Schools teach about African history and schools teach about the difficulties of improving living conditions in Africa. Schools teach about the destruction caused by conflict in Africa and schools teach about lack of healthcare and clean water. Students learn about Africa in the broadest brush strokes, taking very little time to cover extremely nuanced and complex issues. In the service of introductory information we lose humanity.
Ishmael Beah’s The Radiance of Tomorrow provides that humanity. While in the classroom students discuss conflict and how to recover from conflict in a generalized way, at the level of country, Beah examines these issues at the level of the town and the individual. We discuss the moves a government or international organization need to make in order to recover and Beah looks at the compromises a teacher has to make in order to feed and clothe his family. In Radiance, Beah skips right over the broad context and opts instead to focus entirely on the level of individuals without apology or exposition. This small-grain, human level, is an essential piece of understanding that is missing from how we teach modern issues of conflict, development, and what happens when tradition and modernity butt up against each other.
This book is very much a companion to Beah’s first book, A Long Way Gone, his memoir, and I read Radiance with that context as well as substantial background on the civil war in Sierra Leone. However, in Radiance (a novel), beah is freed from the pressure of historical accuracy and in doing so he can write an extremely compelling narrative and he can develop characters to serve a purpose, as opposed to relying on Truth. A novel like Radiance fits in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” in that “a true war story does not depend upon [absolute] truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Beah captures this sentiment excellently, blending the reality of the situation in post-war Sierra Lone with a story of his own fabrication.
Beah’s novel is not driven by plot, but by character and through this we gain an intimate understanding of the cognitive dissonance required to live in post-war Sierra Lenoe. The people are simultaneously traditional and modern, hopeless and hopeful, defeated and determined. Not through any desire to be contradictory, but through necessity as they examine how to put their lives back together after such far-reaching destruction. Beah does an excellent job of avoiding the easy route here. It would be easy to commit to hope or hopelessness. It would be easy to write that Sierra Leone is a lost cause, or to create a hollywood ending of pure hope, but these are inauthentic. Instead, Beah remains committed to humanity and the complexities we love with. There is no simple solution and as a result we have to be willing to take the time for nuanced and complicated solutions that bring opportunity without squashing tradition. Beah opens the can of worms with the understanding that it cannot be easily closed.
Much like A Long Way Gone, Beah does not pull punches. There are brutal descriptions of mining accidents, the impacts of unclean water, and the daily reality of extreme urban poverty. Beah’s characters are continually grounded in a harsh and unforgiving world. These depictions, while graphic, are not gratuitous and are presented with grace and serve to honor the importance of individual people. Beah uses death to honor the value of human life.
From a teaching perspective, this book would be an excellent companion to a social studies course on contemporary modern issues as it brings a sense of humanity to the statistics on poverty and death. One wouldn’t need to be explicitly studying Sierra Leone, or even Africa, as these issues of recovering from conflict would be equally appropriate in Latin America, or Afghanistan. Additionally this book would be extremely valuable in a world literature, or creative writing course as Beah takes an uncommon, and extremely compelling, approach to language. Throughout the book Beah uses non-traditional translation as a way to approximate the imagery present in the multiple languages spoken in Sierra Leone. This is a powerful literary device and when reading I had to bring increased intentionality to my reading so that I could experience the language of the book at face value while also translating phrases like “nest of air” into “ball” for myself. This served to reinforce Beah’s commitment to the story of the individual throughout the book. Characters from different backgrounds leverage language in different ways, and this serves to deepen the human connection I felt between myself and the characters.
I’ve read A Long Way Gone, and I’ve seen the film Bling, in which Beah brings a group of rappers to see the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and while both were powerful and highly informative, they missed the human connection that is so central to Radiance of Tomorrow. Despite the concrete sense of truth provided by memoir and documentary respectively, A Long Way Gone and Bling suffer from the common issue of being another story of human suffering. Radiance of Tomorrow stands apart due to its complexity and nuance and Beah’s commitment to avoiding simplicity and highlighting the contradictions inherent in human life.