Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ishmael Beah In Two Versions

This is a first, a slightly odd one. Readers of the pulped pine edition of The Sunday Times will see only this short news story by me. Readers of the quantum shimmer edition will also get the full version of my interview with Ishmael Beah, author A Long Way Gone. This happened because I made a rooky feature writing mistake. I worked too hard. I interviewed Beah and then started treating it not as an interview but as news story. The result was that on Friday I found myself with breaking news on my hands - the discovery of the documents in Sierra Leone. A flurry of activity, confusion and apologies ensured. News people are carnivores, feature writers herbivores. So my feature was pulled from News Review and reduced in the manner of a Gordon Ramsay sauce for news. The original feature survives online but not on paper. This means that one extraordinary detail is preserved. This is the fact that the map of Sierra Leone at the front of the British paperback edition is the wrong scale - 200 miles in the real world becomes 1200 in the book. Weird. A good, strange story.


  1. I'm uncertain if you are ticked off and at who.
    On the general point, is it a good read, you can forgive a lot if it is.

  2. Not at all ticked off, Vince, just explaining what happened.

  3. Hello, Bryan. I read both your pieces and found them fascinating, and I also surfed about the net a bit and read other articles. Have you seen the one by Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly in America? It's a fascinatingly conflicted article in which Nelson seems to be reaching for a new definition of truth. A quantum truth, if you will. My own feeling is that you might as a thought experiement posit Ishmael Beah, the would-be writer, sitting in a locked room along with at least four of his editorial advisors to write his book. Those advisors being Laura Simms, Beah’s adoptive mother, and a story-teller whose own website hails her as specialising in creating 'groundbreaking work (which) combines ancient myth and fairytale with personal narrative'; Ira Silverberg, a literary agent in ny who has run similar rapids before with another client, JT Leroy; Sarah Crichton, a respected editor at FSG who according to her own account met Beah every Monday for well over a year to work on his book (which to me sounds like much more than the usual book editing); and the Cleveland writing professor, Dan Chaon, who also worked weekly with Beah on the text, but has worryingly now commented that, "I don't think the book is being presented as a piece of journalism. It's being presented as a memoir”. (The distinction being, Mr Chaon?) However as readers who were sold Ishmael Beah’s book as non-fiction, as autobiography, we now found ourselves in that curious Shrodinger position of looking at the locked door behind which Beah and all his various advisors once worked on the book, and asking ourselves whether the book then being written inside tells the whole truth or not. The answer being, as Sara Nelson seemed to suggest in her article, that a book can be both accurate and inaccurate, both truthful and deceitful. Thus quantum truth.

    So the truth is? I thought your point about Peter William's own recollection of the time that he spent in Iraq well made - three weeks, not three months - but even the most cursory check of his flight details, emails etc, let alone his family and friends, would have revealed the fact of those 3 weeks to him. So...? The truth is that truth and accuracy aren’t difficult concepts. When we read a gulag or a holocaust memoir in which a survivor recounts three years of terrible suffering, our belief in the overall truth of that memoir is of course swiftly undercut by the knowledge that the author had spent only a year suffering (if only can ever be the right word here). Ditto our reaction to books which prove to be false testimony as a whole – thus such books, and they seem now to be legion, as Norma Khouri’s attempt to cash in on the honour killing debate with FORBIDDEN LOVE, say, or the Benjamin Wilkomirski debacle, in which an acclaimed Holocaust memoir was later shown to be a total fiction.

    My own view is that publishers now bear a responsibility to their readers, an actual duty of care, when categorizing a memoir as truthful. And that in the light of all the recent cases, it is perhaps no longer good enough for an editor to assert, as Sara Nelson did for them in her Publishers Weekly article, that 'writers are responsible for their facts, and editors for probing their writers’ hearts and souls and memories'. The word which Nelson seems to me to withhold here is definitely an emphatic ‘only’ before her ‘for probing’. It seems to me now that book editors do now have a responsibility to their employers but more importantly to their 'client' readers.

    Perhaps the recent plethora of unreliable memoirs means that book publishers now face a choice: (a) either develop a third market categorization – a third sex, if you will, thus some hermaphroditic market definition which encapsulates that idea of a novelistic, re-interpretative memoir which can be marketed as lying somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, or (b) when factually challenged by the press on one of their books, as with Fourth Estate publishers here and the Australian’s investigation, to appoint some impartial third party to conduct a post facto investigation into the facts, or (c) to adopt that laissez-faire European attitude of marketing many of the narrative memoirs translated into local languages from America or Britain as ‘novelistic memoirs’, as with ANGELA'S ASHES, for one, or, finally (d) to adopt the Elie Wiesel approach and allow Ishmael Beah, should it in time and after investigation be thought desirable, the chance to revise his work, much as Wiesel did post-publication with part of his own acclaimed book,NIGHT. Anyway, I seem to have run away with myself here - both versions of your articles were stimulating. I just hope they were true in each and every detail.

  4. Anonymous, your question got posed a long time ago in America: We've been having the truth v. fiction debate for years now, heightened occasionally by people like James Frey and Lauren Slater. Graduate courses in "memory, history, fiction, fact" abound and everyone knows now that there's no such thing as a reliable witness, even of our own lives.

    But Bryan, I love your line: "News people are carnivores, feature writers herbivores." Brilliant!

  5. An interesting problem. A girl i know was telling me about her not too great childhood, and exaggerated certain details. i think she did so because the mere facts (e.g. how long something went on for) didn't fit her outrage and she lacked the narrative skill to make, say, 3 months sound as bad as it was, so expanded it to become a full year.

    Likewise i found when editing my novel, it was often necessary, when trying to present the subjective experience of a situation, to alter the observable facts. For example, a nasty human being might bully through her tone of voice, which i found myself unable to fully capture on page; so i made her words more vicious & abusive than they actually were.

    Perhaps Beah did something of this sort. Although i think publishers are so incompetent, corrupt and moronic, that i wouldn't put conscious falsification or just downright stupidity past them.

  6. " Although i think publishers are so incompetent, corrupt and moronic, that i wouldn't put conscious falsification or just downright stupidity past them."

    This is itself a moronic statement. How, exactly, did the great unwashed get the notion that non fiction prose is the same as factual news reporting, and why do intelligent commentators who know the history of literature encourage them in this ignorant delusion? From the Bible to the Life of Casanova to the Seven Pillars of Wisdom to Winston Churchill's Nobel-prizewinning history of WWII to A Million Little Pieces, publishers have been publishing non fiction that follows the literal truth as close as myth follows reality and readers have been avidly consuming it in the full knowledge that truth has taken a back seat to story. Where have all these imagination-police been for the last 40 centuries? Would these know-nothing "critics" have us eradicate everything from the non fiction canon but dreary reportage? The unrealiable narrator exists and the world is better for it. Get used to it, idiots!

  7. bookmaven. I accept the point you are making about some non-fiction prose - mainly what I'd call interpretative non-fiction prose about a subject other than the author's own life. I don't think anyone has a problem with the sort of third person books that you are talking about provided that the text or the author makes their own position reasonably clear. That genre of non-fiction is of course quite distinct from something like the Beah, which sells itself to the public as an authentic first person experience. And the James Frey debacle? Well, that was a problem, in that he was shown to have changed the facts of his life rather his interpretation of those facts. Hence the resignation that followed, plus the complete recategorising of Frey's book. Writing an autobiography or a memoir that is not true, either in part or a whole, surely makes it NOT an autobiography or memoir? Which means that we have been sold a fake if we buy something categorised as such, largely because we are of course buying into the authenticity of the experience told in the book when we pay hard-won cash for an autobiography.

  8. Bryan, fascinating. I visited Sierra Leone five or six times in the 70s and visited most countries in West Africa during the decade. I went to Nigeria countless times. One thing I learned very quickly is that Africa is not like we in Britain (and the USA & Europe) like to think it is. The complexities within their culture - not a national cultural identity but very often tribal is hugely baffling to our minds that have been educated in very different ways.

    Misery memoirs, fact or fiction? semi fact or near fiction?

    This is my truth, tell me yours...

  9. Bookmaven, the unreliable narrator may be a legitmate literary device, but on issues like this, it is important to gain some idea of where the truth lies. That's because there is very little first-hand testimony about experiences such as those described in "A Long Way Gone", and the book is being presented as an entirely reliable tool for understanding the effects of such experiences upon children. The image presented of Ishmael Beah by his publisher and supporters was of someone who had experienced prolonged and extreme trauma, and who had healed to a remarkable extent. The recent reporting raises the possibility that he may not have been traumatised over such a long period, and that he may not have healed quite so completely. It's true, as UNICEF says, that "one day" as a child soldier is too many. But obviously the length of time that Beah was traumatised, and the age at which this happened (not to mention that 2 years extra schooling makes a hell of a difference) is very relevent in accounting for the success of his rehabilitation - and given that his reported experience included drug addication, then a couple of months is very different to a couple of years. And if his book is the product of fractured memory rather than (as was claimed) perfect photographic recall, that's also important to know.
    By apparently exaggerating both the degree of trauma and the degree of recovery, the book and associated publicity paradoxically has the effect of understating the effect of war trauma upon a child.
    I have to say that some of Beah's admirers seem rather patronising in their admiration. He still looks rather childlike - I can't help wondering if he would be received in quite the same way if he looked more like his current age. I've known other 27 year old former child soldiers, and I doubt they'd receive quite such a sympathetic reception, simply because they don't look like children anymore.

  10. I am just appaled that this man Beah is still going around the world with his cocked up story. I am almost as eually amazed that anyone out there still wants to hear from him. Does truth no longer matter, and has he not done an enormous disservice to his 'cause?' Lastly it really gets up my nose that this guy is walking away with a million dollars for having made mugs of us all.