Whispers On Fingertips Literatea 03: Ishmael Beah.

Literatea is an interview series that brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.

The healing power of stories, their ability to shape and define, the need to pass batons from one writer to the next, and the origins of his storytelling prowess—from the cheeky essay, “Why I Do Not Have A Report Card”, which won him his first scholarship for school in the United States, to the New York Times bestselling author—are discussed with Ishmael Beah. This is the third Literatea interview.

Ishmael Beah is a Sierra Leonean writer and the author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A  Boy Soldier (2007), Radiance of Tomorrow (2014), and Little Family (2020). A Long Way Gone has been published in over 40 languages and was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007. Time Magazine named the book as one of the Top 10 Nonfiction books of 2007. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Time, International Herald Tribune, Globe & Mail, Rutgers University Press, Vespertine Press, LIT, The Guardian, and many other places.


MUBANGA KALIMAMUKWENTO: I am so excited to be conducting this edition of Literatea with you. I’d like to start this conversation with something you mentioned in the audio of Radiance of Tomorrow—how, speaking seven languages, you sometimes struggled to find the English equivalent of Mende descriptions. Zambia has 72 languages, and I grew up speaking four of those, so I often encounter this in my own writing. 

How do you navigate this process, borrowing from some Sierra Leonean storytelling oral traditions which emphasize why a story is being told, the lesson beneath it, and not just how it’s told?

ISHMAEL BEAH: Thank you Mubanga. I am equally excited and honoured for this conversation.

My first introduction to the structure of a story and how a compelling story can be told was through oral tradition. I grew up in a remote village in Sierra Leone and every evening, my grandmother, who was one of the storytellers in my community, told stories to me, my siblings, and other children around a fire. Hence, I was raised with the understanding that “stories are medicines that are poured into you to strengthen your spirit and mind for when life breaks you. And life will always break you one way or another. But with the stories as medicine in your veins, you can heal better as your breaking will not be fatal.” Additionally, it was through stories that I learned the instructions of what my role was and will be as a human being in the world. The foundation of that role was to never forget that we “human beings” are each other’s keepers and when we forget that our collective humanity deteriorates. This was my early foundation, these values and ways of thinking, before I started going to school and learning the English language. So I already had many languages to describe a myriad of feelings, behaviours, and mannerisms that invoked images in the mind of the listener.

In school, though, I was quickly led to believe that all the languages I knew and had learned how to tell stories in were vernacular in the negative sense of it. They weren’t sophisticated enough for writing or literature. I remember being flogged in school for speaking Mende, my first language. Even then, I somehow knew that I had reverted to Mende because what I had wanted to say could only be truly expressed in Mende as there was no satisfactory equivalent in English. Also, at the time I didn’t have a command of the English language to make something work as I do now. Hence, when I began writing seriously I was aware that my sentences and stories must carry the signature of all the languages I know and the oral tradition storytelling.

I couldn’t avoid this because my characters do not speak English to me and they are not in settings where English is the predominant language. I have to translate what they say and how they function. Therefore, I am always in search of the words or strings of words that fit the characters and the landscapes they inhabit. I will give a few short examples. In Mende, how you say “night came suddenly,” translates to “the sky rolled over and changed it sides.” The latter sentence gives you an image that stays with you and additionally gives a hint of where the story is occurring. This is the expressive nature and power of our languages and oral storytelling. Lastly, the word “ball” in English leaves little to the imagination. In Mende, “fefeteh”—a ball—literally means a “a nest or a vessel that carries air.” I would obviously use the more poetic one.

MK: Phew, those floggings! My skin remembers their sting well. The first memory I have of attending school in Zambia was a teacher telling us, “Don’t speak Bemba, speak English!” Ironic how they invested all that effort into erasing our mother tongues, but the characters living in our imaginations refused to let us forget.

Your previous answer has led me to new places. How did stories medicate your spirit and mind when life attempted to break you? 

IB: Life has indeed attempted to break me in so many ways and, thankfully, I was already equipped with lots of medicine from the stories I heard as a child. I was close to my grandmother and every question I had for her to explain the world to me, she responded by telling me stories and always ended by saying, “the answer is in there. Just remember the story and one day you will know when it becomes useful to you.” Of course, I was frustrated as I wanted answers right away. As I grew older though, I realised that I needed to experience life for the stories to be useful to me.

There was a particular story told since I was six years old to us as children that only made sense to me after the war in my country. It was about a hunter who went into the forest to hunt and saw a monkey sitting in a tree, eating. The hunter raised his rifle and was about to shoot the monkey when it spoke. “Hold on,” the monkey said, scratching the side of its belly. “If you shoot me, your mother will die and if you don’t, your father will die.” The monkey resumed chewing its food. What would you do if you were the hunter? This seemingly unanswerable question was asked to the children present and in front of their parents. During and after the war, I learned the importance and usefulness of this story and its medicine contributed to my recovery and understanding of the violence that occurred during the war. As it is the tradition, I am not going to say exactly what that was for me. Whoever has heard this story, it is now theirs to keep and derive their own medicine and usefulness from it.

MK: What was it like for you, being edited for publication in English, knowing that your stories had different linguistic origins?

IB: It is strange to be edited in a language that isn’t quite sufficient and yet it must be the medium to tell stories that are needed in the world. I always challenge my editors to think about where the story is located and how the language used must fit that landscape. For example, elders talking to young people in Sierra Leone will refer to them as “children” not as “kids.” These two words say a lot about the origins of the story and the mentality of the characters. So, I always make sure the feeling and taste of the story remains as true as possible to its location and origin. And this means owning English and finding newer ways to use words that evoke images that are not natural to the English language itself.

MK: How wise African elder of you, Ishmael. Here I was asking you a question, and you answered me with a proverb and a nudge for me to explore its meaning on my own. I guess it’s true what you said then, “Sometimes a story does not make immediate sense—one has to listen and keep it in one’s heart, in one’s blood, until the day it will become useful.”

I hear you, though, on the strangeness, the insufficiency, and the necessity. Editing is at the tail end of it, thankfully. By then, I tend to feel more steady in my process. The more difficult parts for me are those early writing days when the characters are still letting themselves be known to me. I’m curious about your journey. How did you challenge yourself in language and landscape to find new ways of using words that evoke the images that eventually made it into publication?

IB: I always start with the desire to answer a question, to explore an idea, or to give a necessary human context to an event. Once I know what the journey is, then I start thinking of location, landscape and with who, the characters. I spend about six months or so thinking about the location and characters and that determines the language and tone of the story. I make little notes here and there but never really fully commit to what the story will become. I believe that you have to leave room for discovery and surprise—the magic—when you write as opposed to deciding ahead of time how things will unfold. So, I allow myself to be summoned into the world of the characters to the point that I too become them and only then I begin to hear the languages they are speaking and hence the mannerism of how they want to use language to tell their stories.

Once this initiation is complete, I sit before my computer and just pour out the story. Sometimes, I am so deep into the world of the characters that I can taste their whispers on my fingertips that I try to keep up with what they are saying. When I awake from that world, it is only then that I begin to look at the struggle that has occurred to find the right words to bring their world to life while keeping the authenticity intact. Every language is spoken differently based on the location and the person who speaks it. For example, the way Black Africans use the English language varies from Sierra Leone to Nigeria, to Ghana, to Cameroon. Now, you also have to be aware of where you are as the writer and how the language of that space seeps into your imagination. I lived in Abuja, in Nigeria, and some stories I wrote had characters saying, “bros, on the air con now…” I have to decide whether that character is in an environment that makes sense for them so say something like that. Even within the same country, the parlance differs from city to city, town to town, region to region, and so on. So I make sure the mannerisms of my characters and way of speaking fits where they are at all times. It is exhausting but it makes the reader stay in the story and at all times aware of where they are, and who they are with. 

MK: You know when you read something beautiful and have to pause to let your mind absorb the words for a moment before proceeding? That’s me right now, lingering on “…I can taste their whispers on my fingertips…”

So, as a child, your grandmother fed you stories that healed, and as a writer, you’re summoned into other worlds. I’m curious now about your initiation to writing. When and how did it take place?

