Talking with Martin Ganzglass (Somalia)
Martin Ganzglass answers questions from Peace Corps Worldwide about The Price of Freedom — the 6th and closing novel of his Revolutionary War series that will make you want to read all six!
Where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps? Tell us about where you lived and worked.
I was a PCV in Somalia from 1966 to 1968. I lived in Mogadishu with my wife, who was also a Volunteer, in a small apartment in a two-story building above a Pakistani owned grocery shop. The street below teemed with Somalis going to the numerous markets in our neighborhood. Behind us, was Hamaar Weyn, the old area of the city where women wore burkas, goldsmiths sold intricately fashioned jewelry by weight, and weavers sat in pit looms and made Benaadir cloth. The mosque immediately behind our building lacked a live Muezzin to call people to prayer, but the stumpy minaret had an excellent loudspeaker that was turned on full blast at the appropriate times.
What was your Peace Corps project assignment? What kind of work did you do?
I went into Peace Corps as a lawyer and ended up as legal advisor to the Somali
National Police Force. I taught courses to police officers in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, drafted relevant legislation and advised the police commander and senior officers on legal matters. The commander and another high-ranking officer became life-long friends and our friendship deepened when, in the 1990s, they came to the United States with their families as refugees. I also wrote a casebook on the Somali Penal Code which was recently reissued by the United Nations. I believe it is currently in use in Somalia.
What is your educational background? Did your college education help you as a PCV?
I went to the City College of New York, graduating in 1961 with a B.A. in political science. I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964 with an LL.B.
My college education enhanced my ability to think critically. My legal training helped me to function as a lawyer for the Somali National Police Force.
What have you done since the Peace Corps?
After returning to the United States, I entered practice with private law firms, primarily representing labor unions, but also representing the Somali Embassy, Somali Airlines and the Ministry of Mineral and Water Resources in negotiations with oil companies for exploration rights.
In 1979, together with another Somali RPCV, we formed the Somali Refugee Relief Committee and raised money for medicine and supplies for Somali victims of the drought and famine. We were able to persuade a local TV personality to visit Somalia and she produced a documentary called “The Silent Tragedy,” publicizing the impact of the drought and famine on Somalis. During the 1980s, I returned several times to Somalia to participate in negotiations on behalf of the Ministry of Mineral and Water Resources with various oil companies.
After the overthrow of the Somali dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, I was asked by the State Department to evaluate the status of the Somali National Police Force and the judiciary. I returned to Somalia in 1993 as advisor to U.S. Ambassador Robert Gosende and Admiral Jonathan Howe, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Somalia. This was during Operation Restore Hope, an armed humanitarian intervention initiated by President Bush in December 1992 and carried out by President Clinton. Its mission was to end the blockade by warlords and militias of the delivery of food and medicine to innocent Somalis. I submitted my recommendations and the report was ignored as had been the reports of two previous teams of experts who had been sent for the same purpose, and made the same recommendations.
Over the past several years, I have submitted written Expert Testimony, in civil cases brought in the United States against General Mohamed Ali Samanter, former Somali Vice President and Minister of Defense, and Colonel Yusuf Ali Abdi (“Tukeh”), on behalf of Somali victims alleging torture, arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial killing. Both cases resulted in monetary judgments against the defendants.
What are you doing now?
I retired from practicing law in 2010 and began writing fiction. My first novel, The Orange Tree, is about the friendship that develops between a young Somali employee at a nursing home and an elderly Jewish resident with dementia. It explores what it means to be a Moslem in post 9/11 America as well as the
themes of alienation and loneliness. I then wrote Somalia: Short Fiction, a series of stories, loosely based on my Peace
Cannons for the Cause, the first novel in my American Revolutionary War series was published in 2014. Tories and Patriots, was published in 2015, Blood Upon the Snow, in 2016, Spies and Deserters, in 2017, “Treason and Triumph, in 2018, and The Price of Freedom, the last in the series, was published in July 2019.
All of these books have been published by Peace Corps Writers.
How would you describe your newest book in one sentence?
The Price of Freedom, is the sixth and final book in a series of thoroughly researched novels about the American Revolution focusing on the roles of ordinary people including free African American soldiers, women and Native Americans, in our War for Independence.
What prompted you to write the book?
I have always been interested in American history. I firmly believe thoroughly researched historical novels are better vehicles for teaching our nation’s history than traditional dry accounts of events. I wanted to tell the accurate stories of ordinary people including the “invisible minorities” — free African Americans serving in the Continental Army, women and Native Americans — who all too frequently are left out of the history of our Revolution. The series also has tales of growing up in a time of turmoil, of falling in love, and enduring friendships. One unique feature of my six novels is the inclusion of extensive End Notes, providing additional detail, quotes and references to original sources, as well as explaining the context of the events being described.
