I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms.
After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss.
I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for.
Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug.
What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me?
I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion.
This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”.
Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.”
The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters.
When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes.
Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then.
Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life.
At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle.
In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to
think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait…
To find out for certain what my wampeter was…
And who was in my karass…
And all the good things our karass did for you.
I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true.
Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul.
Their young arms and legs were like twigs, not much more than bone and skin and whatever little life still flowed in choked veins. Their skin dug deep between their ribs. Incongruously, their stomachs were pregnant with hunger. Their hair, originally full and black, had thinned and turned brown, red, blonde, or gray.
This is kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition brought on by extreme protein deficiency. It afflicted many of the children of eastern Nigeria a little over forty years ago. The word originates in the Ga language of Ghana, and it means, tellingly, “the influence a child is said to be under when his mother becomes pregnant with her next child.”
From 1967 to 1970, the young state of Nigeria (which had just achieved its independence from England in 1960) fought a civil war against the separatist nation, the Republic of Biafra. The near total decimation – genocide by means of various and effective blockades – of Biafran citizens is among the clearest cases of what happens when a small nation, recognized by only a handful of relatively powerless states, is set against an alliance of international powers. While about a hundred thousand Nigerians died, over two million Biafrans – primarily civilians and disproportionately children – perished.
Biafra is now largely forgotten outside the region, but one of Africa’s best known authors has just published a book which he certainly hopes will bring it back to our collective consciousness.
Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, follows the lives of the Igbo people as they’re first confronted by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. His new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, follows those people into 1967 – when they, confronted by economic marginalization, and, ultimately, physical attack by Nigeria, declared independence and called themselves Biafra.
This is not the first book about the war; Achebe travels along well-grooved trails. For how marginal it now remains in the public imagination, it was then something of a cause célèbre. It was a televised catastrophe, the first televised famine, which would inspire celebrities to undertake the Biafran cause. On November 25, 1969, John Lennon returned the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) which he was awarded in 1965 as a Beatle, and sent along with it a letter to the Queen. “I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing,” he wrote, “against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” The French philosopher and public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, took a pro-Biafra stance as well. The Nobel Prize winning playwright, Wole Soyinka, went to a Nigerian prison for his outspoken support of Biafra and for his attempt to facilitate a cease-fire. “When he returned to Nigeria,” writes Achebe, “the authorities arrested him and accused him of assisting Biafra in the purchase of weapons of war.”
Bombarded by the images of human beings decimated by hunger and illness, Bernard Kouchner was inspired to found Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders. Kurt Vonnegut found himself moved by the war as well. In Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, a collection of pieces on a range of topics, he included the essay, “Biafra: A People Betrayed.”
“Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing,” he writes.
I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.
Achebe writes about the media exposure:
The Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the first fully televised conflict in history. It was the first time scenes and pictures – blood, guts, severed limbs – from the war front flooded into homes around the world through television sets, radios, newsprint, in real time. It probably gave television evening news its first chance to come into its own and invade without mercy the sanctity of people’s living rooms with horrifying scenes of children immiserated by modern war.
Everyone, it seems, felt something about the Nigeria-Biafra war. It was written about and commented on by the talking heads of the day. In 1969, while the war raged on, Frederick Forsyth published an excellent, impassioned, and deeply sympathetic book called The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend. But what makes Achebe’s new book momentous is that, though it is not the first to comprehensively tackle the war and its consequences, and though it is not the first to reveal to the world its atrocities, Achebe is Igbo and he knows the war directly and personally. The Igbo – the Biafran nation – is his story.
He worked, for instance, as a roving international ambassador for the nation. Achebe’s literary gifts even turned prophetic in the lead-up to the war and caused him personal turmoil. His novel, A Man of the People, which ends with a military coup upturning a corrupt government, was published days before the January 15, 1966 coup by largely Igbo soldiers. It was such a presciently accurate depiction of the coup that it drew considerable suspicion. “[S]ome military leaders believed that I must have had something to do with the coup,” writes Achebe, “and wanted to bring me in for questioning.” The coup gave the Nigerian government a pretext for reprisals against the Igbo people and, ultimately, it led to Biafra’s declaration of independence and to the civil war the next year.
“Victors write history,” writes Forsyth in an updated prologue to The Biafra Story, “and the Biafrans lost.” But Achebe, a Biafran, has now written history. He’s written a segment of history still avoided by many official Nigerian texts. It’s a personal history which seems to recognize that the stories we often hear of the past are shaped by those in power. It recognizes that we will need to hear the stories of the powerless – of the defeated – if we would like a fuller picture of reality.
It brings to mind Howard Zinn’s approach to history in his A People’s History of the United States. “I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements,” he wrote.
But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
But why the long delay? Why did it take Achebe so long to write such a book? He wrote quite a bit of poetry – “something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood” – during the war (some of which is included in the new book) but this is the first time he’s systematically discussed the conflict and devastation.
In a collection of his essays, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, Achebe writes of his distance from the traditional Igbo religions, being the son of Christian converts, and how that distance helped him gain a deep understanding of them. What he writes appears to also justify the decades he’s taken to tackle the Biafran cause. “The distance becomes not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer may take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.”
Many of the official documents detailing the war were only revealed afterwards. And, with time, perhaps Achebe has found a way to write directly and clearly, yet evenly and with composure. It may not have been possible for him to write passages like this one shortly after the war and after the attempted-genocide of his nation:
The Biafrans paid a great humanitarian price by ceding a great deal of territory to the Nigerians and employing this war strategy. The famine worsened as the war raged, as the traditional Igbo society of farmers could not plant their crops. Gowon [the Nigerian leader] had succeeded in cutting Biafra off from the sea, robbing its inhabitants of shipping ports to receive military and humanitarian supplies. The afflictions marasmus and kwashiorkor began to spread further, with the absence of protein in the diet, and they were compounded by outbreaks of other disease epidemics and diarrhea. The landscape was filled by an increasing number of those avian prognosticators of death as the famine worsened and the death toll mounted: vultures. By the beginning of the dry season of 1968, Biafran civilians and soldiers alike were starving. Bodies lay rotting under the hot sun by the roadside, and the flapping wings of scavengers could be seen circling, waiting, watching patiently nearby. Some estimates are that over a thousand Biafrans a day were perishing by this time, and at the height of Gowon’s economic blockade and “starve them into submission” policy, upward of fifty thousand Biafran civilians, most of them babies, children, and women, were dying every single month.
Biafra’s defeat was almost inevitable. The eastern region, which Biafra attempted to have separated from Nigeria, was oil-rich and Biafra’s attempt to maintain control over its resources did not go over too well with Nigeria and its chief economic partner, England.
“At first Biafra was successful and this alarmed Britain, the former colonial power,” writes Rick Fountain, in a report for the BBC, “anxious for its big oil holdings. It also interested the Soviet Union which saw a chance to increase its influence in West Africa. Both sent arms to boost the federal military government, under General Yakubu Gowon.”
Biafra, alone and cornered, certainly doomed: this is the fabric which unfolds in Achebe’s book. But, however wretched the circumstances and devastating the consequences, the Biafran story, as Achebe tells it, remains inspiring and continues to attest to the power of revolt. It echoes the words of Chris Hedges, who believes “that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures.”
When Vonnegut met the Biafran military leader, Ojukwu, the undaunted general made plain their increasingly beleaguered position. “If we go forward, we die. If we go backward, we die. So we go forward.”