This version of the July 2001 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers.

It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include listings from “40 Years of Peace Corps Writers: The Tour, ”archived copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, any bibliographic listings or "Links of Interest."



Peace Corps Writers – July 2001

Contents — click on title to jump down to read. Or just print the whole thing.


Peace Corps Writers — July 2001

    40th Anniversary Conference

    Read, Sell, Sign

    Read
    We have received a tremendous response from writers interested in reading at the NPCA’s Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Peace Corps September 20 to 23. The readings — 10 minutes long — will be on Friday and Saturday of the Conference at the Hotel Washington. The readings will be staged in the main lobby of the hotel. While it will be slightly noisy (the bar is nearby), we will have a podium and microphone and a special section with comfortable sofas for the audience. The number of available reading slots is now limited and once they are filled there is no guarantee that you will have the opportunity to read about your amazing overseas experience. If you would like to celebrate the Peace Corps’ 40th anniversary in Washington, DC from September 20–23 by reading something you wrote, please contact Joe Kovacs at: Joe Kovacs@hotmail.com.
         Please send him the following information:

    • Your country and years of service.
    • A one- or two-sentence description of yourself that you would like to have read by way of introduction.
    • By post, send a copy of the material you will read to Joe at:
           The Woodner, 3636 16th Street, NW, Apt. A909
           Washington, DC 20010

    Sell
    Politics and Prose, the amazing D.C. bookstore, will have a booth at the Hotel Washington and will be selling the books of Peace Corps writers during the conference.
        If you would like to have your books sold at the booth, please send me at jpcoyne@cnr.edu the title, publisher, year, and ISBN # of your books. I will forward this information onto Politics and Prose.
         If you are not coming to the conference, but would like to have your books sold, please send me the same information.
         If you are published by a small press, or self-published, please forward that information as well. I cannot, however, guarantee (sorry) that P&P will be able to order your books. If you wish to bring books with you to have P&P sell them for you, please let me know by email and I’ll check to see if they will do that favor for you.
         The bookstore told me that they would need four weeks to insure that they have your book on hand, so don’t forget to let me know.

    Sign
    If you are a published writer who is reading, and you would like to sign copies of your books, we will arrange for you to so immediately after your reading. Write to me at jpcoyne@cnr.edu if you would like to have a signing.

    Writers panels & panelists at the NPCA Conference
    The writing panels have been set for the Conference. Listed below are the panels and the 42 panel members who have been kind enough to participate during the conference. I am pleased to say that the panelists come from a range of countries-of-service and span the four decades of the Peace Corps. The panel workshops will be from Friday afternoon through most of Saturday. The panels will take place in two different rooms. At the moment, no two panels will be held at the same time.
         The Peace Corps Communications Office will be filming some of the panels. I don’t know which ones they wish to film, however. Also, World Wise Schools will interview a number of panelists about writing and teaching.

    The panels are:

      The Peace Corps Novel as Literature
      Poetry from the Peace Corps Experience
      Publishing Translations
      Travel Now, Write Later
      Write! Edit! Publish!
      Writing about the Environment
      Writing Children's Books
      Writing On-Line
      Writing Your Peace Corps Story
      Working with Words

    The panelists are:

      Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 1962–64)
      David Arnold (Ethiopia 1964–66)
      Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962–64)
      Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
      Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80)
      Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87)
      Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
      Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67)
      John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)
      Karen DeWitt (Ethiopia 1966–68)
      Patricia Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
      David Espey (Morocco 1962–64)
      Robert E. Gribbin (Kenya 1968–70)
      Kathy Karlson (Togo 1969–71)
      Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)
      Chuck Kleymeyer (Peru 1966–68)
      Margy Burns Knight (Benin 1976–77)
      Charles Larson (Nigeria 1962–64)
      Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)
      Joyce Lombardi (Chad 1993–95)
      William McNally (Peru 1964–66)
      Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
      Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
      Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)
      Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964–66)
      Meredith Pike-Baky (Togo 1971–-73)
      Carolyn Hamilton Proctor (Suriname 1999–2001)
      Pat Reilly (Liberia 1972–75)
      Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86)
      Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Brazil 1964–66)
      P. David Searles (PC/D Philippines 1971–74, PC/W 1975–76)
      Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96)
      Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)
      Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
      Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 1989–90)
      Margaret Szumowski (Zaire and Ethiopia 1973–75)
      David A. Taylor (Mauritania, 1983–85)
      Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87)
      Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 1988–90)
      Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69)
      John Woods (Ethiopia 1965–68)
      Simone Zelitch (Hungary 1991–93)

    In This Issue

    A Writer Writes
    Barbara Carey went to India in 1966 with her first husband, came home and raised two children, went through a divorce, and ran her own adoption agency for 15 years. After remarrying in 1990, she moved with her new husband to Seattle and together they started a software company. Two years ago, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she retired from that company.
         Her illness has given her, she says, “a much sharper focus on life and helped me make good choices of how I spend my time.” Today, she is involved with paddling on a dragon boat team, hiking, walking, playing tennis and golf, and snow shoeing and skiing in the winter. She has also continued to follow her love of languages, earned a master’s degree in English as a Second Language along the way, and is learning French, Spanish, and some Chinese. But most of the time she has spent writing children’s books and songs, both prompted by her growing number of grandchildren.
         Barbara also spent time writing about a trip she took in November of 1998 — thirty years after leaving India — when she flew with her husband to Bombay, and then traveled by train to her Peace Corps site. In this issue, Barbara retells the account of her touching and dramatic “homecoming” to the village and the friends she had left behind. “I had no idea what to expect,” she writes, and as the train moved slowly through the afternoon heat, passing lush fields and towns crowded with noise, people, color, and life, she began to reflect on the people she had known, wondering how and if she would find them when they arrived. Read in A Writer Writes what this RPCV found when she reached her village.

    Talking With Poets
    I talked (via email) with six poets, all of who will be in Washington, D.C. for the NPCA Conference and participating in our Poetry from the Peace Corps Experience panel. This interview focuses on some basic questions of how and why a person writes poetry. The poets are Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93), Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988–90), Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91), Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–1979). Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86), and Margaret Szumowski (Zaire and Ethiopia 1973–75),

    Letter Home
    Alice Flynn Fitzpartrick (Botswana 1987–89) joined the Peace Corps after her last daughter had gone off to college. Her letter was written for her class reunion at The College of New Rochelle and is a reflective piece about how the Peace Corps experience changed the way she looks at life, and how it also changed her life.

    And more . . .
    Besides all of that, we have Recently Published Books, and five book reviews. Read . . .

John Coyne
Editor


A Letter from Botswana

    This “Letter Home” was written by Allison (Alice) Flynn Fitzpartrick (Botswana 1987–89) for her college class reunion.

    IT WAS 1987. I WAS LIVING IN LOS ANGELES and was beginning to panic because my youngest child was applying to colleges and the balance she provided in my life in LaLa Land was disappearing. I would probably turn into just another workaholic in my high-tech world of LEXIS/NEXIS sales management. Or worse, they’d promote me to headquarters in Dayton, Ohio! A few unsolicited job offers forced me to think about what I wanted to do differently now that my family was no longer my prime consideration. How important was money with two in college? Could I be satisfied just continuing to make a lot of lawyers richer? Wasn’t there a way to do something important in a completely different environment? Could I push my need level down a bit?
         An ad on TV captivated my imagination — “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” I applied to the Peace Corps and when I was accepted they asked if I had a preference for an area of the world and type of assignment. I said I’d like to run a handicrafts cooperative in Chile. My assignment was a brickyard in Botswana! Go figure.
         I went with a group of 10 mostly mid-career business types and most of us worked with “Bridages” throughout the country. The Brigades had been established to teach useful trades in remote villages and were supposed to be self-sustaining. Most were financial disasters so we were to advise them on sound business practices.
         So I was a glorified business consultant, fortified with an MBA and 10 years of fast track experience, in the bush preaching efficiency to a very eager and puzzled audience. In Botswana there had never been the presence of money or the absence of time. Neither had any particular value. My message turned out to be irrelevant in the people’s lives, but their lessons had a profound impact on mine. Imagine living your life with no consideration of time or money. It’s very seductive.

