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Peace Corps Writers
July, 2003

2003 RPCV writing awards
Peace Corps Writers is delighted to announce its selection of award winners for books published during 2002. Once again, Peace Corps writers produced wonderful books in all genres last year, and choosing winners was difficult. As in the past, the committee looked for well written books that most reflected the Peace Corps experience. Congratulations to these fine writers:

Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders
by Jason Carter
     (South Africa 1998–2000)

Maria Thomas Fiction Award
In Revere, In Those Days
by Roland Merullo
     (Micronesia 1979-80)

Award for Best Poetry Book
Nomadic Foundations
by Sandra Meek
     (Botswana 1989–91)

Award for Best Travel Writing
At Sea in the City: New York from the Water’s Edge
by William Kornblum
     (Ivory Coast 1963–65)

Award for Best Children’s Writing
Voices from the Field: Readings and Writing About the World, Ourselves and Others
Edited by Beth Giebus      
     (Morocco 1990–93),
Cerylle Moffett
     (Staff PC/W 2001–),
Betsi Shays
     (Fiji 1968–70)

Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
“The Last Ride”
by Elise Annunziata
     (Senegal 1996–99)

NOTE: During the past year we received many very fine essays and we ask RPCV writers to continue to send their writings on the Peace Corps experiences to PeaceCorpsWriters.org.

Portland program
Peace Corps Writers will present two workshops at the NPCA's Annual General Meeting, August 1–3 in Portland, Oregon. “Publishing Your Peace Corps Story” will feature panelists: David Arnold (Ethiopia 1964–66), Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80), Sarah Erdman (Cote d'Ivoire 1998–2000), Barbara Scot (Nepal 1990–92), Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1965–68) and myself. Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962–64) will moderate. I will also present “How to Write a Novel in 101 Days or Less.”

New this issue
We continue to publish Journals of Peace readings with the work of those who read between 5 and 6 p.m on November 21, 1988. From anti-war statements to excerpts from letters home, all are quite compelling.
     Medical student Glen Davis (Burkina-Faso 1995–97) reflects on the impact of his service on him in “A Writer Writes” with “Burkina-Faso . . . Always On My Mind.”
     We are again publishing an essay about the Peace Corps in “To Preserve and to Learn.” This issue’s selection comes from the early 1960s and focuses on Maurice L. Albertson, director of the Colorado State University Research Foundation, who received a contract to prepare a Congressional Feasibility Study of the Point-4 Youth Corps that was “to be made up of young Americans willing to serve their country in public and private technical assistance missions in far-off countries, and at a soldier’s pay.” Albertson then wrote a book about the first steps taken in founding the Peace Corps.
     We are “Talking With . . .” the novelist and travel writer Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80). Karl taught mathematics for three years as a PCV. He then became a training contractor and acting APCD in ten more countries in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Since coming home he has been a travel writer, newspaper columnist, and now is Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
     Besides that, there is “Literary Type,” scads of “Recent Books,” reviews of five books by Peace Corps writers, and more. Read on.

— John Coyne
Editor


Recent books by Peace Corps writers — July 2003

Great Lakes Nature
An Outdoor Year

by Mary Blocksma (Nigeria 1965–67), illustrated by Robin Wilt
University of Michigan Press
June, 2003
336 pages
$19.95

What's on the Beach?
A Great Lakes Treasure Hunt

by Mary Blocksma (Nigeria 1965–67)
Beaver Island Arts
May, 2003
48 pages
$9.95

Round Lake Erie
A Bicyclist’s Tour Guide

(2nd edition)
by Harvey Botzman (Kenya 1966–69)
Cyclotour Guide Books
February, 2003
156 pages
$24.95

Two Years in the Kingdom
The Adventures of an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand

(Peace Corps experience)
by Blaine L. Comeaux (Thailand 1997–99)
iUniverse: Writers Club Press
November, 2002
276 pages
$15.95

Filet of Sohl
The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl

edited by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90))
BearManor Media
April 2003
261 pages
$16.95

Gilbert & Garbo In Love
A Romance in Poems
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
The Word Works, Inc.
April, 2003
87 pages
$10.00

Souvenirs de Nancy
A Peace Corps Martyr
(Peace Corps experience)
(reissue)
by Nancy Coutu (Madagascar 1994–96), edited by Connie Coutu
Faithworks
August, 2002
366 pages
$14.95

Imagine a House
A Journey to Fascinating Houses around the World
(children)
by Angela Gustafson (Dominican Republic (1994–96)
Out of the Box
September 2003
32 pages
$16.95

Birding in Seattle and King County
Site Guide and Annotated Lists
(second edition)
by Eugene Hunn (Ethiopia 1964–66)
Seattle Audobon Society
June, 2003
$7.95

Last Lorry to Mbordo
Misadventures in Nation Building

(novel)
by John C. Kennedy (Ghana 1965–68)
Trafford
April, 2003
274 pages
$19.95

Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life
(short stories and reflections)
by Mary Cameron Kilgour (Philippines 1962–64)
self-published
May 2003
64 pages
$10 mailed within the U.S.
     Order from the author at:
     4442 SW 85th Way, Gainesville, FL 32608

Know It by Heart
by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)
Curbstone Press
June, 2003
256 pages
$15.95

A Way Was Opened
A Memoir

by Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus with Eve MacMaster (Turkey 1963–65)
Herald Press
January, 2003
$24.99

Ties That Bind
by Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1965–67)
HarperColins Publishers
352 pages
March 2003
$25.95

Morality Tales
Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab
by Leslie Peirce (Turkey 1964–66)
University of California Press
521 pages
June 2003
$29.95

Pioneering Paths in the Study of Families
The Lives and Careers of Family Scholars
edited by Gary W. Peterson (Nigeria 1965–67) and Suzanne K. Steinmetz
Haworth Press
February, 2003
906 pages

Should Have Just Stayed Home
The Worst Trips of Great Writers
(travel stories)
edited by Roger Rapoport and Bob Drews
Contributors: Tina Martin (Tonga 1969–71), Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
RDR Books
April 2003
275 pages
$17.95

Glory in a Camel’s Eye
Trekking Through the Moroccan Sahara
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Houghton Mifflin Co.
245 pages
2003
$25.00
NOTE: Published in the U.K. as Valley of the Casbahs: A Journey across the Moroccan Sahara, Little Brown, February, 2003


Literary Type

In The New Yorker — the July 7th issue — is another report by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) from Beijing entitled “Underwater” on how the world’s biggest dam is flooding China’s past. In the article, Hessler writes about teaching in Fuling as a Peace Corps Volunteer, which is two hundred miles upstream from Wushan and behind the Three Gorges Dam. Since completing his service, Peter has been watching the river rise, which he writes, “is like tracking the progress of the clock’s short hand: it’s all but imperceptible.”

Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976–78) collection of stories, How the Water Feels published by Southern Methodist University Press recently won the 2003 Paterson Fiction Prize of $1000. The collection features stories derived from his Peace Corps and United Nations experiences in Malaysia.

Norm Rush (Botswana CD 1978–83) has nothing but wonderful things to say about Sarah Erdman’s (Côte d’Ivoire 1998–2000) new book about her experiences in rural Côte d’Ivoire. For the book’s jacket, Rush writes:

This account of two years of development work in West Africa is exemplary in many ways. Erdman conveys faithfully the complex maneuvering between hope and disillusion that characterizes such efforts. The observations of persons, place, social life are acute and vivid. The writing has the narrative pulse of good fiction, and is as absorbing. This is a beautifully done book.

And speaking of Norm Rush! Poets & Writers Magazine has a profile of Norm and his wife Elsa in the July/August 2003 issue. While the profile focuses, naturally, on the new novel, the writer, Sandy Asirvatham (who is a writer and jazz pianist/singer living in Baltimore), writes about how they got into the Peace Corps in the first place:

He (Rush) has taught school and run an antiquarian book dealership, but most significantly, he and Elsa were hired by the State Department to be the guinea pigs in a pilot program to hire couples as codirectors of Peace Corps units. The job possibility had come up unexpectedly, and Norman and Elsa — thinking they were long-shot candidates — went to Washington, D.C. and treated the job interview as something of a lark.

The Peace Corps offered them joint positions and they went to Botswana in 1979 and stayed until 1983. “Once we were offered the job, and decided after long thought to accept it, both of us were daunted and dead serious about doing it right,” Rush said. “The job was relentlessly hard. We were responsible for the safety and useful functioning of hundreds of American volunteers many of them working in difficult circumstances. It took us a couple of years after we got back to the U.S. to react normally when the phone rang.”
     One of “their” Volunteers was writer Karl Luntta (Botswana 1978–80) who is interviewed in this issue of the newsletter. He talks about his Peace Corps codirectors in the article.

The May/June 2003 issue of Book Magazine, now owned by Barnes & Noble, focuses on travel and writers. Oddly Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) doesn’t make any of their made-up lists, but Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) is featured in a listing entitled “The Dangerous Lives of Fiction Writers.” Shacochis, according to the author Adam Langer, calls himself an “experience slut” who has covered wars in Kosovo and Haiti, journeyed across the Himalayas, and is now planning a trip to Pitcairn Island. Listing his “odd jobs” in his long writing career, Bob says he worked as a chef on a ship with a suicidal, drug-running captain and searched for treasure aboard sunken Spanish galleons in the San Andrés Archipelago, but the only time he was in trouble was while in the Peace Corps where he fought off a notorious bandit who stabbed him in the face with a diving knife. “The world is hypnotically fascinating,” sums up Shacochis. “The only thing that bores me is writing.”

In early July, John Sherman (Nigeria 1966–67; Malawi 1967–68) was interviewed by George Liston Seay, host of the NPR radio program, “Dialogue,” about his book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra. The program is broadcast across the U.S. as well as overseas.
     John’s book is based on the diary he kept in the months he worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. It also contains flashbacks to the year he spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the same area of Nigeria/Biafra.

Mystery writer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) has a new book coming out next spring that is the third in her series featuring detective Poppy Rice. In the book, entitled She Smiled Sweetly, Mary-Ann manages to bring in a Peace Corps connection.
     To set the stage — a sales clerk in a women’s clothing store recalls a customer: “The Peace Corps girl didn’t care how much things cost, didn’t look at the sale racks. Apparently the Peace Corps gives you a readjustment allowance when you come home so you don’t starve. That’s what she called it — her readjustment allowance. And this girl was going to spend every dime.”
     Watch for She Smiled Sweetly.

Another famous RPCV mystery writer is Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1962–64) who came home from Africa to attend New York University School of Law, then found his way to Portland, Oregon where from 1972 to 1996 he was in private practice specializing in criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels. As a trial attorney, Phillip has handled all sorts of criminal cases in state and federal court, and he has represented approximately 30 people charged with homicide, including several who have faced the death penalty. He also was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a battered woman accused of murdering her spouse.
     Since 1996, however, Margolin has been writing full-time. All seven of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. His first novel, Heartstone, was nominated for an Edgar Award for best original paperback mystery by the Mystery Writers of America. His second book, The Last Innocent Man, was made into an HBO movie. Gone, But Not Forgotten, sold to more than 25 foreign publishers. His other titles include, After Dark, The Burning Man, The Undertaker’s Widow, and Wild Justice. His new book, published this March, is entitled Ties That Bind.
     In addition to all this, his daughter grew up to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In the summer issue of The Public Interest, there’s an article, “Measuring Achievement: The West and the Rest” by Charles Murray (Thailand 1965–67) famous for such books as The Bell Curve that linked intelligence, race and genes. In this article, using various measurements, Murray concludes that since 1400, Europe has “overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment both in the arts and sciences.” His argument is “What the human species can claim to its credit in the arts and sciences is owed in astonishing degree to what was accomplished in just a half-dozen centuries by the people of one small portion of the northwestern Eurasian land mass.” Murray comments that “Eurocentrism has in recent years joined racism and sexism as one of the postmodern mortal sins . . . . The assumption that Eurocentrism is a real problem accounts for the reluctance of many to celebrate Western culture — or even defend it.” Today, Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In August 1994, Angela and Brian Gustafson left for the Dominican Republic to begin an incredible two-year journey as Peace Corps Volunteers along the Haitian border. The culture, environment and friendships they experienced as Volunteers not only fostered a passion for learning about other cultures, but planted an idea to share that knowledge through products they would want for their own children.
     In 1998, Angela and Brian (Dominican Republic 1994–96) established the Out of the Box company to create books and other products “that make learning about the world we live in a uniquely fun experience for the young and not-so-young alike!” Imagine a House: A Journey to Fascinating Houses Around the World by Angela Gustafson is their debut book in a series of books entitled, What a World We Live In. The website for Out of the Box is: www.ootbooks.com

Another terrific book by an RPCV, though one who ETed, Tom Bissell, who went to Uzbekistan in 1996 and left after a few miserable months. Haunted by his failure, Bissell decided in 2001 to return to Uzbekistan — this time to investigate the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea and to try to help in a way that he hadn't before. The book is called — in the way of Nineteen Century travel journals — Chasing the Sea: Being A Narrative Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe.
     
In praise of the book Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) writes, “I've earmarked nearly every page of this extraordinary travelogue, drawn back again and again to savor the dervish spin of Tom Bissell's prose, the dazzling starburst digressions of blazing intelligence, the banquet of historical narrative and fresh geopolitical commentary, the honest human drama of the author's journey through the haunting landscapes and flashpoint cultures of Central Asia.” Wow! Look for the book this September from Pantheon Books.

Michael McColly (Senegal 1981–83) turns up again in the Travel Section of The New York Times. This time in the July 20th edition with a charming essay entitled, “The Education of a World Traveler.” The essay recalls the pleasure of traveling with his parents and what they taught Michael and his sister as the family did cross-country treks every summer on what his mother called “educational experiences.”
     Last September 1st he wrote of a trip back to Senegal that he had made earlier in the year with his sister who had always wanted to “have a chance to visit an African village.”


Talking with . . .

Karl Luntta
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

KARL LUNTTA WENT TO BOTSWANA as a PCV in 1977 where he taught mathematics for three years. He then became a training contractor and acting Associate Peace Corps Director in ten more countries in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Since coming home he has been a travel writer, newspaper columnist, and now is Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
     Karl has been a supporter of our earlier newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers, and this website from the beginning, and with the help of this networking of Peace Corps writers found his agent and the publisher of his new book, Know it by Heart. I thought it was about time to talk to Karl about his writing life and his years in the Peace Corps.

What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I taught secondary school in Botswana, 1978 through 1980.
     I then worked for Peace Corps/Botswana as a trainer, running programs for newly arrived Volunteers, and eventually worked in Togo for the old Regional Training and Resource Office (RTRO), and in Gabon, Cameroon, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Western Samoa, and the Caribbean. I stayed overseas for about a dozen years.

Where are you from, what college did you go to?
I’m from East Hartford, Connecticut, the nonfictional town in which Know it by Heart takes place. I went to Central Connecticut State College, where I studied mathematics, which got me to Africa as a teacher.

Did you do much writing when you were overseas?

I had time to write during my overseas years, and made use of it. I wrote constantly — but never published a thing. I’d tried to get some very bad poetry published while I was in college, with the predictable results, and I knew I had some work to do. Looking back on those poems today, I apparently had a great deal of work to do. But while overseas, I wrote short stories and filled journals with ideas for stories — all Volunteers are encouraged by the Peace Corps to keep journals, diaries, etc. and many do.
     At one point I had filled so many journals I decided to send some home. I packed up a box of them and, unfortunately, sent it to the States by overland mail — you know the rest of the story. It never made it. But even though I lost the writing itself, just having produced it, having spent time staring down so many blank pages, was extremely valuable.

What was your first paid writing assignment, and how did you get it?
After returning home, I began to pitch feature article ideas to the paper in my area, the Cape Cod Times. I think one of the first that clicked concerned the growing number of women over the age of 40 having a child for the first time. I continued to write articles and started a column on the feature page of the paper, all the while somewhat lost — I’d been gone for many years and my culture shock was disconcerting. So I looked for ways to get back to the comfort level I’d had overseas and to combine that with writing. I became a travel writer. I pitched an idea on Africa to a publisher of travel books, and they rejected it, but in its place they suggested I write a guide to Jamaica, which I quite happily did; it’s now in its fourth edition.

How many travel books have you written?
I’ve written six guides and contributed chapters to another half-dozen. A great deal of my travel writing has concentrated on the islands of the Caribbean.

How do you go about researching and writing a travel book?
You’ve caught me in transition — I’m now employed and am not writing travel books full-time, which of course changes things. Normally, when approaching a destination new to me, I’d go there and spend weeks or months traveling. To me, much is learned by osmosis, by simply taking it in. I believe my years in the Peace Corps helped in that way — I learned to be aware of how much I had to discover and not be overwhelmed by it. So when I travel, I set goals, choose the places to visit, etc., but I spend time just being awake and listening. And taking many, many notes. I sometimes have traveled with a laptop, but found that it’s restrictive in many ways — I’m always worried about dropping it, having it stolen, etc. I still like pencil and paper.
     What I’ve always wanted to help readers to discover is a sense of the people of a place, without falling into the stereotyping that is rife in the travel industry. What, for instance, makes Jamaicans what they are? How did this tiny island the size of Connecticut manage to produce and export such worldwide cultural phenomena as reggae and Rastafarianism? To the extent I can answer that, I try to.
     Now that my ability to travel is restricted by other responsibilities, I’ll limit myself to updating the books I’ve already written and not take on new destinations.

Have you written any travel essays that might be complied into a book?
I was a columnist for Caribbean Travel and Life magazine. It was a humor column, mostly about the oddities of travel. The origins of the limbo dance was one column. Another concerned local herbal aphrodisiacs that tasted vile but, in my experience, worked like a charm — at least as I remember them. But I do remember that about nine months after returning from our first writing trip to Jamaica, my wife informed me, in-between a series of rather loud and colorful phrases that accompanied her labor contractions, that if I ever researched aphrodisiacs again I was to leave her out of it.
     I also wrote a humor column for the Cape Cod Times, mostly about men and women and why we can’t understand each other — a question for which of course there is no answer, which is why I was able to write the column for ten years.
     Each of these collections would be a candidate for a book.

Can someone, i.e., someone like yourself, make a living writing travel books?
Someone can indeed make a living writing travel books. Some do. But not me. The vagaries of the travel industry — the economy, bad weather, competition, threats of terrorism — make travel book sales sporadic and unreliable. And I have a family. Most travel writers have to do much more than simply write books to make it — a regular gig with a magazine or newspaper is a lifesaver, but freelancing also helps, and paid lectures can be a source of income. The fact remains that many travel writers have regular jobs or extremely understanding spouses to help keep up the cash flow.

Your co-Peace Corps Directors in Botswana were Norman and Elsa Rush. What were they like as CDs?
They were terrific. Each offered the Volunteer community, and the local Botswana community, something unique. They were never simply two halves of a marriage that made a whole director. One impressive aspect of their directorship was that they actually enjoyed being in Botswana. They embraced their jobs and thrived in the local culture, and it showed. Clearly the country made an impression on Norman, who has used Botswana as a backdrop, even a recurring character of sorts, for two novels and many of his short stories.

Do you have any insightful stories to tell about Norm and Elsa in Africa?
I lived in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, when I worked for the Peace Corps office. A man from Lesotho lived in a one-room flat in a row of cement blocks behind my complex of flats. He’d been a long-time political prisoner in South Africa under apartheid, and had been tortured until he was crippled. He looked much older than I suspect he was. His face was caved in and contorted; he walked with a limp because his legs had been broken so many times. He had one pair of pants and a pair of glasses that were wired or tied up with anything he could get his hands on. A prized possession of his was a portable typewriter, and with it he wrote novels, punched out book after book, dozens of them, all written in Sesotho, the language of Lesotho. He’d once been, I believe, a well-known writer. I couldn’t read a word of them. I barely understood our conversations. He was quite mad at the time, even slightly dangerous. One could surmise that what drove him to it was his treatment at the hands of apartheid, although I knew nothing of his mental state beforehand.
     Norman and Elsa took care of him. They gave him support, and advice about his life and publishing life. They did this quietly for years, without fanfare, which is perhaps why I remember it so strongly.

Lets talk about your book. What is it about?
Know it by Heart
looks at racial tension in a small New England town in 1961. Small New England towns didn’t have much racial tension in 1961, mainly because small New England towns didn’t much racial diversity. The Southern states were the big news in race relations in 1961, but I felt I had to explore what I knew. I grew up in New England, and I asked myself a simple question: what if a black family moved into a mostly liberal, mostly tolerant, but entirely white New England neighborhood?
     I served with a Volunteer in Africa who was from rural Maine. I was dumbstruck when she told me that she had never spoke with, met, or even seen, except on television, a black person until she went to university. And then she went to Africa. I’m still amazed when I think of the blind faith it took for her to do that, to go to Africa. And I was reminded of that when I was formulating this story — what kind of courage does it take to be the first black family on the block? The book also contemplates the realities of justice for too many people.

Was this book much more difficult to write than say a travel book? Or did you use the same writing methods?
It is much more difficult for me to write fiction than to write nonfiction. In nonfiction, one has facts to assemble, — a travel book tends to live or die on hard facts, whereas a novel’s success, for me anyway, depends on the originality of its ideas and quality of the writing. Accuracy of course also counts in a novel, but often it’s accuracy in depicting a life or a human condition. Every single word counts. Every phrase has weight. The rewards in writing fiction are greater when the work is done.
     Practically speaking, some of the writing methods are the same. I have to sit down and stare at the computer screen and actually put my fingers to the keyboard on a regular basis. I have to schedule this, and I try to respect that schedule.

What are you doing today?
Today I am working on two long fiction pieces, one of which will become another novel. The trouble is, I don’t yet know which one that will be. I’m enjoying them both, but I know I have to concentrate on one of them at this point to get it done. I trust instinct to take over.
     I also have a job as the Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York. I don’t travel much, just commute. It’s not a bad life.


Review

Gilbert & Garbo In Love
A Romance in Poems
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
The Word Works, Inc.
April, 2003
87 pages
$10.00

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

WHEN NARRATIVE SKILL AND lyrical imagination coalesce, as they do in Christopher Conlon’s Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems, then readers are in for a delightful excursion. These sixty-six poems trace the lives of movie idols John Gilbert and Greta Garbo from early childhood to the height of their big-screen fame. Conlon presents a classically romantic but tragic view of these two Hollywood superstars. And he presents this in an imaginative, package of sensual sketches written in a natural, casual style.
     In the end, however, I’m most impressed by Conlon’s ability to unify the narrative and lyrical so comfortably together that the book’s major theme emerges as an integral part of the writing. The essential strength of this collection is how unobtrusively Conlon addresses the existential issues of the nature of reality and identity.
     As movie stars, Gilbert and Garbo basked in the sunshine of Hollywood fame. Conlon writes in the poem “Two People,” that they are “the two most / beautiful people on earth, ordained so / by a poll in a fan magazine.” The world of movies becomes their reality. However, Conlon presents these bigger-than-life stars as constantly questioning the boundaries of reality. He writes in the poem “Movies,” that seeing their images on screen

. . . frightens them, this
largeness, this luminosity, they fear that perhaps
the images are more real than they are: bigger,
brighter, angelic, everlasting, so much closer
than their own souls might ever come to heaven.

     The first sixteen poems portray the subjects when they were young, a time when both sought escape from harsh childhoods and had no sense of identity. Gilbert was dragged from theater to theater by his uncaring, stage-actress mother. In the poem “Small,” the six-year old Gilbert wants to “dissolve himself, / to shrink” so that he is “no bigger than a puppet, / or a toy soldier, or a picture in a nickelodeon: / tiny, perfect, worthy at last of home.” However, by his teenage years, Gilbert’s good looks made him popular, and he moved easily into silent films as an extra when he was just sixteen years old.
     In each other, Gilbert and Garbo found an emotional escape from loneliness and self-doubt. Their isolation on the movie set reinforced their dependency on each other. Their mutual sexual attraction helped verify a part of their reality, if only for three years. Conlon imagines a blazing passion between the two. In a wonderful display of poetic compression and rhythm, Conlon writes in “Two People,”

. . . they are the only two
people on earth, the only limbs on earth,
the only breaths and tongues on earth,
while millions of rain eyes gaze in at them
through windows, wistful and envious.

     These two silver screen celebrities possessed opposite personalities that meshed for a short time. Gilbert was assertive in the beginning, when he was cast as a Civil War cavalryman in his first silent movie. Conlon describes Gilbert’s youthful boldness in “Camera.” Gilbert turns “straight to the camera, grin gleaming / out to the world. Fire that son / of a bitch! the producer bellows, . . .” He basks in the limelight of fame, discovers himself as an actor, while all the time fully mindful that he was playing to an audience. Conlon writes in the title poem, “Gilbert and Garbo in Love,” that Gilbert is “never not aware / of the camera, his angle and lighting, his expression. He’s in the scene / but above it too, beyond it . . .” However, as Gilbert’s fame grows, he begins to doubt himself, the film crew, Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and others around him. In the poem “Questions,” Conlon writes that Gilbert wonders, “ . . . are they real? / Are they actors, playing parts? / When he turns his back, do they vanish? / . . . . What, for God’s sake, is his life?”
In “Gilbert and Garbo in Love,” the introverted Garbo is portrayed as having no confidence in her acting skills. Instead, she believes that “All she can do is be in a scene, focus everything / to the pinpoint moment of it, be there / and nowhere else, lost in her lover’s eyes, . . .” She thought of her acting as “. . . not technique, . . . not acting: / merely being. . . .” She looks at herself as two persons, and the real Greta knows that Garbo is not Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, the poor girl from Stockholm, Sweden. In “Greta and Garbo,” Conlon writes that Greta “knows, / . . . that it’s all a kind of confidence game,” her Hollywood image. “She knows, / what she does isn’t acting, not really, but modeling.”
     Conlon creates the impression that Garbo felt “beaten” all of her life. When she retired in 1941, she was only thirty-six years old. In “Garbo Triumphant,” Conlon writes that “Greta retires, / and dies. No one, not even she, knows / quite when, but she does. Garbo goes on, / eternal celebrity.” Although asked to return to acting, she refuses, thinking, “Garbo would need Greta: and Greta’s dead. / Garbo’s finally, perfectly, absolutely Garbo.”
     My criticism of this collection is not about Conlon’s immense talent as a poet or story-teller. My only problem is the familiar one of sorting out facts from fiction. One example is Gilbert’s fall from movie stardom. Conlon presents the standard idea that he failed solely because of his high-pitched voice. In “White Voice,” Gilbert’s voice is described as “All top, no bottom. . . . / The laughter in the theaters drowns the dialogue, / drowns him. Falsetto and squeaky and girlish. . .” Conlon offers nothing about the speculation that Louis B. Mayer intentionally sabotaged Gilbert’s career after a fight over whether he should marry Garbo. Many people believe that Mayer himself had Gilbert’s voice altered in sound films so movie fans would ridicule him.
     One part of Garbo and Gilbert’s lives I wish Conlon had written about is their relationships with Marlene Dietrich. Both were supposedly sexually involved with Dietrich. One rumor has Gilbert dying in Dietrich’s arms. But only one poem deals with Dietrich: a meeting with Garbo at New York City’s Stock Club. In “Bons-Bons,” Conlon describes them sharing a deliciously funny moment together. Dietrich tells Garbo that when autograph-seeking fans ask if she is Garbo, “I say, ‘Yes, dahling,’ and sign ‘Greta Garbo.’!” Giggling uncontrollably, Garbo responds, “‘Do you know what?’ / . . . ‘I always sign “Marlene Dietrich”!’”
     What my minor complaints really demonstrate is the strength of Conlon’s poetry. Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems projects impressionistic images of giant movie idols that excite the imagination. What more could poets and authors ask than their works spark readers’ curiosity for more information on the themes and topics presented?
    Conlon told interviewer Tony Albarella that his goal in writing is to “wrap someone up into an emotional whirlwind and offer them something so vivid, so real, that the characters and situations spring to life in their imaginations and become almost as real to them as people they actually know and memories they actually have. I see no other point to fiction or to poetry.” Applying his own standard, Conlon’s collection is highly successful. His talent certainly warrants national recognition.

Tony Zurlo's poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in over sixty literary magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. His nonfiction books include Japan: Superpower of the Pacific, China: The Dragon Awakes, West Africa, Daily Life in Hong Kong, China: Nations in Transition, and The Japanese Americans. His new book, Vietnam: Nations in Transition, will be published in the fall of 2003.


Review

Halcyon Daze
by Palmer Owyoung (Namibia 1993–95)
Village Market Press
2003
234 pages
$11.95

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

WRITER’S DIGEST HAS BEEN RUNNING what I consider a pretty effective set of ads. On the inside cover of recent issues of the magazine are portraits of famous writers — Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf — along with the word “Loser” stamped over their heads like a scarlet letter. These ads, shameless as all ads are in their blatant attempt to make a sale, nevertheless pick successfully at a literary sore point: self-publishing. The spirit of today’s age in book publishing is that larger but fewer conglomerates rule the marketplace through their accumulation of greater resources, greater networks and more money. Writers who can’t or won’t suck up to some arbitrary corporate view on the direction that reading should take, either stew bitterly with unpublished books or courageously gear up for the world of self-publishing, utilizing whatever resources are at their disposal and believing in the conviction of their vision. (The above-named ads promote a self-publishing company that offers the vague notion that you, too, can be like the bespectacled and eccentric James Joyce.)
     The latest in an ever increasing number of independently published novels is the accessible Halcyon Daze, penned by Palmer Owyoung. The book title plays cleverly on the homonym “daze”/”days”, which pinpoints the main thrust of the story, which is the confusion that preys upon Kalani, a Hawaiian/Asian/American girl from small-town Kansas who, on the verge of turning 30 years old, doubts whether the life she has lived so far is the one she really wants.
     The novel opens with her standing at the altar, about to affirm marriage vows with her fiancée. But as Kalani considers her long-time dream of living a complex life outside a perfectly packaged small town and of becoming a writer, she dumps her husband-to-be, packs a bag, hops in a car and heads west. This at first seems like a bad cliché except that, somehow, the scene works, acting as a counterpoint to all that follows. Kalani must display enough courage to throw away her past and launch full-scale into a new world where she has no friends, and all she knows is down the long highway behind her.
   A Navajo woman whom she meets at a roadside stop acts as her spiritual guide, providing Kalani a peyote drink that makes her experience visions and sensuous hallucinations that put her in touch with dreams of a happy life and urge her west toward California.
     She moves into a group house in San Francisco, where most of her roommates/ friends are approximately her age and also experiencing similar doubts about their identities. Monet is a psychologist who is also a strip-club dancer, Claire, a promiscuous bisexual who hates working at Starbucks; Michael, a cross-dressing EMT; and landlord Ely, a computer genius who became a multi-millionaire during the dot-com years and spends most of his time at home getting high.
     The story is interesting and fun to read, but Owyoung, in attempting to frame an historical era on the West Coast, often lets conversations between characters slip into forced zeitgeist-speak, with words spoken not between individuals but between competing fields of thoughts. Often the dialogue goes on for several pages without a break. It’s hard to develop characters that represent themselves rather than the spirit of the age in liberal San Francisco. Fortunately Kalani is saved from this fate via memories of her painful past, which include a weak, alcoholic father who abandoned the family, a melancholy mother who never recovered from that loss and a brother with a more exciting youth.
     She immerses herself in San Francisco, a city that flies in the face of all the boundaries she knew in Kansas. Sexually, artistically and professionally her sense of confusion deepens, but she is excited by the prospect that this must be part of the process of discovering an identity. The story climaxes at the Burning Man celebration in the remote desert of Nevada, which Kalani describes as a modern-day Woodstock. She and her friends arrive in a Winnebago, set up camp along with thousands of others and over the following week dissolve in a carnal world of drugs, and artistic and sexual expression that leaves her exhausted but fulfilled. In the novel’s final pages, Kalani returns home to say goodbye to her mother who is dying of cancer. When her mother asks if she is happy out west, Kalani says yes. She never begins writing, which was what originally prompted her to leave Kansas, but one senses that her experience at Burning Man has represented a catharsis and that she may soon begin writing, say, a book similar to Halcyon Daze.
     Today’s market-driven books typically lean toward topics surrounding terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, and the inanities of blind patriotism, which reflect our broader era of post-September 11 America. But if we’re to continue living our personal lives as well, we must continue to celebrate the vicissitudes of the individual, such as the one documented in Halcyon Daze. No, the novel isn’t perfect and Owyoung isn’t James Joyce (at least not yet). Kalani’s descriptions of her thoughts and feelings sometimes interrupt the narrative, and the book should cut some dialogue and offer readers more generous images of landscapes and places. But despite astronomical sales figures, even widely acclaimed saccharine-coated best-sellers have their issues. The earnest spirit of Owyoung’s delivery of a message about American life — go hither, have fun and chase thy dreams! — plays steadily throughout his debut, self-published novel. And for those who can find it, in stores or on-line (go to Amazon.com, it’s there), Halcyon Daze is worthwhile reading.

Joe Kovacs has written for WorldView Magazine and LiteraryTraveler.com. He is currently researching his second novel.


Review

The Impenetrable Forest
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 1993–95)
Writer’s Showcase/iUniverse
2000
264 pages
$18.95

Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 1979-81)

WHEN I RECEIVED A COPY of The Impenetrable Forest to read, I was delighted. Imagine, a Peace Corps Volunteer with an assignment that, well, basically allowed him to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall. I may be wrong in saying this, but it is my firm belief that every woman who joins the Peace Corps has a secret desire to follow in her footsteps; in any case, it was always my desire.
     I started reading, and must admit that I got a bit bogged down in Ugandan history in Chapter 2; fortunately, by the end of the chapter, Hanson came up with a great line, “it’s no wonder people stare at me in this country. I’m running around with a plastic glove full of urine.” and things were back in full swing.
     Hanson articulates the Peace Corps experience well:

  • His assignment — “I . . . sometimes wondered what determination the Peace Corps had used in my placement: ‘Well, he’s a primate . . . he’ll do.’”
  • Peace Corps/Uganda's expectation of Volunteers — “In a very real sense, you will be a grass-roots representative of the American people while living and working in Uganda.”
  • The reality of working in a developing country — “They needed far more than songs and soccer, but the best community development is subtle work. John and I accomplished two thirds of the Peace Corps mission by simply being there, sharing something of our own culture and learning something from theirs. To do more is often to presume too much, I reminded myself, like catcher’s mitts and batting helmets for a town that has no textbooks.”

     Hanson’s assignment was to habituate the endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to ecotourism. His description of his first encounter with an aggressive gorilla is priceless: “The ape careened past in a flash of bared teeth and wild eyes, less than an arm’s reach from my face . . . . The gorilla spun away, still screaming, and continued down the slope. The noise alone was heart-stopping: an indescribable roar . . .” Thus begins the story of the habituation of the Katendegyere group of mountain gorillas to tourists; the goal was to have them calm enough for visitors within a year.
     From his description of an invasion of his home by army ants in the middle of the night to the isolation of his house at the edge of the Bwindi National Park, one is struck by the rigor of Hanson’s Peace Corps assignment. In fact, he mentions early on that a Volunteer assigned previously to his site was so overwhelmed by the solitude that she returned to the United States early, leaving him the opportunity to take her place.
     I was charmed with the description of the relationship between Hanson and the trackers and the Katendegyere group after months of habituation.

Suddenly, Kacupira appeared, sprinting up the slope to place himself between us and the advancing apes. With his maimed hand, he couldn’t hope to challenge two healthy males, and immediately assumed a submissive posture, holding his hindquarters high in the air. Makale and Mutesi screamed indignantly, but Kacupira had diverted their attention long enough for us to back slowly out of the vicinity… ‘The gorillas have finally accepted me as one of their own!’ I joked in a letter home…As the gorillas became more comfortable with us, we went through our own set of subtle changes, leading inevitably to the puzzling question: who was habituating whom?

     Of course, the underlying question woven throughout the book has to do with the future of Uganda and of Africa in general. As Hanson writes, “Legendary wilderness and a rich cultural heritage draw more visitors to the Dark Continent every year, but the modern African experience is tainted by a vague sense of desperation.” As Hanson describes the impact of AIDS, of civil wars, of hunger and poverty, one is left to wonder what the future of Africa holds, not only for the endangered mountain gorilla, but for all of the human inhabitants as well.
     Hanson leaves Africa at the end of his assignment, without extending it. In making his decision, he writes,

. . . there were certainly days where I longed for anonymity.
     I had also begun reaching the limits that culture placed on my relationships with friends. While I’d formed close bonds . . . the sheer disparity between our backgrounds often prevented a deeper connection. We worked and laughed together every day, but found our conversations at an impasse where cultures diverged . . . . I’d met several volunteers and expatriates who tainted their whole experience by staying abroad too long, by letting life in the fishbowl turn cultural stress to bitterness. I wanted to leave Uganda on a positive note, when it would still be hard to go.

     Ultimately, the strength of this book lies in the wonderful descriptions of the forest and its inhabitants. In the next to last chapter, Hanson describes troops of monkeys: “The flashy russet fur of the redtails contrasted sharply with the blues, who gleamed in shades of dull silver, like woodland spirits woven from mist.” And finally —

A blue mother-of-pearl butterfly drifted above the path before me, furling and unfurling its iridescent wings like the folds of a magician’s cloak. I recognized every bend in the trail as I moved towards Buhoma: a familiar tunnel through drooping Brilliantasia shrubs; the nesting tree for bar-tailed trogons; a day-roost snag for eagle owls. I passed the waterfall trail . . . . Every branch in the path led to hills or tiny clearings where I’d camped, watched gorillas, or shared lunch with the trackers – obscure, but beautiful places with names like woodwind music . . . .”

     Hanson left Bwindi Park on a very sad note, just after the deaths of a close friend’s much beloved wife and daughter. This, of course, is the tragedy of every Peace Corps Volunteer’s service; we will leave the troubles and pains of our friends behind when we return to the United States, but our friends will live with them forever, and we can only hope that we have in some way improved or enhanced their lives, if only in the smallest measure.

Martha Martin is an Admissions Counselor for the School of Management at George Mason University. She is completing a fictional account of her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in School and Community Gardens Promotion in Costa Rica.


Review

Know It by Heart
by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)
Curbstone Press
June, 2003
256 pages
$15.95

Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire, 1973–74; Ethiopia, 1974–75)

ATTICUS FINCH WOULD LOVE this book, James Baldwin would love this book. Martin Luther King is reading it in heaven — probably quarreling with God in the same way the young speaker quarrels with God in the opening paragraph:

Don’t even talk about pestilence and poverty and disease, or the fact that God took paradise away from us just because a guy ate an apple . . . . God may have a winning message, and he’s probably terrific at keeping heaven clean and safe and heavenly, but here on earth He’s let a lot of good come to a bad end. For no reason that I can see. Either that, or justice just isn’t his strong point.

     I love the way this book opens. The speaker, a young man named Dub Teed, has a strong voice that satisfies the reader throughout the entire event-filled book. He can be funny, and he’s tender-hearted, and he proves to be a wily foe for those bent on injustice.
     Right away we know Dub’s family situation is difficult. His mother asks her children to call her “Doreen.” She’s an alcoholic who thinks “nigros” shouldn’t move into the white neighborhood of East Hartford — and a few days after the Dubois family moves in, something awful happens. “There on the lawn, casting the slightest of shadows in the oncoming dawn, was a charred wooden cross made of two, two by fours,” soon to be followed by swastikas and bullets through their door. It’s 1961, and America is spinning unwillingly into the civil rights era.
     Dub’s father, a noble but sometimes naïve character, is a writer determined to let the neighborhood know about the terrorizing of the town’s first black family. It takes the Dubois’s elderly grandmother to remind him of her own experience of history. “As God is my witness, we just have to be stronger than they are.”
     The Teed children, Susan and Dub, have been born into good humor and a passion for justice despite their mother’s rejection of Negroes. When the young daughter of the Dubois family, Ricky, takes a walk over to the Teed’s, it’s fast love between her and Dub. Unfortunately, love has to be on the back burner when the crank calls and name-calling and swastikas begin — something the Dubois family hadn’t expected in the North. Doreen refuses to allow her children to visit the Dubois home. And a neighbor, Mrs. Churman, “[sends] back furniture that had been handled by Negroes,” as if they brought the plague with them. Soon Dub realizes that he has everything to learn about a Negro’s life.
     His dad (Pop to his children) is a great teacher. What Pop decides is that “We can show them some compassion and support . . . . Not just because they’re Negroes, but because they’re people in trouble.” And this is the beginning of a story full of humor, bravery, kindness, as well as terror. It’s a story these young people will never forget. So much is new for them.
     Ricky suffers all, though she has a steadfast bravery throughout the book. “She is bright as a headlight,” Dub thinks, even though some people look right through her — “being black made her invisible.” Ricky and her family sense that her friends’ naiveté is part of the problem: As Dub said, “It didn’t seem that there was any reason yet to run. After all, it was only one cross-burning, and maybe the guy who did it had since had a heart attack, or maybe choked on a piece of meat, or something.”
     The young people in this novel, both black and white, begin to talk about what it means to be a Negro. The Ku Klux Klan comes into their vocabulary. And Dub imagines himself not only in love with Ricky, but coming to her rescue. Gangs of white guys add to the name-calling — “jigaboo” and “spook.” Gangs so dangerous that someone could easily be killed. And there are adults like Doreen and Officer Bigger who are the worst possible models for these teenagers.
     The writer wisely interrupts some of the concentration on the sufferings of the Dubois family, and gives readers trips to the circus, the wisdom of a Korean shopkeeper, and Susan’s tree and Dub’s rock where they go to try to understand what’s happening around them. The circus is a big distraction, welcome in the midst of so much trouble. Yet even in that setting, injustice can be found.
     One of the most frustrating experiences for Susan, Ricky, Dub, and their friends, is that they are not always believed or understood by the adults, whether parents or police officers. Often it seems they can’t depend on the help of grownups and have to find their own way to rescue the endangered.
     Dub and Ricky and Susan prove to be willing fighters who’ll do what they can to save their friends. A great strength of the book is its confidence that teenagers will act on behalf of others, selflessly.
     Through Know It By Heart’s energetic language, and great characterizations, we learn to love these teenagers. The adults find out how to act from the young people: “I don’t like the way Officer Farley called Ricky ‘that Negro girl,’” says Pop.
     Know It By Heart is a great book to read for yourself, but even more exciting to teach to a class of young people. In some ways, it’s still 1961 in America. Who is in trouble? Who needs help? Perhaps against his will Karl Luntta shows us that God isn’t such a bad guy as Dub thought. After all, as the teenagers in this book understand, He can depend on them to know what to do by heart.

Margaret Szumowski is an Associate Professor of English at Springfield Technical Community College. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Willow Springs, American Poetry Review, Poetry East, The Agni Review, River Styx, as well as in a chapbook, Ruby's Cafe. Her first book-length collection of poetry, I Want This World, was published by Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press. She is the winner of the 2002 Peace Corps Writers prize for poetry.


Review

Mortals
by Norman Rush
(Botswana Country Director 1978–83)
Knopf
May 2003
712 pages
$26.95

Reviewed by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69)

AWHILE BACK THE WRITER Robert Stone told me, concerning his ambition as a novelist, “I’m fond of the long ball.” It was before the publication of Damascus Gate, a millennium book that he hoped would soar into the collective political and literary consciousness of America, meteorically.
     Well, I haven’t asked him, but I’d venture to say that Norman Rush might utter the same sentiment in connection with his new and immensely moving novel, Mortals. The long ball. The home run. The book that talks about it all.
     Mortals is set in Botswana, and has as its protagonist (and antagonist, at times) Ray Finch, a CIA operative who is also employed (in order to provide cover) in a local school. Ray is married to Iris, whom he loves thoroughly but with increasing desperation. Iris doesn’t like the CIA, you see, and pressures him, gently but persistently, to get out of it, to get back to his center, to be what he could have been and still might be. Iris and Ray are literate and literary, and they talk that way most of the time, though they also reassure each other of their mutual love and sexual attraction. Ray had hoped to be a poet at a certain moment in his earlier life, and acts very much like a scholar, especially one of Milton, who hangs around the edges of his consciousness like a pendant (the CIA is the albatross) around his neck. Both he and Iris provide us with that same unyielding erudition that we found in Mating, Rush’s prize winning novel of a decade ago.
     Back in the USA, Iris has a dysfunctional sister, and Ray has a gay brother, Rex, from whom he is estranged. Though Iris has never actually met Rex, she has a letter-writing relationship with him. Ray is incensed by his wife’s connection to his brother, and tries, on and off, to point out to her Rex’s mean-spirit and generally irritating mannerisms. “Let me be concrete,” he says at one point. “Here’s what his favorite reply to something you asked him to do was — Nokay. That gives you a hint. Nokay, and he would look at you I guess in order to see whether you thought he’s said yes or no. I guess that was a moment he enjoyed.”
     I’m with Ray on this one. That is, Rush succeeded in turning Rex into someone I didn’t like, either, so when Iris kept pestering Ray to get back in touch with him, I grew somewhat impatient. When Iris’s pregnant sister needs her for a time in America, though, and she disappears from the narrative in order to take that trip, her correspondence with Rex greatly increases, and when she returns to Botswana she brings some 4,000 pages of Rex’s literary machinations. Rex, who is dying of AIDS, wants Ray to read his opus, and, because Iris insists that he owes this to his brother, Ray grudgingly agrees. This manuscript floats through the rest of the book like either a buoy or an anchor, depending on whether or not the manuscript is something you look forward to reading. Ray calls it “A machine to destroy my spare time,” and to my mind, at least, it is.
     In the meantime, however, a lot is going on in Botswana. Two men have arrived in the country, Davis Morel, a black American doctor with a distinctly anti-religious agenda, to whom Iris admits a sexual and intellectual attraction, and Kerekang, a returning citizen whose ambitions toward the good usage of Botswana’s basically unemployed workforce, draws the attention of the CIA. Ray’s CIA boss, a fat and arrogant fellow named Boyle, in fact, wants Ray to tape and trail Kerekang, while Ray’s own interests lean toward the American doctor and Iris’s paramour, Davis Morel.
     For me the story works well enough when Rush’s characters are hanging around Gabarone, moving through embassy parties and lectures and taking walks, and also when Ray and Iris are home having their erudite and sometimes rather distant conversations about marriage, reading, family, God, and life. But the story really takes off when Ray acquiesces to his CIA boss and goes to the north part of the country, ostensibly to look for sites for a new school, but really to see what Kerekang, the dissident, is up to. He and his driver, Keletso, spend time in the bush fighting the roads and intrusions of nature, and being quiet with each other. And that gives Ray (and Rush) a chance to talk to the reader:
     “He realized that he had two central priorities in his activities here. One was to see that Keletso came to no harm. He had to get him out of this. And the other was to see that Strange News (his brother’s manuscript) survived and got back into safe hands . . . . To his shame he was relieved at how minor the sensibility gesturing in Strange News was. It was minor, but it was not nothing, and it was Rex and it was true that certain bits and pieces of Rex’s collation were sticking like burrs in his consciousness . . . . ”
     Well, I’m with him on one of his priorities, getting Keletso safely back, but not the other one. For a while, in fact, I didn’t think his brother’s manuscript belonged in Mortals at all, because I didn’t much like the excerpts from it that we got. They seemed trying and amateurish. But when I discovered the superbly inventive use the manuscript was to be put to in the novel’s latter parts, I was glad it was there.
     After a time when the novel turns to semi-soliloquy — in the bush with Keletso — Ray sends his driver back to Gabarone, and goes on alone, driving the rough roads, until one day he sees a stranger flagging him down. He knows it’s trouble, and it is. He’s soon captured by a group of South African bad guys, lead by a big-chinned Boar. I had a little trouble understanding the specific reasons for the South African’s interest in Ray, until they spotted Rex’s esoteric manuscript in his car and believed it was some kind of coded manual of the CIA. And from then on we were treated to a harrowing interrogation of Ray, who is belligerent and heroic and conniving in turns, and more likeable as a protagonist than he ever was in Gabarone.
     Meanwhile, back in the capital, Iris is going crazy with worry over what has happened to Ray. And who should she send to seek him out, but Davis Morel, her lover. To tell more would be to give the story away, but suffice it to say that Morel is captured by the South Africans, too, and the two men have long and extremely moving and troubling conversations during their imprisonment together. This was my favorite part of the book, bar none. It was its literary and emotional center. At a point where both men needed to find courage within themselves, Morel says to Ray: “All right, I was thinking of someone. I was imagining someone, drawing strength from . . . from the image. It’s something you can do, one can.”
     The image from which he draws strength, of course, is that of Iris, Ray’s wife.
     These sections of the book when the two men are alone together are as moving and as honest as anything I’ve read recently in contemporary fiction, and the up-country story’s denouement contains that tricky use of Rex’s manuscript that I so much enjoyed, but that I’m not going to give away in this review.
     When they go back to Gabarone, what happens? The question of who Iris will choose seems made by the fact that she has taken a lover in the first place. But the way Rush resolves everything is both surprising and in tune with the novel’s underlying intelligence, it’s constant nod toward that which is most out of fashion in American letters these days; the knowledgeable, the intellectual.
     For a novel of such girth, Mortals doesn’t really have very many pivotal or operative characters. Those I’ve mentioned so far, as a matter of fact, hold center stage alone for most of the book. Rather than peopling his work with a plethora of extras, however, a cast of thousands, what’s seems of interest to Rush is to use the characters he does have, in order to delve into religion and literature and the problems created by the west’s nearly uniformly horrendous policies toward the third world. Mortals is a superbly political book, one that weaves within the fabric of its story lessons on what literary art is, how lamely and persistently banal the American (and other) government has been in its dealing with Africa, and how brave and studied attempts to make things better, by the real heroes of the world — guys like Kerekang — can be so easily trampled.
     Reviewers are going to comment on the length of Mortals ad nauseum, I suspect, so I will only say that for me the length of this book (712 pages) fits like a new suit does a fat guy who has just lost a bunch of weight. That is to say, on occasion I felt that some of the heft of Mortals had actually been trimmed back to avoid such criticisms, and heft isn’t always a bad thing. As it is the book reads smoothly. Both its story and its ideas are in the hands of a master.
     Did Norman Rush follow Robert Stone’s prescript and hit a long ball, a home run? Well, let’s just call it a near miss, a solid triple that hits the top of the fence and clears all the bases.

Richard Wiley is the author of five novels, among them the PEN/Faulkner Award winning Soldiers In Hiding, and Ahmed’s Revenge, which won the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Award for fiction.


Letter from Niger

Dear Family,
Today, coming back from a morning of measuring plots around Fandou-Berri, as we approached the village I was struck by a familiar sight. I was looking from a vista at the paths that crisscross this way and that in the valley below the village. The paths lead from all different parts of the village to the wells, to the market-place, to other villages, to the fields, to anywhere a villager could possibly want to go. I couldn’t nail down the déjà vu until I realized that the paths are much like those in Harvard Yard. I remember being told that when Le Corbusier came to build the Carpenter Center, he spent too much of his time marveling at the paths in the Yard. In the Yard, one can step out of any building and walk in a straight line to almost any other place one wants to go. This was accomplished by simply paving over where people most commonly walked. Le Corbusier saw great beauty in the paths. I find the paths of Fandou-Berri very beautiful and very familiar. If any of you visit I think you’ll see what I mean.

Tom

Tom Kelly (Niger 1986-88)

NOTE: The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University was designed by world-renowned architect Le Corbusier. The Carpenter Center contains studios for painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, conceptual practice, as well as other arts.


A Volunteer's life in Romania

by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

Romania Themepark Mania

Pennsylvania has Hersheypark in the namesake chocolate city. Southern California has Knott’s Berry Farm where fruit was harvested before freeways existed. Houston, home of the space program, boasts famous roller coasters at AstroWorld. And Disney, after years of success in California and Florida, built theme parks in France and Japan.
     So how about “Dracula Park” in Romania?
     This is no joke, but first, a short history lesson about the legendary, blood-sucking vampire. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, was set in the real Transylvania, a beautiful and mountainous region in central Romania, but the Irish author never bothered to visit. And the “real” Dracula on whom the character is based was Vlad Tepes, cousin of Stephen the Great and a 15th-century prince of Wallachia, part of present-day Romania. Vlad’s father was Vlad Dracul (Dracul means “the devil” in Romanian). Like his dad, he was a tough guy indeed, known as “Vlad the Impaler” — but no vampire. He remains a national hero to Romanians for fighting off — and impaling on stakes — thousands of Turks during the Ottoman Empire’s northward expansion. Wallachia united with another Romanian-speaking territory, Moldovia, in 1859 and the state was named Romania in 1862. Austro-Hungary occupied Transylvania until 1918, when it too joined Romania.
     Tepes was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, a jewel of town that is now a tourist draw for the Transylvania region of Romania. Sighisoara, settled by Saxons in the 12th century, is one of only a handful of United Nations-designated World Heritage Sites in Romania. It is a gorgeous example of medieval architecture, has a preserved old town, and is surrounded by the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
    I had the pleasure of visiting it last fall, as well as Bram Castle — a couple hours to the east — popularly known as the “Dracula Castle,” though it really has nothing to do with Dracula or even Vlad Tepes. The castle was built to protect the area from invading Turks and legend has it that Vlad Tepes may have spent a couple nights there.
     Sighisoara, though its cobblestone core is relatively unspoiled, already is seeing early stages of touristy kitsch, including a Dracula restaurant in the house were Tepes was born (a Bela Lugosi-looking cut-out greets you outside), a similarly themed bar nearby and stores selling bottles of blood-red Vampire wine, which is available throughout the country.
     Until earlier this year, land just outside Sighisoara was the proposed site of Dracula Park, an ambitious dream pursued by Romania’s Tourism department and its gung-ho chief, who seems to be in the news all the time, from peddling Dracula to importing expensive palm trees on the Black Sea beaches in time for the summer rush. I say Sighisoara “was” destined for Dracula Park because after a swirling storm of criticism, including protests from international environmentalists, historians and preservationists, including Britain’s Prince Charles, who visited the area and denounced the project, the plan was scrapped and moved 175 miles away to Snagov, a small town near the capital, Bucharest, and its international airport. Snagov is a country-lake-and-picnic place, a weekend retreat for Bucharest residents, and it’s supposedly where Vlad Tepes is buried, underneath a church.
     The Tourism department’s promotion of this myth reminds me of when I was a reporter in Kansas in the early 1990s and developers wanted to build a “Wizard of Oz” theme park. Kansans get tired of the Dorothy and Toto jokes, and it made sense to try to turn the story into something profitable for the state, which has little else to draw tourists. Here in Romania, a poor country with high unemployment, tourism is increasing slowly but has a long way to go. The country has much to offer but suffers from major infrastructure problems and a downtrodden image. The government’s rationale is, hey, Dracula is known throughout the world and associated with Transylvania, so let’s get a piece of the profits. Although purists were delighted with the project’s relocation, Sighisoara locals were hugely disappointed, as thousands of the area’s unemployed were salivating over jobs at the park or the ripple effect of tourism spending.
     After the Sighisoara debacle, the government hired PricewaterhouseCoopers in London to conduct a feasibility study. The firm concluded that Romania could indeed benefit from the theme park, but needs more than $30 million to build it. Romanian media, which have followed this step-by-step, report that Coca-Cola and a major beer company already have sponsorship deals. The park’s size is undetermined but estimated at about 40 to 100 hectares, or about 100 to 250 acres, and plans call for a castle, lake, rides and lots of spooky Dracula stuff. Construction is slated to begin later this year with the first phase open in 2004. The government continues to solicit investors and dream of Dracula dollars.
     I’ve heard about expensive, packaged “Dracula” tours from the United States and other parts of Europe, luring Vampire junkies and other gullible tourists who don’t know — or don’t care about — the real story of Transylvania. Thousands flock to Sighisoara and Bram Castle every year, despite a bogus Dracula connection. Now, Dracula Park could complete the picture.
     Having visited Sighisoara, I’m glad the proposed park was moved. I have not been to Snagov but the more-accessible location near Bucharest probably will draw more visitors and is less controversial. No matter how cheesy, Dracula Park is an opportunity. Let’s face it, Romania needs the money, people need jobs.
     Carpe diem, Romania!

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 at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. Next month, Andy has his mid-service conference. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July next year.


A Writer Writes

Burkina-Faso — Always on My Mind

by Glen Davis (Burkina-Faso 1995–97)

WHEN ROBERT FROST WROTE about “the road less traveled,” I am convinced he was thinking of the dirt path leading to Basma, a tiny village in the West African country of Burkina-Faso, where the sight of a motorized vehicle is the talk of the town. From 1995 to 1998, I served in Basma as a community health development worker with the United States Peace Corps — a road in my life that has, indeed, made all the difference.
      Why did I insist on deferring medical school to live in the obscure country of Burkina-Faso? Hot, flat, and famously poor, a capital city named Ouagadougou seemed an unworthy destination in the eyes of my family and friends. But I seized the opportunity to learn about medicine on a human level beneath technology and bureaucracy before forging ahead with formal medical education. After three months of intensive Peace Corps training in local language and community health, I was delivered to my post in the village of Basma, a remote village of 1500 inhabitants located 100 km north of Ouagadougou.
     My home in Basma was a round, mud-brick hut on the grounds of the primary care clinic, nestled between hospital rooms and the maternity ward. Supervised by three Burkinabé nurses, I assisted each day with clinical procedures and traveled to neighboring villages to conduct childhood vaccinations. Collaborating with village leaders, my primary role was to plan and implement health education programs focusing on the following themes: Prevention of malnutrition and dehydration; Educating families about the vaccination schedule for communicable diseases; Control and prevention of Guinea Worm disease; and Construction of latrines in family compounds to improve the health and hygiene of the village. My experience in Burkina-Faso profoundly impacted my professional development, introducing me to the pathology of infectious diseases, clinical aspects of maternal and child health, public health policy in a real-world setting, and primary health care at the grassroots level.
     But to describe my three years in Basma purely in medical terms would give an incomplete impression of my life there, for I lived my most memorable moments outside the clinic. Far removed from the world of the “urgent fax,” I renewed my appreciation for correspondence in the old-fashioned way. I learned to conserve AA batteries by manually rewinding cassette tapes with a ballpoint pen. As an apprentice to the village mid-wife, I was taught the importance of chasing chickens, goats, and pigs out of the room while women are giving birth. I lived and worked with people who have never heard of the United States of America and who have never considered the possibility that the earth isn’t flat. Sipping millet beer with village friends under African skies, I was asked questions like, “Can you see the moon in your country?” I made bricks from the earth and built my own house with them, and I peacefully cohabitated with bats, scorpions, and porcupines. Above all, I encountered a genuine goodness and integrity in people whom I will never forget. Warm and lively, with an enviable sense of humor and a dignified sense of who they are, the people of Burkina-Faso sustain a moral wealth that makes economic poverty seem insignificant.
     When I first received my invitation to live and work in Africa, I was intimidated by melodramatic, overstated speculations of friends and family who said that the experience would “change my life,” that I would be “a different person when I returned home.” Fortunately I can report that I am very much the same person whom I was before I left. But undeniably, something in me is different.
     My exposure to patients and procedures in Burkina-Faso broadened my perspective of medicine on a global level. Now a medical student, in my study of immunology and pathology I remember patients in Basma who died from malaria and meningitis, and I have insight into psychosocial factors that can influence pathology of those diseases. Health care policy debates surround the hospitals where I conduct my clinical rotations, and my opinions on universal health care are informed by personal recollections of the socialized medical system of the developing world. In my formal acquisition of physical diagnosis and medical interviewing, I am grounded by practical skills that were part of my daily routine in the village clinic suturing wounds, measuring vital signs, administering vaccinations, conducting prenatal consultations. My work in Basma certainly provided me with a solid foundation from which to develop my career as a physician.
     But it is the interpersonal, “non-medical” aspects of my experience in Burkina-Faso that I find most valuable in my professional journey to become a physician. Confined by cultural and linguistic barriers, I adapted to life in Basma and found common ground with people whose world is radically different from my own. Once a total stranger, with time I became a trusted friend to families in the village of Basma. As a medical student, I often find myself revisiting that feeling as I learn to provide comfort and support to patients who face the foreign experience of illness and disease. As I integrate my experience in Africa with my study and practice of medicine, I carry these memories and lessons with me into the classrooms and clinics that will fill my life for years to come.

Glen Davis graduated from Hamilton College in New York as a comparative literature major. After college he worked as a clinical research assistant in the Department of Psychiatry at St. Vincent's Hospital & Medical Center in New York City, and later in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In Burkina-Faso he worked as a health education volunteer and stayed on during 1998 as a Regional Peace Corp Volunteer Leader in the town of Kaya. Glen returned to Burkina Faso during the summer of 2000 to work for three months in the Department of Psychiatry at the Hospital National Yalgado Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou. He is currently a 4th year medical student at Cornell University Medical College in New York City and plans to pursue residency training in psychiatry.


To Preserve and to Learn — occasional essays about the history of the Peace Corps

Early ’60s Analysis of Youth Service


by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I

N EARLY 1960, Maurice (Maury) L. Albertson, director of the Colorado State University Research Foundation, received a Point-4 (precursor to USAID) contract to prepare a Congressional Feasibility Study of the Point-4 Youth Corps called for in the Reuss-Neuberger Bill, an amendment to the Mutual Security Act. The Youth Corps was “to be made up of young Americans willing to serve their country in public and private technical assistance missions in far-off countries, and at a soldier’s pay.”
     Then in late 1961, Public Affairs Press in Washington, D.C. published, New Frontiers for American Youth: Perspective on the Peace Corps written by Maury Albertson, and co-authored with Andrew E. Rice and Pauline E. Birky. The book was based on their Point-4 study.      According to the authors, “The roots of the Peace Corps idea . . . stretch wide and deep, . . . .” They were referring to a number of volunteer programs that were early instances of dedicated service abroad: the “Thomasites” who taught English in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, the young men who worked along the Labrador Coast with Sir Wilfred Grenfell, and the volunteers who served with the American Friends Service Committee in relief work after World War I .
     There were other examples as well. During the depression years, civilian service in the United States came with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Simultaneously the development of voluntary “work camps” in the United States brought to this country a form of service which had originated with Pierre Ceresole in Europe in the 1920s as the International Voluntary Service (Service Civil Internationale.) Also, in World War II we had the experience of Civilian Public Service Camps for conscientious objectors.
     After the war numerous people volunteered for constructive work overseas. By 1960 the Unesco Coordination Committee listed at least 133 work camp opportunities in 32 countries sponsored by 80 different organizations.
     One such program is the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organized privately in Britain in 1958 when it began to send volunteers to British territories and Commonwealth countries. Australia and Germany also had small service programs.
     With this as background, the authors in New Frontiers for American Youth: Perspective on the Peace Corps detail the first steps taken in the U.S. Congress that later became the Peace Corps that we know today, four decades later. This excerpt is taken from “The Background,” a chapter in their book.
Only in 1959, however, did the proposal [national program of service abroad] first receive serious attention in Washington when Congressman Henry. S. Reuss of Wisconsin advanced the ideas of a “Point Four Youth Corps.” In 1960, he and the late Senator Richard L. Neuberger of Oregon introduced identical measures calling for a non-governmental study of the “advisability and practicability” of such a venture. Both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the idea of a study, the latter writing the Reuss proposal into the Mutual Security legislation then pending before it. In this form it became law in June 1960. In August the Mutual Security Appropriations Act was enacted, making available $10,000 for the study, and in November ICA contracted with the Colorado State University Research Foundation to make the study.
     Meanwhile, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey had introduced at the same session a bill actually to establish a Peace Corps. The Humphrey measure received no formal consideration but attracted wide attention from interested groups. It proposed a separate government agency, a three-year enlistment (one for training and two of actual work) and an initial size of 500 growing to 5,000 by the fourth year.
     During the fall of 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy endorsed the Peace Corps idea in campaign speeches, notably in an address at San Francisco on November 2. His proposal received warm public response and, coupled with the Colorado State University study then getting under way, led to a number of public and private statements endorsing the idea. Among the most comprehensive of these was a report prepared, at the request of the President-elect, by Professor Max M. Millikan, Director of the Center for International Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; a privately-circulated study by Professor Samuel P. Hayes of the University of Michigan; and a report by the Committee on Educational Interchange Policy sponsored by the Institute of International education. About the same time President Eisenhower’s Committee on Information Activities Abroad, headed by Mansfield D. Sprague, recommended a program of long-term aid to foreign educational development including service by young Americans in teaching and community development work overseas.
On February 27, 1961, the Colorado State University Research Foundation issued a preliminary report entitled A Youth Corps For Service Abroad, which gave strong affirmation to the advisability and practicability of a Peace Corps.
     A month earlier, in his first State of the Union message, President Kennedy reiterated his belief in a Peace Corps: “An even more valuable national asset is our reservoir of dedicated men and women — not only on our college campuses but in every age group — who have indicated their desire to contribute their skills, their efforts, and a part of their lives to the fight for world order. We can mobilize this talent through the formation of a National Peace Corps, enlisting the services of all those with the desire and capacity to help foreign lands meet their urgent needs for trained personnel.”
     To carry forward this commitment, President Kennedy asked Harris Wofford, Jr. a Special Assistant to the Chief Executive, and R. Sargent Shriver, Jr. (now Director of the Peace Corps) to undertake a survey of the feasibility of an early start for Peace Corps operations. This survey, conducted by a small temporary staff drawn from both inside and outside the government, led to a favorable report to the President by Mr. Shriver and to an Executive order creating the Peace Corps as a temporary agency in the Department of State. Supplementing his Executive Order of March 1, President Kennedy sent a message to Congress, requesting the enactment of permanent legislation.
     On September 22, 1961, Congress established the Peace Corps as a permanent, semi-autonomous agency within the State Department. For operations during fiscal year 1962, Congress approved an appropriate of $30 million and authorized a ceiling of $40 million.
     As of early October, 1961, approximately 400 Peace Corpsmen were already in the field and several hundred more were in training. Of those in the fields, 60 were in Colombia, 40 in Chile, 50 in Ghana, 38 in Nigeria, 33 in Tanganyika, 16 in the West Indies, 128 in the Philippines, and 30 in Pakistan. About 2,700 volunteers are expected to be in the Corps by June, 1962.
     The rapid development of the Peace Corps from a little known idea scarcely a year ago to a vigorous operational program today is the most dramatic testimonial to the unusual appeal of the underlying concept. The favorable reaction of Congress and the enthusiastic backing of the President, in fact, accurately reflect an unusually high measure of public support. As early as January the Gallup Poll reported that 71% of the American people favored the idea and that only 18% opposed it.
     But the very speed by which the idea has been translated into reality has raised with special urgency persistent questions relating to objectives and methods. It was to answer precisely these questions that the intensive and extensive investigations were undertaken by the Colorado State University Research Foundation and that this study was prepared.