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Peace Corps Writers January 2001
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Some Perfect Short Stories
The Mending Fields
I WAS ASSIGNED to the Island of Saint Kit in the West Indies. Once on an inter-island plane, I sat across the aisle from one of my new colleagues, an unfriendly, overserious young woman. She was twenty-four, twenty-five . . . we were all twenty-four, twenty five. I didn’t know her much or like her. As the plane banked over the island, she pressed against the window, staring down at the landscape. I couldn’t see much of her face, just enough really to recognize an expression of pain. Below us spread an endless manicured lawn, bright green and lush of sugarcane, the island’s main source of income. Each field planted carefully to control erosion. Until that year, Saint Kit’s precious volcanic soil had been bleeding into the sea; somehow they had resolved the problem. The crop was now being tilled in harmony with the roll and tuck of the land and the island had taken a step to reclaiming its future. The woman peered out her window until the island was lost on the blue horizon. And then she turned forward in her seat and wept until she had soaked the front of her blouse. “Good Lord,” I thought, “what’s with her?” I found out later from another Volunteer: Two years ago, having just arrived on the island, she had been assaulted as she walked to her home. Not content to rape her, a pair of men had beaten her so severely she was sent back to the States to be hospitalized. Recovering, she had made the choice to return. She believed she could be of use on Saint Kit so she went back to coordinate the team responsible for improving the way sugarcane was cultivated. The day I flew with her was the first time she had taken a look at her handiwork from the illuminating vantage of the air. The cane fields were beautiful, perfect: they were a triumph, they were courage, and they were love.
Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576)
When a woman carries water on her head, you see her neck bend outward behind her like a crossbow. Ten liters of water weighs twenty-two pounds, a fifth of a woman’s body weight, and I’ve seen women carry at least twenty liters in aluminum pots large enough to hold a television set.
To get the water from the cement floor surrounding the outdoor hand pump to the top of your head, you need help from the other women. You and another woman grab the pot’s edges and lift it straight up between you. When you get it to the head height, you duck underneath the pot and place it on the wad of rolled-up cloth you always wear there when fetching water. This is the cushion between your skull and the metal pot full of water. Then your friend lets go. You spend a few seconds finding your balance. Then with one hand steadying the load, turn around and start your way home. It might be a twenty-minute walk through mud huts and donkey manure. All of this is done without words.
It is an action repeated so many times during the day that even though I have never carried water on my head, I know exactly how it is done.
Do not worry that no one will be at the pump to help you. The pump is the only source of clean drinking water for the village of three thousand people. Your family, your husband and children rely on the water on your head; maybe ten people will drink the water you carry. Pump water, everyone knows, is clean.
Drinking well water will make you sick. Every month, people here die from diarrhea and dehydration. The pump is also where you hear gossip from the women who live on the other side of the village. Your trip to the pump may be your only excuse for going outside of your family’s Muslim home alone.
When a woman finds her balance under forty pounds of water, I see her eyes roll to the corners in concentration. Her head makes the small movements of the hands of someone driving a car: constant correction. The biggest challenge is to turn all the way around from the pump to go home again. It is a small portion of the ocean, and it swirls and lurches on her head with long movements.
It looks painful and complicated and horrible for the posture and unhealthy for the vertebrae, but I wish I could do it. I have lived in this West African village for two years, but cannot even balance something solid, like a mango, on my head, let alone a pot filled with liquid. When I lug my ten liter plastic jug of water to my house by hand, it is only a hundred meters, but the container is heavy and unwieldy. Changing the jug from one hand to the other helps, but it is a change necessary every twenty meters. Handles do not balance. On your head, the water is symmetrical like the star on top of a Christmas tree. Because my life has never depended on it, I have never learned to balance.
Rachel Schneller (Mali 199698)
This essay “Water” won the RPCV Writers & Readers Peace Corps Experience Award in 1998.
I Had A Hero
IN ONE HAND HE CARRIED a spear, in the other a crude machete. On his head was a kind of coonskin cap with a bushy tail hanging down in back. Around his neck was a string supporting a leather charm to ward off bad bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.
“My name is Ilunga,” he said, extending his hand.
“My name is Michael,” I said, shaking it.
We smiled at each other another moment before Ilunga got around to telling me he had heard my job was to teach people how to raise fish. It sounded like something worth trying, he said, and he wondered if I would come by his village to help him look for a pond site. I said I would and took down directions to his house.
The next day the two of us set off into the bush, hunting for a place to raise fish.
Machetes in hand, we stomped and stumbled and hacked our way through the savanna grass for two hours before finding an acceptable site along a stream about a twenty-minute walk from Ilunga’s village. Together, we paced off a pond and staked a water canal running between it and a point farther up the stream. Then, with a shovel I sold him on credit against his next corn harvest, Ilunga began a two-month journey through dark caverns of physical pain and overexertion. He began digging.
There is no easy way to dig a fish pond with a shovel. You just have to do it. You have to place the tip to the ground, push the shovel in with your foot, pull up a load of dirt, and then throw the load twenty or thirty feet to the pond’s edge. Then you have to do it again tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. After you do this about 50,000 times, you have an average-sized, ten-by-fifteen-meter pond.
But Ilunga, being a chief and all, wasn’t content with an average-sized pond. He wanted one almost twice that size. He wanted a pond fifteen by twenty meters. I told him he was crazy, as we measured it out. I repeated the point with added conviction after watching him use his bare foot to drive the thin shovel blade into the ground.
For me, it was painful visiting Ilunga each week. I’d come to check on the pond’s progress and find Ilunga grunting and shoveling and pitching dirt the same way I had left him the week before. I winced each time his foot pushed the shovel into the ground. I calculated that to finish the pond he would have to move a total of 4,000 cubic feet of dirt. Guilt gnawed at me. This was no joke. He really was going to kill himself.
One week I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Give me the shovel,” I told him.
“Oh no, Michael,” he said. “This work is too much for you.”
“Give it to me,” I repeated, a bit indignantly. “Take a rest.”
He shrugged and handed me the shovel. I began digging. Okay, I thought, tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. I did it again. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought. Stroke after stroke, I kept going. About twenty minutes later, though, it got hot. I paused to take off my shirt. Ilunga, thinking I was quitting, jumped up and reached for the shovel.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m still digging. Sit down.”
He shrugged again and said that since I was apparently serious about digging, he was going to go check on one of his fields.
Shirtless, alone, I carried on. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. An hour passed. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up . . . throw . . . throw the . . . dammit, throw the dirt. My arms were signaling that they didn’t like tossing dirt over such a great distance. It hurts, they said. Stop making us do it. But I couldn’t stop. I had been digging a paltry hour and a half. I was determined to go on, to help Ilunga. How could I expect villagers to do work I was incapable of doing myself?
Sweat gathered on my forehead and streamed down my face as I continued, shoveling and shoveling. About thirty minutes passed and things started to get really ugly. My body buckled with fatigue. My back and shoulders joined my arms in screaming for an end to hostilities. I was no longer able to throw the dirt. Instead, I carried each load twenty feet and ignobly spooned it onto the dike. I was glad Ilunga wasn’t around to see this. It was embarrassing. And then I looked at my hands. Both palms had become blistered. One was bleeding.
Fifteen minutes later, my hands finally refused to grip the shovel. It fell to the ground. My back then refused to bend down to allow my arms the chance to refuse to pick it up. After just two hours of digging, I was incapable of doing any more. With a stiff, unnatural walk, I went over to the dike. Ilunga had just returned, and I collapsed next to him.
“I think I’ll stop now,” I managed, unable to hide my piteous state. “Take over if you want.”
He did. He stood up, grabbed the shovel and began working smoothly, confidently, a man inured to hard work. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. Lying on my side, exhausted, I watched Ilunga. Then I looked hard at the spot where I had been digging. I had done nothing. The pond was essentially unchanged. I had moved perhaps thirty cubic feet of dirt. That meant 3,970 cubic feet for Ilunga.
Day after day, four or five hours each day, he kept going. He worked like a bull and never complained. Not once. Not when he hit a patch of gravel-size rocks that required a pickaxe and extra sweat. Not when, at the enormous pond’s center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. And not when he became ill.
Several weeks later, Ilunga drove his shovel into the earth and threw its load one last time. I never thought it would happen, but there it was: Ilunga’s pond, huge, fifteen by twenty meters, and completely finished. Using my motorcycle and two ten-liter carrying bidons, I transported stocking fish from another project post twenty miles to the south. When the last of the 300 tilapia fingerlings had entered the new pond, I turned to Ilunga and shook his hand over and over again.
Ilunga had done it. He had taken my advice and accomplished a considerable thing. And on that day when we finally stocked the pond, I knew that no man would ever command more respect from me than one who, to better feed his children, moves 4,000 cubic feet of dirt with a shovel.
I had a hero.
Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Under the Tongan Sun
I LIVED IN A TINY HUT made of bamboo and coconut leaves and lined with dozens of mats, pieces of tapa cloth, and wall-to-wall children. When I sat on the floor with my back against the back door, my feet almost touched the front door. There was no electricity or running water, so I used a kerosene lamp and drew water from the well. There were breadfruit trees and avocado trees around my hut, and if I wanted a coconut, the children climbed a tree for me.
The kids I taught were always with me, and I loved them even more than I once loved my privacy. I always wanted to have children, but I never thought I’d have so many and so soon. These were the children I would like to see back home children who had never even seen a television set and didn’t depend upon “things” for their entertainment because they didn’t have any things. For fun, they taught each other dances and songs, and they juggled oranges.
They woke me up in the morning, calling through my bamboo poles. They took my five sentini and got me freshly baked bread from the shop across the lawn, and they helped me eat it. Some of them watched the ritual of my morning bath-water drawn from the well and heated on my kerosene stove and poured into a tin, then over a pre-soaped me. They sometimes braided my hair and helped me get dressed for school. Then they walked me there, where I used the oral English method we learned in training acting out the language so there’s no need for translation.
“I’m running! I’m running!” I said as I ran in front of the class. “I’m running. I’m running!” I took a child by the hand.
“Run!” I said, and eventually he did. The goal was to have a running paradigm, which usually ended. “I running, you running, he/she/it running.” We did this for all verbs.
English was the link between Tonga and other land masses. And English was the exercise that kept me scrawny, the worst physical defect a body could have in the Tongan culture, where fat was beautiful. I tried to compensate for my lack of bulk by being very anga lelei (good-natured), which was their most cherished personality trait.
After school the children would come home with me and stay, singing Tongan songs and the ones I’d taught them.
Then I tried to help them prepare for the sixth grade exam that would determine their scholastic future. And they helped me prepare whichever vegetable was to be my dinner.
The children never left until I was safely tucked into bed under my canopy of mosquito net on top of tapa cloth. Then I blew out my lamp, laid down, and listened to songs from a kava ceremony nearby. Sometimes there was light from what a Tongan teacher told me was now the “American moon,” since we had put a man there. On moonless nights, I fell asleep in complete darkness. But I fell asleep knowing that I would always wake up under the Tongan sun.
Tina Martin (Tonga 196971)
OUR FAMILY ALWAYS LIVED where we needed a snow shovel. I remember one snowstorm in particular when I was nine. My best friend, Bobby Frost, and I shoveled our entire driveway ourselves, which is no small feat for nine year-olds.
When we were done, my father was waiting in the kitchen to reward us with grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and a silver dollar for the work we had done. Dipping my grilled cheese into the steaming tomato soup (in my opinion, truly the best way to eat the two together), I am sure I was oblivious to how lucky I was; how Norman Rockwell-beautiful shoveling a driveway can be.
Because I grew up in New England, winter was always my favorite season. It meant ice hockey, snow days off from school, and sledding until dinner was ready. Winter meant scratchy wool hats, scarves that always choked me, jackets that made me look like a mini-sumo wrestler, snow pants that made peeing an ordeal, and moon boots. My moon boots were my favorite. I may even have worn them to bed a few times, afraid someone would take them from me while I slept. I loved winter as much as I loved those moon boots.
I still love winter, but to say I enjoy it as I did when I was nine years old would be a lie. I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia for eighteen months now and I live in a ger, a tent with a small wood stove in the center. It is strong and practical, the perfect domicile for a nomadic herder living on the Asian steppe. It packs up in about half an hour. I, however, am not a herder, but an English teacher in a small secondary school in rural Mongolia. Ger life is not easy. It makes twenty year-olds look thirty-five. It makes your soul hard.
Mongolians are very proud of their history and traditions. Once, while sitting on the train going from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to my own town, Bor-Undur, a Mongolian pointed to his arm and said, “In here is the blood of Genghis Khan. Beware.” Really, there is no argument to that statement. I responded, “Yes, older brother (a respectful title addressed to elders), your country is beautiful. Mongolians are lucky people.”
Unfortunately, many Mongolians are big vodka drinkers, and this very drunk herder was on his way home from selling cashmere wool and meat in the city. He had been successful in his business, and celebrating now he wanted to teach me the custom of taking the traditional three shots of vodka that new acquaintances must drink. His shots were too big for me, and I only wanted to taste the vodka, not help him finish the bottle. That’s when Genghis’ blood came into the conversation. I drank the three shots. Herders are tough people. They don’t wear moon boots.
Maybe if I had been born here and lived in a ger all my life I would be tough too. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. I can trace no lineage to the man who was once the world’s most powerful ruler, but I am blessed. I am blessed with the gift of a Peace Corps/Mongolia standard issue sleeping bag rated to -30 degrees. When combined with another sleeping bag of my own and some wool blankets, I am completely protected from the cold that invades my ger every night when the fire goes out.
When it’s time to wake up and start my day, the first thing I do is build a fire. In the quiet darkness of morning, huddling next to my stove and sipping hot coffee, I listen to the Voice of America on my shortwave radio and remind myself who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing. I’m a young Volunteer spending eight hours a day with Mongolians, building a greenhouse with the other teachers in my school so there will be more vegetables in our town. Along with many other things, I’m learning how they live. In the steppe there is very little snow, only biting wind and dust. It gets as cold as -50 degrees, not counting the wind chill factor. If I leave leftover tea in a mug, it will freeze solid by morning. I’ve broken three mugs that way. When it is this cold I sometimes ask myself, “How valuable is the contribution I’m making? And is it really worth being this cold?”
For eighteen months now I’ve been waking up and thinking, yes, it is. I love working with Mongolians, but the time of day I look forward to most is building my morning fire. It is my time of epiphany. As I feel the warmth that my own hands created, a fire that pushes back the cold and the dark, replacing them with warmth and light, I know I will live another day. Such an experience defines what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
We all build fires in one way or another, and the warmth we create is as good as eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on a winter day when you’re only nine years old. Being a Volunteer in Mongolia and having the opportunity to live in a ger may mean enduring very cold mornings, but it’s worth more than all the silver dollars in the world.
Matt Heller (Mongolia 199597)
A Letter from Nigeria
by Betty J. Coxson (Nigeria 196465)
October 1, 1964
I am reporting that I was insolently invited to leave your country by the officer in charge of the parcels division at the Aba Post Office on Wednesday, September 30. I must admit that my warm feeling for the country suffered a slight chill, but as I thought of all the nice Nigerians I know I decided not to let one nasty one distort my view. Besides, I love my work as a teacher here (at Nigeria’s invitation) and have a little more than a year to serve yet before my government will send me home. I also know that I was not singled out for abuse because I am a foreigner because I have heard of and witnessed similar affronts to Nigerians at the Post Office.
There is a marked contrast between the attitudes of clerks in the stores and some of the clerks in the post office. After all, you can’t take your business elsewhere if you don’t like the service at the post office. This gives rise to a smug arrogance in some employees that is very distasteful. Some clerks assume they are doing you a favour to sell you a stamp after you have waited in line for 30 minutes or more sometimes. They seem to feel no obligation to the public at all for service, much less courtesy. Poor service because of a shortage of trained help is understandable and excusable, but poor service just because a clerk doesn’t happen to be in the mood to give reasonable service is quite another matter.
A smile and a pleasant word once in awhile cost nothing and can do a great deal of good in the way of promoting sound public relations. In my own country, government employees at all levels are expected to create good will for the government and civil service by their manner in dealing with the public. The public expects courteous service and gets it. Some postal employees here seem to disregard completely the feelings of the public and even go out of their way to create ill will. I should think this would be a serious handicap to a new government interested in maintaining the loyal support of its people and also interested in impressing business investors from abroad. I would guess that of all government agencies, the post office is the one that has the most dealings with the most people.
The immediate provocation for this letter was a very unpleasant experience I had when mailing two packages overseas for Christmas. I had the customs forms filled out ahead of time. The clerk weighted the parcels and told me the amount of postage I needed. I had my money ready to give him when he thrust the packages through the window and informed me that I had to gum the customs forms to the packages myself. Since I do not carry gum with me. (I think few people do) I was surprised and annoyed, especially since the same man had gummed the forms to the packages last time with no comment to me that it was not part of the normal routine. I reminded him that he had done it last time and he flippantly told me that I should be grateful for his mistake of last time rather than complaining this time. So I picked up my packages and trekked to the bookstore to buy gum rather than walk back three blocks to my home. When I returned to the post office I gave him the bottle of gum I had bought. With condescending sarcasm, he reached for the bottle of gum that he held an arm’s length away and told me he didn’t need my gum and he was under no obligation to gum my parcels for postal forms. It evidently had given him a great deal of personal pleasure to inconvenience me in this way. If the post office does not require him to provide that small service for its patrons, it should. But whatever is the policy, it should be consistently maintained to avoid creating unnecessary friction and ill feeling. No one will usually object to complying with rules, if he knows what the rules are.
I know this matter has been brought to the attention of the authorities before. (There was a letter to the editor on this very subject in the Aba paper this week.) All I’m doing is adding my voice to the others in the hope that someone will care enough to do something about it. If nothing happens, it is no loss to me because of my temporary residence here, but at least my conscience won’t bother me that I didn’t try. I would say that the postal clerks should feel a sense of pride in giving good and courteous service to all customers both Nigerian and foreign. I don’t see how a person can get any pleasure or satisfaction out of doing a job unless he has some rapport with the people with whom he is in daily contact.
Yours very truly,
(Miss) Betty Coxson
cc. Postmaster General, Enugu
Officer in Charge of Parcels Dilivery, Aba
Mr. A. Lekwa, manager, ST. Andrew’s Commrcial Sec. School, Aba
Mrs. Margaret Ekpo
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Head Postmaster’s Office
Posts and Telegraphs,
ABA: 12th Oct., 1964
Miss Betty Coxson,
Alleged Discourteous Attitude to Miss Betty
Coxson by the Office-Chater- U.K. Parcel
Your report dated the 2nd Octobrer, 1964 on the above matter was received.
It is unfortunate that an occasion such as that has happned. However the matter has been given necessary attention.
The unpleasant situation could have been averted, had knowledge of information contained in Post Office Guide page 17, under the headings:
“OFFICERS MAY NOT ACT AS AGENTS FOR THE PUBLIC,”
“STAMPS TO BE AFFIXED BY THE PUBLIC”
With these therefore, I hope that similar incidence will not reoccure in future.
But if, at any time you experience any difficulty at Post Office, you may approach any available supervising Officer who is ready to helpyou out. Should that fail, you will then see the Head Postmaster.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Dear Mom, Betty and Emmett, and the Bellflower tribe,
You should have seen the red carpet treatment I got yesterday when I went to the Post Office. I was standing in the first line to get my two envelopes weighted so that I would know how much postage when a postal employee touched my arm and asked what I wanted. I told him that I wanted to weight my envelopes. He said he would take them back to find out for me. I said I would wait in line but he insisted. He headed in the direction of the parcels department where I had the trouble before. The man that was so nasty the last time wasn’t there and I didn’t ask for him, but I hope that he didn’t lose his job because of me. Anyway, this man sold me all the stamps I wanted and asked if I was sure that was all I wanted. He was very pleasant and courteous, but they seem to have completely missed the point that I was trying to make that every customer should be treated to courteous service and not just the white people or the ones who make the most noise.
A Writer Writes
by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000)
MY CLOSE-OF-SERVICE KIT arrived from Washington this week. It is a big white package, heavy with import and bureaucracy. The end of two years that once seemed so looming and impossible is finally near. It’s starting to smell official.
But I’m not there yet. Not by a long shot.
I have four months to go and still, every day, I find myself in the middle of incredible scenes vignettes that at first seem normal to me because of how long I’ve been here; then I take a step back, and realize just how strange and dramatic it all still is. When I first got to Nicaragua, I reveled in the richness of every day the colors, smells, sounds, and me all wrapped up in it.
I’m still here, and every day it all plays out around me: scenes, colors, sounds, smells . . .
I sat in Eudelia’s big open, dark kitchen, eating breakfast at about half past six this morning. My fridge was busted and I hadn’t felt like walking down the block to buy milk and eggs so I wandered across the street instead. I wore hospital scrubs, red rubber flip-flops and an old t-shirt. I sat in the wide, smoke-blackened kitchen of Eudelia’s home and improvised restaurant, trying to ignore the flies. She had stopped sweeping yesterday’s mess across the floor to cook up my beans and eggs, so the flies were having a ball on the old cabbage, onion scraps, and cheese wrappers. Eudelia’s massive body stood in front of the stove, working the black iron pans like they were extensions of her arms. Her tired swollen feet, one of them bandaged, painfully supported her while she cooked and complained to me about not sleeping well last night. I sat at a crusty wooden table with her eight-year-old daughter and drank my coffee. The girl drank coffee too and smiled at me while her mother complained. “What are you going to do for New Year’s?” I asked Eudelia. She turned around from the stove and was suddenly happy. “We’re going to have a party and I’m going to cook two stuffed chickens!”
It was hard to call Don Pio’s place a “bar.” He sold bottled beer and plastic bags of local moonshine, and men gathered there to drink it. I guess those are the minimum requirements for a bar, though. There were no windows; just dirty red brick and three closed wooden doors. One door was open, and some light came in through cracked roof tiles too. Despite the strong rays of sun that penetrated these openings, the room was dark. The ground was packed dirt and the dark red walls were nearly bare. There was an old photo framed in the plastic packaging from a walkman, and there were a couple of shiny gold “Feliz Navidad” and “2000!” decorations hanging near the refrigerator, all clustered in one dark corner and you barely noticed them. About eight men sat in various wooden and plastic chairs, more or less in a circle, and I was offered a seat of honor next to Don Pio and his mandolin. My entrance had caused a small commotion, and everyone turned their energy into a wave of bona fide Nicaraguan hospitality, thrusting a drink in my hand and making sure I was comfortable. It was Sunday afternoon and they were dressed for the occasion. Cowboy boots, dark pants, plaid shirts. Some wore cowboy hats; probably the ones with horses tied up outside. Others were bareheaded, and their hair was carefully styled with what appeared to be motor oil. They were mostly older men in their 40’s and 50’s. All had lines on their faces, neatly trimmed black moustaches, and short glasses of local guaro in their hands. Everyone was fairly sauced. They were calm, happy drunks, and when I broke out my guitar and banjo, a warm anticipation hovered around them and somebody poured me another tall shot. “Mexican music!” demanded the oldest of the men with a big, beige, rounded felt cowboy hat. “Play us a ranchera!”
The fireworks had been exploding all day, loud sudden bombas to “call God’s attention to our alegría,” as one woman had explained them to me the night before. There was lots of shouting too, and drunkenness outside in the hot, sunny streets. This chichero music was new though, and as the band approached my barrio from blocks away, we heard it from the soft, afternoon darkness of my bedroom where we were making love. Chichero music is happy and loud and the musicians wear clashing, mismatched clothes and march through the streets with all their noise. Often they play from up in the patched-together wooden stands of the taurino, the bullring. It is driving music, loud and chaotic. There’s a bass drum, a snare, cymbals, a sousaphone, and loud, crashing brass quick, drunken Dixieland with lots of dust and a scrappy splash of Mexico. As the group passed my house, the music banged its way through the cement walls and inside the olive-green mosquito netting with its mellow folds and mesh shadows. We matched our rhythm to the big bass drum and as the band approached and passed my house, we laughed together faces close, hot sweat mixing.
Joshua Berman completed his service in Nicaragua last April as a Environmental Education Volunteer. He worked with teachers in rural schools and helped a local farmer reclaim his land with soybeans after his original crop was destroyed in Hurricane Mitch. He is currently an Outward Bound instructor in New York City and is working on a budget travel guide to Nicaragua. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Literary Type January 2001
Book Magazine, The Magazine for the Reading Life, will feature PeaceCorpsWriters.org website and the work of Peace Corps writers in the March issue of the magazine, available in most bookstores. John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264), Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365), Kent Haruf (Turkey 196567) and Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576) were interviewed for the article. Book Magazine is also listing all the Peace Corps readings that are occurring across the U.S. in this 40th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. This is the first time that PeaceCorpsWriters.org and its predecessor, the newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers, has received attention from a national magazine. Recently Coyne and the website for Peace Corps writers were profiled in two New York publications.
Maureen Orth (Columbia 196466) special correspondent for Vanity Fair Magazine, and author of Vulgar Favors, about Gianni Versace killer Andrew Cunanan, has an article in the February issue of the magazine on the life of activist, journalist, and photographer Ruth Gruber. Gruber brought 1,000 World War II refugees to America aboard a U.S. military transport ship. That journey, recounted in her book Haven, is now a CBS mini-series.
The Cartographer’s Tongue, Poems of the World by Susan Rich (Niger 198486) has been selected by the Academy of American Poets for their national Poetry Book Club.
Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 199496) recently moved to Phuket, Thailand where she is writing full time. Her articles and photos have appeared in print and online publications like The Madison Business Journal, Transitions Abroad, Prazskie Ogni, FollowThe Rabbit, Thaistocks.com, and The Global Markets Trader, Some of her articles and photos can be found at her website: www.wanderingshepard.20m.com
Every year NPR distributes a special, holiday program called “Chanukah Lights” where commentators Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz read a variety of stories, essays and reminiscences involving Chanukah. For many years, “Chanukah Lights” has been the single most widely-carried of all NPR holiday programs. This past December, Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193) was asked to recall the holiday while she was a Volunteer in Hungary.
William Amos (Korea 197980) a columnist for the website www.eBookNet.com has recently published his enovel The Seed of Joy based on his experiences as a Volunteer in Korea. The novel, published by Online Originals of London, is the story of a PCV in Korea during times of extreme political turbulence. Go to www.onlineoriginals.com to access The Seed of Joy.
Dan Buck (Peru 196769) has four new magazine pieces published, all on the region of his Peace Corps service. “Early Photography in Bolivia,” is a survey of 19th century photography in that Andean country, which appeared in a special Latin American issue of History of Photography, vol. 24. No. 2, Summer 2000. “Tales of Glitter or Dust,” the legend of the lost Jesuit gold treasure of Sacambaya, Bolivia, appeared in Americas, June 2000. “Sequels to a Patagonian Journal,” a look at Bruce Chatwin’s travels in Patagonia, was published in Americas, April 2000, and “Tupiza: Gateway to Bolivia,” an essay on a bucolic, little-visited city in southern Potosi, near the Argentine border, came out this January, 2001, also in Americas.
A long essay by health Volunteer Saral Waldorf (Cameroon 199093, Malawi 199496, Turkmenistan 1998) entitled “My Time in the Peace Corps” was published in the conservative publication, The Public Interest, in their winter, 2001 issue. Waldorf looks back at the history of the agency over the last 40 years pointing out what is wrong with the Peace Corps and sums up, “I believe the Peace Corps must decide whether its function is to run educational and cultural diversity camps in other people’s countries or, like VSO and Doctors Without Borders, to act as a placement business for professionals who wish to serve overseas. It can’t do both.”
President of the International Women’s Democracy Center, Barbara Ferris (Morocco 198082) was quoted in the New York Times on December 12, 2000 in “What They’re Reading.” She said Mike Tidwell’s (Zaire 198587) new book In the Mountains of Heaven: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents was the book she was reading, saying, “Mike is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer whose gift of the pen can ignite the sounds, senses and sights of the places he experiences around the world which he so eloquently describes. His ability to ’take you there’ always reminds me of my own experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.”
The Library Journal in December 2000 carried a review of Festival of Conception by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 197880) saying, “Carrozzi, a travel writer who has lived and worked in Brazil, has written a touristlike account of his experiences at this festival . . . . this entertaining book will be of interest to libraries with large travel collections.”
“Winter Fishtrap” (February 2325), a workshop for writers which is held at Eagle Cap Chalets at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, is directed by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 196971) and this year features Karen Karbo, author of Diamond Lane and other novels, James R. Spencer, a Nez Perce-Chippewa artisan, educator, and performing artist of American Indian culture, and Tim Sandlin, author of five novels, including Sex and Sunsets and Western Swing. For more information, contact Wandschneider at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website fishtrap.org.
John Flynn (Moldova 199395) is one of a diverse group of writers to appear in Street Signs: A Worcester Anthology complied by David Nader and published by BatCity Press. The press can be reached at: email@example.com.
Word has reached us that Don Lawder (Mali 198385, 198895) passed away in Bamako on December 9. Don, a well known poet before he joined the Peace Corps, is the author of Fishing in the Sky: The Education of Namory Keita, published in 1997. He was buried in Moribabougou, just outside Bamako on the way to Koulikoro. The funeral, according to our Friends of Mali newsletter, was a very moving tribute to him. In June, 1999, Don received the Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mali, the highest civilian honor in this country. Although he was informed of the award at the time, he did not actually receive his medal. It was awarded to him at his funeral. Ala ka hin'a la. Ala ka dayoro sumaya.
“Kariuki's Notebook” is a new play by Rick Gray (Kenya 198890) is being presented in New York. Directed by Sonoko Kawahara, the play runs from February 22 to March 11 at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in their First Floor Theater. The play involves a high school in Kenya that has been shut down in order to make way for a tourist safari bar, but an American Peace Corps Volunteer working at the school refuses to leave. The turmoil that ensues turns colonial stereotypes on their heads and leads a New York soap opera actress on safari to rediscover her passion for theatre. Combining elements of farce and traditional African story-telling, “Kariuki's Notebook” features an African and American cast and a chorus from the Harlem School of the Arts. For more information about the production, La MaMa, and directions to the theater, go to: www.lamama.org.
Rick’s “Impossible Safari” was produced last winter at an Off-Off Broadway playhouse in New York. While a Volunteer, Rick taught English at Salient Secondary School in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua District, in the heart of an area famously known among British settlers as the Happy Valley, and where some of the most notorious Mau Mau skirmishes are said to have taken place.
Exhibitions, a Bainbridge Island (Washington) Arts Council publication has published four poems by Sheila Crofut (Czech Republic 199496) in its Winter/Spring 2001 issue.
On Friday, February 2, at the Boston restaurant Ambrosia on Huntington, Joe Cummings (Thailand 197778) author of Lonely Planet World Food: Thailand will collaborate with Chef Anthony Ambrose on a Chef’s Tasting Menu which will be created from Cummings’s Asian experiences and Ambrose’s special fusion techniques. This evening is part of Boston Cooks, which is held from January 29 to February 3. The “dine-arounds” are meant to promote Boston’s finest chefs and the authors whose books have been selected for nightly chef-author pairings.
Charlie Smith (Micronesia 196870) newest collection of poems, Heroin: And Other Poems, received a long and favorable review in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday, January 28, 2001. This is Smith’s first collection since Before and After (1995) and reviewer David Kirby writes, “Smith’s best poems transcend the issue of addiction and address a larger class of tribulations and that are the DNA of literature precisely because they are so potent and frightening.”
Also, just out by Smith, New York, which he did with photographer Mark Crosby.
David A. Taylor (Mauritania, 198385) writes about culture and the environment for magazines and documentaries. He has written about Amazonians’ relationships with Brazil-nut forests for International Wildlife, and about a global network of mountain communities for Américas and The Atlantic Unbound, as well as documentaries on Thailand, where he and his wife lived from 1990 to 1994. He is working on a book about the varied people and places of the Federal Writers’ Project, after having written an article on the subject for the March 2000 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, William & Mary Review, Fodderwing and elsewhere, and received a 2000 Literary Arts Film Award from the ezine Web Del Sol.
Talking with Peter Hessler
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT PETER HESSLER at the annual meeting of the National Peace Corps Association last summer. A woman who had served with Peter mentioned to Marian Beil that a China RPCV was writing a book about his experiences. With the help of the NPCA data bank I got hold of Hessler’s email address and tracked Peter down in Beijing in September, 2000. He wrote back immediately and told me what he was doing. “After finishing the Peace Corps I returned home for eight months to write, and then I came back to China as a freelance writer. Over the past year and a half I’ve written for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic (to be published next year) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe.”
Over the next month or so, we kept in contact by email and I interviewed Peter for our website. His book on his Peace Corps experience is entitled River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River. It is reviewed in this issue and is, in my opinion, the best book to appear on the Peace Corps experience in since the 1980s and worthy of winning an award as the best non-fiction book of 2001.
What was your Peace Corps assignment?
From 1996 to 1998 I was an English instructor at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, China, a small city on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province. The Peace Corps was still relatively new to China I was part of the third PC China group, which had 14 volunteers and another Volunteer and I were the first Americans to live in Fuling since the Communist revolution. I taught English and American literature. Most of my students were from peasant homes and after graduation they returned to their hometowns to teach English in rural middle schools an amazing development in a country that had been closed to the outside world for so many years.
What were you doing before you joined the Peace Corps?
I earned a master’s degree in English literature, and then I freelanced while tutoring and teaching introductory composition at the University of Missouri.
When did you start writing about China?
I first came to China in 1994, as part of a long trip that I took after finishing grad school. I had never had any interest in the country and only planned to stay for a week or two, but something clicked and I spent six weeks. I kept travelling through Asia for another few months, and after returning home I freelanced stories from all over, but for some reason I especially liked writing stories about China. One of the first stories I published was about the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing, which I did for the New York Times after returning home in early 1995. After that I started thinking about how I could return, and when I learned that the Peace Corps had a China program it seemed like the perfect way. It was my second application to the Peace Corps as an undergrad I had applied before deciding to attend grad school. So it was something that I had thought about for a long time.
Tell me how your book came about. Did you write the whole manuscript before seeking a publisher or did a publishing house come to you?
I first started thinking about writing a book with about six months to go in my service. I had published some articles while living in China as a Volunteer, and as I neared the end of my service I realized that I wanted to try and write a book-length manuscript. I had always taken a lot of notes and kept a detailed diary, and for the last few months I did some preliminary writing and thought about structure. But I didn’t start the actual writing until I returned to America, and after that it went quite quickly I finished a draft in a little less than four months. I decided that I didn’t want to send out the manuscript until it was completed, just because I was afraid I’d get discouraging rejections and I wanted to write the entire book for my own purposes, regardless of whether it was published or not. I basically wanted to record what those two years were like because I knew that sometime later I’d want to read it.
Do you have an agent?
After I finished the manuscript, I sent it out to about ten literary agents and two expressed interest. I had no contacts in the publishing business; I just sent the manuscript and I was lucky that at least two of them took the time to read it. I visited them in New York and chose one, William Clark, and he had a contract from HarperCollins in less than a week. It was a situation where I was very lucky to find both an agent and a publisher so quickly; I just as easily could have received nothing but rejections. Publishing can be a funny business and I think persistence is always worth something.
What advice would you give to a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteers about getting published?
Probably the most helpful advice is to current Volunteers, in that I’d recommend keeping a diary and notes. It doesn’t matter if you hope to write or not; I just believe that this helps the Volunteer make sense of his or her service. And years later that will be something that means a great dear to you. I’d also encourage sending out stories while serving as a Volunteer. You’ll have all kinds of experiences that people rarely get to read about, and you’ll also probably have enough time to write them down.
Personally, I started with travel stories, just writing pieces based on my trips and then sending them to newspapers and magazines. Travel writing tends to be freelance-driven, so it’s common for newspapers to look at unsolicited material, and that’s how I got my start.
Looking back on your experience, how valuable to China is (and was) the Peace Corps to the country?
I have no doubts that the program was valuable to both parties. The Volunteers are in small cities that have had few if any foreign residents, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for people in these places to get a sense of life outside of China. And it’s an equally good opportunity for Volunteers to learn about China. Three of the fourteen Volunteers from my group are currently working in China, and another two or three may return shortly. I personally always viewed it as an exchange. I knew that I had a useful role to serve in my town, both as a teacher and a representative of the outside world, and at the same time there were some clear goals I had for myself. I wanted to learn Chinese, and I wanted to get a background that would allow me to work in the country after my service, preferably as a writer. In my mind I always avoided thinking of myself as “helping” China they’d been doing all right for 5,000 years before I got there.
Looking back on my service, I believe that my work was useful, but I also have no doubt that I gained at least as much as I contributed.
Have you read any books by other Peace Corps writers about their overseas experiences and what was your reaction to their accounts?
The only Peace Corps book I read was called Living Poor in the Peace Corps; I can’t remember the author’s name right now but he was in Ecuador in the late 1960’s. My mother sent me that book when I was in Fuling and all of the Volunteers at my site read it. I thought it was excellent he was able to portray the effects of poverty without being either melodramatic or condescending, and he was always respectful of the people he lived with. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do as a journalist, because you really have to be at the level of the people which he obviously was.
Who are your favorite writers?
Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Dickens, Tobias Wolff, John McPhee.
What did you think of Paul Theroux’s (Malawi 1963-65) travel book on China?
