“The writer’s role has always been to give people the eyes with which to enrich their humanity. This gives rise to the desire to become better human beings, to disrupt whatever stands in our way to achieve that. So, without even deliberately thinking about it, writers are always laying the foundation for the renewal of the self, of culture, of tradition, and of ways of life and living.” — Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah is a bestselling author and UNICEF advocate for children affected by war. His #1 New York Times bestselling memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier has been published in more than 40 languages and sold over 2.6 million copies. As The Washington Post urged: “everyone in the world should read this book.” His remarkable debut is both a testament to the inherent humanity of the young as well as a first-hand look at the long road to redemption, themes he has continued to explore in his harrowing fiction.
A Long Way Gone recounts the harrowing years he spent as a child soldier—one of an estimated 300,000 worldwide. Born in Sierra Leone, Beah was only twelve when civil war came to his country, upending the lives of millions. Fleeing attacking rebels, he was soon separated from his family and wandering a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah—at heart a gentle boy—found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. After two years, with UNICEF help, he was removed from the army and placed in a rehabilitation home where he learned to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and, finally, to heal.
A rare firsthand account, A Long Way Gone was hailed by Entertainment Weekly as “a clear-eyed, undeniably compelling look at wartime violence.” It was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007, and TIME named the book as one of the top 10 nonfiction books of 2007, noting its “breathtaking and unselfpitying account of how a gentle spirit survives a childhood from which all innocence has suddenly been sucked out. It’s a truly riveting memoir.”
In novels marked by a deeply-felt empathy for lives upended by strife and war, Beah’s fiction has drawn comparisons to the social novels of Dickens and Twain. Radiance of Tomorrow is a tender parable about postwar life that was named one of The Christian Science Monitor‘s best fiction books of 2014. It follows the survivors of an atrocity as they slowly trickle back to the home they once knew but cannot recognize, a place now marred by bullet holes, tragic memories, and the pollution of a mining company who has moved next door. As the refugeed residents turn to new homes and new ventures, they find themselves unmoored from their old lives and borne into new ones. The New York Times highlighted the “allegorical richness to Beah’s storytelling and a remarkable humanity to his characters.”
His latest, Little Family, is a post-colonial coming-of-age novel set in an unnamed country. Five young people on the precarious margins of society gather nightly in an abandoned airplane, struggling in different ways to replace the homes they have lost with the one they have created together. “An empathy-expanding story without the heavy gears of polemical fiction” (The Washington Post), the book is a profound and tender portrayal of the connections forged to survive the fate we’re dealt.
Beah was appointed UNICEF’s first Advocate for Children Affected by War in 2007. In accepting the position he pledged to give a voice and hope to children whose lives have been scarred by violence, stating, “it’s just a way to give me more strength to continue doing what I’ve already embarked on, what I’ve dedicated my life to doing – which is to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t continue to happen to other children around the world.” That same year, he founded the Ishmael Beah Foundation dedicated to helping children affected by war reintegrate into society and improve their lives. To date, the Foundation has helped more than 150 children.
In the years since, Beah continues to advocate for the thousands of children still trapped in violent conflicts. A member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and co-founder of the Network of Young People Affected by War (NYPAW), he has testified before the United States Congress, as well as spoken for the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, and many panels. He currently serves as the Vice-Chair of Narrative 4, a global organization founded by Colum McCann and headed up by some of the world’s most renowned and influential authors, artists, and community leaders who have come together to promote empathy through the exchange of stories.
Beah’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, TIME, The International Herald Tribune, and The Guardian. He lives with his wife and children in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he is at work on a follow-up memoir that picks up where A Long Way Gone left off.here.