the story behind the book | kate tuttle

Ishmael Beah’s ‘Radiance’

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir of time spent as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, was a sensation when it was published in 2007. This month the author’s first novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” comes out. Writing fiction, he said, felt liberating compared with memoir.

“I think the pain of sitting down and writing is the same,” Beah told the Globe in a telephone interview. “You have to sit there and put time in to it. But the difference for me really was that I found writing fiction more freeing. I had more time to play more with language and play with the timeline and do things I couldn’t do in a memoir.”

Set in Sierra Leone, the book focuses on life after conflict. “What I’m trying to do in this novel is look at what happens when people return after war,” Beah said. “People are very focused and interested in when things have collapsed, when people are running for their lives. But what happens when that ends and people return home? How do they try to move toward a future when the past is very raw? What kind of traditions do you hold onto, how do you preserve yourself? Those are the questions that were tugging at me.”


Beah, who returns to Sierra Leone several times a year, said that he wrote much of the new book while traveling throughout the continent, including in the Central African Republic, a recent site of violence. It’s important, he said, for Americans to see that there’s more to Africa than war.

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“The reason people always hear about conflict is that what becomes newsworthy is always madness,” he said. “Take Sierra Leone — right after the conflict ended we kind of dropped out of the news.”

But, he went on, “everywhere in the world there are difficulties, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have the chance to live their lives. With the backdrop of all this madness going on, people still find time to love each other, to form families.”

Beah reads at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at