Authors: Ishmael Beah
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Retail
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For Priscillia, my wife, best friend, and soul mate.
Thank you for infusing my life with love and joy that I never knew existed.
I grew up in Sierra Leone, in a small village where as a boy my imagination was sparked by the oral tradition of storytelling. At a very young age I learned the importance of telling stories—I saw that stories are the most potent way of seeing anything we encounter in our lives, and how we can deal with living. Stories are the foundations of our lives. We pass them on so that the next generation can learn from our mistakes, joys, and celebrations. Growing up, I would sit around the fire every evening and my grandmother or other older people—the elders, as we call them—would tell stories. Some were about the moral and ethical standards of my community, about how to behave. Some were just funny. Others were scary, to the point that you didn’t want to go to the bathroom at night. But all of them always had meaning, a reason for being told.
I bring a lot of that oral tradition to my writing, and I try to let it seep into the words. The places I come from have such rich languages, such a variety of expression. In Sierra Leone we have about fifteen languages and three dialects. I grew up speaking about seven of them. My mother tongue, Mende, is very expressive, very figurative, and when I write, I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things that I really want to say in Mende. For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say “night came suddenly”; you would say “the sky rolled over and changed its sides.” Even single words are this way—the word for “ball” in Mende translates to a “nest of air” or a “vessel that carries air.”
If I express such things in written English, the language takes on a kind of new mode. “They kicked around a nest of air”—all of a sudden that has a different meaning. When I started writing this novel, I wanted to introduce all these things to my work. They are part of what makes language come alive for me.
After I wrote my memoir,
A Long Way Gone
, I was a bit exhausted. I didn’t want to write another memoir; I felt that it might not be sane for one to speak about himself for many, many, many years in a row. At the same time, I felt the story of
Radiance of Tomorrow
pulling at me because of the first book. I wanted to have people understand how it feels to return to places that have been devastated by war, to try to start living there again, to raise a family there again, to rekindle some of the traditions that have been destroyed. How do you do that? How do you try to shape a future if you have a past that’s still pulling at you? People go back home with different nostalgias. The younger generation return because their parents and grandparents have told them stories about how this place used to be. The older people are holding on to tradition. You have all of this push and pull; people are trying to live together.
For me, coming from this war-torn place, a place most people had not heard about, writing has become a way to bring to life some of the things I could not give people or provide physically. I want readers to get a tangible, tactile feeling when they see these words, so I try to use words in a way to fit the landscape. This is why the writing in
Radiance of Tomorrow
borrows from Mende and other languages.
There’s a saying in the oral tradition of storytelling that when you tell a story, when you give out a story, it is no longer yours; it belongs to everyone who encounters it and everyone who takes it in. You are only the shepherd of that story—it’s coming from you—and you can guide it in any way, but sometimes it will go ways you actually don’t intend it to go. That’s how I feel about
Radiance of Tomorrow
. I’m the shepherd of the story, but I hope you take it in your own direction.
It is the end, or maybe the beginning, of another story.
Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child.
Every story is a birth …
SHE WAS THE FIRST TO ARRIVE
where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled. Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another. Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays. It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life.
The long and winding paths were spoken of as “snakes” that one walked upon to encounter life or to arrive at the places where life lived. Like snakes, the paths were now ready to shed their old skins for new ones, and such occurrences take time with the necessary interruptions. Today, her feet began one of those interruptions. It may be that those whose years have many seasons are always the first to rekindle their broken friendship with the land, or it may just have happened this way.
The breeze nudged her bony body, covered with a tattered cloth thin and faded from many washings, toward what had been her town. She had removed her flip-flops, set them on her head, and carefully placed her bare feet on the path, waking the caked dirt with her gentle steps. With closed eyes she conjured the sweet smell of the flowers that would turn to coffee beans, which the sporadic breath of the wind fanned into the air. It was a freshness that used to overcome the forest and find its way into the noses of visitors many miles away. Such a scent was a promise to a traveler of life ahead, of a place to rest and quench one’s thirst and perhaps ask for directions if one was lost. But today the scent made her weep, starting slowly at first, with sobs that then became a cry of the past. A cry, almost a song, to mourn what has been lost while its memory refuses to depart, and a cry to celebrate what has been left, however little, to infuse it with residues of old knowledge. She swayed to her own melody and the echo of her voice first filled her, making her body tremble, and then filled the forest. She lamented for miles, pulling shrubs that her strength allowed and tossing them aside on the path.
