By Erica M. Lee
Professor Dan Chaon and Ishmael Beah ’04. Photo by David Roswell.
Bestselling author Ishmael Beah ’04 and Oberlin Creative Writing Professor Dan Chaon were Oberlin College’s first Convocation Speakers of the semester. Their latest books are, respectively, A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier and Await Your Reply.
F+L: What was the most memorable class session that you had with each other?
Dan: For me, it was a number of the independent study sessions, where we were working really closely on the book that would eventually become A Long Way Gone. Probably in the middle somewhere, there was point where I realized that this was really something incredible—it was kind of an incredible experience. I hadn’t ever encountered work like this before. It was kind of hair-raising, and as a teacher, also intense and exciting. That was probably it.
I mean, we’d just sit and I would read aloud to you from your own work, which must have been kind of weird.
Ishmael: In a way. I would say the same: during the one-on-one sessions, because how it’d work is that I would go away and I would write a lot and then I would give it to you–probably more pages than you needed.
Dan: A lot of pages.
Ishmael: And then we would sit together and try to go through it. For me, I think it was one of the moments when we had a conversation, when I tried to tell you about what this was, what it was going to be, and kind of casually, you said, “Yeah, I can handle it. It’s good.”
Dan: I didn’t know what I was getting into at all.
Ishmael: And I thought, “All right,” because Dan was like, “All right”…I wasn’t sure how you’d react. You just seemed so casual about it. You’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely.” I was like, “All right, you know, that was easy. Now the hard part starts.”
F+L: What are current favorite literary techniques, and how have you most proudly used them?
Dan: Well, I’ve been very into collage stuff, and I think the use of interlocking narratives in Await Your Reply was something that I felt very good about, and I was really interested in.
Ishmael: By writing the first book, and then by writing more and more, I have discovered that perhaps the advantage that I have, but also what makes my writing what it is, is the power and beauty that comes from trying to always find the English equivalent of the places I’m writing about, in terms of narrating culture and narrating language from the places that I write about.
I have become more and more fascinated with language, and the usage of it, and the meanings, and the layering of meanings that it has–how people say certain things that will determine their age, the part of the world they’re coming from, the time period they’re living in, by how they express themselves. I’ve become quite fascinated with that part of language, and I try to use it very well and I think that’s what fascinates me right now.
F+L: What were your best writing experiences, and how do you generally write?
Dan: I just sit in a room with a computer. I think the best experiences for me are the times when the momentum of a story starts to kick in and the characters and the events of the story start to unfold like you’re just watching them on T.V., and you’re just following along behind them and writing. Those moments are really rare, and I think that’s what makes them great. But most of the time you’re trying to squeeze a sentence out of a stone.
Ishmael: I agree completely—I mean, same thing…I spend a lot of time thinking about it before I sit down, which, to some people, is considered lazy, but–
Dan: Yeah, I used to have to explain to my kids that, “When I’m looking out the window? I’m working.”
Ishmael: People don’t understand that—‘How can you call that working? Going around and sitting in one place–what is that? That’s laziness.’
Anyway, but also what Dan says–I call it an exciting obsession when you’re really at a point when the story has gotten hold of you. In my case, when you’re writing but you feel like there are probably other forces at work, like they’re just coming out of you. They’re very sweet moments, but they don’t last very long.
Another part that I really enjoy about it is sometimes after that period ends, and then you read what you have produced, like moments when you read a sentence and you’re feeling, “I wrote that. Okay.” It’s kind of like that; you write something that you feel like, “Where did that come from?” I really like that feeling about the process.
But also, I write different ways. Like, I can type on a computer, but I can’t edit on a computer, so I have to print it out and get a pencil and mark it. I just can’t do it. Maybe I’m not made for technology.
Dan: I’m still at a point where I still can’t do that either.
F+L: Explain your lives as I stand on one foot.
Dan: I just want to see you stand on one foot for a while.
I live in Cleveland, I teach at Oberlin, and I’m still trying to figure things out.
Ishmael: I live in New York, I’m from Sierra Leone, I went to Oberlin, and I’m trying to write, and I look forward to what life’s going to bring, I guess.