Novelist Ishmael Beah is wise beyond his years. He has no choice but to be — between the ages of 13 and 16, Beah was a soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war. Beah, now 33 and living in Brooklyn, survived the war and has been working to spread the message of peace via his books ever since. We caught up with Beah before his upcoming reading at Greenlight Bookstore on Jan. 20.
Danielle Furfaro: Your new book, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” is a fictional book based on real events. What is the book is from your experience and what is fiction?
Ishmael Beah: When dealing with a return to a town after a war, I made the observation that nobody is paying attention to what happens after the guns are silent. It is another battle. It’s not only a physical battle, but also a psychological one. How do you live next to someone who hurt you in the war? How do you see your town when it was torn apart? It was a little observation and a lot of imagination of what was going on. It happens all over the world, not only in Sierra Leone, but in many other places. I used my imagination about how it would go.
DF: What are your favorite characters in your new book?
IB: One of my favorite characters is Mama Kadie, an elderly woman returning to a town devastated by war. For her character, I tried to envision what it would be like for my grandmother to return. She is the wisdom in the book and is passing on the knowledge to everyone else. And then there is Colonel, who is trying to make sure no one robs him of his dignity.
DF: What did you feel when you returned to Sierra Leone after all the years of being away? What do you think about the current state of the country?
IB: I went back for the first time after the war ended. It was difficult. I had the duality of memories. It was the place I lived as a child and also where I functioned as a solider. For every path or tree, I had a memory of playing there as a child and of some memory from the war. But then you go back and you begin to form new memories in the same landscape. It has changed. It is now home and the place I like to be.
DF: How often do you go?
IB: Two or three times a year. I try to go as often as I can.
DF: Do you hope that this book can be used by people in places like Sierra Leone and other war-torn countries as a way to help them heal from trauma?
IB: When you write something, I don’t think you anticipate how it will be used. You just ask the questions and try to answer them. How do you move towards a future when the past is pulling at you? Peace and happiness is not the absence of challenge in your life. All of these people are able to love each other and have a family. These are some of the topics I wanted to raise in this narrative. When you don’t have what you had before, how do you hope for it? What does not having your old life have to do with your humanity?
Ishmael Beah will discuss “Radiance of Tomorrow” with fellow author Dinaw Mengestu at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Elliot Place and S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246–0200, www.greenlightbookstore.com]. Jan. 20 at 7:30 pm. Free.