Before I respond to your thoughts, I want to say I couldn’t close this book. When the subway pulled into Columbus Circle, a zombie me stepped out, ascended the escalator, walked past the glass tower mall while I read on and on, channeled into Ishmael’s voice. By then I’d hit Page 119. I could vaguely feel New Yorkers, in that speedy way we do, looking to see if I was crazy, looking to see what the book was, while I was in the nighttime bush with Ishmael in his first battle as a boy soldier, searching for his little friend Josiah.
Ishmael sees Josiah’s tiny body has been thrown onto a tree stump by an RPG blast. His legs are wiggling, his cry gradually comes to an end, there’s blood everywhere. What Ishmael evokes so powerfully, without ever analyzing a thing, is what happens in his own head. The deafness that stops time and the battle around him. How he stands up, like any kid would do, to get Josiah off the stump. He’s quickly yanked back down by his corporal, and suddenly his deafness is shattered. He hears his corporal screaming, “Shoot,” he sees his other little friend Musa, too relaxed. Dead. Two friends gone on their first night.
“My face, my hands, my shirt and gun were covered with blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly, as if someone was shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two young lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved, until we were ordered to retreat because we needed another strategy.” They take the guns and ammo from their friends’ bodies and leave them in the forest, which “had taken on a life of its own, as if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead. The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer.” They crouch and form another ambush for their enemies. “It was between evening and nighttime. One lonely cricket tried to start singing, but none of its companions joined in, so it stopped to let silence bring night.” As I walked up Broadway, that zombie me wrote Bao Ninh in the margins. He was a former North Vietnamese soldier and has written one of the most haunting novels about war that I’ve ever read, The Sorrows of War. That’s what impressed me so much about Ishmael Beah’s memoir, which as you said reads more like a novel: his ability to transform his short life’s experience into art, without aestheticizing it.
Without ever romanticizing the natural world, Ishmael’s voice notices it’s changed by war, it perceives blood and killing, and he uses the natural world like percussion to punctuate his experience and the movement of time. I imagine he also used it at times to divert his mind—one that is barraged with migraines, dreams, blasts, blood, throat slittings, and, eventually, the total deletion of his prewar memories. He doesn’t reflect on the odd behavior of animals; he just puts it there, like the cock that crows all night or the dogs crying like humans in a seemingly abandoned village. The moon appears throughout the novel, and we remember, as Ishmael the writer wants us to, what he tells us early on when he’s on the run and sees, for the first time, skin falling from flesh, bullets swelling the body of a baby, its smile frozen in death. “We must strive to be like the moon,” an old man says to people whenever people walk past his house on their way to fetch water, to hunt, or to tap palm wine. And Ishmael recalls his mother explaining to him that unlike the sun, which can be so hot, so harsh, or so absent, the moon is always appreciated by everyone.
As a documentarian and artist, Ishmael is aware enough to signal to us that the experience of being on the run from war, with no family or authority figure, was also a stage in becoming a child soldier. At one point, he’s been alone in the bush for nearly a month, scrambling up trees (a feat he was never able to do in peacetime) to escape wild boars, whacking snakes, eating leaves, when he is confronted by a group of boys. They are as wary of him as he is of them. “Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it,” he says.
You’re right, Mike, I have spent a lot of time with child soldiers, particularly in Uganda, where 20,000 children have been stolen out of their lives and forced to be commanders’ wives, soldiers, killers, thieves. Children are appealing to commanders, who exploit the well-known talents of children. They’re fast learners, obedient, easily intimidated, and eager to please. They often make fabulous soldiers, especially when fed on a diet of cocaine, marijuana, little white pills (the contents of which Ishmael never actually knows), and a desire for revenge. So, opening this book, I expected a compelling narrative, raw, brutal, hard to digest but intoxicating—hearing a child describe how the wonder disappears one day as the hardening takes over, the routine of drugs, killing, watching Rambo and other war videos at their bush base, being Rambo in the villages.
But I was also suspicious of my own inability to put the book down. There is, after all, a voyeurism in reading memoir, war memoir in particular, and then add a child’s war memoir, and it’s hard not to be lured right in. Which is why I was so stunned by the depth and power of this book. The arc of Beah’s narrative is a coming-of-age novel: childhood hip-hop; arrival of war; massacres; hunger; a thwarted reunion with his family (he arrives two minutes after the village has been burned to the ground); the days and months of killing and drugs; the betrayal Ishmael feels when his commander turns him over to the foreigners for rehabilitation; his slow acceptance of Esther, his Sierra Leonian nurse; his re-entry into civilian life; his encounter with New York’s Times Square. It is also a story, in a way, of all soldiers. How, after all, do you transform a boy, a young man, a young woman with dreams, emotions, empathy, fear, compassion, wonder, into a killing machine?
I have listened dumbly to children in Uganda, often having to turn away so they wouldn’t see me cry as they told their stories of being snatched from their beds, their classrooms, their sorghum fields, and then marched off by children just like themselves, to become little killers themselves. Their stories seeped into my dreams, and I wrote about them with a ridiculous amount of tears and rage. The rawness and innocence with which they described what they’d done are so powerful that I didn’t think I’d want to hear or see it mediated through any artistic form. Yet that is itself a questionable thought: What, after all, was I doing in the New Yorker piece I crafted about the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army of kidnapped child soldiers? In her books on war photography, particularly Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines the questionable act of aestheticizing horror. Does that process, which slides us in until we, too, can imagine ourselves changing slowly as Ishmael Beah did, comfort us too much? My answer, Mike, is no. On the contrary, I’d argue that it is the failure to step into another’s shoes—the failure of imagination—that keeps us at a safe Starbucks distance. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. I wonder whether you think this question of voyeurism even applies to the novel form. And I wonder whether you felt like you were reading an “African” writer, or how he compares with other African writers whose work you know so well.
Look forward to your response,