|This version of the July issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers. It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on these pages. (When printed from an Apple computer using Netscape, this issue was 20 pages long.)
PeaceCorpsWriters.org July 2000
Our Writing Awards
EVERY YEAR SINCE 1990, RPCV Writers & Readers and now PeaceCorpsWriters.org have been giving awards for the best books written by RPCVs that were published during the previous year. The awards include: the Paul Cowan Nonfiction Award, named in honor of journalist Paul Cowan (Ecuador 196667), the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, named in honor of novelist Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173), and the Peace Corps Writers Poetry Award. We usually have a Peace Corps Experience Award for an outstanding one-page essay, but unfortunately this year there was no winner.
Winner Nonfiction Award is Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin by Susana Herrera (Cameroon 1992-94).
In a review in the November, 1999 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org, Paula Hirschoff called Mango Elephants, Herrera’s first book, “a spiritual journey from self doubt, fear and anger to acceptance and forgiveness.”
Writing in Amazon.com, another reader says, “After reading the book I went to northern Cameroon in March 2000 on a humanitarian mission with the Air Force. It was just coincidence that I went to the same general area as the book. Reading this book gave me a greater understanding of the people and culture. Everything in the book rang true, the poverty, the close families, the emphasis on class, the small town doctors, and the basic generosity of the people. Her honest narrative and personal approach to her subject is unmatched. I felt her friendship and frustration. Her friends became my friends and it left me wishing for an undate on how they are today. This is a book about two years of a person’s life. Cameroon and the Peace Corps are just the framework. Her writing was so vivid I now would read anything by her no matter what the subject.”
The fiction award goes to Saviors by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 197678).
Jane Smiley, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle, says of the novel, “Saviors does beautifully exactly what a novel is best equipped to do, which is to show something large and true with tools that are detailed and specific. Eggers is a first novelist of rare taste and intelligence as well as rare experience.”
The poetry award goes to Philip Dacey (Nigeria 196466) for his collection The Deathbed Playboy. Dacey’s five previous books of poetry include The Boy Under the Bed, and The Man With Red Suspenders. He co-edited Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms. The latest of his many chapbooks is What’s Empty Weights the Most: 24 Sonnets.
Widely published in periodicals and anthologies, Dacey teaches at the Minnesota State University in Marshall. His awards include two NEA fellowships, two Pushcart Prizes, Bush and Loft-McKnight fellowships, and a Fulbright Lectureship in Yugoslavia, as well as prizes from Poetry Northwest, Yankee, Prairie Schooner, Flyway, and The Nebraska Review.
Our congratulations to these fine writers.
And The Winner Is . . .
“Without going home and looking it up in my copy of The Zinzin Road,” Ken Otteson (Liberia 1972-73) emailed, “it sure seems like your ‘quote’ in the last issue came from that novel written by Fletcher Knebel. By the time I was in Liberia in the early ’70s, the book was banned, but that didn’t stop copies from circulating from one PCV to another.”
You got it right, Ken. And you were first to e-mail me. Meredith Dalebout (Niger 198385) came in a close second. Thank you both for responding.
For those who don’t know, The Zinzin Road was set in Liberia and based on journalist Fletcher Knebel’s experience as a Peace Corps evaluator in the early 1960s. There are some RPCVs who think that this is the best “Peace Corps novel.”
Okay, let’s make it a little tougher.
Who wrote this paragraph from a Peace Corps book?
They took us in the Land Rover, Mike and me, with Kim Buck driving. We had planned to leave that morning, as it was a good four hours’ drive, although it was only about sixty miles from Mbeya. But it had taken us the whole morning just to buy our supplies tins of paraffin oil, as there was no electricity, they had said, packets of tinned meat and vegetables and fruit and bread, as they weren’t exactly sure what the food situation would be like down there, things for the house like chairs and paint and brushes and nails, a hammer, ropes, string, soap, a basin, a bucket all things I would never have thought to buy but that Mike said were necessary. And then trying to fit it all into the Land Rover, with Kim Buck muttering we were going to be late as hell, giving orders which neither of us could understand, to place this inside the door here, no, not there, and that underneath this and this on top of that . . .
In the July issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org
A Writer Writes
One pleasure of receiving email is that from time to time I’m sent a wonderful piece of writing. This month it comes from Turkey. Ginger Taylor Saçlioglu was an English teacher at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara from 196870. Today she lives with her husband and cat in Istanbul where she works as a free lance translator and English teacher. Ginger is one of those RPCVs who never came home. She is also a writer who remembers. Read “For Love of Ankara” in our column, A Writer Writes.
This month we have a letter from Ethiopia by Kathleen M. Moore Ethiopia (196567) well, it’s not actually a letter. For those of us who should have written home but didn’t, Kathleen explains why we didn’t.
Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 198587) recently sent us a piece from his soon-to-be-published collection of travel essays, In The Mountains Of Heaven: Unlikely Journeys On Six Continents. We are pleased to publish anything by Tidwell, especially a travel essay.
A Little Peace Corps History
In each issue, we attempt to pull back from time bits and pieces of our collective past. This month, we quote from an editorial in the Times Herald of Norristown, PA. published on February 15, 1962. The Peace Corps was a year old, and Sargent Shriver had just advised Congress of plans for 10,000 Volunteers serving overseas or in training by the end of August, 1963. He supported a Peace Corps request for a budget increase for the agency from the $30 million for 1962 to nearly $64 million for fiscal 1963.
It was at that same time that President Alberto Lieras Comargo of Colombia said: “The Peace Corps is the finest way in which the United States could prove to the humble people of this and other lands that the primary purpose of this international program is to build a better life in all of the free world’s villages and neighborhoods.”|
The Times Herald, however, would have something else to say about the Peace Corps. You can read their editorial in this issue and more by going to the Current Issue.
P.S. And many, many thanks to all of you who have contributed to our own Roundtable of support for this site.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers July 2000
The Great Blue Heron
Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 196264)
Creative Publishing International, $16.95
Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War.
by William H. Armstrong (PC staff/Ethiopia 196668, PC Dir./Swaziland 196871)
Kent State University Press, $18.00.
Festival of Conception
by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 197880)
Southern Trails, $15.00
529 Brussels Street
San Francisco, California 94134
Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon
by Mark W. DeLancey (Nigeria 196264) with Mark Dike DeLancey.
Scarecrow Press, $75.00
Cases in Macro Social Work Practice
edited by David P. Fauri (Nigeria 64-66) Stephen P. Wernet, F. Ellen Netting.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, $35.00
Horning In: The Grown-up's Guide to Making Music for Fun
by Jerry Germer (Somalia 196466) with Lucie Germer,
Marlborough, N.H.: Frost Hill Press, $10.95
by Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 196871)
Cooper Square Pub., $29.95
In the City of the Disappeared
By Tom Hazuka (Chile 197880)
Bridge Works Publishing, $22.95
The Hausa Language: An Encyclopedic Reference Grammar,
by Paul Newman (Nigeria 196163)
New Haven: Yale University Press, $80.00
The Immaculate Invasion
by Bob Shacochis (St. Vincent 197576)
The Book of Phoebe
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
An Authors Guild Backinprint.com Edition, $14.95 *
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski (Borneo 196971)
Sid Harta Publishing, $13.00
Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting with Society
Gail Straub (Cote d'Ivoire 197273)
Charles E Tuttle Co, $16.95
The Basics of Bioethics
Robert M. Veatch (Nigeria 196264)
Prentice Hall, $21.00
Cross Cultural Perspectives in Medical Ethics
edited by Robert M. Veatch (Nigeria 196264)
Jones and Bartlett, $37.50
by Paul Violi (Nigeria 1966)
Coffee House Press, $14.95
Intercultural Services: Worldwide Buyer's Guide & Sourcebook
by Gary M. Wederspahn
(Staff: Ecuador 196870 APCD, Puerto Rico/Ecuador, 197073, training director; Guatemala 197376, Deputy Dir, Dir; Costa Rica 197778 Dir.)
