The Passing of Brent Ashabranner (Nigeria)

Photo by Paul Conklin

Photo by Paul Conklin

Brent Ashabranner (1921 -2016) was Deputy Director of the Peace Corps between 1967 and 1969. Following service in World War II, graduate school and a brief period of teaching, Brent spent thirty years working overseas, including starting the first Peace Corps program in Nigeria and becoming director of Peace Corps programs in India. Prior to his retirement in 1985, Brent worked for ten years with the Ford Foundation in the Philippines and Indonesia. It was in retirement that he wrote more than 30 books on cross-cultural topics for junior readers, books that resulted in more than 40 awards.

The following is from Peace Corps OnLine, a website produced by Hugh Pickens (Peru 1970-73)

Brent Remembers:
I have never had any doubt that the books I read as a boy influenced the direction of my life, including my life as a writer. I grew up in a small Oklahoma town, but I was fascinated by books about foreign countries. I devoured Kipling and practically memorized the French Foreign Legion novels of P. C. Wren. When I first tried my hand at writing at the age of eleven, the setting was Africa. Under the spell of a book called Bomba the Jungle Boy, I decided to write Barbara the Jungle Girl. That was not very original, I admit, but it was a start. In any case, by page three I discovered how little I knew about Africa or girls and gave up the effort. In high school, I won fourth prize in a Scholastic Magazine short story writing contest, and I never stopped writing after that. World War II got me out of Oklahoma and into the Navy for three years, but after the war I returned to finish my education at Oklahoma State university. I taught English there for several years and published many stories about the American West. It seemed that I was settling in for a career of teaching and writing in my native state. Then out of the blue, I had a chance to go to Africa to work in the U. S. foreign assistance program. All of my boyhood reading came flooding back. With my wife’s enthusiastic agreement, we packed our bags, convinced our two young daughters that they were in for a big adventure and headed overseas. We never got back to Oklahoma except for an occasional visit. Two years in Ethiopia were followed by two in Libya. Then I joined the Peace Corps staff, started the Peace Corps program in Nigeria, and was director of the Peace Corps in India. After the Peace Corps, I worked for the Ford Foundation in the Philippines and Indonesia. But no matter where I was or what I was doing, I found time to write. The things I felt I was learning about understanding other cultures and about people of different cultures understanding each other seemed worth sharing with young readers. While overseas I wrote or co-authored a book of Ethiopian folktales, a novel about Americans working in Nigeria, and other books. Since returning to the United States to live, I have devoted most of my time to writing. A number of my books deal with complex social issues, for example. the plight of migrant farmworkers and the efforts of immigrants to find their place in America. I believe that such subjects can be made interesting to young readers because they are about real people coping with real and serious problems. My wife Martha and I now live in Williamsburg, Virginia. This quiet cradle of American democracy is a wonderfully rich place for me to write about my country, which is exactly what I want to do now. I believe that my years overseas have made me a better observer of my own country. A delightful bonus is that my family is part of my life as a writer. Martha is my best critic and helps with research. Our daughter Jennifer, a talented photographer, has taken the photographs for seven of my books. Our daughter Melissa, a newspaper editor and writer, has collaborated with me on two books. I have lived long enough and seen enough of the world to know what a fortunate man I am.

The New African Americans. Linnet, 1999

The Lion’s Whiskers and Other Ethiopian Tales. (with Russell Davis). Originally published as The Lion’s Whiskers: Tales of high Africa. Little 1959. Revised edition, Linnet, 1996.

Dark Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in America. Dodd, 1985, Reissued by Linnet, 1993.

The Choctaw Code (with Russell Davis). McGraw, 1961. Reissued by Linnet, 1994. A novel about an Indian’s honor and courage, set in the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, in the 1890’s.

Their Names to Live: What the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Means to America. Twenty-First Century Books/Millbrook, 1998.

To Seek a Better World: The Haitian Minority in America. Cobblehill, 1997.

A Strange and Distant Shore: Indians of the Great Plains in Exile. Cobblehill, 1996.

Our Beckoning Borders: Illegal Immigration to America. Cobblehill, 1993.

Still a Nation of Immigrants. Cobblehill, 1993.

Complete biographical information on Brent Ashabranner can be found in Something About the Author: Author Biography Series, Volume 14; Contemporary Authors, New Revised Series, Volume 27, and the CD-ROM Junior DISCovering Authors (JrDA).

3 Comments

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  • I believe it was Brent that interviewed me in 1968 at the Peace Corps on Connecticut Ave. Though I was to be staff in Colombia, he wanted to know what my wife and I would bring back when our tour ended. He expected us to share our experiences as staff and as a Volunteer. Always remember who you are he would challenge us! Thanks Brent, I have not stopped!
    Bob

  • My husband Ron Gillespie was in India Vll West Beng his group were quite close to Brent, who had recently arrived as Directer. India being huge as a PCV I never met a PC/Directer, I was a thousand miles from Delhi. I did meet Brent afterwards, in a PC training program where I met Ron. who was very enamored with Brent.
    While a PCV in India, Brent was recalled to WDC to become Deputy Directer of PC. Subsequently in the 80s Ron became Africa Directer of US Feed Grains Council for Africa, with head office in Lagos, Nigeria, it is here we became really aware of Brent. He had been USAID administrator. Shriver was impressed and asked him to become the first PC/Nigeria Country Directer. We met many who knew him, who spoke so highly of him…..deep into the Bush, his name was known.

  • In the infancy days of my import business from the Philippines I chanced to meet Brent in an antique shop
    and we became aligned in our interest in crafts and different India experiences, where I had been a volunteer,
    but never met Brent. Following his transfer to Jakarta, during my travels designing products in Indonesia
    I so enjoyed conversation and a meal in his home. His interest and sharp eye for the arts was always encouraging
    and warmly recalled over years of my collecting.

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