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Peace Corps Writers March 2001
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Letter from Cameroon
It was not my finest hour
by Linda Meyers Donelson (Cameroon 196566, Ghana 196667)
I’m making Valentines as the sun goes down. I’ve drawn a picture of myself in a cannibal’s stewpot, waving an American flag. I’m working by candlelight. I broke the mantle of my kerosene lantern again with too much vigorous pumping.
The sun is setting over a small cornfield below my house built for the Directeur of our school who found the house too small. From the ecole secondaire you can see the town of M’Balmayo across the valley. After dark, charcoal fires spring up along the main road, and you can hear drums. Now that the students have left for the day, the nearest human being is a quarter of a mile away from me.
One of my students died over the weekend, of malaria. I’m twenty-one years old, and this is the first time someone close to me has died.
It’s four months since I began teaching with almost no experience. Thankfully, I’m not struggling so much now with classroom discipline. I think I’ve found my sense of humor, which helps.
My French is improving, but speaking to the students is still humiliating. I babysat with the Directeur’s three-year-old daughter last night, who corrected my French as I read her a story.
My favorite fellow teacher is Mr. Djilo, a Bamileke, from Foumban, near the border with West Cameroon. His people are famous as entrepreneurs. I particularly like his youngest wife, a handsome woman with a baby son. She jokes with me as if we’d known each other for years.
I bought some steak today. The butcher works in a covered area in the center of the outdoor market, with carcasses hanging from the ceiling. You point to the part you want, and he slices it off with his panga and wraps it for you in a banana leaf. You should see the black vultures lined up along the roof of the shelter, waiting for the day’s leavings!
There’s a huge avocado tree shading the market. You can get really nice avocados, big enough for a whole lunch. When I’m traveling in a lorry, I eat them like a banana, peeling them as I go.
My kerosene refrigerator went out again; there’s something wrong with the wick. I don’t like to go in the kitchen after dark because the cockroaches are as big as mice! Some of the grounds workers put up a mosquito net around my bed. There are no mosquitoes, but I’ve been terrified of flying roaches landing on me during the night. Anytime you sit down on the toilet, you hear them skitter under the seat.
I’m teaching some English classes now at the forestry school. This is to give me more to do, since there isn’t enough work for me. I was sent here because the President of the country comes from this area, but they don’t really need another English teacher.
Gail and Sally visited me last week. They took the train to the capital, Yaounde, then came south half an hour by lorry. We went to Mass on Sunday at the Catholic Mission and were invited to breakfast with the bishop. He is the first African bishop ever ordained. He invited us to go with him on his rounds of the villages. We rode in the back of his black Mercedes, and huge crowds of people greeted us.
This afternoon I met a young man walking on the path near my house. His name is Albert. He was reading a textbook as he strolled. He offered to teach me some pigeon English (which is spoken in West Cameroun). This should be fun and will make the evenings less lonely.
Last week we had an unexpected day of no classes on a national holiday. A strange thing happened. My house was so quiet that I nearly got hysterical. I grabbed my bicycle and rode to Mr. Djilo’s house. After a couple hours of conversation, I felt better.
I learned my lesson about not keeping pets in Africa. I’ve finished my series of fourteen rabies shots in the stomach. I never should have accepted a puppy from the students, even though they were just trying to keep me from being lonely.
I haven’t had as much trouble with back pains this week, but now I have a dry cough that won’t stop. There is a kind of worm that moves through your lungs, climbs over your windpipe and falls into your stomach. I hope I don’t have it!
I can hear an owl now and some shrieking from the forest behind the house probably the tree hyrax. I don’t walk outside after dark because of snakes in the grass. A mamba actually got into the privy of one of the Volunteers, but fortunately it didn’t hurt her.
Gail’s house in Obala opens right onto the main street. A few weeks ago I came inside, put my purse on the table, and someone reached right in and took it! When I went to the embassy to get a new passport, a stern official asked, “Do you know what American passports sell for in Cairo?”
Thanks for the news about the draftees from my high school class. I sent President Johnson a letter, telling him to stop sending troops to Vietnam! Hundreds have been killed on both sides; to me, it’s like murdering them. (I hope this letter isn’t intercepted! A Peace Corps Volunteer was sent home recently for writing a postcard that criticized U.S. foreign policy.)
Please don’t worry about visits from Peace Corps boys! I bought an extra straw mattress in the market, which is fine for them unless a big rainstorm comes up in the night in which case, water blows through the wooden louvers over my windows. At least it’s never really too hot. We don’t have much humidity in these beautiful Cameroonian highlands.
For the Easter holiday we’re attending a conference in West Cameroon, where there are lots of Peace Corps Volunteers. The hotel in Buea serves spumoni ice cream. Technically, we are Cameroon VI, but our group is the first ever in East Cameroon. The fifteen of us will never forget each other. I’m sending Valentines to all of them!
A Writer Writes
by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 199698)
FOR TWO YEARS I LIVED in a country with no seasons. We measured time by other means than falling leaves or snow, new buds on trees. There was a fresh breeze in the air, the ash of burned sugar cane floating in the window. There were times to go to work, times to stay home, an election, an eclipse; all of these differentiated the rising and setting of the same hot sun, and the appearance of a glowing moon and full set of stars. Rain would break the swelter like the fever of a child dissolves into sweat, and the whole city would breathe differently that day. Then the sun would come again and dry what had fallen, and could not last.
I came to this country with the expectation of seasons, and before I had woken to a blinding sun on Christmas, I imagined my yard littered with leaves, a chill in the air. It was here, in this place of 12-hour days and 12-hour nights, of weather and no seasons that I learned to tell time. Telling time is like telling a story: the truth, the time, depend on the teller and the audience. In Guyana, people will ask you, “Now is what time?” or, “Today is what day?” because they know the constants in life. There will always be “now” and “today,” while the names we give them, 3:15 or August 8th, are only names, and names that change.
My watch broke in my first few months; I had calendars, but the holidays changed with the moon. Without the time tellers I depended on, I realized, for the first time, that I was on my own. My days and schedules shifted under the weight of unplanned, unused time, and I discovered that when time had no name, it became a broad expanse of life. Eventually, I learned to measure differently, to find my own names for seasons, without words or numbers. The poet Ted Hughes has written of this experience:
I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass,
That I never used, so still possess.
I did not use this time either, I discovered it, and in so doing, reminded myself of what I had so easily and quickly forgotten in a well-measured life. More importantly, I learned to answer the Guyanese questions that had confused me initially. I could say that now is when is the frogs sing, and now is when the rain falls. Now is the howl of monkeys, the smell of curry stewing, the taste of mango pulled from a tree. And today, today is our understanding of being, our sense of ourselves as alive. It is without season or name, sun or rain, it is how we can live wherever we are and grow and grow and grow.
Katherine Jamieson was an Urban Youth Development Volunteer in the Peace Corps. She taught literacy, health, and life skills classes, and helped to coordinate programs at an all-girls vocational training center. She is currently working as a Research Associate with the Harlem Community Justice Center and training to be a yoga instructor. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Travel Right Travel information from people who know
The South American Handbook: Don’t Go South Without It
by Dan Buck (Peru 196567)
ONE DROWSY AFTERNOON a quarter-century ago in Caracaraí, Brazil, on the upper reaches of a tributary of the Rio Negro, I was waiting for the next barge to Manaos. An elderly German couple stepped off the daily bus from Boa Vista carrying a small suitcase, a camera bag, and the South American Handbook. The next day a Dutch couple appeared, on the first leg of a journey around the continent. Propped on the dashboard of their dusty Volkswagon Sirocco was the South American Handbook, with its trademark red cloth binding and gilt lettering. Those scenes have been repeating themselves for more than 75 years, ever since a British steamship company decided to get into the guidebook trade.
An English Publication
The SAH was launched as a successor to the Anglo-South American Handbook, a vade mecum for commercial travelers begun in 1921 by William Henry Koebel, a prolific writer of the period on topics Latin American. After Koebel’s death, his guide was purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., and it reappeared in 1924 as the South American Handbook. In 1929, a World War I veteran from Wales, Howell Davies, came on as editor, a post he held for a marathon four decades.
During World War II, the SAH somehow scavenged enough paper to publish without interruption. Communications from its Latin American correspondents successfully evaded enemy torpedoes. The 1941 edition “owes its very existence to the efficiency of our shipping services,” Davies exulted, “and is, in its way, as positive proof of victory over the German submarine as anything that could be cited.”
The Royal Mail ceased its passenger service to South America, and in 1971 John Dawson, the SAH’s printer, bought the guidebook, rescuing it from all but certain demise.
From Sea to Air
A new editor, John Brooks, entered the picture, and made a number of changes, chief among them a shift in focus from sea to air travel. He also jettisoned the red cloth binding in favor of a glossy pictorial cover. (The SAH, ever weight conscious, became a paperback in 2000.) Brooks, a banker by day and editor by night, stayed at the helm until his sudden death at age 62 in 1989, at which point the editorship was assumed by Ben Box, who has a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese studies from London University.
Although airplanes displaced ships in the SAH’s attentions, other traditions were maintained and improved. Kept in the field was the army of “voluntary contributors,” as the SAH’s users are known, who had long peppered the editors with quirky, penetrating, caustic, and enthusiastic annotations. The earliest editions had relied heavily on dispatches from the Royal Mail’s network of agents, as well as on representatives of other businesses, and extracts from government publications and commercial journals. (The 1925 edition does carry one eyewitness account, from American explorer M. Richard Marsh, on the “presence of a blond Indian tribe with tawny flaxen hair and blue eyes in eastern Panama.” For reasons that remain obscure, explorers of the era sighted blond Indian tribes with alacrity.) Brooks not only beseeched his readers for contributions, he festooned the text with their notes, anticipating by several decades Internet chat rooms, and cited their names in tiny print in endless acknowledgments.
Maps & More Maps
With Box’s ascension, the selection of maps, long an SAH deficiency, grew dramatically. Early users had to make do with a single foldout map of all of Latin America. Now they can feast on a cartographic cornucopia: More than 200 maps, grids, and plans of countries, cities, zones, and trekking trails.
Box and his editorial team have also presided over the guide’s greening, a reflection of the changing outlooks and interests of modern travelers. A passage in the 2001 edition on “Responsible Tourism” discusses the adverse effects tourists can have and cautions that not all travel agencies advertising themselves as green are in fact environmentally sensitive. This shift in outlook can be seen in the segment on Brazil’s Pantanal wildlife preserve (which was first brought to the SAH’s attention by alert readers). Several pages on touring the Pantanal, in the Mato Grosso region, are preceded by introductory remarks on flora and fauna, conservation, and choosing the right guide.
With age has come virility
If the patriarch of South American guidebooks is feeling its three-quarters of a century, it doesn’t show it. Indeed, it’s been remarkably virile of late, siring volumes on several of the continent’s individual countries. (In 1989, the SAH’s publisher, now called Footprint Handbooks, began issuing worldwide titles, from Tibet to East Africa and from Laos to Israel.)
The South American Handbook and the Mexico & Central American Handbook, which was spun off in 1990, together approximate 3,000 pages (printed on what is proudly described as “our now-famous ‘bible’ paper”), as compared to the 1924 inaugural edition, which covered the same universe in a single volume one-fifth that length.
A Book for the Pocket
In spite of the handbook’s changes over the decades, its purpose remains much as its first editor, J.A. Hunter, envisioned, “a book for the pocket and the traveling bag . . . to bring to the eye that information that the traveler urgently requires.” Fortunately for the traveler, pockets have gotten bigger over the years.
In some cases, required information has increased in complexity, though the working principle, “be alert,” is the same. The 1924 edition warned steamship passengers to be on guard with their luggage: “It might not be superfluous to mention the desirability of locking trunks and bags securely. In especial, personal baggage should not be delivered into the hands of shore touts without being carefully locked in advance.”
Choosing the Right Mule
The 2001 edition devotes two pages to “Safety,” cautionary advice on such perils as drugs, rape, and pickpockets. (Those specters undoubtedly existed in 1924, but they were not bruited about so openly.) Other topics have been overtaken by progress. “Choosing a pack animal,” a long-discarded section, was a must-read in 1924: “In all the Latin American Republics, it is necessary to use mules, donkeys. burros, and horses for certain journeys. The traveler should be careful in his arrangements. The horses and mules should be inspected. Choice is not always possible, but experienced travelers find that by insistence they are often able to obtain bestias of more endurance than others from the same owner.”
The modern SAH has not a word on selecting mules (which are, in any event, now rarer than vicuñas) but tenders many paragraphs on car hire and motoring, motorcycling, and air travel, not to mention trekking, which though possible, was not a customary mode of locomotion for tourists in the 1920s.
By 1973, the Age of Aquarius had caught up with the SAH. “It is regrettable, but nonetheless true,” the editors intoned, “that a prejudice has grown up among the authorities of several Latin American countries against young male travelers with long hair, beards, and hippy-style clothing.” Flower children were encouraged “to moderate their hair and dress styles.”
In the good old days, it was the lodging that was slovenly, not the lodgers. Accommodations in rural areas fell into a sorry trio of categories: tambos, mesones, and fondas. Tambos, the best of a bad lot, were “small primitive inns.” The traveler was instructed to carry his own hammock, bed linen, mosquito netting, and tinned food. Mesones, or “taverns of an inferior kind,” were to be “avoided at all costs,” and fondas, an inferior version of a meson, “were still more to be shunned.”
Huaraz, in Peru’s Callejon de Huayllas, had but two hotels the Italia and the Ancash worth mentioning in 1924 (what ranking they occupied in the three-tiered bad lot was not said). Today, more than 30 hostelries are recommended, ranging from the spiffy, Swiss-run Hostal Andino, to a slew of nice, noisy, charming, basic alojamientos favored by the trekking set. Huaraz merited only four lines in 1924. Today the attractions of the city and the villages and hiking trails of the surrounding cordilleras crowd 15 pages.
In fact, the first SAH dispatched Peru in but 21 pages, half of which recited commercial regulations and inventoried natural resources, among them coca. Cocaine was confected at Huánuco, in the Huallaga River Valley. Most of the annual production, some 3,300 pounds, was exported to Japan. The most recent edition favors Peru with 215 pages (where one learns the whimsical fact that Peru is more than twice the size of France). The Huallaga Valley is still verdant with coca bushes, but the United States has supplanted Japan as the paramount cocaine importer.
Seven Decades of Great Travel Writing
Thin or thick, reportorial, whimsical, or edifying, the SAH down through its seven decades has been praised by such literary vagabonds as Graham Greene, Alastair Reid, Paul Theroux [Malawi 196365] (South American travel riled him, but he found the SAH an affable companion), and Michael Palin, who joked that he consulted the guide book as often as his hip flask. Some years ago, ethnologist Karen Olsen Bruhns penned a more utilitarian testimonial: The “contents [are] extremely useful, but the book is just the right size and weight for killing errant cockroaches.”
Daniel Buck, is a contributing editor of South American Explorer and a regular contributor to Américas. “The South American Handbook,” was originally published in the Winter 1998 South American Explorer in a slightly different form.
Talking with Norm Rush
An interview by Ron Singer (Nigeria 196467)
Note: This is our second interview with Norman Rush. The first, by John Coyne, appeared in the January, 1992 of our newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers.
BORN AND RAISED IN THE SAN FRANCISCO AREA, Norman Rush went to prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1956, Rush worked as an antiquarian book dealer and college teacher. During those years, he published poetry (Chelsea) and fiction (Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, New Yorker). From 1979 to 1983, Rush and his wife, Elsa, were the Peace Corps’ first co-directors, serving in Botswana. During those years and on two subsequent trips, Rush traveled widely in Africa, visiting Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Togo, and the Ivory Coast. From those experiences came Whites (1986), a story collection, and Mating, the 1991 National Book Award winner for fiction. Since 1991, Rush has published magazine essays, including “Norman Rush Contemplates the Bust of Socialism” (The Nation), and, following a 1985 visit to South Africa, “The Unrest” (Grand Street). He has also been the subject of reviews and interviews, among which is Jean Herskovits’ “Culture Maker: Norman Rush” (Culturefront). For the last several years, Rush has been working on the third book in his Botswana trilogy, a novel, which is soon to appear. This interview was conducted via telephone and e-mail.
How have your politics evolved since the early pacifist days? Do you think pacifism is relevant to third-world politics?
In a way, my politics haven’t changed since I was eighteen and a conscientious objector. What I thought then was that it was ethically responsible to be part of the creation of bodies of resistance that would operate as obstacles I hoped of increasing importance that would make it harder for governments to opt for war making. But life is strange. The State is cannier than I could have imagined then. War making, in many countries including our own, has somehow eluded the public deliberative process to a degree that shows me how dumb I was. I would say, as a general characterization, that I am a social democrat with no particular attraction to any existing political formation in the United States and with a full appreciation of the poor prospects that the social democratic aspiration faces in the present.
Actually, I thought of myself, in my youth, in my heart, as an anarchist. But functionally, I was a social democrat, in terms of voting, supporting lesser evilism, civil rights activism, etc. I thought my tenure as a social democrat was going to be an interim thing as the prospects for a radically changed society improved. Well, they never did, and it seems I have completely occupied my default position! The narrator’s lecture when she starts on the lecture circuit [Mating, 471 ff] mirrors my take on things political.
Africa and pacifism: it’s morally right to try to moderate the violence of governments anywhere. But sanctions as an alternative to violence against repressive regimes have not worked well, nor has the pacifist program of creating a snowballing of possible social strategies other than war. There’s a new book on this question: Guns and Gandhi in Africa, by Bill Sutherland and Matt Myer (Africa World Press, Inc., 2000)
It seems to me that Martin, the revolutionary who appears early in Mating, comes in for some serious ribbing. He winds up in England doing something vague with a choir, which the ANC is said to operate there. And what about that compulsive ratiocinator, the narrator of Mating? No satire? Denoon, her guru [and the creator of the utopian community, Tsau], sort of crashes by the end, too. Are you a misandrist?
There is sadness and irony in Martin’s fate, but no ridicule of him at all. White revolutionaries, the ones I knew directly or indirectly, occupied places all over the spectrum of amiability, as in any group of people. I didn’t intend any mockery of the narrator. I loved, love, her. Denoon, in his final incarnation, is another matter.
Let’s talk more about the overriding theme of the first two Botswana books, the “mating” of Africa with the first world. I’m particularly interested in your ideas about utopianism.
Many utopias go horribly bad, and all turn into something diverging from the ideals of the founders. Just read a new book by a guy named Gavron summing up the state of the kibbutz sector in Israel. It’ts worth a look. It recounts an institutional evolution much like that implied in the story of Tsau.
Just around the time you were creating Tsau, a school of anthropology was rising which debunked ideas of a pre-colonial Eden in Africa, especially with regard to the Kung. I’m thinking of Edmund Wilmsen, in particular [Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari (University of Chicago Press, 1989)]
I agree with the anti-Arcadian realists. Wilmsen is really hated, I guess you know, by people attached to the earlier romantic view of the Kung. (I wrote a blurb for Wilmsen’s last book.) My own romantic notions about the three-house system in Botswana imploded once I saw cattle-post life up close. Obviously, all scrutiny of the contributions of colonialism, and indigenous kleptocracy, to the lack of economic development of post-independence Africa takes place with an awareness that they have been imposed on societies existing in environments that have been, it is being argued persuasively, inhospitable to human prosperity.
What about actual development projects in Africa? What are the biggest obstacles? Corruption, obviously, and nature. But . . .
There are viable traditional structures in modern Africa through which to address the problems of development and governance, to overcome inequality. These should be fostered. Botswana has done some things very well, including (modern) social welfare programs, fairly effective drought relief, less corruption than you might think. Twenty years ago, a would-be entrepreneur approached a US embassy official in Gaborone: “Who should I bribe?”
“No, not here.”
He tried, anyway, and twenty-four hours later he was out of the country. As to development, the [Botswana] Village District Councils, by the ’80s, were performing feebly. A National Service Scheme was set up, in part to re-energize the VDCs by providing trenches of free labor, but that has been mostly ineffective, although I haven’t seen a recent evaluation. Getting the balance right between bottom-up top-down is one of the stress lines in these projects. Donors, their contacts and representatives among the local leaderships, locals, the government, and the basic memberships of the projects often have different and conflicting interests and agendas. Donors need to impress their funders by demonstrating measurable progress according to listed criteria . . . the liaison group among the local leadership has an interest in contriving an appearance of meeting donor criteria, with which they are intimately familiar . . . the government wants to see benefits flowing particularly to its supporters in and around the projects . . . the base membership in the project is at work individualizing benefits rather than collectivizing the fruits of their efforts in the way the donors expect.
What do you think of recent events in South Africa? Where is Africa on the Western radar screen since “the bust of Socialism”?
I went back twice to Botswana and South Africa, 1992 was the last trip. I wrote a piece for Grand Street after the first trip back that caught what I felt about RSA. I expected the transition to be far more violent than it ended up being. But South Africa has not so far distinguished itself in terms of enlightened foreign policy initiatives in the region.
This [“radar screen”] is a profound question. It asks what self-interest-based arguments for an expanded response to the miserable African situation can be made. I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for this when I began writing about Africa, and I still don’t. I knew that Cold War-driven attentions to Africa were destined to wane when the Zweikampf ended, but I was astonished both at the suddenness of the collapse of the Russian empire and the rapidity of the decline in interest in Africa that accompanied it. Africa is a tough sell these days. Pan Africanism as a movement has become a bitter joke.
A reformulation of your question would be, in what ways might we show the first world that its own ox will be gored by the worsening plight of the third world? The unoriginal thoughts I have on this revolve around African poverty as an incubator for dread diseases that pass across oceans, as a generator of massive flows of illegal immigrants, and so on. First-world self-interest might also perceive the intensification of the identification in many parts of Africa with Islam as a threatening development.
What can you tell me about the new book? You mentioned in the 1993 Herskovits interview that it’s about a suppressed insurrection in Botswana partly modeled after actual third-world insurgencies, that the book is set in 198891, the background is the end of the Soviet empire, and that one of the main characters is a displaced Xhosa living in Botswana, and others are a CIA operative and his disaffected wife. Are all those things still true? Have recent events in Africa affected the genesis of the book?
Most of those are still true.
I’ve just finished the book. (I’m typing the final draft now.) The original working title was “Kerekang the Incendiary,” new working title “Mortals.” (It, too, will change, I think.) This book is all I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. One of the protagonists is a proselytizing atheist, a Black American doctor living in Gaborone, furious at what he understands to be the foundational dysfunctions introduced into Africa by Christian belief. The principal model for the insurrection in the novel is the Kwilu Rebellion of 1963 to ’65, in Zaire. I was also thinking of the Alice Lakwena insurgency in Uganda, in a later period. The book is based on a love triangle (as Mating was a spin on “boy meets girl”): the doctor, the CIA man and his wife. Set in 199192, the story is not affected by recent African events, but it is mightily affected by the failed socialist experiment in the East the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In your RPCV Writers & Readers 1992 interview, you told John Coyne that the prizes and fine reviews after Mating had done little to change your life. Is that still true or, like Denoon, have you since been guru-ified?
Not that I noticed. It sounds like fun, though.
Like many of your readers, I eagerly anticipate the new book and wish you the very best with it.
NOTE: A second article based on this present interview will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of Friends of Nigeria Newsletter.
After the Peace Corps, Ron Singer went to the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.d. in English. He has taught at the University of Hawaii, Pace University, and, since 1976, at Friends Seminary, a K-12 school in New York City. Singer has published fiction, poetry, prose satire, and several articles on Africa, in the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter and African Link magazine. He is the author of two librettos and an Introduction to the Bantam Books edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Married, he has one daughter.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers March 2001
Hardrock Fever: Running 100 Miles through Colorado's San Juan Mountains,
by Robert B. Boeder (Malawi 196566)
Fayetteville, NC: Old Mountain Press, $14.45
Send orders to :
2013 Mango Circle
Fayetteville, NC 28304
John Hartung (Ethiopia 196870), contributor
Philadelphia: Lippincott, Wilkins & Williams, $159.00
Aligning Performance: Improving People, Systems and Organizations
by Danny Langdon (Ethiopia 196264)
Hardball: How Politics is Played Told by One Who Knows the Game
Christopher Matthews (Swaziland 196870)
Touchstone Books, $14.00
by Gwen Hyman Rubio (Costa Rica 197173)
French Cultural Studies: Criticism at the Crossroads
edited by Dana Strand (Turkey 196869), Marie-Pierre Le Hir
State University of New York Press, $19.95
by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198990), Christy Hale, illustrator
Lee & Low Books, $15.95
by Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 198991)
The University of Georgia Press, $24.95
The Poison Sky
by John Shannon (Malawi 196870)
Berkley: Prime Crime, $5.99
Dos Coronéis à Metropole: Fios e tramas da sociedade e da política em Ribeirão Preto no Século XX
by Thomas W. Walker (Colombia 196365) and Agnaldo de Sousa Barbosa, Ribeirao Preto, Brasil: Palavra Magica
Blood of the Liberals
by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
IN DRAWING TO A CLOSE his history of the failure of liberalism in the United States, George Packer nevertheless acknowledges the credo’s potential for recovery: “We may very well see liberalism revived as a self-proclaimed political creed. The question is what liberals can now do with the opening whether psychologically or morally, they are capable of seizing the political moment.” President Clinton didn’t quite deliver, the author suggests in this dauntingly titled Blood of the Liberals. And the Era of the Dimpled Chad has restored Republicans to the Oval Office. So now what? I’m not sure I completely understood his answer, but it seems to be related to something Tim Ritchie, co-founder of an interracial church in Birmingham, Alabama, told him in the mid-1990s. “The liberals really just want to send a check. Or they want to change a structure. And I’m telling you . . . you have to change a heart.”
Changing a heart may not be the applicable kind of answer that can satisfy liberal politicians. Just how in the world would one do that? But given the author’s heritage, it may need to suffice for now. Packer hails from a family of politically frustrated men and Blood of the Liberals is largely a memoir of their tragic careers. The reader experiences over three hundred painful pages of liberal principles crashing against turbulent periods of American history; in the detritus of events lay new trends of thought that ultimately destroy the political ideologies of the writer’s forebears.
