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Peace Corps Writers
November, 2003

    Peace Corps Writers at the Miami International Book Fair — a report
    Helene Dudley (Colombia 1968–70, Albania 1997, Slovakia 1997–99) reports that through the efforts of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida Inc. (RPCVSF), ten Peace Corps authors participated in the Nov 7–9th Miami International Book Fair, the largest book fair in the nation:

    Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80)
    Pat Edmiston (Peru 1962–64)
    Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73)
    John Kennedy (Ghana 1965–68)
    Dawn Khalil (Botswana 1990–92)
    Mary Kilgour (Philippines 1962–64),
    Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
    Andrew Oerke (PC Staff 1966–71)
    Robert Roberg (Peru 1966–68)
    Carolyn Welsh (Honduras 1962–64)

         The RPCVSF Book Fair booth typically focuses on recruitment, and the presence of the authors this year enhanced that effort. Letters from Afghanistan by Eloise Hanner and Letters from Botswana by Dawn Khalil, provided potential recruits with two first-person accounts of the Peace Corps experience.
         The Book Fair booth also raised funds to support several projects including the work of 2003 Shriver Award Winner, Sue Patterson and the RPCVSF Book Project, a program initiated in 1986, which continues to send books to assist Peace Corps Volunteers in stocking English language libraries in countries from Haiti to Kenya to Romania.
         Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993–96) of RPCVSF is already working with the Fair organizers to expand the writers’ participation by including a panel of Peace Corps authors in the 2004 Book Fair.

    How to write a Peace Corps book
    Peace Corps Writers is contemplating starting an “on-line” course on how to write a Peace Corps book. This course would run from 8–10 weeks and cost up to $400. The classroom fee would pay for the writing instructor, books and materials sent to the students, web design costs, and special “guest writers” who would visit on-line.
         The course would be structured with assignments (focused on the individual’s book), regular feedback through emails and a chat room. The course would function, more or less, like any writing course at the college and workshop level.
         The course would be conducted in this way. Lecture material (from the instructor) would be posted on a weekly basis. The class would have the entire week to view the lecture and post their assignments. Each student would also have a private online “notebook” in which to correspond privately with the writing instructor. We could also have a common area in which students could critique one another’s work and share ideas. A weekly live chat room is also planned for a general discussion about works-in-progress, the publishing world, literary agents, and how to submit a manuscript for publication.
         Our desire is to provide a writing course to RPCV writers, who can not get together in a classroom because of geographical, physical, and scheduling restrictions, a chance to share and learn from each other. The course would only be for RPCVs (and PCVs) seriously interested in writing a creative non-fiction book about their Peace Corps experience. Class size would be limited to 8–10 writers.
         Marian Haley Beil and myself would offer this course in early 2004 if there is sufficient interest from the Peace Corps writing community. If you are interested, please email me at jpcoyne@cnr.edu.

    “Site of the Month” — us!
    Foreign Service Journal has selected PeaceCorpsWriters.org as their November “site of the month.” We thank the magazine for recognizing our website and encouraging all RPCVs in the Foreign Service — writers as well as readers — to check out our bimonthly e-zine wherever they are in the world.
         We also invite all RPCVs writers — wherever you are — to think of us when you have an essay, story, or poetry you'd like to have considered for publication.

    A reading recommendation
    While I’m not often in the business of praising books by non-RPCVs (we have too many good books ourselves), I would like to draw attention to a book by a good friend of Peace Corps Writers, Sara Nelson, So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading [G.P. Putnam’s Sons]. Sara is a senior contributing editor of Glamour and the publishing columnist for The New York Observer. A former editor at Self, Inside.com and Book Publishing Report, she has written for The New York Times as well as The Wall Street Journal, and she had been a champion of many writers who served in the Peace Corps.
         Her book is the chronicle of reading a book a week for a year, and how that reading intermingles with her family, her life, and the “real” world. It’s a delightful book for all of us who care about books. Buy a copy.

    Where to study writing next summer
    For anyone thinking of taking a writing course next summer, we highly recommend Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program in Creative Writing and Photography. The dates are July 3–30, 2004. In addition to classes in fiction, poetry, script writing, creative non-fiction, and photography, there is the opportunity to take a course in one of the following: Central European Studies, Jewish Studies, forms of Genres, Czech Literature, Literary Publishing, and American Literature from a European Perspective. All classes will be held at the Charles University Faculty of Arts on Jana Palacha Square. For more information, contact: Prague@wmich.edu.

    In this issue
    “Travel Right” recommends

    Adding a new wrinkle to our “Travel Right” feature, we will be publishing recommendations made by you of places that are back of the beyond, quaint, peacecorpsish, and unknown and unvisited by most tourists. Based on your accumulated travel knowledge from your Peace Corps years as well as all the traveling you have done since coming home, we hope to let our readers know about that small town, cozy hotel or evocative sight that you found and love. In this issue, John Woods (Ethiopia 1965–68) starts us off in wonderful style. Please email us with your recommendations. (Next year at this time we will award a prize for the best “Travel Right” recommendation.)

    Also —
    Tom Bissell early-terminated from Uzbekistan after several months as a PCV. Haunted by his “failure,” Tom decided in 2001 to return Uzbekistan — this time to investigate the devastated Aral Sea where rivers were diverted and drained to fertilize the Central Asian desert in order to grow cotton. His article appeared in Harper’s, and from that he continued writing and produced Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, published in September by Pantheon. We talked to Tom recently about his brief Peace Corps tour, his book, and his writing career.
         “Our Letter from . . .” comes from Melissa Chestnut-Tangerman (Kenya 1982–85). Melissa was a rural women’s extension Volunteer and read this letter at the Journals of Peace readings in 1987. It is a powerful letter and publisher Marian Haley Beil suggested that we reprint it for those of you who have not had a chance to read the Journals of Peace readings that we are publishing on line.
         In addition, we have seven book reviews, twelve new books by RPCVs, more Journals of Peace essays, and our “Writer Writes” column comes from Peg Clement (Tunisia 1975–77) who wrote how “Peace Corps Was” in anticipation of her group’s first reunion last August.
         Read on.

    — John Coyne
    Editor


Recent Books by Peace Corps Writers — November 2003

The Best American Travel Writing 2003
edited by Ian Frazier,
Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97), and Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87) contributors
Mariner Books
October 2003
358 pages
$13.00

Speak, Commentary
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97) and Jeff Alexander
McSweeneys
October 2003
136 pages
$12.00 or maybe $15.00

Volunteer Tales
Experiences of Working Abroad
Edited by Savita Bailur & Helen Rana
RPCV Contributors:
     Valerie Broadwell (Morocco 1981–83)
     Kenneth Carano (Suriname 1998–00)
     George Chinnery (Romania 1998–2000)
     Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992–96)
     Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 1978–80)
     Kathleen M. Moore (Ethiopia 1965–67)
     Gina Perfetto (Ethiopia 1997–99)
     Susan Rosenfeld (Senegal 1977–81)
Cambridge, England: The Lutterworth Press, www.lutterworth.com
192 pages
September, 2003
15 pounds ($25.47)

The Curse of Chief Tenaya
by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80)
Southern Trails Publishing
226 pages
November, 2003
$24.95 (limited edition hardcover)
To purchase call Bookmasters at (800) 247-6553

Black Papyrus
A Year in the Life of an African Village
(short stories)
by Bret Galloway (Botswana 1989–91)
Unlimited Publishing, $13.99
220 pages
July 2003
$13.99

Letters from Botswana
A Peace Corps Odyssey
by Dawn Khalil (Botswana 1990–92)
The Writers Collective
October, 234 pages
2003
$14.95

Human Accomplishment
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
by Charles Murray (Thailand 1965–67)
HarperCollins,
668 pages
October 2003
$29.95

Don't Mean Nothing
Short Stories of Vietnam

by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)
Ballentine Books
2001
252 pages
$22.00

A Sense of Wonder
Reading and Writing through Literature

by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80)
Longman/Pearson ESL
218 pages
2002
$31.93

Restructuring Sovereign Debt:
The Case for Ad Hoc Machinery
by Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67)
Brookings Institution Press
338 pages
September, 2003
$35.95

Women Who Eat
A New Generation on the Glory of Food
edited by Leslie Miller; Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87), contributor
Seal Press
November 2003
296 pages
$15.95

Culture and Customs of Kenya
by Neal Sobania (Ethiopia 1968–72)
Greenwood Publishing Group
July, 2003
256 pages
$45.00


Literary Type

    George Packer (Togo 1982-83) has published two long “Letters From” in the New Yorker within the last month. In the November 24th issue is a long and insightful piece entitled, “War After the War” which is based on a month’s stay in Baghdad.
         Packer’s “Letter from Ivory Coast” was published in the November 3rd issue. That essay draws on his Peace Corps experience in Togo and a visit to the Ivory Coast. “Gangsta War” is about the young fighters in Abidjan who take the lead from American pop culture.
         Packer is the editor of an upcoming book of essays, The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World which will be published in August of 2004.

    Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67) reports in that her book Love Her Madly is on the short list nominated for the best fiction award by the Connecticut Center for the Book. According to Mary-Ann, “90% of all writers live in Connecticut so I am in there with the likes of Philip Roth.” The award ceremony is in November and Mary-Ann is certainly she will not win. Her Poppy Rice books, which are now being marketed as “thrillers,” has recently been sold to Kensington Books and Love Her Madly will come out in paperback next May.

    Stanley Meisler (PW/Staff 1962–65) an early evaluator for the agency who became the foreign correspondent in Africa for the Los Angeles Times, and then covered the U.N. and the State Department for the Los Angeles Times during the 1990s reviewed Madeleine Albright’s memoir of her Clinton years in the Sunday, September 28th issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Meisler has a mixed view of Albright’s career as U.N. Ambassador and Secretary of State. His view of her memoir is just as mixed. As he writes in his review, “On the whole — though there are exasperating omissions and distortions, though she is sometimes disingenuous and always self-serving — it is a persuasive defense.”

    David Taylor’s (Mauritania 1983–85) new book Hunting Sang: Ginseng’s Odyssey traces, in mock-epic fashion, a plant’s journey from America to China. Over the centuries, ginseng has caused the rise of empires, made and broken countless fortunes, promised health to kings, and led others to prison and death. In a single season, Taylor tracks American ginseng from the forests of Appalachia, across landscapes of ambition and nostalgia, to the Midwest and on to China. Along the way he finds people who reveal ginseng’s role in Native American history, international crime, high cuisine, complementary medicine, rural development, the fur trade, continental drift theory, human trafficking, and ecological recovery. Taylor has made award-winning documentaries for The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and National Geographic. His short stories have appeared in various literary reviews and received a Literary Arts Film Award from Web Del Sol. Algonquin Press will publish Hunting Sang in 2004.

    The Peace Corps Public Affairs Specialist, Bartel (Bart) Kendrick (PC/NY 2002–  ) is looking for RPCV writers who are teaching in community colleges, colleges, and universities in the New York region (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). He is also seeking working journalists in the same region in an effort to build a network of contacts. If interested in being included, contact Bart at bkendrick@peacecorps.gov.

    When Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98) took a leave of absence from his graduate studies to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka, he hoped he hadn’t made a big mistake. But not long after arriving, he discovered that Leonard Woolf, the future husband of literary giantess Virginia, had left academia to serve as a British civil servant in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) for seven years in the early 1900s. Leonard Woolf went on to become a writer, an editor and a life-long anti-imperialist and Joe, delving into his story, was comforted by certain parallels in their lives that soon grew apparent. Read about it online at Literary Traveler.
         Joe has recently won a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities to research a novel about U.S.-Mexican border issues in southern Arizona.

    The Best American Travel Writing 2003, edited by Ian Frazier, has two pieces by RPCVs. Peter Chilson’s (Niger 1985–87) “The Road from Abalak,” was originally published in The American Scholar, and Tom Bissell’s (Uzbekistan 1996–97) “ Eternal Winter” about the death of the Aral Sea, was in Harper’s.

    Our most famous right-wing RPCV, Charles Murray (Thailand 1965–67), is back with a new book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. He was profiled in the New York Times Arts & Ideas section on Saturday, October 25 in an article entitled, “A Cultural Scorecard Says West Is Ahead,” written by Emily Eakin.
         Murray is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington ring-wing think tank. Murray is the author of Losing Ground, which argued that social programs do more harm than good, and then, with Richard J. Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, which theorized a genetic basis for class and IQ differences between blacks and whites. His new book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. Murray also goes onto say that the influence of Europe is on the decline, “In another few hundred years, books will probably be exploring the reasons why some completely different part of the world became the locus of great human accomplishment.” The New York Times article mentions that Murray is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand who was married for 14 years to a Thai Buddhist.

    Volunteer Tales: Experiences of Working Abroad published by the British publishing company Lutterworth Press, and edited by Savita Bailur and Helen Rana, contains eight short essays by RPCV writers. The RPCV writers in the new collection are:
         Valerie Broadwell (Morocco 1981–83)
         Kenneth Carano (Suriname 1998–00)
         George Chinnery (Romania 1998–2000)
         Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992–96)
         Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 1978–80)
         Kathleen M. Moore (Ethiopia 1965–67)
         Gina Perfetto (Ethiopia 1997–99)
         Susan Rosenfeld (Senegal 1977–81)
         The editors are collecting material for a second edition. For more imformation contact the editors and publisher at: publishing@lutterworth.com.

    Hobgoblin, a novel written by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64) was recently optioned by a Canadian film company.

    Karl Luntta (Botswana 1978–80) is interviewed in the Fall â03 issue of Cubstone INK, the newsletter of Curbstone Press. Curbstone published Luntta’s novel Know It by Heart last June.


Talking with . . .

    Tom Bissell

    an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    IN 1960, THE ARAL SEA was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell first arrived in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps Trainee, he found that disastrous Soviet Union irrigation policies had caused the sea to shrink to a third its size. Although only in Uzbekistan a few months before leaving the Peace Corps and returning home, Tom became so haunted by what he saw that he returned five years later on a magazine assignment to investigate the ecological catastrophe surrounding the Aral Sea’s demise.
         Meeting Bissell in person at one of his book readings, I had the first impression that he might have been someone who played football in high school. He has the lean and well build body of the young kids who go up to Central Park on a Sunday afternoon for a pick up game on the Great Lawn. But from reading his novel, I knew he really was a fat little guy who came out of a small town called Escanaba in northern Michigan. He was a chubby kid going into the Peace Corps and he lost his weight in Uzbekistan, as well as the girl he left behind and his immaturity (as we all did) overseas.
         Watching him read in a Greenwich Village bookstore in New York, I realized how wrong my first impressions were. He is not a jock trying to recapture his college years in Central Park. He is a downtown kind of guy who only ventures north of 14th Street to see his magazine editors. And the only running he does is to make it to a subway.
         Today, Bissell writes for Harper’s, Men’s Journal, Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Boston Review, and one of his travel pieces was recently selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2003. He has been, he says, nominated for several awards and not received any of them.
         In Chasing the Sea:
    Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, Tom writes that in the Peace Corps he lost 50 pounds in 7 months, and when he arrived back home and landed at the Detroit International Airport, the girl he left behind, the one he left the Peace Corps for, did not recognize him when he came through the airport doors.
         The woman is gone now. The weight is still gone. But today Tom Bissell is in love — well, obsessed with his Peace Corps country, and this book tells why.
         I interviewed Tom by emails shortly after the Chasing the Sea was published and this is what he had to say.

    How long were you in the Peace Corps?
    I served in Uzbekistan for seven months, in the regional capital of Gulistan, which was also where we had our pre-service training. My advice for those who request a posting in the same city they trained in: Do not do this.

    What was the main reason for your leaving early?
    I wasn’t prepared for the experience, I guess. I was 22 years old, and had traveled very little in my life. I basically went from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to East Lansing, Michigan, for college to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I know a lot of other Volunteers have similar backgrounds of ill-preparedness, but in my case it was just too much to process. To be honest, I have to say that, from the minute I touched down, I had a feeling I was not going to make it. We lost two PCVs after one day, additionally. I have nothing to compare it to, of course, but I think it would be safe to say that morale in my group was pretty low from the outset.
         The other reason was my then-fiancee. Some more advice to PCVs who debark with significant others back home: Unless you are superhuman or have a love of Romeo-and-Juliet intensity, do not do this either.

    Did you seek out a magazine assignment so that you could return to Uzbekistan?
    The first piece I ever wrote for a magazine was for Harper’s, about my hometown in Michigan. My Harper’s editor and I were pretty tight — he’s no longer there — and we had often talked about my Peace Corps experience and how mentally messed up I still was about it. He thought I should write about it in some way, if only as an exorcism. I thought about doing a memoir about E.T.-ing, but since that was going to interest about five people, I decided to write about what was, to my mind, Uzbekistan’s biggest story: the Aral Sea. The Harper’s piece was originally going to be half a memoir about E.T.-ing, half a chronicle of the Aral Sea disaster, but the memoir part of it was edited out completely.
         Thank God I did the Aral Sea piece when I did. As the article was being finalized, I noticed a sudden flurry of Aral Sea pieces coming out in the New York Times Magazine and several newspapers, and then a couple book proposals were floating around. If I had waited just a few months, it’s possible nothing would have been assigned. But I still pride myself on the fact that the Harper’s piece is still probably the longest treatment of the disaster in the American press. People get assigned to read it in environmental studies classes. That’s pretty amazing to me.

    When you went back did you have any thoughts then of doing a book, or where you only planning on the magazine article?
    I felt like a fraud writing about my country of Peace Corps service when I knew I had failed that country so miserably. Whatever writing I devoted to Central Asia seemed like the work of an ingenious charlatan at best and an ignorant usurper at worst. Of course, this failed to prevent me from writing an entire collection of short stories, half of which took place in Central Asia. I then attempted to sell my short-story collection. In doing so I made two mistakes. The first was to pressure my agent to send to publishers a collection of unpublished short stories written by an unknown with two publications to his credit. My second mistake was to convince my agent to send to publishers a collection of unpublished short stories written by an unknown with two publications to his credit. Not surprisingly, no one was interested in a bunch of short stories that took place in a part of the world no one gave two whirls about. Then, suddenly, an editor was interested in the stories. But because they were unpublished and by an unknown her superiors were having trouble grasping the project’s commercial viability.
         However, they “liked the voice.” The persistent editor asked my agent if I had any ideas for a book-length work of nonfiction. When informed that a publisher was not interested in my fiction — which they had in hand — but was interested in my nonfiction — of which I had written less than fifty pages lifetime — I asked my agent, with grievous sincerity, “Are they nuts?” No, my agent informed me, they were “realists,” a gentle way of telling me that I was not. I had no idea what to do. “Well, you know,” my agent said, “there is the Aral Sea thing.” As I say, Harper’s had liked the hometown piece I wrote for them and was interested in publishing me again, and so the proposal I ginned up was little more than a formality — a few pages I kicked
    out in an evening. That said, I really did not expect a magazine to send a neophyte semijournalist to a place as expensively far away as Uzbekistan. “I don’t know if there’s a book there,” I told my agent. There was only one way to find out, she countered, and dashed off the proposal to the editor, who came back, the next day, with an offer. “Wait wait wait,” I said to my
    agent. “Just wait. This doesn’t make any sense.” “I know!” she said, rather ecstatically. A few days later, I booked a ticket to a country I never honestly planned to see again in order to write a book I never intended to write.

    In the book you write about ETing* in moving terms. Have you come to terms with it now, after this book?
    Yes, very much so. Writing the book was absolutely an exorcism, even if I scoffed at the possibility of that happening before I started writing. And I’ve traveled so much now — including several trips to Uzbekistan — that the failure has stopped seeming like a failure and more like something I had to go through to get to where I am now. I think many of my fellow PVCs in Uzbekistan would have been supremely flummoxed to learn that I would go back so often and write about it at such length.
    * Terminating Peace Corps service early short of the 27 month commitment.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
    The truth is, as a small-town Midwestern boy, the idea of travel always vaguely terrified me. A big city — like, say, Milwaukee — just unnerved me. I felt so dwarfed and frightened, and I hated that feeling. I realized early on that if I was ever going to get over this strange fear I had to confront it head on. I figured the Peace Corps would give me a chance to not only confront my fears but annihilate them for once and all.
         A funny story. When I got my Peace Corps interview, I learned this meant driving to Detroit. I found I was not able to do that. Two days before the interview, I called the Peace Corps office and explained that my car had been stolen. (A lie.) A bus? Well, you see, I was on work study. I could not afford it. (Another lie.) Would a telephone interview be all right? Thus I was forced into the position of claiming I was willing to go anywhere, eat bugs, whatever you like, when in fact I could not even bring myself to leave my East Lansing dorm.

    What town are you from in Michigan? Where you influenced by Hemingway on Walloon Lake?
    I am from a small town called Escanaba, which is the second biggest town in the Upper Peninsula. The Hemingway influence did not come until much later — we’re taught to regard Hemingway as rather square in our universities these days, which is probably not all bad, considering how oversold he was for such a long time, but once I got around to reading him, really reading him, a few years ago, I had to conclude that he’d written some of the best short stories ever done — and the Michigan writers I’m probably most influenced by are Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. They helped me see that Michigan can be this great, mythic place to explore literarily. (None of my Michigan fiction writing thus far, though, has or likely ever will see the light of day.)

    What did you study in college?
    I studied English — as I call it in the book, one of the “unemployment arts” — with minors in history and geography. Fine areas for a future Peace Corps Volunteer! I also wanted to study Russian, but my father said to me, “When are you ever going to use Russian?” So I studied German instead.      Imagine my chagrin when I joined the Peace Corps and learned I was going to the former Soviet Union. The lesson? Never listen to your parents.

    Did you always want to “grow up and become a writer?
    I’ve wanted to be a writer for pretty much as long as I can remember. First I wanted to write comic books, but when I became a man I put away childish
    things, to steal a line from St. Paul. There was never any other option for me. Being an editor was great, but it was never my life’s work. I did not have a back-up plan: it was literature or nothing. I have since figured out that, in the arts, just about everyone who has a back-up plan eventually uses that back-up plan. But then again, if I hadn’t received some very lucky breaks, I might feel differently about back-up plans.

    What were you trying to achieve with the writing of this book?
    As I’ve said before, my ambitions were very modest. I wanted to write a book that everyone who visited Central Asia would want to read, and I wanted to write a book PCVs would want to read. But as the Bush Administration grew more bellicose and its environmental policies grew more idiotic, I realized I was writing my own little plea for a slightly more nuanced understanding of the world, particularly the world that exists far beyond the buoys of democracy and heavy Western investment. I wanted to write a warning of what can happen: you really can kill a part of the world, forever, and that is what happened to the Aral Sea basin. There are places without hope, but they can be remarkable places. I wanted to make people understand why Central Asia is such a weird, wonderful, amazing place — but I also wanted to show its problems, with no coat of sucrose.

    You have a great title, and you were trying to make what? Do a play on all the great book of travel?
    I love nineteenth-century travelogues. They’re amazing artifacts of human consciousness: pre-e-mail, pre-phone, almost pre-communication. The men and women who traveled in those circumstances were some of the bravest, most amazing people, even though one has to allow that they were also, sometimes, myopic and racist. So the title is very much a harkening back to those books. As are the running heads, which change on every recto page.
         I read only a few of the big, great Central Asian travel classics, though. I didn’t want to read too many of them, since I was afraid of being “too” influenced. I should mention one in particular: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron, about his overland journey from Jerusalem to Afghanistan in the 1930s, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. That book was my biggest source of inspiration. The playlet, for instance, that occurs in chapter five of Chasing the Sea is a total riff on Byron, who did that stuff all the time.

    How did you go about writing the book? Did you take notes, keep a journal, send emails home?
    I basically tried to be a noticing machine. I was constantly writing down notes and observations, making me a very poor traveling partner. Rustam, for instance, was ready to kill himself whenever I pulled out my notebook, because it meant we were going to be sitting still for a good long while. It’s damned hard to take such copious notes in a police state, and I kept having to tell the Uzbek police that I was a student interested in Uzbek culture. I’ve never kept a journal, for some reason. Seems like wasted writing to me, though I recognize that journals are a vital part of many writers’ process. When I got home I had about five-hundred pages of research notes — basically scribbled passages from books I’d read — and about three-hundred pages of “on-site” notes. The book, in that way, rather wrote itself. It’s a fairly long book, and fairly dense, but I wrote it in a little over seven months. The thoroughness of the notes made the writing process remarkably painless — and I say that as someone who almost never has a painless writing process.

    What do you want the reader to come away with from the book?
    I have no answer to this question. In fact, the question makes me exceedingly nervous. What do I want? I’ll go with Nabokov: aesthetic bliss. Enjoyment. An experience so vivid it feels like you, the reader, have gone through it personally. The truth is, I’m not really much of a journalist. I’m not interested in matters of state and policy (as some reviewers have already disdainfully noted). I’m more interested in people. I love people, and I love to write about unfamiliar people in a sympathetic way.
         One great thing that happened: My mother is always terrified whenever I go off on some trip, since she basically imagines the world as being filled with murderers and villains. After she read the book, though, she told me: “I will never again say a word when you go to Central Asia. I really understand, now, why you love the place.” That meant more to me than anything the New York Times might say about the book. So maybe that’s what I want: Understanding.

    Rustam, your translator, is conspicuously absent from the end of the book. You split up with him at one point and plan to meet again, but don’t. What happened to him?
    He’s still there, of course, and currently pondering coming to the U.S. for college. Very astute of you to notice our plans to meet up again. The truth is, there is a lost chapter to Chasing the Sea, which recounts my renunion with Rustam, but it was cut since ending the book out there at the boats seemed like a much more organic ending. I hope that everyone who reads the book senses that lacuna, and wonders. I love books that leave you with “What happens next?”-type questions. It’s like life. What happens now? Sometimes you don’t know, and don’t need to know.

    In the last scene in the book, the visit to Moynaq — what did you learn from that trip?
    There is actually a line that pretty well sums it up: “All eventually comes to rust.”

    If there one thing you’d like to impress on Americans regarding the people in Uzbekistan, or Central Asia, what would that one thing be?
    One thing that I believe to believe to be very important concerns Islam. I personally find great hope in much of Central Asia when it comes to Islam, in that the people of Central Asia are, culturally speaking, indisputably Muslim, but also, for the most part, very secular-minded. It is easy — depressingly easy — these days, to watch the news and imagine the Muslim world as one in which everyone’s prayer mat is turned the same way, but the Islam of Central Asia remains admirably independent. Wahhabism and extremism, for instance, are loathed and despised by the vast majority of Central Asia’s people. Of course I need to acknowledge that Central Asian Islam was crippled and hamstrung by 70 years of Soviet atheism, but, all the same, the people of Central Asia offer one potential model for an Islam that is heartfelt and searching yet not overly shadowed by the monoliths of ideology.

    Quote a line or two or a couple paragraphs of what you think is your best prose from the book?
    I think the passage I’m proudest of concerns the lead up to my leaving the Peace Corps (a few words of which I gently swiped from that classic of male adolescence, A Separate Peace):

    The entrails of the cows butchered on the sides of Gulistan’s towpaths glistened with unknowably sinister portent. My students’ smiles seemed conspiratorial. The bubble-wrap of kindness in which my family swaddled me felt somehow accusatory and insulting. I was reading Kafka not with admiration and astonishment but shock at the wicked congruence between his fiction and what I thought I was living. My story was not about a penal colony or a man transmuted into vermin but a boy who grew up in Michigan and then, for some reason, went to Uzbekistan. There he began to feel that there was some overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with him, and the simplicity and unity of his character broke, and he was not the same again. [FYI This is the Separate Peace part]
         What broke him? What broke me? It was not that bad. I know that now. The tree laid across my shoulders was a featherload compared to what most are given. “I think it is God’s will that you are here,” my closest Uzbek friend, Odil, said to me once. Odil had, long before I knew him, converted to Christianity and was disowned by his family. It was Odil’s twenty-second birthday, and we sat in his apartment, drinking tea and picking at a bowl of raisins. Soon I started talking about L---- and my family and before I could stop broke down sobbing. Odil said nothing for a while, then told me about the first time he left home to pick cotton, as every able-bodied young person in Uzbekistan is forced to do every year. At night it was cold, and his hands bled, and he missed his mother and father so much he longed to cry. But men in Uzbekistan did not cry. Every night he held back his womanly urges. But now, he told me, he had seen far worse, more private Gethsemanes.
         “It feels good to cry,” he admitted. “Maybe we don’t cry here because we are afraid. Maybe this is a bad thing. And maybe all those times I was far away from home I should have cried because then it all wouldn’t have hurt me so much.” He regarded me with a calm, sacerdotal face. “Being away from home is very hard. But you will do good work here.”
         A few days later I took the bus to Tashkent for my monthly meeting with the medical officer. This was one of the conditions I had agreed to in order to stay. In full command of my emotions, I told the medical officer that I had begun to think about killing myself. She looked at me, expressionless. I had given her no choice. I went back to Gulistan, packed my things, and said goodbye. Odil was there to see me off. Tears again. Again they felt good. Nothing had ever felt so good. I was not strong enough, and I knew that now. I was weak, and I could go home.

    Did you learn any great “life lessons” from the experience of going back, both in terms of yourself as well as a new understanding of the country?
    I learned . . . well, Jesus, I learned an awful lot. Experiencing Central Asia both immediately pre-9/11 and immediately post-9/11 gave me an enviably wide lens to approach the region, the world, my own country. It’s very hard to enumerate what, exactly, I learned. It’s all very brain-deep, almost non-verbal. The best thing I learned, perhaps, is that I love that part of the world with all my heart.

    So a would be writer question. How did you obtain an agent to represent you?
    Well, I probably had an extremely unfair advantage in that I was a book editor for three years, and an assistant to an editor for two years before that. Thus I had any number of friends and contacts within the industry. Even so, I had a hell of a time finding an agent. It’s brutal out there, and with the current economy it’s getting worse. Luxury items like books are always the canaries in the cultural coal mine. But I really have no call to complain. My first book is out, my second is on the way, and I’m working on a third. Neither contacts nor my agent allowed me my career as a writer, though. My Peace Corps experience did that. It gave me something to write about, and it shattered and rebuilt my mind in such a way that it also gave me, I hope, something to say.

    What do you do today? Your job?
    I used to be a book editor, but I quit to write full-time. I’m making a living right now, but I also know that writing for one’s livelihood is pretty difficult to sustain over the long haul. I keep waiting for someone to turn out the lights. I have a short story collection — not the short story collection mentioned above — coming out next September, and those stories, too, are about Central Asia. Then I’m going to write a travel book about Vietnam. My dad is a vet, saw a lot of action, and he and I are going there together in November. This, too, will be a magazine piece first, for GQ, then I’ll expand it. It’ll be an interesting thing to write about a country with which I’m much less familiar than I was with Uzbekistan.

    Tell us a little more about the short story collection.
    The collection is called Death Defier and Other Stories from Central Asia,
    and it will be published by Pantheon next September. The title story grew out of my experiences covering the war in Afghanistan. I’m really proud of it, as I consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost.

    Where do you live?
    I live in New York City, about a block south of Ground Zero, of which I have a nice — if that’s the word — view. I moved here post-9/11. An interesting place to write from, that much I can tell you.

    Escanaba, Upper Peninsula; East Lansing, Michigan; Tashkent, Uzbekisstan; and now Ground Zero, New York! What does that tell us about the journey of Tom Bissell?
    Perhaps that I’m attracted to places of loneliness and upheaval. And that one’s journey will never be anything like what one imagines.

    And finally, what qualities are most important for those in adventure/travel writing? What suggestions do you have for those who want to do what you are doing?
    I think a good travel writer is, above all else, someone who is open. Open to new people, new cultures, new experiences, and yet who retains a sense of his or her own cultural limitations when confronted with a new one. I have a hard time believing those writers who claim to be able to (or even want to) “go native.” Going native is impossible, except in the most extreme Robinson Cruesoish cases. (It’s also a pretty offensive phrase, come to think of it.)
         I also strongly dislike travel writers who disparage “tourists.” We’re all tourists somewhere, after all, and there are many different ways to travel. Some of them might not be my way, but what right do I have to dismiss the contours of another’s journey?
         But the most important part, for me anyway, is coming away from the journey with something human. Otherwise, why bother? Travel books should not be psychodramas. Rather, they should tell readers, “This is an amazing story about a place you might not have thought you were interested in, but I’m going to make you interested in it.” And they will be, if you tell the story well.
         And never sell short the fact that we all are limited by our cultures. In the gaps of these limitations is the best chance to capture something strange and real. The greatest travel books are usually idiosyncratic and rather odd, aren’t they? In Patagonia is one of the strangest travel books I’ve ever read--and it’s great for that reason. Oddness, joy, surprise, openness — those are the qualities that, for me, make travel writing an almost holy endeavor. The world is made smaller and more understandable, one reader at a time.


Review

    Chasing the Sea
    Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia

    by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97)
    Pantheon Books
    September 2003
    416 pages
    $24.95

    Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996–98)

    TOM BISSELL’S BOOK IS BITTERSWEET and hurts in the way that exceptional writing should. In his exploration of the biggest ecological disaster of our time, the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea, he exposes the American reader to a topic that has probably escaped her/his noticed. It does, however, accomplish more than merely enlighten an audience in regard to this environmental travesty. It also revolves around a personal catharsis of sorts.
         In 1996, Bissell began Peace Corps service as an English teacher in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. After seven months, he ET’d, or early terminated, deciding that continuing his service was not in his best interest as a result of constant physical illness, mental fatigue, and stressors related to loved ones back home. He returned to the United States and found a publishing job in NYC. His experience in Uzbekistan, however difficult, stuck with him. After several years, he felt compelled to go back. A proposed magazine article led to the trip that would later grow into Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia.
         Early Termination can have a painful stigma attached to it. Peace Corps assignments can be very different, as Volunteers are different individuals with different expectations. It can be hard for other Volunteers from other areas of service, or sometimes even from the same country, to feel sympathy for those who decide it isn’t for them. Also, conditions of Volunteers vary drastically from country to country and region to region. Bissell’s personal journey, that of an ET’d Volunteer returning to his country of service, is difficult for him and, as a result, difficult for the reader, as well.
         Early in the book, Bissell establishes a young, but shockingly thoughtful and informed voice. Bissell’s Author’s Note is one of those early moments, in which he describes the strange feeling of failure that accompanied the decision to leave Uzbekistan, made more surreal because the failure had no personal negative repercussions. He describes the resulting feeling as “a heart-nibbling sort of reflection that leaves one wracked with a sense of inadequacy difficult to explain to oneself, much less anyone else.” In part, these unexplainable feelings, which he does an excellent job of explaining, are what he is attempting to understand, if not exorcise, in his return to Uzbekistan.
         In the midst of the sensitive personal nature of the trip and the ostensible foray to assess the deterioration of the Aral Sea (which comes to stand for a more abstract form of deterioration), Bissell’s sense of discovery is surprising. Bissell is a travel/adventure writer after all. A reader can’t help but react to the parade of characters that he interacts with in the course of his travels. Bissell does a laudable job of being fair to his subjects. Some are appealing for their aesthetic value. For instance, the two Russian soldiers who crash the party at the mountain top funeral, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and toting assault rifles are just perfect. Other characters, similarly equipped, evoke a very different reaction. For those who have traveled in countries where the police or military are to be avoided, his run-ins with the Uzbek militsiya provoke a palpable anxiety.
         Rustam, Bissell’s translator is a more prominent character in the book. Rustam accompanies Bissell through most of his trip. Their relationship is tenuous, especially at first. RPCVs might recognize Rustam as the quintessential young intelligent HCN (Host Country National) from their country of service. While it may be unfair to characterize Rustam as standing in for all Uzbeks, a diverse categorization of people, he definitely serves as a litmus test to Bissell’s decidedly American presence. While their relationship begins as that of outsider to translator, it develops into a moving and sincere friendship. This relationship is a very satisfying part of the book.
         Bissell intersperses the events of his trip with his past experiences in Uzbekistan. He also periodically brings in the extensive history of the country from varied sources. One gets the impression that he has done his homework. In fact, he’s included a semi-annotated bibliography of those sources. The different contexts he brings to the book via these three perspectives speak to each other and create a broader picture than any one context could alone.
         Bissell’s sense of humor is effective, dry and cynical in places, but the kind of humor which gets you through trying moments. There are moments in which one cannot help but laugh out loud. At the same time though, it is a nervous laughter, often of a gallow’s humor type. This kind of humor fits the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the former Soviet republics.
         Description is another of Bissell’s strengths. Obviously, this is important in a travelogue. One of the most poignant sights is visited near the end of the book. The description of the abandoned shipyard at Moynaq is especially surreal and eerie. Moynaq, a fishing town once surrounded by water, is now miles away from the Aral Sea, which is continuing to recede. Bissell sees children playing soccer on the old sea bed among the stalagmite-like salt deposits. Salt peppers the landscape like snow. With a contact from Doctors Without Borders, an organization that supported his journalistic endeavors in the area, he visits beached ships abandoned to the sand and wind.
    We are left with the image of Moynaq in our vision. Moynaq, a town dependent on the sea, has no more sea. But still, people remain. They get poorer and sicker, but persevere. But one wonders for what purpose. This ending doesn’t really provide much closure. That’s the point. Bissell adeptly shifts some of the ownership of the weighty issues he deals with onto the reader. One gets the sense that closure is something to work for in one’s own life, in terms of the receding sea and all that it means. You can’t just discover that sort of closure in a book. It requires going somewhere.
         Bissell’s book is especially pertinent to those interested in Central Asian history, prospective or current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), RPCVs (Returned . . .), and anyone interested in the former republics of the Soviet Union. But if given the chance, the book will satisfy a wide variety of readers.
         To put it simply, this book is not to be missed.

    Paul Shovlin was a TEFL Volunteer in Moldova, Eastern Europe. Since then he has relocated in Athens, Ohio and is starting a Ph.D. program at Ohio University in Rhetoric and Composition.


Review

    Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life
    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

    Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, renowned historian and Medal of Freedom recipient tells us, “We must get beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” Having completed nineteen years of work in six developing countries, Mary Cameron Kilgour now tells the world her stories in her debut book, Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life.
         This self-published collection offers a pleasing variety of occasionally choppy stories and reflections, from a narrow escape from disaster after a bus breaks down in the rain-soaked rural mountains of the Philippines, to a thriller-esque harboring of an unnamed country’s vice-president and his family in the narrator’s apartment.
         In “The Trial,” the only story written in third person, a Latin American woman glimpses an x-ray of her son’s skull, showing a nail jutting through the bone and into his brain. The doctor tells her if they take it out, it will kill him. She can only bring him home, nail intact. Which, let’s face it, will eventually kill him. How great of a hook is that? With its even pacing and satisfying conclusion, this is Kilgour’s most polished and successful story.
         Kilgour has a keen eye for detail, particularly in her reflection pieces. “Peshawar’s old town welcomed us: the gold street, the spice street, the brass trinket makers, Gondhara statues for sale cheap from dark shops. Narrow winding streets out of Dickens or Kipling, the buildings all shades of desert brown. Stopping for tea at a sidewalk shop, we sat on rough-hewn chairs watching this small, exotic world swirl by.”
         “No Accounting for Saintliness” is a breezy account of an Ambassador’s assistant who tries to obtain a quarterly report from a distant, grant-financed co-op. The narrator only wants to stay two days, but the elusive Sister Cristina has no such report ready and the narrator is forced to spend extra time there. At this point, the story grows uneven. The character Manolo, the accountant, is developed, used as a source of some conflict, but then disappears from the narrative action. For some reason this isn’t overly questioned. The narrator simply shrugs, rolls up her sleeves and goes through the records herself on the sixth day. Why didn’t she do it that way in the first place? Is it because this is how it really happened?
         And that’s my biggest complaint: many stories read with the shifting confusion and anecdotal asides of real life. But memories or journal entries rarely translate into a natural story. A well-crafted story doesn’t drop characters, include personal comments (“I was pleased with myself for thinking of such a socially acceptable solution”) or leave in extraneous details and conversations just because it might have happened that way.
         Additionally, creating a collection of “stories and reflections” leaves the reader a bit confused. I wanted to have boundaries — was I reading a nonfiction travelogue or a fictional short story? Different rules, goals and expectations apply to each. And what is a reflection, really? By itself, it may read beautifully, but it produces nothing bigger. In an essay however, there’s a pivotal moment where the writer is changed. They’ve discovered some universal truth that is vivid, searing, unforgettable and must be shared. A well-crafted short story produces the same feeling, sweeping up the reader on the journey. Currently, the journey feels like a bus ride through a city — lots of stops, some quite interesting, but not showing me somewhere new and startling that will stay in my mind long past the time I’ve finished the book (except for the nail in the skull — wow, that’s one I’ll never forget).
         For anyone interested in international travel, development or aid work, or stories set in exotic locales (count me in here), Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life offers an attractive palette of different flavors and images from the developing world. As such, the book succeeds. Even when the flaws of the stories frustrated me, I kept returning, eager for the next.
         The lack of an ISBN number however, will limit the book’s circulation. A reader has to really want a book that’s not easily found in a bookstore or through Amazon. If someone were searching for a readily-available collection of impeccably-crafted short stories and thought-provoking essays, I think I’d have to tell them to take a pass here.

    Terez Rose’s work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Her essay, “Lessons from Gabon” appears in the anthology, Women Who Eat (Seal Press, November 2003). She is currently completing her first novel, Black Ivory Soul.


Review

    Don’t Mean Nothing
    Short Stories of Vietnam

    by Susan O’Neill
    Ballentine Books
    2001
    252 pages
    $22.00

    Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    READING SUSAN O’NEILL’S STRONG and unique stories of Vietnam as American troops are fighting yet another limited war in Baghdad is beyond irony. Today’s news lights up O’Neill’s Vietnam stories of nurses and doctors cutting and sewing up soldier’s flesh and comforting burned, maimed and dying American boys. O’Neill brings an intensity of feeling in her sparse salty dialogue, along with a hard cynicism that accompanies the witnessing of the never-ending parade of gory battlefield casualties. This is no TV MASH, made for laughs. I can’t help thinking this telescopic view of the war in Vietnam must still be going on at this moment in the medical tents of Iraq and Afghanistan. These stories, even though they are mostly about nurses, always include realistic and surrealistic medical-moments, blunt about the savage wounds the soldiers endure and the weary hopelessness of the medical staffs that attend them. We are exposed to the awful pain that inhabits the portable rubber medical hospitals that make up the three locales of these stories; where a narrative emerges that is sometimes as delicate as the damaged bodies that need to be patched and mended.
         After several stories that open the collection, “One Positive Thing” evolves amid the gory hospital nursing chores about a baby and cats and a first act of love, woven together in the tenderness and the savagery of war.
         In “The Exorcism,” a war-weary nurse sees a naked old Vietnamese peasant, who may or may not be a ghost, squatting in a graveyard where the nurse takes a break from her sewing up and sawing off and burying duties. This story is literally haunting and stayed with me during the remaining stories.
         The title story is about a soldier in Vietnam, who receives a strange gift from his estranged father, and then learns that his father has died. The soldier is real, the father is real, the war is real, and the strange sad ending is all too real. We’re surprised by how well we know these people. As the soldier dances on the edge of self-destruction, we understand why.
         In “Perquisites,” an uneasy friend of the narrator-nurse is a cynical clerk — a kind of confederate skinhead — who re-ups for another tour in Vietnam. “The truth, Lieutenant? I’m a clerk.” He shrugged. “What am I gonna do back in the world? Be somebody’s receptionist?” The nurse describes a sumptuous officer’s party that she attends with the clerk and finds she cannot be a part of the party there in Vietnam.
         “Broken Stone” finds another battle weary nurse making love to a young scared boy soldier in a makeshift church. While the war doesn’t make the soldier feel guilty, the sex does.
         There are always unique details that the author retrieves from this 30 years ago war — details that must be alive in our present war. The writing is crisp and the dialogue always to the point. Many sentences describe the war through the lives of the soldiers, such as “Secrets leaked through the cracks of his sleep and escaped in small potent cries.” Some stories are short; almost vignettes, but even these have the lost, musty smell and feel of the loneliness of war.
         In “Prometheus Burned,” we are alongside a trip through the hell of caring for horrendously burned G.I.s. One, Jim, jokes through his pain, and pleads for more morphine, not for the pain, but for death. What is a nurse to do when death is more mercy than life?
         In the “Perils of Pappy,” a female nurse swears off drugs and sex and tries to improve her mind. After trying hard at a college course — right there at the base — the toll of the war and its’ losses has the power to bring her back to comforts.
         In “Psychic Hand,” one of my favorites, two young soldiers ask a nurse to search a young Vietnamese girl thoroughly to see if she is carrying a bomb in some intimate place on her person. The nurse reluctantly agrees and then she and the girl, without a common language, begin to communicate through their mutual fear. A communication evolves that moves beyond the male soldiers, beyond the war, approaching human understanding.
         O’Neill, who worked as a nurse in Vietnam in the late 1960s, knows the territory and allows you to trust the narrator of each of these stories, though they are not all autobiographical. Only someone who worked and suffered right along with our soldiers and the people of Vietnam can render the reality these stories invoke.
         Don’t Mean Nothing is a collection that portrays the ache of people searching for themselves and each other in the total ruin and chaos of war. These are stories that are beyond the headlines of Vietnam 30 years ago. They are stories being reenacted beyond the headlines and TV images of today, stretching us into places we would not choose to travel, compelling us to share some of the grit of military life at war.

    William Siegel viewed the war in Vietnam from the protests marches in San Francisco and Berkeley during the 1960s.


Review

    Orphan Quest
    Bookworld Series: Volume One. A Tale From . . .
    by Nicole DeCanio (Ghana 2000–02)
    Xlibris, $31.99
    200 pages
    2000

    Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996–98)

    I WAS REALLY EXCITED when I got my hands on a copy of Orphan Quest: Bookworld Series — Volume One. A Tale From… by Nicole DiCanio. I’m a glutton for popular fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction. Also, DiCanio’s book title suggested an extended read. Indeed, according to the description on Xlibris.com, DiCanio promises three more books in this fantasy series.
         The book is narrated from the perspective of Jason, a teenager who at the beginning of the book lives in an orphanage. A mysterious old man, by the strange name of Rum Lin, arrives one day looking for a young teenager to adopt. It is clear from the beginning that Rum Lin’s motives may be a little more complicated than he lets on. Jason soon discovers that he has been selected and trained (extra-curricular fencing, jousting, survival lessons and so on) to set out on a mission that Rum Lin was unable to accomplish in the past.
         The mission lies in the alternate world of Trias, only accessible through a magical book in Rum Lin’s library that writes itself, as long as blank pages remain to tell of Jason’s adventures in his alternate body, that of Basil. In Trias, Basil must assemble the various lost statuettes that make up the body of the statue of the White Dragon of Ages Past, an artifact that will tip the scale in favor of its owner.
         In Trias, Lady Joeanne and Lady Raquel represent the forces of good and evil respectively. These two sisters have been struggling for years to remake Trias after their own nature. Thus, Lady Joeanne promises a world of peace and prosperity if she gains control, while Lady Raquel promises a world of evil and suffering. The White Dragon is the key to it all, and Basil is determined to retrieve and complete the statue for Lady Joeanne. To make matters more complicated, Basil is under a few restrictions. He may not divulge his real background (that of Jason) to anyone, nor kiss anyone in the world of Trias or he will remain Basil forever.
         Razen, a dutiful soldier with a penchant for languages; Flipp, a young woman with a mysterious past; and Kinet, a silent boy with strange powers and some helpful animal friends, accompany Jason/Basil on his quest.
         DiCanio draws on a host of fantasy sources in the course of her weaving of the tale. For the most part, though, her imagination infuses such references with new life. And then, of course, there are elements that are completely DiCanio’s own and these are very effective in contributing to the richness of her fantasy setting.
         DiCanio is successful at creating sympathy for the main character. Jason/Basil is an intriguing protagonist. While he instantly achieves hero status with those in the world of Trias, he views himself as a failure through much of the book. His angst is genuine, as his successes don’t come without some loss. The loss that he experiences resonates with the reader as well.
         DiCanio creates a sincere sense of uncertainty in Jason/Basil. Jason/Basil’s struggle for identity is compelling, especially as an orphan who seems at least slightly cynical or pessimistic at the opening of the story. His character development is very subtle, and somewhat impressive. He wavers back and forth between his dual identities, neither of which gives him a strong sense of stability. Ultimately, though he must make a choice.
         The apparent lack of an editorial presence is the biggest shortcoming of the book, which may be the result of the publishing venue, Xlibris. But, if a reader is willing to overlook a few typographical and grammar errors, some repetition and style choices, and so forth, there is a lot to be excited about. DiCanio’s ability shines through in choice scenes, especially towards the end, when everything seems to click.
         In moments like that, DiCanio’s potential really shows. The narration takes a step away from the author and achieves a sort of life of its own. The theme of uncertainty comes full circle in the dreamlike ending. And without giving away the ending, the final line is compelling and leaves the reader wanting more. Overall, Orphan Quest was entertaining and a fitting beginning to a longer series. DiCanio is a fantasy author to keep an eye on in the future.

    Paul Shovlin was a TEFL Volunteer in Moldova, Eastern Europe. Since then he has relocated in Athens, Ohio and taught English at Ohio University. Whenever possible he integrates popular fiction into his courses. This fall he will be entering a PhD program at Ohio University in Rhetoric and Composition. In addition to teaching, he will be developing OU’s writing cyberspace, including facilities for writing tutoring and teaching writing online.


Review

    A Peace Corps Profile
    by Kirk A. Hackenberg
         (Nicaragua, Chile 1977–80)
    Trafford,
    156 pages
    August 2003
    $14.25

    Reviewed by Craig J. Carozzi (Colombia 1978–80)

    KIRK A. HACKENBERG HAS WRITTEN a chronicle-like account of his four years of Peace Corps service in Nicaragua and Chile during the late 1970s and early 80s. It is a quick and easy read. You see, Kirk’s prose is spare, uh . . . perhaps bare-bones would be a better way to describe his writing style. For example, amid harrowing episodes of blood-thirsty Somoza National Guardsmen chasing poor peasants and, at times, our Volunteer Kirk, through his village’s dirt streets we get descriptions such as:

    What started out like a normal night with the burning and chanting in the streets became one of the longest nights of my life . . . . I took off like an Olympic sprinter and found myself running into another mob. This time, not only were the bullets flying, but there were explosions . . . . So I kept running and ran right into a smoking, homemade bomb lobbed in front of me. I literally flew up against the wall of the house where I was and was not sprayed by any of its flying shrapnel. As I turned to run the other way a military jeep drove up behind me.

         Now, if I were Kirk’s agent, I would characterize his style as “minimalist,” and say that he employed a well-thought out literary technique allowing the individual reader to fill in the details according to the degree of lurid imagination each one brings to the table. Of course, not everyone would agree with this assessment.
         Nonetheless, Kirk’s story is straightforward, honest, and full of laconic Texas humor and classical Peace Corps toilet dilemmas. Between trips to the crapper and infirmary, he was almost eaten by pigs, survived a massive earthquake, dodged bullets and bombs, as already illustrated, came to the rescue of a damsel in distress, won the heart of another, initiated a slew of Peace Corps projects, and spread the largess of his meager salary to as many impoverished campesinos as was possible. In fact, in “solidarity” with poor, rural Nicaraguans, Kirk seemed to pick out the very worst possible living situations and came down with assorted, scary tropical ailments in a place where you don’t need to go out of your way for trouble. I found myself doubting the man’s sanity but admiring his heart. “El gringo loco,” indeed, as some of the locals referred to him. Despite the disappointment of being unable to finish a health clinic project he had started, the intensification of the “Sandinista Revolution” and the subsequent removal of Peace Corps from Nicaragua may very well have saved Kirk’s life. In overview, I came to look on Kirk in Nicaragua as Don Qixote impersonating Rambo. Could be a movie with the right ghost writer.
         From Nicaragua our hero is transferred to Chile. Here Kirk had a whole other experience and he skimmed over this time in less than fifty pages. I’ll do the same. He was stationed in Valparaiso, a beautiful resort city on the Pacific Coast, Chile’s California-like climate settled Kirk’s health, he worked at a youth home in a stable job, and General Augusto Pinochet’s iron-fisted control of the country minimized political strife, making it safe for multi-national corporations and Peace Corps Volunteers alike. The great highlight of Kirk’s experience was meeting and marrying his wife, Gloria, a Chilean co-worker at the youth home. At the end, Kirk sums up his Peace Corps experience in these words:

    I could have died the next day as I felt I had completed a lifetime in just four years.

    Craig Carrozzi has five self-published books. The latest, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, is due out in November. He runs Southern Trails Publishing out of San Francisco, CA.


Review

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

    Audio Cassette version:
    read by George Guidall
    HarperAudio
    $34.95

    Reviewed by W. Tucker Clark (Nepal 1967–70)

    WHAT A CASE OF EERIE SERENDIPITY! I had been feeding a strong appetite for listening to “car books” and had just started Ties That Bind when I received it to review. I embarked on an experiment to both listen and read the legal mystery thriller — a genre I like — and possibly see what influences from the Peace Corps experience might have affected this highly successful author. I figured he might give us Peace Corps aspiring writers some hints to his success!
         First I think it is so great that we have such successful writers in the Peace Corps alumni ranks. Margolin says that he is self-taught in the how-to’s of this difficult genre. 25 years as a criminal defense attorney in Oregon, appearing before the Supreme Court, and arguing some 30 homicide and death penalty cases helped, I imagine. In 1996 — even though he claims to have still really liked his legal day job, he took up writing full-time.
         I tried to see if he had anything cooking related to his Liberian Peace Corps experience, so I asked him on the bulletin board at his interactive website www.phillipmargolin.com, and he replied that he was horrified by the atrocities in places he well knew, and hadn’t come up with anything, except that his daughter was a PCV now!
         Meanwhile I also wanted to see if he was effective in both print and audio. We are hit on television, in movies, and in books and magazines with so many legal-based, sometimes formulaic stories; all the Law & Order-like television series, John Grisham, Dominic Dunne’s real-life studies, Court TV and even the Television Judges have made of all of us discerning, hard-to-please, bloodthirsty and meaning-hungry legal literati! Fortunately you can turn off or put down a lot of this genre early because — unlike Margolin’s — a sorry, badly written, nonsensical drama is an easy spot .

    About the story
    In this, his eighth best seller, Margolin is reprising a popular earlier character, the Portland lawyer Amanda Jaffe, who is still recovering from a near-death, traumatizing court room encounter with a true sociopath [Wild Justice (2000)]. Her fragile, self-doubting, emotional state reminds one of that great, weird-eyed, lead in the TV series, The Profiler. The way the book is pitched, she is being reluctantly drawn into representing an escort service-owning, pimp, who is being charged with killing a US Senator and — sacre-bleu! — even his last lawyer. The colorful jailed hustler has an absurd contention that he has the goods on several high-ranking, powerful Oregon men who have a 30 year old, secret society — the Vaughn Street Glee Club — that is bent on murder and taking over the Presidency. This bit of news whets my conspiracy theory tastebud and draws Ms. Jaffe into many very unpredictable plot twists.
         Mixed in with seedy politicos and yuppie types, there are drug dens and prostitutes and a nice contretemps as she defends the pimp and goes up against Tim Harrigan, a Heismann-trophy -winning ex-footballer state attorney who has a steady stream of his own sleaze to overcome as well.
          The motivations for why the power boys must do so much killing and be so brutal with people who know things about their 30-year-long conspiratorial history, and their involvement in the whole hackneyed drug trade, gets a little convoluted.
         The premises for their keeping the binding ties of their secret society are a bit over the top, the characters and their ties to one another not so binding, but still the action keeps us on the edge and the writing is so slick and skillful that this makes for a great beach read or car journey accompaniment.

    Read vs. listen
    For me, reading rather than listening to this particular legal thriller comes off better. Even though reader George Guidall’s interpretations of Hispanic thugs, brazen yuppies, embraceable and flawed heroes and heroines, power-hungry politicos, and sexually-enticing “escorts” is superb, they got unwieldy and I missed what motivated and drove these characters on.

    The mystery rush
    If you are looking for literary depth a la Dostoevsky’s Roskolnikov, a tale of Faulknerian proportions, deep psychological motivations and justifications, or deep cultural explorations that you’d expect from a seasoned Peace Corps observer, then you probably won’t get the rush that us thriller, mystery mavens get sitting precariously on our seats, following Margolin’s every plot twist and high intrigue in Ties That Bind.

    Tucker Clark is a consultant /writer with Masters Degrees in Psychology & Social Work with too many “formers” in his Vitae, involving media projects (MTV/VH-1 Pro-Social Programming Director), two decades of involvement in clinic management and psychiatric training, substance abuse counseling, drug education publishing and corporate trainings and outplacement seminars, famine relief training in Ethiopia in 1985;E-Commerce and internet marketing, bookseller, fiction writer. Now to help maintain his Westport, CT lifestyle, he network markets at the Director level the PrePaidLegal Services product, offering the best legal representation as monthly insurance through this nationwide 30 year old NYSE-traded company.


Review

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

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

    Reviewed by McCabe Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68)

    READING TWO YEARS IN THE KINGDOM is like going on a trip and trying to decide what to pack. Blaine Comeaux served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand from 1997–1999 and then stayed in Thailand an extra year to teach before returning to graduate school in the United States. This book focuses on his experiences as a Volunteer in the small northern Thai village of Pakham. But what to make of this hybrid book? Part narrative, part Peace Corps primer, part an ingenious guide to customs ranging from food to vehicles and local idioms.
         Comeaux is an easy read when we follow his first steps into his village, selection of a home, getting on with work and eventually finding a sweetheart. But then the narrative stops and other pathways are taken with chapters on “Foods of Isaan,” “Animal Life,” “Pukham In the News” (a lively story of environmental advocacy and non-violence). Then two thirds of the way into this 264-page book, Comeaux resumes his story, “The Transition Out.” But that isn’t the end, he follows with chapters on “Language, Thai and English,” and concludes with a glossary and an appendix.
         Okay then. What do we have here? A mixed bag. Who might want to read this? I’d buy the book if I were going to do any traveling in Thailand. Comeaux studied the people and places with a sure eye. He befriended a number of villagers, kept track of his travels and reports in on some interesting details (the disciplining of students, hom gam — a form of Eskimo kissing, parochial beliefs about magic and superstition).
         Peace Corps recruits should definitely buy it if they are heading for Thailand. The 29 page Introduction is all about Peace Corps, its inception, history and present practice.
         Who else? People who enjoy a good story, a window into local customs, or like me, returned Peace Corps Volunteers who enjoy reading about Volunteers in other countries. I particularly enjoyed the piece on the “Ordaining of Trees,” since I am presently in the midst of a struggle against a developer who wants to clear cut all the trees across the creek from my house for the building of a college dorm to house 500 students. This Buddhist idea may fit well into our neighborhood group’s plan to protest the advent of the bulldozers.
         What’s missing? Comeaux is filled with gratitude for his two years in Thailand. His reporting is journalistic. He’s very good in attending to details and conversations, but I’d like for him to attend to himself a bit more in depth. Why did Comeaux choose to go into the Peace Corps? Did his experience match up with his expectations? What about longing and desire? How did the Peace Corps experience change him? How did he resolve the questions about what to do after Peace Corps? How did he relate to the Peace Corps bureaucracy? Were they supportive of his work? What might be Comeaux’s recommendations to others following in his footsteps?
         But as I said in the beginning, this book is bit loose-leaf. I’d restructure it. First half: narrative to get us in-country, stories of living and working in Pakham, concluding with transitioning out. The second half: local customs, vocabulary, getting around. I like the idea of memoir and travel guide. Maybe next time place the shoes next to the socks, the film next to the camera, one backpack, one carry on.

    McCabe Coolidge writes from Beaufort, North Carolina.


A Letter from Kenya

    19 December 1985

    I’ve just been to my first and last Samburu circumcision. I have been sitting here for five minutes now, not knowing what to say. My hands feel bloodless, light. Outlines. I guess I’m in a shock of sorts. I was invited to a place of honor — to hold the girl’s knee. Something so important to their culture, something I wanted, once, to be included in — I didn’t think twice about accepting.
         Miriamo came for me, and we went to the house, and stood around with many other women milling, talking. The three sisters were adorned in beads and lots of ochre, heads shaved and covered with orange and oil. I stood near the door, shy, uncertain, looking constantly to Miriamo for guidance.
         The first girl was brought into an adjacent room. A goat skin was laid on the floor. Miriamo knelt and clasped a knee, Lydia at the girl’s back, Helen at the other knee. We crowded into the room to watch. The girl’s back was to me. The circumciser knelt between the girl’s legs and began. Immediately the girl convulsed and screamed. Lydia slapped her head and held it pinioned under her elbow. Another cut, another convulsion, and many women crowded around to hold her still. I backed up against the wall. Still the circumciser labored. I was desperate, grabbing the wall, looking at women crowded around a girl to cut, give pain, mutilate her — gone with clinical non-judgment — my legs felt weak and stomach nauseous and I gritted my teeth because hell every Samburu woman has to go through this and I didn’t want to shame myself or the mother and then the girl’s head twisted under Lydia’s elbow and her eyes wild with pain were looking at me — I couldn’t look long back, and broke the gaze and stared instead at the long thin river of blood blowing from the goat skin and felt a coward for standing there and a coward for wanting to leave but more a coward for watching this, supporting it by my presence. My vision blurred then, and my head was too light and somehow I was in the other room leaning against a wall, than again somehow sitting on a stool, and then nothing until I felt arms around me and myself cradled in Miriamo’s ample warmth and her laughing kindly, to comfort.
         The first sister had been carried out; the second was being done. I paled again at the muffled moans and screams. And then I was expected for the third girl. Miriamo said, “I’ll hold her for you, in your place, but it is still your place.” I nodded and watched her go, and then it was all over in two minutes.
         I’m saddened. There’s a mill of confusing feelings in me right now, hard to sort — I guess because I felt a pulse of the heart of this culture, after three years and my reaction to it places me irrevocably and forever firmly outside of it. How can I understand how these women can — must — do this to their girls and at the same time see, from my culture’s viewpoint, that this is savage? My good friends. Savage. People I love and would trust with my life — but not my daughter — savage. What an ugly word, ugly concept, but there it lies, right next to the intellectual understanding of it — and yes, acceptance. And I see that I have to some degree fallen into Rousseau’s idyllic vision/trap — I only chose to see the nobility. Easy to ignore the savage when not faced with it. How staid, even prideful I have been at my acceptance here, and (I now see) my limited acceptance of here.
         Because you cannot accept and love every part, do you forsake the whole? No. Of course not. You go back, distancing, intellectualizing the fact of imperfect existence — but know that that distance is there — that that distance must be there.

    Melissa

    Melissa Chestnut-Tangerman served in Kenya from 1982 to 1985.


A Volunteer's life in Romania

    Corrupting Future Prosecutors: Law School for Dummies
    by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

    I’VE LEARNED TO LIVE WITH sporadic hot water, stray dogs on dirty streets, uneven and decrepit sidewalks that can twist ankles, ignorance and rudeness, even a mass of inferior infrastructure. These are daily nuisances. But after 18 months, I can’t seem to get over a much larger problem, the constant corruption in Romania. It’s more than gotten old.
         Just last week, I carried my camera around town for a few days, intending to take some “everyday” shots of my surroundings, especially on the university campus where I work. Near a store frequented by students, a small, hand-scrawled sign caught my eye: “Vand lucrare de diploma la drept international public” and a mobile telephone number. Somebody was offering to sell all of the work needed to complete law school, specifically in international public law (unlike the American system, law school here is only an undergraduate program).
         Though positively despicable, it’s common here for students to bribe professors and deans for grades, even in law and medical school, and in particular, law school graduates have to pay much larger bribes than most professions in order to get a job. I guess selling or buying academic work is no different, but I’d not seen such a brazen attempt before. And no doubt, someone bought it — and I sure don’t want that person as my attorney. Not that America or any place else is 100 percent clean, but I really can’t imagine this back home. Even if someone tried it, they wouldn’t be dumb enough to post a sign AND include a phone number. Here nobody bats an eyelash.
         I was disgusted. I immediately wondered how many students I’ve taught or worked with do this kind of thing. I almost took a picture but kept walking. I went for a quick lunch, but that sign was still in my head. After downing a bowl of chicken soup, I saw the same sign taped to a tree. Then another one, just across the street. Now I wanted the photo. As I was shooting this little piece of injustice, two young men, obviously students, were posting signs for a musical event.
         They asked me what I was doing. I replied in Romanian that I just had to take a photo of the law school sign, that it was just incredible. One asked where I was from and then switched to pretty good English.
         “Why is it so incredible?” he asked.
         “I am reading this correctly, right, that this person is selling all of their law school work?”
         “Yes. But why is that unusual? And maybe it’s not his work.”
         On that note, I bid adieu to the puzzled-looking students and continued on my way. This was just days after Romania was declared the most-corrupt country in Europe — and one of the most in the world — by Transparency International, a respected, Berlin-based non-governmental organization. This was also just after a referendum election for a new, modernized Constitution (needed for European Union membership), which passed, but was plagued by well-publicized fraud allegations including ballot-stuffing and voter incentives, not to mention the government’s $1.1 million vote-yes ad campaign in this land of $100 per month average salaries. And three Cabinet-level ministers recently resigned amid serious corruption allegations, including, ever so ironically, the Minister of European Integration, a person with a major role in helping Romania combat corruption, and overcoming other hurdles, to join the EU in 2007. That, by the way, may be delayed as Romania is the only candidate country not to have earned “functional market economy” status, having just been rejected again by Brussels. Corruption, with its counterproductive, economic ripple effect, is largely the culprit. The EU, on so many fronts, is simply another world. The longer I live here, sometimes I can’t even believe the 2007 “invitation” date, which many Romanians still misconstrue as some kind of mandate, whether earned or not. Guess again.
         Corruption, of course, has existed throughout the world for a long time. In the past couple years, America has been rocked and revolted by Enron, MCI WorldCom and Tyco, these sickening corporate scandals fueled by executive greed. That stuff goes on here too, but few seem to care. Well, now and then you see a businessman, a Romanian mayor, or a member of Parliament or the Cabinet hauled off or resigning in shame, and it makes the news for a night and these poster boys (and girls) are trophy examples to try to show the Romanian people, or more importantly, those watchful bureaucrats at the EU, that there is a crackdown, or at least an attempt thereof.
         What is different in Romania is that corruption exists at every level you can imagine, from big bucks to chump change. There are supposedly seven words in Romanian for “bribe,” though I only know four. Corruption here, though not as frowned upon as other places, ranges from payoffs to get a job at the local Chamber of Commerce or many other places of employment, to hefty bribes to avoid compulsory military service or get out of an arrest. Let’s not even talk about judges. Or how about the common practice of not giving a receipt and keeping the payment, skimming bank tellers and cashiers, paying principals to get your kid in the right school, bus drivers who pick up passengers roadside then pocket the fares, bribing a doctor for an appointment sooner than later or the hospital nurse and custodian to make sure you have changed sheets and water — to the really ridiculous like a train station security guard offering an unsolicited safety tip about your backpack or offering to help buy a ticket, then angrily demanding a “commission” of $2 or $3, not insignificant relative to salaries or train fares. It’s endless.
         Romania’s “high” ranking in corruption came as no surprise to me or other foreigners living here — probably not to Romanians either — nor was Romania’s recent tie for the “least happy” country in the world based on a British magazine survey. No wonder. The good news? Most Romanians I know and with whom I’ve spoken loathe this activity, but alas, it’s the “system” and they are stuck with it. Pay to play, or you’re not in the game. It starts with the government and other power centers, working its way out like a virus, people say. VIPs from the U.S. Ambassador and other diplomats to international executives have criticized the system while encouraging reform that could lead to more foreign investments, only to be smacked down by paranoid government bigwigs. At least it’s being discussed more in the open, some arrests have been made and there is a new anti-corruption law and task force. Still, this isn’t going away any time soon.
         Romanians have a favorite saying that translates to “In Romania, all things are possible.” Rest assured, they don’t mean it in the “American Dream” sense.

    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. In recent weeks, Andy visited the American University in Bulgaria, which is now collaborating with his career center, and he won a grant to attend an NGO Youth Forum in Serbia & Montenegro. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July, 2004.


A Writer Writes

    Peace Corps Was
    by Peg Clement (Tunisia 1975–77)

    PEACE CORPS WAS two years of my young life, half my life ago. A time of long blonde braids, still-chubby cheeks, a hardy body withstanding weeks of tummy rumbles, pinkened skin before sunscreen became de rigueur. Quick reflexes, and a back hardened to floor sleeping. Easy laughs.
         Peace Corps was unexpected, and unplanned for, fun. Many times, it just happened — someone arrives descending feet-first from the louage, at the doorstep, or someone shows up at a beach disco. Instant friends, mix and stir. A prepackaged community, insurance premium against the loneliness of the Sahelian plains.
         Peace Corps was earnestness. Adults used the word altruistic. We tried to do good, and reached for change, big change — winds of change, like the sandstorm Khamseen winds. After supper, I concentrated hard on my lesson plans — taking each one seriously, debating its worthiness with roommates, substituting a different reading passage, reciting lines aloud in preparation by candlelight.
         Peace Corps was giddy love, or illusions of it (mirages, salt puddles shimmering as goats wander by), usually across cultures. American slept with Italian, American went with Tunisian, French were waiting in the wings, we tried them all. Anyone was possible and people were buff and looking good. I had three foreign boyfriends in two years. Two overlapped; it was heady and flattering and confusing stuff.
         Peace Corps was plump olives and squishy dates and juicy tangerines, Mediterranean food of colors and hot stings, pits and juices, warm tomatoes and lemons, big bread you ripped, layers of things, and the convivial brik à l’oeuf. I learned to eat bread, not drink water, when food is too spicy.
         Peace Corps was about men. Afterwards, I explained my hypersensitivity away, saying I had been a libber, fresh from a women-only ivy college — headstrong, principled, and consequently, immediately indignant. I stayed mad at Tunsis for both two years. There were always eyes, always leers, always hands, always them. I wonder why I am still single, 30 years on. I still feel eyes.
         Peace Corps was simple rooms. Here was the smoothness of the blue/white striped blanket on my double mattress, here was a pillow. No more, no less. There was a small icon sitting on a plank serving as a tabletop. Here were a few of my things puddled on the floor or on boards and bricks against the wall. There was a round low wooden table set between two thin floor mattresses as a living room. Simple was good.
         Peace Corps was marriages. Twosomes separated off and got hitched; maybe five or six couples. I was floored; so young? Some of our women stayed there in-country. The nurse married the Arabic teacher. Haffouz married Kairouan. Tunis Bourguiba married Tunis Bourguiba and are still together. They said PC was hard on marriages. Was it really?
         Peace Corps was a slower time. Each day was a bookmark, in hammocks, sofas, on floors. There was lots to write in journals and diaries. Lots, and nothing, happened each day.
         Peace Corps was Aimée’s roof-top apartment in Sousse — a weekend refuge. The pall of ocean humidity hung like sheets through the white-washed couple of tiny rooms. I fasted up there for three days, but gave up and went downstairs to the beach.
         Peace Corps was Arabic, with a vengeance (see Men, above). Heaves and swallows, gutteral gasps an throaty coughs, vowels from bowels, ballistic combinations of consonants, straining lips, mouth, tongue, stomach, throat. “Bara idfin rowhic high,” I hissed on the busses. Kelb came in very handy in the souks. I get calls even now for Iraq, for Oman — “Titkallim il-Arabi?”
    Peace Corps was hammems, vaguely fungoid and slick, creepy with old women blobbing on top of each other, slamming hands into backs, scraping camel mitts over each others’ arms and legs, like frogs, squatting in running water, hot drops clinging to blue tiled walls, chipped and broken, steam everywhere. Leering eyes, private parts everywhere. I was bait, marriageable bait, for these crones, and they trolled —
         Peace Corps was being looked at. Jane Kuntz said she turned it off, walking as if with clappers and earplugs, oblivious. But my antenna quivered expectantly, dreading it, hating it, ready for it. Always noticed, under scrutiny, appraised like store goods or bartered horses. Comments on the bus, from the café on the corner, from within holes of souk shops, around from the teacher’s room. On display, in the public eye for two whole years. I can’t shake it all these years later.
         Peace Corps was the welcome mat over the threshold into a career — a teaching career — and seemed an answer for me. It would do for another decade.
         Peace Corps was finding Americana relief together on small R&Rs of chocolate chip cookies and outdated Time magazines and NY Times crossword puzzles, shared — English, our food, our ways, references only we knew, banana bread. We would sit on each other’s mattresses and reveal pasts, brief though they still were.
         Peace Corps was a stand-alone time, a dyad of years wrapped up in plastic and stored on the shelf. A 3-day repeat visit in 1981 rendered no further meaning; was too fast and people looked too different. A few letters over the years, a Saturday spent reorganizing slides, faded prints in albums, mainly of goofy 23 year olds in goofy poses. (I am smiling in every one of those pictures, I think.) Recent random emails, now a reunion 26 years on. Are the years atrophied, petrified, or are they resuscitable?
         Peace Corps was a gallery of types I can detail even now, down to the freckle, the lip mole, the calf shape, the chuckle, the broodiness, the breastbones, the contact lens, the frowns, the chubby bodies, their clothes, red toenails. I know their names by heart – after all, he was the first Robbie I knew, she was the first Melinda, the other one the first of many Franks I’ve known. First Lily, first Ken, first Edith — and every Edith I’ve met since then has made me think of that Edith. They will remember me as Peggy, I think, even though I matured long into Peg.
         Peace Corps was three lofty goals; but the third one is best. Return home and share what you learned. We talk fast and remember, and hope Peace Corps never goes belly-up. We wear the stripes.
         And Peace Corps was cliques — we remember them: the pack of future dropouts who hung unhappily together during training, the in-crowd in Sousse, the well-diggers, the nurses, the last-year veterans like the Funks (they knew so much), the Tunis gang, the twos and threes stuck together. There is a black and white photo of all of us that first summer, a family of 50 (missing only Sweater Man), backed up against a crumbly schoolyard wall. I made them my friends, one by one, two by two. A webbed ball of close people I have somehow let bounce away from me. Have they all reunited in pairs at grad school, making dates in their late 40s, eating cous-cous together in Houston or DC? Have they gotten together, hauling out photo albums over beers in apartments? Where have I been?

    Margaret Clement works now at the State University of New York in Albany, NY on democracy and governance projects in developing countries, but following her Peace Corps tour lived in six African countries for fifteen years. Her creative non-fiction has been published on-line at the expatriate website, Tales from a Small Planet and recently in Worldview Magazine. She wrote “Peace Corps Was” in anticipation of her group’s first reunion last August in Washington DC. There were fifty Trainees in her group and they trained in in northwestern Tunisia, high in the Atlas Mountains in a village called Ain Draham. She read her recollections to the group on the banks of the Potomac.


Travel Right

    Recommends Montecarlo in Tuscany

    from John Woods (Ethiopia 1965–68)

    IN THE SMALL TOWN of Montecarlo, about 10 kilometers east of Lucca in Tuscany, you can stay in a 500-year-old palacio B&B called Casa Satti, hosted by Signora Bianca Satti. There are only two rooms. One is large and the other is more like a suite with two sleeping alcoves.
         Montecarlo is a wine-growing region and has an annual wine-tasting festival in May. The town has about five good to very good restaurants, and wonderful views of the Tuscan countryside. In the morning you can walk down to the local newsstand, about 5 doors away, and pick up the International Herald Tribune and read it in the backyard of Casa Satti amidst olive and potted lemon trees and overlooking a small terraced vineyard and the valley below.
         Contact: info@casasatti.com
         Casa Satti’s website: www.casasatti.com.


Friendly Editor

    Lisa Skelton has 15+ years of experience in the worlds of publishing and public relations, and provides editorial services on a freelance basis including copy editing, proofreading and writing. She has experience with non-fiction and fiction. Lisa recently completed work with one RPCV and is ready to work with other writers from the Peace Corps. Her rates vary according to complexity of job, but range from $35–$50 per hour. Write Lisa at lskelton@verizon.net.


Writers opportunity

    Where to publish your travel article
    Marco Polo Magazine, a national magazine geared to adventure travelers over 50, is looking for well written first-person narratives, survivor stories, middle-of-nowhere destination pieces and articles that look at well-covered cities with a fresh perspective. They want articles that will make their readers want to experience what the writer experienced — so tell them how it can be done. Go to Writer Guidelines and Submit Query for more info at the magazines website.