Earlier this week, I reviewed Ishmael Beah’s new novel Radiance of Tomorrow. Cuyahoga County Public Library invited Beah to be the inaugural speaker for the new auditorium in their remodeled Parma branch, and I was fortunate enough to have a chance to spend a few minutes with him prior to his lecture. He is soft-spoken and poised, with a gentleness to him that makes it hard to imagine him raising his voice. He has an easy, infectious smile, and he is generous with sharing his thoughts.
“When you give out a story it is no longer yours. You are only the shepherd.” –Radiance of Tomorrow
When you write are you conscious of the tempo of oral storytelling? Do you read the words aloud to yourself to get that sense of the cadence or does it sort of come out that way because of your influence in your childhood with oral storytelling?
Well, it’s a little bit of both. Because the orality is different from the written word. So really I’m going back there and trying to make the written word sound as if you are hearing a story from an elder. And also trying to translate the ways people speak in that language, their mannerisms and things like that. So what I do, I envision a setting where this is occurring and how that person would present themselves, how they would know and see certain things, how they order sentences and their words. So I really work and try to bring it. Because naturally the oral part is in my head, you know it’s what I know. And the written part I know, but that’s … that’s how you do it, there are differences. So I really try to … using words and images, set a particular mood to have the reader be in that place.
“Tradition can live on only if those carrying it respect it and leave it conditions that allow the traditions to survive. Otherwise, traditions have a way of hiding inside people like leaving only dangerous footprints of confusion.” –Radiance of Tomorrow
There’s such an emphasis on keeping the stories alive throughout this novel. At one point, you write ‘The new town would never be able to hold the stories.’ And there’s such a heartbreak to that, and to knowing that it’s not just this loss of this physical location, it’s really this loss of these traditions. Have you, in your life here, have you found a way to keep that tradition of oral storytelling alive and those traditions that were such a part of your life?
Yes! I’ve managed to keep them with me, the way that I carry myself, the things that I do, and I also go home quite often to gain access to those things in a more tactile way. But when I was a boy, part of the oral tradition is that when you’re younger, when you have access to it, they would tell you lots of stories, and my grandmother always said this is a way to prepare you for life later. So what they really do is they try to infuse you with stories, with the knowledge and the wisdom of the oral tradition, so even if you are not in that setting anymore you carry them with you. So in a way I have, I carry a lot of those because I was a very inquisitive child, so I would bother my grandmother a lot, she would tell me about which thing to tell me at the moment, and so there were lots of these things. So I still have that tradition within me. And I also try to tell stories to people that I know and that I’m very close to. So in a way I get to practice that, as well.
Yes, and I gather that you are expecting your first child?
No, I have my first child already. I have a daughter, so she has started hearing these stories already. I’m not sure she can understand now but the look on her face says that she sees an idea …
Sure, so you’re carrying on that tradition, then.
Certainly, because you know, as you mentioned earlier, the importance of stories and the oral tradition in particular is that you have to pass them along. Otherwise they will die. So the stories live beyond all of us. So when you hear them you pass them along to newer vessels so that it can continue. So that’s what I will do for my child and children, as well.
“One could, if possible, hear God only through the words of one’s own land. … They had to be in their homeland for that.” –Radiance of Tomorrow
Throughout the novel, there’s such a sense of place and of wanting to return home in all of the meanings of home, not just the physical location, but all of the things that go into making a place a home. And there’s this sense of “you can’t go home again.” It’s permanently changed, the people are changed, there are these outside forces that are changing it. It actually, I don’t know if you’ve read I Am Malala, but it reminded me very much of her book as well, and her wanting so deeply to return to her homeland and not being able to. With your life here, have you considered at any point a return to Sierra Leone? Or is it, just because of all of the things we see throughout this, that that kind of return just isn’t possible?
Well, the return is possible. I think the question that I was raising in the novel is can you go back to what your life had been? Is that possible? In some cases it is. But if it’s not possible, what can you rescue? What are some of the traditions that you can revive again and hold onto? And what does that say about you? So of course in Sierra Leone there are some of these traditions [that] have returned. And there’s a nostalgia for some things that may not come again. Sometimes nostalgia was what drove people back home, because they wanted to go back and see what they could find again. And sometimes it was nostalgia because they have told stories about this place to their children, and those children would bring, would return for those things that they had heard about. And for me particularly I do want to go back home. In a little bit I will definitely go back home, in a few years, and live there. Because it is my country. Regardless of what happened there, it is where I am completely happy. It’s my home. When I’m there is when I find my spirit will rest, and all the rest of it. So I will definitely go back.
