These Truths: Navigating Truths with Ishmael Beah and Alexis Okeowo
These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a stronger understanding of what brings us together.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
In this conversation, Sierra Leonean-American author Ishmael Beah and The New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo discuss how fiction can help us navigate some of the most unrelenting humanitarian crises of our age.
CHIP ROLLEY: Welcome back to These Truths, a World Voices Podcast exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. I’m Chip Rolley, Director of PEN World Voices Festival. Today, our guests will be speaking about how fiction can help us navigate some of the humanitarian crises of our time.
ALEXIS OKEOWO: We’re both in self-quarantine in two different cities on different coasts. I’m in Brooklyn in New York, looking out on pretty quiet springtime streets, where flowers and trees are blooming. It all kind of seems at odds with the fact that New York has been the center of the pandemic for quite some time. How are you over there?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Well, I am in Los Angeles, California. The weather is nice here, which can be tempting for people to go out, but people have been trying to stay in. It’s been good to be home, trying to negotiate the spaces of working from home with all my family at home now. I have to find pockets of spaces to be able to write, which is also wonderful in its own way.
“Well, I grew up with this understanding that stories are medicine that you pour into the human being to strengthen them to be able to face life, basically, and life would always try to break you. But when you have stories within your veins, within your body, they kind of strengthen your resolve, and they’re able to build your resilience.”
OKEOWO: Okay. So I’ll start with the first question. In your novel, the characters are this little family of street children scraping by after the longtime collapse of a coherent social order. Their resilience and creativity are something we can all learn from as we face frustrations, fear, lack of what we need during this pandemic—some of us for the first time. What lessons do you hope your characters can teach those who are scared and suffering as society begins to change around them?
BEAH: Well, I grew up with this understanding that stories are medicine that you pour into the human being to strengthen them to be able to face life, basically, and life would always try to break you. But when you have stories within your veins, within your body, they kind of strengthen your resolve, and they’re able to build your resilience.
So, this book, really—with these five characters who have sort of decided to find freedom and live at the edges of society—one of the things that I think everybody can draw from is the idea of not waiting when you have circumstances that are interrupted. If you wait for things to return to the way they were, you will be more frustrated.
But if you try to recreate yourself within the current situation and normalize it, and look at it from a preservative standpoint, and embrace it, then you’re able to actually come out of this better. So, these characters live at the edges of society, but they learn to make that their life without waiting for things to get back to what it used to be.
“Our lives intersect, whether we like it or not. I am because we are. How I make sense of my existence often is a reflection of somebody else. So I wanted to make that connection.”
OKEOWO: Right. It’s about maximizing the present, about truly living in the present and adapting, it seems. In the novel, two of your characters—you know, especially the main teenage female character—connect the little family to individuals outside of their established core with varying consequences. Why was it important for the world of these characters to expand? Why does the reader need to see them interact with people outside of their immediate space?
BEAH: Well, Khoudiemata—the young woman who becomes the main narrator of the book as it progresses—I wanted to connect her to the larger society, to the people I call the “beautiful people” in the novel, because we live side by side. Our lives intersect, whether we like it or not. I am because we are. How I make sense of my existence often is a reflection of somebody else. So I wanted to make that connection.
And again, to bring it back to where we are right now, for a number of years, we all believed—and maybe pushed—the idea of individuality. But at the same time, I think, there was a forgetfulness of the fact that we belong to each other. We’re each other’s keepers. And now that people are by themselves, they begin to understand that there’s a need to actually just see human beings.
You may not necessarily need to greet them or say hello. That, in itself, has infused your life more than you would care to imagine. So, in this book, I didn’t want these characters to just be isolated in the world that they’ve created, but to also interact with the larger world around them, which they need to survive, and vice versa.
OKEOWO: You know, you’re telling the story of people who live on the fringes of society, and those people—whether in an unnamed African country, or in the United States, or in a European place—are people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. But you chose to tell the story through the eyes of young people. How does telling the story through such young eyes influence the events you describe in the novel?
BEAH: Well, I wanted to answer the question about freedom, what freedom means for the younger generation nowadays. Now, if you ask that question to an older person, I think they—because they’ve lived, they’ve had certain experiences—they may not be able to get out of their own way to really build that characterization, or inform themselves about the truth of the question, really. So I believe young people who are still in the process of forming themselves, who still have time to create and recreate themselves, were the perfect characters to be able to answer these questions—or at least attempt at answering them.
So, for me to drive the narrative from these young people on the plane—who then have to interact with the larger society on their own terms, and expose how society is functioning or not functioning—it required the mindset of these young people, because I also wanted the novel to be very contemporary. What are the tools that young people use now to be as free as possible? But also, young people are the ones in any society that are completely caught between the intersection of traditions, moral values, state values—you know, country belief systems. And in that, they’re always trying to look for the grayscale so that they can be who they are. All of these young people are the ones who are trying to do that. They’re more malleable in terms of trying to figure themselves out always. So, that’s why I drove the narrative through them.