Finally, she arrived at the quiet town without being greeted by the crows of cocks, the voices of children playing games, the sound of a blacksmith hitting a red-hot iron to make a tool, or the rise of smoke from fireplaces. Even without these signals of a time that seemed far gone, she was so happy to be home that she found herself running to her house, her legs suddenly gaining more strength for her age. Alas, as she reached her home, she began to weep. The song from the past had abruptly left her tongue. Her house had been burnt a while back and the remaining pillars were still dark from the smoke. Tears consumed her deep brown eyes and slowly rolled down her long face until her sharp cheekbones were soaked. She wept to accept what she knew had happened but also to allow her tears to drop on the ground and call on those gone to return in spirit form. She wept now because she hadn’t been able to do so for seven years, as staying alive required parting with all familiar ways of living during the years when the guns took words out of the mouths of the elders. On her way to her home, she had passed many towns and villages that resembled what her watery eyes now looked at. There was one town in particular that was eerier than the others—there were rows of human skulls on either side of the path leading into town. When the breeze came about, as it did frequently, it shook the skulls, causing them to rotate slowly, so it seemed they were all turning their hollow eye sockets at her as she hastened past them. Despite such sights, she had refused to commit her mind to the possibility that her town would be charred. Perhaps it was her way of keeping hope vibrant within so that it would keep on fueling her determination to continue the walk home. She didn’t want to call the name of that home, not even in her mind. But something now took charge of her tongue and made her ask, “Will this ever be Imperi?”
The name of her land had been released into the ears of the wind even with her bewildered question. She found her feet again and began walking around the town. There were bones, human bones, everywhere, and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult.
She managed to conjure the memory of what the town had looked like the day before she began running away for her life. It was at the end of the rainy season when everyone repaired and refreshed the façades of their homes. There were new roofs, thatch or zinc, and the walls of some houses were painted with vivid colors, increasing the liveliness of the dry season. It was the first time her family had had the means to cement the walls of their house and therefore could paint it black at the foundation, green to the windowsill, and yellow all the way up to the roof. Her children, grandchildren, husband, and she stood outside admiring their home. They didn’t know that the following day they would abandon everything and be separated from one another forever.
When the gunshots rang through town and chaos ensued the day that war came into her life, she had turned around to look at her home before running away. If she died, she wanted to at least do so with a good memory of home.
* * *
She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else. She had scoured refugee camps and the homes of kind strangers for some sort of joy that didn’t need entertainment, something she knew existed only on the land she now stood upon. She remembered an afternoon not so long ago that had followed days of hunger and finally an offer of a sumptuous bowl of rice with stewed fish. She ate, at first vigorously, and then her muscles slowed down, straining the movements of her hand to her mouth. The pepper tasted different from the one her memory still held on to, and the water she drank was not from a small calabash that smelled of the clay pot that had cooled the water for her household since she was a little girl. She finished her food and drank to stay alive, but she knew there was more to living than these temporary acknowledgments of life. The only satisfaction that remained after finishing the food was the memory of the sound of pepper pounded in a mortar and, with it, the biting fragrance that took hold of the air around the compound and the laughter that ensued as men and boys would flee.
“It is so easy to drive them away,” her mother would say as the other women continued laughing, their eyes and noses not showing any sign of discomfort as the men’s and boys’ did.
She looked at the bones again, her eyes moving beyond the piles to find strength to leap forward. “This is still my home,” she whispered to herself and sighed, pressing her bare feet deeper into the earth.
* * *
Evening was approaching and the sky was preparing to roll over and change its side. She sat on the ground, allowing the night’s breeze to soothe her face and her pain, to dry her tears. When she was a child, her grandmother told her that at the quietest hours of night, God and gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day. Though her pain didn’t completely disappear with the arrival of morning, she felt some new strength within her heart that gave her the idea to pluck herself from the earth and begin cleaning the bones. She started at her house with a pile in her hands that shivered maybe because of the cool morning air or the emotions that came from gathering what remained of others. Her feet took her toward the coffee farm behind her house. She held the bones with a delicate but firm grip, pondering how so many could be reduced to such fragments. “Perhaps it is only when the flesh masks the bones of one’s body that you gain some worth. Or is it what you do when life breathes through you that makes your memory worthwhile?” She stopped her questions for a bit to allow her scattered thoughts to coalesce. She felt this was the way to harden within her the memories of those she was now carrying so lightly. Her mind became an anthill filled with smoke. She didn’t pay much attention to where she was headed. Her feet were familiar with the ground; her eyes, ears, and heart were on another journey.