Sunday Times (“School report shoots holes in boy soldier’s bloody memoir” and “Bryan Appleyard’s full account of his interview with Ishmael Beah“). It’s very interesting to watch people debate this story in post comments. Most of the discussion tends to focus on the conflict between strict standards for truth vs. allowable artistic license. (I think artistic license is fine as long as it’s advertised; otherwise, people have a reasonable expectation that they’re getting the truth.) But there’s another uncomfortable presence in the room, too–are Beah’s defenders cutting him too much slack because of his experiences?
One commenter at bryanappleyard.com writes:
I have to say that some of Beah’s admirers seem rather patronising in their admiration. He still looks rather childlike – I can’t help wondering if he would be received in quite the same way if he looked more like his current age. I’ve known other 27 year old former child soldiers, and I doubt they’d receive quite such a sympathetic reception, simply because they don’t look like children anymore.
It’s true that, no matter what his experiences were as a child, he is an adult now, and needs to take responsibility for his own actions as any adult does. I’ve had a similar nagging feeling–that to completely let Beah off the hook is condescending, that it suggests somehow that he’s not intelligent or sophisticated enough to grasp the issues at stake.
(Thanks, Dave Lull, for the link.)