Peace Corps Writers
War Stories
     A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra

by John Sherman (Nigeria 1966–67; Malawi 1967–68)
Indianapolis: Mesa Verde Press,
September 2002
144 pages
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  Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)
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A perfect civil war, but a memoir it is not

When I won the opportunity to review this book, it was known that I would write both late and long. Despite this, it was felt, I think, that some old hellhounds of mine — shades of Biafra Lost — might be exorcised in the writing. We will see. But as social work on my behalf is always welcome, I said hello to this book — War Stories by John Sherman — and read the hell out of it. So shall you, because I subscribe to the old Whole Earth Catalog notion that a book review should also let the book speak for itself, in its own best words. But first some needed background.
     In May 1967, after years of religious and cultural turmoil, the Eastern Region of Nigeria seceded from the federal republic and war soon broke out. With a romantic but short-lived existence (about 20 months), Biafra was filled with hope, competent leadership, appropriate technologies like two-seater airplanes outfitted with rockets, and a practical vision for the future. Unfortunately for the future of Africa where a model for dismantling colonial empires along cultural lines was and is a desperate requirement, Biafra’s dominant image to the world was not a political one, but one set by the competing relief agencies: starving, pot-bellied children, dying it was said, by the millions. Which wasn’t true: hundreds of thousands only.
     Sherman’s book comes from a nine months-long journal kept by this former Nigeria PCV author while he was a member of a food/medical team operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in several contested areas. Here on page 18 he talks about his introduction to 1960s-era international NGOs involved with war famine and refugees. (Are NGOs better now, I ask?)

I met with a Dr. Bulle, an American [conservative Lutheran] with a thick accent of some kind, and he hired me in less than five minutes. He was most impressed that I had been here before. “There are too many greenhorns here,” he said in disgust. “You’ll find out for yourself.” I looked puzzled. He laid his pipe on the desk. “The Swiss! Ha!” He narrowed his eyes. “They are escaping dull work, dull marriages and the staleness of Switzerland.” He seemed to spit out the words, as if they themselves were guilty of staleness. “And,” he said, “many of them do not even speak English! How can they expect to deal with Nigerians, I ask you?” What he said about the Swiss is true, only he didn’t even mention their racism. I am convinced the lack of planning of the ICRC is an extension of their racism.

Later on page 60:

If most of one’s children and grandchildren have died or disappeared and one is continually hungry, is there any reason one wouldn’t cheat to get a little more for those are left? Then, in moments of anger, I lash out at the injustice of anyone taking more than one’s share when so many around us can barely survive from week to week on what we can spare for them. I want to be somewhere where my values aren’t tested quite so sharply, where morals aren’t strung out like a tight rubber band while we all wait for it to snap. Sometimes I look out from the table where we are dispensing feverishly and see Olive trying to make her way through the noisy crowds and then spy a child in someone’s arms bobbing around with that too-familiar look of kwashiorkor [famine syndrome] and I suddenly want, if only for a day, a ranch-style house in a complacent suburb where one’s social problems consist of who to invite over for steak this Saturday. Just one day, God. I threaten to send one woman out if she will not keep quiet and stop trying to get ahead of the others in the line . . . . Col. Henshaw, who is in charge of the troops in the Elele area, has a brother fighting for Biafra. It’s a perfect civil war.

Now I have to say that John Sherman got into the war zone with no small bit of courage and now he has written it up. But describing Sherman’s book in a recent email to an old friend — a former partner in the Committee for Nigeria/Biafra Relief, I wrote: “Good writing, but with little perspective on anything outside a 50 ’ radius of the author, about which he writes well.”
     The problem central to Sherman’s book is that all of it, I mean all, comes from his journal and prodigious memory of those distant times. I bet he had this file material kicking around on his New Year’s Resolutions for decades: “Write Biafra Journal this year. Can’t let that good stuff go to waste.” While it didn’t go to waste, exactly, I wonder if he didn’t have his own small publishing house in Indianapolis — Mesa Verde Press, would we be reading this, as is? Because an editor would have seen the manuscript and surely said, “John, this is full of memories, but despite your subtitle, it is not yet a memoir.”

Writing the Memoir      Here I will let an expert explain the true nature of memoir. I use as my text, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington (The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, 1997) In her early reading,

. . . famous-person memoirs rarely stuck to one theme or selected out one aspect of a life to explore in depth, as the memoir does . . . . Now that I am writing my own stories, I have come to realize that the modern memoir belongs to the same family as essays. Phillip Lopate, in his illuminating writings about the essay, includes the memoir under the general heading of “the informal or familiar essay.” It is not any particular form, he says, that distinguishes this kind of essay, but the author ’s voice.
     The great essayist Montaigne understood “that, in an essay, the track of a person ’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure.” Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge. Still, even without the direct address, modern memoirs aim to speak intimately to their readers, and those readers like to experience them as if they were sitting in a comfortable chair listening to a series of confidences.
     Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author ’s voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important.

While Sherman’s book has zip and zero essay or even musing to it, the book itself is a handsome production, with a signature of his own good photographs from that period, some really well-done maps as well as a useful chronology of the Biafran War. The book is all there, kind of waiting for Sherman to tell us what it is all about, now that like the rest of us, he is in his sixties and ready to get down and honest, per the above description of a true memoir. A memoirist goes there, does it, and then returns and tells us the story of what it all means.
     I mean, how can John transcribe and/or write 119 pages about a time with direct links to today’s Nigeria (and Afghanistan) without referring to anything beyond the sixties? Beyond any meaning, Sherman even refused to ponder upon the structure of his notes to the point that he had a story to tell, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end beyond the wheels-up of the plane flying back home. I mean, the young Sherman boy went out there and had himself one fine adventure but apparently didn’t live to tell the tale. The table of contents is only a list of dates and places where the events unravel, and then he ends the book — gratuitously I think — with a 1968 poem of his own but one which nicely enough ends with the words, “. . . the day Biafra died.” There goes a better book, right there, I think.

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