Memoir Week

Child-Soldier Novels

Dear Elizabeth,

Thanks for your comments yesterday. I was moved anew by the way you told the story of Ishmael’s rebirth as a soldier boy, and grateful, too, for the care with which you set out some of the larger themes of A Long Way Gone. And for remembering the old man’s advice, about striving to be like the moon, since “no one grumbles when the moon shines.” It’s a lovely thought and not bad advice, actually; it’s also crucial to Ishmael’s rehabilitation.

In any case, I think you’re totally right that the “memoirs of a boy soldier” is liable to ensorcell the unwary reader with its voyeuristic triple threat. I do wonder whether there is sometimes an unsavory element to one’s interest in this kind of book—like rubbernecking at a particularly gruesome car crash of our common humanity. It doesn’t help that journalistic depictions of kid soldiers in Africa often emphasize the more outlandish elements—the wig-wearing, gangsta-rap-loving naifs with the fetishes that can make bullets turn to vapor. That is some powerful local color, and writers who try to assay this terrain tend to find it hard to resist.

Which is yet another reason that I am impressed by A Long Way Gone, which manages, as you say, to serve at once as a kind of propaganda piece and as a completely satisfying coming-of-age novel. It is, perhaps, more satisfying than some of the actual novels that have treated the subject. One of the difficulties in handling the subject, fictionally or otherwise, is managing the delicate choreography of knowing and unknowing in the authorial voice of the child soldier. How does one describe a child who possesses the power of life and death? What does that child sound like? What makes that voice believable?  And how does a child not only narrate horror but convey the transformation that allows him to be describing his experience at all, after what he has been through?

This turns out to be a bit of a problem for the expanding roster of “child-soldier” novels in contemporary African literature. Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog, to take one celebrated example, provides a portrait of the child soldier as a bumbling yet murderous narcissist, never quite as smart as he thinks he is, a kind of dictator in miniature. Johnny spends much of his free time fretting about what to call his band of rebels and what suitably vicious nickname he should assume. He is not quite convincing as a boy or a man, though he serves convincingly as a force for evil, raping and pillaging and mouthing a series of grandiose banalities. (As it happens, Johnny is one of two narrators in Johnny Mad Dog; the other is a sensitive and ambitious young girl named Laokolé, whose experience as a refugee brings her repeatedly into his—that is, harm’s—way.)

Agu, the narrator of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, is closer to Ishmael; he is a bright, gentle boy who becomes a monster and who eventually, under the guidance of a caring NGO worker, achieves something that might be redemption. It is a brief and blistering book, a hallucinatory tale that is both enhanced and slightly impoverished by its distinctive narrative voice.Agu tells his story in an idiosyncratic argot, a soft, poeticized take on Nigerian pidgin that can create startlingly powerful effects. As with, “I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink while I am hearing the laughing KEHI, KEHI, KEHI all around me.” In its subject and in its deliberately fractured language, Beasts of No Nation is also reminiscent of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, perhaps the first child-soldier novel in African literature (and one of the great anti-war novels in any language).

Still, the estranging language has what I think is an unintended side effect, which is that it becomes difficult to believe that Agu is the precocious, book-loving boy that the novel wants us to imagine he was before things fell apart. The particulars are always faint and indistinct, as compared to the incredibly distinctive voice of the narrator. There’s an untethered air of innocence in that voice, even or especially when it is describing terrible acts of violation. Which is also to say that there is a curious flatness to Agu’s story. There is a similar flatness to the story of Johnny Mad Dog, though with Johnny it is rather the lack of innocence that makes him seem too simple. In a way, I suppose, I suspect that the novels actually provide a more voyeuristic experience than Beah’s memoir, in that they invite the reader to wallow in the otherness of their monstrous narrators.

In my first entry, I placed what might have seemed mysterious emphasis on various moments in A Long Way Gone when the boy’s life is inflected by hip-hop. (I left several out, including the scene when Ishmael’s father playfully berates his son for memorizing the lyrics to Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” instead of listening to the BBC World Service.) But I think that those moments are crucial to the book—to what makes the book so wonderful, as a story, but also to our understanding of how children—people?—who have become monsters can become something else again. For Ishmael, whose years as a soldier seemed to destroy even the memory of his childhood, the first intimation that his sense of self might still exist arrives in the form of a gift from the nurse at the rehab center: a Walkman with Run-DMC’s debut cassette inside. Yesterday, you noted that Beah helps us vividly see how “you transform a boy, a young man, a young woman with dreams, emotions, empathy, fear, compassion, wonder, into a killing machine.” I’d love to hear your thoughts, informed by the book and also by your time in northern Uganda, on how you transform a killing machine back into a boy or a girl.