I had the good fortune of being in NYC last week when Ishmael Beah '04 and Professor Dan Chaon celebrated an evening of Oberlin mentorship. I had read Ishmael's book (A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier) when it first came out, and heard him speak when he came back to Oberlin to do a reading. But this is the first time I heard about his process of actually writing the book.
I found myself chuckling out loud when Dan recalled Ishmael telling him there would be "dark" moments in writing the book, but Dan claims he has a dark sense of humor so he thought he could handle it. Turns out the subject matter was more than Dan expected, so he could only read a bit of Ishmael's writing at a time. I don't think Dan expected the atrocities that would be revealed to him from the same student who believes in the possibility of things changing for the better. I can only imagine the trust developed between the two to share this story.
I learned how Ishmael found his publisher and that he was not pleased when it was suggested that he cut out a lot of the stories about his grandmother. I laughed when Ishmael revealed that he used to sit in the dining hall with his back to the wall, planning his escape route should the need arise. Of course Oberlin College is a far way from the jungles of Sierra Leone, so I'm pleased to report that the escape plan was never needed.
It's clear that Ishmael and Dan have developed a deep bond over working on the book, and I feel very privileged to have been able to listen to them speak. I know that I speak for the over 200 alumni in attendance that this was a night to be proud of the Oberlin mentor relationship as it played out in front of us as well as offering hope for the future and for future Obies.
For those of you who haven't read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, I hope you'll take the time to read the book that Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) said made his heart hurt. It is moving and disturbing, but in the end hopeful, and rejoices in regaining our humanity.