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Oberlin Featured Writers: the Global Voice of Ishmael Beah

by Fionna Farrell

Staff Writer

[originally published summer 2021]


Oberlin has produced a slew of renowned writers over the years. It comes as no surprise that Creative Writing continues to be one of the most competitive majors here. As us aspiring writers peer into our own futures, let us take a look at those who have helped set the path for us, and have done so with confidence, grace, and, in this case, no lack of bravery.

Ishmael Beah was born in Sierra Leone in 1980. When Beah was just eleven years old, at the peak of the Sierra Leone Civil War, rebels invaded his hometown of Mogbwemo. He fled the town with a group of other boys, tragically separated from his family. Two years later, at the age of thirteen, Beah was forced to become a child soldier, fighting alongside the government army against the rebels. Beah served for nearly three brutal years before being rescued by UNICEF.

With UNICEF’s assistance, Beah fled to New York City in 1997, where he was taken in by his foster mother. He attended the United Nations International School, followed by—you guessed it—Oberlin College, where he graduated in 2004 with a BA in political science. It did not take long for Beah to launch a remarkable, and still flourishing, writing career.. In 2007, he published his first memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs From a Boy Shoulder, to immense public and critical acclaim. Through a firsthand account of his past, Beah forces us to consider the innocence-sucking universe of a child soldier—a universe where barely pubescent teens wield AK-47s while hopped up on amphetamines. Of the memoir, the Washington Post wrote: “Everyone in the world should read this book.” Time called Beah’s account “breathtaking” and “unself-pitying.” And it serves as the first of its kind—before Beah’s memoir, the first-person account of a former child soldier was unheard of.

Beah’s next major effort presents these themes through a fictitious, yet no less powerful lens. His 2014 novel Radiance of Tomorrow tells the story of two lifelong friends who return to their hometown of Imperi after the civil war, only to find their village completely decimated. The two companions try taking up their former posts as teachers, yet are beset by the insurmountable obstacles of a war-torn country. Meanwhile, a foreign mining company threatens the town’s water supply while destroying its infrastructure. Thus, the protagonists are faced with the task of protecting their homeland while they themselves are still vulnerable—and when their homeland was the cause of that vulnerability.

Finally, Beah’s third book, Little Family: A Novel, saw a perhaps slightly less personal, yet no less intimate, approach to his writing. The novel, this time, takes place in an unnamed African nation, away from the war-ravaged lands of Sierra Leone. We follow the journeys of five orphans as they build and share a home with one another, creating whatever semblance of a family they know how to in the process. Although the novel does not particularly revolve around war or the experiences relative to one nation, it nonetheless captures the heart of displacement and powerlessness that lie at the core of Beah’s works. How do we move forward, both individually and together, when our world has done nothing but trap us?

It is not merely through his writing that Beah poses these difficult questions. He is also an avid human rights activist, frequently speaking at conferences around the world—sometimes, even, before world leaders, as he did at a 2008 UN press conference. Indeed, Beah is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and has testified before the United States Congress. The majority of his work focuses on saving children from the calamity of war that he himself knows all too well. He travels to every corner of the globe to visit affected communities.

When it comes to reckoning with his own past, Beah shares an eye-opening perspective. Yet, he has never been limited to the literary medium. During a Valentine’s Day appearance on The Daily Show in 2007, Beah confided in host Jon Stewart that returning to civilized society was “more difficult” than the act of becoming a child soldier. In his own words, “dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task.” Meanwhile, Beah doesn’t remember exactly how many people he killed during his forced service. He and his fellow soldiers smoked a lot of marijuana. Snorted amphetamines and “brown-brown” (a mix of cocaine and gunpowder). All this stuff was just the routine of getting by.

Beah claims that there was no escape. Escape was as good as being dead. When he was eventually rescued by UNICEF, the first thing he felt was anxiety over his rifle being taken from him—“I knew what it meant to not have a weapon in the context I was in.” His transition was filled with hardship and strife. Beah credits one Nurse Esther for helping to get him through. Recognizing his interest in music, she gifted him with a Walkman and a Run DMC cassette. Beah says music reminded him of a time before the violence. A violence which will forever remain exposed through his words. Let’s hope “everyone in the world” really does pick up one of his books. And us Oberlin students---we can carry it in our pocket, as we trace a route Beah himself might have walked to class.

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