After reading Ishmael Beah’s account of his time in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone: The true story of a child soldier, I began looking through the internet for more information about him and where he is now. In this search I came upon this article (oh, and here's another one) in The Australian, calling Beah out for mistakes in his book. I also found this blog, which questioned Beah’s use of quotations and dialogue within the book. And it got me to thinking: How accurate does a memoir really need to be?
A memoir, as its name denotes, is based on memory, therefore I don’t think an author is expected to get every date and age correct. I think this is especially true when the author is displaced from his homeland and has lost every record of who he was before writing the book. If the only record he has to go off is his memory then I can see how some mistakes could have been made. For instance, him writing that he was 13 when he joined the Sierra Leonean army, when The Australian would put his age more around 15, does not surprise me. I make similar mistakes all the time when I’m thinking back on things, and can only get it correct when I actually get out my old journals or look through back entries in my blog, then do the math. I fully believe Beah would have used those tools to double-check his age as well, had he had them available to him. Although I haven’t talked to the author directly, I’m pretty certain he did not have a journal with him as he was walking around killing RUF soldiers.
I think it’s interesting that this is coming into question, when I have read a number of other memoirs that have glaring errors. A specific author that comes to mind is Augusten Burroughs, who gives two different ages for his first sexual interaction in two different books. In Running With Scissors, I believe he put his age around 12, while in Dry the age is significantly lowered to age 8 (I don’t have the books with me so I can’t verify these ages, but I remember specifically that it bothered me at the time I read them). Perhaps the media didn’t notice these mistakes because they didn’t read the books in direct succession as I did, but the mistakes were there. And Burroughs claims to have journal records dating back to his early childhood so surely he should have gotten this correct?
As for the quotes brought into question by One-Minute Book Reviews, I have often asked myself about quotes in memoirs. I have also had a number of discussions with other journalists on what type of creative license is allowed for quoting in novels, memoirs, etc. The thing is, it’s not an autobiography. Very few people, especially your normal everyday person, has enough newspaper print spent on them that they can actually quote what other people have said and done regarding them. Their lives are not lived out in the newspapers and tabloids, despite what the media would have us believe. Yes, Beah could have easily left out the dialogue in his book, but then how exciting would that have been to read? This is his account of what happened to him and what the war was like in Sierra Leone. I have no doubt in my mind that he witnessed the atrocities he wrote about in this book and I will give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to giving an account of those things from memory.
What I think is important to remember here is that it’s the story that matters. No, I don’t think authors should go around writing fiction and try passing it off as a memoir (Ahem), but I think we should allow a little leeway when it comes to writing something from memory. For me, getting this story out and making a difference in Sierra Leone is more important than Beah not releasing the book because he wasn’t sure if his family was killed when he was 13 or 15 years old. And, in the book itself, Beah notes that he wasn’t sure of the amount of time that had passed, nor about his exact location on many occasions he speaks about in the book.
What do you think? When it comes to memoirs, how important is it to get every detail correct?