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From child solider to novelist: Who are Ishmael Beah‘s most important writing influences?

Ishmael Beah

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Ishmael Beah's stirring memoir of his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, brought him notoriety. He has returned to the public eye with a novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, that explores the topic of return to a war-torn community. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

Even before I started writing, I read a lot. I think every writer should read a lot. But one of the writers I really love that had an impact on me was J.M. Coetzee. My favourite one is Waiting for the Barbarians. What I like about his writing is that he really chooses the words that he uses carefully. In one paragraph you can learn so much about the character. He has that way of mastering the narrative structure and making you get so much in a very short time. And really making you observe the story itself. Another one is Chinua Achebe, who passed away. Not because of his famous one, Things Fall Apart, but for other things he has written. He tries to use the English language in a different way. Making the English language sound more like African languages. Another person is this woman from Haiti, Edwidge Danticat. She has such care. When you read her work, you know that she thought about every single word that went into every single sentence.

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How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence

I didn't have trouble finding my own voice at the beginning. The challenge when I wrote the first book was I wanted it to be in the voice of the child, who was 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, not a young man who had been to university in the United States. So that was a challenge. I was studying political science, and it was hard not to write it as a political scientist. But to write it in the voice of that child, I had to go back to very difficult places to think like that.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

For young writers, one of the most negative influences would be trying to write to be famous, as opposed to just writing something that you want to write, something that grabs you deeply. Because as a writer, when you're writing something you know is not good, you know. You know you don't feel it. You can put words together and make things sound nice but you know you don't like it. And you know the reader's not going to feel it because you yourself are not feeling it. Often when I teach, people say to me, "Teach me how to write a bestseller," and I say, "Nobody can teach you that. You write the story that pulls at you, the story that you feel must be told."

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

There is one that has always been influential and will remain influential: William Shakespeare. I may be biased coming from a former British colony. Those were the first things that I read and loved them. Some of the stuff that he wrote about was so timeless and still applies to what's going on today with the human condition.

Who do you wish were more influential?

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There was this Zimbabwean writer who passed away very young. He name was Dambudzo Marechera; he wrote this book called House of Hunger. This guy was just an amazing writer. He was working in the eighties. He was a genius, very brilliant, but a very tortured soul. He wrote beautiful short stories and short books and poems but he never really tried to get it out there. Some people got a hold of it and published it.

Even most Zimbabweans don't know much about his work. He's kind of obscure.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

When I'm writing, I don't read until I'm done. I read before and after because I feel like, no matter how much you try to resist it, it seeps into your work, without you even knowing. So I stop reading or put myself in a place where I don't have access to any books, and just observe. I watch old-school kung-fu films. They have no plot line. Starts with fighting and ends with fighting. There's nothing there to be inspired by!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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