According to a recent report in The Australian (“Africa’s war child,” by Shelley Gare, Peter Wilson, and David Nason), the timeline is wrong in Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The story of how the discrepancies came to light–and the responses of Beah’s publisher and guardian–are both fascinating and troubling. And while the book’s success and Beah’s visibility ensure that there will be a lot more talk about this, it’s likely to be a lot more delicate than the James Frey proceedings–as well it should be. Even if, as the article suggests, Beah’s time as a soldier lasted months, not years, no child should have to experience that kind of horror for even a moment. There are other questions worth asking, though.
If confirmed, the revelations do not mean Beah’s tale isn’t truly terrible. They don’t mean that he hasn’t been through experiences that most of us in the developed world will never have to face even in our nightmares. They don’t detract from the fact that, as his New York agent Ira Silverberg told Inquirer, of the inspiring book, “Beautiful things have come from the success he has seen.
He’s changing policy now; he testified before (the US) Congress; fought for the rights of the 300,000 …”
But this does raise questions about the way Ishmael Beah’s book came about and how thoroughly his story was checked out.
Does our enduring hunger for authentic stories, for human symbols, and for stories of redemption cause us to vet some stories less thoroughly than others? Interestingly, Frey’s own troubles triggered a halfhearted fact-check.
In an earlier interview with The Los Angeles Times, Crichton said she had asked Beah to vouch for the accuracy of his story after the memoirist James Frey had confessed to making up material in his own book. Times reporter Josh Getlin wrote: “Crichton was willing to take the leap after Beah assured her that he has a ‘photographic memory’. He reminded her that he had grown up in a culture with a long-standing oral tradition and had learned to tell stories from memory around a fire.”
(An interesting and probably unrelated side note is that Beah’s agent is Ira Silverberg, who also repped JT Leroy.)
A follow-up article yesterday (“Ishmael Beah’s flaws ‘poetic licence,’” by David Nason and Shelley Gare) featured thoughtful remarks from Dan Chaon (You Remind Me of Me, 2004) who, as a creative writing professor, helped Beah shape his first draft. Given his own interests as a novelist, Chaon was more interested in the storytelling than the dateline:
“If it turns out there are factual errors, I wouldn’t necessarily be all that concerned about it,” said Professor Chaon of Ohio’s Oberlin College.
“I don’t think the book is being presented as a piece of journalism. It’s being presented as a memoir.”
This seems to be the increasingly accepted point of view: in a memoir, expect some inaccuracy. And I can certainly agree with that. Without perfect memory, no memoirist is going to be as good as a reporter. (And lots of reporters have been reported to have their own problems.) But when the memoir isn’t about the writer’s wacky family–indeed, when the memoir has its own effect on world events–it would behoove the publisher to fact-check it as carefully as possible, knowing the kind of scrutiny it’s going to come under. And if some of the facts are in doubt, just say so.
I wouldn’t take a young person’s word about their experiences verbatim, regardless of what their experiences have been–but that doesn’t mean I’d discount the essential truth of their experience, either.