“I was no longer the child who wanted to be an economist,” said former child soldier Ishmael Beah. “I was no longer the kid who enjoyed Shakespeare. I was no longer the kid who loved hip-hop. I embraced myself as a child soldier.”
Former child soldier Ishmael Beah, 33, author of the memoir “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” visited Santa Cruz last Friday to speak about his first novel “Radiance of Tomorrow.” He also shared his experience as a child soldier from ages 13 to 16 during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Over 100 attendees, from students studying African history to adults who support local book events, lined up at the Santa Cruz High School theater to hear Beah’s story, an event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz.
“Ishmael has an amazing and inspirational life story with all the trials he went through to transform his life,” said Santa Cruz resident Sebastian Timar. “You could say I’m here for some words of wisdom.”
“Without Fear,” a short dance performance, opened Beah’s book signing and talk. Santa Cruz native Harry Weston, who studied dance at UCLA, choreographed the dance and performed it with his colleagues Anthony Berry and Joanna Flores.
The performance began with slow, yet strong choreography accompanied by tribal-influenced music. About two minutes into the performance, the choreography transitioned to fast-paced and playful, featuring old-school hip-hop music.
After the dance performance, Beah, accompanied in conversation by Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Wallace Baine, expanded on his firsthand experience as a child soldier.
“During the war, the government in Sierra Leone lost central command, so the military became chaotic,” Beah said. “I went to a military base searching for safety and was recruited instead. They gave all the children a week of training. We basically learned to use a rifle and load magazines, and they put me and other children out on the battlefield.”
A consequence of this dangerous situation was the forced introduction to life-threatening drugs, such as a homemade drug called “brown-brown,” a mix of cocaine, gunpowder and often heroin.
“The army would kill you if you resisted,” Beah said. “You would get extremely addicted to these drugs. You wouldn’t even feel your body, as if you were detached from it. You could be high for weeks. You could be shot or grazed by a bullet and you wouldn’t even know it. We would even go out to fight rebels just for more drugs.”
From there, Beah began to talk about his first novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow.” The story takes place after the civil war and follows characters Benjamin and Bockarie as they attempt to restore their war-torn hometown of Imperi. They are confronted with many challenges, such as cleaning up the remains of those killed in the war, dealing with food scarcity and cleaning up the town from its prevalent crime wave.
Beah noted how his novel mimicked an African-originated tradition of orally describing an entity or action by its features or sounds. People in his native community would refer to soccer ball as a “nest of air” or a bicycle as the sound of a bicycle bell ringing.
“When you tell a story, you want to reach the audience through their imagination,” Beah said.
As minutes passed away, Beah shared more of his personal story with funny anecdotes, like when he first took a plane to New York without a jacket and believed he would freeze to death on the plane.
“I told my friend, ‘We survived war, but we’re going to die on this plane,’” Beah said.
Many of the anecdotes came from his transition from one culture to another. He recalled the first time he saw a salad, calling Americans weird because they’re eating “grass.” He also remembered the time he slept in the hallway of his hotel room because it was too hot. Never having electricity, he had never encountered a heater.
As the speaking winded down, Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Wallace Baine asked Beah how he handled post-traumatic stress and overcame his bad memories and dreams.
“It walks differently for everybody,” Beah said. “I realized if these bad dreams could take a hold of me, they would eventually kill me. You need to build yourself an opportunity to see your humanity … it’s a process. It will have its ups and downs.”
After the interview, the audience gave Beah a standing ovation before lining up to get their books signed. People went up to take photos with Beah and express their appreciation for him and his story.
“I immensely enjoyed the event,” said Santa Cruz resident Jennifer Speirs. “The fact that he took negative aspects of his life and used them to enhance his life is inspirational.”