Daniel Bergner, author of Soldiers of Light and The Other Side of Desire, is drawn to people, and to stories, that illuminate the struggle we all face to make our lives meaningful. From living with convicts sentenced to life in a tough American prison to travelling across Sierra Leone in the wake of its brutal civil war, he has always been drawn to those who live at the extremes of experience. Soldiers of Light, his book on Sierra Leone, won the Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Award and a Lettres-Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. It was hailed by the Guardian as ‘Riveting, elegiac… genius’ and by the Sunday Times as ‘a rare book indeed … one in which both author and reader are irrevocably changed’. The Other Side of Desire is Bergner's new book on human desire.
Bergner's book, God of the Rodeo, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
He writes for the New York Times Magazine and has spent a number of years with the subjects of this book. He is currently writing on Afghanistan.
Daniel Bergner lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A letter from Daniel Bergner, author of Soldiers of Light, written on September 11, 2003, reflecting on Sierra Leone.
September 11, 2003
Today is 9/11. So bells ring outside my apartment, next to Ground Zero. But I don’t think it’s too melodramatic to say that the world’s Ground Zero is Sierra Leone, though of course the bells can’t drift that far. . .
That country doesn’t lose its hold on anyone who has gone there. I heard recently from British Colonel Mike Dent, who, from a bomb-ravaged ruin near Freetown’s marshes, led the U.K. effort to rescue Sierra Leone. I’d sent him an email, asking his thoughts on the country’s future, and on his three years there, now that he’s back in England. I expected a few sentences in reply, maybe a couple of paragraphs, that he would have little time for what was past and far away. I received three pages that ended with something close to a plea: “The U.K. will need to remain fully involved and. . . committed to Sierra Leone for the next 20 years.” It was not a statement of failure. It was a message of success, that Britain’s moral achievement in Sierra Leone – the beginnings of stability it had brought, the brutal anarchy it had ended – should not be forgotten, should not be wasted.
Lately I heard as well from Neall Ellis, the mercenary gunship pilot. Along with a British officer, he now leads Sierra Leone’s small – very small – air force. When we talked by phone, Neall was at the end of a three-month shopping trip – to Romania, to South America – for a pair of used helicopters. Sometimes, he said, Sierra Leone feels so close, again, to chaos that the country’s only hope seems to lie in “a Noah’s ark,” in some sort of absolute annihilation and rebirth. In the meantime, he’s not planning to leave. “I still feel I’ve got a role to play in the development of the country.”
And now and then I get a letter from Lamin Jusu Jarka – signed with pen held in metal fingers – or I manage to speak with him by phone. He imagines that when people read his story, “many of them could put themselves in the place of me, who has been amputated.”
“Some of them,” he says, “will have tears in their eyes.”
I can only hope that I have told his story well enough for that.