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Peace Corps Writers May 2002
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Peace Corps Writers May 2002
Announcing the 2002 writing awards
We are pleased to announce this years awards from Peace Corps Writers & Readers. The awards will be given out at the NPCA Conference in Washington, D.C., at the Opening Ceremony on Friday, June 21. Congratulations to all the winners.
Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
River Town Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Field Observations by Rob Davidson (Grenada 199092)
Award for Best Poetry Book
I Want This World by Margaret Szumonwki (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475)
Award for Best Travel Writing
Lonely Planet Bangkok by Joe Cummings (Thailand 197778)
Award for Best Childrens Writing
Jubela by Cristina Kessler (Honduras 197375, Kenya 197576, Seychelles 197678)
The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
Thirty Years Later by Barbara Carey (India 196668)
PeaceCorpsWriter.org is presenting a variety of events and programs at NPCA Conference
Eleven writing workshops featuring 39 writers
Readings by 55 writers
A booth where writers will sell and sign their books
A lunch get-together
In This Issue
A Writer Writes presents poems by two newly discovered (by us) poets from our growing body of Peace Corps poets. Steve Horowitz was a PCV in Iran from 1968 to 1971, and Eugenia Hepworth Jenson was with the fifth group to Ukraine and served from 1995 to 1997.
Our Talking With . . . subject is Jerome Pohlen who went from Notre Dame to West Africa to writing books about odd ball information on midwest states. We interviewed him recently about his guidebook series published by Chicago Review Press where he is an editor.
The Letter Home comes from a new collection of letters, To Africa with Spatula, written by Jane Baker Lotter, the wife of Peace Corps/Malawi Director Will Lotter.
Dan Close sent us a folk tale from Ethiopia, which was written for him in one of his English classes in 1967. Dan tells us, While some of the folk stories were recognizable as having crossed many national and cultural borders, I have never seen any story anywhere else which parallels this one.
Also in this issue is another literary essay on Peace Corps writing linking them via a literary bridge to the expatriate writers in Europe during the 1920s. Our travel pieces is by Patricia Edmisten who recently visited Cuba and gives us her impressions. And also, as always, we have Recently Published Books and Literary Talk.
See you at the NPCA Conference. In the mean time, we have some terrific reading for you.
Peace Corps people who worked for even less than the 19 cents an hour an the old advertisement claimed Volunteers would receive, were all the moms of the Volunteers the wives of overseas Peace Corps staff, young mothers themselves, who took care of their own families as well as their extended Peace Corps families those PCVs who from time to time needed a little TLC and a home cooked meal.
One such woman is Jane Baker Lotter who went to Malawi in East Africa in 1965 with her husband Will and their four boys, ages three to twelve.
Once there, she wrote letters home to family with carbon copies (remember them?) to neighbors and friends. Janes best friend/neighbor, Pat Allen, saved the letters and gave them to her when the family returned to Davis, California in 1967.
This year, Jane self-published the letters in a book entitled To Africa With Spatula. The title, says Jane, was inspired by our favorite family activity Sunday morning pancake open houses which we held to give the Peace Corps Volunteers a little touch of home.
Excerpted below is a short, amusing letter Jane wrote of her first trip into the interior of Malawi with her sons and several PCVs.
Sept. 17, 1965
While Will was giving his track clinic in Fort Johnston, a bit of excitement befell me (or at least befell my passengers) as Will wanted me to drive the truck about fifteen miles out to a place called Malindi to give a message to some PCVs there. Two of the gal PCVs from Ft. Johnston came along to guide me, and the kids went with me too.
The first two blocks or so, I was trying to remember how to shift the gears on the truck and trying to convince the PCVs that I really did know how to drive it heh heh. Before Id fully refreshed my memory on how to do this, wed rounded a bend and were headed down a hill, at the bottom of which was the Shire River and a little tiny ferry onto which to my horror I would have to drive this truck!
This ferry is a flat pontoon ferry, more like a big raft, which is pulled across the Shire River by a cable. It was filled with Africans on foot. The man had them all stand aside and beckoned me to drive on. Ulp. My passengers blanched. I was on the verge of telling the PCVs which kids did not swim well and would need to be rescued first, trying to ignore the fact that the Shire River has a reputation for its large crocodile population, when I decided just to act very brave and nonchalant.
The truck wheels had to go onto two little planks going from the shore over the edge of the water onto the boat. I hadnt the least idea where the wheels were, the truck is so big and high. After putting it in the wrong gear three times (not nervous at all) and hoping the PCVs didnt notice my shaking knees, I said a little prayer that the wheels were on the boards, and kept my eyes glued on the man beckoning me forward. Since he kept smiling, I figured we were on. Whew. What a relief until the awful realization came that wed have to do it again going back! Oh dear.
The road to Malindi was almost as bad, being windy (how do you spell that? well, the road wound well, it was a very curvy road) having many narrow, sideless bridges with the same kind of two planks that the wheels must fit on. I just couldnt believe I was doing this. I only learned to drive rather late in life and am Chicken Little at the wheel in any car what was I doing?
My shaky knees were justly rewarded, however, when we finally got there, by all the congratulations of the fellows at Malindi and by the women saying that I had done great things for American Womanhood! Little did they know that never in my wildest dreams would I have done this thing if Id known what was before me.
Will about died when he found out Id had to drive onto one of those ferries and all those sideless plank bridges, with PCVs and all our kids in the back. One of the PCVs was new and Im sure that ride was her first culture shock.
The thing that really surprised and pleased me the most though, was the reaction of my own kids. They said, Atta boy, Mom! my highest compliment!
Werent you scared? I asked them.
No, we knew you could do it.
Wish I had been that confident.
A Writer Writes
Today I was in love
I bought blood red berries
Pomegranates torn open
Dried herbs tied in bundles
Eggs in glass jars.
All around me the city breathed
Centuries of mourning
Born against the weight of the sky
The carved stone of doorways
Layers of language on markers of the dead
Sculptured turrets of thick walled arsenals
And tiers of icons enshrined in light
Today I was in love and the city breathed
Bouquets of burnt-orange lamps sputtered
Priests swung censers through Moldavian cathedrals
Not buildings at all
But monuments to fortitude
Like the faces of people
Eugenia Hepworth Jenson (Ukraine 199597)
no test to see
if the great ideal
fit the differences
in our lives,
trying to measure change
by words or miles,
by how deep a footprint remained
or how many people
remembered a name.
private thoughts angled
differently in the darkness:
deep damp grass
in a serious shell of nightfall.
the scattered points of my life
a quick new pattern,
watching the last lights
go out below
before we knew
much more than midnight
and two walks though the woods.
Steve Horowitz (Iran 196871)
To Preserved and to Learn
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
The Lost Generation
In the 1920s Gertrude Stein coined the phrase the lost generation. It was repeated by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, his famous novel of Paris, and is often used to describe the intellectuals, poets, artists, and novelists who rejected the values of post World War I America. They relocated to Paris and quickly adopted a bohemian lifestyle of excessive drink, messy love affairs, and the creation of some of the finest American literature ever written.
We give this lost generation of American writers in Europe a prominent place in the landscape of 20th century American life and culture. They led the way in exploring themes of spiritual alienation, self-exile, and cultural criticism, leaving a distinct mark on our intellectual history. They expressed their critical response in innovative literary forms, challenged traditional assumptions about writing and self-expression, and paved the way for subsequent generations of avant-garde writers. Myth surrounds that lost generation now and perpetuates its popularity as a counterculture entity.
Every subsequent generation including the Beats of the 1950s and the Generation Xers of the 1990s has produced aspirants in some way to the same reputation for hedonism and headiness of those expatriates in Paris in the 1920s.
Today Peace Corps writers have built an equally important literary movement. And they certainly measure up both as expatriates with pure grit and as artists with true creative talent.
A literary bridge
We envision places and events in the world through the eyes of the artists and writers who depict them a striking sunset on canvas; a moving musical overture; or colorful prose. So it is with Ernest Hemingway's often bittersweet perspectives on Paris in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, two books published decades apart, that caught a special moment in time and captured it forever in prose.
For nearly eighty years, countless travelers, students, and aspiring young writers, yearning to experience their own version of a bohemian and creative existence in the City of Light, have relied on his descriptions to gain a sense of what life was like in Paris at that time.
Other literary artists who were part of the Lost Generation include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, John Peale Bishop, Kay Boyle, Paul Bowles, and e.e. cummings.
These writers were encouraged by a fabled American establishment in Paris that served an important role, an English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Co. founded and run by Sylvia Beach. The stores international fame ballooned largely on its one and only publishing venture, James Joyces Ulysses, but it was more, much more than just a place to buy books.
Shakespeare & Company became an information bureau, a forwarding address for American writers, and a lending library where the young Hemingway was an almost daily visitor. In A Moveable Feast, he wrote, On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.