I liked that book; I read it after I first went to China as a tourist in 1994. Even though it’s been fifteen years or so since that book was published, you can still recognize parts of it today. I’ve always thought that he’s a good travel writer in the purest sense he captures the sense of transition when you move from one place to another, and one thing I liked about the China book is that he uses this skill to reflect the country’s size and diversity.
Are you working on a book now?
Not that I know of although other projects may turn into something longer. At the moment I’m mainly working on a couple of stories for The New Yorker and National Geographic, and then I’m doing newspaper writing for the Boston Globe. Right now that’s keeping me busy and I sort of feel like I want to work with these shorter pieces for a while before tackling another book. We’ll see.
Have you been back to Fuling?
Yes, I returned earlier this year; I did a couple of stories there and visited old friends. I’m still in touch with many of my students and I’m hoping to return to Fuling before the end of the year.
What will happen to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam?
. I don’ think there’s any sign that they’re going to stop the project, and it’s already at a very advanced stage. They had some high-profile corruption cases this year along the river, particularly in Fengdu, which is close to Fuling, but I don’t get the sense that there is a concerted opposition to the project. Actually, almost all of the locals I talk with tell me that they support the dam, because they believe that it will raise the standard of living. But they haven’t heard many of the arguments against it, because of China’s control of the press.
In the fall of last year, President Clinton signed a trade agreement with China. What’s is your opinion on all of these agreements?
I’m strongly in favor of increased contacts with China. I don’t believe that there’s any reason to believe that sanctions will quicken change they certainly haven’t in Cuba. In any case, political change is the business of the people who live here, and I’m far from convinced that the average Chinese wants to see the government fall. Most people are concerned with smaller issues improving their living standards, getting their kids through school. Eventually, I believe, the people will demand more systematic improvements, but until they reach that point I don’t think it’s our business to try and push them towards it. The most valuable thing they can gain from the outside world right now is a sense of what’s out there, the range of options, and eventually they can make their own choice on their own terms.
Are you doing any touring in the U.S. when it comes out?
Not that I know of. I think I’m going to do some interviews while I’m home for Christmas, but I’m planning on returning to China unless HarperCollins specifies otherwise. As of now, they have no plans for a tour. To be honest, I think I’d rather be here in Beijing doing more writing.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers January 2001
Dictionary of Chicano Folklore
by Rafaela G. Castro (Brazil 196466)
Santa Barbara: Abc-Clio, $55.00
Searching for Crusoe:
A Journey Among the Last Real Islands
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Ballantine Books, $ 24.95
Mexico City Handbook
(Moon Travel Handbooks)
by Joe Cummings (197778) and Chris Humphrey
Avalon Travel Publishing, 2000
Thailand's Islands & Beaches
by Joe Cummings (197778)
Lonely Planet, $15.95
World Food: Thailand
by Joe Cummings (197778)
Lonely Planet, $12.95
Jamaican Warriors, Reggae, Roots & Culture
by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 196566)
Sanctuary Publishers Ltd., $25.00
Llamas, Weavings and Organic Chocolate, Multicultural Grassroots
Development from the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia
by Kevin Healy (Peru 196769)
University of Notre Dame Press, $30.00
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
The First Time I Got Paid for It: Writers' Tales from the Hollywood Trenches
edited by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264) and Laura J. Shairo
Public Affairs, $24.00
Home Waters: Fishing With an Old Friend
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577)
Broadway Books, $12.00
Around the Next Bend
by Dennis Ogden (Guatemale 198790)
Xlibris Corp., $16.00
Heroin: And Other Poems
by Charlie Smith (Micronesia 196870)
NY: W.W. Norton & Sons, $22.00
by Charlie Smith (Micronesia 196870)
and photographer Mark Crosby
Universe Publishers, $29.95
Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry
edited by David Craig & Janet McCann;
Richard Smith (Mongolia 199596) contributor
Ashland,OR: Story Line Press, $18.95
Writing to Learn: From Paragraph to Essay
by Lou J. Spaventa (Korea 196970, 7375) and Marilynn L. Spaventa
Writing to Learn: The Essay
by Lou J. Spaventa (Korea 196970, 7375) and Marilynn L. Spaventa
Writing to Learn: The Paragraph
by Lou J. Spaventa (Korea 196970, 7375) and Marilynn L. Spaventa
Writing to Learn: The Sentence
by Lou J. Spaventa (Korea 196970, 7375) and Marilynn L. Spaventa
The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women
by Katrin Tchana (Cameroon 198588)
Little Brown & Company, $19.95
Winning without the Spin:
A True Hero in American Politics
by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 197476)
Nova Science/Kroshka Books, $24.00
Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey into an Ancient Empire
by Karin Muller (Philippines 198789)
Adventure Press: National Geographic Society, $26.00
Reviewed by Ted Hall (Peru 196668)
I PICKED UP THIS BOOK with an unusual amount of expectation and anticipation. I was a PCV in Peru and familiar with the rich history of The Inca Road and its prominent role in the development of the Inca Empire. The Road was actually a network that stretched over 3,000 miles up and down the west coast of South America. It fostered both communications and transportation throughout the Empire. It was the central nervous system of a glorious indigenous civilization. For the Spanish Conquistadors it was an engineering marvel. It led the invaders from the coast through the otherwise impassable terrain of the Andes where laid the heart of the Inca Empire. The Road first gave life then brought death to the Empire.
The author of Along the Inca Road: A Woman’s Journey into an Ancient Empire, Karin Muller, received a grant from National Geographic Society to write the book, and in applying for the grant, she said she would write about life today along the Inca Road. But I had hoped her story would also be interspersed with ancient tales from the rich history of this unique piece of geography, and was disappointed when it wasn’t.
Muller’s fundamental problem, however, in addressing her subject is that only small portions of the Inca Road actually exist today. Over time, the road has been destroyed by deliberate act and natural erosion. For the most part, traveling the Inca Road today is not hiking over ancient trails and bridges but touring towns and villages and ruins where once the road ran. And all of these these locations are reachable by modern road and convenient types of transportation.
The author handled the lack of a non-existent road by doing detours. Instead of reporting on The Road or its amazing history, she mostly reports on incidents and people that she encountered at the various sites she visited. Many of her reports read like descriptions of sideshows at a circus. When adventure does not visit her, she attempts to create it.
She starts her journey by hiring a curandero (witch healer) to administer a cure for a non-existent illness. She coaxes a farmer to allow her to plow a furrow in a field by using the ancient method of buffalo and plow. She convinces an officer in the Ecuadorian army to allow her a day’s training with his troops and a visit to the site of land mines planted in the 1995 military engagement between Ecuador and Peru. The Bolivian military is pressed to allow her to accompany their special forces on a drug patrol.
I found little depth in the author’s writing. As I was reading her observations at a cockfight, I recalled the great bullfight scenes that Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence painted in their novels. Hemingway loved the sport; Lawrence despised it. Ms. Muller gives us an adequate visual picture of the cockfight, but not a clue as to how she experienced it.
For me, the most troubling aspect of Ms. Muller’s writing is that she does not demonstrate the insights of people and situations that I expect from a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. For example, in the midst of her description of a visit to a house of prostitution, she reveals that she had worked with prostitutes when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Here her writing should have shone. Her Peace Corps experience and her tour of The Inca Road were crossing. She certainly had something significant to tell about these indigent women who ply the world’s oldest profession. Again, I was disappointed. Reading her descriptions of the women was as superficial as the five-minute acts of sex in which they engage.
At times the author gets on track with the apparent theme of her book and discusses some of the important historical events that surround The Inca Road. The Spanish ransom then murder of the Inca king, the subsequent revolt by Inca nobles at Cuzco, and the discovery of the ruins at Machu Picchu are buried within the pages of this book. However, I found this book to be neither a serious study of Inca history, nor of contemporary Andean society. This is a book written by a tourist whose mission it was to write a book. I closed the book having learned little about The Inca Road or the people that now inhabit its environs. What I read was largely a travelogue filled with anecdotes of self inflicted adventure.
Ted Hall is Vice President of the Southern Nevada Peace Corps Association. He is a published author of legal and accounting texts, and is working on his first novel from his Peace Corps memoirs.
For Two Years Who Cares?: A Peace Corps Odyssey
by Kathie and Al Wiebe (Colombia 197274)
Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, $12.95
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 199698)
KATIE AND AL WIEBE UNDERTOOK an arduous task when they decided to put together a book chronicling their Peace Corps experiences in Colombia for their future generations. A slight twist, though, makes the Wiebe’s tale more interesting for readers outside the family they were able to bring their family of three children with them to Colombia. There Kathie worked to develop social programs, and Al served as a business Volunteer,
Both had written their own memoirs, and had told stories of their experience to their families and their community for years, but since their recent retirement, Katie and Al have finally found time to weave their memoirs together and form a single, self-published volume. Yet a lack of professional editing is a major problem with For Two Years Who Cares?: A Peace Corps Odyssey. In trying to contend with their different observations, the Wiebes utilize Al’s point of view as a master narrator for most of the book. Occasionally, though, they shift to first person accounts from both Kathie and Al. It sounds confusing, but even though it is easy for a reader to figure out who is talking about what, this cumbersome organization does get in the way of comfortable reading. At times it can get frustrating as turns of phrase are repeated, there is not enough detail, and information is provided that jumps ahead of the chronologically unfolding story.
The first two chapters are extremely difficult in this regard. They tell of the events and decisions that led up to the Wiebe’s acceptance of a Peace Corps invitation. Unfortunately, much of the detail of the anxiety that such of a decision must have provoked for a couple with three children is left out. Such detail would have provided a fuller picture to those who served without families.
Structural problems aside, this book has redeeming qualities. If a reader perseveres, one will find details of Colombian life that are of typical interest to RPCVs living conditions, commodities available at local markets, food, travel accommodations, public transportation, physical ailments, and, of course, in-service vacations. After almost thirty years the Wiebes do an admirable job with these descriptions.
For Two Years Who Cares? sheds light on the Peace Corps experience of the ’70s for those who have served in later years. Since the Wiebe’s service, much has changed most notably in this story, Volunteers are no longer permitted to serve with legal dependents. Also, many of the problems with in-country staff and in-country programs, that the Wiebe’s have noted, have either changed or been alleviated. To understand the Peace Corps of today, it is important to understand how it has developed since its inception. Thus, the Wiebes provide a snapshot of the ’70s Peace Corps.
The book also adds a family element to the Peace Corps experience. The Peace Corps may be “the toughest job you’ll ever love” for an adult, but imagine what it must have been like for children in Peace Corps families. The Wiebe’s also devote a chapter to describe their adoption of Linda Rubiela, a Colombian child. Elements like these set apart the Wiebe’s experience from those of the average PCV.
Composing a joint memoir of their Peace Corps experience was a daunting task and not without problems, yet the Wiebes have succeeded at what they set out to do create a document of their time overseas for their children, and their childrens’ children. They have also added a new dimension of the PCV experience to Peace Corps literature.
Paul Shovlin served as a TEFL Volunteer in Moldova. Upon return, he taught vocational English as a second language to refugees and immigrants for a non-profit in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches English at Ohio University.
In the Mountains of Heaven: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Lyons Press, $24.95
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
LIKE ANY OTHER SELF-RESPECTING resident of Washington, DC, I enjoy my sunshine, my Washington Post, and my cup of morning java on Sundays. The laundry rolls and tumbles in the dryer, and there’s a tower of bills within eyesight. But I do what I imagine other returned Peace Corps Volunteers would do in my situation head right to the Post’s Travel section. It’s been over a year since I discovered my first Mike Tidwell essay, a piece in which he invokes all the stubbornness and joie de vivre you expect from RPCVs to get himself marooned on a Caribbean island. It was an impressive bit of writing and I pursued his work to another essay about blissfully fishing the rivers and waterways of the District of Columbia. I don’t live far from Rock Creek Park, and, glancing out my bedroom window, I half-expected to see the writer padding down the street; rod and tackle box in hand the kind of contemporary savior this world really needs. Last year, Tidwell released his fourth book, In the Mountains of Heaven, a collection of twenty essays that details numerous jaunts around the world. Was it worth the read? You bet your rolling and tumbling laundry, it was. To experience these essays is to experience consistently the beauty and absurdity of travel, the innocent wonder that results from new discoveries and, most profoundly, the harmony in human connection that creates a home for every traveler in every country on earth.
In the Mountains doesn’t say much about affordable housing in the Maldives or about good restaurants in Valparaiso. Instead, it revels in the excitement and the challenges of getting from one place to another and in the improbable bonds that develop between individuals from different walks of life. Stopping for a haircut in Hanoi, Tidwell listens to his Vietnamese barber chat about the Americans he killed during the Vietnam War. But as the author fishes out his wallet to pay, the barber gently explains: “That you are happy [with the haircut] is payment enough for me.” When was the last time someone said that to you? And when Tidwell visits Linz, Germany, international sister-city to his own Marietta, Georgia, he is astonished when the burgermeister enthusiastically nominates him as parade marshal for the frenzied opening ceremonies of an annual trans-European cycling race.
Humor is never far from the surface of these essays it is an essential trait for any adventurer just dying to get himself into trouble and Tidwell uses it to great advantage. In one of the funniest essays I have ever read, “John T. Love and the Flight From Hell,” he bemoans his fear of flying in a hilarious account of self-pity. As Tidwell’s shuttle flight from New York to Washington, DC is buffeted by severe storm winds he is addressed by retired Marine Corps Sergeant Love, sitting in the next seat. The sergeant orders him to raise his hands in the air, regress to the childhood excitement of amusement parks, and treat each free-fall plummet of the plane as part of a roller coaster ride. Incredibly, the author confesses, it makes him feel a whole lot better.
Another rare and appreciable quality to Tidwell’s writing is its ability to create a certain level of suspense. On several occasions, I was actually diverted by something akin of a storyteller’s narrative. In Bishek, Kyrgyzstan, Tidwell adopts the role of inquisitive sleuth as he seeks to discover the mystery of missing manhole covers. His introduction to “Amazing Grace in the Texas Desert” is as absorbing as any hook found in short fiction today. And when Tidwell maroons himself on Ragged Island, I kept wondering when the next mail boat was going to come save the guy from permanent residence on a coastline hammock. In the latter essay, Tidwell sources Paul Theroux perhaps the most influential RPCV travel writer to date and it is interesting to wonder just how much Tidwell had him in mind as he penned In the Mountains. In his introductory essay, Tidwell presents a moving eulogy of an uncle who had a lasting influence on the author’s interest in travel. Theroux’s My Other Life opens with the profile of an eccentric and sometimes cruel uncle whose idiosyncrasies hide a brilliant and compassionate mind. While such connections may be incidental, they do open the possibility that RPCV writers may work within a certain frame of reference in their travels, in their influences, and in the perspective they bring to their writings.
Occasionally, Tidwell gets too absorbed in the landscapes. His account of “Tramping Across Sicily,” for example, details extraordinarily well the experience of wandering through western Sicily and of eating excellent Italian cuisine. But the element of human connection that is his trademark is not here. And so when he occasionally claims to travel with the idea of escaping from other people, it is hard to believe that Tidwell does not as eagerly look forward to the glorious moment of return. If travel holds for one the fear of being a stranger in a strange land, Tidwell’s discovery of friendship offers much in the way of faith and hope. In one of his final essays, he takes an overnight Amtrak journey to Georgia with his younger son, Sasha. Just before bedtime, a sleeping-car attendant offers to bring coffee and a newspaper with the morning wake-up call. It opens the door for the most revealing statement of the book: “It’s comforting to know that while I take complete care of Sasha on this long journey, someone else is taking very good care of me.”
In the Mountains of Heaven was recently nominated by the New York Times as one of the best collections of travel writings this year, and deservedly so. If the world is, in fact, shrinking in this early-21st century era of globalization, Tidwell’s fine contribution offers the satisfaction of knowing that the people we may encounter around the world are people it is worth our while to get to know.
Joe Kovacs is currently working on his first novel, The Bronx Buddha.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
New York: HarperCollins, $26.00
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196566)
TO EXPERIENCE CHINA GENUINELY is to undergo a profound personal change in awareness about the human story. To write coherently about this experience is possibly even more difficult than understanding this complicated and ancient culture. But in his “travel/memoir” River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler has delivered a tour de force. It is, in fact, one of the best books ever written about the Peace Corps experience.
From late August 1996 to the summer of 1998, Hessler taught English, mostly literature, at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, a “small” city (200,000 people) near the confluence of the Yangtze and Wu Rivers in Sichuan Province. Near the end of his tour, he celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday; he writes: “in some ways I felt much older.”
China will do that to a person. Its a journey into history. One becomes aware, in mysterious, transcendental ways, of the timeless current of human affairs. And it is a difficult journey. A foreigner must contend with China’s centuries-old isolationism and distrust of weiguoren, or outsiders. In addition, a foreigner must struggle with one of the more difficult languages in the world just to speak to someone outside of academia. Add to these handicaps the Communist Party’s warnings to Chinese not to be too friendly with foreigners, and it is surprising that any outsider can really understand China.
Hessler overcame these as much as anyone could possible hope to in such as short period. Part of his success is a tribute to his intelligence, but a good part is a tribute to his Yankee stubbornness. Instead of sticking closely to his college compound during the school months and taking government-sponsored tours during his vacation, Hessler spent his afternoons walking around the city, away from students and instructors who would naturally want to speak English. Most afternoons, he would walk into the city and spend a couple of hours at his favorite noodles restaurant talking to the local people. During his first summer break, he traveled alone to Yunan in Northern Shaanxi Province and into Xinjiang Province along the old Silk Road, living in hotels supposedly off limits to foreigners.
But as a writer, Hessler is most effective when discussing his students. With a delicacy that reveals his deep respect for their struggles, Hessler records and comments on their journals. He writes that “there was an unpolished quality to the students that I had never seen before.” He continues:
[In the U.S.] Education was a game and students played it, but in Fuling they hadn’t yet reached that point. Their intelligence was still raw it smelled of the countryside, of sweat and muck, of night soil and ripening rapeseed and everything else that composed the Sichuanese farmland. And in their thoughts were flashes of the land, glimpses of the same sort of hard beauty that surrounded the teachers college.
It’s difficult to avoid harsh cynicism when pointing out the great ironies of China. Hessler avoids this extreme with subtle but consistent humor. For example, in China there is little silence; and in Fuling, with its heavy stone buildings, concrete streets, and steep hills, the noise is amplified. But the distracting sounds did not come from traditional culture the steady, loud chatter of people or the boat horns from the Yangtze and Wu Rivers. His adjustment was to the wonderful absurdity of automobile horns. He writes:
Drivers in Fuling honked a lot . . . . Most of them were cabs, and virtually every cabby . . . . had rewired his horn so it was triggered by a contact point at the tip of the gearshift . . . . They honked at other cars, and they honked at pedestrians. They honked whenever they passed somebody, or whenever they were being passed themselves. They honked when nobody was passing, somebody might be considering it, or when the road was empty and there was nobody to pass but the thought of passing or being passed had just passed through the driver’s mind. Just like that, an unthinking reflex: the driver honked&Mac197;the other drivers and pedestrians were so familiar with the sound that they essentially didn’t hear it. Nobody reacted to horns anymore; they served no purpose. A honk in Fuling was like the tree falling in the forest for all intents and purposes it was silent
Beyond the humor, though, Hessler has created a monument to this courageous young generation who will lead China for the next fifty years. Hessler points out how his peasant students have catapulted generations ahead of the world of their parents who struggled through the Cultural Revolution. These young men and women possess the innate intelligence and ability to climb out of the muddy fields from behind an oxen into the technological wonders of modern life. One student with “a peasant’s quiet smile, and a peasant’s modest politeness” handles metaphor with a sophistication and tightness of a literary artist.
I’m working in the fields. The ox suddenly becomes a machine with an ox head. So I finish my task ahead of time. Because of that I am recommended to be the leader of our town. Then I go to Beijing by air to report my deeds to President Jiang Zemin. He doesn’t believe it’s true, because he’s never seen a machine with an ox head. He orders that I be sent to prison. On my way to prison, my ox appears. It becomes a train with an ox head and . . . .
My fortune and my changing ox is closely connected.
Fortunately I get back with the help of the train-like ox. I go into the town government office. The ox, now it is really an ox, follow me and murmurs something . . . . It turns into a computer which looks like an ox head. The screen shows: My young master, you are not suitable for politics. What you should do now is to go to school to learn more knowledge . . . .
Perhaps for the ox’s advice I will abandoned farmwork for study.
And there is more, much more to discover in this lyrical account of an American’s life in the middle of the Middle Kingdom. Most of it will turn the reader’s heart. I suspect it will change the reader’s view of contemporary China. Hessler offers us poignant stories of students and citizens.
Hessler balances his praise with stories of silly Communist Party games. Everything he said in the classroom was reported to the Party leaders at the college. The Party tried to intimidate him by opening his mail regularly. In one case, his father had sent him a copy of a New York Times travel section which carried an article by Hessler. The Party had cut out just his article, leaving in the bio at the end.
But even more significant, Hessler describes what I consider the key to understanding China today. He writes, “I came to realize that, although much of the [Party] propaganda still disgusted me, it wasn’t necessarily the most important issue. The slogans wouldn’t last forever nothing in China did but the children who were educated would stay that way, regardless of the country’s changes.”
The reverence most Chinese, whether urban or rural, still feel for education is remarkable. Hessler writes about school children from poor peasant families “doing their homework on their families’ threshing platforms” for long hours daily. This experience led him to conclude: “Here I could see the point of my job not just the literature I taught, but also the simple fact that for nearly two years I had a role in an education system that included children like this.“
I heard echoes of my own teaching experiences in China throughout the book. Make no mistake about it: Hessler has written a masterpiece. Until now, Bill Holm’s Coming Home Crazy had been my own favorite of the few non-fiction accounts of experiencing China. No longer! This book is an award winner awaiting the opening of the envelope.
Tony Zurlo is a poet/writer living in Arlington, TX. He has written books about China and Japan, and his newest book, The People of West Africa, will be published by Lucent Press in 2001.
A Closer Look
by Steve Buff (Ethiopia 196466)
This article was written following the publication in PeaceCorpsWriters.org, November, 2000 of “A Letter from Ethiopia” by Kathleen Coskran, who told of the tragic death of PCV William Olson, which she witnessed.
During our spring vacation from school in 1966, close to our scheduled departure from Ethiopia, my wife-to-be, Evelyn Ashkenaze, and I flew to Gambela to see a very different Ethiopia from the one we knew in Shoa province. This was not the Ethiopia of cool highlands and white flowing traditional dress, but Nilotic Africa, in the blazing southwestern lowlands near the Sudanese border. The people were semi-nomadic, extremely tall and blue-black; the villagers barely clothed in the heat and the women adorned with elaborate wide, high necklaces. This was much closer to our childhood National Geographic images of Africa than any place we’d seen before in Ethiopia.
Within minutes of arriving in Gambela, we met an interesting young man named George Christodoulos, a friendly Greek-Ethiopian, also visiting from Addis Ababa, who had traveled there by Jeep. With an assortment of relatives and friends, he was visiting a cousin. We quickly became friends and he invited us to stay with all of them across the Baro River. The town was small, the muddy river no more than 50 yards across. We spent a few days trekking around the area, seeing the sights, and meeting the local people, known to us then as the Anuak and Nuer.
One afternoon, as George and I were enjoying ourselves paddling around the river in a dugout canoe, we became aware of a group of folks swimming in the river. They had arrived in Gambela that day and I assumed that they were Peace Corps Volunteers. (I remember being displeased that there was such a large contingent of them because we would no longer have this remote, wondrous place virtually to ourselves.) We then heard alarmed shouts coming from the group and immediately paddled toward the PCVs, who were across the river and downstream from us. They yelled that one of their companions, whom we later learned was William Olson, had just disappeared while swimming off a sandbar in the middle of the river. It soon appeared likely that he had been pulled down by a crocodile. He never resurfaced.
Villagers gathered at the riverbank and there was much agitation and discussion. They were joined by an American army colonel named Dow. who was on safari with a Swiss guide, Karl Luthy. They were traveling with powerful rifles intended for big game. We learned from Luthy and from several other people that this group of PCVs (or at least some members of the group) had been warned repeatedly not to go into the river, that a large crocodile lived in a bank nearby, and had “taken” a woman only recently. Luthy makes this clear in his account of the tragedy, which appears in the book Eyelids of Morning.
George and I and others paddled back and forth along the river until dusk searching for any sign of the crocodile or Bill Olson. In the evening, many groups, including Dow and Luthy, continued searching. George, his cousin, Evelyn and I scanned the river and its banks with searchlights from George’s Jeep. There was no sign of the crocodile.
The search resumed early the next morning. Before long, the crocodile surfaced and, after several attempts, it was killed by Colonel Dow. (We still have one of the shells.) The thing was so huge and heavy that it was a struggle for several men to pull it through shallow water and onto a sandy low part of shore. Townspeople were rejoicing. It was a victory, after all, over a dragon, an historic enemy of the Anuak and Nuer, a monster whose kind had pulled down and fed on children and adults on river shores for as long as anyone could remember.
There it lay, facing the river, fluid dribbling out of its closed jaws, broad, tall, enormous, a nightmarish alien species, more like a dinosaur than anything else. Luthy was anxious to cut open the crocodile’s belly. Evelyn stepped a few feet away and turned in the opposite direction. Luthy, with considerable insensitivity, said, “Let’s see what’s in here” and cut the crocodile open with a large hunter’s knife. Gelatinous stuff billowed out of its mouth. There was no longer any doubt about Olson’s end.
Without speaking, I helped one of the other PCVs extract Bill Olson’s remains and put them in a box. His other companions, whom we had barely seen, watched from a distance, presumably traumatized. Grisly as this task was, it was made somewhat less wrenching by our never having met Olson. We’d never even seen him he was in a different Volunteer training group from ours. Yet, he was one of us, an American and a fellow PCV, a young man killed by a monster, and I was numb. I moved the box a short distance and it was later taken back to Addis Ababa by Olson’s companions on a small plane diverted to Gambela for this purpose.
Evelyn and I have carried these memories with us for almost 35 years. But there is one image that remains even more vivid and constant than the rest. After I had finished my solemn task by the carcass of the crocodile, I looked up and saw Evelyn, sitting on a log a short distance away, weeping. Sitting opposite and facing her was an elderly villager, also silently weeping, possibly for relatives he had lost, for himself, or out of sympathy. There was no doubt that he was weeping in concert with her. In that most exotic setting by the Baro River, with people so distant from us in history and culture, those mutual tears that finally brought home to me the tragic death of our colleague, had a profound and lasting effect on both of us.
To Preserve and to Learn: Essays of Peace Corps History
PCV Accused of Murdering His Wife
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
OVER THE FORTY YEARS OF THE PEACE CORPS more than one PCV has slipped a thick blank-paged journal into their luggage, ready to record their experience while on this great new adventure. Many, of course, think that perhaps someday they’ll turn all the notes into a novel or a memoir.
Paul Theroux, for example, used his journals to write his 1989 novel, My Secret History, which is set partly in Malawi and Uganda. Mike Tidwell turned to his journals when he wrote The Ponds of Kalamabayi about his time in Zaire. And Kathleen Coskran used the journals she kept in Ethiopia for several of her stories in her prize-winning collection, The High Prize of Everythng.
But it was the journal of another PCV, William Kinsey, which first brought Peace Corps writers into international headlines.
In 1966, five years after the founding of the Peace Corps, PCV William Kinsey was accused of murdering his wife in up-country Tanzania. His Peace Corps journal was used as evidence against him in his court trial.
William Kinsey was just out of college in the summer of 1964 when he went off to training at Syracuse University for a Peace Corps assignment to Malawi. At Syracuse, Bill met Peverley Dennett, a trainee assigned to teach in Tanzania. Bill had his county of assignment changed to Tanzania by PC/W and ninety-four days later he married the beautiful auburn-haired Peverley. The couple spent their honeymoon in transit to Africa and started their Peace Corps service as secondary school teachers in up-country Maswa, Tanzania.
A year and a half later, in March of 1966, Bill was arrested for killing Peverley while they were picnicking near their school. He became the first Peace Corps Volunteer ever to be charged with murder.
Bill maintained that Peverley had accidentally slipped and fatally injured herself in a 20-foot fall from a rocky ledge. The state prosecutor of Tanzania said Kinsey, inflamed by jealousy, had battered his wife to death with a length of iron pipe.
When Kinsey was arrested at the picnic site by a Maswa policeman, he was being held captive by 100 local people who said he had been trying to flee the scene. Nearby, the arresting officer found a rock and metal pipe caked with fresh blood and some threads of human hair. Kinsey’s shirt was also blooded.
Bill told the Maswa police that the pipe was part of his camera equipment, and he did not know how the piece of metal had become bloodstained. His clothes, he said, had blood on them because he tried to help his wife after she had fallen.
Later Bill told the Tanzanian court that Peverley and he had spent the weekend grading papers and then late on Sunday afternoon had left for a picnic at the rocky site. Because they were going so late in the day, he decided to leave his camera and other photographic equipment behind. The piece of metal, wrapped in a towel, had been left by mistake in the picnic basket. The pipe was used, Kinsey told the court, as a lightweight tripod for his 400 mm telephoto lens.
Kinsey explained that after bicycling to the picnic site, he and Peverley climbed to the top of the hill to get a better view. At the time, Peverley was carrying a book and a bottle of beer.
Kinsey was standing one or two yards away from Peverley and looking away when he heard the sound of breaking glass. Glancing around, he saw Peverley had slipped from the top of the ledge, falling twenty feet to the rocky base.
He ran to help her and as she tried to stand he held her down. "She was struggling, kicking and kept on calling my name," he said at his African trial. “I sat on her stomach and was trying to keep her from moving. I managed to get a towel and folded it underneath her head. She still struggled. I was shouting at her not to move. Some time later she did not struggle. I got up I heard some people shouting I shouted to the people and signaled to them to come to assist me. No one came.”
Finally he placed her in the shade and went for help, but people threw sticks at him, shouted and snatched his bicycle. He tried to run towards the nearby town of Maswa, but others surrounded and stopped him. Desperate now, he sent a student of his to get the school headmaster.
But when the help arrived, it was too late. He returned to the hill and found that Peverley had died.
Kinsey’s trial lasted three weeks. The courtroom was filled mostly with Peace Corps Volunteers from Tanzania and other countries.
According to Ededen Effiwatt, the Nigerian-born Senior State Attorney, Kinsey had induced his wife to go with him for a picnic, and had concealed the piece of iron wrapped in a towel in a picnic basket. They had ridden on their bicycles to lonely, rock-strewn Impala Hill, two miles from their school.
Once there, Kinsey had taken his wife between two huge boulders where he had set upon her, beating her on the head with the piece of iron. There was fierce fighting between them, but Peverley was soon overpowered. Apart from the piece of iron he also made use of a stone to kill his wife, Mr. Effiwatt alleged.
Effiwatt claimed that Kinsey’s diary, that the police had found in the couples’ house, contained written passages that tended to show unfaithfulness and implied a murder motive. The passages were not, however, Kinsey’s own prose. They were taken from Wright Morris’ novel, Ceremony in Lone Tree. Kinsey said he had simply copied the passages as examples of fine writing, and that they had nothing to do with questions of infidelity in his marriage. In fact, he told the court, he had never suspected his wife of being unfaithful to him, and that he loved her. He said that he had copied the extracts because they reflected a character in the book, were particularly descriptive or they were humorous. He said he often did this, and had kept similar notebooks over a period of years.
A prosecution witness claimed in court that he had seen two people fighting from a distance of 140 yards. He said he saw a woman fall on the ground and there was a white man on top beating her with a “black tool.”
The case, however, turned on two defense testimonies.
A Nairobi pathologist testified that Peverley’s injuries were more likely to have been caused by a fall than by bludgeoning. And then on the closing day, in a dramatic gesture by the defense, Peverley’s mother, who had flown in from her home in Connecticut, testified that her daughter’s marriage had been “very happy and comfortable.”
Referring to her daughter by her nickname of “Peppy," she told the court that she received many letters from Peppy and an occasional letter from her son-in-law during their time at Maswa. “I never had any letter indicating my daughter was unhappy in her marriage. None whatsoever. I was delighted with the marriage.” She said she had visited the couple at their school the year before, and “There was never any hint of trouble in their marriage.”
Two “assessors” (including a USAID official from Tanzania) recommended Kinsey’s acquittal, and British-born Judge Harold Platt brought in his judgment. Kinsey’s guilt, he ruled, had not been “proved beyond reasonable doubt.”
After the verdict
After having spent five months in jail (where he spent most of his time teaching English to fellow prisoners), Kinsey flew immediately home, saying only that he wanted to be reassigned to Tanzania.
Instead of being reassigned, Bill worked in PC/Washington for slightly more than a year, and then went to Stanford for an advance degree. Years later, remarried, he returned to West Africa as a relief worker.
Resources for Writers
Eleven Things to Know before Applying for an Internet Job
by Joyce Lombardi (Chad 199395)
INTERNET INSIDERS like to say that no one reads on the Web and that the Net is no place for English majors. As a veteran of two dotcom startups, I beg to differ. The Net is starved for good content and for people who know how to present it. If you think you might like to be one of those people, here are ten things you need to know:
1. Job Categories
Net publishing jobs are broken down into content (all things editorial); web design/graphics; technology (back end work like programming and server maintenance); community (interactive chats, message boards and egroups), business development (wooing vc’s, or venture capitalists, and other investors) and marketing/advertising, which is an explosive new field unto itself and covers the gamut of banner advertising, email marketing, data mining, co-branding partnerships, etc.
In a young Internet company, the lines between these divisions often blur and you should know a little about and be interested in all of the above, no matter what you were hired for. Why? You’ll do a better job and command a higher salary.
2. Experience Not Required; Entrepreneurial Spirit Is
For now, the Net is still new enough that it can afford people without online experience. It cannot, however, afford plodders. In a place where your competitors can publish 24 hours a day/7 days a week and businesses implode daily, speed and enthusiasm go a long way. Rather than interview promising candidates, I sent them a writing/editing test with a deadline. The slowpokes who dallied in returning it to me, or horror of horrors used snail mail, dropped down several notches. The best writer got the job, of course, but only if she took the deadline, and the exercise, to heart.
Also, much as I love writing snobs, I didn’t always want people with the best writing or journalism credentials; I also looked for people with TV, radio or desktop publishing background who knew something about presenting information and competing for eyeballs.
3. Be Pithy
Edit your cover letter meticulously and send in your tightest writing samples. Wordiness is death on the Net. We kept our articles to 750 words, broken into small chunks like the one you are reading now. Long, expository prose does not belong on a commercial website. Salon.com and Slate are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.
A picture perfect resume and cover letter are crucial. I’d throw out anything that had the smallest typos or errors. The Web is full of shoddy work, and I didn’t want anyone thinking that a Net publishing job was second rate. Since Internet startups generally don’t have big budgets for proofreaders and copyeditors, my writers had to be on target naturally.
In the information age, information design matters. On resumes and my writing test, I took note of formatting and fonts. Courier 12 and uneven spacing didn’t cut it.
6. Get Email
If an applicant listed no email address, I’d put them near the bottom of the pile.
7. Drill Deep Into a Potential Employer’s Site
During the interview, I always asked for a critique of my website. I wanted it to be substantial. I wanted it to cover content, hyperlinks, design, and user-friendliness. I wanted it to be brutal. I wanted them to have looked at my competitors and ferreted out our weaknesses. If you are thinking, “But I’m a writer!” then you don’t belong on the Net.
8. Use the Net
I wanted prospective employees to be able to tell me why and how they used the Internet, what sites they liked and why. Did they just go online for email? To check stock quotes? Do they know how to use message boards and chat rooms? Search engines? The Internet needs content people who can marry an article with a live chat with an interactive calendar with another website.
9. Think About Advertising
On the Web, the line between advertising and editorial is blurred far more than in print (check out “powered by” labels and other signs of corporate sponsorship embedded in various websites) and I always wanted to know where a writer will draw the line.
10. Expect to Be Paid
Freelancers are generally poorly paid on the Net (you’d be lucky to make $50 on 700-word article) but full-timers are usually well rewarded. Internet salaries, even for writers and editors, tend to be much higher than those in the print media. Get online and research the salaries for the position you are applying for. This will help you negotiate.
11. Expect to Be Downsized
You’e heard that the Internet explosion is over, for now. The NASDAQ index (a benchmark that tracks technology stocks) plummeted at the end of 2000 and brought many a dotcom dream to a close. If job security is one of your primary concerns, you might consider sticking to print media.
Joyce Lombardi was senior editor of Sage Online and director of content at Mom.com.
Opportunities for writers
- The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is looking for writers to do articles to celebrate Peace Corps’ 40th Anniversary. We are focusing on RPCVs’ impact on their professional fields and their local communities as well as the work of NPCA’s affiliate RPCV groups. We will be querying national and local magazines and newspapers, and university alumni magazines. For more information on how to get involved, contact Cori Welbourn, NPCA’s 40th Anniversary Executive Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dennis Ogden (Guatemala 198791) has published two books with Xlibris.com Around the Next Bend and Off the Beaten Path. Xlibris works with writers then publishes “print on demand.” There are some free core services plus many services available for a fee.
© PeaceCorpsWriters.org and RPCV Writers & Readers 2001