The Hybrid Child Soldier Life Narrative: Testimony, Witnessing, and the Limits of Humanitarian Sentiment in Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
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Testimonial literature bears witness to collective experiences of injustice and human rights violations, and it emphasizes the relationship between context and collective suffering. The trauma memoir, in contrast, focuses on an individual experience of suffering and unfolds in a linear progression towards rescue, redemption, and recovery. This study brings to the fore the generic hybridity of Ishmael Beah’s life narrative, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), as both trauma memoir and testimonial witness narrative, and, consequently, it addresses aspects of the text that are overlooked and understudied. Taking up A Long Way Gone for its status as the exemplar of child soldier life narratives, this study highlights the narrative’s specificities in relation to this emergent body of literature. Current scholarship on child soldier narratives focuses almost exclusively on fiction; if consideration is given to life narratives, they tend to serve a secondary comparative function or are used as contextual evidence. Responding to this gap in literary studies, this study offers a sustained analysis of the rhetorical strategies and representational practices employed in Beah’s life narrative, examining how it mobilizes, on the one hand, humanitarian readings in appeals to sympathy and empathy, and, on the other hand, narrative acts of witnessing and ethical appeals that reveal the limits of affective responses. This study is structured in two parts. Part One establishes pertinent historical, cultural, and socio-political background and introduces the methodological framework. Chapter One provides an historical and contemporary overview of child soldiery, including literary and cultural representations. The second chapter explains the theoretical approach applied in this study, which hybridizes theories of the trauma memoir and testimonial literature. Part Two is comprised of four chapters of in-depth analysis of A Long Way Gone. Chapter Three locates the text within the context of civil conflict in Sierra Leone and considers how dominant representations and discourses of African child soldiers inform its marketing and reception in the West. Chapters Four through Six offer a detailed textual analysis of Beah’s narrative of his pre-conflict childhood, experiences of child soldiery, and the post-conflict challenges of demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration.