The Fog of Memoir
The feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone.
On Jan. 19, the Australian, Rupert Murdoch's Aussie broadsheet, published a 4,600-word investigation challenging the credibility of the child-soldier memoir A Long Way Gone. Author Ishmael Beah's heart-wrenching account of Sierra Leone's civil war and the two years he spent as a cocaine-addicted teenage killer achieved instant literary acclaim after its publication last winter and was selected as the inaugural title in Starbucks' reading club. Into its 35th printing, A Long Way Gone has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide. Beah, 27, now travels the world as a UNICEF ambassador raising awareness for the plight of child soldiers.
If you believe the Australian, much of the memoir is bunk. In a dozen scathing articles published since mid-January, a trio of Australian journalists alleges that Beah grossly exaggerated his story: Beah served as an orphaned child soldier for little more than two months, not the sweeping two years his memoir chronicles. And, according to the journalists, the book's most dramatic plot twists—the time Beah was shot three times in the foot by an AK-47 and the moment Beah witnessed six murders in a UNICEF refugee camp—don't check out at all.
Beah, his editor, Sarah Crichton at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and his agent, Ira Silverberg, vigorously deny the allegations. In the book, Beah claims to have a photographic memory. He says he has documented his tragic story with infallible accuracy, and lucidly recounts scenes of violence, executions, and torture. But these denials haven't stopped the Australian from waging one of the fiercest, knock-down, drag-out literary feuds in recent memory. The fight pits three Australian reporters, Peter Wilson, David Nason, and Shelley Gare, against Beah, Crichton, and Silverberg. The standoff has spanned four continents and bled into cyberspace, as both sides have entered competing changes into Beah's Wikipedia page. Last month, Wilson tracked Beah around London during his European book tour, trying to land an interview after repeatedly being rebuffed by FSG. Wilson even planted questions with a student reporter from the Oxford University newspaper after the Oxford Union banned him from attending Beah's reading there. Throughout the onslaught, FSG hasn't budged.
"The whole idea that these f-----g muckraking hacks are wagging their fingers at FSG is ludicrous," Beah's agent, Ira Silverberg, told me. "It's been three months of dealing with these people. When they couldn't get one thing, they went looking for something else. I've never witnessed anything so lowbrow as an endeavor to disgrace a really well-meaning and lovely person, who actually did suffer enormously."
"Exactly," Wilson counters. "I'm sure he went through a terrible ordeal, but the truth matters. It is plain to anyone who wants to look at this objectively that he did not experience what has been sold as the truth to hundreds of thousands of readers. The truth matters. It sounds naive, but the shocking thing is: the publishers don't care about this. They've made millions of dollars."
Just how did this whole brouhaha start in the first place?
The story begins last fall when an Australian mining engineer stationed in Sierra Leone named Bob Lloyd learned that one of his employees at the Sierra Rutile mine near Beah's village claimed to be Beah's father. Lloyd had read A Long Way Gone and was especially moved by Beah's tragic account of his parents' deaths in a rebel attack on the village of Yele. Elated at the possibility of reuniting Beah with his father, Lloyd tried contacting Beah. He sent e-mails to Beah's Australian publisher, HarperCollins, FSG, and Beah's adopted American mother, a New York-based human rights activist and professional storyteller named Laura Simms. In addition, Lloyd explained in his e-mails that workers at the mine were telling him that the book's chronology was wrong: Rebels had taken over the mine in January 1995, not 1993 as Beah describes in A Long Way Gone. If true, that would mean Beah served as a soldier only for several months when he was 14 going on 15.
From the outset, Lloyd received a chilly reception from Beah's camp. On Nov. 9, Simms responded with a protective e-mail and a list of test questions to help determine whether the man was Beah's father. Two days later, Lloyd sent an e-mail back answering Simms' questions. His reply went unanswered for 10 days, and on Nov. 22, Lloyd replied with a follow-up e-mail that included two photos of Joseph Beah, the man claiming to be the father. Then, the next day, Simms responded to Lloyd with a curious message. Instead of the polished prose that she had previously written, her e-mail on Nov. 23 contained sentence fragments and awkward syntax, as if English wasn't her first language (which it is). "Thank you for pursing this," the e-mail bearing Simms' address replied. "However, Ishmael say that this is NOT his father. … Why you said in my letter that this man came to you and why you told Sarah [Crichton] that you sought out the boy's father." The e-mail concluded with this ominous warning: "We are deeply concerned that this issue not go further than you, and Sarah and myself."
Frustrated, Lloyd contacted a television producer in Sydney named Anita Jacoby with an Australian interview program called Enough Rope With Andrew Denton. Beah had recently been featured on the program, and Lloyd thought Jacoby could go around the recalcitrant publishers and guardian and pass along a message directly to Beah that his father might be alive.
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for the New Republic.
Photograph of Ishmael Beah by Mario Tama/Getty Images.