IB: Ah, my initiation to writing. I didn’t grow up thinking that I was going to be a writer as that was looked upon as a useless endeavour for those not serious enough to become economists, doctors, lawyers, or engineers—those career choices my parents highly valued. Hence, I wanted to be an economist though I knew that was a failed plan from the beginning because I was not very interested in mathematics. For me, it had limited and prescribed ways of arriving at an answer. I thought this as far back as when I was in primary school. I wanted to have freedom even in my imaginative space and capacity. Also, I didn’t really grow up with books in my home as that was expensive for my family. Nonetheless, I loved reading more than anything else so I searched for books and befriended those who had them so that I could have access.

There was an older man in my village who had seven books that he brought onto his veranda every morning and sat by them. I left earlier for school so that I could read from his “collection”. One of the books I read on that veranda was Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe. The older man, aged with grace, had a bucket of water, a cup hanging on the side, a bar of soap, and small cloth. I was required, and any other reader for that matter, to wash and dry my hands before touching any of the books. Under his scrutiny, I read, turning the pages delicately as he had instructed. I was always reluctant to leave when the school bell rang because at school I couldn’t touch the one book per semester in the classroom. Only the teacher read from it and we listened. In the evening I would, of course, listen to oral stories from my grandmother. In addition, I became one of the children in my village who could read and write well and, therefore, I read and responded to letters for people in my community. I believe it was the beginning of learning how to translate emotions and feelings on paper. Some of the people I read and wrote letters for gave me lunch money and the more secrets there were in the letters the bigger the lunch money! In retrospect, this was really my early training as a writer.

Fast forward many years later, after luckily surviving the war in my country and being adopted by a family in New York City, I arrived at, perhaps, the real initiation that led me to becoming a writer. It started with my adoptive family trying to enroll me in high school. No school would accept me because I didn’t have a report card to show that I had been in school even though I spoke English which isn’t my language. “Everyone has a report card”—I remember the responses when I would say I didn’t have one and tried to explain with humor that “you know when you run for your life and people are gunned down next to you, you don’t stop and say: you know I must get my report card or any other document for that matter. You run and hope to come out alive.”

Since everyone wanted a report card so badly and I didn’t have one, I decided to write an essay titled “Why I Do Not Have A Report Card.” It got me into a school along with a scholarship. More importantly, though, it gave me an inkling that, for me, words had now become sacred; they had become the way to write myself, my humanity, and the context of my life, into existence again. Through words I could bring people to the realities that had been my life until I met them. Besides my physical existence, I had no acceptable proof of who I had been so I chose to use words through poetry and prose to open doors and windows into my existence and others similar to me. With words I could bring to life my once unknown village, my lost report card, and childhood photos, and leave a trace of my existence in the imagination of people, of the world.

MK: Do you write at a particular time of day? Should the moon be in Sagittarius? Which is to say: teach us more of your writerly ways.

IB: I really don’t need much. Just lots of time to procrastinate and then get down to it!

I write mostly late at night, anytime after one in the morning is best as the world is quieter and my mind, too, is settled at this hour. I usually write all the way into the morning, and before I became a father I would sleep until noon. Now the magic of fatherhood, the anticipation of watching the beautiful faces of my children takes away my slumber and leaves me with joyous strength, with a cup of good coffee as well. What, perhaps, is important to share about my “writerly ways” is that everything I write I do so with the determination, care, and meticulousness as if it is the last thing I am going to write.

I should stop here before this answer becomes a novella.

MK: “As if it is the last thing!” Adopted as my own.

I am constantly fascinated by the kind of questions my children have about the world. So, let’s blame my current question-filled role of mom for why I ask so many questions. Like, has fatherhood influenced what events you’re interested in exploring and giving human context to?

IB: My maxim as a writer has always been rooted in this idea best expressed by Albert Camus and I will paraphrase: “The writer cannot be in the service of those who make history; but rather at the service of those who suffer it.” I happen to come from those who “suffer history” so naturally I took this thinking to heart. In addition to that maxim, my writing deepened when I was lucky enough to meet this remarkable, intelligent, and creative Black womxn Priscillia, my partner. She challenged me and pushed me to go even deeper into and expand on the subject matters I explore in my writing. It was a further awakening, really, that made me more intentional about the kind of legacy or mark I wanted to have with my writing.

After we became parents, and especially because our first child was a girl, it changed what I wanted to do with my writing. Of course, I had already wholeheartedly embarked on a thorough examination of my masculinity so that I could be the best partner and eventual father I could be. Hence, my work took the direction of representing Black girls, Black womxn in their beautiful and remarkable complexities, their power and the usage of that power. My eyes opened more to how the world has been shaped for men by observing how the world viewed my daughter from a very young age, trying to already determine how she expressed herself. So I used my weapon, my writing, literature, to remind the world the power a Black girl or Black womxn already has. I was witnessing it closer and intimately than I ever had with my partner and my daughters and son.

MK: And, after that entrepreneurial letter-writing initiation, how did you find your community of writers?  

IB: It wasn’t easy to find a community of writers because most writers are quite insecure and unnecessarily competitive. I really didn’t expect this to be part of the creative field as it defeats the whole purpose.

I entered the writing world excited to meet more writers and more creatives because I love reading and consuming content that shows wide-ranging expressions of who we are as Black Africans, as Black people. And I am certain that I can’t write everything, and don’t want to, but can contribute to making our Black African voices stronger.

However, I quickly realized that a good number of those who had made it, so to speak, didn’t want others to have any space, especially people like me who didn’t grow up with privilege or at the top of any society. I came from the very bottom and didn’t fit into any explainable box of why I can write or should have talent. This idea that intelligence and talent belongs to a certain class is quite pervasive in the world though it is shockingly false. Additionally, because my first book was a memoir, I found other writers explaining to themselves that the reason I was a successful and renowned writer was because I had this extraordinary story. It was really shocking to feel and hear this sentiment from other writers because the only reason my first book got me into the writing world was because I wrote it excellently, because I used the craft very well to bring the reader to the experience in a way that they never forgot about something they’d never imagined and, even if they did, wouldn’t have the language I created to express it.

So I was put off, honestly, to find a community of writers. I am compelled to write this here for those young and upcoming writers who may face a similar situation. After my second and third books—novels that were also successful—I still found other writers reducing me to only my memoir and not even the craft of it.

MK: Phew, Ishmael. The truth and other long stories.

What everyone wants me to ask is, where do we find this Ishmael original? Do you still have a copy of “Why I Do Not Have A Report Card”? And, most importantly, can we read it if we promise to wash and dry our hands and turn the pages delicately?

IB: Regarding that essay, I find it quite colloquial these days. I am still working up the courage to share it!

For the time and purpose it was written, the passion was there but I could have done a better job. Perhaps after the pandemic is over I will have a hand-washing and reading invitation under strict supervision. Everyone involved with Doek! will be first on the list!

MK: Okay, I have secured “Why I Do Not Have A Report Card” for Doek!.

[Narrator: She didn’t.]

MK: A friend of mine recently shared a series of pictures illustrating the crab theory. In it, any crab could easily escape, but its efforts will be undermined by others, ensuring the group’s collective demise. An “If I can’t have it, neither can you?” sort of thing. I immediately thought of that when you mentioned the insecurity and competitiveness within our field. In Zambia, we call it PHD (Pull Him/Her Down). But those photos end with the phrase: “Crabs don’t naturally occur in buckets.” And that makes me wonder, are literary competitions or writing fellowships our bucket? What has been your experience with them? 

Publishing is an interesting space because what the gatekeepers say they want is talent. But time after time, they ask writers to justify their reasons for telling a story. And so, this idea that talent ought to be explained because it cannot just be is exhausting. But you have made it despite not growing up with privilege or being at the top of any society. So, what must be done, you think, to change the narrative for the young and upcoming writers who may face similar situations?

