We quantify worldliness by an individual’s experiences with other cultures, time spent on foreign soil, and the ability to interact easily with people of different backgrounds. We might think we know the world because we’ve taken a few trips that earned stamps on our passports, watched a few television shows from other countries, or even made a habit of reading the daily paper to get a sense of what’s going on in different parts of the globe — but understanding the history of a place, and what impact it has on the present day can prove difficult. That’s especially true for a place that has known great tragedy. Trying to wrap our minds around the history, the aftermath, and the lasting effects are monumental tasks that, in some bright examples, have been helped greatly by fiction.
The novels of Alexander Hemon draw on his own experiences as a refugee in America during and after the Bosnian War, and a good deal of Latin American fiction to come out in the last decade has ditched the magical to concentrate on the realism of a region where violence was, and in some cases still is, a normal occurrence. Many of these writers use fiction as a way not just to tell a good story, but also to help readers better conceive of areas of conflict.
Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir, Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, told the story of Beah’s time as a child soldier in the bloody Sierra Leone civil war that lasted over a decade. It is the type of book that belongs on any “must-read” list, adeptly written and invaluable in illuminating a horrific war that Western readers are likely to have never truly understood.
Long Way Gone is the sort of true story that sticks with you for a long time after you finished reading. Beah’s follow-up book, Radiance of Tomorrow (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG), is a novel, yet the memoir-to-novel transition seems to have presented little difficulty for Beah. In his author’s note, he writes, “I bring a lot of [the] oral tradition to my writing, and I let it seep into the words.” That oral tradition has helped him construct his breathtaking novel, which looks at the aftermath of the war in his homeland, and the people whose lives it ruined.
Radiance of Tomorrow is all about finding balance in a story where balance shouldn’t be a possibility. Beah contrasts the natural beauty of Imperi with the harrowing imagery of the war, from rockets “bringing down the walls and killing many people, whose flesh sizzled from the explosions” to a commander’s instructions for how to chop off the hands of villagers, calling an above-the-wrist cut a “short sleeve,” and a below-the-wrist cut a “long sleeve.” In relating these experiences with the authenticity of an author who witnessed them (or, in some cases, an author who heard about them from eyewitnesses), Beah has given us a story with the lingering power to convey just how truly horrible war can be. It’s a rare thing for a novel to succeed in hammering that home, and just one of the many things that make Beah’s first novel another of his books that you must read.