Gulf Publishing Co., $37.95
By Jeff Westbrook (Peru 1973-74)
Electron Press, $4.00
The Quotable Executive
by John Woods (Ethiopia 196568)
McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, $14.95
Literary Type July 2000
EGO, a new magazine, is seralizing the novel Catch a Fallen Star by Larry Grobel (Ghana 196871). The first issue of EGO, which came out in May, also has three other pieces by Grobel: an interview with Joyce Carol Oates on Marilyn Monroe; a chapter from his book, Talking with Michener, and a profile on ESPN Sports host Roy Firestone. (To subscribe to EGO, call 1.888.221.8986.)
Grobel’s book The Hustons also was just reissued in May by Cooper Square Press. The revised edition has a new chapter detailing what has happened with the family since Huston’s death in 1987. This coming August, Da Capo Press will reissue his book, Conversations with Capote. And in September, Da Capo will publish Above the Line: Conversations about the Movies, his first collection of interviews with people in the movie industry. In the spring of 2001, DaCapo will publish Endangered Species, his collection of interviews with writers. Grobel has been a long time interviewer for Playboy Magazine.
The Travel Video Cyberstone is a new business started by Toya Simmons (Ecuador 1994-96). Travel Video Cyberstone specializes in the sale of travel videos. These travel videos rrepresent popular as well as off the beaten path destinations worldwide. People use these tapes to familiarize themselves about future destinations. To learn more about what Toya is doing, call 312.214.3140 or check out her website at: www.travelvideocyberstore.com.
Brian Boyle (Nigeria 1963-64) emailed us about the Peace Corps examination given in the early days of the agency excerpts of which we published in the May, 2000 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org. Brian wrote:
I remember taking the exam in 1962. We were told that the test was designed to give a Ph.D. a hard time so not to be discouraged. Thankfully, there appeared to be no pass/fall line. We never were given our grades on these tests.
Then, in September 1962, I started training for the Peace Corps at Columbia Teachers College in New York. I do remember that during training we were given approximately 60 hours of psychology testing. We were told that we were the guinea pigs for the Peace Corps and the ‘model volunteer’ would be molded from our psychological profiles. Well, despite all of the obstacles, we completed our training and arrived in Nigeria in January 1963.
Festival of Conception is the third in a trilogy of South American adventure travel writing by Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 197880). Southern Trails Press is selling Festival of Conception, The Road to El Dorado, and Wedding of the Waters, all written by Craig, as a South American adventure travel trilogy. The collection sells for $30, plus $5 shipping. To order books, write to: Southern Trails, 529 Brussels Street, San Francisco, California 94134. Phone/Fax: 415.467.8710.
More advance praise for the novel Louisa by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193) to be published in September by Putnam. Pearl Abraham, author of The Romance Reader, writes, “I admire Simone Zelitch’s ability to capture the essence of life in pre-and mid-Holocaust Europe.”
Kitty McVitty of Book Mart in Stonington, Connecticut writes, “I read every word with real admiration for the author and deep interest in the unfolding story as well as the various theme threads: innocence v. responsibility, the politics of race and belonging. I liked [the heroine] in spite of her self ironic, detached, skeptical, enduring. What a life but saved by love!”
To top that off, both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus have given starred reviews to Simone’s first novel.
Joel Waters (Lithuania 199395) writes that the President of Estonian, Lennart Meri, has announced his financial support of “Freedom’s Ring,” a feature film currently in development. The “Christmas Bell,” as we called the story in our May issue, tells the story of Douglas Wells (Estonia 199296) unearthing a lost national treasure, the Emmaste Church bell. At the time of the discovery President Meri publicly honored Wells and made a personal donation of one month’s salary toward the Bell’s restoration. Today he is making the same monetary contribution toward the production of “Freedom’s Ring.” Critical Mass Films, LLC, is seeking investors and strategic partnerships for his film project.
Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980) author of three novels, one of which, Leaving Lospapas, was based on his Peace Corps experience has a non-fiction book, Passion for Golf: A Golfer’s Quest for Meaning, coming from The Lyons Press in November. In high school and college Merullo played golf on public courses and now in his early forties has returned to the game, playing regularly near his home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
Fodderwing, a forum for Mid-Atlantic writers and poets, published in their 2000 issue a long essay by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890) entitled “Proust in Africa: A Peace Corps Volunteer Remembers Remembrance of Things Past.” A copy is obtainable for $4 (including S&H). Send to IM Press, P.O. Box 5346, Takoma Park, Maryland 20913-5346; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letter from Ethiopia
by Kathleen M. Moore Ethiopia (196567)
When I read the letters that I sent home from Ethiopia, letters that my mother saved, I wonder at the ordinariness of these letters sent from a place as extraordinary as my village. How quickly I became accustomed to the life there. How mundane it all seemed so that there was nothing to write home about. Keeping live chickens locked in my shint-bet (outhouse) so the hyenas wouldn’t eat them was normal. Standing on my bed and throwing a sixty-pound butane gas tank at a scorpion crawling toward me was not a feat remarkable enough to record. Carrying my blanket to David and Nancy’s house in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand the rats running around my roof was forgotten as soon as my landlord put a cement floor in my saar-bet (grass house) and the rats disappeared. Throwing two hundred exam papers at the headmaster in front of the student body because I was thoroughly frustrated at his lack of concern over students’ cheating almost got me sent home but never made it home in a letter.
Life had become routine and yet, in my Ethiopian village, just living from moment to moment took a concentrated effort. Drinking a glass of water, for example, was not something I did hastily without thinking. Standing by the back door looking out at my garden, I held the glass under the tiny spigot of the water filter while it slowly filled with liquid, the color from pale orange to deep red depending on how long it had been since the filter was new. While the sediment in the water settled to the bottom of the glass, I looked out the back door at the hills in the distance, wondering how to teach the passive voice to my ninth grade English class. Finally, I sipped the water slowly so as not to stir up the little pile of whatever that was lying on the bottom of the glass. When I got close to the sediment, I went out to the garden and poured the remaining drops on a struggling carrot plant. Everything was connected: the garden, the students, the river, and drinking a glass of water. When it became time for me to leave this life where every action required thought and intention and had consequences, it would not be easy. I had become accustomed to the complex routines of living in that grass house and I did not want a life that would require less of me.
Peace Corps future is up in the air
an editorial from the Norristown, Pennsylvania Times Herald
February 15, 1962
WHEN THIS ADMINISTRATION entered office, one of its most novel proposals was for creation of the Peace Corps. The idea was, and is, that numbers of dedicated young people with particular talents and education would be sent to underdeveloped countries to aid them in becoming responsible nations. Members of the Corps would, so far as possible, live with the people, and accept a more or less comparable standard of living.
The proposal was nonpartisan and it was met with a nonpartisan response. Members of both parties greeted the plan with enthusiasm and other members of both parties shook their heads in doubt. In any event, Congress approved, and the President appointed his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, to take over, on a non-paid basis.
That happened about a year ago. Now numbers of Peace Corps young men and women have been recruited, indoctrinated, given varied training, and dispatched to underdeveloped areas. So the testing time, which will show whether or not the plan is wise and workable, is at hand.
. . .
Writing in The Reporter a magazine of the liberal persuasion, which is favorable in principle to the Corps John P. Nugent tells of the work of the Peace Corps in Tanganyika its duties, its intentions, and its problems. As he puts it, “The Peace Corps operation in Tanganyika may well prove to be the first decisive test of R. Sargent Shriver’s entire program; indeed, a failure in Tanganyika might be the death knell of the Corps itself. For it is here that the volunteers will come face to face with more difficult challenges than any of their colleagues are apt to meet around the world. The difficulties are not only those of climate, man, and beast, but also the problems of being involved in the birth and growth of a new nation.”
These problems, it is clear, are more numerous and more complex than the young Peace Corps volunteers anticipated and many of them were not touched on in the manuals they read and the lectures they listened to. For instance, there is one civil engineer in the whole of the 360,000 square miles inhabited by 9.2 million Africans, Asians, and Europeans.”
. . .
Living conditions are primitive in the extreme. The country is alive with poisonous snakes, vicious, disease-bearing mosquitoes, and dangerous animals. The natives have ancient tribal beliefs and customs that can lead to serious trouble a government geologist was speared in the back for desecrating a burial ground, and such grounds are usually unmarked. The work gangs are very different from those the volunteers may have had experience with in their home country. In many instances, Corps members have been given cold welcomes by natives and Europeans alike.”
So the Corps’ future is up in the air. No doubt Corps members in other parts of the world are now facing similar, even if lesser, problems. And, going beyond the Corps, this illustrates the difficulties propounded by emerging new nations, which have come into being by the dozen in late years. As the poet Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” In the case of these nations, no one can now say with certainty what the new will be like.
Black Girl in Paris
by Shay Youngblood (Dominica 1981)
Riverhead Books, $23.95
Reviewed by Laura Bice (Macedonia 199899)
SHAY YOUNGBLOOD'S SECOND NOVEL, Black Girl in Paris, is a beauty. It is lyrical in voice and language like her first novel, Soul Kiss. Recently, after hearing Ms. Youngblood read, I put my life on hold and picked up her new novel and finished reading it 24 hours later.
Black Girl in Paris is a coming of age story about a smart, young girl named Eden who boldly states in the first chapter, “I’m not afraid of anything.” Embracing the courage and determination of this young woman’s adventuresome spirit to buy a one-way ticket to Paris, I flipped pages wondering what would become of her.
For RPCVs, there are many similarities in the journey Eden takes to Paris and the journeys we took. The bagfull of dreamy expectations about a host country, the way people behave, the way it simply feels to be a foreigner resonate in Black Girl in Paris.
After arriving on a cold, gray and disgusting day in Macedonia, I found myself asking, “is this what it feels like to be in Macedonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer?”
Eden many times has to remind herself of the same thing in France. She is following her dream to live in Paris, following, too, in the footsteps of some of her mentors, most notably, James Baldwin. Along the way, Eden learns many lessons and is forced to make sacrifices of her own personal dignity.
She takes jobs that she wouldn’t put on her “dream job” list, but does so out of a need to survive. Much of this book chronicles these "alternative" modes of employment. And each chapter is named after her new professional exploit. The jobs stretch the gamut: museum guide, traveling companion, artist’s model, au pair, poet’s helper, lover, English teacher, and thief. Throughout, she is challenged to reinvent herself, and forced to question and reassess the core of her being.
Moving from job to job, Eden explores issues of who to trust, where her sexuality lies, and what it is really like to be black in Paris? Much of her journey is focused on her desire to write, to prove that she can write, and that she can somehow rub up against the talent of other fellow Black writers by following in their footsteps.
Shay Youngblood took a similar trip to Paris as a young girl and this story could be mistaken for memoir. Regardless of how accurate these accounts are, this novel is a tale of the vibrant spirit of a strong young woman. It is a testament of the adaptability of the human spirit and how our path of survival pushes us to become more resilient.
Margarita: A Guatemalan Peace Corps Experience
by Marjorie DeMoss Casebolt (Guatemala 198891)
Red Apple Publishing, $14.95
Reviewed by Timothy Torre (Guinea-Bissau 199698)
I WAS SIXTY-TWO, newly divorced after forty years of marriage, and committed to serving for two years as a nutritionist with the Peace Corps.
So begins Margarita: A Guatemalan Peace Corps Experience, by Marjorie (Margarita) DeMoss Casebolt, a narrative that spans the author’s two year stint as a Health Educator in Guatemala. The book is a series of vignettes, and reads much like a daily journal with the focus on daily meals, visits with other Peace Corps Volunteers, and the personal frustrations experienced by a woman living and working in Guatemala (e.g. lethargic unfaithful men, poor public transportation, people unwilling to have their photograph taken, etc.)
In fact, at times it seems unclear as to why the author claims to have such a meaningful experience. This is not to say one should underplay the potential frustrations an American feels while living and working in a developing nation, or romanticize the Peace Corps in general, but when a certain attitude continually emerges, the reader is inclined to ask: why is this woman here?
For example, when referring to new member of her household, she writes:
Her name was Marielena, but I never thought of her as anything but Goody-Two-Shoes. I could handle her self-satisfied little smirk, her holier than thou attitude, and the trouble she had making change for the pop I bought, if only she had been friendly.
This sort of detached observation surfaces throughout the book, and the overall effect is one of an American woman navigating not very well through a maze of two-dimensional, Spanish-speaking props. Whether or not this is meant to replicate the feeling of cultural and emotional isolation one tends to occasionally feel while living in a different culture could only be answered by the author. Regardless, it often makes Margarita a difficult read, especially when it is confined within a narrative style that lacks variation.
The more compelling moments in Margarita occur when the author manages to transcend the cross-cultural friction that underscores many of the book’s anecdotes (the birth of a child, the nasty political climate, the beauty of the landscape.) Writing of the tragic suicide of a friend, for example, the author’s voice changes conspicuously and the reader can begin to feel her experience, the sorrow and frustration, and the struggling to comprehend something so sad. A nice tone also emerges when she writes of her work. Here it is clear that she was a dedicated Peace Corps Health Educator.
All in all, Margarita is an honest documentation of common challenges faced by Peace Corps Volunteers anywhere. In fact, the book’s ambivalence, arguably, may convey the Peace Corps experience only too well. It would be particularly useful read, I think, for those seeking to deepen their understanding of the slogan, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”
No Condition Is Permanent
(Children’s Book, ages 912)
by Cristina Kessler (Honduras 197375, Kenya 197576, Seychelles 197678)
Philomel Books, $17.99
Reviewed by Connie Winschel (Thailand 199597)
THIS IS A STORY OF a 14-year old girl, who through no fault of her own, suddenly finds herself living in Sierra Leone, Africa. Her mother decides to move there to work on her Ph.D., and, having been a Peace Corps Volunteer there many years before, just knows that it will be a wonderful experience for her daughter.
14-year old girls are not always that eager to embrace their mother’s plans and goals and dreams. Friends, school, familiar faces and places are what’s important to 14-year old girls. The first few chapters of No Condition Is Permanent deal with this separation anxiety and the tearful reconciliation of Jodie to her suddenly strange future.
What transpires throughout this small, quickly moving book, is a story of awareness, adaptation and acceptance of another culture. Friends are made, bonds are formed, and a mother-daughter relationship blooms. Women’s issues are discussed, cultural practices are described in easy-to-understand, not-too-graphic descriptions of the local passages to womanhood.
This is a book that I would recommend to any pre-teen, to open their minds to an experience of service and adventure. It is well written, easily grasped, and has the ability to draw the reader in to the new life happening all around Jodie.
Yvette in America: A Sequential Novel
by John Goulet (Ethiopia 196466)
University Press of Colorado, Center for Literary Publishing
Review by Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 198587)
IT’S NOT NEWS THAT LIFE is fundamentally unfair and, for the most part, makes very little sense. These are non-negotiable facts, cornerstones of a rotten reality. How we cope with these facts, however, is what makes living a good life a kind of art form. Our choices are many.
No one, perhaps, is more attuned to life’s tragic nature and the challenge of responding correctly than the vulnerable foreigner in a foreign land. Toss a Peace Corps Volunteer into the chaos, illogic and cruelty of Third World poverty and place your bets. The Volunteer who recoils from the hopeless mess around him, then counterattacks with a “plan” insisting that people behave predictably, that rules be followed, will be back at the JFK baggage claim counter faster than you can say “psych evac” three times.
To survive in the Congo or Honduras as anywhere in life one must rely on the non-cerebral resources of the heart. One must accept, forgive, and go on, embracing the world in all its messiness. Only then can love happen. Such is a central theme of John Goulet’s superb new novel Yvette In America, an astonishingly beautiful meditation on hope and betrayal, homesickness and insanity. Yvette Pleven, Goulet’s endlessly complex and tragic protagonist, is one of the most original, ornery, exasperating and yet endearing female characters to enter the literary stage in a long, long time.
The year is 1940 when Yvette flees an already tragic life of family dysfunction in France after “a monster in jackboots” plunges Europe into its darkest hour. Leaving her native fishing island off the coast of Brittany, she takes her young son, Raoul, and boards a wounded English vessel down from Dunkerque just as the first German scouts penetrate Brittany. She then survives the German bombing of London before sailing to America through waters thick with U-boats.
Plunged into the utter foreignness of Boston, a single mother without means, she has already endured more than just war in her 40 years. She has lived through a failed marriage to a “brute” Frenchman and a dark relationship with her father, an island doctor who sharpens his surgery skills on the cadavers of drowned fishermen and who accuses Yvette of contributing to the childhood death of her beloved younger sister.
It is in Boston, having pawned heirloom rings from France to rent a cramped apartment, that Yvette makes a pivotal decision: She must never make herself vulnerable to persons or circumstances again. “The most important thing in the world is one’s independence,” she declares. And independence can come only from using your wits, forgoing the ruinous path of trust and emotional involvement. “For a clever person, a heart is disaster,” she says. “A clever person can survive if she uses her head. That’s the secret.”
Goulet lets his protagonist test this philosophy over 50 years of wandering through richly varied American landscapes and personal upheavals. The story is a good one, born aloft by Goulet’s masterful gift for imagery and dialogue. As John Coyne would say when dispensing the highest possible praise, Goulet “writes like an angel.” A summer night of beastly Kentucky humidity becomes “a hot amphibious evening that fills the throat.” And when Yvette pines away for her island home in faraway France, Goulet writes, “O, she can smell seaweed, wet wood, and rope. The breeze across the Channel . . . the lapping of little waves, the grinding of pebbles up and down the beach. In the distance, Yvette’s father is wading out from shore, (in) his floppy straw hat, his spear raised.”
More than lush prose, Goulet assembles all the hallmark ingredients of great literature by drawing complex characters who wrestle with complex themes within a narrative structure that is itself complex but nonetheless moves the story forward almost effortlessly.
The novel is told through a series of flashbacks from 89-year-old Yvette’s deathbed. On one level the story of her life reads like the westward quest of America itself. An immigrant in a nation of immigrants, she moves from Massachusetts (an original colony) to life in the former frontier land of Kentucky to a stint along the Colorado Rockies to, finally, the Manifest Destiny dead end of soul-less Los Angeles.
During this pilgrimage, Yvette’s experiment in spiritual self-reliance bears troubling fruit. Having willed herself to think not feel, to approach life with cold logic, she can only view herself as a victim because bad, senseless things happen in life no matter how much we insist on cleverly insulating ourselves and controlling events. Yvette marries an American in Boston not because she loves him but because it makes sense: Without citizenship she’ll be sent back to war-torn France. But this reasonably likable spouse (he’s a composer who doubles as a window dresser) is all too human: He suffers from chronic asthma and commits an act of adultery that makes no sense to Yvette and she can only see it as an act of unforgivable betrayal. Likewise, it makes no sense that her second son, born in America, would reject her plans to turn him into a Hollywood child actor when his apparent talents could solve her personal financial problems. It makes even less sense when this same child later joins the Peace Corps, surely the ultimate act of insanity and family abandonment from a parent’s point of view.
Without a heart, Yvette finds forgiveness impossible. And without forgiveness, wrongdoing must forever be punished and resented, turning Yvette’s life into a living hell of bitterness and revenge. Late in the novel, she has one last chance to lay flowers at her deceased American husband’s grave and so heed the warning of several characters who tell her “life is too short for grudges.” But she can’t do it. Stuck viewing the world through the prism of logic, she has lost her humanity completely, unable to see herself as anything but a victim at the hands of her father, the Nazis, her husbands, her sons, the weather, bad luck, you name it. In a fit of graveside disgust, she hurls her bundle of flowers at her husband’s headstone, hissing, “COCHON! Viper! Judas!” and concludes, “All this (talk of) forgiveness makes me sick!”
It is a testament to Goulet’s skill that he makes Yvette a nonetheless oddly sympathetic character. She has a wickedly funny sense of humor and we can’t help but root for her in her single-minded attempt to will that the world be different, that there be more order and less pain. She finally dies all alone, having cut all ties to the flawed people around her who’ve betrayed her unrealistic expectations. Her experiment in independent living is thus a complete and tragic success.
But before dying, Yvette descends into a state of complete madness so convincing, so gradual and interesting in its details, that the reader wonders for a while if what’s being narrated is really happening or not. It leaves the reader feeling unbalanced and half-crazy a feeling that melds superbly with Yvette’s own eventual and full-blown dementia for total effect.
Goulet, in this uncommonly rich and heartbreaking novel, poignantly reveals that having a heart in a tragic world is a form of masochism, of self-willed suffering. But shutting your heart completely for protection is even worse.
Such is the human predicament.
Mike Tidwell is the author of In the Mountains of Heaven, a collection of travel essays that will be published in August by the Lyons Press.
Talking with Shay Youngblood
An Interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I first learned that Shay Youngblood (Dominica 1981) was a PCV from Laura Bice (Macedonia 1998-99) who is working temporarily in the New York Peace Corps Office. Laura had read Shay’s new novel Black Girl in Paris, and had also attended an event in New York where Shay read from the novel.
Elsewhere in this issue of our on-line newsletter, Laura reviews Shay’s Black Girl in Paris. Here we learn what Shay has to say about her own career as a writer and how her Peace Corps experience has affected her writing.
What did you do as a Volunteer?
In Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean, I served as an Agricultural Information Officer. I had recently graduated from Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta University) with a B.A. in Mass Communications.
Tell about your first published work.
My first published short story was written while I was a PCV. It was based on an incident that happened when one of my neighbors invited me to a christening at her church. The story, “In A House of Wooden Monkies” was published in Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, an anthology edited by Gloria Naylor.
My first book was a collection of short stories, The Big Mama Stories, (a semi-autobiographical work about the women who raised me in a small south Georgia town after my birth mother died in the early 1960’s.
I was working at a book table at a large conference when the publisher of Firebrand Books, Nancy Bereano, mentioned that she had seen a few of my short stories published in several small journals and praised them. She asked me what I was working on and I said I was working toward a collection. She asked me to send her my manuscript when I felt I was ready. I worked all summer long finishing stories, revising and polishing up about a dozen. I sent them to Nancy, and two weeks later she sent me a contract. Keep in mind, I had been sending out short stories to places like the New Yorker for years and getting rejection slips.
When I began sending my work to smaller journals that seemed likely to publish stories like mine, they did. And by the time I met my publisher, I had had a few poems and stories published and a few lines on my writing resume.
Nancy gave me one of my first serious deadlines and a goal to have a book published. Now I set goals for myself challenging myself to write in different genres and forms.
How do you go about writing?
I write in long hand and take notes in a small notebook I carry with me everywhere. I begin a new project by doing research in the library, taking biographical notes on the characters (I cast each character as if for a movie so I can see them clearly when I’m writing) and I write and draw detailed settings. I then map the project or write an outline of how I think the story will unfold in a few pages. Next I write a one page synopsis. I always know where the story begins and where I see it ending. I don’t always end up where I thought I would, however. I enjoy the act of writing, taking a journey and being surprised by what I find. I revise each draft on the computer, composing several drafts, adding, polishing and shaping each time.
When I’m done with the manuscript I give it to my editor who asks me questions in the margins of the manuscript to help strengthen the work. She might make suggestions to strengthen a particular character or follow through on a plot line that I’d let drop and she corrects my grammar and tells me when I’ve done a good job, too.
Are there connections between your Peace Corps experience and your writing?
There are a lot of similarities between my journey as a PCV and that of my character, Eden, to Paris. I was young and a bit naive about working and living in a foreign country and had a lot of ideas about how I thought it would be and the reality was very different. I didn’t expect to be so physically or emotionally challenged. From washing my clothes in the river to falling in love with the island and the family I rented a house from. I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself in the process but I did and I’m richer for the experience and so is my writing.
Who do you read?
There are so many writers I admire. Sometimes I ask people to tell me what they’ve read that just knocked them out and sometimes I browse the library shelves and make discoveries for myself. I want to be swept away, disappear inside the pages of a book, I want to learn something new, see the world a little differently, from a different point of view. I read a lot of poetry, cookbooks, the telephone books I find in hotel rooms (a great resource for character names), books on gardening and astronomy and travel. I luxuriate in the written word.
What are you writing now?
I’m currently writing creative non-fiction and working on my third novel.
Do you have any advice for new Peace Corps writers?
I would suggest to a writer wanting to get published to first prepare for publication by researching the publications that the writer feels would be receptive to his or her work. Read a variety of good writing, study them, notice what holds your attention as a reader. Start with small publications and build a writing resume. Take classes if you have time. Find a reader or two to give you feedback on the work. I found my M.F.A. useful as an entry into teaching and it gave me time to focus on my writing, but I mostly learned by doing, by writing as much as I could, as often as I could. I still do. I’m still learning.
by Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo 198587)
AGAINST A WORN STRIP of water buffalo leather, the Vietnamese barber slapped his straight razor back and forth. He paused to tilt my head back, leaving my Adam’s apple fully exposed to the blade. Looking up now, I saw the flowers of a flaming mimosa tree, its branches forming the delicate ceiling of this one-man outdoor barbershop. I smelled the incense of a 900-year-old Confucian temple located around 100 feet away. I heard the bright bells of bicycles gliding down a wide Hanoi boulevard.
Yet we’d gotten off to a bad start, this barber and I. I figured he was trying to fleece me when, after I asked how much he charged, he demurred. But he was just being polite in Vietnamese fashion, saying I would pay afterward, as much as I wanted, only if I was happy. When I pressed the issue, he just waved me into his wooden chair. I got in, huffing, our cultures colliding as we attempted to communicate.
“How many fallen yellow leaves do you have?” the barber asked me, still whacking his long, gleaming razor against the leather strap. He was asking my age. “Thirty-three fallen yellow leaves,” I said.
He asked what country I was from. “America,” I said.
“I killed many Americans during the war,” he said. “Many Americans.”
Moments later, I felt the razor on my throat.
It’s a fact of traveling life that if you wander far enough from home, sooner or later you will need a haircut while on the road. It’s an experience I learned early on not to dismiss as routine. With an open mind and flexible fashion standards, the overseas haircut can be one of the most edifying, satisfying experiences the road has to offer.
After all, the barber’s chair is where you’ll experience the most intimate contact you’re likely to have with the local culture. Even the friendliest guides and cabbies and rickshaw drivers don’t touch you, don’t run their fingers through your hair and fuss over the aesthetic possibilities of your face. When it’s over, you’re transformed, usually in more ways than one. If nothing else, you’ll look more like the locals, because no matter what kind of haircut you ask for, what you get is the local variety. Forget the charms of being invited into people’s homes or wearing colorful national clothing: A local haircut is your one best shot at partial assimilation, a chance to assume a part of the local culture onto your own body.
My first overseas haircut came in Africa, under the eave of a grass hut in a tiny village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the barber finished cutting, he obsessively swept up every bit of hair from the dirt floor, then plucked, one by one, the tiniest fallen hairs from my neck and shoulders.
These he poured posthaste down the hole of a latrine, saying he didn’t want any of the nearby witch doctors using my hair to work bad juju on me. Now there’s a service worth a handsome tip.
Once, in a slum in Bangladesh, an 18-year-old barber cut my hair and then massaged my shoulders, temples, hands and, finally saying it would help me better pray to Allah my eyelids, rubbing them so gently it nearly put me to sleep. In an oil town deep in the Amazon jungle, I once found the only place for haircuts was the local brothel. A prostitute dutifully trimmed away my sludge-flecked hair, then seemed disappointed when, newly beautified, I didn’t avail myself of other services.
In Istanbul, amid the tangled alleys lining the Bosphorus, a barber once nearly set me on fire, using a lighted match to give me the sort of “singe-trim” around the ears that was the fashion there. It turned out to be the best haircut I’ve ever had.
That afternoon under the mimosa tree in Vietnam, my education was continuing. The barber had finished shaving my face and was putting away his razor. Only then did it seem safe to raise again the issue of price. Years of travel had led me to anticipate this tactic: The merchant insists on an enormous, unmovable price after the service is rendered.
But I hesitated bringing up the subject again. The barber seemed to read my mind nevertheless.
“We Vietnamese people are not so direct as you. We are easier in our ways,” he said. “For us, it is not so hard to trust.”
He pulled out his scissors now.
“So will I like this haircut?” I asked with a conspicuous hint of sarcasm.
The barber gave me a bright, scolding laugh, his dark eyes narrowing above wrinkles that suggested he had at least 60 fallen yellow leaves himself.
“I, young friend, am a sculptor. Under my hands, rough stone is turned into a beautiful, delicate statue.”
“So it’s an art form, hair-cutting?” I asked.
He responded sharply, leaving me temporarily confused. “No, it is not an art form. Few people can really cut hair. It is a high art form.”
At this he lapsed into ebullient laughter again and so did I, my suspicions gradually receding.
He began cutting my hair without once asking what I wanted, a common occurrence in my travels in the developing world. Nor did I try to direct him except to ask that he not cut it too short.
“Why do you cut hair outdoors?” I asked. “Is it too expensive to rent a shop?”
He feigned huge offense. “Not at all,” he said, now working the scissors across my bangs. “I have many, many clients. I have plenty of money for a shop. But why be a prisoner of walls? I prefer to be outdoors. I feel the wind and sun every day when I work. I smell the flowers of this tree.” He then quoted a line from Ho Chi Minh: “There’s nothing as good as freedom and independence. Nothing.”
Branches swayed overhead as I glanced at the mirror on the mimosa trunk. My hair was taking shape, reminding me again that, when it comes to barbering, the world is not yet one village. I’d found in most of Latin America that timid cutting tends to leave your hair longer than desired. (The Che influence?) In Central Asia, you’re lucky if you have any hair left when it’s over. And in Vietnam, you tend to get both: really short hair on the sides and foppishly long hair on top. Staring uncertainly at the mirror, I reasoned that at least while I stayed in Vietnam I would be a work of art.
Since his adolescence, the barber told me, all he’d wanted to do was cut hair. It was his one true passion. Even during the war he cut hair for his platoon. “I was working on someone’s hair once when your country sent rockets into our camp. Rockets everywhere. I jumped into a foxhole still holding my scissors and comb.”
Now that the war was over, the barber wanted nothing more to do with it. “It was a bad time. I fought to make my country free. Now I just want to do good, to make people beautiful.”
As a matter of principle, he said, he never bought any of the tools in Vietnam still widely recycled from old war material. “When I need new scissors, I ask: Was this made from a tank? From a cannon? If so, I don’t buy.”
My haircut was nearly over now, and the barber suddenly made an announcement. The snipping stopped. “You’re the first American whose hair I’ve cut," he said, swinging around till our eyes met. “I shot at many Americans, but never this. You’re my first.”
Before I could tell him the honor was mine, he asked a favor. “When you go home, will you thank your president for lifting the economic embargo on my country?”
I said I would, glad of the chance to redeem a little of my initial personal brusqueness toward him.
“Then,” he added, a scold returning to his voice, “tell your president to lift the embargo on Cuba.”
My haircut was complete. But the barber wasn’t finished. It is, I’ve found, the rare faraway haircut that does not serve up at least one new experience, whether it’s the eyelid massage or the finishing spray of lime juice a barber in Mexico once put in my hair. From a leather pouch, the Vietnamese barber pulled out six long, narrow metal tools. They looked like surgical equipment. One tool had a pointed tip. Another had a strange tiny spoon at the end. A pair of tweezers was so long they looked like chopsticks joined at the fat end. “I want to clean your ears,” he said.
“Not everyone needs this,” he said. “But looking at your ears, I can see you need help. Can you hear okay?”
“I think so,” I said.
He assured me he wouldn’t hurt me. This was an ancient Vietnamese tradition, but, he added dolefully, one that was dying out. “I tell young people, just like the floors of your house or cups for tea, you have to clean your ears. But no one understands anymore. With skillfully cleaned ears, a man is a new man.”
He went to work, guided by a penlight fastened awkwardly to the side of his head. I braced myself. In went the pointed thing. Then the spoon thing. Then the tweezers. After some initial apprehension, the experience became oddly tranquilizing and even enjoyable. It felt like I was getting a massage inside my head.
As he worked, the barber told me he cut 15 to 20 heads a day, every day, and he never missed work due to illness. Quite a record for a man his age, I thought. What was the secret?
“Never sleep late,” he said. “Eat when you’re hungry. And always help people. Always love people.” Then he added, “I pray, too. I go to the pagoda twice a month and light incense and pray for the peace and happiness of all the people in the world. I never leave anyone out. I’ve prayed for you all your life.”
Shortly thereafter, he pulled his barber’s sheet off of me as if from a masterpiece. Shave, haircut, ear cleaning. If not a totally new man, I certainly felt like I was refurbished.
“What do I pay you if I’m very, very happy?” I asked, now quite won over by the original gentleman’s arrangement.
“Nothing,” he said with unbreachable finality. “That you are happy is big enough payment for me.”
I protested effusively, of course, even tried leaving the money in the crotch of the tree. But it was no good. “You owe me nothing,” he said.
We parted company with a handshake. As I walked away, it struck me that cutting a traveler’s hair must be nearly as interesting for the barber as for the traveler. Perhaps I had given him a minor amusement, a new, small way of thinking about himself. He, meanwhile, had given me something much more than a haircut. Thanks to him, I could hear just a little bit better.
Or is the word listen?
“Hanoi Haircut” is exerpted from Mike Tidwell’s new collection of travel essays, In The Mountains of Heaven: Unlikely Journeys on Six Continents. Lyons Press will publish the book in August.
For Love of Ankara
by Ginger Taylor Saçlioglu (Turkey 196870)
IT MUST HAVE BEEN the winter of the 196768 academic year. I can’t remember the month. My husband and I were graduate students at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The Vietnam War was raging on and John’s student deferment was about to run out. He was a conscientious objector in the literal sense of the term, but without a religious faith he could never prove his CO status to a draft board. He did not want to fight so we began considering alternatives moving to Canada, joining the Peace Corps. We decided on the Peace Corps.
My parents had never approved of our marriage. John was a year younger than I and still in his last year of undergraduate school when we were married. He looked and dressed like a hippy and, in my parents’ eyes atleast, also acted like one. He had a 350 cc Honda and once, before we were married, he had driven it from his parents’ home in Libertyville down to Bloomington in the middle of a summer night just to see me. Not only that, he had long hair, wore a headband and looked a little like Ringo Starr. Actually, to me anyway, he bore an uncanny resemblance to a photo of Michelangelo’s David in my art history book. He also ate too much according to my mother. He loved mashed potatoes, and no matter how much she fixed, he was always able to finish them. We were not a family to leave polite portions, and I never figured out why this particular trait of his annoyed her so much.