Packer’s grandfather George Huddleston was a Congressman from Birmingham, Alabama a Jeffersonian liberal and a believer in individualized self-determination. As coal mine and railroad businesses were centralized in the late 19th century, Huddleston championed the landed workers, declaring: “I belong to the plain people . . . . I am proud to call thousands of men who toil with their hands my personal friends.” His politics would experience a bumpy road during World War I, when Woodrow Wilson conceptualized his “plain people” into a symbol of American democracy. Gone was the simple value of human labor that value had been politicized by a president seeking international applause in the name of freedom. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs would be the last straw, as Huddleston loudly protested the government’s intervention into the economic and social lives of the populace. His continued protests would bring an end to his Congressional career, however; an acquaintance would say he’d “gotten out of touch with the world.”
While large academic textbooks may delineate various periods of American history, the success of Packer’s book stems from its foundation in a family memoir. The writing moves hypnotically through a whirlwind of years and events vis-à-vis the eyes of individuals who are inevitably revealed as playthings of history. Packer has us witness how shifting political thought affects more than his grandfather’s career, but the root of his personal life as well. Huddleston’s hard-drinking wife scandalizes her Congressman husband in a drunken driving accident that receives widespread media attention. A household of children, including Packer’s mother, watches the grueling marriage of their parents set against the dynamic stage of the changing nation.
Enter Herbert Packer, the author’s father, and a born intellectual. In the late 1950s, he begins building an academic career at Stanford University by compiling an analytical study of ex-Communist witnesses. The result? “The book’s emphasis in the process of fact-finding rather than the truth itself was bound to seem pointless to anyone looking for ammunition to fight the Cold War,” wrote one critic. In challenging the methodology that had been used to derive truth from witness testimonies, Herbert Packer failed to acknowledge the implications of federal research investment that was pouring into specialized higher education programs. No longer havens for free thought, American universities were slowly being overshadowed by the shadow of Washington, DC.
Herbert Packer would blunder again as Stanford’s vice-provost in the mid-1960s when confronted by students demanding increased participation in university affairs. Sympathetically, the author writes, “My father liberal, libertarian, a dove on Vietnam [made] the mistake of projecting a sense of siege instead of openness and conciliation.” He recalls the tears in his father’s eyes upon learning of Martin Luther King’s death. Throughout his career, Herbert Packer would see political heroes toppled King shot, Adlai Stevenson defeated, Richard Nixon elected. And in March, 1969, he would suffer a stroke, an event of physical debilitation the author equally acknowledges in Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, and which he sees as some inevitable result of political exhaustion. Nine months after his stroke, Herbert Packer killed himself.
Another generation frustrated
The last hundred pages of Blood of the Liberals show George Packer moping relentlessly about, caught in some personal struggle for direction amid the shambles of his family history. This section is quite emotionally draining and wouldn’t make for fun beach reading. He wanders through his post-college years, working on a construction crew and joining the Democratic Socialists of America in Boston, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa coveting some satisfying form of social inclusiveness, but finding, like his ancestors, intense frustration. Packer implicates the Clinton years as an era of Americans turning from public service toward the fulfillment of personal goals, but his accusations aren’t entirely biting. Perhaps he recognizes that two centuries of failure might make any liberal just want to throw in the towel and stay home for a while. Though stormy historical events may circumvent liberal principles, policies, and programs, what is left is Tim Ritchie’s suggestion about the need to change a heart. Distracted and frustrated, Packer never quite gets around to saying it which is too bad but what he seems to want to leave us with in this dynamic, moribund and ultimately worthwhile history, is that the seizure of the political moment for liberals should include keeping well and alive the desire to not stop caring.
Joe Kovacs regularly contributes book reviews to PeaceCorpsWriters.org.
Facing the Congo
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293)
Ruminator Books, $27.00
Reviewed by Tina Thuermer (Zaire 1973-75)
THERE ARE THREE THINGS you might want to know about Jeffrey Tayler. One, he is a bona fide pioneer, born either 100 years too late to explore unmapped territories or 100 years too early to go to the stars. Two, he’s a divergent thinker, which makes what he has to say more interesting than that of the average guy on the street. And three, he knows how to wield a pen, which makes his book, Facing the Congo, much more than just a bizarre adventure in a country that now appears to be the disastrous modern frontier of social Darwinism gone wild.
In 1995 Tayler, at the age of 33, was casting about for something to give his life some direction and definition, and casts his eye on Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) after reading V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. He saw Zaire as “a land of tragedy, hope, and great drama: it was vital to its continent, huge and primal and rich in resources; and it was still largely untrammeled by outsiders.” Only those who have lived there have any idea how truly untrammeled Zaire is, and Tayler was to come smack up against its stubborn reality in his voyage of discovery.
Deciding to face the beast at its heart, Tayler travels up the Congo River on one of the rusting barges that still, just barely, ply their way from Kinshasa north on a 1,084 mile long journey to Kisangani, the actual navigable part of the river, but only one-third of its eventual length. The plan was then to buy a pirogue and float his way down the river to Kinshasa, on a 45-day odyssey. “Confronting and vanquishing a tropical river would be my defining achievement. Traveling its jungle waterways, I would strop myself of encumbering personal concerns, remake myself.”
Facing daunting challenges, no less from without than from within himself, Tayler eventually is able to make his way, with Zairois escorts, 470 miles from Kisangani to Mbandaka, facing not just the relentlessness of the river, but the ruthlessness of Zaire’s lawless interior, the poverty of life along its banks, and the fatalism of its people.
“I began to understand Desi and Amisi’s fatalism. If we perished in this wilderness, the forest would absorb us and continue silent and impassive, an eternal, if unfathomable, life force apart, endlessly renewing itself, indifferent to anything we feared, felt, or thought . . . . Fatalism was necessary here, as was surrender.”
Painted against the screen of this uncaring wilderness are two sets of lives: those of the Congolese who subsist, as they have subsisted for hundreds of years, at the mercy and on the bounty of the river, and that of a mondele who dares to take on the challenge of being a relatively rich man in a poor country, a white man in an African country, and to the Congolese, the most suspicious thing of all: a man who can make the choice to be there or not.
A mirror of the inner journey of the PCV
The book is compelling, depressing, and fascinating. Tayler’s journey mirrors the inner journey all Peace Corps Volunteers face what am I doing here, in my vanity, and how could I indulge myself like this in the face of people who have no choices? "The alien in Zaire had seduced me; the threatening had challenged me; and I had pictured its wilderness as a bourn where I could rejuvenate myself through suffering and achievement and the conquest of my fear. But my drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past.” Tayler’s ability to look straight at himself and his motivations provide much of the interest of this book, and make it more than the freak-show travelogue it might have been without his soul searching.