OKEOWO: I like the way you describe that they are more malleable, and they are trying to figure themselves out in a way that those who are older aren’t doing as keenly. And when your novel starts, it’s so vivid. We’re taken to this clearing where this little family is living in a defunct airplane. Can you talk about where the idea for the story came from?
BEAH: So, I was flying back home to Sierra Leone and the international airport, Lungi. I looked as the plane was landing, and I saw the carcass of this plane on the side of the runway. It was beautifully covered in this foliage, but still parts of it were sticking out—really vibrant colors that simply were kind of screaming not to be forgotten. So, that’s when I had the idea. What if I write a novel with a set of characters living on that plane, which is a symbol of their country’s past—a relic of their country’s history, and how they then define themselves by coming from living in that plane and going into the larger society? So, that’s how the location started. And then I just started building characters that I wanted to bring to this location.
OKEOWO: In the book, as you’re describing the survival tactics of this group, it’s really striking—the intimate details of what this group does to rely on each other and to survive.
BEAH: I wanted to make a family that’s comprised of people who brought different skill sets to this little family. I think, in all of our lives, our lives intersect with people. We have these little families we create—whether to do a project, whether to live somewhere new, and you find friends that then become your closest allies. When you select these people, you come together. Everyone has something to add to the fabric of the group to make it worthwhile to be a part of. So, I decided to pick characters that are savvy. They could be economists. They could be psychologists. They are very keen observers of society itself. Also, for example, the youngest one, Namsa, I particularly added to the family because of how young she is, so that when the little family wants to go to some places where people would be suspicious of them, her innocence would be able to get rid of that suspicion immediately.
The little family, then—how they operate is that they don’t want people to find them, because they want to be free. So, they have a series of mechanisms that they use to be able to enter society without, first of all, being noticed that they are together as a family. So they actually walk apart, but still, in line of sight, so they’re able to protect each other. They have code words that they use, whistling through different things that they have to say through touch in different parts of their bodies, to signal either threat or movement. So, it’s a very colorful description of this web of behaviors that people have created to function—kind of like what we’re in now. We’ve created these newer codes now. If you go out, you have to have something over your head. If somebody is walking past you, you cross the street, or you have to maintain six feet at a supermarket or wherever. So, they kind of do similar things to be able to just gain access to a livelihood in this new world that they live in now.
OKEOWO: Right. And I love how they’re practicing social distancing and in a very clever, subtle way that we might have to get used to ourselves. I saw on your social media that you spent time in pretty different places while writing this novel and were influenced by many of those locations. Can you talk more about that?
BEAH: Yes. I wrote this book in many African cities. I started it living in Nouakchott in Mauritania, and then I lived in Dakar, Senegal. I also lived in Abuja, Nigeria. And then I went to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Every two years, I was moving to some other place. Or every year, or I was traveling to these places for a significant amount of time, and all of these places influenced my imagination, and even the creation of the characters.
For example, Khoudiemata, the name of the main character, is a name that you find in Mauritania, and it comes out of the names there. And the character of Khoudiemata—how I decided to build that—comes from an interaction I had with some young men and some older men who—I was with my wife, and I was with my first daughter at that time, and we were crossing from Gorée Island into Dakar—and these men were sitting across from us, and they were speaking out loud, almost so that we can hear, that we should pierce our daughter’s ears so that she looks more like a woman. When they see her, they will be able to notice that she’s a girl immediately.
And I thought to myself, “What place is there for a man to decide how a girl expresses herself—or a woman, for that matter?” And so, this sort of anger and this frustration at the fact that they felt they could detect how my daughter expressed herself stayed in my imagination. So, when I was creating Khoudiemata’s character, I wanted her to be the woman she wants to be, or the young girl she wants to be—unapologetically on her own terms, the way she wanted, without vying for anybody’s acceptance at all.
So, everywhere I lived sort of sat into my imagination. And also, I observe life, with the beautiful people in all the cities, to see how the most affluent lives cross with the ones that are basically at the bottom of society. But yet, they too are very intelligent and very human and have all those makeups, but they may not have access to opportunities.
And so, I brought all of these places that I lived in the novel. That’s why it’s not set in one place, because it can be applicable anywhere, really.
OKEOWO: As we’ve discussed, your protagonist is a very self-possessed, independent, free-thinking teenage girl. This is the first time you’ve written from a female viewpoint. What was that like?
BEAH: It was difficult at the beginning. The difficult part of it was the fact that I needed to get out of my own masculine point of view and my own masculine mind to be able to truly understand this character, and to inhabit her and be able to allow her to give me the permission to write her.
This was also a learning process. I’m a father, and I’m a husband. And I had a belief that I knew just a little bit about women. But writing this character, I realized that I knew nothing at all. I had to even learn how to describe the clothing of a woman.
I also had to talk about feelings. What they feel when somebody looks at them, whether a man or a woman. How they sit, how they carry themselves, their mannerisms, everything. I had to really get into that character to be able to write it.
So, it was a challenging thing, but I’m glad that I did, because I also was envisioning the type of woman I want my daughters to become. So that also helped a little bit. And lastly, my wife is my first reader. She’s quite an intelligent, insightful reader. So when she would read the first draft, she would tell me, “No woman will say that to a peer.” So then I would go back to the drawing board.
So, in a way, it was an undoing of my own masculinity and sort of the masculine point of view that the world gives me access to. So to get out of that way, really create this character, was quite remarkable.
OKEOWO: The novel is clearly feminist in sensibility. Would you also say that your novel is political? You know, the story naturally over the course of the narrative indicts corruption, but did you have political aims while writing it?
BEAH: I’ve never wanted to write that sort of direct, head-on political novel, but I’m very aware that all our lives are political, whether we like it or not. What I like to show is the cross-section of how what happens in society affects everybody. And so, wherever decisions are made, eventually we all face the consequences of those decisions.
So, I tried to do it in a very subtle way without casting judgment, so that the truth of it is revealed. For example, there’s a colorful scene in the novel where the five characters of the little family go to this night market where additional members of little families that live on the edge of society gather in the evening to try and find some kind of enjoyment.
And this is also where they get their news about what’s going on in their country and the world. And they have discussions and banter, and a conversation began about theft, about some people that are classified as thieves and those that are classified as just being corrupt. And the idea was that when their leaders steal from the government, they are said to be corrupt, but when a poor person steals a cup of rice or a loaf of bread is considered a thief. So, they were going to change the terminology as a way of finding justice in the way everybody is looked at when you take something that doesn’t belong to you. So they decided to say that they will not refer to themselves as “thieves” anymore, but rather as “corrupters.” So they will say, “I corrupted a loaf of bread yesterday,” instead of saying that “I stole something.”
“The people who are in power will always try to hold onto a version of truth and try to impose that on the rest of the people that they probably are trying to subjugate, because that’s the only way you can impose truth on people.”
OKEOWO: And I love how, through the rest of the novel, that’s how you referred to any act of stealing: “so and so corrupted this thing.” This book deals with, I think in a broader sense, the idea of what truth means to different people, but particularly those who have no power or the least power in society. What are your thoughts on the idea of there being a “singular truth” or many truths, and how that affects one based on the sort of power or status they have in society?
BEAH: As a keen observer—and also, I’ve lived through different cultures, different parts of the world—is that the people who are in power will always try to hold onto a version of truth and try to impose that on the rest of the people that they probably are trying to subjugate, because that’s the only way you can impose truth on people. But that being said doesn’t mean that people would buy into that idea of truth.
So for me, when I was writing this book, one of the things I had in mind was how—because these characters were trying to seek freedom, which meant that they were interested in the idea of justice and justice in truth—how do I give them agency so that they are actually themselves, and they’re able to arrive at their own various, individual truths?
When the novel starts, there’s an invitation for even the reader to enter their world on their own terms. So, they never give away their agency at all, which is their own truth. They tell you enough about themselves, so you know who they are, but not too much. They let you see them—how they live today as a reflection of their past or the things they hold dear. So, in a way, that itself is me trying to explain to you that each individual carries their own truth, their own version of truth. And nobody can tell anyone how to do that for them. They have to believe in what justice and injustice is for them. They have to agree how they want to live their lives. They don’t have to be introduced through a kind of anthropological way where they are there and their voices are not heard.
So you see them doing this kind of thing in the narrative where they are themselves—unapologetic, even as a little family they still have their own individuality, but they’re together as well.
OKEOWO: What you’ve said so well is how this group, like people in real life, have to reinvent themselves continually, and the codes and standards by which they want to live, which, I think is something that you’ve explored in both fiction and your nonfiction. With both of these mediums, you’ve really looked into how the most marginalized people struggle—how they live, how they find joy. And what do you think the role of fiction and nonfiction is in bringing the reader to greater understanding of the most marginalized?
BEAH: I think either medium offers different strengths, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But also what they offer, I think, if you are the kind of writer than I am, is to challenge that way of accepting truth.
For example, I started off writing nonfiction. My first book was a memoir, and that was a real struggle for me because I was writing it while living in the West, and the people who were receiving it—the reviewers and other people—were Westerners, where there’s a strong sort of push toward the singularity of truth, where if something happens, we all should agree on how it happens, and then that’s that. Somebody who says differently may be lying or something.
So, when I was writing that book, I really struggled with that, because I grew up knowing that there are several truths in the oral tradition storytelling background that I have. For the mere fact that when we all sit somewhere together, and we talk about something—when we go back and try to remember them or think about them—the way we do that is going to be very different. But the truth is, we were all wherever that situation occurred. Because how we react—it’s based on layers and layers of who we are, where we have been, the things that we’ve seen, how we absorb information. So, it’s not going to be that that other person is lying, necessarily. So that’s a real struggle when you try to tell the truth in nonfiction.
But in fiction, because you don’t have that sort of shackle to the singularity of truth, you’re able to expand on the idea of that itself. So I love writing fiction more, because it gives me the freedom to sew the multidimensionality of characters, of African characters, particularly, into these narratives. So that you see that they are truthful in all kinds of ways, and they can also be wrong in all kinds of ways, but yet it is their truth, you know?
OKEOWO: Exactly. And I wondered if you could read that first part of your book where you’re inviting the reader to try to come to their own truth about what they’re seeing when we’re introduced to the setting of this little family.
If you are to walk toward a field that lies at the edge of the small town of Foloiya when the sun is awake in the sky, you will hear the breeze whistling through the grasses, parting the dry and green strands as it makes its way to you. Or maybe you will think it is the rustling of someone hiding under the vast shrubs. At the end of the field, your eyes will light upon the face of a boy among the grasses, peering intently at something. You try to see what it is following the trail of his gaze, but you see nothing.
“Hello,” you say. The boy does not respond, only narrows his eyelids against the wind. You stare back at his face, in which youth is steeped in something serious and old, in stories you want to know. You try your luck again.
“Good morning.” You do not know what else to say. Caution trumps curiosity: You sense that you should not move closer. He does not respond. In fact, nothing about his demeanor suggests that he is even aware of your presence.
Your eyes search his face one last time. Then you give a sigh and continue on your way. Yet as you go, you glance back, still hopeful of an answer. And then, just as you have given up and turned your full attention to the road ahead, you hear him whistle. Immediately several answering whistles fill the air. You become confused. Should you move on ahead or go back to the boy? You are more aware of your fear now, but at the same time, your belly burns with cautious excitement. You do not know which feeling to pursue.
While you hesitate, the shrubs begin a vigorous dance. But when you look again to where the boy was sitting, he is gone, without your having heard him leave. You set aside your fear and try all the pathways that are visible to you, but none goes any distance. Each time, you find yourself returned to where the boy was sitting, the smaller plants stretching to regain themselves in the wake of his human weight.
OKEOWO: Thank you. Ishmael, I want to thank you for giving us such a beautiful novel to enjoy during this often difficult time for a lot of folks. And I also wanted to end by asking you: Your new book and previous work illustrate many injustices that face those most marginalized in this “used by” society opening up whole new worlds to your readers. What is the writer’s role in addressing injustices and societal shortcomings?
BEAH: Well, I think the writer’s role is quite important and crucial in terms of how you shape people’s understanding of their own stories, themselves, and also, their dreams. So in that pursuit, there has to be an idea of justice embedded in how you show characters. Perhaps one way of explaining that simply is I live by the maxim of Albert Camus that says the role of a writer is not to represent those who make history, but rather those who suffer history.
And by trying to tell their stories through characterization, you get to understand the importance of—and the sacrosanct nature of—every human life, really.
“I think the writer’s role is quite important and crucial in terms of how you shape people’s understanding of their own stories, themselves, and also their dreams.”
OKEOWO: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Well, thank you so much for this conversation.
BEAH: Thank you for talking to me. And I hope that when this is all over, we will all will return to whatever normalcy that may be with the understanding that we are each other’s keepers.
And hopefully we will not forget that.
These Truths is a production of the PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Jared Jackson provided editorial assistance. Special thanks to Emily Folan.
Next time on These Truths, children’s and young adult authors share how literature can play a role in helping everyone—young and old—understand government and what justice for all truly means. So subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
About Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah’s first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than 40 languages. He is also a UNICEF Ambassador and Advocate for Children Affected by War and a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Advisory Committee. His latest book, Little Family, is on sale from Riverhead Books as of April 2020.
About Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo is the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, which received the 2018 PEN Open Book Award. They are a staff writer at The New Yorker. Their work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Travel Writing, and they have received fellowships from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, Yaddo, Civitella Raineri Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Russell Sage Foundation, International Women’s Media Foundation, New America, and Alicia Patterson Foundation. They are writing a book about Alabama.