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Peace Corps Writers – September 2002

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


Peace Corps Writers — September 2002 — Front page

    First Peace Corps writers conference
    Over the September 27th weekend, thirty plus RPCVs gathered in Enterprise, Oregon for the very first writers’ conference for Peace Corps writers. The conference was held at Fishtrap, a non-profit corporation devoted to writers in the west. Organized and directed by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1967–69), the weekend couldn’t have been more enjoyable or helpful for writers. Featured RPCVs were Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87), creative writing professor at Washington State University and a Fishtrap writer-in-residence in 2001, and Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69), director of the creative writing program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
         Thank you to attendees Tim Turner (Senegal 1977–80) and Donna Statler who have shared photos with us from the conference. In upcoming issues, we will publish essays read by RPCVs at Fishtrap. Plans are being made now to make this an annual event for Peace Corps writers.

    In This Issue
    Talking with . . .
    Barbara Kerley Kelly (Nepal 1981–83) writes children books and lives in Northern California. Her latest, A Cool Drink of Water, was published by the National Geographic Society. We interviewed Barbara about her books and life, how she met her husband in the Peace Corps, and about her daughter, Anna, who — in Peace Corps fashion — was born in Guam. It’s a perfect Peace Corps writer’s story.

    A letter (and drawings) from . . .
    Barbara Knowles (Botswana 1981-83) was 70 years old when she joined the Peace Corps. During her time overseas she kept a journal , wrote letters home, and did felt tip pen drawings of her village, students, and the African landscape. She collected these into a privately published book, It’s Never Too Late, Botswana Journal and Letters. We are very pleased to publish portions of her book in “A letter from Botswana.”

    Death of an RPCV writer
    Tim McLaurin (Tunisia 1982–83), author of The Keeper of the Moon: A Memoir, among other books, died on July 11, 2002, of esophageal cancer. In this issue we remember Tim.

    To Preserve and Learn
    Edwin Jorge (Jamaica 1979–81) is the Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office and was at work in Building # 6 of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. At the recent September 11 commemoration service held at Headquarters in Peace Corps/Washington, Edwin spoke about that terrible morning last September, and about what happened to the Peace Corps/NY office He has kindly given us permission to reprint his remarks in this issue as part of our continuing efforts to preserve the history of the Peace Corps.

    A Volunteer’s Life: In Romania
    In the July 2002 issue of Peace Corps Writers,
    Andy Trincia wrote in “A letter from Romania” of his training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is now working as a business consultant for the Chamber of Commerce in Timisoara, Romania. We have asked Andy to file reports for the next two years of what his life is like working and living in Romania.

    And there is more in this issue — a reading from the 40 + 1 Conference, a third installment of a study of the writings of noted RPCV writer Moritz Thomsen, a list of recent books, literary talk, and as always, other gems for the Peace Corps world of writers.

    — John Coyne
    Editor

— John Coyne
Editor


Readings from the 40 + 1

    Remembering the West Indies

    by Rahiel Elaine Housey (St Vincent and St Lucia 1998–99)

GOAT COOKS . . . perilous mini-bus (maxi in T & T) rides . . . booby, ibis, land crab, tritri or mannicou sightings . . . torrential rainstorms extending the lunch hour late into the afternoon . . . volcano hikes . . . river baths . . . the sound of rain on a tin roof . . . so many things come to mind when I think of the West Indies.
     I made St Vincent and St Lucia my home during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I have been so lucky to visit Trinidad, Jamaica and Dominica twice, Martinique, Canouan and Mustique once. I visited Bequia 25 times, an hour-long ferry ride from Kingstown, that proved that I do not have the stomach for open seas. As if I didn’t learn my lesson, I took the boat to Dominica. I was so ill that the boat company helped me get a flight back to St Lucia when it was time to go!
     After an eleven-month application and acceptance process, I was off to Miami to meet up with 67 other Americans from all walks of life, ranging from scrubbed-faced 22-year-olds to a seventy-something couple embarking on their fourth “tour of duty.” Due to the program I attended at CAST (now UTech in Jamaica) in 1993, my involvement in the T & T Association of Michigan, Caribbean Pans of Joy, Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions, vacations to Trinidad and Jamaica and most importantly, countless West Indian friends, I was one of the only people in the group who knew where we were going and was really excited about it.
     We were really shown a posh time in Miami and when we arrived in the dark of night at Hewanorra, we found ourselves in lovely, air-conditioned hotel rooms. My home stay family was in Fond-Assau, down “de” hill from Babonneau. “Just go down so from de Catholic church . . .” My momma is a spinach and popchow farmer (that’s bok choi here). It was about 200 degrees Celsius down there in that banana-farming valley. My momma would wake up at about 4 am and work in her gardens, singing joyful SDA hymns. She picked mint to make my own pot of mint tea every morning. She would give me this hot pot of tea and if I didn’t drink it all, I would have it all wrapped up in foil and kitchen towels to take to training sessions. That family was so wonderful. Thank God for Adventists and Rastas in the West Indies because they were the only groups sensitive to vegetarianism. My friend Lanier from Alabama and I would pay the blasted $1EC to ride the minibus up the mountain of a hill, but Kiyomi always wanted to walk. Those California girls are strong! We had sessions most days for a few weeks, and then our countries divided us up.
     My home stay family in Barrouallie, SVG greeted me by telling me that I have a man’s name. I lived in St Vincent in 1998 and 1999. Barrouallie and Clare Valley are my hometowns. I am delighted to say that I visited part of Barrouallie’s most noted family, the Da Silvas, in New York recently. Although we weren’t choppin’ Hairouns or Very Strong Rum, we were “talkin fart” about all things Vincy.
     Soon after we arrived in Bagga (B’allie), there was a huge blackfish harvest. They caught about 15, the largest catch in a century, or so the story goes. I could never describe the smell. If you ever smelled it, you would NEVER forget it. I had an allergic reaction to the odor and/or the effects of the oil in the air. If you hadn’t heard, blackfish oil is prized for its “medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.” After suffering that and the related injections the Vincentian doctors love to give, the best cure was moving to Clare Valley! A neighbor had a baby and named her for me, first and middle name. A friend came to visit and got married. I traveled the island and nearby islands. I snorkeled, went to cooks, went hiking and got to know a lot of great people. I really had a surprise when I met the local Lebanese and Syrian community, who accepted me like a cousin. It was fantastic to sit on a grand porch in Cane Garden overlooking the airport while sipping Arabic coffee.
     When I transferred to St Lucia, I was posed the question of whose parrot and prime minister is better looking? I had only seen a Vincy parrot and PM James Mitchell in person. Having seen Kenny Anthony only on TV, I could say that both have attractive PMs and parrots. The Sisserou is a great parrot, too, and Trinidad has the amazing Scarlet Ibis. I lived in the Barnard Hill area of Castries. It was hard seeing all the tourists spending money we didn’t have and behaving inappropriately, but we knew we were having a more authentic experience of Lucian life and that these people who wore their swimsuits and towels downtown looked pretty ridiculous to people going to work, school and church. With our sensible shoes, wizened tans and backpacks we were seldom taken for tourists. In Dominica, Grenada and St Vincent a PCV has to be mistaken for a medical student now and then. The medical students’ presence ensured that no PCV would have a good deal on rent within a wide radius of the school. St Lucia has an amazing blend of French Creole and British West Indian culture. Of course there is a “rude boy” element making itself known these days quite strongly in the Caribbean.
     I survived tropical storms, an allergic reaction, a mini-bus crash and many other situations. The best memories of the West Indies involve friendships formed, Carnivals celebrated, coves snorkeled, students inspired, and most of all, a deepened feeling within my soul that the West Indies will always be a major part of my thoughts, words and actions. I really learned a lot and look forward to visiting people who are like family and places that are like home.

Rahiel Elaine Housey was a teacher trainer in the Peace Corps. She now is teaching English as a Second Language in an inner-city school and is director of the school garden while studying for her masters degree in TESL


Letters from Botswana

    Barbara Knowles (Botswana 1981–83) is 90-years old today. When she was 70-years old, she joined the Peace Corps and taught English as a second language in Ramotswa, Botswana. She kept a journal during those years, as well as wrote letters home, and also, with a felt tip pen, did sketches of what she saw in Africa. Recently, she sent us It’s Never Too Late, a bound collection of her letters and journal entries, and copies of her “Grandma Moses” African sketches.
         Here are some brief excerpts from her wonderful book of letters and a few reproductions of her sketches.

Ramotswa Secondary School
Ramotswa, Botswana, Africa
September 10, 1981

This was it and I did it! This morning I taught my first class, terrified and sweating like a bull. When the proctor rang his wooden-handled hand bell, I gathered up my books and papers and left the teachers’ lounge — a windowless room little bigger than a broom closet — and marched down the aisle of my classroom. Forty-two pupils rose from their seats and all chatter ceased. I put my books, notebook and duster (blackboard eraser) on the metal table, which served as a desk, and said, “You may be seated.” Metal chairs screeched on the concrete floor as they sat down.
     “Good morning,” I said, “my name is Mma Knowles and I am to be your English teacher.” I wrote Mma Knowles on the blackboard in my very best handwriting, and said, “It is pronounced ‘Nol’.” I went on to say that I was an American Peace Corps worker (pronounced locally Piss Cops — which I didn’t say) and that their government had asked my government to send fifty teachers of English to Botswana and that I was one of the fifty. I explained that in America we spoke English, as do the people of England, but perhaps with a different accent.
     I told them that I had two children and five grandchildren and said that I would bring pictures of Maine where I lived and of my family.
     I asked if there was anyone who didn’t understand what I said and if so, to please raise his hand. I tried not to talk too fast because I was aware of how difficult it was for me when local people spoke Setswana rapidly.
     I drew America, the Atlantic ocean and Africa on the board, as best I could, to explain how far I had come and told them of the plane I came in, which could hold all the students of Ramotswa Secondary School at once. I’m not sure they believed me.
     I asked them to stand, one at a time, and say their names, which I tried desperately to repeat correctly. I didn’t do very well. Katometse Baleseng, Gorata Moikabinyana, Batlhalefeng Maisie and Tsheofastso Sesweo were possible, but Kgotlaetsile Phetwe defeated me utterly. They giggled when I mispronounced their difficult names, but corrected me nicely. I was delighted when every once in a while Dorcas or Lillian or Robert turned up.
     The young people were eighth graders (Form 1) and seemed to range from twelve upwards. The girls wore dark green shirtmaker-type knee-length dresses and the boys, chino short-sleeves shirts and long chino pants. Everyone had short hair and it was hard to tell girls from boys — girls in green; boys in tan.
     I made a chart and had each pupil write his name in the space for his seat. Four rows of tables (desks) across, five rows deep, filled the room with two students to each table, boys with boys, girls with girls. The high-ceilinged room had windows on both sides, one side overlooking the school garden, the other, the courtyard. Gray walls, gray concrete floor, and gray metal tables and chairs made for very drab classroom.
     The bell rang. The period ended much sooner than I had expected. I’m sure I didn’t teach them much, but I was still in one piece — hot, tense and scared, but I made it!

    November 22, 1981

    I am very pleased with my 1A and 1 D classes. Only five got under 50 and three got over 90 in their final exams. I do have the bright group — Mrs. Bergman’s 1B and 1C didn’t do as well. I am relieved that I haven’t fallen flat on my face as a teacher. I do hope that I can have at least one Form II class next year and a Form III the following years. I’d like to guide some of these children I have this year right through to Junior Certificate exams in 1983. I wish Mr. Motsumi liked me better. I think he resents my being a woman and having a college degree. I hesitate to approach him with the request for advanced classes, but shall do so this week. He is stuck with me as I am a free teachers.

Ramotswa
Sunday, Oct 19, 1982

Darling Sandy,
I am so sorry you are being hassled by that stinker. Isn’t a landlord supposed to do some repairs on his property? What’s this guff about your not keeping it up? And after how long? 8-10 years? *!X$XX! I wonder if you got me a piece of his hair and I gave it to a local witch doctor, he could put a hex on him. It might be worth a try. You don’t need this trouble, especially as you are going through a bad “withdrawal” period with Amy gone.
     How I wish I could be with you just so you could have someone to talk to. I feel from time to time that I have been very selfish to be away for so long, that I am needed more at home than here, but what’s done is done and there is no changing it now. Another year and two months and we’ll be together again. My tour of duty is more than half over.
     Last night it rained for fifteen minutes hard and today it rained a lot. It is cool and wet and I am thrilled. It seems to me that this year perhaps we will have a rainy season. We need one so badly — PULA! PULA! (rain, rain) They had dances and prayers for rain at the kgotla yesterday and got results today — how about that? With no electricity the classrooms have been so dark that we could hardly see this morning.
    I think I will go to Malawi at Christmas. I don’t know who with — possibly alone. There is a lovely lake there, hills and green grass and trees and this appeals to me very much. I shall go by train to Harare (it was Salisbury last year) in Zaimbabwe and take a plane to Blantyre as Americans are not allowed in Tanzania, so I have to fly over it. I know a girl in Malawi from CAST and may stay with her for a bit then go to Monkey Bay on the lake and take a boat trip — I’ll see.
     My dearest love to the children — the only thing I can think of for you is to read escape literature and get lots of sleep. You know you have to cut the strings to Amy no matter how hard it is. Write often and I’ll write right back. I’m here, dear, tho’ I’m far away. I’m available to listen and help if I possibly can.

I love you very much,
Mother

Sept 4, 1983

Dearest Rob,
I found your best white shirt and will mail it to you early next week. Otherwise you didn’t leave a trace except for lovely memories of your visit. I felt as if I were with you in Jo’burg Airport all day Tuesday, I thought of you so often. Hope it wasn’t too bad but expect it was a very long day.
     Philip, Mike and I went for beers at the Gabarone Club, dinner at the Cattle Post, then home. Tuesday we went to town. They dropped me at the Oasis Motel, then Mike turned in the car. I had three pleasant nights with TV, hot water, electric lights, etc. at my Conclusion of Service Conference. We had lectures on how to write a resume and how to get a job when we get back, what to expect from people, etc. On this last subject — evidently little interest. It was nice to be back with the people I came here with two years ago. We’ve been scattered all over Botswana.
     Friday night there was a huge party for the new Volunteers at which I drank a lot of gin and tonic and danced up a storm. Saturday I was tired and felt a little “delicate”— no headache or pain, just delicate!
     Your visit was all I had hoped for.

I love you very much,
Mother


A Volunteer's Life in Romania

    by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

THIRTY ROMANIAN HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENTS, most sitting ramrod straight and looking a bit nervous, stared at me.
     I was about to begin a week of practice teaching as part of my training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Though I work in community economic development and never have been a teacher, I will teach as part of my secondary projects.
     These teenagers were taking time from their summer vacations to sit in a steamy classroom for a week to hear about American business and culture. And despite their nervous faces, I knew they couldn’t wait.
     I knew that despite paltry funding, Romania’s educational system is excellent and extremely strict — to the point where students generally are “talked at” by teachers and interactive discussion is discouraged. I had to get them engaged. What would do it?
     The Internet.
     I focused on the Internet and the dot-com boom — and subsequent bust — and used it to illustrate a free-market economy: Entrepreneurs, start-ups, business plans, investing and shareholders, stock markets, profit-and-loss and fundamental economics. I explained how America impacts the world’s economy every day. I talked about companies they already know, such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. And elaborated on e-commerce and how money, money and more money flows back and forth via the Internet.
     I forced questions on them, and gradually, more spoke up. I wanted to make sure they understood what I was trying to leave with them. Some themes were complex for high-school students who speak English as a second language, but I could tell these kids were very bright, and much of it was “sticking.” I was pleased.
     One boy asked how much money most Americans earn per month — Romanians think in monthly salaries where we usually think of annual — while another asked a good question about overhead and profits, though he didn’t know the terms. The kicker was yet to come.
     A girl in the back who had spoken very softly during introductions and hadn’t uttered a peep since, raised her hand and asked deliberately: “What happened to Enron?” All of the other heads turned around. Clearly nobody else had any idea about Enron — the collapsed energy firm based thousands of miles away in Houston.
     I almost fell over with delight at her knowledge and curiosity. As a former Enron shareholder and employee of a major financial firm, it was easy to tell the sad but true tale of that corporate failure — a good lesson indeed.
     A few students then gained confidence and questions turned sharper, more specific. I kept thinking, their parents grew up in Communist times and all of this is still so new, so foreign — Romania was only liberated in 1989. In fact, many argue it was neo-Communist until the mid-1990s, while some say it still is — just with a prettier face. The average income is about $100 per month, yet Romania aspires to join the European Union in 2007.
     “You have so many opportunities in America, and we don’t. What can we do?”
     “We can go to university and then get a job, but the money is terrible.”
     “There is no money in Romania. Most young people like us want to get out and go to Europe (as if they are not part of Europe).”
     It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such talk, especially about leaving Romania. I know many people want to, and this country of 23 million has seen its population drop by 1 million in the past ten years, many of them young and bright — headed to Western Europe, USA, Canada, Israel and elsewhere.
     I said, “Wait a minute. All of you are selling yourself short. There is something you have that is very marketable. I know you don’t have money and that high-school students aren’t given the chance for part-time jobs and experience. I understand Romania’s poverty and various predicaments.
     “But guess what? You all speak English — and very well, I might add. Do you realize that this is what most people around the world want to do? Do you realize that as Romania transitions to a free-market economy — one reason Peace Corps is here — more companies will expand here and there will be demand for native Romanians who also speak English?”
     The stares turned into nods and slight grins. I could see the wheels turning.

Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working as a business consultant for the Chamber of Commerce in Timisoara, Romania. We have asked Andy to file reports for the next two years of what his life is like working and living in Romania.


A Writer Writes

    The Guissongui Show

    by Sarah Erdman (Côte d’Ivoire 1998–00)

YOU CAN’T JUST ZIP BY THE VILLAGE MARKET to pick up tomatoes or a bar of soap. (There’s really nothing zippy about West African village life at all.) You have to go expecting you might not be back for hours, even if you don’t need much. As the token toubabou, or white person, my market forays take up most of the day. I stand out like something spotlit among the twisted lanes of villagers sitting behind their piles of produce. The market is unwittingly my stage: I have to make the rounds, and greet everyone because eyes are on me always and they’ll all know if I’ve skipped someone. So before shopping, I tuck my basket under a friend’s table and visit every corner of the market, shaking hands, asking after families.
     A handful of men sell kola nuts and kerosene; otherwise merchandizing is women’s work. They lay out empty rice sacks in the dirt, divide their wares into tiny clusters so that no one is feels compelled to buy more than they need. I pass little heaps of dried mushrooms collected in the bush, dried okra slices, small groups of lobed tomatoes — some smushed and smelling of sweet rot. There are bunches of leaves to pound into sauce, bitter, green eggplants smaller than my fist, heaps of tinselly fish dust for flavoring, pads of homemade shea butter used to fry millet cakes or slather on dry skin. Towering above all the miniature collections are fresh hot peppers, tall pyramids of brilliant red and green and yellow, shining like Christmas lights.

“Saturday Night Live” for the vendors
The women perch behind their rice sacks, in riotitously patterned and ruffled shirts. They ask me how my house is, how my health is, how my husband and children are. The normal response to all of the above is “They’re there,” even if one is sick, widowed, and barren. But in my ventures into the local language, I’ve recently learned to tell the truth. When they ask, I shake my head and suck my teeth and say “I don’t have a husband,” or “I don’t have any kids.” These responses are “Saturday Night Live” for the women of the village. Their faces crinkle into grins, they hoot and laugh and slap each other on the back. The minor turn of phrase has been such a hit that I’ve added a few extra phrases to my repertoire. They say, “Why not, Guissongui?” calling me by my village name. And I say, “I’m not looking for one. Maybe later, kids? I don’t want them quite yet.”
      My march through the market stops every few feet to repeat this conversation with each huddle of women. It’s like I’m auditioning them for the part of Incredulous Old Lady. Each asks exactly the same questions and each attempts to eclipse the last one’s performance during the “collapse with laughter” part. Some add their own creative flair. One grabs her breasts, shakes them and says, “Why don’t you want kids? You’re ready to have them.” Another grabs my breasts. The ritual never seems to lose steam. Week after week, the women clap and pitch forward, chortling as though they’d never heard the joke before. It’s a game we play out to the fullest. They always feign surprise at my answer, letting out a shocked “Ye?” and cocking their heads before laughing. I always shrug with practiced disinterest at the whole husband idea. And they laugh.
(Incidentally, every time a male Volunteer comes to visit, all my assertions get shot down. The women wag their fingers, “Hah! You do have a husband!” as if they’ve been onto my ruse from the very beginning. I’ve gained a hundred “brothers” trying to convince the old women they are not my lovers.)

Basic Life things
Aside from vowing celibacy, I use my marketplace rounds to rehearse any other Niarafolo phrases I’ve picked up during the week. After four months in the village, I can say basic Life things regarding washing, eating, going, buying, and enough key colloquialisms to send all parties into a discussion about how I’ve mastered the language, no matter how long the conversation has been. It’s relatively easy to guess what people are saying. Nonetheless, my vocabulary is slim and my understanding of grammar nonexistent. There doesn’t seem to be one tutor who can help me regularly — I have between 2 and 200 who tell me contradictory things all the time. I’ve only recently discovered that ki mi den means “I don’t like it”— not to be confused with kuh me den, which means, “I like it.” It’s a phrase I’ve espoused — but apparently haven’t learned — from the get-go. Market women stuff little gifts into my basket every week, and I’ve been diligent about insulting them every time. When they’ve offered me a gift chicken or extra onions or a free bowl of porridge, I’ve smiled big and said, “Thank you! I don’t like it!” Somehow this blunder has morphed into a success — add it on the “Reasons to Laugh At Guissongui” list. I figure as long as I’m laughing too, they’re laughing with me, right? Either way, being fallible and laughable closes the gap. It makes me more approachable to those who still assume that, as a white woman, I must be treated differently, and less alien to those who just don’t know what to make of me at all.
     So I move past chattering women in cell phone-print sarongs and bright scarves, clasping hands, asserting my singleness, and eventually buying sugar and soap and matches and leaves to make leaf sauce. If I don’t have the correct change, they’ll just expect me to come back later and pay up. That’s what everyone else does — there’s a paperless credit system that runs like clockwork. Each woman — and there’s not one among them who knows ciphers — has a list of her debits and credits etched in her head. I, however, forget to pay routinely, and am constantly being tapped on the shoulders by sellers I’ve unintentionally swindled.
     And for everything I buy, these women in flip-flops who have rarely left the village, who save up their market earnings for months to buy a new outfit for Ramadan, fill my basket with extra handfuls. I wander home each week as the sun slips west with several things I’ve paid for plus bowls of peanuts, heaps of hot peppers, spare rolls of sweet bread, bags of millet fritters, and bunches of baby bananas, all piled into my basket by grinning women who dismiss my protests with a wave of the hand.

As the daughter of a Foreign Service officer, Sarah Erdman grew up on the fringes of the Mediterranean and Washington, DC. After, studying history at Middlebury College in Vermont, she worked as a health Volunteer for Peace Corps/Cote d'Ivoire. There she instituted an infant care program, trained village health workers, and raised funds for the construction of a maternity clinic. She is currently living in Washington, DC and completing a book of stories about her years in the village.


To Preserve and to Learn

    One Morning in September

by Edwin Jorge (Jamaica 1979–81)

    Edwin Jorge is the Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office and was at work in Building # 6 of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The building was destroyed when the North Tower collapsed.
         At a recent commemoration service held at Headquarters in Peace Corps/Washington, Edwin spoke about the attack and what happened to the Peace Corps Office. His comments follow.

ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat down at my office desk and turned on my computer. As the computer booted to life, I glanced up and looked out of the windows of my office on the sixth floor of the Customs House in the heart of the financial district of New York. From where I sat, I could see the corner of Tower One of the World Trade Center. I could glance across the street and see Building Seven of the World Trade Center, where New York City had its Emergency Center, and where the CIA offices were located. Since becoming Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office, I always thought it was odd that our agency would be located there, at the very center of the financial world. I remember taking a sip of coffee. That moment and what I was thinking has stayed with me because it was the last moment in my life when everything was normal. And then the first of the two planes hit the Tower.
     I knew it was a plane. And I knew we had been hit. Having served in the army as a Green Beret before joining the Peace Corps, I knew something was serious wrong and we were all in trouble.
     It was 8:46 a.m. in the office and while we often have as many as twenty working out of the suite of offices, there were only two recruiters with me: Seetha Madhavan (Kyrgyz Republic 1998–00) and Doug Miller (Thailand 1990–92).
     When the plane hit — and we had no doubt that it did hit the Tower — the whole building shook and immediately scraps of metal, glass, and parts of the plane sailed down passed my windows crashing onto the street below. I glanced out of the window and watched people fleeing from the wreckage.
     “A bomb?” Doug asked, rushing to my office.
     “No,” I said. “It’s a plane. Let’s go.”
     We left the sixth floor by the stairwell and with others from the floor made it down to the glass entrance of the Customs House that opened onto the wide and beautiful plaza of the Trade Center.
     I glanced out through the wide glass doors and the floor to ceiling windows. Nothing in my military experience had prepared me for what I saw — a swath of destruction had already fallen upon the Trade Center. Still, irrationally, I kept thinking: “I’m safe. I’m safe.” But with each step, the scene became much more horrific.
     Already on the plaza I could see shapes of fallen bodies, the first victims of 9/11, chunks of metal from the plane, office furniture, showers of paperwork, and in the air, the smell of burning jet fuel.
     With everyone else, the two recruiters and I turned from the plaza and moved quickly across the bridge to the Financial Center, then out through the Winter Garden onto the open courtyard that fronted the Hudson River. Looking up, I saw the gapping hole of where the plane had smashed into Tower 2. High above this gaping hole, tragic souls were leaping from the burning tower to their death.
     But even then, even as I stood staring up at this towering inferno, I had every expectation of returning to the office that day. I turned with the others to search for a telephone to call my family, to tell those closest to me that I was okay, that I was alive, that everything was going to be okay.
     Not until the second plane hit did I begin to realize the magnitude of what was happening to our city and country. Now I stood in the midst of total chaos – rushing crowds, people desperate to get away, to find a working phone, to find each other.
     Still, I couldn’t get my family off my mind. My mother. My six year old daughter. It would take me hours before I could get in touch with them and by then they thought that I was among the ones who had perished. For my mother I was reborn on that day.

I HAVE NO CLEAR RECOLLECTION of what happened next, or in what order. What comes back to me now are bits and pieces of the day. I remember most how suddenly all New Yorkers began to work together as a family. Strangers gave each other their working cell phones to make calls, others shared bottles of water, I saw a woman in high heel standing in the middle of an intersection directing traffic, cab drivers stopping to fill their taxis with those who needed a ride.
     It took me most of the day to reach my home in Queens, having walked across the city. A cab driver stopped at one point and get me a lift for the last several miles out of lower Manhattan. It was only then, safe in my apartment that I realized what had happened. But even then I didn’t know what to do.
     I got a call from a friend who had had my job with the Peace Corps previously and he gave me the phone numbers of Peace Corps Washington and told me to call, to let them know I was okay. I did make the call, but weeks later when we talked about that day, I don’t remember him calling me, or giving me the phone numbers.

I DO REMEMBER THE NEXT DAY. On the 12th, I got a call from Chuck Baquet, then the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. What I remember most is what he said to me that morning. He said, “Edwin, we can’t let this get to us. We can’t let them win. We need you to get your office back up and running in two weeks.”
     Sure, I told him. “Sure, Chuck, I can do that.”
     And when I hung up, I thought: “How am I going to do that?”
     Not only was I still in shock, but the whole city was. My staff was scattered over four states. I couldn’t get in touch with anyone. Our building — World Trade Center # 6, the Customs House — had been crushed when Tower 1 collapsed. Everything was lost. All our files, our computers, the phones and personal effects.
     And the city was a logistical nightmare. The trains were barely running. Utilities downtown were a mess. 15 million square feet of office space had just evaporated into a giant cloud of gray dust. And I had just told the Deputy Director that I could get the New York Regional Office up and running in two weeks.
     But the great thing about Chuck’s request was that it focused my life. It gave me direction at a time when I was preoccupied with my mortality. It reminded me, most of all, that the job we do — getting Peace Corps Volunteers into the field — was never more important than it was after September 11.
     At the time of the attack, our office had over 300 new application in our files. It would have been easy to become overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding those files, but we couldn’t do that. Those 300 Americans wanted to become Peace Corps Volunteers. We couldn’t let them down.
     And we didn’t. Through the hard work of many people in my office, and with the support of Peace Corps Headquarters, we were able to get back on our feet in what I now realize was a remarkably short time.
     I began by calling a friend who found us temporary office space in a building he owned. We moved in within days of the attack. Then against all odds, I was able to find permanent space in a building not far from where our office had been. In less than two months, the New York Office was up and running. The recruiters were making new nominations by November.
     But doing everything was its own nightmare. To get our mail, I stood on line at the post office for hours at a time, trying to find what had happened to it.
     But through it all, the support we got was tremendous. I had 55 messages on my answering machine the first night of the attack, and for weeks, I got email from people around the globe asking about us, wishing us well. Most important was the help and assistance I got from Peace Corps/Washington and all the regional offices across the country.
     Since the attack, our office has had an almost 15% increase in applications over the past year.

I NEED TO TAKE A MOMENT to thank everyone collectively for your support. Several people were absolutely vital to the success of our recovery. Bruce Dury, for one, was an absolute godsend to have working in New York at that time.
     This anniversary makes me realize how lucky I was personally, how grateful I am that no one from the Peace Corps was injured. My thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones, as well as with all of those people who made tremendous sacrifices.
     The silver lining in this experience is the cooperation and support we got from so many people around the world — it mirrored that sense of community I felt in the city around 9/11. But the most valuable thing of all is the unity of purpose that we all share at this great organization — it has never felt so important. Thank you.

Prior to serving as Regional Manager, Ed Jorge spent 25 years with Spanish-language media in New York City, working in marketing and sales for two of the leading Spanish daily newspapers and for a Colombian television and radio company. He also ran the in-house advertising agency for a Latin communications group.
     Ed has an MPA from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. He served in both the U.S. Army Reserves and the U.S. Navy.


To Preserve and to Learn

    Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III
    Mortiz Thomsen’s
    The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers

    and
    My Two Wars

by Mark Covert

    MORITZ THOMSEN WROTE HIS FINAL BOOKS in the years after he left his jungle farm near Esmereldas, Ecuador. He made good on a promise made at the end of Farm on the River of Emeralds by buying a large tract of land across the river from the farm he shared with his partner, Ramón Prado. For four years, he attempted to eke out an existence raising corn, tropical fruit, and coconuts, and other failed ventures. Whatever intentions he may have had to free Ramón from his role as Good Son to Thomsen’s Big Daddy, the new farm’s location made it necessary for Ramón to come across the river by boat nearly every day to bring groceries, cigarettes, newspapers — any of life’s necessities that could not be raised on a remote jungle farm.
         The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers is a memoir written by Thomsen partly to tell the story of the disintegration his relationship with Ramón. For all practical purposes, he was a part of Ramón’s family, a grandfather to the Prado children — daughter Martita and son, Ramóncito (“Little Ramón”). Thomsen sets his tale as part memoir, part travelogue, and part devastating commentary on the rapacious practices of a capitalistic world bent on destroying huge chunks of South American society. The title is taken from a line in Picture Palace by [RPCV] Paul Theroux (“Which Frenchman said, ‘Travel is the saddest of the pleasures’?”); in fact Theroux wrote the Introduction to Saddest Pleasure.
         Thomsen is sixty-three years old at the time of his journey; the year is about 1978 or 1979 (Thomsen’s style pays little attention to concrete dates, he makes you work to keep your bearings, and gleefully plays havoc with chronological order when it helps the narrative; he at least warns the reader in advance). He wastes little time in getting to the reason for his extended trip:

    Ramón, my best friend, my partner, that jungle-wise black who was supposed to support me through the crisis of my sixties and at the end see me decently buried, had lost his nerve. He had driven me off the farm. The details were so outrageous that now, almost a year later, I still cannot bear to think about it.
          . . . Kicked off the farm, I went to live in Quito. . . . I found a small apartment with a view of a cement wall . . . I bought a bed, a table, and four plates, three more than I needed. How awful it was to be of no use to anyone, to awaken in the mornings and be unable to think of a single reason for crawling out of bed. One day out of desperation it occurred to me that finally I might make a trip.

     Thomsen’s journey takes him to Brazil, and in Rio de Janeiro he is faced once again with the crushing poverty that pervades life in South America. Eating in a small restaurant, he is served a huge bowl of potato salad (“I order what I think is a tossed Italian salad” — despite some 15 years spent living in Ecuador, Thomsen still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of Spanish, and the Portuguese of Brazil is beyond his grasp). He pushes the half-eaten bowl away, and

    . . . immediately a Negro who has been standing against the wall and made invisible by some large potted plants appears by the next table and with the fierce power of his concentration impales me with his look. He stares into the bowl of salad, brings one hand to his mouth, and implores me with the other hand, the palm up, open and vulnerable . . . . I offer him the salad; he takes it and sits at the next table, hunched over the food, eating rapidly. We do not look at each other again for there is something unspeakable in that desperate hunger that lies between us like an accusation.
         Walking in the street I consider with confusion that good feeling I had had at offering a hungry man my garbage.

Although it does not take place on this trip, Thomsen recounts a journey he made to Lima, Peru, years before. He sought out a church in that huge, sprawling city of eight million people that contains the mummified remains of Francisco Pizarro, the infamous Spanish conquistador, founder of Lima and conqueror of the Incas. Standing before the body, Thomsen took advantage of his opportunity to spit on the floor at the head of the glass coffin. He sees Pizarro as "the greatest capitalist the world has even known”:

    …and his figure, the eyes still flashing with avarice, still strides across the continent, across the world. . . . The manipulators of technology are the new Pizarros; the directors of the multinationals are the new rulers of the world — nice men with gentle manners some of them, connoisseurs of wine, modern art, beautiful women. . . . They are the most honored men, sharing the admiration of the world with the politicians whom they have bought off and who serve them. . . . These guys may own the world, but they don’t control it: they are puppets caught up and driven ahead by the cresting wave of an incredible science that is way past their power to control: they are puppets blind to the consequences of their actions, alive only to the big chance. They are the bastards, these sober-suited Pizarros, who are going to kill us all.

The Saddest Pleasure is, like all of Thomsen’s published works, impossible to pigeonhole into any one category. What makes it such an important and powerful book is the far-ranging sweep of Thomsen’s ire as he rages against the powers that have been strangling all of South America for centuries. It’s tough going at times; dark, cynical, utterly stark in the hopelessness he sees in the future of that huge, complicated continent. It is writing that is heartbreaking in its timelessness — a book written during the early eighties and published in 1990, Saddest Pleasure is still right on the money in 2002. Ongoing drug wars; roving gangs of murderous thugs; huge tidal waves wiping out villages where most people don’t have two sucres to rub together; rioting and demonstrations over gasoline prices; hordes of refugees from neighboring Colombia; crushing debt unforgiven by developed countries or the World Bank; police corruption and brutality — things have not changed enough (for the better or worse) in Ecuador or South America to make Thomsen’s twenty-year-old writing lose its relevance:

    Poor raped South America. We lie over her in a kind of post-coitus triste but beginning to feel the itch of a new engorgement. After Pizarro it was all so easy. We won’t roll away from her yet; she still has the power to enflame our lusts, and her feeble efforts to roll away from us strike us as being not quite sincere. She has not yet been raped into madness like her black African sister.

     Thomsen’s journey takes him to Brazil, and in Rio de Janeiro he is faced once again with the crushing poverty that pervades life in South America. Eating in a small restaurant, he is served a huge bowl of potato salad (“I order what I think is a tossed Italian salad” — despite some 15 years spent living in Ecuador, Thomsen still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of Spanish, and the Portuguese of Brazil is beyond his grasp). He pushes the half-eaten bowl away, and

    . . . immediately a Negro who has been standing against the wall and made invisible by some large potted plants appears by the next table and with the fierce power of his concentration impales me with his look. He stares into the bowl of salad, brings one hand to his mouth, and implores me with the other hand, the palm up, open and vulnerable . . . . I offer him the salad; he takes it and sits at the next table, hunched over the food, eating rapidly. We do not look at each other again for there is something unspeakable in that desperate hunger that lies between us like an accusation.
         Walking in the street I consider with confusion that good feeling I had had at offering a hungry man my garbage.

Although it does not take place on this trip, Thomsen recounts a journey he made to Lima, Peru, years before. He sought out a church in that huge, sprawling city of eight million people that contains the mummified remains of Francisco Pizarro, the infamous Spanish conquistador, founder of Lima and conqueror of the Incas. Standing before the body, Thomsen took advantage of his opportunity to spit on the floor at the head of the glass coffin. He sees Pizarro as "the greatest capitalist the world has even known”:

    …and his figure, the eyes still flashing with avarice, still strides across the continent, across the world. . . . The manipulators of technology are the new Pizarros; the directors of the multinationals are the new rulers of the world — nice men with gentle manners some of them, connoisseurs of wine, modern art, beautiful women. . . . They are the most honored men, sharing the admiration of the world with the politicians whom they have bought off and who serve them. . . . These guys may own the world, but they don’t control it: they are puppets caught up and driven ahead by the cresting wave of an incredible science that is way past their power to control: they are puppets blind to the consequences of their actions, alive only to the big chance. They are the bastards, these sober-suited Pizarros, who are going to kill us all.

The Saddest Pleasure is, like all of Thomsen’s published works, impossible to pigeonhole into any one category. What makes it such an important and powerful book is the far-ranging sweep of Thomsen’s ire as he rages against the powers that have been strangling all of South America for centuries. It’s tough going at times; dark, cynical, utterly stark in the hopelessness he sees in the future of that huge, complicated continent. It is writing that is heartbreaking in its timelessness — a book written during the early eighties and published in 1990, Saddest Pleasure is still right on the money in 2002. Ongoing drug wars; roving gangs of murderous thugs; huge tidal waves wiping out villages where most people don’t have two sucres to rub together; rioting and demonstrations over gasoline prices; hordes of refugees from neighboring Colombia; crushing debt unforgiven by developed countries or the World Bank; police corruption and brutality — things have not changed enough (for the better or worse) in Ecuador or South America to make Thomsen’s twenty-year-old writing lose its relevance:

    Poor raped South America. We lie over her in a kind of post-coitus triste but beginning to feel the itch of a new engorgement. After Pizarro it was all so easy. We won’t roll away from her yet; she still has the power to enflame our lusts, and her feeble efforts to roll away from us strike us as being not quite sincere. She has not yet been raped into madness like her black African sister.

Publishers and reviewers alike tended to shy away from Thomsen’s war with Charlie; at the outset it can seem that readers could not possibly be as engrossed with the father-vs.-son battles of My Two Wars as Thomsen was in writing about them. But the story of this domineering, hopelessly tortured man, and the shambles he makes of his own life and those of everyone around him, is integral to the story of Moritz Thomsen’s life. He never quite managed to put his father to rest, and never was able to forgive himself for sticking to the old man, remora-like, for no other reason than to avoid being cut completely out of his will (which almost happened anyway — the bulk of Charlie Thomsen’s estate was left to anyone who could come up with a contraceptive for cats).
     Thomsen had already been drafted into the Army for over a year when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought his relatively easy, well-ordered life to a crashing halt. For all the abuse he endured from his father, the old man was rich, and Moritz spent his days as a young man skiing, camping, mountain climbing, fly-fishing, and indulging what was evidently a healthy sexual appetite whenever the chance presented itself. Even in the Army Thomsen discovered that he could volunteer for permanent KP and be spared the rigors of barracks life in exchange for endless potato peeling and pot scrubbing. But Pearl Harbor made him want to be a hero, and he entered the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force, in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot. Years later, writing in his apartment in Guayaquil, he reflected on that day:

    It was only years later that I understood the menacing quality of that late afternoon. It had about it an awful sense of a slumbering portentousness that emptied the air of life and continuity. It was like a gigantic stutter, an awful stopping of time, a hiatus that promised horrific changes. In a very real sense that day in December of 1941 was the true beginning of the twentieth century. That day the Depression was officially over, the ownership of America changed hands, bankrupt American farmers, the last symbols of an agricultural America built on the principles of Jeffersonian democracy, could now desert the land for five-dollar-a-day jobs in the war factories… December seventh was the last day that the country represented an ideal for which one might with dignity offer to fight and die. Ten years later it was no longer worth fighting for. Twenty years later, when three million farmers a year were going bankrupt and the Bank of America owned most of the farmland in California and you couldn’t raise tomatoes without a $150,000 harvesting machine, it was not even a country fit to live in. Unless, of course, you enjoyed working in a factory.

Ultimately Thomsen washed out of pilot school, relegated to the post of bombardier, the man who sits in the great plexiglas bubble in the nose of a B-17 and sights in on the target miles below, then releases the payload of bombs. From his seat perched above a Norden bombsight (“It was probably John Steinbeck who had popularized the belief that bombing with the Norden, one could drop a bomb into a picklebarrel from eighteen thousand feet. Perhaps our disillusionment began when . . . our practice bombs landing in little flashes of flames a thousand feet from the center of the target, proved to us that not only could we miss a picklebarrel but the factory that made them. Plus the parking area around the picklebarrel factory and the special railroad spur that hauled off the picklebarrels and the town where ten thousand employees slaved for the war effort making picklebarrels . . . .”) Thomsen had a sweeping view of the fate of bombers around and below him — the big, lumbering planes were shot to pieces by German fighters, or blown to bits by the dreaded flak bursts from anti-aircraft guns.
     In My Two Wars, Thomsen trains that same sweeping view on everything that surrounded him during the war — a devastated, weary London; drunken, hardened bomber crew members; the doomed innocents he recalls years after their deaths in the air over Berlin, France, or the English Channel; the dead members of his own crew. He writes of D-Day, where his group bombed into the front lines of smoke as instructed, only to learn to their horror afterward that the lines of smoke had moved — the American Air Corps had inadvertently dropped bombs directly in the midst of American troops. Thomsen hints at the terrible guilt one would expect from a mistake of that magnitude, but somehow soldiers thrust into situations that cause massive amounts of death and destruction must find a way to live with such guilt, or at least block it out. Thomsen addresses his own survivor guilt:

    To those of us who survived combat, who flew time after time and returned to the ordinary routines, routines that at first struck us as being miraculous — eating, sleeping, bicycling along the summer roads, drinking whisky in that absolutely exclusive group of combat airmen (pleasures that gave us less and less pleasure) — a slowly growing boredom with life began to be apparent in our conscious thoughts. We were touched with shame to be still living, to be doing the same banal things in the center of that encircling and invisible and growing pile of bodies. Why had we been unchosen? There seemed to be no way to be worthy of the dead without joining them; we were in competition with the dead who had left us, and left us filled with guilt. A passion to live. A passion to die. How could we reconcile these two emotions that kept rising in us, except in the way we did, by sinking into a kind of catatonia, an emotional hibernation that was like insanity.

     When Thomsen finally reached his quota of 27 combat missions, he waited out the remaining days of the war in Texas; after the Japanese surrender, he took a 30-day leave to visit Charlie at Wildcliffe and pick up some clothes, odds and ends, and his beat-up pickup truck. What happens here as he goes from one just-completed war to the other, the one that would haunt him until his dying day, is a final outbreak of hostilities as he finds his father barely bothering to cover up the fact that Moritz, the returning war hero, would have been of much more use to him dead than alive. Thomsen’s survival, he realized years later, was looked at by his father as little more than one more complication to spoil his “sunset years.”
     Thomsen spent the years 1945 to 1964 as a hog farmer near Chico, California, a venture that finally failed and led to his foray into the Peace Corps, and ultimately to his 28-year stay in Ecuador. Through all of his experiences, he felt a great passion for writing, and produced countless articles and essays for publication in newspapers and magazines, to some success. But his four published books were mostly a labor of his own sunset years. All but Farm on the River of Emeralds are still in print; Bad News from a Black Coast has not attracted a publisher for twelve years, but Thomsen completed it probably just months or less before his death, so there is always the possibility of a fifth volume. Admittedly, Thomsen’s style can be a bit much for some readers — some find themselves turned off by a self-pitying tone, or uninterested in Thomsen’s hatred of his father, or his intense relationship with Ramón — but any writer who tries to express his rages and defeats and frustrations in life takes that chance. The fact remains that, to many fellow writers and a small, devoted cadre of readers, Moritz Thomsen is one of the truly great, yet unrecognized, American authors of our time.


Talking with Barbara Kerley

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    BARBARA KERLEY KELLEY (Nepal 1981–83) lives one of those perfect lives many of us dream about. She is a wife, mother, and writer, and all in Northern California. Barbara and her family live 80 miles from the Oregon border, in a little coastal community called McKinleyville. Her house is two miles from the beach and long empty stretches of sand and rocky cliffs with huge redwood trees in the distance. Barbara met her husband, Scott Kelley, in Nepal. While they trained together, they didn’t become an “item” until the last months of service. Today, Scott owns a small engineering firm in McKinleyville and they have a daughter, Anna, now 13, who was born in Guam.
         Most recently Barbara has been working in the Special Education department of the local high school and when not writing, she does everything that a writer does: grocery shopping, the laundry, making dinner, and reviewing vocabulary words with Anna.
         Besides all that, there is hiking, biking, canoeing, and community work. Barbara is the president of the local Friends of the Library and Scott is helping to build a skate park. Barbara’s personal desire for self-improvement has gotten her recently to teach herself how to play the banjo and so far she had mastered “Good Night, Ladies,” and “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down.” Between “sets” we caught up with Barbara and asked about her life in the Peace Corps and the books she has written for children.

    Where did you serve as a PCV?

      In Nepal. I was there from 1981 to 1983 teaching math and science and also English in a rural secondary school.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?

      Well, I didn’t expect to change the world, but I did hope to make a positive contribution. And I had a role model in my sister, who served in Kenya in the ’70s. It felt like she and her future husband, another Kenya Volunteer, were doing a good thing. Also, their experience also sounded interesting, exotic, life-changing.
           After college I was interested in teaching but didn’t want to head straight into a credential program. I also wasn’t really excited about entering the traditional, white-collar work force. It looked like all my friends were just getting entry-level office jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it felt to me like more of the same office work I’d been doing part-time while I was a student.
           I also knew that I’d had a privileged childhood. My dad was a lawyer. I grew up in a very comfortable suburb of Washington, D.C. I knew that most of the rest of the world didn’t live like that, but had no real idea what that meant in concrete, day-to-day terms. This sounds kinda corny, but I wanted to get a better global understanding of people. I remember telling a friend’s mom that I wanted to find out what was “American” and what was “human” — in other words, I wanted to gain some perspective on the lifestyle and attitudes I took for granted.

    When did you start writing “seriously”?

      I’d say in the mid-’80s. I wrote a series of short stories about my time in Nepal, three of which were published, including one in a collection called From the Center of the Earth: Stories Out of the Peace Corps, which was edited by an RPCV named Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64).
           At that time, I was writing for adults. But after I had my daughter in 1989, I began, for the first time in many years, to read children’s books again. By the time Anna was 2 or 3, I’d made the switch to kidlit. I haven’t looked back.

    What was your first published book?

      My first book is called Songs of Papa’s Island (Houghton Mifflin). It’s about the two years my husband (another RPCV from Nepal) and I spent on Guam.
           Then came The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (Scholastic Press), which is the true story of the Victorian artist who made the world’s first life-size dinosaur models. Very few people at that time — 1853 — knew what a dinosaur was, so in a sense Waterhouse introduced dinosaurs to the world.
           My most recent book is A Cool Drink of Water (National Geographic), a book I never would have written if it hadn’t been for my Peace Corps days.

    How did you go about getting it published?

      Persistence! I sold Songs on the third try, which I now realize was really unusual. Waterhouse, on the other hand, took 17 tries before it found a home. Water was somewhere in between.

    Tell us a little about how you select a topic to write about?

      I try to pay attention — that’s the best way I can describe it — to what excites, intrigues, energizes, charms me.
           For Songs, it was Guam’s natural environment. Imagine living in a little house where geckoes walk upside down across your ceiling. Imagine riding your bike after a rainstorm and seeing dozens of fat frogs hopping across the road. The jungle was full of hermit crabs and you could hear their shells clacking against the rocks as they walked. The ocean was full of these beautiful fish. I lived there two years and never stopped being awed by all that.
           For Waterhouse, it was the idea that this little-known but extraordinarily dedicated man could do something no one had ever done before. And with such style! To celebrate his achievement, he held a New Year’s Eve dinner party inside one of his Iguanodons. Is that cool or what? The whole story seems too fantastical to be true, but it is. I was also charmed by his name, Waterhouse Hawkins.
           A Cool Drink of Water was percolating for years before I wrote it. I’d wanted to find a way for American kids to get a glimpse into how people in other cultures live. But that’s as far as I’d gotten with the idea. Then one day I was looking through an issue of National Geographic magazine and saw this beautiful picture of two women walking across a field in India with brass water pots balanced on their heads.
           That picture was the catalyst for the book. Water is such a perfect metaphor — life giving, precious, and vulnerable. It’s something every kid knows and needs — and yet, look how differently water is handled around the world. It seemed like a simple but powerful way to illustrate the theme that we’re all different and yet have so much in common, at the core. The book also addresses other issues I feel strongly about: conservation and the responsibility we all have of sharing and safeguarding limited resources.

    Do you write everyday?

      I write every weekday, or at least do some kind of writing-related activity, such as work on my school visit presentations, or do research, or promotion. I think it’s really important to have a routine. Mine is to walk my daughter to school, come home, and head upstairs to my office. I try not to do household stuff (like laundry) until after I’ve picked her up in the afternoon. Otherwise, half the morning is frittered away with nothing but clean socks to show for it.

Did you have to worry about having illustrators for your books or does the publisher find someone for you?

    No, it’s not a writer’s job to find an illustrator. That’s part of the editor’s job, and with good reason. They have files of portfolios and years of experience working with many different artists. I think one of the things editors like best is being able to bring their vision of the story to life, working with the illustrator of their choosing. And there are other factors that can play into this, too. For instance, Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, sent The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins to Brian Selznick partly because she knew he’d do a wonderful job (and, in fact, he did such a wonderful job that he was awarded a Caldecott Honor for the book), but also because he’s well known and well respected. Often an editor will pair an unknown — like me — with someone better known — like Brian — to help a book gain some momentum.

Do you have an agent?

    No, and it’s something I go back and forth on. In general, I think agents aren’t as necessary in the children’s field as they are in the adult field (though this is changing). I may get one at some point, however, because I really don’t like the business side of writing and am not very good at it. (When I was a kid, the only thing I didn’t like about Girl Scouts was selling those darn cookies . . .) Alternatively, I know writers who don’t have agents but do hire a lawyer with experience in book contracts to do their negotiating for them. So that’s another option.

How did you get your newest book published, then, without an agent?

    I wrote the text for A Cool Drink of Water first, then started looking for a publisher. National Geographic did an excellent job of finding photos that captured the spirit of the text.
         I did have to modify the text a bit. For example, the line “Sipped from a thin tin cup” originally read “Sipped from a chipped tin cup.” When I wrote it, I envisioned one of those enamel-covered tin cups (the kind folks take camping in America, the kind I saw all over the place when I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal — and which always seemed to have some of the enamel chipped off). National Geographic found a wonderful picture of an old man sipping from a tin cup, but it wasn’t chipped. So that line needed to be changed.
         I also ended up doing quite a bit of work when it was time to write the captions for the photos. (At the end of the book, there is a map showing where the photos were taken and a caption for each photo.) Jennifer Emmett, my National Geographic editor, sent me boxes of back issues of the magazine — I had little stacks all over my office floor — which I read through looking for the best tidbit for each caption. So all that was written after the book sold.
         When you’re first starting out in the children’s field, it’s very common to write a book and then look for a publisher. Now that I have more experience, however, this has changed a bit. For instance, my upcoming book with Scholastic Press (about Walt Whitman in the Civil War) was sold after I submitted a two-page proposal. I had already researched enough to know the broad outline of the story, but had a lot of work left to do before I even started writing. However, my editor there liked the idea so much that she offered me a contract. So I wrote the book knowing it already had a home. And my next book with National Geographic (about parents and children around the world) was actually their idea. They approached me with it and then I wrote the text.
         It’s taken me years to get to this point, however. Now I doubt I’d begin a new project in the future without at least some enthusiastic interest from an editor — even if I didn’t have a contract.

Do you have any more practical advice for RPCVs who want to write books for children?

    Well, as with any kind of writing, I think it’s important to be realistic. Some folks think children’s writing is “easier” than adult writing because the books are shorter. Personally, I don’t think it’s easier, any more than writing a really good poem is easier than writing a short story, just because there are less words in it. So anyone wanting to be a children’s writer should bring the same professionalism to it that they would to writing for adults.
         To me, this means working hard, trying to keep improving your craft, and educating yourself about the field.
         Hard work requires regular, sustained, and disciplined effort, and it takes time. Improving your craft includes revising (and then revising again), getting feedback (from a critique group, a writing class, or if you’re lucky, an editor) and then acting on that feedback. Educating yourself is twofold: getting to know the latest kids’ books (spend time in libraries and bookstores); and getting to know the field by paying attention to who is publishing what and, perhaps, joining a children’s writing organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). It’s probably the most established group for children’s authors, and you don’t have to be published to join.

What are you working on now?

    I have several things going.
         One is another nonfiction picture book with Scholastic, coming out in 2004, about the poet Walt Whitman and his years as a volunteer in the Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C. It’s a very moving story. Walt wasn’t trained formally as a nurse, but he had great compassion and he was very dedicated. He came to the hospitals almost daily, bringing gifts such as fruit, newspapers, paper and envelopes. He wrote letters home for men too ill to do so. He fed men too weak to eat. Mostly, however, he just sat and kept them company. Many of the patients ended up spending months and months in the hospital, often without family nearby. Considering the state of medicine in general and the strained circumstances brought on by the war, it was a true act of selflessness on Walt’s part. Though he never fought as a soldier, he risked his life through constant exposure to diseases such as typhoid fever. Years later, however, when Walt looked back, he called his Civil War years “the greatest privilege and satisfaction” of his life.
         I’m also working with National Geographic on a follow-up to A Cool Drink of Water called Here We Are, Together. It’s a similar format to Water in that the text is actually a poem and the illustrations will be photographs from all over. The subject of the book is parents and children around the world. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful book. It looks like it’ll be out in 2005.
         Finally, I’ve just started work on a children’s novel that deals with two of the biggest events during my childhood years — man’s exploration of space, and the Vietnam War. I’m at the very beginning of this and expect to spend at least the next year on it. But it’s very interesting as an adult to research events I experienced as a kid. And, well, besides that, there’s my banjo playing!


Literary Type — September 2002

    War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars edited by Andrew Carroll and published in September, 2001, carries a short letter written by D. Michael Van DeVeer (Liberia 1960s) to his brother John. It is on page 478 in the new Afterword of Carroll’s collection.
         In 1998, Andrew Carroll founded the Legacy Project, with the goal of remembering Americans who have served their nation and preserving their letters for posterity. He has been (and still is) a great supporter of our efforts to publish Peace Corps letters. We were able to provide him with Van DeVeer’s letter, with the writer’s permission.

  • Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962–64) has a new book coming out in January from Simon & Schuster. It is his sixth novel. Entitled Eleven Karens, the novel is the story of his love affairs with eleven women named Karen, one of whom he met while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa.

  • Appearing in the Washington Post on August 20, 2002 was the Op-Ed, “Bigger Peace Corps, Paltry Effort” written by PCV Mark Shahinian (Ivory Coast 2001–   ), a 1998 graduate of Dartmouth, now a health Volunteer in the Ivory Coast. Shahinian wrote about his objection to increasing the Peace Corps numbers overseas. Among other issues, Shahinian makes this point:

    Doubling the size of the $275 million, 7,000-volunteer Peace Corps wouldn’t do much to alleviate the poverty and hopelessness that foster terrorism. For, in reality, the Peace Corps does more to make us Americans feel good about ourselves than it does to fight that poverty. Instead, we need to change the economic policies that I often find punishing the very villagers I am trying to help.

  • In The New York Times Travel Section on Sunday, September 1st was an article on an American returning to Senegal to show his sister “a complex and joyful nation.” The author of the piece is Michael McColly (Senegal 1881–83). McColly is writing a book about AIDS activism that includes Senegal and had been traveling in West Africa when his sister joined him in Dakar. McColly writes of returning to his Peace Corps village:

      . . . my village mother rang an old tire rim and called the women to the chief’s compound to greet Jody and begin the preparations for the ceremonial meal. After Jody was given a Senegalese name — Khady Mbaye, the same as the chief’s wife — we were blessed and greeted by waves of villages, who howled with laughter when I tried to recall names and speak in my broken Wolof.

  • Suzanne Clark (Mauritius 1973–75) turned her Peace Corps tour with her husband Vern into a self-published book written during Life Story writing classes in Sebastopol, California. “I kept a journal while we were overseas and our children saved the letters we wrote, and we took jillions of slides and Vern and my combined memory helped put the story together.” Her short book of 44 pages ends with “As the wheels left the tarmac, our last view of the island was white sandy beaches and the deep blue of the Indian Ocean before Mauritius disappeared in the misty clouds.” Suzanne’s record of her years overseas is a wonderful way to capture the Peace Corps tour and save it in prose for the next generation.

  • Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) had a piece in the September 2 issue of The New Yorker entitled “Beach Summit.” Hessler lives in China and writes frequently about China and other Asian countries. His book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze was recently issued in trade paperback.

  • Kinky Friedman’s (Borneo 1967–69) latest is Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, the 15th of his mystery series starring the detective Kinky Friedman. Reviewing the novel in the Sunday, September 8 issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, reviewer Michael Harris writes, “In one way, Kinky Friedman’s mystery novels are unlike anybody’s else’s — witty parodies of the genre in which we’re always a little surprised that characters do go kidnapped or murdered and that Kinky Friedman (the author’s detective alter ego) is able to solve the case. He’s a humanist, an animal lover, given to bawdy wisecracks and poetic musings — the runniest yolk in a hard-boiled field.”

  • Thomas Tighe (Thailand 1986–88; Peace Corps Chief-of-Staff 1995–00) had an op-ed about 9/11 in the Santa Barbara News Press that appeared on Sunday, September 22. Among other points, Tighe wrote, “We have learned a lot about what we do not know and what is not simply black or white. As we go forward in the new millennium, it is the quality of our thoughts and insights that will enhance our people, our country, and our contributions to the fragile world in which we live.”

  • In The New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, September 29, George Packer (Togo 1982–83) reviewed Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitckens.

  • Good news. Norm Rush (Botswana PCD 1978–83) has finished his long awaited new book. Entitled Mortals, the novel will be published in June of 2003. It’s the last of his Africa trilogy. The two earlier titles: Whites and Mating.

  • This spring, Anne Panning (Philippinse 1988–90) won the Cecil B. Hackney Literary Award from Birmingham-Southern College, for her novel manuscript, Carrot Lake, Carrot Cake. Anne also had a short story, “babysitter,” published in Issue One (May 2002) of Quick Fiction, which publishes stories and narrative prose poems of under 500 words.
              Anne will be presenting a reading in Ithaca, New York on October 24th.


    Recent books by Peace Corps writers — September 2002

      Betrayal:
           The Crisis in the Catholic Church
      By The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe
      Overseen by Ben Bradlee Jr. (Afghanistan 1970–72)
      Little, Brown, August 2002
      304 pages
      $25.95

    • Ethics for Everyone
           How to Increase Your Moral Intelligence
      by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965–67)
      John Wiley and Sons, April 2002
      266 pages
      $15.95
      (Buy this book)

    • Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
      (Mystery Novel)
      By Kinky Friedmen (Borneo 1967–69)
      Simon & Schuster, September 2002
      224 pages
      $24.00

  • Malta, Mediterranean Bridge
    by Stefan C. Goodwin (Nigeria 1965–67)
    Westport CT: Bergin & Garvey, July 2002
    $64.95

  • The First Big Ride
         A Woman's Journey
    by Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73, Paraguay 1999–2000)
    Nashville: Cumberland House Press, 2000
    256 pages
    $12.95

  • A Cool Drink of Water
    (Ages 4 and up)
    by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 1981–83)
    National Geographic Society, April 2002
    32 pages
    $16.95

  • At Sea in the City
         New York from The Water’s Edge
    by William Kornblum (Ivory Coast 1963–65), foreward by Pete Hamill, illustrations by Oliver Williams
    Algonquin Books, May 2002
    232 pages
    $23.95

  • War Stories
         A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra

    (Peace Corps experience)
    by John Sherman (Nigeria 1966–67; Malawi 1967–68;
    PC staff: W 1970–71, 1975-77; Ghana 1971–73)
    Mesa Verde Press, September 2002
         4175 Central Avenue
         Indianapolis, IN 46205
    144 pages
    $14.95 + $3.00 s&h

  • Dar Days
         The Early Years in Tanzania
    by Charles R. Swift (Romania UNV 1990–   )
    University Press of America, August 2002
    228 pages
    $38.00

  • Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes
    (poetry)
    by Paul Violi (Nigeria 1966–67)
    Hanging Loose Press, January 2002
         231 Wyckoff Street
         Brooklyn, New York 11217
    71 pages
    $13.00


    Death of an RPCV Writer

      Remembering Tim McLaurin

      TIM McLAURIN (Tunisia 1982–83), author of The Keeper of the Moon: A Memoir, among other books, died on July 11 of esophageal cancer. Tim grew up on a small family farm in East Fayetteville, North Carolina, a world he chronicled vividly and elegantly throughout four novels, two memoirs and a narrative poem.
           In October 1989, Tim was interviewed in RPCW Writers, the original newsletter of this on-line website, about his Peace Corps experience and his writing. He said then that:

    The Peace Corps has had a large influence on me becoming a writer because it made me see the region of the country where I was born in a different light without the influence and prejudice of living inside the culture. The Peace Corps also gave me time to write while further instilling in me discipline and pride, two strengths that are needed for writing.

    An ex-Marine — as well as an RPCV — who pierced his ears and painted his toenails, and a one-time proprietor of a traveling snake show who became an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and a bona fide man of letters, McLaurin was also an alcoholic though he preferred the term drunk. He despised the liberal elite of Chapel Hill, but when he remarried two years ago, more than two dozen Southern authors — all his close friends — bore witness. It probably isn’t true, but somebody said afterward that it was the largest gathering of Southern writers since Faulkner’s funeral.
         Tim was drinking long before his cancer was diagnosed, and the alcohol took as much of a toll on his body as the multiple myeloma or the tumors.
         Tim wrote a little about his drinking in Keeper of the Moon, the best of his books, which covers his Peace Corps years, and in The River Less Run he recounted waking up in a hospital after a three-week binge. He hit bottom then, he wrote, and decided to quit. After a second bout of cancer, he became addicted to painkillers, and he tried to drink his way out. He finally got free of the alcohol, but fighting cancer without the pills was impossible.
         He shaved his head and covered his scars from the surgeries and treatments with tattoos — birds, snakes, the names of loved ones, a giant phoenix rising from the flames.
         He asked a friend, George Terll, to build his coffin. A farrier by trade, George fashioned a pine box with steel rims inlaid vertically and horizontally. It looked a little like a whiskey barrel.
         Tim asked Pete Hendricks, a novelist and stonemason, to build a tomb on his family farm, right next to where his father, Reese McLaurin, was buried. Pete and his wife, Robin, built the tomb with rocks Tim’s mother brought back from a 1999 cross-country family excursion — a trip Tim turned into The River Less Run. Pete said it took about 10 trips to the farm to bring all the rocks. Tim went along most of the time, frail as he was. It was built to beautiful on the inside as well as out — so Tim would have a nice view.
         Years ago, Tim asked Mary E. Miller of Raleigh, North Carolina’ s The News & Observer to write his obituary when the time came, but when he passed away, Mary had just given birth to a little girl and she also admitted that she didn’t want to see Tim down to 80 pounds and tethered to an oxygen tank. But in time, she did write:

      . . . there are so many funny, sad, inspiring, poignant stories I want to tell, but the most important things to know about Tim is that he deeply loved his children and his family, treated writing as a luxury, found a calling to teach, won the hearts of two extraordinary women, and pretty much did what he set out to do long before doctors turned over the hourglass. He died writing, with a manuscript completed and a magazine article half-finished. But the greatest triumph of his life might be that he didn’t die drunk and alone in the woods.
      . . .
           Wrapped in a sheet, with the tiny plastic bag of dirt from the farm that he carried around in his wallet, Tim was buried on the family land. After the service, old friends gathered to say goodbye, swap stories over fried chicken and pie, and write messages in markers on the tomb. It was a good party.

    Tim McLaurin was 48.