    LATER I HELPED the First Lady of Botswana — a progressive woman with peasant roots — get her community center “running like a business.” We offered a pre-school (unheard of), women’s programs, community discussions and some very basic business courses. I worked very closely with six warm and wonderful women who called me “mosadi mogolo” (old woman).
         The community center even accepted some handicapped children into the program — instead of assigning them to a cattle post, and the staff decided I should be a teacher, too. But, to their horror, I refused to beat the children to discipline them, especially one five-year-old child who had cerebral palsy and very limited self-control. One morning as I was changing her outfit for the third time and washing her down after another “accident,” one of the other teachers came into the bathroom to help me with the mess. She said, very tenderly, “In our country people like you don’t do jobs like this.”
         “Why not?” I barked.
         “Because you’re too high.”
         I was shocked and told her that in my country, people take responsibility for their own messes, and this was clearly my responsibility. She took the dirty clothes from me and as we stood together at the sink she said: “At least let me help you.” From then on we were sisters and the Peace Corps really made sense to me.

    RE-ENTRY TO THE U.S. was difficult. I no longer fit the upwardly mobile, yuppified world. I longed for the easy, the communality of my life in Africa — life without pressure, virtually no stress. A life with accepting, kindly people, with spontaneous singing and joyful dancing, even when the batteries died.
         I eventually secured a job in the kinder, gentler world of non-profits and even found the courage to move “home” to Connecticut after 25 years away. Family and roots and comfortable connective tissue were what Africa taught me to value. And though it sounds corny, that’s the background music of my life now, with four generations closely interwoven, like the beautiful baskets made by the women of Botswana. Simple ingredients, highly functional, with a natural primitive sense of cohesiveness and purpose. I had to go to Africa to recognize these gifts that I was born to. I had to come home again to appreciate their worth.


A Writer Writes

Thirty Years Later

by Barbara Carey (India 1966–68)

    “I DON’T UNDERSTAND what is ‘first class’” about this train car, my husband said.
         I looked around at the dirty, rusty old car, with bent bars on the open window, red betel juice stains on the walls, and the single hard seat in the small cabin. I looked through the bars to the bustling train station, with hawkers, beggars, food and magazine stalls, travelers, crying children, hungry dogs, and all the noise that went along with the bustling activity in the humid Bombay afternoon. I could smell the pungent odor that is always present in India — a combination of rotting garbage, sweaty bodies, and smoke from dung fires. The sights, sounds and smells were coming back to me after thirty years of being away. I suddenly realized why such a decrepit car would be labeled “first class.” “It’s because we are the only people allowed in here,” I explained to my husband. “In India, there are people everywhere. You are never alone. It isn’t the quality of the cabin that separates us from the others. It’s the luxury of having some space and time to ourselves.”
         We sat back and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the hard bench in the humid afternoon air. The only first class tickets available for the four-hour train trip had been “Non AC” — that is, no air conditioning. I didn’t mind, however, as the heat and noise contributed to my nostalgia. The humidity, the vivid colors, the sounds of life at the station, and the scene of the ramshackle slums of Bombay as the train pulled out of the station were quickly bringing me back thirty years. Back to a time of idealism and the eternal belief of youth — that we really do have the power to change the world.

Joining the Peace Corps
My husband and I had joined the Peace Corps right out of college in 1966. The Vietnam War was raging, and we were among the “Peaceniks” who felt there was a better way. We were given three months of training in poultry management and the local Marathi language before we were sent off to Nasik, a town of 100,000 in the state of Maharashtra, India. There were twenty-one of us in group “India 26” — all of us scattered around the state whose most famous city is Bombay. At the end of our two years of service, most of us had come to the painful realization of how hard it really was to make any significant difference in the lives of people in a culture that is 5,000 years old. As a result, most of us gained more from our experience than we were able to give.
     We returned to America in 1968 to begin the process of establishing homes and careers; and soon the PTA, the school board, and the local soccer leagues along with our jobs drained us of any leftover zeal to change the world. For some of us — myself included — eventual divorce, and the life changes that go along with it, also became a part of our life experiences. I remarried and moved on.

An opportunity to return
In 1998, my new husband, Pat, and I were invited to represent our software company at a conference in India. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and to extend our business trip by two weeks and travel to Nasik where I had been stationed in the Peace Corps. It was not an easy decision to make and I was not sure what — or who — I was looking for by going back. However in November of 1998, thirty years after leaving India, we flew from Seattle to Bombay, and after one night in a hotel, found ourselves on the first class train to Nasik . Less than 48 hours after leaving home, I would be back in Nasik with a new husband, very little memory of the Marathi language, and thirty years of change — both within and without. I had no idea what to expect, and as the train moved slowly through the afternoon heat, passing lush fields and towns crowded with noise, people color, and life, I began to reflect on the people I had known when I lived in Nasik, wondering how — and if — I would find each of them when we arrived.

Remembering friends
My first thought was of Chief, a wealthy Hindu, who was used to power and money. Chief had a “purse” from the government, which he received for having been a “Chief” of a small sovereignty at the time of independence in 1948. Chief lived in the largest house in Nasik — full of servants, friends, family as well as local and at times national politicians. Chief gave large dinner parties, traveled the world, and was a very gracious host to the local foreign community. It was Chief I had called to say we were returning to Nasik, and he had been most gracious in arranging for a place for us to stay.
     Falu and Roshan Irani were of the Parsi community. They lived in a small, older home on the family compound with their two teen-aged sons. Falu had been educated in England and raised in a wealthy family. He was a gentleman farmer, enjoying the time in his fields on his tractor and the feeling of dirt under his fingernails. Falu was also a hunter, helping local villages when a leopard or tiger crept too close and started taking their livestock or sometimes, a child. I remembered many evenings spent with Falu and Roshan, she sitting quietly after serving us an exquisite meal while Falu sipped whisky and philosophized on the meaning of life or told wild tales of his hunting experiences. Falu and Roshan were very peaceful people, rarely leaving the solitude and peace of their quiet compound.
The D’Souza family drifted next into my mind. They were Christians, with four teenaged children. Elias, at 19 was out of school and worked full-time with his parents on their small poultry farm. This very poor family was just starting their poultry endeavor with their first two hundred chickens when the Peace Corps Volunteers who preceded us in Nasik had begun to work with them. Those Volunteers were retired Iowa farmers who wanted to do something significant in their retirement. When we arrived to replace them, they had helped the D’Souza family build their poultry farm to nearly five hundred chickens. They had also started raising broilers as well as chickens for egg production. Most of our time as Volunteers was dedicated to this fine, hard-working family. At the time, they lived in the feed shed adjacent to their poultry house. Elias had once told me that the best gift Ivan, the retired farmer, had given him was to teach him how to work and to work hard. I knew Elias had put everything into his family’s business, and I was very curious to see if they were still in operation and what level of success they might have achieved.
     The last family that I recalled touched my heartstrings the most, being among the poorest of India’s poor. Our sweepers had been “Harijans” or outcasts in the strictly stratified Hindu culture. All of the children in the family worked, and most days, ten-year-old Uma came to clean our rooms along with her six-year-old sister and two-year-old brother. Uma had a twinkle in her eye and a great smile. She would teach me Marathi words and I taught her English words, which she was very keen to learn. Each holiday she took time to teach me about the local traditions and would bring special sweets or colored powder to show me how they celebrated. I had held Uma at her wedding as she cried before she went out to meet her new twenty-one-year-old husband – ten years her senior. I had encouraged her to only have two children, hoping she and they could have a better life with fewer children to care for. I had long ago lost track of Uma and had no idea how or where to find her. I assumed she was living somewhere among the poor masses of India. I had committed a full week to trying to locate her on this trip.

Arriving in Nasik
It was evening as we pulled into the station. Nothing looked familiar as I walked towards the large, new station, and I almost wondered if I was in the right place. Suddenly a well-dressed man came towards me, and I realized it was Chief. The sight of the older, but familiar face was very welcome and I was relieved to be greeted with such warmth so very far from home. Chief took us to a restaurant for dinner, then drove us to the bungalow of a friend, where we would stay. It was only later that I would learn why we were not given accommodations in his own, large home.
     As Volunteers, we had enjoyed many meals and lively evenings in that magnificent home. Now, the morning after our arrival, I stood dumbfounded in front of it as I saw its wretched state of disrepair. The house had not been painted for years. Porches were sagging, the roof needed replacement and the yard was no longer maintained. Inside I could see that the house had not been cleaned for a long time and garbage was being thrown out the back door. Chief sat on the porch, petting his dog and drinking beer. As we began to talk, I realized that he had already had a lot to drink and that my dear, old friend was an alcoholic. He talked about his circumstances, saying that the purse from the government had run out many years before, and that he had been left without an income. His sons had been raised to be “idle wealthy” and were not adjusting well to establishing themselves as businessmen. With a growing sadness, I left to attempt to find my other old friends.

Falu and Roshan
We walked through the streets of the city, which had grown ten times in population over the years. The center of the town had changed so much it was difficult to orient myself. As we neared Falu’s compound, however, things began to look as they had thirty years before, and I approached their same small yellow house with a comfortable sense of the familiar.
     My knock was answered. There stood Roshan, her face closed with suspicion at the strangers standing on her porch. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she smiled her warm, wonderful smile, as she recognized me with my full head of gray hair and my new husband. She welcomed us and as we shared tea she filled me in on thirty years of their family history. One of her sons now lived in the U.S. The other lived in the compound with his wife and two-year-old son. Falu himself was well, but had gone from being a reclusive farmer to a reclusive writer. He rarely left the compound, using his time to write stories of his hunting adventures. Falu slept all day and wrote all night, she explained. She invited us back for dinner to have a good visit with him.
     That evening we laughed, remembered, and shared many old stories. Falu and Roshan were the same gentle people, happy and comfortable with the lives they were living. I asked them about the D’Souza family and it was from them that I got my first understanding of the measure of D’Souza’s success. They had prospered, beyond their wildest dreams, I was told. Roshan gave me their phone number, and I could hardly wait for the morning to make contact with them again. Roshan also knew something of Uma, as Uma’s family had also worked for Roshan. She was quite sure that many years before, Uma had moved to a town approximately 200 kilometers to the south. She had not heard anything of her or the family for a very long time.
     That night my head was reeling. So far I had found two of the four families I had known so well thirty years before. Tomorrow I would learn of the D’Souzas and I had a lead to Uma. Would I actually find them all, coming full circle with my experiences over the span of thirty years? I contemplated the changes in Chief’s life — undoubtedly he had had too much money and too little discipline, slipping slowly into a decrepit and — for him — humiliating lifestyle. Alcohol had drained him of any energy to improve his condition, and he was simply drinking his time away. Falu on the other hand, reclusive as he had become, was still his old self — warm, humorous, and dedicated to his new writing career. I wondered what I would find with Elias and his family the following day. I finally drifted off to sleep, thinking mostly of Uma and wondering whether I would be lucky enough to find her among the masses of India’s poor.

The D’Souzas
The following morning I phoned Elias D’Souza. After recovering from such a surprise call, he invited us to visit their office later that day and to come to their house for dinner. As we drove up to the building that afternoon, I began to realize that something very big had happened with CHEMNR Farms. The building was large, the grounds expansive. As I came up the stairs, Elias ran out to meet me — there it was — the same great smile, only now on a handsome, successful, fifty-year old man. Over tea, Elias related the story of their success. He stressed that everything was based upon his having learned to work hard from Ivan and Edith Brotzman. For years he had not even had a Coke, as he put every rupee back into the business. All of the children had worked with the family business and all were still involved. Only his father had passed away. Richard, his younger brother, was an integral part of the business, even though he had been paralyzed at age fourteen by the use of an unsterile needle during an appendectomy.
     The business now had farms in many locations and employed several thousands of people. The business volume was over fifty million dollars a year, the largest chicken operation in all of India. Elias travels the world on business trips, and tries to get to Florida several times a year to visit Ivan, who has remained like a father to the entire family.
     After a tour of the facilities, we were taken to Elias’ home. Where once we had worked side by side, debeaking and plucking chickens in their dirt yard, now stood a 12,500 square foot mansion, complete with manicured grounds, swimming pool, and Italian marble floors. Elias’ gracious wife, Terry and their three young adult children greeted us with warmth and curiosity. We were so comfortable with these fine people that we accepted their invitation to move to their guestroom and remain with them for the rest of our stay. Over the course of the next few days we visited Elias’ mother, brother and sisters, meeting their children (including an Edith and an Ivan) and reminiscing over the changes their hard work had brought.
     But Elias had one more surprise in store for me. During our first visit to his office, I had told him of my desire to find Uma, and the very small lead I had from Roshan, that she might be in a town called Ahmednagar, about 200 kilometers to the south. Elias took down what little information I had and offered to call his good friend, Mr. Roy, who happened to be the Superintendent of Police in the Ahmednagar district.
     That very evening, as we returned from touring the CHEMNR — now C and M — farms, Elias greeted us with the news that Mr. Roy had called him back saying that Uma had been located. I couldn’t believe my luck, and asked if they were very sure that it was she. His answer brought tears to my eyes — “Yes,” he said. “they are very sure, because when the policeman asked if she was Uma Chhajalane, she at first was very afraid. When they said an American woman was looking for her, she began to cry, then laugh, then cry and laugh again.” I realized it must be her, and that we still shared the emotional bond that had so tied us thirty years before.

Uma
The following day, we hired a car and drove to Ahmednagar. Mr. Roy had invited us to his bungalow to be reunited with Uma. We approached the imposing compound dominated by the stately English-style bungalow with its large covered porches. Trees shaded the well-kept yard; servants rested or walked slowly through the hot sun. Several government jeeps were parked on the side of the house. I felt nervous and suddenly very unsure of myself.
     Mr. Roy and his wife, both of whom were very excited about the scheduled reunion, greeted us at the door. He had brought Uma and her family to the compound, and they were already waiting for us. His making the arrangements, and bringing her to his home particularly touched me, as India is a highly stratified culture. Mr. Roy, as the Superintendent of Police, was one of the most important people in the district. Uma, as a low-class sweeper, was one of the least important. Yet Mr. Roy treated her with tremendous respect throughout our visit that day. Both he and his wife were extremely enthusiastic about the event, and those under him followed his commendable example.
     After sharing a cup of coffee and making a “game plan” for the day, Mr. Roy took us out to the porch, where Uma and her family and friends were waiting. There was a cluster of animated, village people. Although I hadn’t seen Uma since she was twelve years old, I knew her instantly, and as she ran to me and we threw our arms around each other, I felt my heart would burst. She was so small, at about 4 feet 8 inches — no taller than when I had last seen her. She gave us flower leis, homemade sweets, placed red dots of respect and welcome on each of our foreheads. She had even hired someone to take photographs. I wondered how she could afford all she had done to make our welcome special.
     As I could no longer speak Marathi, we conversed in English with the help of an English-speaking young man accompanying Uma. His name was Sunil, and I was soon to learn that he had a special place in her life. I was also about to learn what my longest-lasting influence as a Volunteer may have been. In the sixties, we were very concerned with the growing population, and many of us committed to the concept of zero population growth — that is, having no more than two children to replace yourselves. As a Volunteer, I had strongly encouraged Uma to have no more than two children, assuring her that both she and her children would have a better life with fewer to provide for. Uma had believed me and had given birth to just one son and one daughter. How could I know, in my youth, or have the foresight to understand the consequences of that commitment on her part? Now, at the age of 42, Uma was a widow, her husband having drunk himself to death some years before. Her daughter, Sarika, had married the previous year and had moved to another city, becoming part of her husband’s family as is the custom in India.
     At this point in the telling of her story, Uma’s voice became shaky and she began to cry. Her oldest child, her son, Sunil, had been killed in a motor scooter accident the previous year. He was one of thousands of young men who are killed in car and motor scooter accidents every year in India, with their terribly overcrowded roads, jammed with speeding buses, full of dangerous potholes, and snuffing out young lives in tragic accidents on a daily basis.
     Sunil had still been unmarried. Suddenly Uma was truly alone in a country with no social safety net, where your sons care for you when you are old and unable to work. Yet Uma now has no sons. I felt the weight of my words of thirty years before and asked myself for the first, but not the last time, how much of her situation resulted from my own words to her, however well intended at the time.
     As we crammed thirty years of history into our first excited minutes together, the others in the group that had come with Uma were gathering around, staring, smiling, and generally fawning over us. Uma introduced us — her sister Jaisri was there, whom I had also known thirty years before. Uma explained that she now lived with Jaisri, also a widow, along with her son, his family, and Jaisri’s mother-in-law. Various friends and neighbors had also come to share the day. I could see that they were wearing their best clothes, their faces full of smiles and curiosity. All the while, the young man, Sunil, continued translating their Marathi into excellent English for us.
     Gently, Uma put her hand on Sunil’s arm. “This is now my son,” she said. “That is why I call him Sunil.” I saw the warmth of the smile that passed between them. Yet had I not just been introduced to “Sunil’s” real mother? I saw her there now — tall for an Indian woman, in a bright green sari, smiling through the crowd with pride at her son. Sunil went on to explain that he and his mother lived near Uma, and that they had been very worried about her after losing her only son. Sunil had begun to check on her every day, to see that she was eating and whether she needed anything. Soon, Uma was calling him “Sunil,” and they began to grow close. “Now,” he said to me, “I visit her every day. If I ever missed, she would worry that something was wrong. But it is OK, because I never miss. She has had enough worry and sadness in her life.” Where there is no safety net by the government in India, their rich cultural fabric holds strongly together. Needs are met. People are not left to suffer alone. They fill in the gaps for each other, and life moves on. I was very impressed.

A visit to Uma’s home
At this point, the entire entourage proceeded to load themselves into the two government jeeps that stood waiting. Pat and I were pushed aboard, and off we went, through the streets of the town. People were hanging onto the sides of the jeeps; colorful saris were blowing in the wind. The excited drivers honked their horns as though they were escorting a maharaja, warning everyone to get out of their way. Uma and her family laughed, waved, and shouted for joy. It was a glorious moment for them, these hard-working people from the lowest class of their society, riding jubilantly through the streets of their town in the jeeps of the Superintendent of Police, celebrating their moment of glory.
     We arrived at a small, clean compound. The walking areas were built up, so the drainage ditches cut into them actually worked and the walkways were clean and dry. The houses with their shared walls had been recently painted a faded whitewash of pastel blues and pinks. Uma’s unit consisted of a small living room, an adjacent room with a table, a tall wardrobe, and a color TV set, much to my surprise. A kitchen off the back had shelves lined with colorful brass and stainless steel pots, and a washroom had running water for several hours a day. The community toilets were behind the housing units. I could see the bedrolls stashed here and there around the house, and it was clear that at night all of the floor space was taken up as sleeping space. The house had a wonderful smell — onions, curry, spices — and they had a feast ready to be spread. Gone, however, was the smell of a dung fire, as they cooked on two propane burners. That meant that gone, too, were the constant eye infections of the women as they labored over the relentless smoke of the dung fires of the past.
     We were brought into the dark kitchen, where Uma, laughing, had both of us making chapattis to go with the chicken curry meal they had prepared. Pat and I ate alone, while what seemed like the entire population of the housing compound stood at the door and watched our every move. We looked through her photo album, seeing pictures of Sunil and her daughter, Sarika, as they grew up. The last photo was that of a handsome young man with dark eyes, staring out at us, taken just weeks before the accident that took his life.
     Uma opened the wardrobe and removed a bright orange sari, which she handed to me as a gift. I was overwhelmed at the amount of their giving out of their poverty. We talked, laughed, took photographs, shared memories. The afternoon passed.
     Finally, it was time to go. According to the plan we had made with Mr. Roy, only Uma, Pat and I returned in the jeep to his residence. The three of us were escorted into his living room and were offered Coca-Cola. Uma at first refused the glass offered to her by the servant, thinking it was not meant for her. Mr. Roy, however, spoke kindly to her, and told her she was a guest in his house and to please accept the refreshment. She blushed and took the glass from the tray.

A gift for Uma
At this point I took the watch off my wrist and put it on Uma’s slim arm. She smiled her thanks. This was my time to talk about how to give back to Uma. I asked Mr. Roy to ask her what she needed, or what I could do for her. I didn’t know how, or in what form I could meet her greatest needs.
Upon translating my request to her, Uma gave an animated response. I saw tears come to the eyes of Mrs. Roy, who had joined us, and even Mr. Roy seemed to collect himself before he spoke. “She says she has everything she needs, Mrs. Carey. She is just so happy you came to visit her.”
     I felt tears stinging my eyes as well. This was a meeting between two women — one of the richest in the world by most standards, and one of the poorest. Uma had spent the day welcoming us, feeding us, giving us gifts. This was now her opportunity to ask for anything in return and she knew I would try to give it to her. Yet short of bringing back her son, there was nothing that she really needed or wanted in life. She has strong emotional support with her adopted son, Sunil, her sister’s family, and her neighbors and friends. She has a roof over her head, plenty of food, and enough to wear. She has a job cleaning for the government making $700 per year, which combined with the incomes of the other adults in the household is enough to meet their daily needs. She even has an advantage over many Indians because she works for the government, which will mean she will get a pension in the amount of half her salary when she retires.
     I was touched. I was impressed. And I was very humbled. She really did have everything she needs. She doesn’t face loneliness, hunger, fear of danger, or lack of purpose. What could she possible need from me? It was quiet for a moment while the reality of her strength and position in life settled into us. The moment passed, but it will not soon be forgotten.
     After some discussion with Uma and Mr. Roy, we finally did discuss how I could send her some money on a regular basis, which she said she would accept. He cautioned me not to send more than $700 a year, the amount of her salary, as he felt it was important not to set her up as a target or alienate her in any way from the safe emotional and cultural environment that she currently enjoyed.
     The three of us parted from Mr. and Mrs. Roy, thanking them for their hospitality and gracious hosting of my reunion with my dear old friend. The fact that the Roys were of a high class, and had treated Uma and her family as guests in their home was not lost on me. As we left, Mr. Roy told me he would check on Uma periodically, making sure all was well. The man was a jewel.
     We climbed back into the car we had driven, bringing Uma along to return her to her home. Along the way she asked us to stop at several places, dragging us out of the car and bringing us in to meet her boss, her co-workers, other friends. She wore the big smile I knew so well as she showed us off to her friends, and I was happy for her. I was happy for myself. Just as when I was in the Peace Corps, I came to give, but received more than I gave. Once again, I was leaving with a full heart and a renewed appreciation of what matters in life. Thank you Uma. Thank you India. Thank you Peace Corps. I am a better person because of you.


Talking with . . .

Poets

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I N PREPARATION FOR THE NPCA Conference, I had a Q&A email exchange with the panel that will be discussing poetry and the Peace Corps experience. Participating in the emailings were

      Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93), who has had poems published in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Slant: A Journal of Poetry, the Bryant Literary Review and other literary magazines.

      Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988–90), author of the chapbook A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa.

      Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91), author of The Circumference of Arrival, and an assistant professor of English at Berry College in Georgia.

      Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79), author of Easter Vigil, and a teacher of creative writing at Murray State University in Murray, KY.

      Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86), author of The Cartographer’s Tongue: Poems of the World.

      Margaret Szumowski (Zaire and Ethiopia 1973–75) the author of the chapbook, Ruby’s Café, and a full-length collection, I Want This World.

    If nothing is lost on the writer, what is gained by the poet being in the Peace Corps?

      Brazaitis: As a narrative poet (or, put another way, a fiction writer whose very shortest stories become poems), I love good stories, and Guatemala, where I lived as both a Volunteer and technical trainer, is full of them. To this day, I haven’t stopped writing about Guatemala.

      Conlon: What’s gained, I think, is what everyone gains from being in the Peace Corps — perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better “self.” These things are as valuable for a poet as for anyone else.

      Szumowski: I think the poet gains a great deal from the Peace Corps experience. She absorbs the sounds of other languages, takes in imagery never seen before, observes the way families operate compared to her own experience, sees the struggle other peoples have to survive at all. The visual shock and splendor of Africa is enough to keep the poet writing for the rest of her life — take as an example, the baobab. I’d never seen such a strange and magnificent tree, one that blooms at night, harbors night creatures such as lemurs, and provides food for humans from its fuzzy pods. I’d never seen donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, laden with their loads, or a woman dancing around our house, rags tied to her feet as she cleaned the floor. I’d never seen soldiers with their guns pointed at us, as I did in Uganda. All of these experiences gave me enough to think about and absorb for the rest of my life.

      Neelon: In a word, foreignness. Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I am a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all.” In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition via West African griots, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after thus losing myself could I find myself as a writer.

    Do you have a line or two (or three) that expresses the experience for you from one of your poems?

      Brazaitis:

        She wants to know my name,
        where I’m from,
        how old I am.
        Her questions come as quick as water
        rippling over rocks.

      These lines are from “On the Roof of the Hotel Pasaje.” For me, they capture the experience of being in a foreign country — how people were curious about me and how I, in turn, was curious about them. From such curiosity (and such questions) grew many friendships.

      Conlon: I was a PCV in Botswana but lived only a few miles from the South African border. As a result I spent a good deal of time in South Africa with friends from all racial groups, and I found myself in Cape Town on the very first day after the beaches had been desegregated. Here’s a three-line poem about it:

        Beaches Open To All Races Today
        Cape Town. 1990

        Two little girls, shadow-colored and shining,
        splash naked in the open sun: happy as porpoises,
        as if the waves were not white, merely water.

      Szumowski: I had a hard time choosing, but this is from “Ngorogoro”:

        In hot dust the markets wait. Flies crowd the bloody meat, the black fish.
        Hawkers and urchins pester me, beggars tear at my sleeve. The women pull me
        again. I want this world.

      Neelon:

        Out of her good heart, my neighbor
        gave me a chicken.
        I was a stranger,
        carnivorous.

      These are the opening lines of “Chicken Tied Up in a Red Handkerchief,”: a sestina I wrote using the endwords “neighbor,” “chicken,” “stranger,” “knife,” “heart” and “yard.”
           Shortly before I was scheduled to leave my post in Fatick, Senegal, a friend gave me a chicken as a going-away gift. The irony, of course, was that I had to kill it in order to appreciate it as a gift. In retrospect, I see this irony as emblematic. Africa blasted away any number of self-imposed limitations, so that afterwards, as a writer, I could begin to give myself away.

      Rich:

        By evening when she tastes
        my color coated chocolates
        shares them with her friends
        we both will recall the nomad
        the other woman
        that we each might have been.

      or

        And I searched to forego belonging
        like a Bedouin who leaves her home

        hung inside a desert tree
        knowing it does not really matter

        if the branches are bare when she returns,
        if she decides, to come back this way again.

      Meek:
      From “Gift”

        I was given a sliver
        of tongue, of the tongue that belled in that head
        roped to the tree as the blade
        narrowed. It tasted

        of river, a bed of mud, near clarity
        Stammering over stone.

    Do you think that the experience enriched your poetry, or changed your poetry?

      Brazaitis: I don’t know if living in Guatemala changed my writing style. It certainly changed what I write about. I’d written poetry before joining the Peace Corps, but I hadn’t owned the eyes I needed to become a really good writer. Living in another country and using another language taught me to see myself outside of my narrow culture. I became, as it were, my own third-person omniscient narrator. Suddenly, thanks to the Peace Corps, I could see myself and, indeed, everything around me as if I were seeing them for the first time.

      Conlon: It forced my poems to grow up. Within months of arriving in the Kalahari Desert I was writing about it, about the people I knew and the things I saw. I dropped the obsession with self that is the bane of most young writers. I stopped writing about how miserable my childhood had been. And that realignment of my vision, as it were, has proven permanent — not that I don’t write about myself, I certainly do, but in a different, more encompassing context, I think.

      Szumowski: Even poems that don’t on the surface discuss my experience in Africa, use imagery from that time. For example, I have a series of Ruby poems in my forthcoming book, and many of them draw on what I saw in Africa. Some even pick up on the spirituality of Africa.

        Ruby said, come here, little parakeet.
        See the people coming towards us.
        They love the bright-winged birds leading them home.

      (Maybe I like this line for expressing my love for
      Africa even better than the one above!)

      Neelon: Yes, I would say both. Africa gave me a powerful metaphor for the writing life. Now every subject I write about (take otherhood, for example, which has been a recent obsession of mine) is a country I don’t understand, even if I am living right smack in the middle of it. I have to be patient. I have to stop projecting my assumptions. I have to develop an appreciation of its salient details. Only then will I ever be able to SEE. Africa also gave me subject matter, which keeps developing with respect to contemporary events. For example, in a poem of mine about pregnancy, the speaker juxtaposes the life of her unborn with the corpses of Hutus floating downriver in newsreels of Rwanda. It may be, too, that as far as Africa is concerned, I’m a lot like the serpent swallowing its own tail, in the sense that my choice to go to Africa came partly in response to my coming of age in Boston during the busing crisis. I needed the hugeness of Africa to counteract the smallness of racial vision to which I had been exposed.

      Rich: I had given up on my writing before I went into the Peace Corps and it took seven years after I got out to finally be ready to try writing poetry again.
           I didn’t want to commodity other peoples lives. And really what did I — an American — know about the life in Niger after only two years? It took a very long time before I was brave enough or had gathered enough chutzpah to try and write about life in Africa. And then the only way it felt legitimate was to write about people I knew well, or people I had observed closely. Anything else would not ring true.

    Who do you read (poets)? Any African poets?

      Brazaitis: Lately, I’ve devoured the poems of Kim Addonizio. They’re blues-y, sexual, sensitive and lovely.

      Conlon: This would be a big list, so I’ll just stick to contemporary Americans if I may (with the caveat that Philip Larkin is probably my favorite poet of all).
           I run a local poetry reading series here [in Silver Spring Maryland], so I spend an awful lot of time with local poets, those who haven’t yet burst into national prominence. But of “well-known” poets (if any poet today can be said to be "well-known"), I tend to read those who show some level of awareness of the world beyond the ends of their noses. William Heyen, author of Erika: Poems of the Holocaust and Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of Ecology, is a great favorite. I adore much of Lyn Lifshin’s work and ignore those small-minded snipes who, in their envy of her extraordinary productivity, claim she’s bad. Robert Bly has a few things I like, and Jack Gilbert is a fascinating, unique writer — his collection The Great Fires is, I think, one of the truly great books of modern poetry. Donald Hall and his wife, the late Jane Kenyon, I read.
           But, with a small handful of exceptions, I confess to pretty well ignoring most of the vast mainstream of American poetry, which I find overwhelmingly juiceless and dull. These days the interesting work is found almost entirely in small independent journals, not in the academic quarterlies. I suppose there must be people who possess MFAs and teach Creative Writing in universities who produce interesting work — I’m open to the possibility — but I haven’t found very damned many. I despise the entire tendency toward the institutionalization of poetry, which some claim keeps verse alive but which is really, on a very basic level, self-defeating, and which has turned American poetry into a cult for a tiny band of initiates.
           I’m not supposed to say any of that, I imagine, but there it is.

      Szumowski: I read lots of poets. The African poet I enjoy most is Leopold Senghor, but I’ve also read some Diop. I also love African folktales and think their imagery has influenced my poems. I like Ann Neelon’s translations of Senghor. I love Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Jane Kenyon, Marie Howe, Agah Shahid Ali — I read a wide range of poets.

      Neelon: I love so many poets — an infinite number, it seems. Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Seamus Heaney, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Miklos Radnoti, Miguel Hernandez, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska might be at the beginning of my twentieth-century list.
           As for African poets, Leopold Sedar Senghor is the one I know best. I had the amazing luck to be assigned to Senegal while he was still in power. A poet as president — talk about cognitive dissonance! It was a real trip to confront his Collected Poetry whenever I went into a Naar store to buy 50 francs worth of tomato paste. In reading and eventually translating Senghor, I came to discover and appreciate many other poets who appeared alongside him in francophone anthologies, especially Aime Cesaire of Martinique. Senghor and
      Cesaire launched the Negritude movement in Paris in the thirties, so the connections there are profound.
           I also had the good fortune, about ten years after coming back from Peace Corps, to spend a month at the Yaddo Colony with the Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide. Under his influence, I began to appreciate the voices of anglophone Africa — Dennis Brutus, Christopher Okigbo, and John Pepper Clark.

      Rich: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich. African poets — Ingrid de Kok and Jeremy Cronin.

      Meek: I try to read as much poetry as possible, both by new and established poets; African poets that I read include Keorapetse Kgositsile, Christopher Okigbo, and Mongane Serote.

    When you write, do you begin with an idea, a word, phrase?

      Brazaitis: I begin with a story. Something happened. I want to tell what happened.

      Conlon: An idea, yes, or a word, or a phrase — there's no pattern. I start with anything I have and see where it takes me. Usually there is some kind of “story” in my poems — they have a strong sense of narrative, no doubt because I'm also a prose writer. So I usually have some sense of direction when I begin, but not always — and, quite often, the direction changes midway through.

      Szumowski: I usually begin working on poems by writing in a journal. Then some days later, I may find some sentences that seem to move me toward a poem. The process is mysterious to me — and when a poem is finished, I think a magician must have intervened!

      Neelon: Like everyone else, I've generated any number of poems from specific exercises. My very best poems, though, seem to grow out of existential hunches. I get the feeling that something important was lost or gained in a specific circumstance, and I struggle, often for years, to pinpoint what that something was. Usually, I come up with a constellation of images long before I get anywhere close to the actual language of a poem. The images act as talismans. If I'm lucky, the music eventually comes.

    How do you know that a poem is “finished”?

      Brazaitis: My poems are never finished. I tinker with them endlessly.

      Conlon: When someone agrees to publish it! But even then . . .  In the past few weeks I've been putting the finishing touches on a chapbook of these Peace Corps poems of mine, to be called A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa. Most are a decade old or more, and some were published in pretty big poetry markets, like America Magazine. And yet I still mess around with them, changing a word here and there, altering a line break perhaps. Some of these adjustments are no doubt just nervous fiddling, yet some, I think, represent genuine improvements. So the work is never really finished. I imagine that at 70 I'll still be toying
      with line breaks I wrote when I was 23.

      Szumowski: Someone once said to me that a poem is never finished. I know that I'm not alone in the practice of revising poems even after they have been published. Many of the poems in I Want This World, still needed revision, even though they'd been published, and I'd looked at them over quite a period of time. Giving readings helps the poet hear whether the poem still needs work or not. Sometimes I think a poem isn't finished until it is heard by an audience.

      Neelon: I'm not somebody who revises poems for years on end. For me, a given poem is finished when I no longer feel like a fish swimming around inside it. When the poem's done, I stop being able to see underwater. I no longer have to breathe through gills while cooking dinner, answering the telephone, driving the kids to soccer, etc. There's no more slipperiness of metaphor on my arms and legs.

      Rich: As Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”


Recent Books by Peace Corps Writers — July 2001

      Movie Cat: A Big Mike Mystery
      by Gary Amo (Malawi 1962–64) using the pseudonym Garrison Allen
      Kensington Pub. Corps, $5.99
      298 pages
      reprint: June, 2001

      The Eclipse of Morality:
      Science, State, and Market 
      by Lawrence Michael Busch (Guinea 1965–66, Togo 1967–68)
      New York: Aldine de Gruyter, $21.95
      219 pages
      2000

      Endangered Species: Writers Talk about Their Craft, Their Vision, Their Lives,
      by Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 1968–71) with Robert Towne
      Da Capo Press, $18.00
      416 pages
      June, 2001

      Later Maybe:
      A Taste of the Tropics 
      by Beryl Gutnick (Phillipines 1989–90) with illustrations by the author
      Lot’s Wife Publishing, $14.00
      2000

      Ma and Pa Hart Join the Peace Corps
      by June Hart (Brazil 1971–73)
      Mennonite Press, $10.00
           PO Box 867, Newton, Kansas 67114
           or 5105 Wyaconda, Hannibal, Mo 63401
      93 pages
      20001

      Experiencing Peace Corps as a Volunteer over age 60:
      Two years living in Nepal Teaching Students Math
      by Robert W. Hugins (Nepal 1984–86; Lesotho 1991–92))
      Xlibris Corporation, $16.00
      144 pages
      June 2001

      The Circumference of Arival 
      (poetry)
      by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
      Elixir Press, $7.00
           P.O. Box 18010
           Minneapolis, MN 55418
      21 pages

      Right Before His Very Eyes:
      An Encounter with the Mysteries of Africa
      by Donovan W. Russell (CD Lesotho 1991-94 & Nepal 1994-97)
      iUniverse.com, $22.95
      320 pages
      June 2001


REVIEW

Field Observations

by Rob Davidson (Grenada 1990–92)
University of Missouri Press
$17.95
200 pages
May 2001

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

    PERHAPS IT'S SELF-SERVING TO SAY SO, but material a writer finds as a Peace Corps Volunteer tends to be rich in dramatic possibility. This is certainly true of Field Observations, Rob Davidson’s fine debut collection of short stories. The two best stories in this nine-story collection both touch on the Peace Corps experience.
         In “A Private Life,” a Volunteer on Carriacou finds herself romantically involved with a doctor from Guyana. They are draw to each other because of the similarity of their circumstances: both are foreigners in a place that isn’t particularly welcoming. But if they are strangers in a strange land, they are also, despite their sexual intimacy, mostly strangers to each other. This changes when Jo confronts Ravi about whether the rumor about him — that he has left a wife and family back in Guyana — is true. “A Private Life” isn’t particularly uplifting — Jo’s house is robbed, dashing her latest effort to reach out to her community — but the story is realistic in its portrayal of a Volunteer’s feelings of alienation and longing.
         In “Barnstorming,” the narrator is more of an observer than a participant in life. Appropriately, he’s a bird-watcher: “He hid in thickets, under big trees, on rock outcrops or under them. Just about anywhere he could go where he could comfortably sit still and go unnoticed for long periods of time.” But his cousin, an RPCV, takes him up in a biplane, then subtly proposes another kind of adventure. What Laurie, the cousin, says about the narrator’s mother applies to her as well: “That woman’s got it where it counts. She does what she wants, and she doesn’t care who gets pissed off.”
         The other seven stories here offer their own surprises and satisfactions. As in “Barnstorming,” the central characters often find themselves overshadowed, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disturbingly, by others. In the collection’s opening tale, “Inventory,” the narrator, a warehouse manager, tries to keep Harold, a volatile employee, in check. But Harold, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, is destined to have an encounter with rabbits. It’s up to the narrator to do what he can to prevent disaster. In “You Have to Say Something,” Fran, the story’s central character, meets Sam at a coffeehouse. Sam is “a woman with a history” Fran concludes, and when Sam begins giving regular gifts to Fran — even gifts she seemingly can’t afford — Fran grows suspicious of her motivations. Their confrontation over Sam’s generosity could make or break their friendship.
         The collection’s funniest piece is “The Hillside Slasher,” in which the narrator writes a letter, delivered posthumously, to one of his — or, rather, his and his wife’s — victims. There is nothing macabre about the story. Murder isn’t the crime, slashing tires is. And the motivation isn’t madness, but politics.
         Several of Davidson’s protagonists are down on their luck, and under a heavier hand, their stories might have been saccharine. But Davidson doesn’t shy from finding small triumphs in otherwise victory-less lives: the comfort a neighbor offers, the promise of a borrowed automobile.
         In “What We Leave Behind,” a former NCAA champion college golfer finds himself selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself; neither does Davidson feel sorry for him. His voice, like Davidson’s throughout the collection, is straightforward, plain and observant. His small triumph comes about through circumstance, but if you ring enough doorbells, you’re bound to hit gold: “He took the beer from the mantle of the fireplace, and that’s when he saw the golf club sticking out of the umbrella stand next to the patio door. He picked up the club. It was ancient iron, with a worn, slightly tarnished head and a blonde, wooden shaft.”
         Davidson’s stories don’t offer the psychological intrigue of, say, stories by Alice Munro or the lyricism of Amy Bloom’s fiction. But that’s not their intention. Davidson aims to tell the stories of regular people trying to find satisfaction and maybe even a little happiness in a rough world. And he does this well.

    Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel.


REVIEW

Later Maybe
A Taste of the Tropics
by Beryl Gutnick (Phillipines 1989–90)
Lot’s Wife Publishing
$14.00
2000

Reviewed by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68)

    WHY WOULD A WOMAN, heading up toward her 70th year, leave her friends and family and move to the Phillippines? Had she finished what she needed to do in the United States? Was this a time to broaden her horizon when most men and women her age were looking for a quieter pace of life, a rocking chair, being near grandchildren?
         Beryl Gutnick went to the Phillippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer in her 67th year. Equally surprising was that a majority of her group were over 50. What might this be telling us about aging in our own culture? Or a need for people in the last third of their life to confront new challenges?
         The book is about a year in the life of Ms. Gutnick beginning with her orientation into Peace Corps life and concluding with her final days in the Phillippines. Ms. Gutnick has turned the letters she had written to friends and family in the United States and journal entries she had made while in country.into a non-fiction book.
         There are many strengths to this book, such as acute observations of her host families’ eating and social habits, diverting travel tips, and honest complaints about her work and lonliness while being a Volunteer. She also chronicles a common malady among many Peace Corps Volunteers: the “bad stomach.” This is an ongoing theme — wrestling with an undiagnosed ailment.
         What we don’t get from Ms. Gutnick, though, is what I was looking for — a deeper inquiry into the customs and life of the people she lived with and met. No one character stands out. Ms. Gutnick also does not let us in on her original yearning of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. So we are unable as we read through the pages to assess how she is doing in realizing her dream. She also does not give us a needed political perspective on the unrest in the Luzon, the northern islands of the Phillipines where she is living and where a coup d’etat is attempted.
         What we are left with is a daily situational observation of her anxiety about doing an effective job, and her ever present desire to hang it all up and return to the United States interspersed with joyful descriptions of parties and travels. Her tour of duty was to be one year, and she relates that she spoke to a Peace Corps staff member about early termination. (I can certainly identify with this need, as I took a Peace Corps offer of an early exit — after 18 months — to attend graduate school.) But Ms. Gutnick does not explore with us the deeper issues of failure, frustration, or lonliness.
         How was Ms. Gutnick changed by this experience? Would she do it again? Recommend it to others? We don’t know. This book — as it is — is a chronicle of daily life, yet it lacks a personal and a soulful reflection of life far away from home.
         I would recommend this book to Peace Corps aspirants. It is an honest account of the unhappiness of being in another country without clear working agreements, solely dependent upon the customs of the host country. I also think that other Volunteers who have served in the Phillippines would find this a useful confirmation of their experience and could relate to some to the difficulties of traveling, working, and forming relationships beyond the friendships with other Volunteers.
         Beyond these, however, I’m not sure of the usefulness of Later Maybe. Ms. Gutnick did not develop a clear enough voice nor a strong enough thread for her readers to be enchanted or held in suspense. Her observations are often gratuitous, such as: “I’m living in an alien culture,” “nothing compares with luxury and good company,” and “oh how I miss my whirlpool.” Maybe a year wasn’t long enough, maybe there were too many Peace Corps Volunteers living nearby who helped Ms. Gutnick to stay on the fringes — an in-between person not able to commit deeply to living with the Phillipinos as her only acquaintances.
         In saying that, Later Maybe is the voice of a committed woman, doing the best she could, for a short time in a land of people undergoing great transitions. I salute her for her efforts.

Bill Coolidge was a Volunteer in the Bolivia Mines Project, and lived and worked in an orphanage for the children of miners. Currently he is writing about the environment, endangered species and homelessness. He is in the process of moving from the west coast to the east coast and will be living in Beaufort, North Carolina.


REVIEW

The Road Builder

by Nicholas Hershenow (Zaire/Congo 1985–87)
BlueHen Books
$ 25.95
528 pages
May 2001

Reviewed by Beth Giebus (Morocco 1990–93)

      “Oil, Will.”
      “Excuse me?”
      “Just one word, Will. Oil.”

If the exchange sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1967 film, “The Graduate.” In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) receives some poolside advice:

    Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you — just one word.
    Ben: Yes sir.
    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
    Ben: Yes I am.
    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

     Although there are no pool parties or 40-year-old seductresses in Nicholas Hershenow’s The Road Builder, Will Haslin, the novel’s protagonist, bears some resemblance to the title character of the 1967 film. Both are reluctant to enlist in the 9 to 5 work world, and both manage to postpone the inevitable “job” by seeking temporary asylum in an obsessive love affair. But whereas the backdrop for 21-year-old Ben Braddock’s coming-of-age story is upper-middle class suburbia, 32-year-old Will Haslin finds himself in — to quote the publisher’s promo materials — “the mystical labyrinth of central Africa.”
     Will’s African sojourn comes courtesy of his girlfriend, Kate. Asked to gather the journals and papers of her dying uncle into a coherent memoir, Kate travels to the bush village of “Ngemba” to fill in the missing pieces. Will comes, too, posing (for reasons not entirely clear) as Kate’s husband.
     Once settled in Ngemba, the two become “consultants” at the local palm oil mill (“Excuse me Will. I misspoke. Not one word. Two words. Palm oil”) And as Kate becomes increasingly aware of and sympathetic to the plight of the villagers, Will grows more ineffectual and bureaucratic. Through it all, a host of characters, join in helping Will and Kate unravel the truth about “uncle” Pers — the Belgian engineer known in Ngemba as “the road builder.”
     Nicholas Hershenow knows how to tell a good story, and this book may keep readers turning all 528 pages. Many scenes are vividly rendered, giving the novel a cinematic quality. Reading it, I couldn’t help envisioning a young Tom Hanks in the lead, Meg Ryan as Kate . . .
     And this, ultimately, is my complaint: Reading it, I couldn’t help envisioning a young Tom Hanks in the lead, Meg Ryan as Kate.
     Call me a purist.
     The Road Builder would make a great movie. But as a novel, it is perhaps best read with some Simon and Garfunkel music playing in the background.

Beth Giebus is the writer/editor for Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools.


REVIEW

Serendib

by Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 1989–91)
The University of Georgia Press
$24.95
216 pages
March 2001

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98

    LIKE MANY PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS, Jim Toner received a visit from his father during his two years of overseas service. John Toner, a retired judge from Ohio, decided on a whim to go to Sri Lanka in 1990 to see his thirty-four year old son “Jimmy.” What makes the experience worthy of a book, according to the author, are some inherent problems with the visit itself. John’s lifestyle has been sharply molded by a devout Irish-Catholic upbringing, a life-long career as a Cleveland judge, and the social and economic support of friends and family in the United States. How his father will fare in one of the least developed, heavily congested, and most violent nations in south Asia, Toner muses in Serendib, is a question he is almost afraid to ask. And more poignant is the matter of Toner’s relationship with his father. The youngest of seven children, the author — who has spent virtually no time alone with his father — will suddenly be thrust into the frightening position of having a month’s time alone with him. Toner hopes the experience will strengthen the somewhat tenuous bond between them.
         One of the more thought-inspiring elements of Serendib, is the way John repeatedly refers to Jim and his wife — another Peace Corps Volunteer — as “you kids.” It spotlights the role reversal that parents share with their children who, as international volunteers, assume the parents’ responsibility of looking out for the well-being of their loved ones. In Sri Lanka, John is actually the “kid” who requires supervision. Hours after John’s arrival, Toner recognizes his father’s resolution not to leave his sheltered hotel room in Colombo: “This is what my dad would want . . . . . We could watch CNN, order up scrambled eggs, gaze out our window during cocktail hour. After a month my dad could buy slides in the gift shop and, back in America, lie to his friends, ‘This is slide of a jungle waterfall, that’s when the kids and I rode elephants for three days, eating nothing but bamboo and grubs.’” Realizing that developing a meaningful relationship with his father will mean leaving this world, Toner encourages him to board an overly crowded bus, bound for the tea plantations in the central hill country, where one of Toner’s friends lives. There is much at stake and, no matter how frightening it may be, the author pushes his father, as he must.
         Toner carefully integrates the personal impact of traveling with his father — sharing memories of childhood and the initial awkwardness that exists between himself and John — with descriptions of Sri Lanka: security checkpoints outside the capital, a dishonest jewel merchant, and a visit to a world-famous Buddhist temple in Kandy. The line running between these two stories is the life of John Toner, who must accustom himself to spending time with his youngest son while simultaneously adjusting to a world outside his familiar hometown of Cleveland. He falls prey to the clumsiness of an American too used to Western cultural trappings: mispronouncing Tamil names, expressing outrage at a dubious-looking outhouse, invoking Jesus to save him from flies and the heat and, finally, collapsing hilariously through a cane chair in the middle of a pre-meal prayer. But, Toner gently writes, “over the next few days, bit by bit, I saw my father meet Sri Lanka. He mastered the art of finger eating and even asked for seconds. He studied the grandmother cleaning rice in the kitchen, at first standing over her blocking the doorway, later on his own hands next to her by the fire, helping her pick out stones.”
         His sensitivity and compassion for his father are obvious; the memoir does not aspire to the literary, but maintains a straightforward, humorous, and sincere prose that hopes to — and successfully does — communicate the experiences of his and John’s mutual growth. Toner even watches as his rosary beads-toting father exhibits flexibility by participating in a Hindi temple ritual and by carrying a small Buddha statue in his pocket.
         Through the memoir, the author’s own recollections of childhood life in a large family encourage us to recognize this small and war-torn country as the unexpected proving ground where the two men can leave their personal histories behind to establish a new, closer relationship. The story closes in the town where Toner and his wife have been struggling to survive as English teachers in the face of curfews imposed by a Sinhalese rebellion group, and the whims of a self-absorbed principal who has already ousted three other Volunteers. John Toner turns out to be a hit with his son’s class, singing songs and playing games with the children. Finally, as the class quiets, he addresses them, saying: “Yep, he’s a good one, my Jimmy. He’s a teacher, that’s for sure, and I guess we’re proud of him. Guess we’ll keep him.” For Toner — author, teacher, and son—it is the moment he had hoped for. He reaches out and his father, who had flinched upon their first contact at the airport, does not draw back.
         It is impossible to finish Serendib without feeling that meaningful relationships are indeed possible (or recoverable) in the world. A few scenes have been staged, it seems, for the purpose of evoking certain emotions. And the grating Volunteer Jewel E. Jewel would have been better left out of these pages. The latter is a compliment of sorts since Toner’s ear for dialogue is excellent even as the actual dialogue of PCV Jewel is not. However, the relationship that develops between the author and his father has an authenticity that could only be accomplished by the experience of familiar figures meeting under unique circumstances. For any Peace Corps Volunteer who has been visited by a family member, the success story of the Toners might well reflect the opportunities of taking advantage of overseas service by rediscovering relationships they thought they knew so well in some new and unusual places.

    Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199–98) is coordinating the readings by Peace Corps writers at the 40th Anniversary Conference. If you are interested in reading at the conference, please e-mail him at Joe_Kovacs@hotmail.com.


REVIEW

Touching My Father’s Soul
A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest

by Jamling Tenzing Norgay,
     with Broughton Coburn (Nepal 1973–75)
Harper San Francisco, $26.00
304 pages
April 2001

Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)

    IMAGINE WALKING INTO A MEAT LOCKER for a month with a forty pound pack on your back. The air is kinda thin because this particular meat locker is 25,000 feet high — so every so often you need this Nazi gas mask to help you breathe. And every day, just for the fun of it, you jump on the meat locker treadmill for 8 hours — cranked to the steepest incline. During your “off” hours you dodge strewn body parts and avoid the yaws of the buzz saw ever droning in the background.
         But at least you’re not alone. Four of your mates are with you, and the most fun comes towards the end of the month. That’s the day you play Russian roulette. With gas masks strapped into place with frostbitten fingers, you bring out the silver pistol. Nestled in one of the five chambers is a matching silver bullet. The five of you sit in a circle, icy puffs of breath escaping from your masks. You twirl the bullet chamber like a Las Vegas pro, then point the barrel at your icy temple. At the count of three, you pull the trigger.
         Welcome to Everest.
         The glamour and mystery that once shrouded the mighty mountain was blasted away forever by the ice-storm of 1996 that left 11 bodies sacrified to the mountain goddess Miyolangsangma. For more than half a century, the siren song of Everest has lured countless sailors to her shore — with one out of five summiteers smashing up upon her icy reef.
         This season brings three new accounts to add to the mountain lore. The first, The Kid Who Climbed Everest, stands out not because young Bear Grylls was a special forces bloke who broke his back parachuting and was told he’d never walk again — that’s the least of it. More importantly, Grylls is the only one whose daffy sense of humor translates onto the page in this grim genre. Then there’s Eric Weihenmayer, TIME’s cover boy, who became the first blind person to reach the summit — no laughing matter. And finally, we have Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa icon who, along with Edmond Hillary, was the first to summit the indomitable Chomolungma, or Everest, in 1953.
         Norgay’s story is worth reading on two accounts. One, it is a rare Sherpa’s eye view that goes a long way in revealing the spiritual aspects of the mountain that have been so rudely trampled by Western crampons over the past decades. “The more I witnessed the garish displays of ego and individualism in some of the foreign teams,” he writes, “the more I felt they were inviting misfortune.” Secondly, Touching My Father’s Soul is a classic tale of a son trying to measure up to his mythic father — a father who, ironically, was rarely there for him because of the gravitational pull of fame that made him belong instead, to the world.
         Jamling Tenzing Norgay did not grow up as an ordinary Sherpa — eeking out a living in the harsh foothills of the Himalayas. Because of his father’s position, the young boy was sent to India’s top boarding school, and then to Northland College in Wisconsin. There, he experienced a period of intense estrangement and culture shock not unlike that experienced by many a Peace Corps Volunteer.
         When Norgay was asked to join the 1996 IMAX film expedition to Everest, he questioned his motivation in agreeing to go. “I felt that only by following my father up the mountain, by standing where he had stood, by climbing where he had climbed, could I truly learn about him. I wanted to know what it was that drove him and what it was he had learned. Only then would I be able to assemble all the missing parts of a father’s life that a young man envisions and longs for but never formally inherits.”
         What he finds on the summit, of course, is permission to be himself. He has a conversation with his father, who is dressed in his 1953 jacket and goggles. “Both of our dreams have come true,” he tells his father. Norgay senior replies “Jamling, you didn’t have to climb this mountain in order to speak with me and to be with me.”
         Rather than choosing the easy life in the West, Jamling and his family follow in his father’s footsteps by devoting themselves to bettering the still marginal lives of the Nepali Sherpas. Though he continues to straddle both worlds, Jamling is philisophical about how the East and West each try to chase each other’s shadow. “Eastern and Western views, though often divergent, are not contradictory,” he writes. “The ‘mystery’ that Westerners have projected onto the East we see as little more than a simple and rather prosaic way of life. Conversely, the materialism of the West is an exotic wonder and enigma for us. Just as trekkers covet the simplicity and wholeness of our ancient lifestyles, Sherpas crave cars, clothes, and computers. Rather than pass each other going in opposite directions on the path of cultural evolution, I propose that we expand the healthy synergy that already exists — however latently — between the two hemispheres of thought.”
         Nearly half of all Himalayan climbers killed have been Sherpas. When Jamling Tenzing Norgay walked into the frozen meat locker that is Everest, and on the summit, put the silver pistol to his head — he dodged the bullet.
         With the proper puja in place, the goddess Miyolangsangma determined it was not his time. And for those of us who are able to learn from his inspirational tale, and for all the Sherpas he has helped -- this is indeed a good thing.

    Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79) is Director of Publications for the National Association of Independent Schools as well as a freelance writer for The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor.