Calling Ishmael Beah


Ishmael Beah’s publisher wouldn’t allow the Voice to interview him, so the Voice sought out the author himself last week at a public appearance in Manhattan.

Beah, the elusive author of a celebrated—and controversial—memoir about his experiences as a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone, surfaced Thursday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a talk sponsored by the Department of African Studies.

After standing in line while the author signed copies of A Long Way Gone, a Voice reporter asked Beah, 27, about an incident in the book in which two factions of child soldiers brawl inside a refugee camp in Freetown. Three of the youths were killed, he wrote.

An Australian newspaper has reported that neither aide workers nor journalists from the era could recall such an incident taking place. A spokesman for UNICEF, the organization that ran the camp, told the Voice that a “preliminary” investigation could not independently confirm that the incident occurred.

Beah did not directly answer the question. Instead, he said: “There was so much that happened in the war that was not recorded.”

This, of course, is true. However, an organization like UNICEF probably would have treated this particular incident with a great deal of concern. It is reasonable to believe that there would be some record of it.

Beah also suggested that since journalists didn’t arrive in Sierra Leone until the height of the conflict, there was no one around to record it. But, in fact, there were reporters working in Freetown at the time of the alleged incident.

The Voice also asked Beah about the questions that have emerged over the timeline in his book. He says that he was a child soldier from age 13 to 15, a period of two years. But journalist Peter Wilson found evidence that he was still in school for some of that period. In addition, there are questions about the key battle that begins Beah’s ordeal. He says it took place in 1993, when he was 12 or 13, but locals interviewed by Wilson told him that it actually took place in 1995, when Beah was 15—which means that he would’ve been a soldier for a few months at the most, not two years.

“What I have said is, I wrote to the best of my memory, the best of my recollection,” he told the Voice last Thursday.

Then, with a wry smile on his face, Beah went on to advise the Voice reporter to schedule an interview through his publisher.

The reporter replied that he had tried to obtain an interview with Beah repeatedly through his publisher over a period of nearly a month prior to publication of the Voice‘s recent cover story. Jeff Seroy, a spokesman with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, denied those requests. He also turned down a request to interview Beah’s editor, Sarah Crichton.

Beah seemed surprised, suggesting that his publisher never told him that the Voice wished to interview him.

With a proctor breathing down his neck, the Voice reporter was able to ask one last question: Did Beah use composite characters or take events that had happened to others and present them as his own? To this, Beah replied: “You should ask Peter Wilson that question. I’m sure he gave you all these questions.”

Beah was wrong in assuming that the questions were fed to the Voice by Wilson, but his response suggested that he is flustered by the doubts that have been raised about his book.

During the talk itself, Beah supplied students with an overview of his life story. He made no mention of the ongoing controversy.

The professor leading the event said that it was being held to “sensitize” the John Jay students to good writing. When question time rolled around, regretfully, the 200 members of the student body present were only able to muster six questions for the panel.