So it goes.
November 1, 2012 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Kurt Vonnegut went to Biafra shortly before its fall in 1970 (Biafra previously). This is what he had to say about it.
posted by ChuraChura (27 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Well, this makes for cheerful reading. At least we can say that Russia and Britain put aside their differences in order to *cough* help Africa.
posted by anewnadir at 4:32 PM on November 1, 2012

God damn that was depressing.

I wish there was some way we could bring Kurt Vonnegut back to life. Him and a million Biafrans.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:35 PM on November 1, 2012 [12 favorites]

That was heartbreaking but fascinating. Vonnegut was a hell of a writer.

Chinua Achebe showed up at one point in the piece, and if I am googling correctly Miriam Reik went on to have a fascinating life.
posted by Forktine at 4:42 PM on November 1, 2012

I read this in high school, in an anthology of his loose stuff. Blew my mind. I had never heard of the Biafra war, which happened when I was a very small child. No one had remembered or talked about it. I was a pretty well-informed 13-year old; I knew, for example, that there had been a genocide in Armenia once, and that there had recently been a fascist regime in Greece. I talked to adults about the news and history. But nothing on Biafra, until Vonnegut's piece. Someone doing genocide and having it just vanish into thin air, in the memory of the world: it's chilling. This was the first time I became aware that there had even been any genocide after the Holocaust, too.
posted by thelonius at 4:48 PM on November 1, 2012

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you've got to be kind."

KV was a mensch of the highest order.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:00 PM on November 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

FWIW the first time I heard about Biafra was when I edited the wikipedia entry for Philip Effiong, who was president of Biafra for exactly four days--just long enough to arrange the final surrender. (Previously Effiong's article looked like this.)

Effiong was a fascinating character--notice that Vonnegut has him pegged as the "second funniest man in Biafra," which certainly sheds a new bit of light on his character.
posted by flug at 5:07 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

What did Jello say?
posted by delfin at 5:23 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is reprinted in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons. I also had never heard of Biafra until reading this essay. A shame..
posted by UhOhChongo! at 5:59 PM on November 1, 2012

Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons! That's where I had read it before. Odd collection that. I love the man's writing, but there were times reading that I started to hate him for hating himself.

And then I realised how alien his experiences were in the '60s and '70s.
Worth a read, though.
posted by Mezentian at 6:07 PM on November 1, 2012

What did Jello say?

The name Jello Biafra was chosen for the contrast of a nation starving to death while another ate food of no nutritious value whatsoever.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:13 PM on November 1, 2012 [20 favorites]

This is completely bizarre. I read this essay in the bathtub two hours ago and it just appeared on Metafilter.

In any case, it's a beautiful essay, and it captures what was so wonderful about Kurt Vonnegut and why so many of us miss him.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:23 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love the man's writing, but there were times reading that I started to hate him for hating himself,

I'll respectfully disagree. Vonnegut didn't hate himself, he hated the capacity for weakness that every human has, including himself.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:46 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

At the beginning of the essay, Vonnegut writes this:

It had few friends in this world, and among its active enemies were Russia and Great Britain. Its enemies were pleased to call it a "tribe."

Some tribe.

Now, later on, when mentioning the author Chinua Achebe, he mentions this:

"What are you writing now?" said Miriam.

"Writing?" he said. It was obvious that he wasn't writing anything, that he was simply waiting for the end. "A dirge in Ibo," he said. Ibo was his native tongue.

Aha! Here is the one and only point in his essay at which Vonnegut mentions "Ibo". Well, Ibo (now spelled Igbo) was in fact the "tribe" that was trying to secede from Nigeria, and that secession attempt was what the Nigeria-Biafra war was all about.

Now, while I think that Vonnegut's disgust with Russia and Great Britain was certainly not misplaced, it was not at all inaccurate to identify the secessionists as a "tribe". The Igbo was and is what is commonly referred to as a "tribe". A distinct ethnic/linguistic group. In this case, one who wanted their own country. They wanted their autonomy, and they wanted a nation where their overwhelmingly Christian religious beliefs would not be persecuted, and they wanted the oil reserves that lay beneath their territory and just off their coastline.

