Storyteller and former child soldier start four-day series on healing through narrative
Photos by Shane Epping
Storyteller Laura Simms and former child soldier/bestselling author Ishmael Beah kick off a four-day storytelling-focused community residency with a lecture in Jesse Auditorium Wednesday night.
“This is a real love story,” Laura Simms told the audience in Jesse Auditorium last night.
She’d just recounted her first night at home with the teenage son she’d adopted, Ishmael Beah, now the bestselling author of the internationally acclaimed A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Awkwardly tucking the 17-year-old into bed that night in 1998, Simms, a professional storyteller, shared an African story she’d learned three decades years earlier. As she spoke, Beah began to sing the song in the story, which Simms had never known. By coincidence, or fate, she was unwittingly telling a tale of the Mende people, Beah’s people.
What the Jesse Auditorium crowd heard is indeed a love story. It’s a story of a woman learning to be a mother and young man learning to be a kid. It’s an often-comical fish-out-of water story. It’s a story of healing and hope and cross-cultural understanding—complete with foreshadowing and folkloristic foundations, missteps and poignant moments.
Anyone expecting to be shocked by tales of bloodshed or outraged by reports of social injustices would have been disappointed by the former child soldier’s talk. Though alluding to “what war does to the human spirit,” Beah, now a 28-year-old U.N. humanitarian worker and philanthropist, spoke with quiet eloquence about everything from an ill-fated attempt to help an old woman in New York carry her groceries to the role West African reverence for storytellers has played in his relationship with Simms.
It was easy to see how Columbia-based Grammy-nominated storyteller Milbre Burch, whose Kind Crone Productions organized this four-day residency, might originally have conceived the Beah-Simms visit as a Mother’s Day event.
Topics may take a heavier turn this evening. Following a 5:30 p.m. reception and book signing in the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Simms and Beah join MU-affiliated human-rights activists Bea Gallimore, Arshad Husain and Ibtisam Barakat for the panel discussion “Narrative as a Pathway to Reconciliation,” to be held at 7:30 p.m. in Waters Auditorium.
Public and private events continue through Saturday evening.
Simms talks about the process of adopting Beah, whom she’d meet while he was taking part in a United Nations conference in New York.
Simms and Beah take questions from audience members, who ask about everything from Sierra Leone’s civil war to the process of writing a book.
MU students and faculty, as well as Columbia community members, fill much of the lower-level seating for the Jesse Auditorium event.
After the lecture, Beah signs copies of his memoir. A book-signing also will be held Thursday evening from 6:30 to 7 p.m. in the Reynolds Journalism Institute.