IB: I don’t believe that literary competitions or writing fellowships are intended to be our “buckets”. They only become such because of certain people who don’t want others to enter that space to begin with. They want to be the only ones there. And, sometimes, others get into that “bucket” and change for the worse. I remember some of these fellowships and competitions I have entered and won. The first thing that I looked around for was more people like me. I didn’t feel special because I was the only one. It actually bothered me as I know there are more of us and we can all shine at the same time, at different times, and build each other up. I am competitive with myself because I do not want to do anything mediocre and I want to continue to grow. I am not in competition with other writers or seeking their demise. This is why I leave space for others and don’t take spaces that aren’t mine. To do so is intellectual dishonesty that hurts all of us in the end. It is short-sighted, really. I see us collaborating, like a relay: you start, open the way and pass the baton so that others can go ahead for the team, each team member covering a distance that is essential for the team, and bringing a stamina that one person cannot possess. “Pull Down Syndrome” as we call it in Sierra Leone is just insecurity and the wrong understanding of competitiveness, his belief that once you have made it you now own the space. There is plenty of room for all of us and when we behave that way, it changes the expectation of us having to explain why our stories are important.

Our attitude must change, those of us who have entered certain spaces. We must not own spaces, that thinking deforms the continual growth of imagination, of creativity. The pursuit of creating is finding liberation in our own existence and that means no control or ownership or pedestal for anyone, just footprints in the sand or soil for others to follow, and create new ones. We shouldn’t follow trends, we should create them and tell stories that we like, that are meaningful to us, that we want with the foresight that more will come and it is important that they come from many points of view, experiences, and ways of expressions that are beyond us.

MK: I’m also curious about how you are navigating this pull to tell stories highlighting Black girls and how that interacts with your being a person who suffered history. When you come from a “small place” you crave stories with people, places, and names you can pronounce and recognise, but not everyone is an Ishmael, and they don’t always get to tell their own stories. So who do you think owns the story, and who has the responsibility to tell it?

IB: Well, Black girls have always suffered from and in history and they continue to do so. As a father of two brilliant Black daughters, I want to lay the foundation for them to be viewed differently in the world so that they can become the best versions of themselves and not what any society demands of them. The stories will outlive all of us so no one owns them in that sense.

However, that being said, there is an authenticity and responsibility that comes with telling some stories that aren’t ours and spaces that we don’t fully grasp. No creative should encroach on a space that isn’t theirs especially if they will cause harm by doing so. Why not just empower those who understand and own that story to tell it?

My first book, for example, was about war and children in war. However, I was a boy in war and hence I didn’t understand the depth of a girl’s experience in war so I didn’t try to tell that story because I may have caused harm by doing so. Again, art must liberate, transcend, and not harm, diminish or rob others of their agency.

MK: Now, I will once again ask what I know the readers really want to know: what are you writing now, and when can we expect to find it in all self-respecting bookstores near us?

IB: I am always working on essays, short stories, and opinion pieces, and ideas for the next novels. At this time, though, the main thing I am working on is the sequel of my first book. In a year and half it should be out, I hope.

MK: You heard it here, folks. In a year and a half at all self-respecting bookstores near you!

Thanks for sharing that, Ishmael. I could write a novella myself, from the wealth of knowledge you have shared.

[Narrator: But she didn’t.]

MK: Where do you think you are in the relay you described earlier?

IB: I wasn’t expected to be a part of the relay. But I felt I had something unique to offer for the relay to continue in all its glory. So I took the baton and, instead of handing it back to the old, predictable, and usual runners, I ran around asking for others like me to come out of the shadows and join. And when a few stepped onto the field, I passed the baton and continued asking for more new runners on the sidelines to join in. To sum it up: I want the relay to continue. So I am running around the field pushing new runners into the race or forcing the baton into their hands!

MK: The analogy of the relay is gorgeous, and I absolutely agree with needing to pull others like us in. In a small way, Doek! is doing that with every issue. Imagine: someone will get to say they were first published in Doek!; someone’s first published piece will appear alongside Ishmael Beah’s words. Dizzying.

IB: I was actually thinking about this relay analogy further and wanted to add that one actually has to create a relay within or outside an ongoing one to be recognised as a participant, a contributor. Basically you add a new rhythm to the relay and change it forever. I believe this is what Doek! is doing. I am here to be an “eternal audience” member!

[Narrator: We interrupt this interview to disclose that Ishmael’s last statement was, in fact, sponsored content.]

MK: Also, beyond telling stories that illuminate the voices of those who suffer history, what else calls to your passions? 

