Ishmael Beah is the author of books including: A Long Way Gone, and The Radiance of Tomorrow. In this interview, he talks about his novel, Little Family, the One Read Book of the Month for April 2021.
One Read: What are your thoughts about Little Family’s adoption as One Read Book of the Month for April 2021?
Ishmael Beah: I am honoured and thrilled about having this novel on One Read. As a Black African author, I started writing to give the necessary human context to our lives, to our stories and more than anything else I want my fellow Black Africans to see themselves in literature in a way that shows the many dimensions of who we are. For a very long time that space of presenting how we dream, live, laugh, love, and suffer belong to others to the point that we even began to accept their point of view of us. So, the adoption of this novel as One Read Book of the month has meant to me bringing back the story to its source and having us think differently about who we are at this moment in our histories along with those on the margins of society.
The book is set in the fictional town of Foloiya. Is this representative of any particular town in real life?
Foloiya is a composite of towns that are imagined, those that I have been to around the world and mostly on the African continent. Foloiya in Mende, my maternal language, means “a place of the sun.” Hence, this could really be any town that constantly has sunshine, and the realities of the characters and their stories are universal.
The characters never talk about their lives before coming together as a family. Could you throw some light on this narrative choice on your part?
How the characters behave in the present says a lot about their past. I wanted to use the occurrences and behaviour of the present to hint at their past without the heavy gears of background story. This choice also invites the reader to imagine their past and therefore become part of the story. For example, Elimane is always reading and does so with the ease of someone who began reading at an earlier age. This already tells you what kind of family and world he comes from.
What is the inspiration behind this story?
The inspiration came from a desire to answer the question about “freedom,” private and public, in a contemporary and cosmopolitan African city. How do young people define and express their freedom in such environments where there are competing ideas regarding values? Can you truly be free; and if so, how do you go about attaining that? I set out to answer these questions through five characters who are astute observers of society because they live on the margins and hence can see the cracks of what most have accepted as the norm. Lastly, when you live at the margins, there is an urgency to find some sense of yourself on a daily basis.
Which character among the quintet would you say you relate with the most, and why?
Writing a novel, you have to inhabit and become all the characters and as such each character leaves traces of themselves in you. With that said, I related the most with Elimane because he vehemently doesn’t allow his experiences to define him in a negative way but rather in a transformative one while holding on to his dignity at all cost. He also loves reading and seeking knowledge. However, my favourite character is Khoudiemata. It was a challenge and learning process to write her.
How did you navigate the emotional terrain of writing the novel, given the somewhat heavy themes?
My primary goal was that no matter the background of the characters or where they are in society, socio-economically etc., that their dignity will remain intact throughout the narrative. No compromise at all on this. Additionally, people who are struggling aren’t always dragging their sorrows around because that in itself is a luxury. They must go on living as best as possible and pitying themselves doesn’t improve their situation. I wanted to show the intelligence and strength that is part of surviving the odds. This is usually overlooked.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away from Little Family?
That we are each other’s keepers and when we forget that, the expression of our humanity collapses and gradually, and sometimes immediately, takes a turn for the worse. In essence, we all form our own little families in life and this requires empathy and the ability to recognise that we are each other’s keepers.
Can you share a bit of your writing process? Any writing rituals that have worked for you
I do not map out my story or decide ahead of time where it will go. Rather, I spend a significant amount of time thinking about the characters, who they are, their gender, background, mannerisms, where they live and how they live, their names, age and all sorts of minute details. Then one day I will just sit down and start writing and let the characters tell their stories through me in way that almost feel as if something has possessed me. Hence, I learn and grow as a human being after writing a book or finishing a short story. Regarding writing rituals, I listen to music with no lyrics, instrumental music only, and I do not read anything while I am in the midst of working on something. I watch only old Kung Fu films that have no dialogue or plot!
People have differing views on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work lives. How would you say it has impacted yours as a writer?
Unfortunately, and fortunately, I am no stranger to crisis. So, I quickly adapt to situations. Even before the pandemic I live a kind of isolated life for my creative space to remain sacred. So, I was already social distancing before it became required. The only thing that changed is how the story is brought to the world in terms of book tours and readings. I would have preferred to discuss Little Family directly with readers as there is power in that exchange, that presence and assembly of our spirits to enter a story together.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes, many things but mainly the sequel of my first book, my memoir, A Long Way Gone.