When John and I announced to my parents that we were joining the Peace Corps, my mother’s reply was brief. “You’ll ruin my summer,” she declared menacingly. It was no empty threat either. My mother had had a “nervous breakdown” when I was six. For close to a year she sat around the house crying. That’s all I remember about it. But from that time on, we my father and I always had to be very careful how we handled her. After all, a careless single slip of the tongue might just send her reeling into another crisis.
Palm trees and Turkish
I can’t remember if her summer was indeed ruined, but in June John and I took off for Los Angeles for Peace Corps training. I had never been further west than Iowa, where we had visited my grandparents every summer, first on a small farm and later, after the farm burned down, in a dusty backwater of a town in the southwestern part of the state. Those trips were always made by car. This time we were flying.
We arrived at the campus of Occidental College, a posh liberal arts institution perched high in the hills overlooking the city of angels. Occidental seemed like a country club compared with the mid-west campuses we were accustomed to. There were palm trees and an Olympic size swimming pool, and in the dorms, which were small, like individual houses, and no two student rooms shared a common wall. “Hos Geldiniz!” [Welcome!] the banner draped over the building’s entrance declared. We didn’t even know it was Turkish.
Our training consisted of three parts: Turkish language, which we had six hours a day for the first month (“total immersion” they called it), training in the teaching of English as a foreign language, or TEFL, and “cross cultural” in which we learned never to cross our legs when speaking with a Turkish school principal, never to hand anything, especially food, with our left hand, and how to drink raki, the anise-flavored Turkish national drink.
Off to in-country training
By the end of July we meaning everyone except a handful of unfortunates who had been “de-selected” in the finest government doubletalk were considered ready to face the country where we would live and work for the next two years. After a brief return home for last good-byes with parents and family, our “training group” assembled at Kennedy Airport for the flight to Ankara, where we would undergo the second half of our three-month training program. There must have been close to a hundred of us, all young Americans, mostly single, liberal arts graduates fresh out of college and a handful of married couples. The U.S. government had chartered a special plane. It was to carry our group as well as another group of trainees going to India. No one else was on the plane except, of course, the pilot and crew.
It was already dark when we boarded. Free booze was served throughout the fifteen-hour flight. In those days planes had to land in Shannon, Ireland, for refueling. By the time we made our stop, most people were already well sloshed. Some seven hours later when we entered Turkish air space we were not only sloshed but exhausted after not having slept all night.
A first look at Turkey
The Anatolian plateau is a greyish-yellow color during most seasons of the year, especially in July when rainfall is sparse. In our training program, we had learned about Turkey’s legendary forty thousand villages. As small clumps of scattered hovels came into view on the gray plain below in the breaking light, future Peace Corps Volunteers peered down from the windows of the plane squealing “There’s a village! There’s another one!”
In those days, when you flew into Ankara you never saw the city from the air. The airport was about 30 kilometers away, and you would never have known you were approaching a sizable for Turkey anyway metropolis. (Since then the city has spread all the way to the airport.)
Around six in the morning we landed. Esenboga Airport consisted of a small landing field and a small two-story terminal. As we staggered from our plane to the terminal building, we could see village women in colorful baggy shalvar lining the long window that ran the length of the second-story departure lounge. Wives and sisters, no doubt, seeing their Gastarbeiter [guest workers in German] husbands and brothers off to Germany.
With each Volunteer bringing a large steamer trunk, as well as the normal allowance of luggage, we had a long wait in the terminal while Turkish customs officials checked us through. This gave us ample time to try the toilets. We had, of course, been told about them in “cross cultural,” but the girls, in particular, were ill prepared for the simple hole in the floor over which one had to squat, precariously at first when the requisite muscles were not yet developed. One by one the female members of our group disappeared into the restroom only to return a few minutes later uttering shrieks of disbelief. Never, they claimed, would they be able to get used to it. Little did they know.
By about nine o’clock all the trunks had been searched and we were loaded onto several what seemed to us like rattletrap buses for transport into the city. As soon as we pulled out of the airport, we started seeing the villages the little huts barely distinguishable in color from the surrounding earth. The tiny settlements on the outskirts of the capital were astir with early morning activity, women in raucous-printed shalvar, men in sombre shalvar and the ubiquitous kasket or worker’s cap. And donkeys everywhere. I had responded to the training with my whole heart, and as we bumped along I remember repeating, “I love it, I love it,” to myself in a frantic litany.
The next stop was our “dorm” in quotes because it bore little resemblance to the residence halls I had lived in as a student in Indiana. It was a bare building, probably four stories tall, with cement walls, cement floors, simple metal railings along the staircases, and small rooms with metal bunk beds, even for the married couples. No bedspreads, no rugs and, though there must have been curtains for sheer modesty, I can’t remember them. The bathrooms were the worst part. A row of sinks and, parallel with it, a row of stalls with those horrible holes in the floor. No toilet paper, no hot water sometimes no water at all and hardly any light. Then, of course, there was the ever-present stench which penetrated a good way down the corridor as well. In the bedrooms the mattresses were stuffed with cotton wadding. Later in the morning they brought the bed sheets. Two damp, coarse pieces of oatmeal colored cloth. Fortunately it was a hot day and Ankara’s climate is extremely dry.
Tapeworm in a bottle
The first item on the training agenda was the medical briefing. We were told not to drink the tap water but only bottled water, which, mercifully, was always available. We were also warned to avoid especially in restaurants leafy green vegetables like lettuce and parsley, which is used liberally as a garnish on many Turkish dishes. When at home, we were advised to soak fruits and vegetables in water to which a few drops of laundry bleach had been added. (Chlorox, of course, has a strong, not very appetizing odor, and the only way to get rid of it was to rinse the already soaked vegetables again in tap water, thereby defeating the entire purpose. Most of us abandoned this practice after a few weeks.) Finally we were warned about eating undercooked fish which was actually flown in daily from Istanbul and served fresh in some restaurants. To drive this point home, the doctor produced a large jar containing a long tapeworm preserved in formaldehyde. He assured us that the worm had once inhabited the body of a former Volunteer.
A first test of the medical briefing
That evening we had our first meal in Turkey. A large group of us trooped over to Kizilay, “the Red Crescent” and city center of Ankara, so named for the headquarters of the Turkish Red Cross organization that was located there. The building is gone today, replaced by a fancy shopping mall. The restaurant, which is also gone, was called Rüyam, “My Dream.” It had a large garden with wooden tables under strings of colored Christmas lights. The waiters all wore white shirts and black suits, slightly shabby and ill-fitting suits but suits nonetheless. It was one of Ankara’s most popular restaurants and extremely crowded at that hour on a balmy summer evening.
Our Turkish was of course not good enough for reading the menu in detail. But everybody was familiar with kebab and most of us knew by then that köfte meant meatballs. We ordered Adana kebab, a kind of spicy minced meat molded on a skewer and grilled over hot coals. It was also our introduction to çoban salata, or shepherd’s salad, which consisted of finely chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions tossed in olive oil and lemon juice with a liberal admixture of the perilous chopped parsley. I don’t know if it was the hot meatballs or the parsley, but several people had their first bout of Turkish tummy that night.
