Talking with . . .

    Robert Rosenberg
    an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    AS WE ALL KNOW, we Volunteers had incomperable experiences during our service, yet though most Peace Corps books are interesting, and some well written, few are literature. Nevertheless, every ten years or so a Peace Corps novel comes along that transcends our experience, transcends the ordinary “Peace Corps story.” I can think of a handful of truly first rate books of fiction about our experience. Richard Wiley’s novel, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, comes immediately to mind, as does Roland Merullo’s Leaving Losapas, and Melanie Sumner’s writings about Senegal. And now we have Robert Rosenberg and his novel, This Is Not Civilization, which links together an Apache reservation in the Arizona desert and a village in Kyrgyzstan. In time, these two seemingly disparate worlds converge in Istanbul, the crossroads of East and West, where four exiles find common ground, unaware that the city will soon experience one of the most devastating earthquakes in history. Now, does that sound like a Peace Corps novel or what? Of this book and its author, Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96), Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) writes: “For the past twenty years, returned Peace Corps Volunteers — Paul Theroux, Norman Rush, Maria Thomas, Richard Wiley, et al. — have won just about every major literary award in the country, and Robert Rosenberg seems destined to be a member of this distinguished group of writers. This Is Not Civilization is a wonderful first novel, full of the marvelous compressions and juxtapositions and clashes that have indeed made the world a very small place.”
         With Bob’s recommendation in mind, I set out to find out more about this amazing young writer, Robert Rosenberg.

    Tell us a bit about your background.
    I was born and grew up in Howell, New Jersey, near the Jersey shore.
         I studied English at Columbia University. Later, through the Peace Corps Fellows Program, I completed my M.Ed. in Secondary English at Northern Arizona University. And later still, I did my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.

    In Kyrgyzstan, what was your assignment?
    I was a TEFL Volunteer. The country had only declared independence three years before, so it was an amazing time to be sent there. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been ten years. Like a lot of RPCVs, I still find I think of myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Even ten years after serving, it’s often the first thing I tell people about myself. It leaves that indelible a mark.

    As I understand it, you came home after the Peace Corps and lived in a town called Cibecue where you started a high school. What about that experience?
    That’s right. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I suffered through the readjustment period, like many RPCVs, feeling let down because it was over, and looking for another challenge and adventure. Through the Peace Corps Fellows program, I was offered the chance to complete a certification and Masters Degree at Northern Arizona University, at very little cost, in exchange for teaching a few years on one of the reservations in Arizona.
         I wound up in Cibecue, this small village on the White Mountain Apache reservation. It’s an amazingly unique place for many reasons. Because of its isolation, almost the entire town of two thousand people speak Apache as their first language. That’s very unusual for reservations in the continental U.S. Many of the students are limited English speakers. The principal was eager to hire me because the town was struggling to establish its own high school. Until then, students in the village usually stopped school after eighth grade, or were sent off to boarding school far from home (and usually returned, or were kicked out, in a matter of months). It was a fairly desperate situation for the town, not having a high school of its own, and it contributed to this continuous cycle of unemployment, especially among the young.
         There were only four teachers, as well as a counselor, and a principal. That was the staff. I taught the English classes, and for the first two years we taught in trailers. We started out with about eighty students, but the numbers quickly diminished each year to about fifteen or twenty kids. Still, it was a start. In the second year, we actually graduated a few students, and that spring the girls at the school won the State Championship in Basketball. There was a parade in town to celebrate, and the high school even threw its first prom. Limos, dresses, and all.
         The number of students has steadily increased each year since then. The town has pieced together funds to build an enormous dome, and last year classes were held in it for the first time. Just last month the gymnasium opened in the dome, and eight students graduated. And, what sometimes seems most important to the community, since 1999 the school has won five or six basketball and volleyball state championships. Last year their girl’s team played in the finals at America West Arena in Phoenix. So it’s exciting to see so much progress, the kind of optimism education can inspire.
         Still, it’s a very isolated place, and I only taught for two years before I moved on to Istanbul. But last year, when I finished up at Iowa, the principal called my wife — she’s also an RPCV — and me again, asking us to return. I couldn’t come back to teach — I was too busy finishing up the book, but my wife was offered the Gifted and Talented position at the school, so we came back. I’ve been able to write full time in this quiet, wildly beautiful place, and my wife teaches about thirty yards from our house. But she gets me to help out with bake sales and science fairs whatever chance she has.
         I guess, in terms of the isolation, the feeling of living in a foreign place and being an outsider, it’s about as close to a Peace Corps experience as you can have in America. We like it for that reason.

    Let’s talk about the writing of This Is Not Civilization. How did you go about “reliving” your experience? For example, did you keep notes while you were overseas?
    The letters I wrote home from my Peace Corps service in Kyrgyzstan, I think, were my first real attempt at serious writing. It was essential, and therapeutic, to sit down at night over a cup of tea and attempt to make sense of that strange land on paper: the sights and sounds, the idiosyncrasies, the generosity, the pressures, the foods. I wrote by hand, a slow, deliberate, and meditative process which I still go back to when the computer keyboard fails me.
         In writing those letters I discovered a number of things — narrative techniques, humor, style — but the most valuable was the need for discipline in the writing act. Henry Miller claimed that an aspiring author must write a million words before he finds his voice. I was living in solitude, I wrote home to friends or family every day for two years, and I think those daily letters were my own million words, my apprenticeship to the craft.
         When I finally returned home after two years, my mother had collected all of my letters into two overstuffed binders. I was so grateful, and it was exciting for me just to see the sheer bulk of it. To weigh the binders in my hands. It almost seemed like a book.
         I sometimes returned to those descriptive letters for details. But it wasn’t that the letters contained anything like a plot. They were useful for details: what the food was like, how the people dressed, what the mood of the village was at that time. They were also useful for tone. Amazement. Bemusement. Confusion. Disillusionment. The standard trajectory of emotions of PCV letters home.
         In general, I’ve found I need to be away from a place to write about it. I wrote about Arizona living in Istanbul, and I wrote most of the final Istanbul sections when I was already in Iowa. I have a good memory when it comes to setting, which probably comes from a love of travel. My memory for place names is horrible, though, so guidebooks and maps were incredibly helpful.

    This novel has a wide geographical sweep, from the mountains of Central Asia, to an Apache reservation in Arizona, to the urban sprawl of contemporary Istanbul. How did it occur to you to try to tie such distant places together into a single novel?
    Though these places are, in fact, quite far away from each other, in our globalized world they’re not nearly as distant as they once were. A century ago the mountains of Kyrgyzstan might have been one of the most isolated places on the planet. But nowadays all it takes is money for a plane ticket, and it’s possible for a villager from Kyrgyzstan to visit the U.S. on a vacation. A number of my former students from Kyrgyzstan have studied abroad here in the States. Quite a few Apaches I know have made trips to Israel, or to the Vatican. Where I now live in Cibecue, an entire classroom of Apache children has spent the last two summers studying Tae Kwon Do in South Korea. I find this amazing: how quickly the world has become connected, how straight forward it is for even relatively impoverished people to search out a new home. It no longer requires an epic journey across the sea, or a year’s trek across a continent. I wanted to write a novel which reflected this reality, this flux and interconnectedness.

    How much of the novel is autobiographical?
    Very little. The settings, of course, are taken from places I know well, but the characters and their stories are completely imagined. Even the character Jeff’s experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is vastly different from my own. Life does not play itself out in novel form, with a beginning and end, suspense, contrasts, and parallels. The writer discovers these things by getting to know his characters and by endowing them with enough life that their true stories unfold.
         Still, living in these exciting places, at important moments of change, was inspiring. I’m a teacher, and through my students I learned a great deal about the Kyrgyz, the Apaches, and the Turks. In class discussions, and in reading my students’ journals and essays, I learned so much about the way they thought, the intricacies of their languages, idioms, prejudices, jokes, and tales. Teaching like this, then, was vital in order for me to write confidently from the perspective of foreign characters.

    What is the significance of the title?
    This Is Not Civilization comes from a moment of dialogue early in the novel. A Russian man, one of the few Russians left in the Kyrgyz village, tries to forge a connection with Jeff, the American volunteer. As the other white man, a fellow intellectual, he feels they share a superiority to the Kyrgyz people, and denigrates their culture. He scoffs at their traditions: the eating of sheep eyes, the drinking of horse milk, the lack of education in the local population. “This is not civilization,” he says at one point in their conversation.
         I like the way the statement hangs over the novel, and colors the reader’s experience with the various settings. The reader does not have to agree with Yuri Samonov’s statement (certainly Jeff Hartig doesn’t agree). In many respects the traditions and sense of community in the isolated villages of Red Cliff and Kyzl Adyr are more civilized than the traffic and corruption and capitalism of modern day Istanbul, or even of America.
         Milan Kundera once said, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.” To me the title asks, “If this isn’t civilization, then what is?” It’s my hope the novel is provocative and raises questions of this kind.

    Can you talk about the 1999 Istanbul earthquake, and its role in the novel?
    In August, 1999, I took a job teaching in Istanbul. A few nights after I arrived I was shaken out of sleep, like the rest of the city, by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The floors of my apartment were bucking, and I looked out the window at the city. At that instant all electricity and lights were cut off. It was a terrible moment, and it’s painful still to remember. According to the government, at least 17,000 people died around me. Outside estimates put the number at something like 40,000. The neighborhood I lived in, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, withstood the shaking pretty well. But the city and country were devastated, and my experience in Turkey over the next two years was colored by the disaster.
         I wondered how the characters I was beginning to envision would react, faced with a tragedy of these proportions. How would it affect their motivations to find a new life? How would seeing great numbers of people in a developing nation suddenly homeless, jobless, and without family affect their own understanding of the native lands they had left?
         The earthquake came at a significant time, in my mind. The early and mid-nineties, the time of Jeff’s service in the Peace Corps, were a time of great hope for the nations of the former Soviet Union. The people were convinced they had shaken off the tethers of a flawed system, and would now join the world in a fresh system of liberty and democracy that would lead to prosperity. And it was a moment of great optimism for Americans abroad as well. The Cold War was over; it was a lucky time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the former Soviet Union. You were befriending your once arch enemies. There was a definite sense that just being there made a difference.
         But so much of the change has stalled or gone wrong. A decade later former communist leaders still rule like dictators over all of Central Asia, and the economies are in dire straits. In this way the earthquake reflects the political reality of the character’s lives in the novel, the seismic shifts in their cultures. It was somehow an appropriate ending to the close of the century, and of the novel. Now, looking back after 9/11, the nineties seems like a brief age of innocence — probably like the 1920s must have seemed to someone looking back during the Great Depression.

    Who do you read? What writers have had an influence on your writing?
    I was influenced by some of my own favorite writers, who include E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, V.S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Paul Theroux. I am drawn to these writers because of their broad world view, their exotic locations, the ways in which their characters are often displaced, geographically, in situations that illuminate the clash of cultures and values. These novelists also write about periods of tremendous historical, political, or economic change (the end of colonialism, the Cold War, African independence) and their characters are cast adrift in history, struggling to stay afloat.
         This Is Not Civilization follows a similar formula, in that my characters are facing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the desperation of saving a native culture in the midst of globalization, and the tragic consequences of the earthquake in Turkey.

    Besides Theroux, have you read and liked any other books by Peace Corps writers?
    I read Shacochis’ Easy In The Islands and Packer’s Village of Waiting when I was in the Peace Corps, and admired them both. Also, Mike Tidwell’s Ponds of Kalambayi. Mike’s wife was our APCD, so he was in Kyrgyzstan at the same time I was. I met with him one afternoon in his apartment, and he gave me lots of wonderful advice on writing, finding an agent, and getting published. He was really very generous and encouraging. It was the first time I had ever spoken to a writer in the flesh. I was kind of star-struck.
         Reading these books during my service was really inspiring. I mean, it gave me the sense that other people had been where I was, and had done what I wanted to do. It made it seem possible.
         I was just up in Spokane and saw Kent Haruf kick off his reading tour for Eventide. I haven’t had the chance to read that one yet, but I thought Plainsong was magnificent: understated, character driven, with clean, transparent prose. A real human story.
         I’ve also been enjoying Peter Hessler’s reporting from China in the New Yorker. His nonfiction articles read like fiction to me, in the best of ways: a character (often him) trying to weasel his way out of a predicament and having to work against stubborn social and political forces. They’re funny, but they’re also serious in their insights and what they reveal about the times. They bring me back to my own experiences with Communism in Central Asia.

    Do you think that the publishing world can stand another “Peace Corps book” and if so, what do you think the ideal next Peace Corps book would be?
    I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue early in the writing of my novel. How much of a “Peace Corps” novel would it be? But I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a “Peace Corps novel” (just as there really is no such thing as, say, an “Iowa Writer’s Workshop Story.”) The question is like asking, “Is the world ready for another Russian novel?” On what grounds, for instance, can you compare Theroux’s My Secret History to Rush’s Mating? That they both take place in Africa? Do The Village of Waiting and The Ponds of Kalambayi tell even remotely the same story? Of course not.
         What Peace Corps Volunteers know, and what fans of the writing of Peace Corps Volunteers discover, is that every Volunteer and host-nation and era bring their own issues of politics, economics, and human struggle. Peace Corps authors come at their writing armed with their own unique personalities and expertise and neuroses. The mixture, the alchemy, is always unique.
         What makes the Peace Corps endlessly fascinating to me (and why, if circumstances were right, I’d re-up in a second) is that the organization connects people who would not otherwise be connected. There are enormous geopolitical implications in this simple fact, but at the same time, it’s just the age-old story of one person meeting another. There is no standard script here. Anyone who is bored with that story, or who thinks that it has all been done before, is blind to the endless possibilities, and grave consequences, that can result from the simplest human interaction. “In a far-off land, one strange person meets another . . .” It’s like the start of every fairy tale, of every romance and tragedy.
         The ideal next Peace Corps book, then, recognizes this. Its author asks, “What was unique in my situation, and how can I think and write about it in a way that adds one more layer of depth, no matter how thin, to the story of the human race?”