I was prompted to begin writing my novels after reading two books. The first was Washington’s Crossing, by the noted historian David Hackett-Fischer. He describes an event involving a regiment, the Marblehead Mariners, who were General Washington’s headquarters troops at Cambridge in 1776. The Mariners were a racially integrated unit consisting of white and free African American fisherman from Marblehead, Massachusetts. A race riot broke out at Washington’s headquarters when a group of backwoods riflemen, probably from Virginia, confronted the integrated regiment. I thought this true historical event had the makings of a great story. When I learned that the African American portrayed in Emmanuel Leutze’s famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, was a Marblehead Mariner, I wanted to write a novel in which the Mariners played a major role.
The second book I read was a biography of General Henry Knox. The bibliography cited The Sexagenary: Reminisces of the American Revolution, a memoir by John Becker. In 1775 when Becker was twelve years old, he and his teamster father took part in Colonel Henry Knox’s “Noble Train of Artillery,” hauling heavy cannons from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake George across the frozen Hudson River and over the snow covered mountains of the Berkshires to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, no modern reader would believe a twelve- year old boy could manage a team of horses pulling a one-ton cannon. So I made him fifteen and my lead character, Willem Stoner was born.
Tell about your writing process? How long did it take you to write your book?
I did extensive research on the events described in each novel in the series. I read books by historians, compilations of original writings such as In the Words of Women – The Revolutionary War and the Birth of the Nation- 1765-1799, and original sources such as Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual, and Social Dances From The American Revolution (Music and Instructions for Country Dances from the Personal Notebooks of an Officer in George Washington’s Army). I also read memoirs such as Private Yankee Doodle, by Private Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut soldier in the Continental Army who enlisted and served “for the duration,” and transcripts of original documents such as The Black Loyalist Directory – “African Americans in Exile After the American Revolution, taken from the inspection rolls of Negroes,” compiled by the British and Americans when the British evacuated 3,000 freed African Americans from New York City in November 1783.
In addition, I used the web, frequently accessing the sites of the digitalized papers of the Founding Fathers, and visiting two excellent blogs – “Boston 1775” and “All Things Liberty,” sponsored by the Journal of the American Revolution, (JAR.) To understand the terrain, I took road trips to some of the places described in the novels.
If you include research as well as actual writing, I “wrote” almost every day, generally three to four hours, sometimes more, rarely less, using my reliable Apple computer, often in the morning or afternoon, but rarely at night. Each of the novels took about ten to twelve months to write, edit and publish.
The easiest and most difficult part of the writing was finding the accurate “voice” for my characters. Where I had original sources, such as letters, diaries and memoirs, my fictional characters use the style and sentence structure of people at the time of the Revolution. For example, much of the way regular soldiers talked comes from Private Joseph Plumb Martin’s account of his years as a soldier in the Continental Army. The cadence of speech and some of the phrases of General Henry Knox, when inspiring his officers and men or writing to his wife Lucy are from his original correspondence.
Americans at the time, as they do today, spoke in different accents. The sources I read indicated those from Massachusetts spoke with what we might today call a Boston accent. Since my African-American Marblehead Mariners were literate and from Massachusetts, I wrote their voice the same as for white soldiers from Massachusetts. With respect to soldiers from the south, I merely indicated their words were prolonged and their accents softer and left it at that, without, for example, writing “suh” each time instead of “sir.”
The problem arose in accurately capturing the voice of slaves who were illiterate. I found no written accounts of how slaves spoke so I had them speak in grammatical English without obvious mispronunciations, and used more descriptions than dialogue in those scenes. This may not be historically accurate, but in the absence of any reliable sources, I did not want to perpetuate racial stereotypes.
For the past five years, I have assiduously avoided reading any historical fiction or watching any fictional TV stories or movies about the Revolution. I did this to prevent myself from subconsciously incorporating the ideas or dialogue from other fictional sources. Now that the series is complete, I am looking forward to viewing the first season of “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” on Netflix.
During the process did you belong to a writers group and share reading and critiquing, or have any other way of bouncing off your writing and thinking?
I did not belong to any writers group.
Several friends helped on subjects unfamiliar to me, such as how to hunt and field-dress a deer, the behavior of horses and the symptoms and outward signs of various diseases such as typhus, smallpox, and diphtheria.
Others were my sounding boards on plot and character development, particularly with respect to the conflict between my lead character, Will Stoner, and his greedy and immoral Loyalist brother, John. There were times I thought I had made John too evil, but every novel needs a memorable villain and John Stoner filled that role.
I also paid for the services of an editor for some of the novels. Another friend with an incredible memory caught many an error and inconsistency that slipped by both the editor and myself. Finally, although this may run counter to the advice of professionals, my wife, who has spent a life timewriting position papers and has a keen eye for eliminating momentum stopping sentences full of details which I was loath to delete, served as my final editor.
What are you doing to promote your book?
I advertise in the electronic version of the Journal of the American Revolution. JAR subscribers are historians and teachers, and presumably mostly readers of non-fiction; but I hope they will recommend my novels as supplementary reading.