The training routine
Mornings we practiced teaching English at a local high school. The high point was the midmorning break when we crossed the busy road in front of the school to visit a tiny bakery. In my memory the baker was an old man. In retrospect I estimate he was in his fifties at most, and merely seemed old because I was in my mid-twenties and Turks tend to age prematurely. All his wares were warm and fresh from the oven. My favorite was the soft white rolls with jelly inside and a dusting of powdered sugar on top. Together with the crispy Turkish sour-dough bread which we consumed in prodigious quantities at all meals, it was hard not to put on weight.
The rest of the day was ours as the Turkish language component of the training program largely fell apart once we were “in country.” I don’t think anyone much missed it as we had to speak Turkish whenever we ventured outside our group anyway. Evenings we enjoyed strolling around the narrow back streets, lined with acacia trees, which in autumn teemed with tiny sparrows that were constantly chirruping and depositing their droppings on the pavement.
One such evening, to supplement our staple Turkish breakfast of bread, tiny shriveled black olives and feta cheese, we decided to practice both our Turkish and our bargaining skills by purchasing some peaches from one of the many vegetable stalls that stayed open until well after dark. The poor greengrocer must have been astounded when a small contingent of young Americans descended on his shop to haggle over the price of a couple of gorgeous looking peaches. We were sure he was trying to cheat us and only reluctantly paid the price finally agreed upon. As it turned out, the peaches were delicious.
An unforgetable adventure
One of our first assignments as fresh Volunteers was to be sent outside of Ankara to fend for ourselves in small groups of two or three. There were several destinations to choose from and we all drew straws. John and I got Çankiri, a provincial town of around 8,000 some 90 kilometers from Ankara. Since we were already a couple, we went on our own. To get there, we first had to make our way down to Ulus to catch a minibus. We crowded onto the dilapidated vehicle with a number of other passengers heading for Çankiri and villages along the way.
As young Americans on a route rarely traveled by foreigners of any nationality, we attracted a good deal of attention. The driver and his assistant were particularly protective of us. When we made a rest stop at a roadside teahouse, they insisted on buying each of us a bottle of ayran, a cold drink made by mixing yoghurt with water. Not wishing to appear ungrateful, I drank mine quickly, only to discover, when I got to the bottom, a long, coarse, black hair clinging to the inside of the clear glass bottle. It looked like a goat hair and has remained unforgettable.
Falling in love
For several months following our arrival in Turkey, whenever I saw a plane soaring in the dry blue skies over Ankara, I longed to be on it, winging far away from this alien, backward country where I felt like such an outsider. Then at some point everything changed. I fell head over heels in love with the country exactly as I had tried to convince myself I had on that first morning riding into town.
I loved the grey brown hills that embraced the city, the way they blazed green for a brief month in spring and I tried to memorize their soft, gentle contours. I loved the narrow back streets and crooked pavements where you could lose your way and I tried to walk them all.
I loved Kizilay, the city center, with its dim cafés, its pudding shops and Iskender kebab restaurants where a boy in Ottoman costume stood on the sidewalk tempting passersby with raspy calls of “Buyrun, buyrun!” Please come in, please come in! Iskender kebab was a lovely concoction of crisp roasted döner enormous slabs of greasy lamb meat, crammed down on a tall, vertical spit and roasted next to a blazing fire, then sliced paper thin and stacked up thick on top of crunchy rounds of Turkish-style pitta and topped with yogurt, melted butter and hot tomato sauce, the latter two poured on separately at the table from enormous sizzling iron skillets. I was always afraid the waiter would lose his grip and I would be scalded by the searing hot oil.
I loved the outdoor teahouses, especially the one in Seyran Baglari a few rickety wooden tables and chairs set out under some scraggly trees on the hard, dry Ankara soil.
I loved the people, quick to smile the men sometimes too quick the snot-nosed gypsy beggar who worked the turf in front of the French Culture Centre and the urchins in the Citadel who followed you calling “Turist! Turist!” and had no shame about asking for money. I loved the working class men in their kaskets, many of them fresh from the provinces, with their direct ways and earnestness, and the women who had no inhibitions about asking why I had no children.
I loved the city’s smells, the huge garlicky slabs of rust-colored pastirma or Turkish-style pastrami that hung outside the small grocery shops in the ancient district of Ulus. I loved the old citadel in Ulus now, or so I’m told anyway, a fashionable boutique and dining district where poor families nestled in hand-built shanties propped up against the walls of the ancient fortress. I loved the adjacent quarter of Saman Pazari with its tiny, dilapidated shops selling everything from hand-carved wooden spoons and blue and white enameled pots to gauze-like Turkish towels with the most intricate embroidery in delicate pastels, and the strident printed fabrics known as Antep bezi from the southeast.
I loved the city’s dolmushes [share cabs] with their muavins young boys who leaned precariously out the passenger door endlessly shouting the destination to prospective fares.
But most of all I loved the city lights. Viewed from the high southern district of Çankaya late at night, they twinkled wistfully on the shantytown districts north of Ulus and out across the great, dusty Anatolian plateau.
At the end of the first year, in August of 1969, the U.S. government abolished the draft in favor of the lottery. John’s number was 366 so high he would never have been called up, even if the war had gone on for another thirty years. By the end of the second year our marriage had fallen apart. But that is another story entirely.
Ginger Taylor Saçlioglu taught English at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since 1976 she has lived with her husband in Istanbul and worked as a free lance translator and English teacher.
Opportunities for Writers
- www.shine.com, the leading online news service about causes, charities and nonprofits, needs your help. Laurie McLaughlin (St. Kitts 199598), Senior Writer for the site, is looking for current and returned Volunteers to write features and first-person accounts about their Peace Corps experience. McLaughlin wants, “tight, 500-word news stories that not only highlight the positives of your mission, but also push readers to lend a helping hand as well.”
Photos of Volunteers are also necessary to complete the package. Writers are paid. Queries should be sent to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Include in the query a brief account of your Peace Corps experience and an outline of what you plan to write about. Also visit www.shine.com to learn more about the kinds of stories they produce and their mission.
- Paul Alan Fahey (Ethiopia 196871) is the editor of Mindprints, a literary journal for writers with disabilities that is also open to any writers with an interest in the field or with something to say about it. The first issue will appear this fall, and the magazine is looking for short shorts and short memoir (250750 words), poetry to 25 lines, black and white photography, and artwork. They are also looking for flash fiction and creative non-fiction. E-mail Paul at email@example.com.
- Follow The Rabbit, a travel Web site (www.followtherabbit.com) is looking for experienced travel writers/researchers to help build their destination database. They are looking for researchers and writers who are “specialists” in given destinations.
Send a resume and cover letter that outlines your expertise. Send both as text (no attachments) in an email to Writers@followtherabbit.com.
Friendly Agents and Publishers
- Van Neste Books this October will publish Steal My Heart by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193). Karen Van Neste Owen is the publisher of Van Neste Books and is interested in seeing quality fiction from returned Peace Corps writers. In the third year of publishing literary fiction, Van Neste wants commercial fiction under 100,000 words. The publisher is are not interested in poetry, short story collections, or non-fiction. Send a query letter to:
Karen Van Neste Owen
12836 Ashtree Road
Midlothian, Virginia 23113