Monday, February 26, 2007

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

So for the first time, as far as I know, one of my former students has published a book. Not only that but he's popped up on The Daily Show (where he made Jon Stewart's "heart hurt"), in the NYTimes Magazine, and at #2 on the NYTimes bestseller list in nonfiction. When my students hit, they hit big (well, so far). I didn't know Ishmael terribly well, and I haven't been in touch with him since he was my student in an Intro to Creative Writing class at Oberlin College five years ago. But I'm proud all the same. I know exactly how far his writing has come, and the effort it must have taken to complete this book in the time since then and now.

The memoir is about being a boy in Sierra Leone, first running from the rebels who killed his family, and then fighting for the army, which promised him a chance to revenge the killings, then in a camp where he was rehabilitated, from the drugs and brainwashing of the army, onto the home of an uncle he had never known, and then finally, after another coup and another death (the uncle who took him in) to NY. Wisely Ishmael keeps his tone quiet as he relays all of these dramatic events and he does not embellish nor even try to draw meaning from his experience--he recognizes that what matters here is to tell the story simply so that readers can register it in its full horror. And while it really does make your heart hurt, Ishmael's ultimate success at regaining his humanity completely without blocking out his experiences is a really triumphant tale.

But what the memoir made me think about was naturally the workshop in which I knew Ishmael. The writing he was doing then (fiction, drama and poetry) was all grounded in his real experiences (though not the worst of them) and fortunately I had a class that recognized that in workshopping this kind of autobiographical material it was important to be sensitive. At the time, his writing was still full of ESL mistakes and honestly a little rough. But while we talked some about those things, the focus was always on the material--what we thought he could do with the material. And I'm glad of that because we had no idea really the extent of the horror of Ishmael's past. There was no way for us to know that by the time he was fifteen he was a trained military killer and that by the time he was eighteen he was addressing the UN about child soldiers. This was a good reminder to me that while I think I know my students, I really know very little of what their lives are like outside of the classroom, and that I shouldn't assume that I do. I don't think anything would have stopped Ishmael from writing his story, but I'm glad to say that our class was a voice of encouragement, expressing that we wanted to hear more.


Hazem said...

I will finish reading this book today becuse tomorrow i have an exam on it. But how come you teach fiction writing and this thing is very non faction thing?

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

It's true I mostly teach fiction and the blog mostly covers fiction, but I read and learn from all kinds of writing. And as a teacher, I feel obliged to say you should try to do your homework before the night before an exam!

Hazem said...

Actually this is not a homework, the whole exam is based the book. They you are using this book for psychological uses.