Tina Thuermer (Zaire 197375) is an educator working in an international school in the Washington DC area. She also trains teachers to work in international schools overseas, and has never met a plane ticket she doesn't like.
by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193)
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $24.95
Reviewed by Susan Hundt Bergan (Ethiopia 196668)
LOUISA IS SIMONE ZELITCH’S adaptation of the Old Testament Book of Ruth to twentieth century Jewish history. It is a rich, complex and thoughtful novel told in language that is straightforward but also suffused with longing and regret. The novel explores the quest of the human heart for love and belonging, for forgiveness and reconciliation. A poem that Nora, the main character, wrote in her youth serves as a haunting refrain throughout this fine work:
What is lost, what is lost
We can not have back again.
It is like good bread we’ve eaten.
We cannot eat it again.
It was like a breath we’ve taken.
We can not breathe it again.
It is like a heart we’ve broken
Or our own heart, lost in vain.
The story of Naomi and Ruth
The biblical Book of Ruth is the story of the young widow Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi, her husband and sons had left their home in Bethlehem of Judah to escape a devastating drought and settle in Moab. Now, with her husband and sons dead, the grieving Naomi says farewell to her two daughters-in-law and prepares to return to Judah. Despite Naomi’s urging that she stay in Moab, Ruth insists on accompanying her mother-in-law. Ruth’s entreaty to Naomi resonates in the heart: “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you, for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 2:16)
The two widows, one old and one young, travel in mourning to Bethlehem, where Naomi is greeted as one brought back from the dead. Ruth, the stranger and foreigner, goes into the harvest fields to earn their food and attracts the attention of Naomi’s middle-aged kinsman, Boaz. Drawn to her, Boaz marries Ruth although he is not young and she is a gentile in order to preserve his dead kinsman’s name. Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who fathers Jesse. Jesse becomes the father of King David, and from David’s line is born Jesus, revered by Christians as the Messiah.
The story of Nora and Louisa
In Zelitch’s skillful hands, the Book of Ruth is transformed into the story of Nora Gratz and her daughter-in-law Louisa. Nora is a Hungarian Jew born in the early years of the twentieth century in Kisbarnahely, a drab, isolated railroad town. Nora, her parents, and her Uncle Oskar comprise a remnant Jewish population in the town. Her family is not observant and the rich spiritual and theological heritage of Judaism does not sweeten or strengthen their lives. Nora’s existence is constricted, as symbolized by their house, which she tells us is narrow and “fifteen paces long.” She has neither siblings nor friends until her 11-year-old cousin Bela, from Budapest, comes into her life. Bela, who visits for five consecutive summers with his sister and widowed mother, becomes the polestar of Nora’s solitary life.
Between summer visits, and for years after the visits cease, Nora and Bela write to each other, a correspondence that is the center of her young life and out of which comes Nora’s growing love for her sweet, brilliant and idealistic cousin. Bela’s letters are filled with the dreams and plans of the Hungarian Zionists for a homeland in Palestine.
The novel begins as Nora and Louisa arrive at an Israeli refugee camp in 1949, in search of Bela, who had emigrated many years earlier. Their story is told by Nora and it unfolds layer by layer, secret by secret, as she reveals it to us. Nora narrates the present happenings of their lives in the refugee camp at the same time she is revisiting her past through flashbacks and reflections. Although at times complicated to follow, it is a technique true to the non-linear, yeasty functioning of human memory. The stories of the main characters flow on a river of prose, narrated in the muted voice of a survivor of horror that has at times an almost surreal placidity given the growing menace of national and international events that are marshalling around them. Inexorably, the evil of the times catches them in its grip.
The novel gives us a view, through Bela, of the formation of the Jewish state and the origin of divisions that plague the region to this day. As the years pass, the idealism of Bela fades and he is saddened by the deterioration of relations between his kibbutz and their Arab neighbors. As more Jewish settlers arrive and the kibbutz must buy more land to accommodate them, the original welcome of their neighbors turns to resentment and violence. Bela struggles in vain to find a just solution to the impasse.
Two characters very different, yet with much in common
In Nora and Louisa, Ms. Zelitch has created two women who at first seem to be polar opposites but who eventually reveal strong similarities.
Nora is not a sympathetic character. Louisa at one point says to her, “You make life so hard.” Nora’s namesake in the Book of Ruth, Naomi, asked that her name be changed to Mara, which means bitter. Nora/Mara is small and dark and has a crabbed personality to which the ordinary joys of life except for smoking, to which she is desperately addicted seem foreign. She is judgmental and self-absorbed and seems a stranger even to herself: “I tried to think, was there someone, anyone, with whom I was a human being?” “What was wrong with me?”
An only child, Nora is antipathetic to her mother. When she is nineteen, Nora boards the train for Budapest and never looks back her mother learns of her marriage from a telegram. She seems unable to return the affection and interest of her Budapesti relatives, cousin Adele and Aunt Monika. Until her son Gabor is born, it is only Bela, uncritical and openhearted, who lights up her mind and heart. Her mother says to her, “You always say the wrong thing at the wrong time and call it honesty. And you don’t have a feeling heart.” Yet, despite what Nora’s actions tell us, the hundreds of letters that she composes to Bela but never sends for fear of revealing too much of herself (she sends only the most arch and polished versions), show us the possibility of a more loving nature.
Louisa is the opposite of her mother-in-law Nora in many ways. Louisa is tall and fair; she is German and a Christian. Her heart is simple and loving. She has the voice of an angel and sings lieder with angelic purity. She follows her heart where it leads her, first to Gabor whom she marries and then to Nora, and she does not shrink at declaring her love even when rebuffed. Louisa is uncritical, faithful, and eager to adapt to the ways of the beloved, unlike the obdurate Nora.
Louisa and Nora share the experience of being outsiders, the other. They were both only children who led isolated lives. Nora and her family were not integrated into the life of Kisbarnahely because they are Jews. Louisa, a German, feels herself an outsider in Budapest, and does not even bother to learn Hungarian. In Budapest, as the war approaches, Jews are systematically separated from the rest of the population, gradually barred from certain jobs, removed from the university, from public and artistic life. Eventually, the killings and deportations begin. Nora and Louisa survive all of it, but their family members are killed or disappear during the war years. When Nora and Louisa emigrate to Israel, they are both outsiders in a new way, but Louisa’s otherness is extreme and marks her for persecution.
In pledging herself to Naomi, the Old Testament Ruth must abandon her family, her people and their pagan gods. She adopts Naomi’s people, their ways, and their one God, Yahweh. Louisa is a Christian, but once she arrives in Israel with Nora, she declares her desire to join the Jewish faith. She plunges into Hebrew study and is fluent within several months; she begins studying the Torah with Rabbi Needleman, who has reluctantly accepted her as a student because no one else will. In this key aspect of Louisa and Nora’s story, the analogy to Ruth and Naomi breaks down because Nora does not believe in God nor practice her faith.
Nora has no religion, yet Louisa wants to become a Jew apparently to be more like her. Nora is a Jew by birth but exhibits little knowledge or interest in the relationship with God that formed her people and set them on a singular course that profoundly changed human history. If Norah were observant, God’s commandment to “Honor your father and mother” may have ameliorated her relationship with her mother. However, Nora has no standard for human behavior except her own bleak heart and that provides her with a dark and meager view. She has rejected God and shuffles along with no light to guide her as the world around her descends into the hell of World War II, Yellow Star houses and Nazi death trains.
An enigmatic title character
Louisa, who is central to this story, always remains an enigma. That may be so because Louisa does not tell her own story, Nora does. Somehow Louisa’s apparent simplicity and transparency make us search for something other than what we see, for some more complicated motivation. Louisa chooses to emigrate to Israel with Nora, rather than go back to her native Germany, in her search for home. Once in Israel, her appearance and language draw down upon her the hatred and scorn of those who survived the Holocaust. Here indeed, after putting her hopes in Nora and Israel as refuge, she must have felt again the sadness that Keats alludes to in “To the Nightingale”:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
Louisa’s longing for a home goes beyond a physical place. It is soul-deep and articulates the inchoate longing we all feel for the transcendent, a yearning that St. Augustine speaks to when he says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”
A quest for a comforting home and forgiveness
The characters in Louisa, like the rest of us pilgrims, spend their lives searching for home, for the blessings of love and peace that one’s true home provides. By the end of the novel, light is beginning to dawn on their sadness and there is hope that they may yet be able to forgive each other their offenses for what they did, for what they failed to do. At one despairing point, Louisa says to Rabbi Needleman: “And no one will forgive me. Christ would forgive me. He forgives everyone. How do Jews live without that? What do they do?” Rabbi Needleman answers, “They forgive each other.”
One must be able to forgive and be forgiven in order to survive and transform pain into the redemptive. Human suffering is a great mystery. We know in the depths of our being that we are made for life and happiness, yet suffering and eventually death attend us all. How can one make sense of this contradiction without going beyond the human, beyond the physical? Saint Teresa of Lisieux answers us: “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. God alone fills us.”
Susan Hundt Bergen lives with her husband, “in God’s country [Madison, Wisconsin],” she says, “amidst family and friends.” Recently retired from the state Department of Natural Resources, she works part-time as an environmental consultant but spends, she writes, “the heart of my days gardening, cooking and in pursuit of wisdom.”
Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Ballantine Books, $24.95
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98)
ONLY RECENTLY HAVE I READ Robinson Crusoe for the first time. Crusoe’s book struck cords with me. Islands have a vast amount of cultural currency, as Thurston Clarke points out in his book, Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, but one that has been filtered, at least for me, through the pop cultural lens. It’s hard for me to distance Robinson Crusoe, for example, from television shows like “Survivor,” as kitschy as that may sound. Robinson Crusoe, after all, was also a popular cultural phenomenon, and one that probably inspired similar sensationalism and romanticism regarding islands and the experience of the marooned. Clarke offers a journey detailing what he calls “islomania” or the craze/love that some people feel towards islands.
Clarke carefully plans his trip to detail certain types of islands. He visits three categories of islands: islands that he is already familiar with, famous islands (including Mas A Tierra, the island where Robinson Crusoe was marooned), and islands that can be categorized (for example, scary islands, holy islands, private islands, among others).
The beauty of this undertaking is, in part, in the groundwork that Clarke does for the reader. Clarke does considerable research into the history of the islands that he visits. He does a laudable job of not only imparting it to the reader, but contextualizing what he has learned within his observations into the contemporary state of these islands. This is evident when he engages with the denizens of islands who have ancestral ties to the islands, or experienced clashes between the past and present. Clarke’s description of Mas A Tierra, for example, includes the island’s modern commercial ties to Defoe’s fictional character. The island itself has been renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe by the Chilean government. In a postmodern moment, Clarke begins to confuse Selkirk, the real life marooned sailor who the character of Robinson Crusoe was based on, and Crusoe.
Clarke, of course, has other agendas on his journey. Islands that still retain the qualities that lead to islomania are becoming an endangered species and Clarke is interested in exploring them before they are destroyed through commercial exploitation. His book, then, records the state of the islands at the time of his visits. Later, in his postscript, he mentions some of the changes, good and bad that have happened since then.
Aside from the colorful characters that he profiles and the poignant and serious tone with which he explores islomania, what I like most about this book was its ability to explain islands to a landlubber like myself. Clarke is able to translate his obsession with islands into a language that is understandable to a skeptic jaded by sensational modern representations. Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, may not have converted me just yet, but quite possibly may have convinced me to begin a journey to explore islomania myself.
Paul Shovlin is an English instructor at Ohio University.
A Closer Look
Purgatory: The Movie
Did you miss this one at your local multiplex?
Two women traveling in a foreign country are thrown in jail when martial law is declared. When their own government turns its back, they must resort to desperate measures to escape. Carly and Melanie are in Africa serving in the Peace Corps. However, they are thrown in a prison nicknamed “Purgatory” after being falsely accused of possessing narcotics. Unfortunately, the prison warden is also a pimp using some of his lovelier inmates (including Carly and Melanie) as hookers. This sex-while-incarcerated scenario proves too much for Melanie, who eventually takes her own life, leaving Carly alone in her attempt to flee from the hellish Purgatory. The film stars Tanya Roberts. It came out in 1988.
To Preserve and to Learn
March 1, 1961
I have today signed an Executive order establishing a Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis . . . I recommend to the Congress the establishment of a Permanent Peace Corps a pool of trained Americans men and women sent overseas by the United States Government or through private organizations and institutions to help foreign countries meet their urgent needs for skilled manpower . . . . Let us hope that other nations will mobilize the spirit and energies and skill of their people in some form of Peace Corps making our own effort only one step in a major international effort to increase the welfare of all men and improve understanding among nations.
John F. Kennedy
President of the United States
Resource for writers
Print on Demand Even a Luddite can do it
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 199395)
MY FRIENDS WERE ASTOUNDED. Not because I’d written a book. Not because they could order it from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or any local bookseller. They were simply amazed that a notorious Luddite like me, who heats with a woodstove and thinks that Palms are something read by fortune tellers, had leapt into the burgeoning new world of on-line publishing. The fact is, it was a cinch.
When my agent first recommended iUniverse.com, I had to borrow a computer to look it up. But within days I was reformatting files from the ancient Macintosh I write on, and a few months after that I was holding the first printed copies of The Impenetrable Forest, a memoir of my Peace Corps years in Uganda. This rapid transition from computer files to publication reflects an equally dramatic transformation underway in the publishing industry. Using new printing technology that can create a high quality trade paperback in thirty seconds, “publishing portals” like iUniverse are changing the very way that books are made.
