When a person has gone through extreme trauma, writing about it can have a healing effect. The act of shaping the words on a page puts the trauma outside the self and becomes an entity of its own that can be shaped and molded. Some trauma victims use writing to expunge emotional baggage—writing it down and then burning it or throwing it away. Some write confessional memoir, in which the author lays everything bare—shocking details, excessive information, and emotional outbursts. Confessional memoirs have their purpose in helping trauma victims heal. However, they generally do not stand on their own as works of literature for a larger audience. The difference between confessional memoir and literary memoir can be found in the deliberate shaping of the story. The literary memoirist uses restraint when recording shocking details and grounds emotional utterances in reality. Ishmael Beah’s literary memoir A Long Way Gone could have been merely confessional. He could have included gory details for shock value and focused on his emotional trauma. Beah elevates his memoir from confessional to literary through the use of literary devices. One of the literary devices that make his memoir so effective is his use of the objective correlative.
The purpose of an objective correlative is to ground an emotion in an object in the scene. This allows the reader to experience the emotion along with the character. Instead of a character telling the reader “I’m so angry,” the character manipulates objects in the scene to show anger. An objective correlative is an excellent way to fulfill the writing teacher’s directive to “show, don’t tell.” The phrase “objective correlative” was first coined by T.S. Eliot: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (qtd. in Donoghue 143). To put it simply, for an emotion to be felt by the audience, the artist must use objects to house the emotional utterance. Without the object, the emotion itself feels empty and exaggerated. The actor on stage who tries to express rage without books to slam, chairs to overturn, or other objects to manipulate will simply look like a raging fool whose anger seems unbelievable or even unjustified. This is the difference between greeting card poetry and literary poetry. The greeting card variety may express an emotion, but it generally lacks the sensory imagery that we expect of a literary poem. The images—or objects—are the vessels for the emotion. The same concept can be transferred to confessional versus literary memoir.
The distinction between confessional and literary memoir is an important one to make in A Long Way Gone, because this is a recounting of a truly horrifying experience. Beah shows restraint by not relying on the shock value of relating his experiences in all of their gory detail, instead using the objects in the scene to carry the weight of these emotions. It is powerful because it is subtle. If he had relied solely on the emotion without a vessel to put it into, it would have seemed empty and baseless.
One objective correlative that is used in A Long Way Gone is the sense of security that the boys get from their shoes. As the boys leave town, not knowing that they would never return, they are happily dressed in fashionable clothing befitting the rapper look: baggy pants, layers of t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts, and three pairs of socks to make their crapes (shoes) look puffy (Beah 7). They are confident in themselves and their ability to perform rap music at a talent show. They have the comfort of not just having enough clothes to wear, but having stylish clothes, purchased (probably) by loving parents. The shoes are a sign of the youthful privilege of children, secure in the knowledge that their needs are fulfilled. The shoes represent the stability of family, home, and a reasonable expectation of security in their lives.
After Ishmael is lost and alone and bands together with a different group of boys, the boys are feared by everyone they encounter. One such encounter upon arriving at a small fishing village leads to the boys being tied up and having their shoes torn off their feet. The boys have to walk for miles across burning sand, where the air temperature is 120 degrees: “After I had cried for several hours, my feet became numb. I continued walking but couldn’t feel the soles of my feet” (60). In this scene, the author uses the pain he felt in his feet to ground the emotional pain of losing his home, family, security, and privilege. If he had talked about how he cried for several hours over missing his mother, that would have been understandable, but might have bordered on sentimentality. By having the boys cry over the loss of their shoes, their emotion is grounded in the reality of an object.
Later, when the boys are outfitted as soldiers, they are given shoes: “I got a black Reebok Pumps and was happier about my new crapes than anything else that was going on” (110). Why do shoes give Ishmael such happiness? He doesn’t say. However, the boys’ vulnerability is made palpable by the absence of shoes. The soldiers give the boys a newfound sense of security by giving them shoes, physical representations of the presence of adults in their lives. Later, when UNICEF workers rescue the boys, Beah recalls being given several comforts of home, but remembers the shoes specifically: “We have a bale of new crapes for you. Tomorrow you will pick your size” (132). Through the presence and absence of shoes, the presence and absence of adult protection and supervision is made manifest.
Besides the shoes, another transitional object that Ishmael clings to for security is the rap music that he treasures throughout his journey. In the beginning, as the boys set off on their adventure of performing in a talent show, they stuff their pockets with rap music cassettes and their backpacks with notebooks of rap lyrics (Beah 7). The boys exhibit youthful playfulness, running, shooting slingshots, skinny dipping, chatting, teasing each other—basically being adolescent boys (8). Later, on the journey through the bush with a different group of boys, the very fact of their youthfulness makes them suspect to everyone they meet. At one point, they are attacked and brought before the chief of the village. When Beah’s pockets are searched, the rap cassettes are found and played. Miraculously, a boy from Mattru Jong is able to verify his story, recognizing him from previous rap performances (39). Another time, the boys are attacked, tied up and brought before a chief. Again, the rap cassettes are found and played. Beah is asked to perform to prove his innocence. As he says, “For the first time I found myself thinking about the words of the song” (67). The rap performance convinces the chief that they are simply children seeking asylum and lets them go (68). In the beginning, the rap music represents the boys’ youth and innocence, as they head out on their adventure. Later, in both frightening situations, the rap cassettes are the very evidence that convinces two chiefs in two different villages that these are simply young boys full of youthful innocence. Further evidence of the rap cassettes being used as an objective correlative is the song that finally convinces the second chief, entitled “I Need Love” (68). The L.L. Cool J lyrics that Beah cites in this passage provide insight: “When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall/ and in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call” (68). The rap cassettes are used as objective correlatives that represent the childhood innocence of boys who need love but are treated with fear and skepticism instead.
The objective correlative of the rap cassettes becomes most poignant when Beah loses them once he is recruited as a child soldier. Here we see that the rap cassettes have become transitional objects that the narrator uses to self-soothe to cope with the trauma in his life. At first, the boys feel safe, finally having adults to direct them. However, this is the end of their innocence: “There were no indications that our childhood was threatened, much less that we would be robbed of it” (Beah 101). In order to convey the gravity of this emotional trauma, Beah again turns to the objective correlative. Ishmael is changing into his new army shorts when a soldier takes his old pants and throws them into the fire, with the rap cassettes in the pockets. This is a turning point for Ishmael, because the loss of the cassettes objectifies his loss of innocence, home, and sentimentality: “Tears formed in my eyes, and my lips shook as I turned away” (110). Just like a child having his blankie taken away before he is ready, the narrator feels a traumatic loss with the destruction of his rap cassettes. Beah previously set up the cassettes as an objective correlative to represent a physical manifestation of Ishmael’s childhood innocence. The destruction of the cassettes marks the end of innocence. From this point on, Ishmael becomes hardened to the horrific acts of war that he sees and does.
With the loss of the shoes and the cassette tapes, Ishmael has lost all transitional objects that linked him with his home and family. The other soldiers become a new sort of family, and the guns he is given become his new security blanket. Beah infuses emotion into the gun that Ishmael is given when he becomes a child soldier. As the boys line up, the corporal hands out the guns. “When it was my turn, he looked at me intensely, as if he was trying to tell me that he was giving me something worth cherishing” (Beah 111). He takes it with trembling hands, “afraid to look at it. . . it frightened me” (111). The boys realize the power of the guns. They realize that these are not toys, like the bamboo ones they played with in their former lives. The magnitude of their situation becomes real by holding a weapon of war. The next day, the corporal uses the gun training to infuse intense anger in the boys, dehumanizing the enemy. At the end of the day, Ishmael is exhausted, and he finally has time to think: “I could become angry, yes” (113). When the boys go on their first mission, Ishmael expresses fear. In order to make that fear palpable, Beah again infuses an object with meaning. He is a scared boy with tears in his eyes, which he struggles to hide, and “gripped my gun for comfort” (116). Later that night, he sleeps with the AK-47 on his chest and the G3 gun hanging on a peg in the tent. The guns have become his protectors, talismans of power that give him comfort in the night. The guns take the place of previous forms of security—family, home, friends, shoes, cassette tapes.
The guns become the new transitional objects that the boys cling to for the sense of security that they bring. After that first day, Ishmael and his gun never part. It becomes part of him, a physical representation of power. Later, when he is rescued and the MPs take the weapons away, he feels confused and helpless: “I was beginning to get angry, anxious. I hadn’t parted with my gun since the day I became a soldier” (130). For a while, with heavy weaponry and a sense of purpose, he feels strong and powerful. Now he has to find a new way to feel strong. Once again, Beah uses an objective correlative to get at the emotional truth of the situation: instead of focusing on the anger of losing his sense of purpose, he agonizes over the loss of his gun.
Ishmael’s experiences in the war prevent him from ever regaining his childhood innocence. That innocence burns up with the cassettes in the fire. However, there is hope in the end when Esther, a nurse who befriended Ishmael, gives him a Walkman and a rap cassette: “When I unwrapped it, I jumped up and hugged her, but immediately held back my happiness” (Beah 154). In this breakthrough moment, we see Ishmael expressing happiness for the first time in a long time, yet he holds back. He has learned to guard his emotions for so long that he distrusts his own feelings. By infusing an object with emotion, Beah makes it accessible to the readers. We feel the unbridled joy bridled by the wariness of a child who has learned to distrust his own happiness.
The book comes full circle when Ishmael performs at a talent show, performing “a short hip-hop play about that redemption of a former child soldier that I had written with Esther’s encouragement” (Beah 169). Here the hip-hop play correlates with the redemption of Ishmael, the child soldier. In this case, the objective correlative is also an example of adumbration, as the story comes full circle with Ishmael finally attending the talent show—albeit a different talent show than the one he set out for in the beginning—which would lead to his invitation to represent the center in New York City. He may not be the same carefree boy who set out on the journey toward a talent show in Mattru Jong, but he is redeemed:“I am not a soldier anymore; I am a child” (199). Although he no longer has his innocence, he still has his childhood.
The use of objective correlatives and other literary devices make A Long Way Gone a literary memoir as opposed to a confessional one. Ishmael Beah glosses over the worst atrocities during the war, spending much of the book on the times before and after the war. When he does rely on emotion, he infuses the emotion into an object: the shoes to represent the loss of protection from adults, the gun to represent power versus powerlessness, and the rap music to represent Beah’s childhood innocence that was retained for a while, lost, and then regained, to some extent, in the end. The rich text of A Long Way Gone uses layers of literary devices, including objective correlatives, to make this literary memoir accessible to a wide audience.
Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone. Sarah Crichton Books, 2007.
Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. Yale Univ. Press, 2012.
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