IB: My passion comes from the desire to reclaim our ancestral knowledge, our Black African ancestral knowledge. I write to push against an anti-Black world that has deliberately attempted to erase, diminish, ridicule, and make even our own people disbelieve our knowledge. Many aren’t even aware of our knowledge and history so they believe in superiority elsewhere. I want Black children anywhere in the world to read my writings and see the dignity in their heritage, embrace it with pride, and start undoing their colonial mindset.

MK: Is pushing against an anti-Black world why you left Los Angeles for Sierra Leone? Could you tell us more about the journey to that decision and what it’s been like for you since?

IB: I never truly left home, my country, Sierra Leone. I also left because I had no choice at the time as home was no longer tolerable, but my spirit remained and I returned often and stayed longer to reconnect with it. This is to say that the decision to return home fully has always been part of my journey and it has been wonderful to return home with my family, my little family and tribe. It isn’t their first time coming and living in Sierra Leone, one of their many countries, so this is more of a reconnection for them as well. We have only been back a month and already there is so much to write and think about that will require a separate interview or even a book. Also, because my partner Priscillia comes from many heritages and cultures, our children inherited all of them. We wanted to raise them, as she would put it: “at the intersections of those cultures and heritages.”

Because of her, our children are hundred percent from Congo, France, Iran, the United States, and Sierra Leone, and her work has had us live in Mauritania, Nigeria, and many other places. The children already have a global way of expressing their Blackness. And, of all the places they have lived and are from, mind you the eldest is seven and the younger ones—twins—will be five in September, the United States is the least interesting one. We are raising them as proud, global Black African children who understand their Blackness and the histories of it starting from Black African kingdoms, and the wisdom and beauty of that Blackness.

Anti-Blackness is global. It exists even on the African continent. That is another discussion.

MK: All this talk of relays is telling me that I should keep running and not listen to my knees and ankles. 

The passage of time, however short, induces a lot of changes in the home and also in the person. So, I understand how being back in Sierra Leone, even for only a month, can already fuel ideas of what to think and write about. But let me just tell you, that’s another book you now owe us. The Ishmael Beah Fan Club will take 150,000 words, please. This is a binding contract.

IB: Hahaha. Sometimes you must run with only your imagination for a while and wait for the knees and ankles to regain their strength. In my case, I have the excuse of the rainy season though I miss running under warm rain, which I did as a boy.

It is indeed intriguing, and it puts some fire under me to write more knowing that I have so many “binding contracts” with Doek! from this interview! I shall do my very best to honour them as long as all first readings take place in Namibia!

[Narrator: He did not know the weight or consequence of his words.]

MK: What is the most interesting place for a proud global Black African child who understands their Blackness and all the wisdom and beauty of it?

IB: A global Black African child who understands their Blackness, and the wisdom and beauty of it, must be formed early on on the African continent. The child must be a cosmopolitan Black African child. By this, I mean he, she, or they must live and exist in the different Black African countries so that the foundation of who they are and will become is grounded in the realities of Black Africa. For example, my eldest, seven-year-old daughter has lived in Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal. I do not mean visited. I mean lived and absorbed those spaces into her being. Additionally, when we lived in those spaces, we explained to her the kingdoms that existed and their true histories and not just the current colonial names, so she gets a deeper understanding of what was and the power of her heritage.

MK: What I’m also hearing you say is: home is where the spirit is. And: anti-Blackness is a world theme (God!). So maybe that is indeed a separate thread. But for this one, how do you reconcile the home you never left being part of a continent where anti-Blackness still exists with the wonder of returning to it with your tribe? 

IB: When parts of who we are leave home, we change for better or worse, and for those of us who have an astute sense of observation and introspection, we question everything for the sake of improving how we think of ourselves in the world. Hence, because I love my continent and I have children who are the future of this Black continent, I return with keen observations and criticisms to make it a place suitable for expressing our Blackness in its fullness and not the versions our colonial minds have come to unquestionably accept. I have changed, and home has as well, but not as much as I have. Therefore, I need to challenge the way of thinking so that we return to our own knowledge base and undo many things, so many things. I want my little tribe to be a part of that questioning and undoing. I want them to be a part of the understanding of who we have always been but have forgotten, or had sidetracked from our essence.

Image: Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda.