This version of the March 2002 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 – March 2002

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


Peace Corps Writers — March 2002

    40th Anniversary Celebration redux

    Writing workshops at NPCA Conference
    In this issue, you will find a list of the 11 writing workshop panels that PeaceCorpsWriters.org will present at at the June 20 to 23 National Peace Corps Association Conference in Washington D.C. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. If you haven’t heard about this celebration of the 41st (nee 40th) anniversary of the Peace Corps, and would like to attend, check out the NPCA website at www.rpcv.org/pages/celebrate.cfm.

    Writing awards
    PeaceCorpsWriters.org will be presenting its annual awards for outstanding fiction, non-fiction, poetry and travel books written by Peace Corps writers during 2000 and 2001. Also, an outstanding piece of short writing that best captures the Peace Corps experience will be recognized.

    Peace Corps Readings
    PeaceCorpsWriters.org will provide an opportunity for RPCVs to read from their journals, poems, fiction or non-fiction about a Peace Corps (or other international) experience. Each reader will be limited to 10 minutes. If you would like to participate in the readings, please contact our Readings Coordinator, Joe Kovacs, at joewriter@earthlink.net.

    Buying and selling books
    Washington independent bookseller Politics & Prose will have a booth at the Conference Bazaar where they will sell books by Peace Corps writers. This will present readers with an opportunity to purchase many of the books that you learn about here. The Bazaar, which will be in the Regency Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham, will be open Friday, June 21 from 9a.m. to 7p.m. and Saturday, June 22 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

    Writers of books distributed by wholesalers — Politics & Prose will sell your books at it’s booth. To have your book sold at this booth, please send to Marian Beil at mhbeil@rochester.rr.com by June 1.:

    • your name
    • your country and years of PC service
    • book title
    • publisher
    • book ISBN
    • book wholesaler
    • your mailing address,
    • your email address
    • your phone number

    Writers of books NOT distributed by wholesalers — Because Politics & Prose does not handle most self-published books, print-on-demand books, chapbooks, small press books, or out-of-print books (i.e., books that are not distributed by wholesalers), PeaceCorpsWriters.org will have a booth at the Bazaar that will provide the opportunity to authors of such books to sell them at the conference as well. The selling of these books will be handled entirely by the individual authors (or their representative). Additionally, authors will be responsible for getting their books to the conference, storing them, etc.
         If you would like to sell (and sign) your books at the PeaceCorpsWriters.org booth, you need to let us know what times you will be at the booth doing so. We will post when the selling/signings will take place, as well as announce the information at our workshops. Please send the following information to Marian Beil at mhbeil@rochester.rr.com by June 10:

    • your name
    • your country and years of PC service
    • book title
    • your mailing address,
    • your email address
    • your phone number
    • the time(s) you will be selling/signing your books at our booth.

    Book signings
    Those writers who will be selling their books at the PeaceCorpsWriters.org booth will be available to sign them at the same time.
         For those authors whose books will be sold at the Politics & Prose booth, you are certainly invited to have book signings at our booth as well. To have the time posted that you will be available for a signing, send that information to Marian.as well.

    In this issue of Peace Corps Writers
    Talking With

    Years ago, when I was a student at Saint Louis University, one of the really smart undergraduates was a kid from Brooklyn, Peter McDonough, who, with his brother Tom, were the Irish literary geniuses on campus. Peter then became, if not the first, then one of the first graduates of that urban Jesuit university to join the Peace Corps. He went to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in mid-1961. Peter, who is now a professor of Political Science at Arizona State University, has co-authored a new book on the Jesuits and we interviewed him about Passionate Uncertainty that traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus.

    Tales of Wisdom and Cunning
    In this issue, we are also publishing the first (of many, we hope) folktales collected by Peace Corps writers over the last forty plus years. This tale comes from Melanie Wasserman (Niger 1994–96), who is now a doctoral student in health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on immigrant health. In the Peace Corps, Melanie worked as a nutritionist. It was in the village of Azerori where she first heard the tale of “The Calabash Princess.”

    And more
    In addition to the list of Recently Published Books by Peace Corps Writers, reviews of four new RPCV books, Literary Type, etc., this issue has an essay by Bill Coolidge who recalls his time in Bolivia. The essay is entitled “The Loneliness of a Peace Corps Volunteer,” and can be found in A Writer Writes.
         To read . . .

    — John Coyne
    Editor


A writer writes

    The Loneliness of a Peace Corps Volunteer

by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68)

“RAP, RAP, RAP, RAP!” I thought it was a campesino, filled up on a Saturday night with sheep brains and homemade chitcha beer wanting a respite from the cold wind swirling along the dirt streets.
     Cathy and I were in bed, dressed in quilted long underwear. The heavy Bolivian blankets pressed down on our cold bodies. Our one room adobe apartment smelled of oil. It was our first winter as Peace Corps Volunteers in Oruro on the Altiplano, about 200 miles south of LaPaz, the capital.
     "Rap, rap, rap, rap, rap!" Insistant. I was tired after working all day at the orphanage with the sons of tin miners. These miners died at the age of 30, their wives too poor to care for their children handed them over to the Hogar para ninos. We played fobito after dinner — a small size soccer match — back and forth we ran along the hard packed dirt court. I dragged home, still adjusting to the 12,000 feet above sea level and shivering. The biting cold of a Bolivian winter in this desert was already taking away my youthful enthusiasm. I didn’t want to open the door.

     Being of draft age in the mid-1960s was like living in a pot slowly simmering. I had signed up for both the Navy and the Peace Corps. I always liked to have options. In a downtown Detroit armory, I shucked my pants, pulled my jockey shorts down to my ankles, along with a few hundred other recruits. First the physical examination, then a “gung ho” lecture and demonstration by a second lieutenant on his way to “Nam.”
     That weekend, I purchased a diamond ring, gave it to Cathy. I told her of my terror. Innocents, we agreed to have commitments now rather than to wait. Wait and see seemed like a deadly option. The television already had pictures of body bags flown back to the United States.
     My draft board surprised me. “If you are married and join Peace Corps, we will count that as service to your country.” The letter of acceptance came in February and I was assigned to what is now Tanzania. A second letter came in March signed by the Director of Peace Corps, Jack Vaughn. “You are reassigned to a new project, Bolivia Mines, training begins in six weeks. The government of Tanzania will no longer be a site for Peace Corps Volunteers.” “Bolivia? Was it in Central or South America?” I picked up my atlas and looked it up.

     “Wham, wham, wham! Hey Bill, open up will ya, it’s Gary, let me in!”

     Forty-five of us who had been invited to be in the project had arrived in Seattle; thirty of us completed the cross-cultural and Spanish language training and were flown to LaPaz. I celebrated my ninth month wedding anniversary stuck in the Panama airport. A few of us were married, most were single, and we were all in our mid-twenties. Our in-country assignments had us scattered up and down the Altiplano, often separated by hundreds of miles.

PCV at the Door
Cathy punched me in the arm and shoved me, “He’s speaking English, did you hear him? Go open the door. It’s Gary!” I stumbled into my leather boots and opened the door, just as “Bam, bam” rang out. In barges this tall, bulky man, flamboyant black hair with a mustache. His fiery eyes make me think he has been chased by a bear.
     “Jesus, Gary, are you alright?” Gary went straight for my straw mattress, which served as a couch. He sat there, head in his hands, then he lurched upward and walked around the black trunk that served as a dining room table. Cathy stayed in the bed and watched his circling. I sat down on the mattress and waited. After a couple of minutes, he slowed down and sat next to me.
     “Can’t stand it anymore. No one to talk to, no one to date, no one to drink beer with. Hell, there is no place to drink beer. I can’t speak Quechua and barely any Span . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence. Tears burst out, a rumbling of sobs overcame him, his shoulders started shaking. I put an arm around him; he leaned against me and cried.
     Later, when I headed off toward bed, Gary whispered: “Leave the kerosene heater and lantern on, will you please?”
     In the morning over coffee, the three of us discussed what to do. We had been in-country for only a few months, but Gary’s Volunteer days were over. He intended to take the train to LaPaz and hand in his resignation to the Director, then take the next flight to Los Angeles.
     Gary and I then walked to the train station As we sat against the adobe wall of the station waiting for the train, he reached over, seized my hand, and said, “You saved my life last night.” “Glad I could be there for you,” I muttered, and then we lapsed into silence. The sun was out, the wall was warming us. I wondered if Gary was envisioning the southern California beaches. I began thinking about the northern Michigan lake where I grew up. Summers of intense heat, cool deep waters. Unlike Gary, I was unable to confess to myself or anybody else that I too was unhappy, not yet despairing, but headed in that direction. Unlike Gary I was tethered, I was married. I was being depended on.

Another Vol in Trouble
A couple of months later, about dusk, the telephone rang.
     “Bill, it’s Jim. You gotta come here; I’m not doing well. We’ve got to talk.” Jim was a PCV and, like me, from Michigan. He was a nurse and had been placed in Colquiri, a tiny village, another thousand feet up the mountain from me. More than a half-day’s bus trip away.
     I left early on a Saturday morning joining the chollitos. They carried children and market wares wrapped around their back and herded goats and chickens up into the old run down school bus, called a “collectivo.” Suitcases and crates were tied down on the roof. I could hear them move about as we chugged around mountain curves. I sat on an inside seat so I couldn’t look down the steep drop-off, hundreds of feet to a dry riverbed.
     The inside of the bus was colorful and joyful. Brown, sunburned faces, exposed to the sun for a lifetime, the women smiled and joked, their children content to be physically close. On the other hand, the campesinos and the miners slouched, their shoulders burdened, they barely looked up. Even on Saturday nights, drunk, they did not sing nor dance. They wandered out of town with slumping shoulders.
     “You want a cup of coffee? How about a beer? It’s warm but you already know that.” Jim’s feet were well planted, shoulder width apart. His bald head feathered with some wisps of light brown hair. He looked 35 not 25. We started with coffee, murky, mud like, strong. I took mine with leche. We sipped and I looked around his adobe room, much like ours. A Peace Corps bookcase made of cardboard, (called a “locker”) in one corner. A lantern and kerosene heater plus a kerosene enofe (a little burner).
     “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested. Jim jumped up, startling me, his 5'7" frame blocking the door.
     “I don’t want to go out there. I’ll have to talk with someone. My Spanish is so bad they can’t understand me. I’m practicing hard but being a nurse up here and not understanding them is a joke. Mostly I hide out in my room.” He purses his lips, his eyes focused on mine, challenging me. I move away from the door.

I gotta go
Jim’ story was a variation of Gary’s. Sadness crouched in the silent corners of his room, his life. As he spoke about his longing for Detroit, the hospital he had worked at, the waterfront, his right hand whisked away the subtle appearance of a tear or two. But I could see it there — honed deep into his eyeballs — a haunting aloneness and I felt helpless.
     “Can you wait until payday and we’ll all go up to La Paz together to get our paycheck?” His head shook, hands sequestered in his armpits, three long words of closure: “I gotta go now.”
     We stood and watched the shadows fall on the adobe building across the street, the sun heading down the mountain. The dark cool shade expanding, my eyes rested there. I leaned against the door to catch my balance.
     “I’ll see you in a couple of days, Bill.” Jim held my shoulders with his hands, then we shook hands, signifying we were in agreement. He was going to leave Colquiri and Peace Corps. We’d have dinner in Oruro and then he would catch the next train to LaPaz, then home.

     Two good friends leaving within a couple of months shook me up. After Gary left, a Peace Corps psychologist had come to visit the Bolivian Volunteers. I had lied to him. I told him, “Everything is fine, except my Spanish, and I’m working on it.” I didn’t tell him about my long bike rides out into the campo during siesta time where I would stop, get off my bike and stare into a horizon that had no end, no colors, no buildings, nothing. Riding my bike back, I would think of something to tell Cathy about what I saw so I wouldn’t blurt out, “I’m so lonely here! I can’t even tell if the work I’m doing is helping anybody!” I couldn’t imagine uttering the deeper truth: “I’m not happy being married. Something is missing.” Gary and Jim leaned on me while I held tight to this self-portrait: “Doing good, being successful, happily married.”

     The collectivo came at dusk. I climbed on. I walked straight to the back of the bus, unimpeded by goats and chickens. Circling and circling, down and down. Darkness came on fast. I was tired, not from a lack of rest but something more, something draining me. I leaned my arms against the seat in front, cradling my head, much like I had done on the bus home after losing an “away” basketball game. Then I started crying. The coughing, sputtering, backfiring bus hid the sounds of my sobbing. Jim and Gary’s suffering was a ladder down into my own pain. The isolation, the hint of a marriage already growing apart. I leaned into that empty space between my arms and felt the only comfort available, my own.

Life After the Peace Corps
I haven’t seen Gary or Jim since 1967. After Peace Corps I went to seminary and became an Episcopal priest, owned and ran a retreat center, lived in an AIDS hospice, became an AIDS caseworker, a manager of a homeless shelter, and finally, after twenty-five years, I managed a divorce. A few years later I remarried, moved to San Francisco then back to the coast of North Carolina.
     Most mornings I sit in my chair at dawn and observe Bird Island, Shackleford Banks and beyond, the Atlantic Ocean moving out to a point of invisibility. The fear of a boundless future occurs infrequently now. The horizon of blue in front of me is an invitation to explore, to dream, to sail.

Solitude and Loneliness
Would I do it again? Choose Peace Corps over the Navy? In a time of crisis, get married as some kind of protection, hope? You bet I would. What I learned in that wilderness time on the Altiplano was the necessity of solitude. Even with the fullness of a day: working with a hundred orphans, hanging out with José and Javier, going home for dinner with my wife, solitude could still call, urging me to go for a walk or a long bike ride. But it has taken me twenty-five years to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness.
     This morning, a gale force wind brought a hard rain, sweeping west to east. As I write, the old forlornness grabs me with the same old tired question: “Where is your life going? You’re spending too much time alone; you’re not being productive!” “ Better check the want ads, get a ‘real job,’ stop writing, quit the part-time maintenance position.”
     Gary and Jim taught me that in being vulnerable, often a horizon opens up or a new threshold appears. For many years I have sat in hospital rooms, attended the dying, dug the cold earth for a burial, brought hot food to worn out bodies. There are many ways to be in the wilderness. I am Gary, I am Jim, I am the one sitting next to me in the clinic, waiting for a “t-cell” count. Fear of being alone, fear not being good enough, fear of an uncertain future can still has sway over me.
     “Maybe I better go for a walk or go for a ride on my bike, ” I say to myself. I see a few seagulls and a solitary pelican gliding sidewise, tacking into the wind. I put down my pen and let the anxiety ooze in and through my body. I stay in my chair. The pelican makes her way up to Gallant’s Channel, turning right to the Newport River and flies on until I can no longer see her. Eventually the fear leaves and I am alone. I pick up my pen and write the next word.

Bill Coolidge has recently moved from his sailboat on the San Francisco Bay to an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Beaufort North Carolina. There he writes essays and poems, sails and crabs, and keeps track of dolphins, black skimmers and the quality of the water in the Pamilico River Basin.     


Tales of Wisdom and Cunning

    The Calabash Princess

“The Tuareg people told me this tale,” says Melanie Wasserman (Niger 1994–96), who worked as a nutritionist in the village of Azerori. “The Calabash Princess was the only tale that I heard in Azerori. It was told over and over again while drinking tea under the starry sky. This story shows that in a small community, you can’t afford to treat anyone badly. You may get away with your bad deeds for a while, but eventually, they will catch up to you.

ONCE THERE WAS A HANDSOME YOUNG PRINCE who refused to marry. Although his parents, the king and queen, searched throughout the land for the most beautiful women for him to meet, the prince was unmoved by their charms.
     One morning, as the prince was wandering in the bush, he noticed a vine wrapped around a tree. The vine held the most beautiful calabash he had ever seen. The skin of the calabash was smooth and clear, the color of fine, fresh butter. “This would be a fine calabash to drink hura from,” he thought, as he plucked the calabash from the vine.
     The instant the prince touched the calabash; it hit the ground and split in two. Out popped a beautiful young woman wearing a shiny, indigo dress and silver jewelry. Immediately, the woman threw herself at the prince’s feet.
     “Do not tell anyone you have seen me!” she cried. She then told the prince of her miserable past. Her father was a king, and her sisters, jealous of their father’s love for her, threatened to kill her. Rather than lose her life, she chose to live out her days inside a calabash.
     The prince held the calabash princess in his arms and dried her tears. He promised to keep their meeting a secret, and to visit her again the next day. She climbed back into the calabash’s cool interior. Every day after that, he would walk through the heat of the day to see her. Each time he would call out, “Here I am,” and the princess would pop out of her cool calabash to greet him. They would talk about clouds and trees and stars until long after the sun had set. Near midnight, the princess would crawl into her calabash and the prince would return home. But neither one could sleep very well. They were in love.
     The king and queen had noticed that each day their son was disappearing into the bush. As he was heading out one morning, they confronted him. Much to their relief, however, the prince announced that he was in love and wished to be married. “I would like to bring her home with me tonight,” said the prince.
     That night, the king and queen anxiously waited to meet their son’s bride. A sumptuous feast was prepared, and a special seat of honor was set-aside for the woman who would one day be queen. At dusk, the prince arrived at the feast with the calabash in hand. “I am going to marry the calabash!” he exclaimed with great joy.
    “My son has lost his mind!” the queen cried out before she fainted.
     Although his parents pleaded with him to be reasonable, the prince was adamant. He ordered all the wedding arrangements to be completed within three days. Then he asked that two dinners be sent to his hut. “We prefer to dine alone,” he said as he left his parents’ sumptuous house, carrying his calabash.
     The king and queen thought this was strange, but since he wouldn’t change his mind, they finally agreed to their son’s wishes. From that day forward, the prince and calabash princess lived very happily together. While the prince was away during the day, the princess would hide in the calabash. At night, the prince would return to his hut and, there, away from all prying eyes, she would step out from the calabash and lie beside him. At dawn, she would slip back into the calabash.
     The king was puzzled. What kind of satisfaction could the boy possibly obtain from being married to a calabash? One night, he decided to find out for himself. Hiding outside the prince’s window, he watched as the princess climbed out of the calabash. The king was greatly smitten by the young woman’s beauty. “I see that my son is no fool after all,” he said to himself.
     For weeks, the king could think of nothing else but the sweet face of the calabash princess. His passion for her became so great that he could not eat or drink or carry out his royal duties. “I must have her as my second wife,” he thought. He would allow no one to stand in his way.
     One night, just as the prince was about to enter his hut, the king approached his son, saying, “My son, I hear there is an evil spirit out in the forest who has been terrifying our people. I need your help. Let us go and chase it away tomorrow at dawn.”
     The calabash princess overheard the king’s words and shivered with fright. “Something is wrong,” she warned her husband. Before the prince left his room the next morning, she wove into his hair a string of dates and said, “Be careful.”
     The king and the prince rode their camels through winds full of sand, going many miles into the bush, until they reached an old, abandoned well. The king handed a rope to his son and said, “Fasten this rope to your waist. I will lower you into the well. See if there is an evil spirit at the bottom.” The prince did as he was told. When he got to the bottom of the deep, dark well, the king cut the rope and left.
     Although the prince tried desperately to scale the walls of the well, they were too smooth. Every time he tried, he fell back into the pit, where snakes and scorpions gnawed upon his hands and feet.
     Meanwhile, the king returned to the palace. Walking into the prince’s room, he split open the calabash with his sword. The frightened princess stepped out.
     “Your husband fell down a well and died while we were out in the bush. But do not worry. Marry me and become my second wife. I will take care of you.”
     The poor princess was unconsolable. Although the king tried to soothe her, she wrestled herself from his arms.
     Every day the king asked her to marry him. Every day the princess refused. She cried until her eyes were red and her face was chapped. Her beauty all but faded.
     For twenty years, the prince remained in the well, surviving on water and the dates that his wife had woven into his hair. Luckily, one of the date pits took root in the bottom of the well and, as time passed, a tree began to grow. When its branches had grown to the edge of the well, the prince climbed out.
     Immediately, the prince ran back to his village. Once there, he found the calabash princess weeping in his father’s courtyard. As soon as she saw him, the princess rushed into his arms. She was overjoyed! The queen, too, was very happy to see her son after so many years. The king pretended to be pleased.
     “Allah is great!” said the king. “My son, I thought you were dead when you fell in the well, but Allah has restored you to us!”
     “I am happy to see you again, too, father,” replied the prince. “So happy, in fact, that I would like to have a feast. I will roast a sheep in your honor.” The king accepted. To prepare for the feast, the son killed a fat sheep and roasted it on a spit. Then he dug a very deep pit. He built a roaring big fire in it, and then laid a sumptuous rug over the top of the pit, with colorful leather cushions on top.
     When the king arrived, he smelled the crisp, tender meat, and his mouth began to water.
     “Please, father,” said the prince. “Sit on this rug I have prepared for you.” The king smiled, stepped onto the rug and fell straight into the fire, where he died.
     Well, it wasn’t very nice of the son to do what he did to the father. But it also wasn’t very nice of the father to leave his son in a well for twenty years, and try to steal his wife!

Melanie Wasserman is now a doctoral student in health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on immigrant health.

     


Talking with Peter McDonough
     — an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS A STUDENT at Saint Louis University, one of the really smart undergraduates was a kid from Brooklyn, Peter McDonough. Peter, along with his brother, Tom, were the Irish literary geniuses on campus. Peter then became, if not the first, then one of the first graduates of that urban Jesuit university to join the Peace Corps. Over the years, we have kept in touch, lately mostly by emails, but our interests still have ways of connecting because we are both Irish, were in the Peace Corps, and most importantly, Jesuit educated.
         For those unfamiliar with the Jesuits — the Society of Jesus —, the order was founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540. Today it is the largest and most controversial religious order of men in Catholicism. Since the time when Peter and I were undergraduates, the Jesuits in the United States have lost more than half of their members, and they have experienced a massive upheaval in what they believe and how they work and live.
              Today, Peter is a professor of political science at Arizona State University, and among the books that he has written, are two about the Jesuits. Just published is Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. Co-authored with Eugene C. Bianchi, a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Emory University, Passionate Uncertainty traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. From its role as a traditional subculture during the days of immigrant Catholicism, the order has changed into an amalgam of countercultures shaped around social mission, sexual identity, and an eclectic spirituality. The story of the Jesuits reflects the crisis of clerical authority and the deep ambivalence surrounding American Catholicism’s encounter with modernity.
         When the book came out, I emailed Peter and asked about the book and how he went from the campus of Saint Louis to Passionate Uncertainty.

Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?

    I was in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from mid-1961 to mid-1963. Ours was the second group of PCVs; the first was sent to Ghana. I was stationed at the Comilla Academy for Rural Development.

What was your job?

    I was an audio-visual specialist. My job involved setting up a darkroom and other photo facilities at the Academy. I also worked on some training films about tractor driving, how to raise chickens — a big step for a Brooklyn boy.

When you returned from the Peace Corps, what did you do next?

    I returned to New York and worked for about a year as a staff photographer and house-organ writer for Johns-Manville Corporation. Then I got funding to attend Georgetown University grad school, where I studied politics for a year. Next I got a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship (in Hindi), which took me to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1965. There I enrolled in the graduate program in political science.
         I received my doctorate in 1969 for a dissertation entitled “Electoral Competition and Political Participation in India.” It was based on statistical data deposited in the University of Michigan. I didn’t return to the subcontinent after my Peace Corps stint until a brief visit during a sabbatical in 1996.

You've published two books about Brazil. Why the interest in Brazil?

    The afternoon after defending my dissertation, my wife and I and our baby daughter were on a plane to Rio de Janeiro, where we stayed for four years, until 1973. The Ford Foundation had awarded a large grant to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and I became Michigan's “man in Rio.” So it was mainly adventitious. The fact that my wife Josefina is Portuguese did help in learning the language.

Why have you written two books on the Jesuits?

    The project grew out of my interest in the decay of authoritarian regimes, combined with a curiosity about similar changes in Catholicism. By the early ’80s, I had written one book on the erosion of military rule in Brazil and was embarked on another about the transition from Francoism in Spain. The cultural factor in all this, not just the Latin ambience but also the role of the church, fascinated me.
         So I thought I would do something about Catholicism in the aftermath of Vatican II, with a focus on the U.S., because our girls were growing up and I wanted to be at home as much as possible. Besides, I had attended Jesuit schools for a total of nine years, and the workings of the order were at least superficially familiar to me. As it turned out, my first book on the Jesuits (Men Astutely Trained) was about the decades leading up to Vatican II. The recent book covers the period since then.
         By the way, the title of the new book (Passionate Uncertainty) is a garbled version of a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Remember that last line from first stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the best are full of passionate intensity.”
         My reasons for writing about the Jesuits have shifted. I’ve rediscovered something from the days when I dreamed of becoming a writer. Empirical analysis is at the core of social science; many of us would also like to see the results of such analysis used to change the world in one way or another. Both these things matter in ways that differ from what poetry or fiction — “creative writing” — is supposed to do. But you can also reach people emotionally by telling stories about spiritual experience. I get letters and phone calls from readers of the Jesuit books. By contrast, publishing something about, say, democratization can be like dropping a pebble down a bottomless pit. It’s gratifying to get a response. And the Jesuit books sell.

How have the Jesuits operated in countries where you have lived and studied?

    Well, in most of Latin America, including Brazil, Jesuit numbers have fallen, as they have in the U.S. In South Asia (mostly India), Jesuit numbers have grown, and that’s just about the only region where growth is the norm. By the end of the ’90s, the number of Indian Jesuits surpassed the American contingent, who had been the largest group since the end of the ’30s (having overtaken the Spaniards). We are witnessing the end of the American era in the Society of Jesus.
         The distinctiveness of the American Jesuits has consisted in their work in education. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and 45 Jesuit secondary schools in the U.S. This commitment is diminishing, because numbers are shrinking; it reflects the agenda of immigrant Catholicism. Elsewhere, the investment of Jesuits in institutional education, though significant, hasn’t been so high.

You have met some amazing men in the order. Looking back, who were the men of genius, sainthood, and character that influenced or impressed you?

    Several stand out. I knew Dan Berrigan before he became Dan Berrigan the activist. He taught me Latin and French at Brooklyn Prep, and I still have an inscribed copy of his first book of poetry, that won the Lamont Poetry Award.
         John Culkin was a scholastic (Jesuit in training) who taught me Greek at Brooklyn Prep and went on after ordination to Fordham University, where he arranged for a one-year stay on the part of Marshall McLuhan. He left the Jesuits in the ’70s and continued his media activities in New York; he died of cancer in the ’80s. He is one of three men to whose memory the book is dedicated.
         Walter Ong, former president of the Modern Language Association, taught me English at Saint Louis University. “Nine out of ten of Walter’s ideas are crap,” his colleagues used to say about him, “but the tenth is a humdinger.” An extremely imaginative scholar who set very high standards.
         Finally, there’s Joe Fichter, the pioneer Jesuit sociologist who passed away about five years ago. We never met, but we corresponded a bit. He had to confront a good deal of censorship from Jesuit and other church authorities, but he persisted, paving the way for another priest-sociologist (not a Jesuit) Andy Greeley.

What's the future for the order in the United States, and in the world?

    There are fewer than 4,000 Jesuits left in the U.S., down from over 8,500, and their average age is in the low 60s. The projection is for American membership in the order to fall to about 2,000 in ten years. Globally, the Jesuits are down from their peak of over 35,000 in the late ’60s to a little over 20,000.
         The big transition is toward lay-leadership of the schools and other operations, with an attempt to preserve the Catholic identity of “the works.” Even in India, where the Society is growing, the long-term forecast is for decline. There, most recruits to the order come from tribal areas, rural zones, and marginal regions (somewhat as happened in the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century, with applicants to the priesthood coming from poorer Catholic enclaves.) As countries modernize, recruits to “the vowed life” tend to fall off.
         Still, there’s a serious gap between the authority structure of Catholicism, run by clerics, and the “apostolic” structure, that is, the various ministries, run and staffed largely by lay people. This creates tensions, though it doesn’t dictate the utter collapse of the priesthood.

How do you see the Catholic Church changing over the next 100 years? Will the Church be dominated by Latin American politics, for example? Will it become more active, or retreat? Will it survive? And who will be the next Pope?

    The internationalization of Catholicism, its spread in countries outside Europe and the U.S., including religious vocations from these former mission territories, is the most significant trend since Vatican II. But the programmatic and ideological implications of this sea change are not self-evident. It’s not clear, for example, whether it will help promote some of the positions favored by American Catholics, such as the ordination of women. The variety of Catholicism prevalent in advanced industrial societies tends to be more progressive than the “third world church”on intramural issues like these.
         Another thing to watch out for is the importance of concentrated funding in a sprawling hierarchy like the Catholic Church. While progressives, including progressive Jesuits, outnumber conservatives on many issues, neo-conservative resources are often more focused, supporting the restorationist program of the papacy. Tight organization has a way of offsetting individualized dissent.
         The next pope? If there’s any smart money on such a bet, it would be on a conservative candidate from outside Europe (and certainly outside the U.S.) To complicate things further, there’s the Nixon or John XXIII factor. It was the conservative Nixon who initiated the grand opening to China. Similarly, it was the presumably doddering John XXIII who inaugurated Vatican II. Given the highly orthodox composition of the College of Cardinals, we’re likely to get a pope with conservative credentials. But once he assumes power, who knows?

Do you see the Catholic Church having a role in the struggle between the Arab world and Israel? Should the Pope use his position to help find peace?

    Catholicism is said to be the oldest multinational corporation. The church is one of the few truly transnational organizations, and it has experience in brokering agreements. This makes it a valuable resource. What precisely it has to offer in the Middle East I’m not sure. It carries a certain crusading baggage that hasn’t been forgotten. “Evangelism,” which can be read as an updated crusade, has been a priority of John Paul II, and this offends some non-Catholics.

You're aware that President Bush is seeking to send Peace Corps Volunteers into Afghanistan? Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bangladesh, having been an interested observer over the years, what do you think Peace Corps Volunteers can do to spread peace?

    I suppose the basic thing is to be competent at what they do and pass on skills, without condescension. If peace comes out of this, somehow, so much the better. At its best, the Corps represents a genuine innovation in humanitarian aid. The “Peace” in Peace Corps can also be used for political hype, as the good guy side of a good cop/bad cop Realpolitik. It’s hard to think straight about Peace Corps strategy without falling into the extremes of piety or cynicism.

What's next in the way of publishing for you?

    Maybe a series of articles or a book about Ireland, where I spent the first half of last year. It’s odd that traditional religious attachments have declined in Ireland but that they, or causes invoking denominational identity, continue to fuel sectarian conflict in the North.
         Another project would involve looking at the future of institutional Catholicism. My first book on the Jesuits examined the recent past of the order, and the second scrutinizes the present. By now I’ve overdosed on Jesuits, so I want to take a break. But the larger question of what will happen with Catholicism as a clerical enterprise and a religious movement remains. The multifaceted nature of the topic requires collegial work. An edited volume may be the way to go. Some observers of the religious scene are awaiting a “charismatic” or “prophetic” breakthrough to restore the promise of Vatican II. But for the moment anyway, I’m convinced that what’s needed is a series of town hall meetings on Catholicism, perhaps leading up to Vatican III. What we have now is a lumpy mishmash of interest groups and dissidents petitioning or ignoring Rome — in effect, a proliferation of mini-regimes and subcultures engaged in a sort of parallel play.

A final question and one about writing with another author. How did you “write” the book with a co-author? Did you rewrite each other or divide the chapters?

    There are many mysteries in Catholicism, and this will remain one of them.


Literary Type — March 2002

    Several years ago, Betsi Shays (Fiji 1968–70), then head of the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program, began to develop a text book based on writings by Peace Corps Volunteers. This spring, Voices From the Field: Reading and Writing About the World, Ourselves and Others was published by the Peace Corps. The book is a language arts curriculum guide based on the personal narratives, poetry, and fiction of Peace Corps authors and is for teachers and their students in grades 7 to 12.
        Two separate but complementary curriculum units accompany the Peace Corps stories. “Reading and Responding to Literature” focuses on one or more essential questions designed to help students better understand the world, themselves and others, while at the same time, strengthening their reading comprehension skills. “A Reading and Writing Workshop” uses the Peace Corps stories as a springboard to students’ own self-discovery through the writing process.
         Also authoring the book were Beth Giebus (Morocco 1990–93) and Cerylle Moffett (Staff PC/W 2001– )
         The Peace Corps writers include: John Acree (Liberia 1983–85), Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1990–93), Leslie Simmonds Ekstrom (Nigeria 1963–65), Bill Moyers (Peace Corps staff 1961–63), Susan Peters (Niger 1984–86), Robert Soderstrom (Papua New Guinea 1996), Mike Tidwell (Dem. Republic of the Congo 1985–87), and Roz Wollmering (Guinea-Bissau 1990–92).
         According to the teachers who have field-tested the stories and lesson plans,these “voices” are “powerful and contain messages young Americans need to hear — especially now.”
         For more information about the book, and to download the entire 273 page publication as a PDF file (using Adobe Acrobat) go to: www.peacecorps.gov/wws/guides/voices/.

  • Spring Fashions of the Times (a special insert section in The New York Times) that appeared on Sunday, February 24, carried a piece by Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964-66) entitled “Our Woman in Tajikistan” about bazaar shopping in the Tajik city of Dushanbe. Maureen did this piece for The Times while she was in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan writing a piece on drugs and terrorism that appeared in the Marsh issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Maureen writes, “I chose not to repair to the bar, where the weary correspondent traditionally take his release, but opted for the bazaar instead.” Maureen came home with bargains, and a tale to tell.

  • Readers’ Digest published excerpts from the book In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment — Destination: Estonia, by Douglas Wells (Estonia 1992–96) in its December 2001 issue. In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment tells of Wells’ always frustrating, often comic, and occasionally heroic adventures as a PCV on a small Estonian island in the Baltic Sea. Wells’ unique sense of irony and wit has propelled this autobiographic fish-out-of-water comedy onto his publisher’s (Xlibris) best seller list for 4th quarter of 2001.

  • Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67) has signed with Sanctuary Publishing, London, for the third book in his Waking Up In . . . series. The new book on Nashville and the country music culture, is to be released in November. The previous books in the series are Waking Up in Jamaica (travel & reggae) and Waking Up in Cuba (travel & Cuban music).

  • A short essay titled “My Private Place,” reflecting the thoughts of Leonard Oppenheim (Afghanistan 1964–66) during the first months of the post 9/11 U.S. antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan, has been added to the website of the alumni of the former American International School of Kabul (www.aisk.org). Leonard’s essay evokes memories and historical references, balancing them against the imagery of events in that country as reported by the media during the military campaign. The essay’s title alludes to the virtual nonexistence of Afghanistan in the media during “normal times.”

  • Jeff Koob (Jamaica 1991–93) has just published Two Years in Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir. The author, a psychologist, and his wife, a psychiatric nurse, worked for two years at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Koob is a mental health professional in Columbia, South Carolina.

  • Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988-90) is included in William Heyen’s September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, an anthology of essays, poetry, letters, and reflections form over 125 poets and writers that is forthcoming from Etruscan Press.

  • Marnie Mueller will be touring the country with her new novel, My Mother’s Island, about a daughter who relives her troubled past while caring for her dying mother. Set in Puerto Rico, this is a novel that will hit home for many of us. She will be in Washington state, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Connecticut. If you can, go to one of Marnie’s readings.

      April

      2
      Seattle, Washington
      7:30 pm
      Elliot Bay Book Co.101
      South Main Street
      206-624-6600

      4
      Portland, Oregon
      7:30 pm 
      Annie Bloom Books
      7834 SW Capitol Hwy  
      503 246 0053

      5
      Sonoma, CA
      7:30 pm  
      Readers Books
      127 E. Napa St.
      707 939 1779

      7
      Berkeley, CA
      2pm 
      Barnes & Noble
      2352 Shattuck Ave.
      510 644 0861

      9
      Capitola, CA
      7:30pm
      Capitola Book Café
      1475  41st Ave.
      831-462-4415

      10
      Santa Monica, CA
      7:30 
      Midnight Special
      1318 3rd St. Promenade  
      310-393-2923

      13
      Los Angeles, CA
      2pm 
      Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore
      11975 San Vincente Blvd.
      310 476 6263

      17
      St. Paul, MN
      7:30pm 
      Ruminator Books
      1648 Grand Ave.
      651 699-0587

      18
      Cambridge, MA
      7pm
      New Words
      Inman Square
      186 Hampshire St.
      617 876-5310

      19
      La Plata, MD
      7pm
      College of Southern Maryland,
      301-475-8799 x 6546

      May

      14
      South Hadley, MA 
      7 pm
      Odyssey Bookstore
      9 College St.
      413 534-7303

      15
      New York City
      7pm
      Bluestockings
      172 Allen St.
      212-777-6028
      Reading with Jane Ciabattari

      16
      Manhasset Long Island
      7pm
      Barnes & Noble Bookstore
      Northern Blvd.
      516 365-6723    

      21
      Old Saybrook, CT
      7 pm
      Emerson & Cook Bookstore
      665 Boston Post Rd.
      860 388-0686

      September

      27–29
      Baltimore, MD 
      Baltimore Book Festival
      Mount Vernon Place - 600 block of North Charles Street
      410 752 8632

      October
      17

      Rockville Center, Long Island, NY
      11:00 am 
      Rockville Center Library
      221 North Village Avenue
      516-766-6257

    My Mother’s Island has been selected for the May/June BookSense 76. Book Sense 76 is a bi-monthly selection of 76 most noteworthy, eclectic new books chosen by independent booksellers. Their website is: www.booksense.com/about/booksense.jsp


    Recent Books by Peace Corps writers — March 2002

      Lessons from Afghanistan
      (Peace Corps experience)
      by David Fleishhacker (Afghanistan 1962–64)
      DF Publications, $13.95
      154 pages
      February, 2002

      Two Years in Kingston Town:
           A Peace Corps Memoir
      by Jeff Koob (Jamaica 1991-93)
      Writer’s Showcase, $19.95
      An imprint of iUniverse, Inc.
      359 pages
      February, 2002

      Passionate Uncertainty:
           Inside the American Jesuits
      by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)
      and Eugene C. Bianchi
      University of California Press, $29.95
      390 pages
      March, 2002

      Nomadic Foundations
      (Poems)
      by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
      Elixir Press, $13.00
           P.O. Box 18010
           Minneapolis, MN 55418
      68 pages
      2002

      My Mother’s Island
      by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
      Curbstone Press, $24.95
      238 pages
      April, 2002

      Oddball Illinois:
           A Guide to Some Really Strange Places

      by Jerome Pohlen (Benin 1986-88)
      Chicago Review Press, $12.95
      225 pages
      2000

      Oddball Indiana:
           A Guide to Some Really Strange Places

      by Jerome Pohlen (Benin 1986-88)
      Chicago Review Press, $13.95
      227 pages
      2002

      Aleph-Bet Yoga:
      Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being
      by Steve A. Rapp (Benin 1986–88)
      Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95
      88 pages
      2002

      Voices From the Field: Reading and Writing About the World, Ourselves and Others
      by Beth Giebus (Morocco 1990–93), Cerylle Moffett (Staff PC/W 2001– ), Betsi Shays (Fiji 1968–70)
      Peace Corps, free
      273 pages
      2002

      When You’re Seeing Red, STOP!
      by Carol M. Welsh (Honduras 1962–64)
      Infinity Publishing.com, $14.95
      206 pages
      1999

      Feminism & Love:
            Transforming Ourselves and Our World
      by Ruth Whitney (Ghana 1961–63)
      Cross Cultural Publications, $15.95
      260 pages
      1998


    Review

      Lessons from Afghanistan
      by David Fleishhacker (Afghanistan 1962–64)
      DF Publications, $13.95
      154 pages
      2002

      Review by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)

      MORE YEARS AGO ore years ago than I care to remember, when I was sharing quarters with a number of other Peace Corps Volunteers at the Comilla Academy for Rural Development in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the sweeper, a young man whose job it was to clean the hard dirt floor of our bungalow and assist the cook in various chores, came to us with an anguished look. Someone had told him that the world might be round rather than flat. “Which is it?” he asked. The cosmological implications were staggering. “If the world is round like an apple,” he reasoned, “would it really be night on the other side of the world when it is day here?” None of us was sure how to handle the question. Finally, one of my colleagues, who was something of a wise-acre and never in contention for sensitivity-of-the-year award, said, “Well, you know, the world is neither round nor flat. It’s shaped like a banana!” I don’t recall the exact reaction of the sweeper, except that he sank even further into dismay.
           Lessons from Afghanistan, David Fleishhacker’s memoir of his Peace Corps days in Kabul from 1962 to 1964, is full of stories like this, though most of them have a kinder lilt. A teacher of English as a foreign language, Fleishhacker found that his “pattern practice” pedagogy, which aimed at getting students to grasp the underlying structure of the new idiom, ran smack up against the Afghan habit of rote memorization. Here is the exchange that rivals the maddening, hilarious Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” routine:

             I held up a pencil. “Is this a pencil?”
             “Yes, teacher,” they chorused. And some brave students would add, “Yes, teacher, it is a pencil.”
             I held up a green pencil. “The pencil is green. Green . . . sabz.”
             “The pencil is green.”
             “Is the pencil green?”
             “The pencil is green.”
             “Is this a green pencil?”
             “Yes, this is a green pencil”
             I held up a red pencil. “Is the pencil green?”
             “Yes, teacher,” they responded.
             “No,” I said, “the pencil is red. Red  . . . soorgh.”
             “The pencil is red,” they responded, confused but agreeable.
             “Is the pencil green?” I asked.
             Now I had created total confusion. “Yes, teacher. No, teacher. The pencil is green. It is red. It is not red.” They tried any answer at all to appease me. “This is a red. This is not the green.”

      And so it went, even if the mutual frustration evident in this tale was often relieved by one or another inadvertent success. There is also a sympathetic rhythm to the book. The tumble of anecdotes is sustained by Fleishhacker’s pervasive respect for Afghan folk culture and his feel for the poignancy of its survival in the face of perennial foreign intrusions — the country is more of a crossroads than a coherent nation — and now in the face of modernization.
           This is a later-day version, without the condescension, of the adventure-travel genre that the British used to produce under titles such as With Pipe and Notebook: Through the Filth of Jamshedpur. If there are flaws here, they lie in the bland nostrums and truisms (“Politics does, on occasion, lead to war.”) that detract from the charm of simply wrought, perceptive stories charged with powerful memories.

      Peter McDonough is Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University. He is author of Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century and is co-author of the recently published Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits.


    Review

      My Mother’s Island
      by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
      Curbstone Press, $24.95
      2002
      238 pages

      Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)

      ANY WOMAN WHO HAS ever had a love-hate relationship with her own mother will recognize truths, both painful and tender, in My Mother’s Island, a novel about a grown daughter keeping watch over her mother’s final days of life.
           Sarah is not an evil person, but when she relates to her mother, she often feels like one. “I hate her. I’m afraid of her,” she tells her husband. Moments later, she says she can’t leave her side because her mother is “so sick and helpless and frightened.”
           Early on in their final relationship with each other, the mother, Reba, seems one-dimensional – difficult, demanding, petulant, manipulative. But Sarah stays with her, day after day. She watches other people relating to her mother on other dimensions besides the one that is all too familiar to her.
           Sometimes she even comes close to understanding this one human being who so traumatized her that she swore never to have children of her own..
           “I don’t want another human being to hate me as much as I hated her,” she says, fearing that the chain of parental failure might be repeated.
           Slowly, as Reba slips increasingly into the simplified state of being a dying person, Sarah comes to realize how many different and complicated facets there are to her mother’s character.
          Still, as humans tend to do, she clings to the hatred that defined her childhood.
           She reconstructs horrible scenes in which her mother treated her cruelly, rejected her, inflicted lasting damage with her punishments. These fade into other childhood scenes of her mother withdrawing from her completely, staring past her as the unreasonable rage dissipates into a state of detached, empty unconcern that is even more frightening.
           Interestingly, Sarah’s husband, Roberto, a psychoanalyst, is able to put a label on this behavior: a sort of “dissociative fugue state.”
      Why does this labeling help? What door does it open?
           “There was a name for this eerie exercise of hers that I’d had to contend with all my life,” Sarah muses. “It wasn’t anything I had done wrong.”
           But giving something a name is only a beginning of understanding. Sarah must still contend with her own deeply embedded loathing of the woman she has too often thought of as her bitter enemy.
           “She takes my hand. I steel myself against her touch.”
           Yet even when Sarah is at her most reluctant, still she is there, and Reba takes her presence at face value. She accepts Sarah unconditionally. Finally. After so many years.
           “You are my light. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Reba tells her now.
           Even though there is never any doubt as to how the story will end — well, hardly any doubt — the author’s skillful development of her first-person narrator’s self-awareness keeps one interested from beginning to end.
           Sarah is so very imperfect, so determined to be both honest and compassionate, and so ultimately needy and giving at the same time, that she makes a powerful character study.
           By giving voice to the other characters as they relate to Sarah and her mother — the husband, the mother’s friends, the poor residents of the Puerto Rican neighborhood where her mother lives — Mueller shows how Sarah is changing toward them as she gains insight into matters of love and hate and the finality of death.
           The sweet, enduring relationships Reba has developed with her friends and neighbors provide a cheerful, sometimes even funny, contrast to the sadness of the central story. And the lush, tropical atmosphere of Puerto Rico enhances that contrast.
           As Sarah and Reba talk about things they’ve never mentioned, Sarah reluctantly comes to realize things about her father that she had never let herself understand. She hears secrets from her mother’s past. And she comes to know how much her mother sacrificed, as women often do, to support her father’s goals.
           But still, how could she ever forgive a mother who, for example, once locked her own child inside a hot car for hours and never admitted to doing anything wrong? Sarah was left believing: “My mommy hates me. I almost died and she doesn’t care, and she doesn’t even feel sorry.”
           Not every problem can be resolved, not every memory can be forgiven, and some parts of every human being will forever be imperfect. How this knowledge changes Sarah gives the story its force.

      Sharon Dirlam, journalist, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.


    Review

      Taj Mahal: Autobiography of a Bluesman
      by Taj Mahal with Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–67)
      Sanctuary Publishers, Ltd.,
      2001
      287 pages

      Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

      NOT EVEN TWO PAGES INTO Stephen Foehr’s biography of Taj Mahal, I knew I had to buy one of the blues musician’s CDs to fully appreciate what the book would have to say about him. Foehr’s portrait of Taj Mahal as an influential pioneer in the fusion of blues, reggae, zydeco, gospel, calypso and ragtime simultaneously highlight a naturally developed spirituality to reveal a richly talented musician and a magnetic personality. Each chapter of the book devotes itself to interviews with family members, friends or other musicians from each period of Taj’s life so that the reader is carried through his life, growing more impressed with the range of his professional and personal gifts.
           Foehr explores at great length Taj Mahal’s upbringing in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Jr. in a five-child household with roots extending back to a blended West Indian, Caribbean, and Africa ethnic heritage, Taj describes his successes as a function of his Caribbean-style upbringing, which prescribed hard work as essential to surviving island life. His father’s death in an accident when he was 14 also helped him develop a sense of responsibility to his family and he worked a series of farm jobs through his teenage and college years to help support his mother and siblings.
           A lover of the outdoors, a gardener and fisherman, Taj pursued a degree in animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But he dropped out after only two years as his guitar playing in the Boston region began to draw large crowds. “I sought out people whose image and energy came across as positive,” he tells Foehr to explain his inspiration, and cites Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King as great influences. He took the name Taj Mahal to identify with the spirituality of his music. Taj joined his first national band — the Rising Sons — in a musical live-in community in Los Angeles and almost immediately encountered trouble with his recording label. While the Sons were successfully opening for Otis Redding and the Temptations, Columbia Records was pushing for commercial success with a hit single. Simultaneously, Taj sought marketing and promotion support, which he believed was insufficient. Amid the complications and difficulties moving forward, the Rising Sons disbanded.
           Taj’s fame grew through the mid- and late-1960s, largely through his touring and playing with a large number of roots blues musicians. By the late 1960s, he began to recognize the burnout of talented musicians such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, whom he believed were exploited by record companies for their creative abilities while lacking the support to maintain their personal health. Faced with his own increasing drug use and exhaustion from constant touring, Taj fled to Spain for a brief period of recuperation and returned to the States with a renewed focus on his work.
           With Taj’s career launched, Foehr shifts the biography toward an examination of the personal elements of his life, including marriage to his first wife Anna de Leon. A fairly routine domestic lifestyle in Topanga Canyon, California ended in divorce several years later and though Taj would marry again, he ultimately fathered 15 children with his wives and other women as well. Through the 1970s, Taj would enlist his brothers and sisters to support his career, claiming to trust family members more than record executives whose motives were not always honest. His brother Samuel served a tense five-year period as his manager, during which time regular rifts existed between Taj’s creative perspective and Samuel’s practical one.
           Foehr interviews Taj’s family, children and friends, and though some criticize his lack of physical, financial and emotional support, few discount him as a failure. The reader carries from the experience of reading about Taj’s life a sense that he is a uniquely gifted, spiritually-inclined musician who simultaneously has retained enough personal attraction to draw many people into his life. His defiance of commercial standards in the 1960s likewise found a solid vehicle in the counterculture element that was thrusting talented people of this nature to the forefront of musical life.
           At 58 years old, Taj Mahal still actively records and tours. If he has not enjoyed the fame of other contemporary blues musicians such as the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton, it may be that the blend of his diverse musical roots has found expression in music that defies traditional market segments and access to large populations. Often hailed as a pioneer who helped introduce roots blues to the latter half of the 20th century, the remarkable quality of Taj Mahal’s career and life is evident within the 280 pages of this well-structured book.
           At times, I was a little disappointed by Foehr’s failure to pull together his research into one defining portrait of the musician. One would expect the biographer’s extensive research as sufficient to qualify his ability to make direct comments about the subject in question. But while Foehr admirably interviews all of Taj’s key friends, family members and other musicians, he does little to mediate their comments with his own thoughts, often letting them ramble to the point of excess. Is Foehr a biographer or merely a scribe? Still, his questions are probing ones and elicit comments that make one want to keep reading. And by the end of this satisfactory read, I had listened to the Taj Mahal CD so often that I no longer needed a biography to help me appreciate the man’s extraordinary talent.

      Joe Kovacs is coordinating the readings presented by PeaceCorpsWriters.org for the 40 + 1 NPCA Conference this June in Washington, DC. If you are an RPCV and would like to read for 10 minutes from your poems, fiction or non-fiction about a Peace Corps (or other international) experience, e-mail Joe at joewriter@earthlink.net.


    Review

      Tales from the Jungle . . . a Gringa in Nicaragua
      by Rachael Tyng McClennen (Nicaragua 1996–98)
      Amigos de las Americas, $15.00
           P.0. Box 30129
           Seattle, Washington 98103-0129
           wcollins3@mindspring.com
      2001
      35 pages

      Reviewed by Stacey L. Flanagan (Costa Rica 1994–97)

      THIS LITTLE BOOK IS what memoirs are made of. Rachael’s Tales from the Jungle . . .a Gringa in Nicaragua is a collection of essays about her experiences as a young woman learning and working in a New World. As I flipped through the pages, I was reminded of the questions I asked my self as a similar gringa living in Costa Rica. I felt like I was reading my own journal at times, asking questions and growing from each answer.
           Rachael’s path to Peace Corps is a similar tale for most of us: Fate. At a young age, her aunt and uncle, who served as Peace Corps Volunteers, inspired her. After questioning her ability to live overseas, she tested the waters with an international program called Amigos de Las Americas. Following this eye-opening experience with Amigos in Ecuador, she knew she was ready for more. Her essays are about her transition into adulthood through Peace Corps and what she learned in a modest Nicaraguan community
           As I paged through the essays, I was able to identify with each question she posed and each growing experience. Rachael’s expression is: it helps you to learn how to walk in the chancletas (sandals) of another Peace Corps Volunteer.
           In “The Hidden Jinotega,” Rachael asks herself if she could ever become desensitized to poverty. I could see the women selling her tomatoes outside the All-American haven where she went once a week for her escape from “real Peace Corps life.” In “Wrong Expectations,” I felt the journey of Ana as she waited for an appointment at the health center.
           I am hoping this little book is only the beginning for Rachael Tyng McClennen. Rachael reminds us that it is the constant questioning and risk taking that makes Peace Corps “The Toughest job you’ll ever love.”

      Stacey Flanagan is the Director of Engagement, Mandel Fellow at the Drucker Foundation. She has a B.A. from Michigan State in Political Science and an M.S. in Nonprofit Management from the New School and lives in New York.