Credibility: a long way gone?

Just days after the author of “Love and Consequences” confessed that she had made up the memoir about her supposed life as a foster child in gang-infested LA, allegations from The Australian that former child soldier Ishmael Beah fabricated his memoirs:

Author Ishmael Beah’s bestselling account of his time as a child soldier was proved factually flawed last night by a document found in a remote Sierra Leone schoolhouse.

The school results for March 1993 showed the popular author attended the Centennial Secondary School throughout the January-March term, a time when he claimed in his heartrending book A Long Way Gone that he was already roaming the countryside as a child refugee.

Beah, his New York publisher Sarah Crichton Books and his Australian co-publisher HarperCollins have furiously denied reports by The Weekend Australian in recent weeks that have undermined the credibility of his highly profitable book.

Beah is estimated to have earned about $1 million from the book, whichhas already sold more than 650,000 copies.

Beah, now 27, did spend some time as a child soldier during his country’s civil war, but it appears likely to have been a few months around the age of 15 rather than two years from the age of 13 that he vividly describes in his book.

The author, who now lives in New York and has been appointed by UNICEF as an advocate for child soldiers, this week dismissed The Australian’s investigations as ridiculous and ill-motivated despite the steady accumulation of evidence that his account of his experiences did not add up.

More…

Assuming these allegations are true, readers should be upset but not surprised. The appropriation of others’ experiences is a standard story-telling device in many oral cultures. It was so with Rigoberta Menchu, and it is so in northern Uganda, where I have worked with child soldiers for about three years. It has been true for a string of American memoirs as well.

We are told what we want and expect to hear when we ask for desperate and tragic tales. The truth is of secondary importance. Moreover, it is the truth–maybe not for that child, but for someone else. And what does it matter?

Well, it matters to a U.S. publishing audience, particularly when someone like Beah persists with the deception on television and radio, and with a massive Starbucks sponsorship and UNICEF ambassadorship. Under a mango tree, an embellishment is one thing. On the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list…

Better, I think, to take Dave Eggers’ approach, who penned a superb novel, What is the What, from the real experiences of a young refugee in southern Sudan. From the preface:

To that end, over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel. It should not be taken as a definitive history of the civil war in Sudan, nor of the Sudanese people, nor even of my brethren, ,those known as the Lost Boys. This is simply one man’s story, subjectively told. And though it is fictionalized it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages. We live in a time when even the most horrific events in this book could occur, and in most cases did occur.

I hope Beah’s story is his own, but, I admit, there’s never been a time I believed it could be.

(HT: Libby Wood)

8 thoughts on “Credibility: a long way gone?

  1. The Australian story is actually several months old, and Beah has come back with his own counter-facts (for want of a better term). I’m not really sure who to believe, but I lean toward Beah in this case. Though I don’t expect he has all his facts straight. It’s really hard to get every detail correct. But I could be wrong and the whole thing was made up.

  2. I think there is a key distinction to be made, where you say “It is the truth”; that’s really the question. If this is actually a composite memoir (like Menchu’s or like Eggers’ book functionally is), then that’s one thing. On the other hand, if the stories are no one’s, but rather tales of imagination, then they teach us less (or at least something different).

    I think that in this case and in most cases, this is unverifiable and so it just makes sense to assign some probability of truth to these memoirs and let it be…

  3. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala is also a great fictional book. It’s very short and compelling, especially since it is written in the first person.

  4. If you read French, there is no better novel on the Liberia/Sierra Leone child soldiers than the great Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé. Everytime I think of the title, I get a chill down my spine at the power of Kourouma’s fiction.

  5. Mmm… I think the title of your post accurately reflects my feelings about this. It’s OK for authors to relate stories in the first person, but I think its dishonest to deceive people and audiences across the world, pretending to be someone you are not. It sort of “cheapens” the story, which is very unfortunate…. It makes me wonder whether Beah is doing this more for personal gain than anything else.

    great blog, by the way.

  6. I read the article in The Australian, and some other related articles by them following your source. It seems like very shoddy journalism to be honest; the article does not even manage to stay impartial in its description of his book (I believe at one point writing that Beah frequently described “cartoon violence.”) It comes off more like they are out to get him than anything. Really, read the articles and it becomes quite apparent.

    Anyways, I’d like to see some reporting by more reputable journalists before I’m even remotely convinced.

    I’m not a fan of upbraiding someone based on a, “if this is true…” but I do learn a lot through the rest of your blog, so thank you very much for posting.

    Best,

  7. Just finished the book today — I have little doubt that the events happened pretty much as they were related. I am skeptical that people as drugged (uppers, pot, cocaine) as he says were able to conduct ambushes and fire weopons accurately much less not shoot themselves or their comrades (one of my soldiers on pot managed to put a bullet in his head while shooting at fish).