So, how does one make a connection a literary bridge between the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s and over five hundred Peace Corps writers who have written vividly about life in more than 130 countries during the past forty years?
Peace Corps writers emulate writers from the Lost Generation
Peace Corps writers are like their predecessors in four ways, I believe.
1) Both groups wrote about, and explained to an American audience, the world of an expatriate. Hemingway wrote of Paris and Spain while Mark Brazaitis writes of Guatemala; Hemingway wrote of big game hunting in East Africa and Norm Rush writes of white racists in Southern Africa; Fitzgerald wrote of wealthy, bored Americans on the French Riviera and Simone Zelitch writes of survivors of the Holocaust leaving Hungary for Haifa. Other Peace Corps writers regularly find equally rewarding subject matter.
Paul Theroux writes of Indians in Kenya in his first novel set in Africa; Richard Wiley about Korea and Koreans; P. F. Kluge about islands in the sun in the Pacific; and Mark Jacobs, who was a Volunteer in Paraguay and a foreign service officer in his Peace Corps country as well as Turkey and Spain, has written about these places, and more.
2) Both groups include award-winning writers. A partial list of Peace Corps awardees includes:
- Bob Schacochis, winner of the American Book Award in 1985;
- Richard Wiley, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1986;
- Kathleen Coskran, winner of the Minnesota Voices Prize in 1987;
- Shay Youngblood, winner of both the Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award;
- Melanie Sumner, winner of the Whiting Award in 1995;
- Marnie Mueller, winner of the 1995 American Book Award;
- Norm Rush, winner of the National Book Award in 1991;
- Ann Neelon, winner of the Anhinga Prize for Poetry in 1995;
- Mark Brazaitis, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award;
- Peter Chilson, winner of the 1999 Associated Writing Program;
- Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong (1999), a New York Times bestseller, and winner of, among others, the Regional Book Award in fiction from the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, a Salon. Com Book Awards, and an Alex Award from the American Library Association.
3) Like the Lost Generation, the Beat Generation, and the Generation X-ers, Peace Corps writers have been widely anthologized. In 1991, Geraldine Kennedys Clover Park Press published fiction and non-fiction written by RPCVs in From the Center of the Earth, the first collection of Peace Corps writings. Scribners published Going Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers in 1994, and Curbstone Press published Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers in 2000.
4) While we dont have a bookstore as famous as Shakespeare & Co., with its big stove and tables and shelves of books where we could all gather for conversation and café au lait, we do have a website: peacecorpswriters.org, designed by RPCV Marian Haley Beil.
Books that tred Peace Corps Volunteers
More significant than similarities with the Lost Generation is an examination of why writers went overseas in the first place, and how they wrote about their expatriate world.
It is generally accepted that many members of the Lost Generation rebelled against what America had become by the 1900s: a business-oriented society where money and a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic dominated the culture. To these writers, America was not a success story. It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture.
Following World War I, a segment of American writers sought to escape that rigid style of life and literature. Europe promised them a way out. Lost Generation writers wanted to be apart from America in terms of what they wrote, how they wrote, and where they wrote. These disenfranchised artists packed their bags and traveled to London and Paris in search of literary freedom and a more diverse way of life rich in new viewpoints and experiences.
The impulse of Peace Corps writers to join the agency is not so much to escape as to expand their world beyond the limits of what they find in America, and to develop new material from the experience of living in another culture. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, writers have joined for a number of reasons, many of which they were not able even to articulate when they took their Peace Corps oath. Nevertheless, many of these Kennedy Kids carried with them portable typewriters (and now computers) on which to write the Great Peace Corps Novel while serving in the developing world.
The Kennedy Kids in the Age of The Organization Man
During the 1950s, two impulses swept across the United States. One impulse that characterized the decade was detailed in two best-selling books of the times: the 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the non-fiction The Organization Man, written by William H. Whyte and published in 1956. These books looked at the American way of life and how men got ahead on the job and in society. Both are bleak looks at the corporate world.
These books were underscored by Ayn Rands philosophy as expressed in such novels as Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Her philosophy of Objectivism proposed reason as mans only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. Every man, according to Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. Objectivism rejected any form of altruism.
The Ugly Peace Corps Volunteer
Then in 1958 came The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene J. Burdick. This book went through fifty-five printings in two years and was a direct motivation in creating the Peace Corps, as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her history of the Peace Corps, All You Need Is Love.
In a Factual Epilogue to the novel, Lederer and Burdick lay out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be the Peace Corps. Writing about how America should help developing countries, the authors declare:
We do not need the horde of 1,500,000 Americans mostly amateurs who are now working for the United States overseas. What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and in some cases their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment, and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.
The hero in The Ugly American is Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He is called the ugly American only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lives and works with the local people in Southeast Asia and, by the end of the novel, is beloved and admired by them.
John F. Kennedy and others in his presidential campaign, including such Peace Corps founders as Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, and Bill Moyers had read the book and responded to what Lederer and Burdick wrote about the ineptitude of American foreign policy.
By January 1959, Kennedy had sent this book to every member of the Senate, and the ideas expressed in it, i.e., our inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. It was in this final presidential campaign speech that Kennedy called for the establishment of a Peace Corps: I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [foreign aid] be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country . . . .
One inspiration for the idea of a Peace Corps that Kennedy mentioned were the 10,000 students who had gathered at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan. These students heard his extemporaneous remarks about volunteering for overseas service and immediately began a grass-roots petition across Midwest campuses that generated thousands of signatures of support from college students. America, Kennedy said in San Francisco, was full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way.
Like the writers and artists of the 1920s who fled America, the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, were seeking to give voice to their own discontent here at home. It was a discontent that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into when he ran for the presidency in the last year of the decade.
A New Frontier
Kennedys call to serve and his campaign theme of a new frontier appealed to the romantic impulse of many Volunteers. While social historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that our frontier was closed by the 1890s, America still responded to a hero, a lone hero against a corrupt world. This lone hero was dramatized during the 1950s in two classic western movies, Shane and High Noon. And like Alan Ladd in Shane, Peace Corps Volunteers still ride off into the sunset, saddlebags packed with idealism and a yearning for adventure, and the writers among them seek new experiences to write home about.
An edge and an itch
In my years of watching people join the Peace Corps, I have found that the most obvious PCV candidates are those who have an edge about them. They want more whatever the more is and are not satisfied with what America has to offer them here at home.
And the writers (and would-be writers) among these Volunteers go abroad because they want something to write about. The Peace Corps experience gives them that something.
We were all overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited us when we stepped off the plane. No one could have prepared a typical American for the ways of life in developing countries. But after the initial culture shock there was a richness of experience that the more talented writers could turn into vivid prose. It was raw material waiting to be shaped into books.
Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened to him. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material.
I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber . . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, Ask the bwana what his Africans are like. And that was how we held a conversation the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying and the African kept translating things like, I cant stand the blacks theyre so stupid and bad-tempered. But theres no work for me in Portugal. It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.
Writing from experience
Anyone who has read Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, or John Dos Passos can see how they used the experience of living in France, England, and Spain as subject matter.
In much the same way, Paul Theroux, Moritz Thomsen, Maria Thomas, Eileen Drew, Richard Wiley, P.F. Kluge, Bob Shacochis, Norm Rush, Marnie Mueller, Peter Hessler, George Packer, Kathleen Coskran, Mark Brazaitis, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Eileen Drew, Chris Conlon, Sandra Meek, Tom Hazuka, Jeanne DHaem, Joseph Monninger, Leonard Levitt, Margaret Szumowski, Ann Neelon, Roland Merullo, Charles Larson, Susan Rich, Mike Tidwell, Susanna Herrera, Peter Chilson, Geraldine Kennedy, Rob Davidson, and hundreds of other Peace Corps writers have used Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe in their short stories, novels, poetry, and non-fiction.
While writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, they have broadened the landscape of American readers by introducing new countries and new ideas about other cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of the world for Americans back home.
Our writer in Paris
Closer to the Peace Corps, and closer to our decade, there is Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, who lived in Paris before becoming a Volunteer in Dominica. Of Paris, Shay writes, it seemed to be the kind of place that, if you were a writer or artist, there was something in the air that could transform you.
Shay Youngblood, however, was not following Ernest Hemingway. She was following another literary lion, James Baldwin, who left Greenwich Village in 1948 because of American racism. Baldwin would spend more than a decade in Paris where he wrote his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain.
In Black Girl in Paris, Youngblood informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early twenties, Langston Hughes had only $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40. Youngbloods protagonist came with $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them, she writes. This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.
With these writers as her touchstone, Shay doesnt look back in anger, but expands on the expatriate theme to write about a young black woman who has fled the deep South in search of a childhood dream of a color-blind, liberal atmosphere in which a woman can become a writer. And in doing so, she pays her homage, not to Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but to her black expatriates: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.
Poetry in the Peace Corps
The intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way, perhaps too easily, into poetry. Fortunately, this intense experience has also been a rich source of material for many fine published poets including Charlie Smith, Mark Brazaitis, Philip Dacey, Sandra Meek, Tom Hebert, Ann Neelon, Paul Violi, Keith Carthwright, Susan Rich, Lisa Chavez, John Flynn, Margaret Szumowski, Virginia Gilbert, Tony Zurlo, and many others.
Poets, I believe, have been best able to explain the values of the Peace Corps experience as it relates to writing. Margaret Szumowski, who served in Uganda and Ethiopia, puts it this way:
I think the poet gains a great deal. 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. Id 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. Id 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. Id 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.
The ability to see that poets have is combined with what all of us gained from the experience, as Chris Conlon puts it, perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better self.
But it is the gift of language that these poets find more useful and which benefits them the most. Poet Ann Neelon sums up her experience in Senegal, with one word, foreignness.
Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience.
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 losing myself could I find myself as a writer.
And in the Peace Corps the overwhelming opportunity to lose oneself makes writers of us all.
As Others See Us
On September 9, 2001, on the 40th anniversary of the agency, The Washington Post reported that the Peace Corps community is churning out enough works thousands of memoirs, novels, and books of poetry to warrant a whole new genre: Peace Corps Literature. Also in 2001, Book Magazine wrote in the March/April issue about the literary movement of Peace Corps writers, quoting Paul Theroux, Bob Shacochis and Kent Haruf.
Then there is the review that appeared in the November 2001 issue of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy about the collection of Peace Corps stories that were published in Living On The Edge. The reviewer was Patrick Shannon of Penn State University and he wrote.
None of the contributors are protagonists in their chapters, but each chapter is based on some event that the writer witnessed, experienced, or heard about. By telling the stories, the contributors seem to reconsider their experiences overseas and enable readers to consider (or perhaps reconsider) U.S. actions in the developing world. Those actions can serve as a metaphor for readers experiences with human and cultural differences. In this way, the book offers a triple treat. Readers learn a little about parts of the world they may never see for themselves, they are entertained by a good yarn, and they can learn about themselves as well.
What more could a Peace Corps writer want?
The Peace Corps Volunteer as character
From the first days of the agency, Peace Corps Volunteers have been rich characters for novels not written by PCVs. The first books about the Peace Corps were young adult novels. In 1963, Breaking the Bonds: A Novel about the Peace Corps, written by Sharen Spence, had a short introduction by Sargent Shriver and was dedicated to All Peace Corps Volunteers serving the world with discipline, determination, endurance, and a rare idealism. This novel is set in Nigeria. Then in 1965 came a series of young adult novels entitled Kathy Martin: Peace Corps Nurse, about a Volunteer in Africa. Another nursing novel for a YA audience was written by Rachel G. Payes and published by Avalon Books in 1967.
In 1968 came the most popular of all Peace Corps novels, The Zinzin Road, by the very successful commercial novelist and political writer, Fletcher Knebel, who had worked briefly as a Peace Corps evaluator. He set his novel in Liberia, which he had visited in 1963. Several real Volunteers appear as characters.
In 1975 came the very funny Native Intelligence by Raymond Sokolov, who based his novel on stories told to him by his sister and brother-in-law, two PCVs who had served in Chad.
A steady stream of novels has followed. The most important of them, in terms of focusing on Volunteers as characters, are: Tama Janowitzs A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) about a Volunteer who brings a cannibal home to New York as her husband; Richard Doolings White Mans Grave (1994), another black comedy that involves a missing Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa; and Carter Colemans The Volunteer (1998), that focuses on a Volunteer building fish ponds in Tanzania who becomes involved with a beautiful, young school girl. Most recently (2001), Anita Shreves The Last Time They Met is partially set in Kenya and has as a character a young married woman Volunteer having an affair with her high school boyfriend. Also in 2001 was the first novel by noted Malaysian poet, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, entitled Joss & Gold that has a Peace Corps Volunteer subduing and abandoning a married university professor in Malaysia. She loses her husband, has the PCVs child, and her daughter searches for her true identity.
The Great Peace Corps Novel
Several former Volunteers have written novels that come directly from their own experiences. The first of these Peace Corps novel by a PCV is Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. A third of that 1988 novel is set in Cameroon, where Smith served. In 1991 Richard Wiley published Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, a novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea Wileys country of assignment. Leaving Losapas by Roland Merullo, also published in 1991, is about the life of a Volunteer in Micronesia where Merullo served. Marnie Muellers first novel, Green Fires: Assault on Eden, A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rain-Forest, published in 1994, is about a PCV who returns to Ecuador with her new husband.
Other Peace Corps-centered novels are Craig Carozzis The Road to El Dorado (1997), Susana Herreras Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin (1999), Tom Hazukas In the City of the Disappeared (2000), William Amoss The Seed of Joy (2000) and dozens of other novels written about the Peace Corps experience.
In his fiction, Paul Theroux has used the character of a volunteer in several books, including his third novel, Girls At Play (1969), set in upcountry East Africa, and has written more extensively about himself as a Peace Corps character in My Secret History (1984) and My Other Life (1996).
Maria Thomas used Peace Corps Volunteers as characters in several of her stories in the collection, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and Other Stories, published in 1987; Kathleen Coskran did the same in The High Price of Everything, also published in 1987.
Travel Now, Write Later
Anyone who has read The Sun Also Rises knows that this novel is also a wonderful travel book. Hemingways description of a bus trip to Spain is classic travel prose: The road went along the summit of the Col and then dropped down, and the driver had to honk, and slow up, and turn out to avoid running into two donkeys that were sleeping in the road. A trip like that in Spain in the 1920s is something most Volunteers can identify with today from their own overseas experiences.
Paul Theroux, it is generally agreed, reinvented the art of travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975. He returned the genre to the place it held when Mary Kingsley and Evelyn Waugh were crossing Africa and globe-trotting the world. Many Peace Corps writers have followed, most notably Mike Tidwell, Thurston Clarke, Jeffrey Tayler, Karen Muller, Bill Barich, Karl Luntta, Stephan Foehr, Joe Cummings, Tom Brosnahan, and Peter Hessler, among many, many others.
Expatriates and exiles
Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective, even a new vocabulary, as Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality around, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, thats what I learned.
The experience is also intensely educational. The late novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, it was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.
For all these writers, their Peace Corps years were a time to learn the rules of another culture, as well as a time to learn about themselves in relation to the world, as well as in relation to the United States.
John Givens, a Volunteer in Korea and author of three novels published in the 1980s, says that the Peace Corps suggested that experience was not limited to the mores and expectations of central California where I grew up. The wideness of the world came home to me vividly in Korea, and Ive been exploring the world ever since. And novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience bring the outsiders perspective, which weve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, its something we cant not do.
Bob Shacochis characterizes the modern generation of writers as followers. We are torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the exotic as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.
Myth and mythology
Finally we come back to Gertrude Steins famous comment to Hemingway. You are all a lost generation, she told him. The truth is that Stein had heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics and their poor repair skills as une génération perdue.
All Gertrude Stein wanted was competent mechanics to repair her car but Hemingway, seizing the expression, as any good writer would, identified a literary movement and a new way of looking at the world.
Peace Corps writers do the same by bringing the world back home through their own writing. They have an understanding of parts of the world few Americans will ever know. And as PCVs they have a way of looking at this world that is new and fresh and insightful. Fulfilling the Third Goal of the Peace Corps means telling your tales at home.
So, see how far you can go with a good line or two.
John Coyne is editor of PeaceCorpsWriters.org
Impressions of Cuba
by Patricia Edmisten (Peru, 196264)
I FIRST WENT TO CUBA IN 1986 with the Center for Cuban Studies, which helps U.S. citizens see Cuba for themselves within the limits set by U.S. government regulations. The Center has its own licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and, since its founding in 1972, has sponsored many study tours in the areas of health, education, ecology, and the performing arts, to name a few. My own tour included a packed schedule of visits to educational centers ranging from infant day care through university.
Although I was impressed with the literacy level of the people, their basic, universal medical coverage, and their affection for U.S. citizens, despite our policies, I was disturbed by the absence of a free press, reported human rights abuses against dissenters, and the subtle threats against those who practiced their religions.
A second trip brings a threat
In 1994, after returning from my second trip to Cuba, where I had signed a memorandum of agreement establishing a faculty and student exchange program between the University of West Florida and the University of Havana, I received an intimidating letter from Alpha 66, an organization dedicated to the fall of the Castro regime. Alpha 66, whose motto is Death before Slavery, declared that its members were at the final confrontation, about to achieve . . . the definitive victory that will bring about the longed-for liberty and democracy to suffering Cuba . . .
The letter continued: Conscious that we are the valorous and tenacious flag-bearers, we proclaim today that all those persons who visit Cuba, dialogue, or directly or indirectly support the ungovernment [sic] that oppresses our people, regardless of nationality, will be declared a military objective and will suffer the consequences, within or outside of Cuba. Our commandos are ready to complete the glorious missions that our country demands . . . . We will not stop until we achieve victory . . . . Those who dare ignore our call will tremble in fear before the violence of our actions. We will not make useless and unjustified distinctions. Apparently, members of Alpha 66 saw no similarities between the totalitarian philosophy and actions they espoused in the United States and what they purported to condemn in Cuba.
The Cuban Health Network
Wanting to chart the changes since my first visit in 1986, and my second in 1994, I welcomed the opportunity to return in January, 2002. My husband and I were members of a small group affiliated with the Cuban Health Network (CHN), begun by Joe Thomas, a business entrepreneur from Mobile, Alabama. CHN provides desperately needed medical equipment and supplies to Cuban clinics and hospitals. It is also a legal catalyst that brings U.S. citizens and Cubans together. Joe had made several trips to Cuba with Society La Habana, Mobiles Sister City program. During his visits, he noted the dire need for updated medical equipment, supplies, and pharmaceuticals that had not expired.
Joe procured the first major donation of medical supplies through the generosity of the San Francisco-based Vida Foundation, but how could he ship it to Cuba? Later, on his way to Cuba while personally carrying a small aneurysm detection machine purchased out of his own pocket, Joe met a representative from World Reach. After describing his mission to this new acquaintance, Joe learned that World Reach had a U.S. Treasury license to ship goods to Cuba and a long history of humanitarian assistance there. As a result of this meeting, World Reach paid for CHNs first shipment from North Carolina to Montreal, where it was picked up by a Cuban ship and taken, free of charge, to Havana. Participants in CHN groups are also licensed through World Reach.
Crossing the Florida Straits by boat
Although we were insecure about going to Cuba by boat, on January 16 my ecologist husband and I drove from Pensacola to Marathon, in the Florida Keys. At the Tiki Bar we met our traveling companions: Joe Thomas, president of CHN; a Mobile writer and historian who began Mobiles Sister City Program with Havana; a competent business woman, who speaks little Spanish but manages to skillfully communicate across any breach; a couple who own a little farm, raise horses, and publish an apartment rental guide, and a graceful southern couple who opened themselves to the wonders of Cuba, despite the flexibility that travel in Cuba requires.
We parked our car in the front yard of Captain Greg Abstens house. His classic, wooden, fifty-foot motor vessel, Creative Touch, built in 1970, was docked in his backyard. It sleeps eight. We were eleven, counting Greg and his first mate, also a writer.
From the outset, we had been warned that our departure date and time would be uncertain. Everything depended upon the seas. The weather cooperated, and we were underway at midnight. Several of us stood on the upper bridge as we pulled out, Cuba libres in hand, watching eerie mangrove swamps slip by. Trying to avoid seasickness, I remained on the back deck as long as I could before succumbing to the sedating effect of the waves and joined my husband in one of the bunks.
At first light, I understood how vast were the Florida Straits. I had imagined a short crossing. Everyone is fond of saying Cuba is only ninety miles from Key West. But we might have been in the middle of the Atlantic, given the swells and the flying fish that accompanied us. The trip from Marathon (one and one-half hours north of Key West by car) to Marina Hemingway [near Havana] took fifteen and one-half hours.
It took us three hours to get through customs at the marina. Several inspectors, each with a different role, milled near our boat, curious, but friendly. A medical doctor boarded first. After inspecting the boat and our general health, he gave the captain the go-ahead to lift the yellow quarantine flag that had been raised as we entered Cuban waters. The second official inspected our passports. The third agent entered with a gun-sniffing dog, the fourth with a drug-sniffing dog. The fifth and sixth inspected our suitcases.
All the while Captain Greg was gracious, offering food and drink to those who boarded. Finally, a cheerful woman, María, la más bonita en la marina (Maria, the prettiest in the marina), as she referred to herself, gave us final clearance, telling us that she preferred Americans to any other group of tourists.
We took cabs to the Hotel Nacional. Ever the Peace Corps Volunteer, I had pangs of guilt, staying in this luxurious, historic hotel with wealthy tourists from all over Europe, Canada, and Latin America. Joe Thomas had wrangled a special rate of $110.00 a night for a double. The breakfast buffet the next morning was sinfully abundant, and I knew from my previous trips that the variety and quantity of food was for tourists only, and that the vast majority of Cubans have limited food choices.
The legalities of going
I should back up here and note that all of us were fully licensed by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Although U.S. law permits travel to Cuba, the catch is that no U.S. citizen is allowed to spend money there unless licensed. You can also go to Cuba if you are fully hosted by a Cuban organization, but the documentation that you spent nothing is ominously thorough. Even licensed, you must maintain receipts for any goods you purchase, and you must not exceed a total of $100.00.
On our first full day in Havana, after checking in with the Office of International Relations, we picked up Luis, a bright young linguist who would be our translator for the official parts of our visit. Then we headed for the Psychiatric Hospital where we met Dr. Ricardo González, chief psychiatrist.
Sitting on elaborately carved wood chairs that looked like they crossed the Atlantic in a Spanish galleon, we heard how the U.S. boycott deprived patients of medications that would make a more normal life accessible.
Nevertheless, Dr. González was visibly proud of the hospital, relating that, during regimes prior to Castros, the hospital had been used to warehouse the mentally ill, and mistreatment was rampant.
In the hospitals central courtyard, a mens orchestra was practicing American show tunes. Women worked with crafts and most looked bored to death with the monotony of weaving cute little woven rugs and doilies still, an improvement over the blatant abuse suffered by those that came before them. According to Dr. González, many patients receive job training and work days in Havana, returning in the evening to the hospital.
Before we left, we enjoyed a cabaret in the hospitals auditorium. Three male patients sang the English lyrics to Oh What a Beautiful Morning, followed by selections from The Student Prince. Their voices rivaled those of the well-known tenors, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, but the men sang without emotion. In a rowdy salsa number, a wizened woman smiled lewdly, lifted her skirt to reveal a still-girlish leg, and seductively shimmied her shoulders. A tall woman, dressed in a white, midriff-revealing blouse and a mini-skirt that flaunted a generous belly, looked tauntingly at the men in our group. The patients had done this gig many times. It was the hospitals chance to show off the progressive nature of post-revolutionary psychiatric care. At first, I was struck by the real talent, but gradually I saw the pathos, the rote, mechanical gestures, and the vacant facial expressions. Some of the staff looked embarrassed and sad, realizing, perhaps, that the patients were being used to impress foreign visitors.
One must think critically to avoid impressions that have been planned and canned by the government. Visitors interested in getting to know how things really are in Cuba should make every effort to converse with Cubans of every stripe. Their reactions will correlate highly with their ages (the elderly being more loyal to Castro), their work histories (apparently, medical coverage is better for individuals with strong State work records), and income level (which is dependent on access to U.S. dollars, because even Cubans must now purchase most goods with dollars rather than with pesos).
If you have dollars, you can live pretty well in Cuba. If you dont, youll try to survive on a ridiculously low State salary, issued in pesos, and youll have access to only a few basic products, like rice, beans, plantains, and tuberous plants. But if you want a bar of soap, youll have to cough up 60 cents, U.S. Youll also need dollars for Cuban-produced goods like Tropi-Cola and deep-fried pig skin snacks. To get dollars, you either need relatives in the States, or a job in tourism, in which case youll still get a low state salary, but it will be enhanced by tourists who tip dollars.
The contradictions pile up, leading if one is not cautious to a collage of fantastic conclusions about Cuban reality. In this socialist country, for example, average Cubans may not enter the Hotel Nacional, especially dark-skinned Cuban women, who are suspected of being prostitutes. Polite doormen turn them away. With insistence, we were able to get permission to invite our Cuban friends to our rooms for 30 minutes.
Perhaps the greatest contradictions involving Cuba persist in the United States. The worst violators of the boycott, for example, are the Cuban-Americans who, although aggressively defending the boycott, ship hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to their own family members. They oppose a weakening or cessation of the blockade because, they say, goods and money entering Cuba will sustain Castros regime. They have convinced themselves that their money doesnt count, even though they help to re-divide Cubans into have and have-not classes.
What is really scary is that professionals like doctors, nurses, and teachers are leaving their ranks to take jobs in the tourism sector, promoting a lop-sided economy, ready to pander to tourists, but less equipped to serve its own people. So while education is now universal and free, and medical care is guaranteed to all, if the trend continues, there will be fewer and fewer teachers, doctors, and nurses.
Back to day one
After our visit to the psychiatric hospital, we drove to a restaurant called Las Ruinas, constructed around the ruins of a seventeenth century, slave-operated sugar mill. The architecture and accouterments were sumptuous in their elegance and design. High cantilevered ceilings protected decks from rain but did not interfere with views of exuberantly flowering trees, where cane had once grown. Thick, verdant ferns sprouted from the ancient mill walls that rose here and there in the restaurant, like ancient stalagmites. There was a banquet on the second floor, so we ate on the first level. We enjoyed drinking mojitos (Hemingways favorite cocktail, made with white rum, lime juice, and a generous sprig of mint that makes the glass look like a small aquarium) before eating Cuban sandwiches on bread so hard it scratched the roofs of our mouths. After lunch, the Cubans from the banquet invited us to dance to salsa music on the veranda.
We next visited the Latin American School of Medicine, which prepares doctors to serve in the poorest countries of Africa and Latin America. To our surprise, after his introductory speech, the director trotted out twenty-one students from economically depressed areas of the United States. Each was there on a full scholarship, learning Spanish while studying medicine. Because the students were fully hosted, they were not violating U.S. law. Without personal resources, however, they were confined to Cuba during semester breaks, when other students went home to visit their families. These students promise, upon the completion of their studies, to practice in poor, under-served areas in the United States. In a private conversation with me, two students voiced insecurity about the U.S. state boards they ultimately face because the schools medical library has limited holdings, putting them at a disadvantage.
The following morning, after our tour of old Havana (an inviting enclave of restored churches, museums, hotels, and inns), and after drinking mojitos on the garden terrace of Hemingways old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos (where his room is kept as a shrine), five of us hired a driver and headed down the Autopista Nacional toward Trinidad, deemed a World Heritage Site in 1988 by UNESCO. The highway was in excellent repair. There were none of the hallmark indicators of dire poverty in the small villages we traversed no squalid shacks, putrid odors, trenches with foul water, beggars, litter. Likewise, there were few amenities and nothing to indicate comfort and choice. The flat land on this part of the island was planted primarily in citrus and sugar cane.
Six hours later, which included an omelet-lunch at the large El Rancho restaurant, the only restaurant we encountered during our trip, we entered the colonial treasure of Trinidad. I negotiated our housing because, apart from our driver, I was the only one who spoke Spanish. Our driver had said there would be no problem. He knew a lady who could put us all up. The lady he knew, however, had a license to lease only one double room, but she had neighbors who also leased rooms. (A room in these private houses usually costs about $20.00 plus $3.00 for breakfast.) Fortunately, the houses were on the same street and close to one another, and after having seen three rooms in three different houses, we decided who would stay where and accepted all three. My husband and I shared a small room with a double bed, a bedside table with an energy-efficient compact florescent bulb (prevalent throughout Cuba), a small table that held our bottle of rum and bananas, and a small, clean bathroom with shower. A tree, heavy with oranges, brushed the narrow balcony that ran the length of our room and led to the dining room.
In Trinidads historical section, there are more horses and mules than cars, and they fare better than pedestrians, who could easily turn an ankle on the cobbled streets. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses with red tile roofs surround the plaza mayor, a picturesque square, embellished with statues of lean racing dogs and glazed ceramic urns, utterly European. In the center is a statue of a Grecian lady with flowing toga. We had dinner at the nearby Rincón Restaurant that serves up a good mojito and excellent grilled chicken. A trio of handsome young men played music from the forties and sold compact discs of their music.
Life in the barriadas of Peru came back to me our first night in Trinidad, when, trying to sleep, we were awakened by howling neighborhood dogs. The howls worsened as revelers returned from a big dance in honor of La Semana de Cultura Culture Week. The echoes from their shoes on the cobbled streets sounded like a roaring river, about to breach its banks. I went out to the balcony and sat in a rocking chair until the noise subsided. It was surprisingly chilly, and the stars above me were brilliantly benign, not enemy stars.
After three hours sleep, our landlady woke us for breakfast. Her shy daughter, who had been studying physics before dropping out to help her mother with her guest business, served us fried eggs, fresh rolls, just-squeezed orange juice, and fragrant Cuban coffee with steaming milk.
We went to Mass on Sunday morning at the church of the Most Blessed Trinity. It was nearly full. Before Mass, a woman with Downs Syndrome walked to our pew to greet us with the traditional abrazo. The Spanish priest also stopped to chat with us. During the homily, he spoke of the need for unity unity with Protestants; unity against terrorism; unity against the war in Afghanistan, and unity with Cubans in The United States. He asked that we pray for those who had been lost crossing the Florida Straits. A stylishly dressed young woman led the choir of youths, their faith reflected on their faces. We held hands during the Our Father, and it occurred to me that the evil of the boycott is not only economic. We are withholding basic recognition of the humanity of the Cuban people. Not knowing their beauty and vibrancy is more our loss than theirs.
After Mass, we visited El Museo De La Lucha Contra Los Bandidos. In the Museum of the Struggle against the Bandits (Batista and his followers), proud, elderly guides traced the struggle that culminated with the final victory over the dictator. After the museum, we convened at El Rincón again, ready for deliciously crisp, cold Crystal beers. Local musician Israel Macedo played the guitar and sang hauntingly romantic trova music.
Our landlady, having earlier and discretely solicited our interest and agreement, prepared a Sunday dinner of lobster, salad, and moros y cristianos (black beans and rice, known as Moors and Christians). For this feast, each of us paid $10.00. Apart from breakfast, our landlady had no license to serve meals, unlike the owners of some private homes, known as paladares, that have special licenses to set up a few tables and serve meals. She would face a fine or loss of her license if she were caught serving lunch to us. But the game throughout this island-nation is to get dollars any way you can.
While preparing to visit Playa Ancón, the Caribbean beach a few kilometers from Trinidad, our landladys neighbor asked if we were interested in buying cigars. I had legally bought five Cojibas Esplendidos for $48.00 at the Hotel Nacional, but now he was offering a beautifully sealed box of 25 of the same brand for $45.00. (Since returning to the U.S. I have learned that the same cigar would cost at least $25.00 ($500.00 per box) if acquired outside of Cuba. The neighbor, confirming my suspicions that the cigars had been stolen, told us, In Cuba, the State robs from the people, and the people rob from the State. (Just be aware that, if you have a U.S. license to enter Cuba, and you buy a box of cigars, U.S. customs will, upon your return, value each cigar at $4.00, and you will have used up your $100.00 limit. Its not a matter of paying duty on extra purchases; youll have to forfeit what is in excess of $100.00.)
Playa Ancón was pretty, but not nearly as lovely as Pensacola Beach back home. The unattractive hotels had few tourists, unlike the same European-financed hotels that line Varadero, the stunning beach east of Havana. The only distinctive attraction was the nubile, astonishingly sunburned, topless girl who sought relief under a palm tree.
We learned about the Valle de los Ingenios in the Lonely Planet Cuba guide. Although the ruins of eighteenth and nineteenth century sugar mills may be found in the valley, we contented ourselves with the view from the Mirador De La Loma Del Puerto, 6 km. east of Trinidad. From the lookout, a valley of cane and bananas unfolds like a painting of Eden, as if no African slave ever suffered or died here.
Before returning to Havana, I agreed to translate for a friend who wanted to buy handcrafted linens at a tiny house-front shop. She chose several lacy table coverings. When it came time to pay, the owner apologized for the high price of her merchandise. After all, each piece had taken days to make. Would $48.00 be too much? My friend asked me to translate her response: Would you be offended if I offered you $70.00, instead of $48.00? The proprietor smiled broadly and swept my friend up in a tight embrace.
It took us a while to make our good-byes because we now had friends in three different households in Trinidad. Our landlady confided that she was grateful to have a Spanish-speaking guest, someone to whom she could comfortably speak, and I was again thankful for the boon of a second language, acquired as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
A hasty departure
Back in Havana, we found , Joe Thomas anxiously awaiting our return. He informed us that, despite our plans to spend two more days in Havana, our captain had called for an immediate departure. There was a narrow window of decent weather, and we had to take it if we wanted to safely return to the Keys.
Although the trip to Havana had taken over fifteen hours, the trip home took only twelve, with eight to ten feet swells to propel us. Some of us who had not taken medication for motion sickness were beset by nausea and vomiting. How could we not acknowledge the courage of Cubans who flee on rickety crafts?
Reflections on the boycott
Now that we are home yet eager to return this time by air, we have time to ponder the boycott against Cuba. All of us agree that it is morally bankrupt and politically ineffective. If the goal is to unseat Castro, it has royally failed. The boycott has helped keep Castro in power by giving him the scapegoat he has needed. Instead of reforming social, political, and economic policies, he can blame the hardships Cubans suffer on the United States. Fortunately, Cubans consternation at the boycott is not directed at U.S. citizens but at our myopic government that cleaves to a double standard which grants favorable trade agreements to China, where human rights violations are rampant, and begins to normalize relations with Vietnam, with whom we fought a brutal war, while squeezing Cubans for all theyre worth. And, although President Bush has not included Cuba among the terrorist countries we might attack, such as Iraq and North Korea, he still proclaims Cuba an enemy and a terrorist nation, and we cant give aid to our enemy.
Were the boycott lifted tomorrow, however, I would fear a commercial take-over by U.S. interests that would further funnel Cuban talent into the tourism industry or give U.S. citizens too much control over Cubas future, while diluting its culture. With our economic idols of privatization and competition, I would worry about the erosion of free public education, including university access, and the disappearance of free medical care. Cubans are basically decent, creative people. They have the right to solve their own problems, no matter how painful. The boycott, which has lasted more than forty years, continues to punish Cubans, but it has spurred European, Latin American, and Canadian investment. Ironically, the democratic openings we experienced and observed, like the freedom to travel we enjoyed, the freedom of Cubans to rent rooms and sell meals, the return to churches, and the exposure to the foreign ideas of all the other tourists, including the thousands of Americans who enter Cuba from the Bahamas or Mexico, have been realized in spite of our boycott. Its as if our government, with its steadfast refusal to view Cuba with fresh eyes, is too proud to admit its failed policies, too fearful of a vocal cadre of Cuban-Americans, and too fearful of the intelligence and industriousness of Cubas eleven million inhabitants.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten is the author of The Mourning of Angels, a novel set in Peru. She also wrote Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy, and wrote the introduction to, and translation of, The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist.
Tales of Wisdom and Cunning
God, Death, and Winter
This story is part of a collection of folk tales compiled by Admasu Alemu, Bushie Ditto, and Egersa Regasa, three students of the Bekoji School, Arusi Province, Ethiopia, during 196768. While some of the other stories were recognizable as having crossed many national and cultural borders, I have never seen any story anywhere else that parallels this one. It would be interesting to know if anyone has found a similar tale. It was told before the famine in Ethiopia, so it relates to general conditions in the past. It seems extraordinary to me that people can be placed in such conditions that stories like this emerge. Dan Close (Ethiopia 196668)
GOD, DEATH, AND WINTER ONE DAY walked a far distance. They were tired and wanted to rest. They came to a house, and God said to the owner, How are you?
The owner replied, Thank God, we are all well.
Then God said, The night is coming. Please let us stay in your home.
Then the man asked, Who are you? Where do you come from?
God answered him, I am the God who made heaven and earth and all things.
The man stood up and said, Please go from here. You did not make people equal. You made one rich and then one poor and sick. For this reason I do not want you to stay in my house.
And God and Death and Winter walked again a far distance.
Soon they came to another house. God and Death sent Winter.
Winter went to the mans home and said, Please let us stay in your house. The day has been converted into night.
The man asked, What is your name? Where do you come from?
My name is Winter. I have come a far distance to meet all the people.
The villager said, You are a bad person. You made one country desert and another country rainy and you dropped much snow and ice on the people. We dont want you to stay here. Go somewhere else.
Then Winter went away and told God and Death about his journey.
Then God and Winter sent Death to the villagers.
Death went to them and said, The night is coming. Please let me and my friends stay in your homes this night.
The villagers asked, Who are you? What is your name? Where do you come from?
My name is Death.
The owners of the houses said, Come in, please, and bring your friends. You do not choose poor and rich. You make all men equal. You do not make one country desert and another country cold. You make all countries equal.
That night men held Death in high honor. Death does not lie. Death is true.
Talking with Jerome Pohlen
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
The word about new books by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers reaches me in many strange ways, and increasingly from the Publicity Departments of the publishing companies. Bright young editors are surfing the net looking for any connection to their authors as a way of promoting the new author.
Still, I was surprised to hear about Jerome Pohlen who had served in Benin and who is writing a series of travel books on our United States, all with the title Oddball. When he wrote about Illinois, Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places, I had to look and see what he had to say about my hometown of Midlothian, Illinois. Was it odd enough to make his book? (It was. And not because of me, but rather something strange that I never heard about when I was growing up.) While the Peace Corps experience has turned out many interesting writers, Jerome Pohlen has produced some of the more interesting books. So I emailed him in Chicago and asked how he had found his way into publishing such oddball books.
Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?
I served in Benin, West Africa, from 1986 to 1988.
What was your job?
I was an appropriate technology Volunteer teaching cookstove construction in urban and rural areas. It was part of a larger project to combat deforestation (there were foresters in our same training group). I was paired up with local extension workers to visit local communities to give demonstrations on how to build fuel-efficient mud stoves. I also worked with urban metalworkers who built efficient metal stoves, as part of a micro-business project funded by Catholic Relief Services.
And after the Peace Corps?
Oh, like almost everyone else, I went to graduate school. I received a Masters in Elementary Education.
Okay, give me some idea of how you got started writing these books?
Ive always enjoyed traveling to offbeat destinations, but information about where to find them was sketchy at best. Any time I discovered information, I collected it in a database, strictly for my own use. But about 10 years ago, after friends expressed interest in what I had collected, I started writing a self-published, state-by-state travel magazine called Cool Spots. Very low-tech, photocopied at Office Depot. I sold them through several Chicago outlets and through the mail. Then, seven years and 40 issues later, my current publisher, Chicago Review Press, found a copy and contacted me to ask if I was interested in doing a full-length book on Illinois. The first title, Oddball Illinois, received a lot of attention, and the other books followed. (In addition to the three already out, there are two more in the works, and were negotiating for several more.)
As to your question, Why? I think Ive never been a person who traveled to relax. Combine that with a lifelong attraction to humorous and bizarre history, architecture, and individuals, and there you have it, the Oddball books. Maybe theres a little investigative reporter inside me somewhere, because I find that hunting for these strange places is the part of the process I enjoy most. But travelers who share my interest in these types of destinations dont necessarily share my mania about finding them. They just want to see them. And while there are literally hundreds of books on cute little B&Bs or scenic hiking trails out there, humorous travel guides are a rarity. Humorous armchair travel books are common, but travel guides inviting readers to plan their own goofy vacations are not. It makes sense, since there are probably more folks out there who want to hike through the woods than want to see the Worlds Largest Stump on their days off. But Im not one of them.
Do you do any other kinds or writing? For example, do you write travel pieces for The Chicago Tribune?
Currently I write and perform travel essays for the 848 Show on WBEZ, Chicagos NPR affiliate. Theyre built around interviews I tape during my research on the Oddball books. I have written for the Chicago Reader, and a little-known magazine called Crime Wave. Additionally, I have written almost 20 educational books and science kits, few of which are available in trade outlets (or Amazon), but are still sold through teacher book clubs, catalogs, and stores.
How much time do you spend on a book?
Thats hard to say. I have a day job as an editor, but most of my spare time during the six months prior to the deadline Im parked in front of the computer, or behind the wheel of my car. But all of the books Ive done so far were built on work and travel Id done prior to signing a contract. Id say a year per book is a good estimate, but thats not a full-time job.
Where do you work?
Chicago Review Press, and its imprints, Lawrence Hill Books (African American interest) and A Cappella (music, film, and performing arts).
Do you have an agent or do you handle the contracts yourself?
No agent. I might have considered that route, had the publisher not contacted me directly. In my former job, I dealt with contracts from the other end, so I figured, why give a cut to an agent?
Whats next for you?
Well, the two books in the pipeline, but not yet released, are Oddball Colorado (August 2002) and Oddball Minnesota (April 2003). I hope to do an Oddball New Mexico and an Oddball Michigan after that. Also, Ill also be trying to pitch a collection of travel essays this summer, too. Strange stuff, like finding myself in OJs house, the 50th anniversary of the Roswell crash, looking for ghost lights in the Texas thicket, that sort of thing. All true.
Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience?
Yes, but nothing thats been published. I have a few stories that I'd like to include in the collection of travel stories.
What is your advice for RPCVs coming out of the Peace Corps who want to have careers in publishing, either as a writer or editor?
Write, write, write. I know it sounds a little pathetic now, but I wrote for almost seven years before a publisher took notice. I was writing educational material at the same time, but the travel books were a long process. As far as a career in editing, I came by a backdoor path, starting first as a science editor (my undergraduate degree is in engineering), and then moved on to general editing. It was not something I ever trained for, but picked up as I worked in the field.
And I dont know if this is the proper forum to add this: Chicago Review Press, and its imprints, is always looking for manuscripts, nonfiction only, if you want to pass that along to your readership. I am currently doing some acquisitions work, so if anyone wanted to contact me, Id be open to it. (Famous last words, eh?)
Jerome Pohlen can be reached at: email@example.com
Literary Type May 2002
Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193) author of the novel Steal My Heart and the award winning collection of stories, The River of Lost Voices, will be on the faculty of the West Virginia Writers Workshop four days of workshops, panel discussions, readings and lectures from August 14 held in Morgantown, West Virginia. For information, go to the web site at: www.as.wvu.edu/wvww or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Washington Post has announced that the feature book for July Children's Month for its book club will be Mildred Taylor's The Land. The book will be reviewed in early July by Elizabeth Ward and then the papers email opens up for questions, comments and a live chat with the author. Check in July at the Post's Book Club.
Earlier this year, The Land won the 2002 Coretta Scott King Award.
The Sunday, April 14, 2002, issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review carried a glowing review of Marnie Muellers (Ecuador 196365) My Mothers Island. Reviewer Adam Hill writes, Marnie Mueller is a good writer, and with her semiautobiogrphical novel My Mothers Island, she has written quite a good book about an adult daughters struggle to find some source of love for her dying mother.
Marnie was interviewed about My Mothers Island by Jane Blanshard for her publishers (Curbstone Press) Spring 02 newsletter Curbstone Ink. You can find that interview along with interviews done about her earlier books The Climate of the Country and Green Fires at the publishers website.
Chris Conlon (Botswana 198890) has had his poetry accepted in Dan River Anthology, 2003. This anthology first appeared in 1984 and annually features the very best poetry and fiction, previously unpublished, that they can obtain. They can be reached by email at: email@example.com. Anthology website.
Coming in July is Chicken Soup for the Volunteers Soul which carries a short essay by Susana Herrera (Cameroon 199294). In describing Susanas story, the editor writes, Keep Your Head Up . . . . .A Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Susana Herrera of La Selva Beach, CA teaches a young girl in Cameroon how to ride a bike in the early morning darkness. The young girl requests the ususual time for fear of being beaten by the boys in her classroom if they knew she was acquiring a skill they didnt have. Out of 6,000 stories reviewed by the editors, Susanas was one of the 87 that will appear. In celebrating the spirit of courage, caring and community, the publisher and co-authors of Chicken Soup for the Volunteers Soul will donate a portion of the proceeds from this book to the Points of Light Foundation.
Chicken Soup for the Travelers Soul was featured on the first page of the Friday, April 5th Destinations section of the USAToday. Travelers Soul includes a piece by Leah Burgess (Philippines) A Visit with My Parents and two by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87) Cutting Across Cultures (about a haircut in Vietnam) and Digging dirt, Digging Deep (while in Zaire). The collection also includes a loving tribute by Cheryl Reece Myers to her PCV daughter Deidre (Cameroon 199496) in a poem entitled A Peace Corps Mama.
Others in the anthology include Maya Angelou, James Michener and Charles Kuralt.
In early May, Ed Koch (Philippines 199698) spoke at the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association about sharing his Filipino experiences through his book of poetry First Silence. The presentation was entitled The Philippines through Poetry and Painting.
Cristina Kessler (Honduras 1973-75, Kenya 1975-76, Seychelles 1976-78) did readings from her childrens book My Great-Grandmothers Gourd by discussion and a book signing at the Smithsonian Museums National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. in early April.
Recent books by Peace Corps Writers May 2002
Chicken Soup for the Traveler's Soul
contributors include Leah Burgess (Philippines) and Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87)
Deerfield Beach, Fl: Health Communications, Inc., $12.95
Two Years on South Africas Border
by Jason Carter (South Africa 1998-20)
Introduction by Jimmy Carter
National Geographic Society, $26.00
In An Angry Season
by Lisa D. Chavez (Poland 199395)
Univerisity of Arizona Press, $14.95
Lonely Planet Laos
by Joe Cummings (197778)
Lonely Planet, $16.99
January 2002 (4th edition)
Singing on the Heavy Side of the World
A Peace Corps Ukraine Story
by John Deever (Ukraine 199395)
Xlibris Dorporation, $19.95
Culture Shock? Chicago at Your Door
by Orin K. Hargraves (Morocco 198082)
Graphic Arts Center Pub Co., $13.95
Africa Is Not a Country
by Margy Burns Knight (Benin 197677) with Mark Melnicove, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
Millbrook Press, $9.95
To Africa With Spatula:
A Peace Corps Mom in Malawi 1965-1967
by Jane Baker Lotter (Staff spouse: Malawi 196567)
Lotter Press, $15.95
P.0. Box 73234
Davis, CA 95617
The Directory of Websites for International Jobs
The Click and Easy
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand) with Caryl Krannich.
Manassas Park, VA : Impact Publications, $19.95
America's Top Internet Job Sites
The Click and Easy Guide to Finding a Job Online
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand) with Caryl Rae Krannich
Manassas Park, VA : Impact Publications, $19.95
The Savvy Networker
Building Your Job Net for Success
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand) with Caryl Rae Krannich
Manassas Park, VA : Impact Publications, $13.95
Travel Planning on the Internet
The Click and Easy Guide
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand) with Caryl Rae Krannich
Manassas Park, VA : Impact Publications, $19.95
The Bottoms Up of International Development
by Richard A. Meganck (Colombia, 197071)
and Richard E. Saunier (Chile 196769)
Infinity Publishing Company, xLibris, $21.99
The River Less Run
by Tim McLaurin (Tunisia 198284)
Down Home Press, $23.95,
Colonial Modernity in Korea
edited by Michael Robinson ( Republic of Korea 196871) et al.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, $52.00
Streets on Fire
(A Jack Liffey Mystery)
by John Shannon (Malawi 1968-1970)
Carroll & Graf, $24.00
Blood in Their Eyes : The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919
by Grif Stockley (Colombia 196567)
Univ of Arkansas Pr; $29.95
Passion for Golf:
In Persuit of the Innermost Game
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
The Lyons Press, $20.00
Reviewed by Joshua Dohan (Ghana 198284)
WHILE A MANS BATTLE against himself is undoubtedly at the heart of golfs abiding appeal, the setting in which it is played is, for most golfers, one of the most wonderful things about it. Herbert Wind
I grew up playing sports among other boys who played sports. In our world there were two schools of thought. Some of us believed that ones athletic personality revealed much about his (this was an entirely male world) character. Others believed that by observing a persons day to day personality, much could be learned about his athletic (true) character. In this Wallendic world in which life was sports and everything else was merely waiting, much (waiting) time was killed in debate over the details of these philosophies. For Roland Merullo s with most of those boys that remain engrossed in the battlefield of athletic conflict these debates rage on. The nature of the conversation has matured, but it retains the same potential for both insight and banality.
In our youth, we were consumed by the battle. Character was nearly always about the competitive edge. Which of us was braver? Fiercer? Cleverer? More imaginative? Who had the will to win? For Ronald Merullo, the quest for understanding through sport has turned inward. He is interested in ego, anger, and humility. The ultimate goal is no longer winning it is serenity through understanding of self. In his view, the mature and successful golfer is not a great warrior, but a passionate lover. Golf lends itself to this evolution of thought, because it is such an internal game. For the most part our external opponents are irrelevant, the game is all about understanding and controlling our own emotions. Merullo does a nice job identifying matters of spirit and emotion that are central to both golf and life (waiting).
As someone who grew up enjoying books about ideas, but who has often been totally stymied by even short descriptive passages, it surprises me to report that my favorite parts of this book were the descriptions of the authors favorite courses and how he has played them. I cant get through five pages of Jane Austen and skimmed most of War and Peace, but was totally entranced by the account of the authors trip around his home nine in a downpour. This juxtapositioning of self reflection and course management is part of what makes the temptation to psychoanalyze golf irresistible. Our struggle may be primarily an inner one, but the course of that struggle is both influenced by and manifested in our actual performance. If serenity is our objective, it is best visualized as a gently floating shot off an eight-iron, curving slightly right to left and nestling inches from the cup.
By infusing his own musings with quotes from thinkers on subjects other than golf, Merullo shows either great courage or hubris. Thats what passion will do for you. Philosophizing is a risky business. Sports philosophy is nearly an oxymoron in todays cynically sophisticated world. I enjoyed this book, but I suspect that to do so one needs a passion for either golf or Siddhartha (another book I couldnt get through). Mr. Merullo took this risk with his eyes open:
What draws us so passionately to the course is a deep, abiding affection, an emotional involvement strong and steady enough to withstand the regular disappointments that are part of playing. We love the challenge of the game, the colors and shapes of the course, the feel of a sweetly struck six-iron, the flight of the ball. Its not necessary its probably not wise to spend a lot of time in the clubhouse talking about such things, but that doesnt mean we cant give them attention, inside ourselves, as we play.
It might not have been wise, to spend this much time talking about such things, but in life, as in golf, we love the passionate and the risk takers. Whether you find this book to be a birdie or a bogey, I think you will appreciate how Mr. Merullo plays the game.
Joshua Dohan is a public defender in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Being an anti-golf snob for forty years, he now has a passionate love/hate relationship with the game.
Experiencing the Peace Corps as a Volunteer Over Age 60
by Robert W. Hugins (Nepal 198486, Lesotho 199192)
Reviewed by Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 196264)
THERE WERE I IMAGINE very few PCVs who did not try to capture and articulate their Peace Corps experiences in letters home. Some of us wrote columns for the local paper or did interviews after coming back. Only a small percentage moved on to become professional journalists or authors, and not many wrote about the Peace Corps.
We all recall, though.
Robert W. Hugins has chosen to join the small cadre of those who have published books about their overseas lives. The big difference RPCV Hugins was eighty-years-old when he published his memoirs.
In the early 1980s his teaching career in the US began to erode as one after another private school headmaster found his age a handicap. The primary reasons given were his approaching retirement and the academic need to hire young teachers who could coach athletics.
This news was truly a blow, the math teacher recalls. I did not feel old, but I surely did feel worthless.
After doing a cursory parachute color check, he realized that the years he had spent working overseas as an insurance underwriter after the end of WWII was a valuable time. Three years in the Philippines, three more in Pakistan, and two years in Venezuela added up to nostalgic, productive recollections. Then one day he saw a Rhode Island newspaper ad announced that there was the need for math and science teachers in the Peace Corps.
Immediately I knew that becoming an overseas Peace Corps Volunteer was my destiny, the recruit writes in his preface to Experiencing Peace Corps as a Volunteer Over Age 60. To be precise, Hugins was 64.
On September 15, 1984, Hugins and twenty-three others flew into a rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, to begin their training as math and science teachers in Bhaktapur, and in October, the trainees were sent into the country to try out their Nepali. From there they went on to the next stage of training, and Hugins discovered that he had broken his ankle three weeks earlier on an outing. It was the first of a series of medical problems.
During his Peace Corps service, he would lose thirty pounds, suffer hernias, have an amoebic cyst, continual diarrhea, scabies and a series of bad colds. He endured these and many discomforts that would have discouraged much younger PCVs from staying at their jobs and prompt their going home. Hugins resilience, as well as his determination to do well as an educator, must have inspired his colleagues. Although he doesnt mention it, there is a sense of I told you so
aimed at the administrators of those pricey, Stateside schools who thought he couldnt handle teaching any longer.
The book is not a textbook for aspiring writers. Hugins taught math, not English. There is the feeling that most of what he published is based upon the letters he wrote years ago. The use of exact dates and times of day is sometimes frustrating and superfluous, yet the timeline is often lost, so the reader doesnt exactly know where Hugins is in his two-year service. At other moments, there are missing details that are important to the narrative.
Toward the end of the autobiography, Hugins gets into some relatively serious subjects, such as cheating and student strikes, communist bombings that keep Americans off the streets, plus the arrest of his Headmister these need more elaborate analyses.
What happens after two $20 bills fall from a PCVs letter from home is something many RPCVs will understand the story travels grapevine nationally and a rash of mail thefts subsequently occur. The ensuing sadness and complications are almost defeating, diminishing the role his group felt about serving others through the Peace Corps.
His service simply ends, and Hugins flies into the rising sun. His epilog, which has him visiting Nepal two years later is more tangential than illuminating. What deserves respect, I believe, beyond certain literary criticisms, is the fact that in this 41st year of the Peace Corps, many of us RPCVs are entering the age when Robert Hugins began another life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
This is a rhetorical question: how many of us, at an advanced age, and knowing what we know, would go to the local Peace Corps recruiter today and sign on that dotted line?
Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 196264) is author of two travelers guides to Native America and is currently the editor of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs news magazine, The Herald. He lives in Pittsford, New York.
Two Years on South Africa's Borders
by Jason Carter (South Africa 19982000)
With an introduction by President Jimmy Carter
National Geographic Books, $26.00
Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 196365; PC/W staff 196671)
HERE I WAS, Jason Carter writes toward the end of Power Lines, trying to foster . . . change without any idea where the results were heading.
It was a question that I might well have asked, but did not, when I was teaching in Sierra Leone nearly 40 years ago. Volunteers in my era, at least, assumed that they were contributing to a better future for their hosts. Carter betrays a certain unease about South Africa, where he helped to introduce a post-apartheid curriculum into poorly endowed rural primary schools.
His unease is not misplaced. I recently asked a thoughtful Sierra Leonean exile what precipitated his countrys descent into barbaric civil conflict. When the government, he answered without hesitation, began reducing the budget for education in the 1970s.
It was not the response I had expected, and it struck home. The eclipse of Sierra Leones once-proud educational tradition effectively erased any sustainable contribution which I and thousands of other Peace Corps teachers may have made there to the development of a stable nation state.
Although Carter clearly has inherited the idealism of his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, and of his great grandmother Lillian (India 196769), he wisely resists the temptation to predict that South Africa will transcend its heritage of racial division and oppression.
No one can really say where South Africa is headed, and Carter is smart enough to know that. He sticks to what he experienced, primarily in a remote area on the Swaziland border, as well as when commuting between South Africas starkly-contrasting First and Third Worlds.
While the racial divide in South Africa is only too obvious, what most surprised and troubled Carter is the cultural gulf which separates impoverished rural black South Africans from their urbanized and better-educated cousins. Meeting sophisticated black professionals in Johannesburg and Pretoria moved Carter to wonder whether these are suitable role models for rural children whose horizons are severely limited by historically ingrained factors. Was Carters legacy going to be a handful of kids who somehow escaped to the cities and joined the materialistic black middle class?
Carter will spend the rest of his life pondering this and other questions as South African society evolves. I sense that he is prepared for pain and disillusionment. He has learned first-hand that South Africa has two daunting challenges. One is to create a society in which race ceases to be the principal denominator. The second and more important is to bridge the enormous gap between South Africas rich and poor.
Which brings us full circle to the educational system. Will South Africa invest heavily in education? Or will it do what Sierra Leone and almost every other African country have done educate an elite few, thereby fostering a society largely of have-nots and creating fertile ground for unrest.
Power Lines deserves to be read widely in South Africa. Unlike all but a few white South Africans, Carter became fluent in vernacular languages Zulu and Siswati. His language capability enabled him to overcome the fear and misunderstanding which still prevent most blacks and whites from getting to know one another. Its nice that Jason Carter and other Peace Corps Volunteers could cross the divide. It would be even better if thousands of young South Africans black and white could have the same experience.
Carter writes well and tells a good story. He has a keen instinct for human nature. Those who want to try putting together the South African puzzle can use the piece which Carter has shaped with care and humility from his time in this beloved country.
Kevin Lowther is Regional Director for Southern Africa at Africare. He is co-author of Keeping Kennedys Promise, a 1978 critique of the Peace Corps first 15 years. An updated version of the book is being published by Peace Corps Online for the 40th Peace Corps anniversary celebration in Washington in June.
The Seed of Joy
by William Amos ( Korea 1979-80)
London and Bordeau: Online Originals
Reviewed by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 196668)
WILLIAM AMOS GIVES US insight into the coming of age of a young Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea. Set in the late 1970s, The Seeds of Joy tracks Paul, a recent college graduate from Indiana attempting to become a public health worker in a small village while teaching his boss English and learning a new language.
Soon Pauls life becomes more complex and conflicted. He takes language lessons from Mi Jin, challenges the political views of his boss and develops an awareness of the combustibility of his host countrys authoritarian rule.
William Amos presents a full picture of life in a small village paying close attention to the rituals of food preparation, holidays, and the unspoken tension between and among families. However the main attraction of this book is the romance that develops between Paul and his language instructor, Mi Jin. We see Mi Jins conflict with her family, her work, and with her friends at the university resulting from this romance.
Unfortunately, Mr. Amos is too slow in bringing his readers to the point of becoming invested in this story. Not until page 135 of this 523 page book does the issue of romantic feelings get addressed. Until then, we are spectators as Paul makes the rounds of his village, gets lonely, eats new food, burns under the authority of his boss and Peace Corps administrators.
When Paul does speak his truth, stands up for himself and Mi Jin, and challenges the Peace Corps administrators, the book becames fascinating.
There is plenty of turmoil and intrigue from then on. Some of it is a bit far fetched, as when he goes A.W.O.L. from Peace Corps. But why not? I once risked my life for love. Paul does just this and shows us the cost. But Im rooting for him by then.
I appreciate Mr. Amoss comprehensive view of the political chasms between North and South Korea and the internal conflicts within the political processes of South Korea. Less interesting were the bumbling efforts of Peace Corps and State Department officials.
The ending is painful and, unlike the beginning of the book, the resolution of conflict occurs too quickly. As a returned Volunteer, I would have liked Mr. Amos to follow Pauls life when he returned to the United States and give us some insight on how Pauls alienation as a United States citizen propelled him into a new vocation, setting him apart, once again, from his returned Peace Corps colleagues.
Each of us, upon our return to the United States, had to renegotiate our life, for we had been changed. Mr. Amos could offer us some assistance by answering the question, How is it we begin to improvise a life?
I dont think Peace Corps administrators would recommend this book to newly sworn-in Volunteers. This is perhaps a book of what not to do in-country to be successful. For that reason I can think of no better reason for new recruits to read it.
Mr. Amos shows us how natural it is to become invested romantically and politically. How he gives closure to to this creative tension stretches my imagination but then again, Peace Corps Volunteers are committing themselves to live on this edge. Sometimes we fall.
Bill Coolidge lives along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Beaufort, North Carolina where he writes essays and poems on endangered species, homelessness, sex, love and loss.