Last month Larry Berube (Morocco 1977–79) published with Peace Corps Writers his memoir Nuns, Nam & Henna: A Memoir in Poetry and Prose. The poems and prose are recollections from his boyhood experiences at St. Peter’s Orphanage in Manchester, New Hampshire, from the age six to twelve; his time as a young soldier in the U.S. Army with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam; and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco where he worked in small villages of the Middle Atlas Mountain region of Morocco on various water projects.
We talked to Larry recently about his life and his new book.
Larry, you were a PCV from ’77 to ’79. Where were you and what was your job?
I was in Beni Mellal, Morocco, which was a provincial capital. But my work took me to small villages in the Middle Atlas mountain region. My job was leading a local government surveying team, which mostly involved doing elevation work on various water projects.
Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
I joined the Peace Corps in an indirect way. I was between jobs and had read a job wanted ad in my local newspaper, which advertised for a land surveying job. I went to the motel where they were conducting interviews and it was the Peace Corps calling. It was not what I had expected, but since I was there, I filled out an application and was pleasantly surprised to be accepted.
You were also in Vietnam before you were a PCV. Were you drafted or enlisted?
I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1965 three months after I graduated from high school. It seemed many of my friends and acquaintances who had a good job, a nice girl, and a car joined the National Guard. I had none of those, so I joined the regular army. I can’t claim that I joined out of patriotism and I wasn’t overly sensitive. But at the swearing-in ceremony when I pledged allegiance to the flag, a warm feeling crept into my chest, and I remember thinking — where did that come from?
The most dramatic part of your life was your childhood. I know that this is the opening of your book. Briefly, what was your childhood like?
I think back on my childhood in the orphanage, and I know I was somewhat deprived. Especially, when it came to getting hugs and receiving personal encouragement. I do not fault the nuns for that because there were many kids there, and they probably felt they needed to be even-handed. At the time, I wasn’t aware of being needful or in want.
I was in St. Peter’s Orphanage from the ages 6 to 12, so I knew there was life outside that place, and I was happy getting out. I distinctly remember that I just wanted to be like other kids on the outside, which did not serve me well because in a matter of a few months, I lost my French speaking capacity. I never got it back. Too bad. Being a fluent French speaker would have been useful in Vietnam, and of course, Morocco — both countries whose second language was French. When I had to relearn French at a Peace Corps staging in Morocco, it did not return. I had to start from scratch and subsequently spoke broken French for 2 years as a P.C. Volunteer.
You also have a degree in Architecture. When did you get that? After Vietnam?
I have an Associate Degree in Architecture that I obtained right after my service in the army. I had never given college a thought because of the expense, but it was made affordable by using the G.I. Bill.
Let’s talk about your book. Did you start then when you went back to college? Were you taking writing classes?
I went back to college in my mid-fifties just for the heck of it. I wasn’t interested in a new job, but wanted to do something at night besides just watching TV. Rivier College in my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire seemed like a good fit because they gave me credit for the courses I took at Wentworth Institute 30 years before, and they had a good reputation. At first, I thought I was going into the history program because I liked history. But they gave me an introductory writing course to start. And because I got compliments from my professor, I changed my direction. Rivier at the time had many interesting writing courses. For example; Detective Writing, Screenwriting, and my favorite, Personal Non-Fiction. I took those courses and more and found myself needing one more writing class to graduate and get my Bachelors Degree. They only had a writing class in poetry available, and I thought poetry — give me a break. But as it turned out, I thrived in that class. Between the poetry and personal non-fiction class, I realized I had plenty of material from my lifetime experiences, which up until then I had pretty much kept to myself.
I didn’t set out to write a book. I pretty much just wrote one poem at a time. But as I began to accumulate poems, I thought of putting them together in a chapbook form.
The writing classes helped you with the book?
Yes, very much. And the grammar corrections from the professors was also helpful because at the time my basic grammar was pretty bad.
How would you classify it? A memoir, poetry or prose poems?
At first, I thought of my collection of writing as a chapbook, which is a short collection of poems. But because these poems are autobiographical, I began to think of them as a possible memoir. After adding a prolog and epilog it seemed to fit. Hence, my subtitle, A Memoir in Poetry and Prose.
Why did you come to Peace Corps Writers to have your book published?
I read an article which was partly about Florida’s Hidden Coast where I was living close-by last year. It was about an RPCV and author by the name of David Mather. He talked about some of the trials in self-publishing and being an author of two books. That was the first place I heard of the Peace Corps Writers Imprint. I kept the article and when it was time for me to get my book in order, I contacted Marian Haley Beil at Peace Corps Writers, and she was very helpful.
Have you read many books by RPCVs?
I’m now reading Souvenirs de Nancy by Nancy Coutu (and completed by her mom, Connie Coutu). Nancy Coutu is a Peace Corps martyr who was murdered while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar in 1996. She was from Hudson, New Hampshire which is adjacent to my hometown.
Larry, thanks for your time. Good luck with the book and thank you for publishing it with Peace Corps Writers.
Well, thank you. Especially I thank Marian Beil for all her hard work and help on getting my book into print.