The graphics and word processing files I sent to iUniverse entered a production queue that moves from editing to printing in one to three months, much faster than the lead-time at traditional publishers. By designing and storing books digitally, on-line publishers can print individual orders on demand, avoiding the high production and distribution costs of an initial print run. Print-on-demand (POD) helps keep their investment low, but most companies still ask authors to share in the editing and design expenses, which can range from as little as ninety-nine to more than a thousand dollars. Once the book is completed, however, on-line publishers boast that their titles will never go out of print, remaining perpetually available in an ever-growing digital catalogue. The emphasis now is on trade paperbacks, but Internet publishers are also well positioned to offer paid downloads and eBook (which are readable on your computer or eBook device) formats as those markets develop.
Critics argue that, like the Internet itself, digital publishing opens the door to a flood of unfiltered information, lowering the standards of the literary marketplace. Others believe the change was long overdue. iUniverse founder Richard Tam has called POD technology the first real innovation in the publishing business in centuries. It has allowed his company not only to introduce new writers, but also to reprint titles by established authors as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Judy Blume. A recent partnership with IDG Books, publisher of the Frommer’s travel guides, Cliffsnotes, and the popular “For Dummies”series, hints at ways that POD may permanently change the industry. With IDG’s titles available digitally, consumers will have the opportunity to browse by chapter and print customized books a travel guide, for example, tailored to the stops on your itinerary.
Publishing made possible for niche book
The rise of Internet publishers comes at a time of consolidation and narrowing content at traditional publishing houses. With the spate of mergers and takeovers in the past several years, over 80% of the American book business now rests in the hands of a half-dozen media conglomerates. Publishers find themselves pressured to match the high profit margins of other media divisions, leaving less room for niche and small run titles. While I found several traditional houses enthusiastic about my writing, none could risk investing in the modest market for a Peace Corps story about mountain gorillas and African jungles. Working under the demands of parent corporations and shareholders, editors are far less able to publish a book simply because they like it.
POD has stepped in to help fill this gap in the marketplace. Perusing the bookstores at iUniverse, xLibris, Chapbooks.com, and other e-publishers, I find novels, non-fiction, poetry, travel and self-help, as well as an array of reprinted titles. The bestsellers and staff picks include a history of the 1918 Boston Red Sox, a series of Westerns, and a guide to building robots. One Internet-published financial guide recently broke the top five on Amazon.com’s bestseller list.
Ironically, the conglomerates that helped create the need for the POD market now seem to recognize its potential. Last year Barnes & Noble purchased a 49% stake in iUniverse, and Barnes and Noble.com now offers a direct link to iUniverse titled “Publish Your Book.” Random House now holds 49% of xLibris, and Time Warner plans to launch its own POD site, iPublish.com, within the next several months. With the entry of these big industry players, on-line publishing has taken a large step towards the mainstream. Publisher’s Weekly recently predicted that POD may account for thirty percent of all publishing within three years.
The good news and the bad
For writers, there is good news and bad news about publishing with an on-line firm. The good news is that POD provides a quick route to get new work in print, and the royalty rates are often better than those offered at traditional houses. The bad news is that on-line publishers offer very little support for their titles in terms of marketing and distribution. Most have bookstores at their web sites and also cooperate with the major Internet retailers. iUniverse makes their titles available to local booksellers through a major wholesaler, and chooses certain books to stock at the brick and mortar outlets of their corporate partner, Barnes & Noble. In general, however, POD authors can expect to face many of the same marketing challenges familiar to self-published writers.
Working with on-line publishers definitely feels like pioneering in a new frontier of the industry. From their constantly expanding programs and new corporate partnerships to the shifting face of their websites, these companies are evolving rapidly to define their niche. There will inevitably be glitches along the way, like the computer error last April when 400 iUniverse titles disappeared completely from the database and had to be re-designed from scratch.
Currently, the biggest challenge facing all POD publishers is simply keeping up with demand. Manuscript submissions to iUniverse rose a whopping 29% in September 2000 alone, and have increased over 200% in the past year. Printing facilities often cannot keep pace, making delivery of shipments unpredictable. (POD authors can take some consolation in imagining that the glut of orders must be for their book, but this fantasy only goes so far.)
With POD, on-line publishers have brought the information technology revolution to the world of books. As with all new ideas, it will take time to see just how this innovation changes the industry, but skeptics and advocates agree that Internet publishing is here to stay. In the long term, it may make concepts like POD, customized content, e-books and other formats an everyday part of the publishing equation. In the short term, it gives authors an excellent way to get their work in print and into the marketplace. And if a computer-klutz like me can pull it off, anyone can.
Thor Hanson is a writer and naturalist from the Pacific Northwest. After his Peace Corps service, he lived and studied in Kenya and Tanzania. Hanson graduated from the University of Redlands and received his M.S. from the University of Vermont's Field Naturalist Program. His book The Impenetrable Forest was published in October 2000, by iUniverse.com
Resource for writers publishing alternatives
- Bob Boeder (Malawi 196566) has self-published two books with Old Mountain Press, Hardrock Fever: Running 100 Miles through Colorado's San Juan Mountains and Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Trail Ultraruning. At their web site, http://www.oldmp.com/ they provide very complete details on services, costs, preparing your manuscript. They print 200-page minimum runs, but shorter runs of 40-page maximum, saddle-stitched books and they also do eBooks.
- 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.
Resource for writers Opportunities for writers
Phillip LeBel (Ethiopia 196568) writes: I am pleased to announce that publications of the Center for Economic Research on Africa (CERAF), are now available online via Adobe Acrobat reader. We consider these papers as complementary to and supportive of articles published in peer-reviewed publications. What we provide is an internet resource where interested scholars doing research on economic issues in Africa can have rapid access to recent work being undertaken on timely subjects.
In addition to existing titles, we welcome manuscript submissions by scholars to the research monograph series. Guidelines for the research monograph series are posted on the website. In placing these in the public domain, CERAF does not exercise any copyright authority over any paper issued in the research monograph series and authors are free to use the site in any distribution of their choosing.
The CERAF website address is: http://alpha.montclair.edu/~lebelp/CERAF.html
Resource for writers A New Friendly Agent
A veteran in the publishing world, John Silbersack will turn his talents and attentions towards agenting, a move that will not only round out his publishing experience, but allow him to draw upon his extensive knowledge of the industry to help foster the careers of published authors, and discover and introduce brand new writers to the reading community. Silbersack’s new agency, named Silbersack Associates, LLC, has acquisition successes in all consumer categories including literary fiction, thriller, mystery, entertainment, science fiction, fantasy, pop-culture, sports, romance, science, children’s, celebrity, film and music.
Silbersack can be reached at 212/768-9780. Queries can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and works can be submitted by mail to:
Silbersack Associates, LLC
5 Harbor Road
Sands Point, New York, 11050.
© PeaceCorpsWriters.org and RPCV Writers & Readers 2001