caption: Child soldiers, Sierra Leone
The author and N4 founding artist Ishmael Beah and other writers share ideas on how to approach Beah’s memoir of life as a child soldier.
Caption: The crowd at the Bronx River Center, Sophie Bramly (1981)
Why Read A Long Way Gone?
Dan Chaon’s most recent book is Ill Will, a national bestseller, named one of the ten best books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly. Other works include the short story collection Stay Awake (2012), a finalist for the Story Prize; the national bestseller Await Your Reply, and Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthologies, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He taught at Oberlin College for 20 years until his retirement in 2018.
When I first met Ishmael Beah, he was a student in my Creative Writing class at Oberlin College, a short, athletic kid with a big smile and a mischievous sense of humor, and there was an almost beatific sense of joy about him. He seemed really glad to be alive. It wasn’t until later, after he began to write about his harrowing experiences during the civil war in Sierra Leone, that my first impression of him as a happy-go-lucky college student began to stun and amaze me. How was such a transformation possible?
“Sometimes,” Ishmael would go on to write in The New York Times Magazine, “I feel that living in New York City, having a good family and friends, and just being alive is a dream, that perhaps this second life of mine isn’t really happening.” He had just published his first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which would go on to become an acclaimed international best-seller--a work that shocked the conscience of the world and turned a spotlight on the tens of thousands of children worldwide who are forcibly recruited into armed conflicts. Ishmael’s second life—his survival, his rehabilitation, his passionate advocacy for children traumatized by war—became a symbol of hope for many across the globe.
The orphan’s journey is an ancient narrative trope, perhaps stemming back to the earliest storytellers. From the biblical tradition of Moses to the legends of King Arthur, from Dickens’s Oliver Twist to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the tales of lost and parentless children have compelled readers for centuries. No doubt it speaks to our deepest fears of powerlessness and abandonment, our most ardent hopes for transformation, for a second, better life, for rescue from the dire forces and circumstances we find ourselves enmired in. But Ishmael’s journey is no fairy tale, and his quest contains very little of the traditional heroism we have been conditioned to expect from such stories. The narrator of A Long Way Gone is not just a victim and witness to unimaginable brutality; he is also a perpetrator of it. In his review of the book for Time magazine, Lev Grossman says that the book takes readers “behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has.” Dead eyes. Consider that. A Long Way Gone challenges the assumptions we have about the orphan’s journey story and leads us to larger questions. What does it mean to metamorphose from one life to a new one? Which people are allowed forgiveness-- the possibility of becoming a new person-- and who is disposable? Americans have always loved the idea of people who remake themselves, the fantasy of rags to riches, but we are also the only country in the world who sentence people to life in prison without parole for crimes committed before they turn eighteen. Some people are capable of change, we seem to think; others are not. A Long Way Gone gently but forcefully asks us to question what we mean by “capable of change.” It teaches us to understand mercy by showing us that mercilessness is not a permanent condition, that dead eyes can become alive again, and I hope that readers of this book will be inspired to remember that every single person they meet, even the most loathsome, was once a vulnerable child. And that they will imagine the smiling and earnestly hopeful face of the young man I met once, who simply seemed so grateful to be alive on this earth.
Questions and Understandings for a Unit
Students could explore the following questions:
• How can we re-engage with our community after suffering?
• How can we retell our own story in a way that makes it better each time but also stays true?
• How can telling your story be a way of connecting with others on your own terms?
Students could investigate the following understandings:
• What has happened to you defines you, but not entirely.
• Intelligence and creativity are not controlled by certain people; opportunity is.
• The people who are at the margins are often the keenest observers of that society. They can see both worlds whereas people who fit can’t really see the world they live in.
• We want people to understand us and fear they won’t.
• We must make our own curriculum or risk being taught what is not for us.
• Don't have expectations.
• When you dehumanize others you are saying it's okay to do it to yourself.”
• Writing can be a form of talking back to authority.
• Survival is a sign of intelligence
• We find hope in community.
Sample Teaching Ideas
International Aid: How do countries help one another? Throughout Beah’s journey, the international community extended a helping hand. The center he was sent to after being removed from the conflict was organized by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. He spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York through the Children Associated with the War initiative. And he went to the United Nations International School in New York. How can countries help citizens of other nations that are going through a difficult period? Which international programs play a role in making the world a better place? How could you get involved?
Assignment: plan a mock United Nations conference for your class. Choose some countries for your classmates to represent. Write a resolution about the war in Sierra Leone and try to brainstorm ways that each country could provide aid.
Diaspora: Sierra Leone to South Carolina and Georgia During the 1700s, American plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia imported and purchased slaves from Sierra Leone, more than from any other country. These states have a similar climate as Sierra Leone and plantation owners found that rice grew very well there. These slaves from Sierra Leone brought their culture from home. Its influence has lasted today. The Gullah are a group of black Americans who live in the region who trace their culture back to Sierra Leone. They speak a creole language similar to that found in Sierra Leone, eat similar foods, and make similar art.
Assignment: What links can you find between the culture of Sierra Leone and the Gullah culture in Georgia and South Carolina? What happens to a country when its people are forcibly sent abroad?
What aspects of this music resonates with you? If you were going to put any of these songs on a mix with other music that shares the same message or mood, which songs would you add?