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Ishmael Beah, author and former child soldier, comes to Baltimore

The author Ishmael Beah grew up listening to his grandmother tell folk tales that explained, among other things, why a spider has a narrow waist.

He quickly realized that beneath the whimsy were hidden life lessons he was expected to master.

"I would [sit] around the fire every evening and ask my grandmother what the stories meant, and she would refuse to tell me," Beah said. "The stories were like medicine. I was supposed to find the meanings for myself and let them strengthen me."

The boy needed all the strengthening he could get when he was kidnapped at age 13, drafted as a child soldier into Sierra Leone's civil war, and forced to commit atrocities. His memoir describes murders and mutilations he committed under duress.

In 1998, Beah was rescued by UNICEF and moved to the United States, where he finished school and prepared to become a writer. He now lives in New York City.

Echoes of his grandmother's stories can be found in Beah's best-selling 2007 memoir, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," and in his new novel, "Radiance of Tomorrow," which explores how his homeland tried to rebuild itself after the shooting stopped.

And like his grandmother's spider, the author doubtless will spin his own intricate webs when he speaks at the Johns Hopkins University on Monday.

"In our tradition, once you have told a story, it's no longer yours," Beah said in a recent phone interview (an edited version appears below). "You are just the shepherd. The story belongs to everyone who encounters it, and they take it in many different directions."

What inspired you to write a book about a country rebuilding itself in the aftermath of war?

The physical wounds of war sometimes are the easiest to heal. The psychological ones are more difficult: How do you learn to live together and rekindle your traditions? Can you go back to what your life was? And if you can't, what do you do?

There were all the questions that were in my head. I observed that people who had come to the United States and Europe seeking political asylum were sent back to Sierra Leone as soon as the war had ended on paper. The observers of peace and reconciliation didn't go outside the capital city. They said, "Oh, your country's good. You should go back."

But you have to go into the interior, where most of the devastation happened. Some of the fighters in the country are in the bushes, and they would not get the news until maybe months or a year later.

Were any parts of the novel taken from your own life? How about the character of the child soldier who sought forgiveness from his former victims?

The novel is not based very much on my own experience. I created this world and these characters, and they are a composite of many, many things that I observed.

The only trace of me might be the former child soldiers, Ernest and the Colonel. But those characters also were based on the 300,000 child soldiers around the world.

I never met any of my former victims, as Ernest did. But there are certain places in Sierra Leone that I go where people know I was active in the war. Sometimes they look at me a certain way.

Tell me about why you named your book "Radiance of Tomorrow."

I was trying to get at the hopeful quality of the people, the idea that what has yet to come tomorrow hasn't been tainted by everything that has happened. It still has the possibility of being good, and that's the hope that people live for. The changes may not be significant, but the people can still make little strides.

I also wanted to talk about this question of happiness, which oftentimes people think of as a continuum: I'm happy for two months in a row, or five months, with no interruption.

These characters understand that happiness is not that. It's not the absence of challenges in one's life. It's the ability to find beauty and hold on to these moments, to be passionate about watching a football match or going to a disco or listening to a story like there's no tomorrow.

You've spent more than half your life in the United States. Do you still feel like an immigrant?

Yes and no. I'm a Sierra Leonean with some American tendencies, and that will be true all my life. In Sierra Leone, one of the ways people test you when you go back home is to speak the language to you. If you cannot remember the language, they immediately consider you not one of them anymore. Language plays a key role in our culture.

Sierra Leone has about 15 languages and three dialects, and I grew up speaking about seven of them. I made sure that I remembered all my languages, even when I didn't have people to speak to initially. I would talk to myself in the evening when I was doing my homework. I just knew that if I forgot these languages, I would begin to lose my own identity.

Your prose is full of metaphors and vivid descriptions. How did your style evolve?

The characters in my head were talking in Mende, which is my mother tongue. Mende is a very poetic and figurative language, so I was always trying to find the English equivalent of things that could be said in Mende.

For example, when you're telling a story in Mende and you want to say, "The night came suddenly," what you really say is, "The sky rolled over and changed sides."

If you talk about an older person in a story, you would describe their age through the color of their hair. You would say their hair "was the color of stagnant clouds."

In Mende, instead of saying, "Children were kicking around a ball," you would say, "Children were kicking around a nest of air."

A year or so after your first book came out in 2007, foreign journalists challenged some details in your story, though not the gist. The controversy lasted for a long time. What did you take away from that experience?

I've thought about it, and the heart of it for me is this idea of "the singular truth" versus several truths.

In this culture, people want the singular truth. You see it everywhere. They say, "What is the one thing we can do to fix the educational system?" Well, there is no one thing. There are several things.

When I was in the war, if I was standing next to somebody shooting, if we were later to tell a story about that moment, his story would be different from mine. That doesn't mean that either of our stories are wrong. They were both very truthful to the event we'd just experienced.

[The controversy] was more about everybody wanting whatever I said to be in agreement with what everybody else said who had experienced the same event. And that cannot be. It cannot be.

Even worse, I was coming from places that didn't have records of some of the things I was writing about. It's not like you can go and dig them up. When the war was going on, nobody was there recording.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the Book: "Radiance of Tomorrow" was published Jan. 7 by Sarah Crichton Books. 256 pages, $25.

Author Ishmael Beah will read at 6:30 p.m. April 28 at the Johns Hopkins University's Hopkins Hall, 3101 Wyman Park Drive, Baltimore. Free. Call 410-516-6286 or visit writingseminars.jhu.edu/reading-series.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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