“It wasn’t the time for mending broken connections, it was the time for teaching the heart to relocate to another land, to hold the memories of the land that would soon be abandoned, to embalm the image of what had existed so it wouldn’t decay with time, so it could live on vibrantly in the story.” –Radiance of Tomorrow
Do you feel that Americans tend to have that same sense of place? I don’t know that we’re as tied to the land. I think that possibly in some parts of the country, maybe out West and places like that where they are a little more tied to the land, that exists, but in reading your novel and the works of some other people, it’s a very different sense of place.
Yes, well place is different. You know place and home is very different in the African context, particularly, in the sense that land is not just the physicality of the land itself. It is also emotional, ancestral experiences that are part of the land. So it’s not just that you have a building and you used to live there. It’s the fact that your great-great-grandmother used to live there, and your great-great-grandfather and your ancestors have their graves in certain places, so land has a deeper meaning. And place has a deeper meaning. Home has a different meaning than just where I live or where my address is. And so because of that when you see people who are coming particularly from—I hate the word but it’s the only equivalent—indigenous cultures, there’s that attachment. And I grew up in a very remote part of the country, even in my own country, Sierra Leone, where I was in tune with nature, with the natural world, with the land, that I grew up [with] as a boy. So for me, even walking on the path has a different attachment to the physicality of the land itself, of the earth. So when I talk about home, and these characters, you see that’s really what they feel. And I think that most people are coming from outside, from a very Western European-centered idea of land. And hence people talk about land differently. I’ll leap off to make another example, when you talk about Southern Africa, particularly when they had issues with their appetite with land, were always in battle for land, people always say well it’s just land they’re fighting over. No, it’s not just land. Because it means so much more. And so it’s not just … otherwise you’d just give it up.
“They no longer believed they had control over anything in their lives. Desperation became their master. … What was more violent than making people disbelieve in the world of their own lives? What was more violent than making them believe they deserved less and less every day?”—Radiance of Tomorrow
When we think about civil war, the very name implies that it’s a war of the people, and that it’s truly brother against brother, and that individuals are fighting for something that they believe deeply in and that they’ve made a conscious choice to choose one side or the other. And it doesn’t seem like that was necessarily the case in Sierra Leone’s civil war. It feels like it was much more these outside forces that forced people into one side or the other, and that the objectives of either side weren’t even necessarily clear, much less something that people truly believed in and chose. And then we see that similarly in the novel where people are, where these outside forces sort of force choice on them that really isn’t any choice at all. Do you feel that that is specific to Sierra Leone or that our sense of civil war being something that is deeply felt and deeply chosen is maybe a romanticized version and that it’s always a corruption of power pushing people to something?
Well civil wars always begin with that strong belief in an ideology, of something that you need to change. But any war, it always starts with an ideology, where at some point it’s very difficult to manage that ideology, and then it becomes something else. It becomes just to survive and to stay alive. To do that, then you invite external forces to orchestrate certain things, because you need the tools that they would sell you from externally to be able to keep the violence going, right? So for example in the case of Sierra Leone, the civil war started because of the political climate that was there that was not really helping anybody. And people wanted it to change, there was a need for a revolution. And so when the revolution began, the ideology was lost very quickly and then it just became a blood bath. And of course people who saw that, external actors saw that as a way to come in and puppeteer the thing so they could benefit from natural resources and all of these things. So that’s usually what you see happen.
But I will say, really, at the bottom of all of it, whether it’s a civil war, whatever it is you want to call it, all of these things are possible because of extreme poverty. It’s an economic issue. I think sometimes people overlook it. When somebody’s absolutely desperate and they fall below that threshold of human dignity, when they no longer think their life is valuable or worth anything, anybody can fill them with anything, and they will believe it and they will wholeheartedly go with that because what have they got to lose? So that’s really where, whether you’re talking about terrorism, whatever you’re talking about, it’s people who have lost faith in their own ability to actually believe in their own humanity and to believe that they are capable of doing anything with their lives. They become the most, the best candidates to fuel any kind of ideology at all. Most of the time the people who they encounter are not good people when this happens. So that’s really the bottom of it. Because when somebody has opportunities in their lives, it’s very hard to tell them that ‘oh, you should go and do this.’ If they have opportunity they’re not going to believe you. But when you have nothing you’ll believe anything.
I stayed to listen to Beah’s lecture afterward, and when he spoke of the challenges he faced after coming to America and adjusting to Western life, he mentioned that one of the things that so surprised him was libraries. He was awed that there were these incredible places where anyone can go and just check out a book and be trusted to bring it back. It is a remarkable model when we stop to think about it. All of us here at Findaway World are so grateful to be a part of it.