I write entries for the print or electronic versions of the alumni magazines of my high school, college and law school and send out notices to a fairly extensive email list of friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances. I host a book party shortly after publication. I participate in local book fairs and seek out invitations to local book clubs.
Admittedly, I have not done enough to promote my novels. I was too busy writing and did not want to be diverted from what I most enjoyed. However, now that the series is complete, I plan to actively search for an agent, advertise in other historical journals, contact teachers’ associations to suggest my novels as supplementary reading for American History courses, and perhaps even start a website.
Why the title “The Price of Freedom?”
I definitely want readers to realize the immense sacrifices made by ordinary people in the struggle for our independence. Therefore, I focused on the past. If I were looking forward, I would have entitled the book, “The Promise of Freedom.”
The six novels bring to light the suffering of regular soldiers, who were ill-clothed, diseased, underfed and unpaid, many for the duration of the war. The horrific conditions of Americans held as prisoners of war resulted in more than 11,000 deaths on British prison ships in New York harbor, more than all the American battle field casualties of the entire war. Free African American soldiers, despite fighting for the cause, which obviously did not include freeing the slaves, suffered disrespect and indignities throughout the war. There was the tremendous upheaval and movement of slaves fleeing their masters to the British lines and their fear of being returned when the war was over. The war for independence was in actuality a civil war, with brutal and vicious raids and atrocities on both sides. It divided families and neighbors and made it impossible for those on the losing side from ever returning to their farms and towns. Peaceful Quakers, who sided with neither the British nor the Americans, suffered continuously when they were under the rule of either. Women endured a high incidence of infant mortality and death in childbirth while their husbands were away at war. They were in constant fear of rape by Hessian and British soldiers. Ordinary soldiers, when the army was disbanded, returned home almost penniless, literally abandoned by Congress and dependent on the generosity of their home states.
These substantial sacrifices by ordinary people were what made victory possible. The revolution was not won, as we are led to believe, by bewigged political philosophers who were members of the First Continental Congress, nor by wealthy merchants and plantation owners who helped to finance the Revolution, nor even the Generals and Officers who led the troops. If the spirit and endurance of regular soldiers and ordinary people on the home front had flagged and had enough of them said the struggle was not worth the sacrifice, the army would have disintegrated and the men would have gone home to their wives and families and resumed their ordinary lives under British rule.
The last novel is entitled The Price of Freedom to recognize the spirit of such people and move the needle of our historic compass away from politicians and men on white horses toward the true north of the sacrifice and commitment of everyday citizens.
Why write historical fiction at all?
The English actor, comedian and writer, Stephen Fry had it right when several years ago he wrote in The Guardian:
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even — if we dare, and we should dare — a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.
So historical fiction lets the reader become intimately involved in the story and imagine himself or herself as a character in the novel. It forces the reader to question how would he or she have acted.
During the American Revolution, would I have sided with the Loyalists or Patriots, or would I have just tried to continue with my life, protect my family and a plague on both their houses; would I have taken up arms or deserted from a battlefield; would I, in the heat of the moment have committed an atrocity or would I have maintained my humanity. Would I, as the wife of a soldier, have been strong and held my home, farm or business together while my husband was away at war; would I have endured and been brave during our separation or would I have been consumed by fear of dying in childbirth, alone and unsuccored or lived in constant fear of being raped by Hessians and British soldiers. In other words, how do all the emotions I have and the morality I am imbued with effect the way I would have behaved in the historical setting I am reading about.
The courageous, ordinary people who populate my novels illustrate the heights to which human beings can soar. This is why I write historical fiction. It is inspiring and illuminates the human spirit. Generations of readers are compelled to ask, “could I have done that?” Readers are induced to recognize their own humanity in the players on the historical stage and by doing so, gain a better understanding of the events that make up our country’s history.
4 CommentsLeave a comment
Kudos Martin. I did not know that you had become an historian. Have not read your works, but congratulate you on focusing on the under represented in the revolution. Not an easy task.
I hope that both you and your wife are weathering conditions safely. By
Thanks Pete. We are hunkering down, self isolating and social distancing. We find that our PC skills, planning, conserving, innovating and making do, are coming in handy. We have two newspapers delivered to the door every day so no worries about running out of toilet paper, as if that should be people’s major concern.
Hello Mr. Ganzglass, I was actually looking for Marc (I’m nearly positive you know who I’m talking about) and bumped into you during my search. I wish I had found out sooner that you researched and wrote about African American soldiers in the American Revolution. I worked on a documentary in 2019/2020 about those valiant soldiers, “Black Patriots–Heroes of the American Revolution.” It would have been great to speak with you!
I’m from Somalia and my name is Elisabetta Rush.
In Somalia they are still using the Penal code that you wrote during Siyad Barre regime.
Since you are very famous in the Somalia juridical system, I would like to have the honor to meet you since I’m in Washington DC before my departure to Mogadishu.
By the way I’m attending Law school at Somali National University and one of most important subject is “The Penal code of Somali Democratic Republic”.
Here is my contact information: