Peace Corps Writers
March 2003

    Talking with Paul Theroux

    In nearly forty years of writing, Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written. He began by writing about the life he knew in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country then known as Nyasaland. Three of his first four novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. And two of his later novels, My Secret History and My Other Life, recast his Peace Corps tour as fiction. This month Houghton Mifflin published Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, which details a 2001 trip that he had wanted to make since leaving Africa.
         For this issue of Peace Corps Writers, I interviewed Paul about his recent book and his life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Those interested in why he was terminated from the agency, might also want to read an article I wrote several years entitled, “Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux” that is available on this site.
         Don’t miss Theroux’s interview. It is the first he has given to a Peace Corps publication.

    Journals of Peace
    In 1988 Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1963-65), the first Director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, staged an event in Washington, D.C. that would prove to be the most newsworthy and significant reminder of the Peace Corps connection with President John F. Kennedy.
         Named Journals of Peace, this event consisted of continual readings by RPCVs for twenty-four hours in the U.S. Capital Rotunda. The Journals of Peace began at mid-day on the 21st of November in 1988 and continued through mid-day on the 22nd ending with a memorial Mass at St. Matthews Cathedral, the site of Kennedy’s funeral. Similar, smaller, memorial services were also held in other parts of the country on this anniversary of the assassination of JFK, but the Washington Journals of Peace readings in the U.S. Capital Rotunda drew hundreds and hundreds of RPCVs to the nation’s capital and caught the attention of the world.
         In summoning RPCVs to Washington, Carroll wrote, “All Volunteers who served in the Peace Corps are invited to submit a passage from their letters home, their Peace Corps journals or their best recollection about the single experience that crystallizes what the Peace Corps meant to them.” The readings were to be no longer than 500 words, or three minutes long when read.
       Carroll went on to write that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers represented a unique legacy of the Kennedy years. “Woven back into the fabric of hometown communities across the nation, they continue to keep the spirit of their commitment alive through their work in development education.” He reminded all Volunteers that “promoting a greater understanding on the part of Americans of other people” was one of the goals Kennedy articulated in his 1961 legislation. In 1988, it had been 27 years since Kennedy created the Peace Corps and over 120,000 Americans have already served in 94 developing countries.
         Through special arrangements facilitated by Senator Christopher J. Dodd (Dominican Republic 1966–68), the readings by former Volunteers took place in the U.S. Capital, and this was the first time such permission had ever been granted to keep the Capital open all night. No other event like this one has since been held in the Capital Rotunda.
         
    Returned Peace Corps Volunteers began stepping up to the microphone located in the Rotunda at mid-afternoon on the 21st. They read while the Senate conducted business in the conference rooms and offices around them; they read while visitors toured the echoing marble hallways; they read while staff assistants, secretaries, Senators and Congressmen went home after work. They kept reading, one after the other, through the quiet evening hours and then all night long in the silence of the vast Rotunda. At times, the Rotunda was ablaze with t.v. camera lights and crowded with the curious and other RPCVs.
         RPCVs read non-stop into the morning rush hour when this Vigil became national news and was broadcast live on morning news hours of NBC, CBS and ABC. They kept reading until noon on the 22nd when the last RPCVs left the Capital and crossed downtown Washington to join 1,500 others in filling the Cathedral of St. Matthews for Kennedy’s memorial mass. They then heard homilies about the President from Father Theodore Hesbergh; Bill Moyers, Loret Miller Ruppe, Sargent Shriver, and several RPCVs.
         While it was the hope and dream of Tim Carroll and the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to publish these journals, funds were never available and over time several hundred of the original journals came into my possession. Beginning with this issue of Peace Corps Writers, we will publish the journals as they were read in 1988. Then we will send the original documents to the permanent Peace Corps Collection at the Kennedy Library. One request. If you read at the Journals of Peace and you think I might not have your reading, please forward a copy to me at jpcoyne@cnr.edu so your remembrance can be included and published on line.

    A Writer Writes
    From the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1967, Rich Wandschneider did community development work and lived in a small village in southeastern Turkey close to the borders of Syria and Iraq. Rich remembers those years and the country in a very timely essay entitled “Turks and Kurds” — one that illustrates the depth of insight that Peace Corps Volunteers bring back to share with their fellow Americans.

    “When The Right Hand Washes the Left”
    David Schickele (Nigeria 1961–63) first presented his retrospective view of early service in the Peace Corps in a speech entitled “When the Right Hand Washes the Left” given at his alma mater, Swarthmore College, in 1963. It was then printed in the Swarthmore alumni magazine.
    The Peace Corps reprinted Schickele’s essay in its first “Point of View,” a short-lived series of discussion papers about Volunteer service. Long out of print, we are publishing Schickele’s essay to save another part of Peace Corps history.

    Jesuit Shenanigans
    Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits — written by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63) and Eugene C. Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University — traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. The book was reviewed positively by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68) at our site last year. But with many things Jesuit, there’s another story. Read the latest from Peter McDonough about his book and how it is stirring up Jesuits passions among the Orders “spin doctors.”

    Book reviews
    There are 22 new books listed in “Recent books by Peace Corps writers” for this issue and quite a few are by our best writers. Six of these books are reviewed in this issue.
         These new books can be found at your local bookstore. But better yet — buy them through our website from Amazon.com (by double-clicking on the book covers) and we will receive a % of the sale to support this website.
         Either way, buy one, two, or all of the following and read the reviews in this issue of: How the Water Feels by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976–78); She’s Not There by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67); Tongue Tied by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-62) writing as Richard Stevenson; Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65); Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’ Cajun Coast by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87). And for poetry lovers, there’s a review of Sandra Meek’s (Botswana 1989–91) wonderful collection of poems, Nomadic Foundations.

    And, of course, there is more in this issue . . .
    Check out “Literary Type” and read about Norm Rush’s (CD Botswana 1978–83) massive new novel Mortals; Nancy Forsythe Farmer (India 1963–65) who has won the prestigious 2003 Newbery Honor for the third time, and Edward Mycue (Ghana 1961) who is one of many RPCV poets to write poems against the war. Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  ) is back with another tale from his tour of service. Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96), who has been writing and teaching in a new place every year since her service ended, sent us a travel essay about the “Monkey Gardens” on the Malaysia island of Penang. And Miriam Carroll (Gabon 1996-98) contributes a “Letter from Nyanga, Congo” written on April 7, 1997.

    For all that is in this issue . . .

    — John Coyne
    Editor