RAVAGED by war
Long Way Gone author Ishmael Beah pens evocative novel set in post-conflict Sierra Leone
CLEARLY mining its author’s shattering personal experiences with war and its aftermath, African writer Ishmael Beah’s first novel is haunting and evocative. Resilience is etched in its pages, though the thread of hope is always tenuous. Born in Sierra Leone in 1980 and now living in the U.S., Beah received international attention in 2007 for his gritty memoir of his life as a child soldier, A Long Way Gone. His followup, Radiance of Tomorrow, is set in postwar Sierra Leone, somewhere around 2002. It opens with the return of two elders to the burned and overgrown village ofo Imperi. The decade-long civil war has finally ended. Bones of massacred families litter the village paths and skeletons hang in the doorwaysd of farmhouses. The elders spend weeks cleaning up the grisly remnants of the war. Eventually, people from hiding places deep in the forest begin to arrive back “home.” Orphans, amputees and former child soldiers come to Imperi, the place they have heard about in the long-ago stories of their parents and grandparents.g
Stories, writes Beah, are the “most potent way of seeing anything we can encounter in our lives.” Storytelling helps to “deal with living.” Beah, in fact, visited Winnipeg in 2008 on the invitation of a high school storytelling club. And so Beah draws us into the stories and storytellers of Imperi. The characters in his novel have experienced all the hallmarks of war: amputation, maiming, rape. “Colonel” is a silent 18-year-old who creates a family out of a group of former child soldiers. He is a powerful presence in the village. Sira and his two young children are amputees, victims of soldiers who terrorized and subjugated citizens by cutting off their hands. Though they are deeply traumatized, Sira is a jovial man who seeks to teach his children how to find joy in life. Bockarie and Benjamin are teachers with young families. They are determined to bring education to their village, sure that education is the key to living well in the peaceful future of Sierra Leone. The aftermath of war in Imperi is not peace. Geologists discover valuable minerals, including rutile. That discovery changes everything. A new form of war begins. This time, the attacker is greed. The land is maimed and raped with no regard for the human cost. Readers are reminded of the ecological and human degradation so powerfully depicted in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond, also set in Sierra Leone. Beah’s descriptions are also reminiscent of the oil-drenched environmental hell in Nigeria, the setting of 419, Calgarian Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winning novel. Within a few years of their return, the elders watch their village become stained again, this time with tragedy and corruption. Still, they continue to offer stories of wisdom and hope. Beah’s writing is powerful. His use of language echoes the poetry of his mother tongue. He frequently provides literal translations of the metaphor-rich language. A ball, for example is a “nest of air.” Dawn is the hour when “night hands over the troubles of the living to the day,” and full daylight comes “when the sun finishes its negotiations with the clouds and takes over the sky.” These descriptions provide a lovely sense of the people and their land. A first novel cannot be without flaws. Beah’s foreshadowing is awkward and his attempts at metaphor are odd. For example, when Bockarie finds a new job that becomes repulsive, the author concludes, “in a city where the hand of opportunity did not come by easily, he would need to carefully and cautiously jump from one canoe to another before sounding the doorbell of his values.” These flaws are minor, though. Radiance of Tomorrow is a potent and poignant story that will stay with readers long after the last page is turned. Winnipegger Adelia Neufeld Wiens and her husband spent several
years working at an international school in Nairobi, Kenya.
Beah’s writing is powerful and his use of language echoes the poetry of his mother tongue.
Radiance of Tomorrow