The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Ishmael Beah

Meet Ishmael Beah

Where: Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord
When: Tuesday, March 25, at 7 p.m.
Contact: Call 224-0562 or email to have a signed copy put aside if you can’t make the event.

From a former boy soldier
Bestselling author Ishmael Beah on Radiance of Tomorrow

By Kelly Sennott

 In 2007, Ishmael Beah became internationally known for his memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a chilling first-hand account about what war looks like through the eyes of someone who learned to kill at age 12. 

Beah was a child soldier for more than two years before he was rescued by UNICEF, adopted, and moved to the United States in 1998. He finished high school in New York and studied political science at Oberlin College, where he wrote A Long Way Gone, which attained much success but also garnered criticism from skeptics who say Beah’s accounts are grossly exaggerated.
Seven years after this first book, Beah has written another tale. Radiance of Tomorrow has been well-received among critics, including Hippo reviewer Jennifer Graham, who gave the book an A in last week’s issue (read the review at It’s a fictional story about what happens to civilians after they return home from war. It’s told with more vivid language than the memoir; this one better mimics his mother tongue, Mende, which is very expressive. (For example: in Mende, you wouldn’t say, “Night came suddenly.” Instead, you’d say, “The sky rolled over and changed sides.”) 
Beah visits Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord to talk about Radiance of Tomorrow on March 25. Before the stop, he made time for a phone interview from a tour stop in Wichita.

This book is more lyrical than your memoir. You’ve said in past interviews it’s because in the memoir, you were telling from a child’s perspective. How did the writing process differ for the two?
There were some challenges in trying to write the English equivalent in what I wanted to say. … But in comparison to the memoir, in this one, I was freer. I could play with the language more and do certain things that I think are more restricting in the memoir form, which is really just telling what happened. … But for me, it was much more difficult with the memoir because I really experienced it. I knew that when I went into that world, I would be feeling the pain, the emotional turmoil. Here, I couldn’t wait to go back in there, to play around and see what I could do.
Is this book completely fictional, then? Or are these stories based on true stories?
I’m not sure that it’s pure fiction. … But they’re based on certain things and the ways how I expected certain people to do certain things. … The main character is how I expect my grandmother would have behaved or felt like returning from the war. It was a little bit of the things I observed, but quite a lot I imagined and created.
This book is still pretty gruesome. Were there parts that were difficult to write?
It was easier to write. ... I was not in the characters’ shoes. This one was not as personal. I was more removed. It didn’t affect me as much as my own personal story did.
At the beginning of the book, you also say you use this more lyrical language because it’s closer to your native tongue, Mende. In the translated versions, then, can you notice a difference in these two styles?
Yes, you would notice a difference. … This would feel more like fiction, and the memoir would sound more like a child talking. … For the fiction book, I wanted to put more of our oral tradition in it. I wanted the reader to feel as though they were sitting around the fire listening to someone telling the story.
Is it true you wrote the memoir without intending it to be published?
Yes, when I started writing the first draft, I never thought it would be published. I was in university when I was working on it, and I was writing it as a way to prepare myself if I ever had the opportunity to talk about what happened. I wanted to find the right way to present myself, and I also wanted to keep those memories intact. … I thought I would give it to my kids when I was older. I never thought it would be published — I thought, ‘Who would read such a thing?’ So I never had anything in mind about publication. In fact, I didn’t even know how you’d seek publication.
Do you think you would have written Radiance of Tomorrow had you not written the memoir first? Did you want to be a writer before then?
At some point, I would have wanted it to be written. I was frustrated about how little there is out there about my culture. … I think that would have made me want to write something, definitely, at some point, but writing the memoir and being out speaking about it brought about the urgency to write the fiction. 
When was it that you decided you wanted to write Radiance of Tomorrow?
When I started going home after the war ended and just seeing the nature of the place. I began finding it very strange. People were struggling to find how they could live again after the war. I began to observe. … As soon as war ended, the attention turned to the next war, the next place where madness was unfolding. The focus of the media, the international organizations, the delivery of international aid, it all went to the places that were burning up and where there was blood. … I wanted to write something about this, about how it’s not easy to return.
Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was growing up, I never thought I would be a writer. I knew I was interested in stories; when I would read or write, I was more excited about this than anything else I was studying. I studied political science when I came to the U.S., and I started writing a little bit, casually, at the university. But that’s when I really began to see a possibility, and I think others recognized an ability to write.
What do you think you would have done otherwise?
I took the LSAT when I graduated and applied to law school. At that time, I was thinking that’s where I’d go. But then, that’s when I got a book deal. I decided that this sounded way more interesting.
What does it mean to you, that so many people have responded to these books?
I mean, it’s a wonderful thing as a writer. You want as many people to read and learn about where you’re coming from as possible. I feel that I’m opening a window for my culture, my traditions, so that people can really get to meet my people and learn about us. … I think that one of the rules of being a writer is not to represent just those who make history but rather, those who suffer through history. The majority of people in my country suffered for quite a while. In my case, I’m putting a voice to how they’ve done that, through their bravery, strength, vibrancy. … For me, that is what I’m trying to do. 
As seen in the March 20, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

®2020 Hippo Press. site by wedu