Just for the record, there were, of course, other (much smaller) ethnic groups within what would have been Biafra, but eastern Nigeria is overwhelmingly Igbo, and Biafra would have been, for all intents and purposes, an Igbo nation. Achebe's "dirge in Ibo" acknowledges that the war and the genocide were, essentially, against the Ibo (Igbo) people.

The Wiki page for Igbo people is a good resource for learning more. It contains this interesting little side bit, which I hadn't known before:

In their brief struggle for self-determination, the people of Biafra earned the respect of figures such as Jean Paul Sartre and John Lennon, who returned his British honor, MBE, partly in protest against British collusion in the Nigeria-Biafra war.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:00 PM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Flapjax at midnite, my take is that he was arguing against the pejorative "tribe" tends to imply, especially when dealing with African ethnic groups. "Tribe" doesn't conjure up images of London trained economists. The rest of your point is well taken, though.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:05 PM on November 1, 2012

Tribe has a connotations of a savagery, of a group not ordered by civilizations. The same way that it'd be kind of fucked-up to call say, Italians, a tribe and nobody ever would.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:39 PM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

"If we go forward, we die," he said. "If we go backward, we die. So we go forward."
I suspect Ujukwu would have appreciated Beckett.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:04 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I first learned about Biafra in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun - highly recommended.
posted by milkweed at 8:18 PM on November 1, 2012

If Biafra never existed it would have been necessary for Vonnegut to invent it just so he could write this piece.

If you don't understand what I just wrote you haven't read enough Vonnegut.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:28 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

How did Vonnegut live so long with such a broken heart? How does anyone?

So it goes.
posted by Catblack at 8:55 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

How did Vonnegut live so long with such a broken heart?

If heartaches were commercials, we'd all be on TV.

-John Prine
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:03 PM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

posted by flippant at 2:08 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by lungtaworld at 5:10 AM on November 2, 2012

I miss Kurt Vonnegut a LOT.

My recently-ex partner of 4 years knew him. She grew up in Northampton, MA and her childhood friend was his...niece? Granddaughter? One of those, anyway. She remember going over to her house, and occasionally he would be there. Not too interesting of an anecdote, but I'm sure at some point he patted her head or shook her hand or gave her a hug. So I'm one degree removed from hugging the man himself.

George Hrab in the Geologic podcast talks about how in high school, the drama department decided it wanted to do a production of Cat's Cradle. They had a cool idea for it, basically every actor would be swapping the parts around from scene to scene. So at some point the teacher thinks they better ask for the rights before performing it, and a letter is sent. Kurt wrote back, by hand, and said something to the effect of, "That sounds like a splendid idea. I cannot legally give you permission to do so. However, know that I have never once sued anyone, and hope I never will. Have fun." and drew his iconic lil face thingy.

I wish I could have known him.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read this essay when the book it was published in came out. I knew almost nothing about Biafra, and I went to the library to learn more about it after reading this. I remember reading an interview of him in which he said he was working on a novel that was to be about Biafra. It never materialized. I think the next novel that came out after that was his last, Timequake. I really would have liked to have read Vonnegut's novel about Biafra...
posted by Eekacat at 8:26 AM on November 2, 2012

[sfx under: multi-engine propeller aircraft engine moan]

H: Ciao baby, this is Major Hit in the cockpit of the Enola MacLuan, flagship of the 7th Airborne Peace Corp and Lending Library. We're now over the center of rebel resistance in Northern Nigeria London Moscow Washington ???? and preparing to drop literature. . . .

P: Do the bomb bay door thing.

B: Bomb bay doors swinging and open baby. Groovy and out.

P: Bombardier, it's your karma.

H: We're almost ready to drop it. . . . I can see the entire rebel force running out of their huts, looking up at the sky. . . .

B: Target ready. Books away!

H: There they go, the literature is in a tight pattern. The rebels are beginning to scatter . . . but it's too late. . . .

[sfx: explosions]

H: On target!

H: God this is an awesome moment! The last stronghold of unhip resistance -- outta sight! Under eight million hardbound copies of the Naked Lunch Cat's Cradle Things Fall Apart ????.

H: It's all over! We're coming home!
posted by Herodios at 8:51 AM on November 2, 2012

British and Russian forces were involved in the occupation of Iran in World War I. Forty percent of the Iranian population may have died as a result of famine caused by the occupation by British, Russian, and Ottoman forces in World War I.
posted by millardsarpy at 2:19 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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