|Peace Corps Writers November 2004
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Peace Corps Writers November 2004
Marian and I have decided to run occasional ads on Peace Corps Writers in hopes of generating funds to support our activities and to be able to increase the monetary amounts of the awards we present each year. We will only carry ads that are suitable for the site i.e. for books and other items that would be of interest to RPCVs. Our first ad, for The Peace Book, can be seen just to the left.
Peace Corps writers interested in getting the word out about their books via an ad should contact publisher Marian Haley Beil.
Second on-line workshop completed
The second 10-week workshop for RPCV writers offered by Peace Corps Writers finished in early November. Eight RPCVs took the class. We will post their evaluations of the course in the coming weeks.
At the moment, we are considering offering another class beginning in March, but only if there is sufficient interest from RPCV writers. If you are interested, email Marian.
Peace Corps Writers at the Miami Book Fair International
The Miami Book Fair International hosted a panel of Peace Corps authors at its 21st annual event. Among 250 authors from around the world, the Peace Corps presentation was well attended by about 100 people, most of whom interestingly enough were not RPCVs, but people curious about the Peace Corps.
Sarah Erdman (Ivory Coast 199800) read from and discussed her book, Nine Hills to Nambokaha: Two Years in an African Village, and Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576) read from his novel, Swimming in the Volcano. Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96) moderated the panel.
Peace Corps Writers co-sponsored a booth with the Peace Corps that was manned by RPCVs of South Florida. Peace Corps/WorldWise School distributed copies of their new book Uncommon Journeys, several RPCV writers sold their books and Peace Corps recruitment materials were available.
Cheer up no one is reading your book
The New York Times reported on October 17th that the five books of fiction selected as finalists for the National Book Award annual prize had sold between 700 and 900 copies apiece. In fact, Christine Schutts first novel, Florida, had only sold 150 copies. As the Times wrote, In an age when entire industries have sprung up around awards to publicize and commercialize various corners of the culture, a prize that finds merit in the obscure has much to be said for it.
Well, what can be more obscure than novels about the Peace Corps? Lets hope one of our own is on the list next year.
Everyone wants to write
From time to time I get emails from non RPCVs who have come across How to Write A Novel in 100 Days or Less that is on this website and they drop me a note regarding the exercise. This one came recently under the email subject line of: I would like to write a book.
Hello, my name is Tara and I am 11 years old. Everyone says that I am quite talented with my writing skills, and that I should think about writing a book. I know I am just 11, but I am learning in school right now about setting a personal goal for yourself, and my personal goal is to write a book. I have experience from school, and I know I am capable of it. Seeing that I am eleven and know what everyone my age likes to read, I think I could make up a pretty good story that kids would enjoy. I have already started writing my book, and have been following your day-by-day steps, which I find very helpful. My book is about orca whales, which I am a HUGE fan of, and have had a passion for ever since I was two years of age. My book has a main climax, and an understandable one. I was wondering if you could give me some advice about writing a novel, so I may be more successful during the process. I have just started my book, (only on the seventh page) and with school it is hard to make fast progress happen, but I think I can still do it. I was also hoping maybe you would like to publish my book when it gets finished, and make any necessary changes. I have a great support system working at home and at school, with my family, friends, and teachers giving me lots of confidence. They believe in me, and I do too. I would appreciate it if you could e-mail me back to let me know if you think I can do it. I receive lots of encouragement from everyone, and I hope that I can finish what I have started. This is a big dream for me, that I hope someday, I can accomplish. I have told everyone I am going to write a novel, and I don't want to let myself, or them down. Thank you for your time, it is greatly appreciated.
Well, if Tara can do it, so can we. See what other RPCVs has just written and published and what people are saying about Peace Corps writers.
In this issue
- We talk to Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) who has written ten books. His new one is: Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. It is an important book in this political season and tells an amazing story.
- Our Viet Nam tale comes from John Krauskopf (Iran 196567) who spent Christmas of 1969 on the Mekong River.
- They called Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698) the Martha Stewart of Gabon and rightly so. In A Writer Writes is Bonnie Lees humorous account of how she earned such praise.
- Besides all this, there are reviews, details on new books by RPCVs, and some Literary Talk on what many of you have been doing.
So, on with the reading.
Recent Books by Peace Corps Writers November 2004
A Matter of Choice
25 People Who Have Transformed Their Lives
edited by Joan Chatfield-Taylor
Contributor: Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698)
The Mystery of Max Schmitt
Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins
by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 196466)
Turning Point Press
Winner of the 2003 Turning Point Poetry Prize
'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out
Reflections on Country Singers, Presidents, and Other Troublemakers
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
Words for America
by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 198183) and Brian Selznick, illustrator
by Cristina Kessler (Honduras 197375, Kenya 197576, Seychelles 197678)
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader
North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
by Bradley K. Martin (Thailand)
Thomas Dunne Books
Thirty Years of Anhinga Poets
by Rick Campbell & C. L. Knight
Anne Neelon (Senegal 197879) contributor
Peace Corps Adventures Across Cultures
edited by Roger B. Hirschland (Sierra Leone 196667)
Peace Corps/World Wise Schools
The Shortest Way Home
by Elaine Reidy (Dominican Republic 196365)
Migrants & Stowaways
An Anthology of Journeys
edited by Emily Dziuban, Kristin Robertson
Contributor: Terez Rose (Gabon 198587)
Knoxville Writers' Guild, $14.95
by William Wong (Philippines 196468)
A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier
by Scott Zesch (Kenya 198284)
St. Martins Press
Literary Type November 2004
Images of America: Oaklands Chinatown is a new photo history book written by William Wong (Philippines 196468) author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America. The book contains 216 amazing photos and images that show Oakland, Californias Chinese life over 100 years.
Oaklands Chinatown has a history every bit as compelling as its more famous neighbor across San Francisco Bay. Chinese have been a presence in Oakland since the 1850s, bringing with them a rich and complex tradition that survived legalized discrimination that lingered until the 1950s. Once confined to a small area of downtown where restaurants stir-fried, laundries steamed, and vegetable stands crowded the sidewalks, Chinese gradually moved out into every area of Oakland, and the stands evolved into corner groceries that cemented entire neighborhoods. Chinese helped Oakland grow into a modern business and cultural center and have gained prominence in every aspect of the citys commerce, politics, and arts. Author William Wong was born and grew up in Oaklands Chinatown. He went on to a distinguished career in journalism. Although important images emanate from public collections including the Oakland Museum of California and the Oakland Public Library, most of the priceless historic photos in this volume are drawn from the private collections of dozens of families and Chinatown-based organizations. If you want further information on this email Willian at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The website for the publisher is www.arcadiapublishing.com.
The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 196466) is the winner of the 2003 Turning Point Poetry Prize. Turning Point is a poetry publisher dedicated to the art of story in poetry. Philip constructs both a fascinating narrative of Eakins world and a searching meditation on the relationships between art and life, between teachers and students, and the quest to live a fully-engaged existence.
Philip is the author of seven previous full-length books of poems, the latest The Deathbed Playboy (Eastern Washington U. Press, 1999), and numerous chapbooks. His awards include three Pushcart Prizes, a Discovery Award from the New York YM-YWHAs Poetry Center, many fellowships (Fulbright to Yugoslavia, Woodrow Wilson to Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, Bush Foundation, Loft-McKnight), and prizes for individual poems from Yankee, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Kansas Quarterly, Cumberland Poetry Review, Nebraska Review, and others. Co-editor with David Jauss of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Harper & Row, 1986), Dacey has presented his poetry which appears in over one hundred anthologies in more than half of the fifty states and served as Distinguished Poet in Residence, Wichita State U. (1985); Distinguished Visiting Writer, U. of Idaho (1999); and Eddice B. Barber Visiting Writer, Minnesota State U. at Mankato (2003).
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, and the father of three grown children, he moved at the end of 2004 from Minnesota, where he taught for many years at the state university in Marshall, to Manhattans Upper West Side.
Barbara Kerley Kelly (Nepal 198183) writing as Barbara Kerley has published Walt Whitman: Words for America, a childrens books for ages 7 to 10. In a glowing review in The New York Times Special Childrens Book Section on Sunday, November 14, reviewer Abby McGanney Nolan writes, Kerleys account starts with a youthful Whitman and extends to his Good Gray Poet years, but much of it is devoted to his experience during the Civil War. Nearly every day for two and a half years, Whitman lived in Washington as the volunteer companion, comforter and sometime nurse to a steady stream of sick and wounded Union soldiers . . . . Kerley conveys the great good Whitman did as well as the poetry this service inspired. Summing up, McGanney notes, Kerley does do a nice job of capturing in few words Whitmans expansive view of himself, of America and of poetry. As she describes part of his technique, He read the poems aloud, shaping their rhythm until he heard in them the roll of ocean waves.
Author and cross culture authority Craig Storti (Morocco 197072) was interviewed by the Associated Press on Saturday October 30th in an article on reverse culture shook that effects college students coming back on campus after studying overseas. Storti, author of The Art of Coming Home, A Guide for Returning Expatriates, was quoted as saying, People actually resist fitting back into their home countries, because it symbolizes going back to who I was. Theyre so different, and they dont want to endanger their new self, to compromise this richer person theyve become.
John Krauskopf (Iran 196567) has had an article called Countdown to Amtrak accepted for a future issue of TRAINS Magazine. The author recounts how his passionate pursuit of an eccentric hobby imperils his chance for true love.
Uncommon Journeys: Peace Corps Adventures Across Cultures has just been published by Worldwise Schools of the Peace Corps. This is a terrific book suitable for anyone but aimed at students from the 6th to the 12 grades. Uncommon Journeys offers 11 essays by returned Peace Corps Volunteers, providing readers an insiders grasp of what its like to serve as a Volunteer, including the challenges, the rewards, the humor, and, most importantly, the lessons about life in other cultures. Each selection is accompanied by lessons. The stories reach from Eastern Europe to Africa, from Central America to Asia. Roger B. Hirschland (Sierra Leone 196667) was the editor of this book, the second in a series.
Journeys is the fourth book of the Worldwise Schools books that were the idea of Betsy Shays (Fiji 196870) who came to the Peace Corps during Mark Gearnans administration. Shays, a former teacher, developed the first books using essays published in our newsletter and on this site. The new edition goes beyond the essays we have published and includes sections from many of the books published about the Peace Corps. If you want a free copy contact the Peace Corps which is offering copies free (e-mail email@example.com, and put Journeys in the subject field). The book can also be downloaded free from www.peacecorps.gov/wws/guides/journeys/.
A new book of travel literature is coming in March, 2005. It is entitled Writing the Journey: Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel and was edited by David Espey (Morocco (196264). Published by Pearson/Longman this book is a collection of some of the best travel writing, from Francis Bacons Of Travel to Annie Dillards Sojourner, and is thematically organized (if one were to use it in teaching) and also includes a list of films, websites, and documentaries on travel, as well as, author biographies and suggested reading. The collection focuses on travel writing in a variety of ways: motives for travel, modes and places, social and moral issues in travel, race and gender issues, travel and personal growth, and travel versus the yearning to be home.
Everyone is here from Jack Kerouac to Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson and also four RPCV writers: Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65), Susan Rich (Niger 198486), Peter Chilson (Niger 198587), and Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587).
Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel is the next book from Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293) due out in February, 2005.
Following 9/11, Tayler realized that there was a reason weightier than exoticism for learning more about the Sahel. Mainly, it could become a haven for terrorists, much like Afghanistan. The Sahel is larger than Afghanistan, with many more inaccessible places to hide, and with vast areas barely governed. In 2002, Tayler crossed the Sahel from Chad to Senegal, traveling by whatever means available. For the first time in 17 years of travel to Islamic countries, he experienced a breakdown of traditional Muslim hospitality, resulting from a newly intense hatred of the United States. However, partly because he spoke the regions three main languages French, Arabic, and English Tayler was able to slip through when all looked grim. The result of his travel is Angry Wind.
Currently, Jeff is in the south of France working on his next book that is about the trip he made this summer down the Lena River in Siberia.
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) has written ten widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including three New York Times notable books. His Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis of a CBS documentary, and his bestselling Lost Hero, a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, was made into an award-winning NBC miniseries. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the recipient of a Guggehheim Fellowship and other awards and lives with his wife and three daughters in upstate New York. And for the sake of full disclosure, I should add that Thurston is a good friend, and my wife published one of his books when she was a book editor. My wife is also the godmother of his youngest daughter.
That said, I want to add that Thurston is a helluva writer and his new book Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America is an important book that tells an amazing story. As the book jacket writes: Thurston Clarkes portrait of JFK during what intimates call his happiest days reveals this ultimate politician at his most dazzlingly charismatic and cunningly pragmatic. For everyone who seeks to understand an era and the endless fascination with all things Kennedy, the answer can be found in Ask Not.
So, I asked . . .
Thurston, why did you select this speech as a focus of a book?
Every great speech needs a great event, and the 1961 inauguration was just that: one of the great American political events of the century. The fact that there was this intersection between one of the greatest inaugural speeches in American history AND one of the greatest inaugurations convinced me that there would be enough material for a book.
Why is it important to establish that Kennedy was the real author of many of the most memorable and poetic passages of his inaugural address?
The issue of whether Kennedy composed his own inaugural, or delivered speechwriter Ted Sorensens beautiful words, is not some arcane historical footnote. The speech is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest oration of any twentieth-century American politician. More than the countless books about JFK, it is his inaugural that explains the Kennedy phenomenon to the heart as well as the mind, reaching across the chasm of years to connect the present with the beginning hour of his presidency. To deny him full credit for it not only diminishes his legacy and weakens his claim on the hearts and minds of future generations; it also distances him, and us, from a speech that is a distillation of his experiences, philosophy, and character.
How do we know that Kennedy actually wrote the speech?
Three days before delivering it, Kennedy wrote out in longhand many of the passages he had dictated to his personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln the week before. The reason for this was to leave a record in his own handwriting that would persuade skeptical journalists and future historians that he was the true and only author of these immortal lines. It was a charade, of course, but an honorable one designed to reinforce the truth: that Kennedy was the true author of, for example:
The torch has been passed to a new generation . . .
We shall pay any price, bear any burden . . .
Ask not what your country can do for you . . .
Why was ask not what your country can do for you . . . immediately recognized as the great grace note of the inaugural address?
Ask not . . . was a distillation of Kennedys philosophy and experience the chrysalis of his campaign speeches, and the logical and emotional climax of his inaugural address. It had great emotional power because Kennedy had himself asked not and proven his courage and patriotism while commanding a PT boat during the Pacific War. In short, this sentence seemed so powerful and true because it was so firmly grounded in Kennedys own life and character.
Why does the Kennedy inaugural still touch the hearts and minds of Americans?
Kennedys belief in a higher purpose, and his conviction that every individual could contribute to achieving it by using his or her talents to assure a more fruitful life for all mankind, resonated powerfully with the American people, then and now. It spoke to the need to live for something grander and nobler than physical comfort and material luxury. It appealed to the deeply religious strain in the American character, since a higher purpose implies the existence of a Higher Power. It affirmed the worth of every life by promising that the energy, faith, and devotion each individual brought to the task of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger could ignite a fire whose glow could truly light the world.
How do JFKs inauguration and assassination haunt one another?
The inauguration magnifies the tragedy of Kennedys death, while his death and funeral lend an added poignancy to the words of his inaugural.
Television footage of Kennedy and Eisenhower traveling by motorcade from the White House to the Capitol on inauguration day conjures up images of the motorcade in Dallas. We see him waiting in the Capitol, nervously rocking on his heels and made impatient by a twenty-minute delay, then lying in the rotunda almost three years later, impatient no longer. The next time many of the people seated in VIP sections on inauguration day would gather in Washington again would be at Kennedys funeral. The next time most Americans would hear the words of his inaugural address would be at his funeral, when Archbishop Hannan delivered passages from it as a eulogy, reciting, in a hollow, grief-stricken voice, And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you . . .
Jackie Kennedy called her husbands inaugural address beautiful and soaring, and predicted history would rank it with Pericles Funeral Oration and the Gettysburg Address. In the hours following his death, she would translate its eloquent sentences into an eloquent funeral, and so the torch that Kennedy had claimed for a new generation became the eternal flame at his grave, and the trumpet summoning Americans to a long twilight struggle against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war became the trumpet playing taps over his grave. In fact, the spare and classical language of the Kennedy inaugural was so easily translated into the spare and classical Kennedy funeral that you could say that when he dictated it to Evelyn Lincoln on January 10, he was also dictating his funeral.
Of all the interesting facts that you tracked down, what surprised you the most in your research?
The extent of Adlai Stevenson's contributions to the inaugural; the original material dictated by Kennedy ten days before the inauguration; the fact that Kennedy made more than thirty changes to the speech as he was delivering it.
Do you think this was Kennedys greatest speech, or was it the speech in Berlin in 1963 when he ended by saying, All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.?
The inaugural was his greatest speech. It is the one that changed lives, and it will be remembered long after anyone heard it has died.
In your opinion what was Kennedys lasting contribution to America?
The Peace Corps was his most concrete and lasting contribution.
Some practical questions. How long did the book take to write?
The writing and research took about two years. I compartmentalized the research as much as possible, dividing it into topics and periods of time such as the transition, the ten days before the inauguration, and inauguration day. After I had more or less finished the research on one topic of period I wrote a rough draft, while continuing research into other areas.
Thurston, how do you write and who edits your work?
I work on a computer and on long legal pads, depending on what kind of material Im writing. Some of the passages and chapters may go through as many as a dozen drafts, others through five or six. It depends on how long it takes to get it right. I write about five/six hours a day, more when Im approaching a deadline, less when Ive just finished something. I have a studio and my wife edits my drafts.
Whats next for you?
I am currently conducting research for A Prayer For Our Country, a narrative account of Robert Kennedys 1968 campaign for the presidency.
Where does the title come from?
The title comes from the impromptu speech that Robert Kennedy made to a largely black audience in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In that speech Kennedy said, So I shall ask you tonight to return home to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, thats true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
Why this topic for a book?
Because in his primary campaign for the presidency Robert Kennedy gives us a model of politics at its most honest, moral, and passionate, a model that we could do well to study today.
Thanks, Thurston, and good luck with Ask Not and your next book.
Experiences in Rural Costa Rica
by Susan Gordon (Costa Rica 196466)
SUSAN'S COLLECTION of essays or short stories is about her experiences as a young woman living in a world unlike the one she had known. And yet, almost 30 years later, I was walking into Costa Rica and experiencing a very similar Peace Corps to that of Susan Gordon. I guess there is something to that saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As I read about Susans first visit to Costa Rica and her experiences as a Volunteer, it seemed all too familiar. A gringa making friends, a gringa helping others, a gringa finding the magically powers that rest in the wisdom of older women. I felt like I was reading my own journal at times
I felt somewhat kindred to Susans experience in Peace Corps and her expression of those times left me with my head spinning just as my first experience learning Spanish had done. I would begin to read each essay about her experience and get lost in how many people were involved in the plot it truly did take a village! Susans writing was more like a telenovela soap opera as they say in Costa Rica.
Her essays are about her transition into adulthood through her experience living in Costa Rica for ten years but not necessarily about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I felt she was tough on Peace Corps in her writing and that she holds a bit of a grudge 35 years later. I think maybe Susan grew up more during her days as a Volunteer than her later years in Costa Rica. And since this isnt the end of Susan Gordons writing, I hope her future writing takes her to a place where she can find peace with her experience.
Stacey Flanagan is the National Manager of Operation Frontline at Share Our Strength, the nations leading anti-hunger nonprofit. She has a B.A. from Michigan State in Political Science and an M.S. in Nonprofit Management from the New School and lives in New York.
The Odyssey of Mary B
A True Tale
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
THIS BOOK IS BASED ON nine years in the life of Mary B (with the following surnames Broad, Braud, Brand and later Mrs. Bryant). The story begins in 1785 when Mary is witness to or possibly a participant in an assault and robbery. In any case, she is arrested, jailed, later convicted to seven years imprisonment (1785), and then sent (1787) to Australia as part of the first settlement of convicts in that country. In 1791, Mary, her two small children, her convict husband and seven others requisition an open boat and escape the struggling settlement, sailing to Kupang (Timor) where those who survive the trip are sent as prisoners back to England to complete their sentences finally being released and pardoned in 1793.
If you enjoyed the film Master and Commander you will enjoy this book. While just one page short of a ream, the story moves right along. The writing is straight-forward and (except for the 57 words I attempted to look up in my dictionary) easily understood. The unfamiliar words would appear to be part of the vocabulary of late 18th century England and heavily influenced by nautical terms (hulk, drogue anchored, thwart, payed, wale, strakes, choles, taffrail, orlop, coaming, scoot, lug sailed). Terms like clod pates, grog blossoms, noddy and bufflehead might have been resurrected for the recent election campaign where we were swingled by puncheons, tierces and firkins of huggermugger by fish eyed, minikin lags who should have been dressed in mobcaps and kersey, bound in bilboes, loaded in tumbrels, fed caudle and washed with lixivium.
The author does a good job of recreating the life and environment of the late 18th century. The awful conditions in the prisons and convict ships are described; this is followed by the details of shipboard life during the voyage from England to the Canary Islands to Rio to Cape Town and finally Australia where the first colony based on convict labor was founded in the vicinity of present day Sydney. Durand vividly describes the length of and privation during the various legs of the journey. He makes us think of the complexities of establishing a functional, self-sustaining community on land that was neither well-suited to grazing animals nor to cultivation of grains and other food stuffs (presumably better adapted to the British climate) with a criminal population showing little motivation and not much history of personal success. As supply ships are lost, damaged or delayed in reaching the settlement, rations are reduced again and again. Hunger, disease, death, harsh sentences for crimes, aged convicts unable to work and hostile indigenes take an enormous toll on the settlers. Conditions do not appear to have been much different for either the sailors and marines or the convicts.
While the characters are based on actual people and the events are grounded in historical facts, it is not clear to me how much the author has created. I would have found it enlightening for a preface or afterward to describe how much is fact and how much is creation or fiction. Or a list of references or sources or recommendations for further reading would be useful to the reader who is not an historian and who might want to know more.
This story would make the basis for an entertaining action movie there are a few central characters, plenty of blood and gore, many forms of suffering, sex and various sexual orientations, executions, dreams, nightmares and flashbacks. With historical connections to James Boswell, Captain Bligh, Bounty mutineers and survivors, Mary B and her surviving friends lead naturally to a sequel Odyssey II or The Further Adventures of Mary B (only partially tongue in cheek).
I would take an exception to comments on page 487 regarding Mary Bs surname. The reproduction of the original record of Marys marriage to Will Bryant convinces me that u and n are different on this page of the document and Marys last name is clearly spelled as Braud not Brand. Genealogists are always cautioned on such matters.
With more careful proofreading a number of missing articles and prepositions might have been found and a few awkward constructions corrected. The Notes on page 499 which translate phrases or document text and quotations have incorrect page references.
All in all, this is a good read provocative of further thought and sympathetic to the characters involved. Id highly recommend it.
Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell after his Peace Corps tour and taught at the university level in New Jersey, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi, then owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota. Now retired, he is gardening and writing in California.
The Weeping Time
Elegy in Three Voices
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Argonne House Press
THE OPENING SCENE of Christopher Conlons poetic sequence The Weeping Time proves highly cinematographic. The train hisses as it stops. Pierce Butler, owner of Butler Island, disembarks into the warm Georgia spring rain holding two canvas money bags. What shall be done must be done. He will sell his 440 slaves. His beneficence will seal their destiny. He will press a shiny silver dollar into the hand of each one, until his money bags are deflated like twin hearts. As readers, we are already on the cusp of everything the dissolution of a great fortune, the mayhem of the biggest slave auction in American history, the Civil Wars delusions of grandeur.
As cinema, The Weeping Time features much in common with Gone With the Wind. It is epic in scope. It gives us the South through the lens of a troubled marriage. It goes heavy on Southern manners. Just as it is unwomanly for Scarlet OHara to eat ravenously in public (which is why she stuffs herself to the gills in private before allowing herself to be squeezed into her corset for parties), it is unmanly for Pierce Butler to take umbrage at the obvious inadequacies of women and slaves. He must simply bear the tragic burden of constant responsibility for his lessers. Conlons lens also focuses on two of these lessers Fanny Kemble, a British actress for whom marriage with Pierce Butler is the deus ex machina that gets her off the British stage, and Jack, a slave whose angelic high-tenor voice provides a ticket out of the rice fields until puberty hits and his voice starts creaking like a rusted gate.
Many poets these days write about history in narrative sequences such as The Weeping Time. Andrew Hudgins After the Lost War, Rita Doves Thomas and Beulah, Ellen Bryant Voigts Kyrie and Marilyn Nelsons Carver: A Life in Poems represent just a few book-length series of poems devoted to similar concerns (race, the Civil War, the history of the South, etc.). Persona poems i.e., poems in which a character, famous or not, gives his or her own first-person account constitute a natural choice for the methodology of such sequences. Although the subtitle for The Weeping Time is An Elegy in Three Voices, Conlon does not opt for persona poems. Instead we get Pierce, Fanny and Jack from the perspective of a third-person narrator, who paints all of them with the same ironic brush. In places, this flattens the narrative into something like a film script. The weakest poems seem to be waiting for actors to inhabit the words.
The truly memorable poems in the book give me scenes that I know for sure Ive never read in Faulkner, whose fiction treats similar material. In White, for example, black children metamorphose into white by spreading chicken shit all over their bodies. In Triumph: A Definition, the slave Obadiah performs magic tricks in red pantaloons, pulled along by a leash and rhinestone-studded collar. In The Infirmary, midwives strangle a woman in labor to make her convulse. A driving accentual rhythm emphasizes the hauntedness of all these stories.
As Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell once stipulated in an attempt to focus the attention of American poets back on the narrative, Emotion is inconsequential unless it is the result of a story. The story is communal; it is for others. The inconsequential emotion is the one felt only by the poet himself.
Conlon, I suspect, subscribes to this formulation. Ultimately, the strength of The Weeping Time lies in its commitment to the bigness of the story, to giving us Pierce and Fanny and Jack in cinemascope. Experiencing the unfolding of their lives on the big screen of the narrative sequence must surely give us pause. The forbidden question must come to our lips: how much progress have we really made on the race issue in the last 150 years?
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the 1997 RPCV Readers and Writers Award for Poetry. She is currently completing a book-length sequence inspired by the Boston busing crisis. Recent work appears in the anthology Snakebird and is upcoming in the Mid-American Review. A professor of creative writing at Murray State University, she lives in western Kentucky with her husband and two sons.
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197880)
Houghton Mifflin Company
Roland Merullo has kept his distance from the Peace Corps establishment, which, Ive found, is true enough for most RPCVs from Micronesia. Micronesia, by the way, seems to have also produced the most Peace Corps writers. Is it the water? The endless sand? The lonely island placements? Im not sure but I know that Merullo, as a writer, is up there with P. F. Kluge (Micronesia 196567) who is the best line-by-line writer we have with the possible exception of one other writer from the Peace Corps.
That said, Leaving Losapas, published in 1991 by Houghton Mifflin was Roland Merullos first novel and it is a gem.
What Merullo did was take a Vietnam veteran and drop him into Peace Corps Micronesia. Leo Markin is an ex-Marine tortured by his memories of the war. This conflict shook his faith in Catholicism and his trust in the military which had been another kind of religion for him. It likewise made him question the canons of his Boston childhood the ideals of Manhood, Family and Patriotism. We find him first in Losapas, Micronesia. Here Leo has arrived at peace with men and women who, he says, live so gently with the earth and one another that to speak about sin among them was almost to invent the concept. But then comes an emissary from the bigger world back home, and Leo is forced to make a choice where truly is his home? Against his will, hes drawn back to the ethnic Boston suburb where hed grown up; there he learns that to live in Losapas he had to leave it. In his review of this novel years ago, P.F. Kluge summed up: Whether in war or peace, overseas experience enriches and divides us. This tension between places and selves, between versions of our lives, is a huge theme. Merullo addresses it honorably.
Picked by Barnes & Noble as one of their Discover Great New Writers in 1991. The book was also optioned for the movies by John Turturro and GreeneStreet Films in 2000.
Its a great read.
A Writer Writes
Martha Stewart of Gabon
by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698)
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate . . .
THEY CALLED ME the Martha Stewart of Gabon. It was meant to be funny young Peace Corps Volunteers inclination to make light of everything around them, in order to survive the harsh realities of life at their remote posts but like most jokes and cartoons, it derived its humor precisely from its proximity to raw truth. Indeed, apart from the fact that Martha and I lived in different worlds, we actually had a lot in common.
We are about the same age (she is four years older), about the same height and coloring. We were both the eldest daughters of working-class families from suburban New Jersey. We were both scholarship students at college on 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan she, at Barnard; I, at Columbia. We were both, briefly, fashion models. We are both divorced and mothers of one child, both daughters, born the same year. Most of all, we were both food-obsessed professional caterers for a time and passionate homemakers for all time.
In the realms of wealth, power, and fame, however, Martha and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that was just fine with me. As an essentially shy person with simple tastes, I had never wanted to be famous or rich or, god forbid, wield power over others. Somehow, Id always only seen the down-side of these great American ambitions such as the loss of privacy and cherished solitude and the exposure to public scrutiny and judgment.
How dreary, Emily Dickinson wrote, to be Somebody! How public like a Frog To tell your name the livelong June To an admiring Bog! From the moment I first read these words in high school and wrote them on the walls of my mind, I knew it would never be my lifes goal to be a Somebody in the Bog.
The real Martha Stewart, though, rose from her humble beginnings to reach empress status; and she knew how to carry it off. Referred to in the press as the diva of domesticity, the paragon of domestic virtue and the queen of all things house and home, Martha Stewart became famous all over the media-watching world. I, on the other hand, at least for a short while and among a small band of Peace Corps Volunteers, became famous as the Martha Stewart of Gabon a place where the real Martha Stewart truly wouldnt care about fame.
The label stuck when it went into print. In a write-up for the December 96 issue of a monthly Peace Corps-Gabon newsletter, Cindy, the Volunteer posted in Koulamoutou, told of the Thanksgiving dinner 18 of us new Volunteers had had at her house. . . . With Bonnie leading the way in the kitchen, Cindy enthused, we had a feast that was incredible. . . . turkey . . . stuffing . . . mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans . . . carrots, feuilles de manioc (okay, that isnt really traditional, but we are in Gabon!), pumpkin pie, apple tart and bread pudding! Bonnie was the true Martha Stewart of Gabon. She made sure that everything came out perfect right down to the flowers and napkins on the harvest table. It felt like a real Thanksgiving.
From then on, my nickname became Martha; and, frankly, I was a little flattered by it. It inspired me to become a role model for these younger (roughly half my age) Volunteers: to show them, through my own lifestyle there, that although we were living in the back of beyond, in the middle of a hot, wet rainforest as dense as a head of broccoli; although we all lived on a shoestring in towns and villages where there was really nothing to buy anyway, we could rise above!
We didnt have to live in squalor and subsist on tinned sardines and stale cookies! We could learn to make decent-enough meals with available ingredients (and herbs and spices sent from home). We could get the knack of gracious entertaining by candlelight (since the power lines were almost always down). We could decorate the interiors of our mud-wattle huts or cement-block houses in such a way that they would be cheerful and welcoming. Its amazing what one coat of paint can do. It became my mission to teach my fellow PCVs, by example.
My house in Lastoursville, two degrees south of the Equator, was on the train line. There is one train in Gabon, which reaches from Libreville, the countrys cosmopolitan capital, on the Atlantic coast, to Franceville in the southeast. Lastoursville lies just south of the middle of that line, a ten-hour train trip to the capital, so Volunteers often stopped at my house in their travels. They knew I had room for them, clean sheets and dry towels, screened windows, thick homemade soup, fresh-baked bread, just-washed floors, and current issues of The New Yorker and Gourmet magazines neatly arranged on my living room coffee table.
This is like a real home, some would swoon, with a tinge of homesickness in their voices.
But you can do it, too! Id tell them, launching into Martha mode. Id show them how I built my own bed, using NIDO tins for the legs; how I made a loom for weaving doormats out of discarded plastic bags; how I used the tiny, ubiquitous, red, tomato-paste cans (washed, with both ends removed) as napkin rings; how I made tie-back curtains without the benefit of a sewing machine; how I made flowers out of dried corn husks for the dining room centerpiece bouquet; how I planted pineapple tops and forced avocado pits (in time, I had 30 little avocado trees growing in separate small containers on my front porch). So Martha.
At one point, I even went a bit crazy with Peace Corps-issue Magic Markers. In the bedroom that Morgan, my Pisciculture-postmate, used when she came into town for mail and supplies once a week from her village 40 km away, I painted a big, rattan headboard on the wall at the head of her bed; on the wall to the right I painted a low, bed-side table, with a huge vase filled with colorful flowers on top of it. Not content with that, I surprised her by drawing a large-screen TV on the wall across from her bed. She was thrilled when she saw it none of us had TVs at our posts but wondered where Id hidden the remote.
The decorating touch that I think the real Martha Stewart would envy today, though, was in my bathroom in Gabon. I took green markers and drew tall, wild grass from the baseboard up. I painted a clear, rain-free, baby blue sky, dotted with cotton-ball clouds, on the ceiling. At head-height, I drew a drooping, black telephone line from one corner of the room to the other, then the other, and the other, and painted colorful birds perched on it in happy clusters. And then, to express my soaring sentiments in that exuberant moment, I wrote in loopy, two-inch-high script along the drawing of the telephone line: Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have found my own way to be free.
Bonnie Lee Black was a food professional in New York City for ten years before joining the Peace Corps and serving in Gabon in central Africa. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.
War and Peace Corps
Christmas on the Mekong
by John Krauskopf (Iran 196567)
I HADNT PLANNED to go to Viet Nam. I was only trying to meet up with my former college roommate in Thailand. This was in December of 1969 and Tom my college roommate and an RPCV from Tanzania was now working as a civilian employee for USAID doing rural development work in Viet Nam. At the same time I was in Tehran, working as a Peace Corps Trainer.
When I arrived several days late for our rendezvous in Bangkok, I was handed a note at the hotel saying Tom had flown back to Viet Nam that morning, unable to wait any longer. But Tom did say we could still get together if I just flew into Saigon. He told me to pick up a seven-day tourist visa at Ton Son Nhut Airport and give him a call when I arrived. He would then drive the 60 miles or so from My Tho, where he lived, and meet me at the Saigon airport. We could spend Christmas together, he suggested, on the banks of the Mekong River.
The absurdity of these propositions was so appealing I went immediately to the Pan Am office and had my ticket rerouted, leaving myself a day to tour Bangkok.
I then contacted Lee St. Laurence, a friend from my Peace Corps Iran days, who was working on a UN-backed development project in South East Asia. Lee made a call to the Peace Corps country office and arranged an invitation for me to a reception for some Bangkok area Volunteers that night. The guest of honor was a Peace Corps Advisory Board member, Neil Armstrong, who talked about his recent trip to the Moon, but nothing that he told us over dinner was as strange as my trip down the Rabbit Hole of Vietnam.
ARRIVING IN SAIGON at Tan Son Nhut airport revealed my first surprise. The civilian airport was only a tiny corner of a mammoth U.S. army air base. By the end of 1969, the U.S. had begun to withdraw forces and push for a Viet Namization of the war effort, but our military still had close to 500,000 troops in the country, and our troops still were doing much of the fighting.
But the battle line in Viet Nam was often more chronological than geographic. The Delta area, for example, was controlled by the GVN (South Vietnamese Government) with backing from the American Army during the day. At night, the same area belonged to the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese guerillas backed by the Communist Government in North Viet Nam).
When Tom met me at the airport, it was after 5 pm, and he hesitated to drive across the Delta at twilight, so we stayed overnight in Saigon and went down to My Tho early the next day.
The morning drive on a modern two-lane road in Toms Ford sedan crossed countryside that was lush and green, all carefully cultivated and highly productive. The orderliness of the rice paddies suggested a peaceful country, and it was only when we neared one of the many streams or canals that laced the Delta could I see that this was really a nation at war.
At all of the waterways, the lanes were divided and crossed separate bridges 50 yards apart. The bridges themselves were steel-truss chosen by military engineers for portability and ease of construction. The split arrangement made it more difficult for VC saboteurs who had been in the habit of floating explosives down the waterways at night to knock out the bridges and close the highway.
Reaching the outskirts of My Tho, however, we crossed a multilane bridge across a major canal, and I thought the wide bridge was symbolic of the GVN dominance of the area until Tom remarked that all of the military supplies for VC operations in the Delta moved down this canal in sampans.
Why, I asked, if we had all this strategic intelligence and the overwhelming military strength, didnt we stop the boat supply traffic?
We have done that, Tom said, but every time the United States army sank the Viet Cong sampans, the VC blew up another bridge. The Army engineers had gotten tired of replacing the bridges so what had developed was a gentlemans agreement: we didnt sink their sampans and they didnt blow up our bridges.
We drove across the last bridge into the supposedly secure city of My Tho and stopped at Toms house for lunch.
WHEN TOM WENT to work, I walked to the local outdoor market crowded with fish vendors, produce sellers and handcraft dealers. I noticed a number of artisans who had big inventories of hammered metal vases and trays. Looking closely at one vase, I saw that it had been crafted out of a 155mm howitzer shell casing, an esthetic example of the swords to ploughshares idea.
Next to the market was a docking area for water taxis. I bargained over the price before boarding a motorized wooden canoe and setting out for Rach Dua Island, a neutral zone twenty-five-minutes across the muddy waters of the Mekong.
The water taxi approached the downstream tip of the island, a triangular sand bar covered with bamboo scaffolding supporting a city-block-sized expanse of deck. A small crowded village occupied the deck and spread upstream to the place where the land rose well above the river level and the jungle began. The boat slipped in among dozens of others tied up at the main dock, and I disembarked.
Climbing spidery bamboo stairs, I entered a busy plaza lined with teahouses, shops, and restaurants and sat down under a thatched pavilion that had a commanding view of the scene and ordered a cup of tea.
At the next table two GVN soldiers in uniform, but without weapons, were talking earnestly with their girlfriends. In fact, at many of the nearby cafes there were small groups of soldiers drinking tea and playing cards. Tom had alerted me to look out for other men in black pajamas sure to be sitting at shops around the plaza. These were all Viet Cong, and in the plaza I saw a number of them, young men and women. This whole island, Tom had said, with the exception of the elevated plaza and village, was VC-controlled, and the Viet Cong soldiers simply walked into the village from the jungle whenever they wanted to relax.
I had hardly had time to process the absurdity of mortal enemies and their dates casually drinking tea at adjacent tables when the boom of a large brass gong and the sound of drums captured everyones attention. A procession of chanting, orange-robed monks entered the plaza out of a passage emerging from a warren of thatched bungalows. The chanters congregated at the edge of the deck in front of a room-sized alcove. A green crescent and some Arabic writing hung on the five-meter high bamboo backdrop. The monks paused for a recitation and some rituals, not visible in detail from my angle. After a few minutes, the monks resumed the chanting and moved to the right to another alcove.
Here, the backdrop included a cross and other Christian symbols. Arrayed around the plaza were four more alcoves, each with different set of religious symbols. The group proceeded noisily to the Buddhist shrine, the Hindu shrine, the Jewish shrine, and one more whose identity I could not decipher. After about fifteen minutes, the column of monks disappeared into the passageway of arrival. In the relative quiet after the monks departure, occasional civilians approached a preferred alcove and stood piously for a few minutes.
Having difficulty absorbing the incongruity of the oddly ecumenical symbolism and ritual, I thought to myself that these young men didnt really know what they believed, but given the chaos all around them, they were covering all bets. Because of their youth, most of the monks would have been in one army or the other if they hadnt chosen this vocation. I couldnt dismiss my idea that a sense of personal safety and sanctuary was the dominating reason for their piety, but clearly, the GVN and VC armies were more accepting of the sincerity of the monks spiritual motivation. Both sides respected the neutrality of this unique island monastery and the persons of the pious monks.
Walking to the water-taxi dock, I considered crossing the plaza to offer up a prayer of my own but was confused as to which shrine promised the greatest efficacy. In the end, I simply descended the spindly stairs to the boat and headed back to My Tho.
ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, Tom asked if I wanted to take a helicopter ride, since the holiday was a truce day. The truce was something more formal than a gentlemans agreement, and it meant that for one day neither side would shoot at the other. Also, an informal codicil to this agreement was that neither side would take tactical advantage of the truce to do things that they would not be able to do when the combatants were shooting at each other.
I accepted Toms invitation and he took me over to the helipad, where I met the crew of the Huey a pilot, a co-pilot and a pair of gunners. The guns were dismounted because this was a truce day, but the gunners went along for the ride.
The curiously named Major Justice, the youthful officer in charge, had the task of visiting the soldiers in a couple of outposts 20 miles northwest of My Tho. These small towns were war zones and the soldiers lived in bunkers landscaped with sandbags. During the day, life for the soldiers and villagers went on more or less normally, but at night the battle resumed.
We lifted off from My Tho and ascended to a couple thousand feet. The scene immediately below was untouched by the war: dikes were well tended, the rice paddies unmarked by shell craters. And the farmhouses nestled in the tree-lined edges of the fields, protected from the harsh tropical sun..
Farther away from My Tho we came closer to the war. I could see pockmarks of artillery shell craters in the fields, and the farmhouses in this area were out on the dikes, suffering the full force of the sun, but safe from the artillery gunners who fired at the Viet Cong suspected of hiding in the trees.
As we continued north, the conditions on the ground deteriorated. Shell holes were everywhere, dikes were broken, and the fields left uncultivated. We flew over a ruined farmhouse that stood sentinel over a damaged dike. After the fighting, the land was without farmers or village life.
We flew away from this scene to a forested area cut through by a lazily curving waterway that emptied into one of the main channels of the Mekong River. Soldiers referred to this area as Snoopys Nose, a major Viet Cong base and staging area. The American and GVN gunners considered it a free fire zone, and we could see lots of downed and splintered trees.
It was hard to talk over the noise of the Huey, but there was a certain amount of light-hearted banter punctuated by gestures. Tom, the crew, the Major, and the pilot of the Swamp Fox that was accompanying us were all enjoying their Christmas Day excursion. A Swamp Fox is a light, fixed-wing, propeller aircraft loaded with rockets. These craft act as escorts and spotters for chopper flights such as the one we were taking. This pilot had his armaments turned off for the truce day, but he still carried a highly lethal load.
As we came over the river that gave Snoopys Nose its name, the banter stopped. I looked at Major Justice who had turned pale. Tom had fallen silent, and there was much agitation among the crew. The tone of the radio chatter with the Swamp Fox became tense. They were all reacting to the sight of a hundred or more sampans in the river below. This seemed to be a breech of the unspoken codicil to the gentlemans agreement about the Christmas truce, and my companions were simultaneously appalled, frightened and indignant. They all interpreted what they were seeing as the Viet Cong flipping a giant finger at them.
After a very brief consultation among the crew, the chopper began a rapid descent. The fastest way to lose altitude in a helicopter while still keeping control is to spiral in imitation of the path of a locust seed as it swirls downward. The occupants of the chopper experience a sensation that no thrill ride at Great America has yet been able to duplicate. We leveled off at less than 50 feet, and I found myself gazing dizzily out the open side of the chopper at the polemen and oarsmen on the sampans. I had been unprepared for this maneuver, and only later did I discover that we had been trying to draw fire from the presumed VC on the boats. Had someone foolishly discharged a rifle in the direction of our aircraft, that would have been a clear breech of the truce. We would have been justified in firing back, and the Swamp Fox, armaments now fully on-line, was prepared to retaliate by sinking all the sampans and killing all of the people I had been staring at.
Despite our deliberate exposure, nothing happened. The pilot climbed a bit and proceeded to our original destination where a jeep was waiting for us at the helipad. Tom and I climbed in the back, and Major Justice directed the driver to the Vietnamese District Governors house.
We found the Governor in his tennis whites resting after a doubles match. Still convinced that the VC were violating the truce, the Major had to obtain the civilian District Governors approval to attack without the provocation of live fire from the enemy. To the Majors frustration, the Governor refused blanket authorization to attack but asked to be taken out to the river area in the chopper. Tom and I were now in the way, so we were driven to one of the bunker outposts and deposited with the bored GIs there for safekeeping.
Ensconced in the bunker, Tom and I popped a couple of cold Buds and watched the Arkansas vs. Texas football game on TV. The soldiers showed some interest in the game but little in us. They talked about the return of the chopper later in the day when it was supposed to bring them hot turkey dinners. Their lethargy and focus on the trivial was perhaps caused by the realization that the next day people would be shooting at them again.
A few hours later, the Jeep returned and we drove back to the helipad to board the chopper. The Governor and the Major had returned to Snoopys Nose and repeated the maneuver we had made earlier and still drew no fire, only friendly waves. The helicopter dropped so low that the Governor was able to talk to the people on the boats and even recognize some of them. He discovered that most of them were originally from the area but had been resettled in a fortified hamlet on an island in the Mekong River because of the war. They had returned on the truce day to honor their ancestors graves and to gather firewood, a commodity readily available in a forested free fire zone. There were probably some VC sampans mixed in with the locals, but it was clearly not the massive truce violation first suspected, nor did it represent the level of danger that everyone had originally perceived. A system of checks built into the command structure and the integrity of the individuals involved had prevented a disaster this time.
Tom talked the pilot into proceeding farther north before reversing course and heading back to My Tho. This took us over an area controlled by the Cao Dai, a religious sect that could call forth loyalty and disciplined behavior on the part of its members. Once again, we saw verdant pristine fields untouched by even a hint of the conflict raging on all sides. Since only members of the sect could live in the area, they needed only small arms to protect themselves. All in the brotherhood knew each other, and any infiltrating VC were shot. With no VC in the sects territory to worry about, the GVN and American gunners left the Cao Dai alone. Not surprisingly, the sects leadership routinely sold rice, vegetables and other agricultural products to both sides.
While flying back over the contested area, Tom nudged me and pointed out of the open side of the chopper at a small grove of trees not too far below.
See those trees?
VC. He moved his finger slightly and pointed to another grove of trees several hundred yards away, but well within the sight of the first grove. GVN.
The loyalties of the people who controlled those two small pieces of real estate had been established early in the conflict and had not wavered for more than five years. The machines of war, the legions of soldiers, the money, the will and the political maneuvers had failed to produce a change of control in this tiny area. It seemed to simulate, on a small scale, the stalemate playing out at that time in the whole country.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer John Krauskopf taught English in the boys secondary schools in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzistan Province in Iran. In 1969, he returned to Iran for the in-country portion of that years Peace Corps training where he supervised a teacher-training summer school. After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, he spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences.
To Preserve and to Learn
Then & Now
by John Rex (Ethiopia 196264; Namibia 200304)
ON AUGUST 30, 1962, after eight weeks of training at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I was one of 285 men and women inducted into the Peace Corps to serve as the first group to go to Ethiopia. After a brief visit home and my first overseas flight, I had two weeks of orientation in Addis Ababa before traveling with eleven other Volunteers to Debra Berhan, where I taught English as a second language in Haile Mariam Mamo Secondary School to grades nine and ten for the next two years.
On January 9, 2004, after ten weeks of training based at the Andreas Kukuri Conference Centre in Okahandja, Namibia, I was one of 39 men and women sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers to serve as the twenty-second Peace Corps group in that country since it gained independence from South Africa in 1991. That same day, the principal of Ebenhaeser Combined School drove me and my worldly possessions to my new home in Karibib, where I taught English as a second language to grades eight, nine, and ten for one full trimester, until the end of April, 2004, when I decided to terminate my Peace Corps experience.
Then I was twenty-one years old, and now I am sixty-three. However I might remember these two experiences, I realize that much is personal and subjective, and that many years of life experience have given me a very different perspective from what I had in 1962.
The invitation to serve
The differences between then and now were immediately evident in the application process. As a senior at Bowdoin College in 1962, I filled in a form on my trusty portable typewriter, and then traveled from Brunswick to Portland, Maine, to take a written examination, and later to the nearby Naval Air Station for a physical examination. That spring, I received a telegram informing me that I had been chosen to train to go to Ethiopia at which point, quite honestly, I had to check a map to be sure of just where Ethiopia was.
Applying in 2003 put me in immediate contact with the massive bureaucracy that is now the Peace Corps. After retiring, I had been inspired by returned Volunteers in South Florida, some of whom had gone back into the Peace Corps in later life and spoke very positively of their experience. I labored through the many pages of the initial application that included being fingerprinted at the local police station, and then a lengthy telephone interview. I was told I would be put on the fast track as my qualifications for teaching were much needed, but before being accepted I had to be medically and dentally cleared. That was not so easy for a person my age. For any medical problem that I may have had in my long life, I had to have a doctor testify in writing that I am now fit, and that there is little or no chance of a recurrence within the next two years.
For a few specific matters, this meant seeing specialists and being retested, a process that dragged on for many weeks. In my case, because of a heart irregularity, it cost me thousands of dollars not covered by either the Peace Corps or insurance to prove that I was in excellent physical condition and fit to serve.
The day the final piece of my medical data was finally faxed by my doctor to Washington, I received a phone call that I would be welcomed as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) in Namibia. Once again I had to find a map, this time to see where Namibia is.
Off to training
In 1962, I packed my bags, and my parents drove me to the airport from our family home. In 2003, I was faced with selling my car, putting my condo up for sale, and packing and storing a lifetime of accumulated possessions, all that in about a months time. That done, I flew to Philadelphia where I joined 45 other PCTs for a two day orientation staging event before our flight to Namibia.
In 1962, Peace Corps had authorized sea freight, a trunk that we could send from home full of personal items that we could not carry on the plane. In 2003, what we carried on the plane was all we could take: two suitcases, or, in most cases, duffel bags and back packs. Struggling to haul my overloaded suitcases into the hotel, I met a Namibia 22 trainee on a Philadelphia street, with her backpack and duffel, a woman just the age I was forty-two years ago, who greeted me with a big smile and affirmation that we were in this together.
Most of our group of 46 trainees were in their twenties or thirties. I was the third oldest, with our senior member being 77, another who was returning to serve again at 73, and just a few close below my then 62 years. We senior citizens were warmly welcomed by everyone and never, to my knowledge, given any sort of special treatment because of our age.
The staging was handled by Peace Corps/Washington staff members who spoke with authority about what we were about to encounter in another culture. Upon arrival in Namibia, after many hours in the air, we were greeted at the airport by a large, enthusiastic group of Namibians who were to be our trainers over the next ten weeks. That first, late, dark, jet-lagged evening, we were bussed to a hotel on the outskirts of Windhoek, the capitol, where we were given two days of orientation before traveling to our training center in Okahandja.
Training how different can it be?
In 1962, 340 of us men and women gathered at Georgetown for training. The first day, our pictures were taken for a mug book, complete with brief background sketches of all trainees, which served us then and helps me even now to identify Peace Corps colleagues. Many of us were greeted personally as we arrived by Harris Wofford, who was to be our country director, leader, and source of inspiration not just through training, but for the next two years of service.
Along with Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, Harris spoke and wrote eloquently again and again, instilling us with idealism and enthusiasm, affirming that we were special and that the work that we were doing was important. With such a very large group of trainees preparing to do what had not been done before, all on fairly short notice, inevitably there was much chaos, but overall for me training was a positive experience.
Even then one high priority was language training, but that was especially problematical and attempts to teach us Amharic, the official language, fell short. The Ethiopians who were brought in to teach Amharic became our friends, our genuine Ethiopian presence. One was my roommate throughout training. However, they were not in charge.
In Namibia, just the opposite occurred. Every part of the day-to-day training program was planned and controlled by Namibians, twenty-one of whom are listed in the welcome packet for our group of forty-six trainees. Although the language trainers stayed at the same locations where we trained, we did not share rooms with them, and there was always for me a sense of separation between us and them.
The official account of training in 1962 claims 480 hours of work in an eight-week period, from July 9 to August 30. Included in the eight components is Physical Education and Recreation, 60 hours, which many of the group remember as the exhausting, early morning calisthenics and runs, and afternoon game playing, all in the midst of intense classroom experiences.
The official account of training in 2004 claims 241 formal hours of work along with various informal seminars over a period of ten weeks. Completely absent from this training was any required physical activity. What was amazing and quite wonderful to me as a participant was that most of the younger trainees were up and running mornings and actively playing games afternoons, doing on their own what was required of us forty-two years ago while we oldsters chose our form of exercise, which for most of us meant a lot of walking.
Language training in Namibia was greatly emphasized, with trainees divided into three different language groups that related in some way to expectations of where individuals would be sent as Volunteers. Our language trainers had been prepared to present a kind of say it, read it, write it, repeat it, know it system that worked to some degree with some people, but it didnt work for me and left me far behind from the very beginning. However, as English is the official language of Namibia and the language of instruction in the schools, my lack of skill in a local language did not prevent my serving as a PCV.
The Peace Corps today is a world of acronyms, sixty-one of which are listed in the Namibian Volunteer Handbook. Not just in writing, but in everyday speech, Americans and Namibian trainers alike spiel off lists of letters in place of real words: See your APCD. (Thats Associate Peace Corps Director to the uninitiated.) Or The PCV VAC will meet to consider SPA. (PCV you know; Volunteer Advisory Committee, Small Project Assistance.)
One key acronym not included in the list of sixty-one is CBT, Community Based Training, which is a major component of Peace Corps training today. In Namibia, trainees are sent to live for a two- and then later a three-week period with host families. Ideally this is a wonderful opportunity to learn and practice language while immersing oneself in a very different culture. In practice, there were great problems. When we were entirely dependent on others for food, water, lodging, and security for a period of time, and when the others have very different ideas about what can and should be done, great problems could and did exist. My situation was difficult, but that difficulty was not mine alone. When our group of trainees reassembled after the first two weeks of CBT, the word was that we had survived.
Inspiration vs. perspiration
In 1962, we trainees were given special treatment from the very beginning. President John F. Kennedy greeted us at the White House. Various high government officials met with us during training. His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie shook hands with each of us individually at a reception in His palace in Addis Ababa. The U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia met with our group. Bill Moyers flew in to trouble shoot. The governor of Debre Berhan hosted a banquet for us twelve PCVs who had just arrived to serve in two schools there.
In 200304, we trainees were left alone. We never saw the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, though lesser U.S. officials visited us with words of warning and wisdom. The emphasis today clearly is on perspiration, not inspiration.
Two African nations
Ethiopia in 1962 was an ancient land, the oldest independent country in Africa, most of which had been occupied by Italy from 1935 to 1941. Except in a few cities, Ethiopians lived in isolated villages of mud and stone and thatch houses without electricity or running water, most accessible only by foot. They wore with pride the traditional white shawls with colored borders. We PCVs found ourselves living in a distinctly African medieval setting, that had both a unique ambiance and immense problems. As Americans, we were welcomed warmly, and we established many close bonds with Ethiopians.
Prior to independence, Namibia was South West Africa, a land where apartheid was strongly enforced. Blacks were relocated from the towns to areas called locations. The infrastructure of the country overall was established then, and today it is modern. I drank water from the tap everywhere I went and never suffered any consequences. I received all Peace Corps allowances through my local ATM. Electricity works most of the time. The roads are modern. The buildings you see along the roads appear modern. This seems to be a modern country.
But, hidden away out of sight, are the humbler rows of houses the shantytowns where many black and colored people continue to live today though, if they can afford it, they can move. In this country of about 1.7 million people, many are unemployed and spend their days hanging out. In the town where I did my CBT, the main industries are alcohol, both home brew and national brands, and coffins, the latter being largely for the 23% of the population that is HIV positive.
Since the 19th century, Namibian history includes white genocide against blacks, coloniziation, apartheid, and war for independence. Namibians are very much aware that the U.S.A. supported South Africa through the early years when Namibia sought independence, and the American government is most often pictured today in African media as aggressive, self-serving, and untrustworthy. Understandably, it is a special challenge for PCVs to establish warm relationships with Namibians.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer
On January 9, 2004 my principal deposited me at The Peace Corps House, a green three bedroom ranch on the distant edge of Usab, Karibibs location. Two previous PCVs had lived there in successive terms of service.
There were essentially no greetings or introductions, either from the community or the school. I was there, filling a post that had been filled before for a set period of time, after which I would leave, and there was very little interest in who I was or what I had to offer. I was assigned to teach English to 160 eighth, ninth, and tenth graders each day under dreadful conditions: few books and desks, broken windows, holes in the floor, excessive heat and noise all of which I had anticipated somewhat as a normal Peace Corps challenge. What I had not expected was the ongoing disruptive and disrespectful behavior of the students (in Namibia called learners) and the extraordinarily detailed and unrealistic requirements of the government educational bureaucracy that, in my opinion, guarantee failure.
I was the only PCV in Karibib, and I found the isolation to be difficult. Although my neighbors houses were much smaller than mine, most had color TVs and some had satellite dishes bringing in many South African channels. Many neighbors and teacher colleagues had cars.
Forty-two years ago in Ethiopia, TV was not an option. The Peace Corps issued drivers licenses and during our first year even supplied a vehicle for each town to enable PCVs to travel into Addis Ababa for meetings, and shopping. For a PCV in Namibia, TV is not within the budget, and driving a car is strictly forbidden. As a PCV in Ethiopia, I owned a horse and often rode in the countryside. As a PCV in Namibia, PC/N does not allow ownership or use of horses as a mode of transportation. This quotation from the Peace Corps Namibia Volunteer Handbook, updated in January, 2004, is just one example of how the Peace Corps today manages the lives of PCVs.
Volunteers are expected to be working on site 24/7 and to be subject to all rules promulgated by the bureaucracies of Washington, D.C., and Windhoek. They are required to check into the PC office whenever they visit Windhoek. That checking in includes guidelines for Greeting the Staff, Dress Code, and even Eating Lunch at the Office.
In addition: Volunteers may write articles for publication; however, they must receive prior approval from the CD or their APCD to ascertain whether they might cause problems which the Volunteer may not have anticipated.
In 1962, I perceived Peace Corps to be supporting my work. In 2004, I perceived Peace Corps to be managing just about every aspect of my life and not providing the support I hoped for. We PCVs heard repeatedly that Post must know where we were every minute of every day so that if our parents contacted their congressperson asking of our whereabouts, Post could account for us immediately. And, both in writing and in face-to-face meetings, we were told, that the final consequence of non-compliance with rules would be administrative separation we would be sent home.
In 1962, we Volunteers received weekly overseas editions of Time and Newsweek, allowing us to keep up, however belatedly, with world events. In 2004, I received three old issues of Newsweek in my first ten weeks in Karibib. When I called Post, I was told that budgetary cutbacks due to the war in Iraq had led to magazine cutbacks and the few magazines sent out from Washington were being distributed to PCVs in a fairly random fashion.
In 1962, the Peace Corps provided each household of PCVs with a trunk loaded with paperback books that gave us many hours of valuable reading. In 2004, there were no such book lockers, but we could fill in forms for job related books that might be sent weeks or months later, if available.
Then and now.
So much is different. What remains the same for me are the wonderful people whom I have met as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sadly, the challenges today seem even greater than ever before, yet I still hope and dream that, working together, we can make the world a better place. So much remains to be done.
After serving in the Peace Corps, John taught high school English in Akron, New York, for twenty-seven years. He raised two children with his former wife, who served as a PCV in Liberia from 1964 to 1966 and whom he met at an RPCV event. In 1991, John left teaching to pursue a calling in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, to which he was ordained in 1995. Subsequently he served congregations in Virginia and Florida, and spent many months studying and working in India. Today he lives in Buffalo, New York, where he may be retired . . .
Resources for writers
Have lunch (everyday!) with book publishers
Publishers Lunch is the industrys daily essential read, now shared on-line every day with well over 20,000 publishing people. Each report gathers together stories from all over the professional trade book community, along with original reporting, plus a little perspective and the occasional wisecrack added.
This site has more than youll ever want (or need) to know, but it is fun to track what is happening in the book world, and it is free! What more could an RPCV writer want?
Poem in October
On October 27, 2004 it would have been Dylan Thomass 90th birthday. In honor of the Welsh poet, a new literary prize for writers under 30 years of age is being launched in New York and Swansea, Wales, Thomass birthplace. The Dylan Thomas Prize of $100,000 will be awarded biennially to the most outstanding published writer in English, aged under 30 at the launch date. It will be open to any discipline in which Thomas himself wrote including poetry, the novel, the play and the short story. The first prize will be awarded on October 27, 2006 and the winner will also embark on a year-long creative writing residency at the University of Wales, Swansea, and at the University of Texas, Austin.
The Welsh actress, Catherine Zeta Jones also from Swansea is the International Ambassador for the Prize. She said, I hope that, as the first International Ambassador for the Dylan Thomas Prize, I can help encourage the participation of young writers from all over the world. This is a fantastic initiative and one which I am proud to be part of.
The competition entry form can be found on the Dylan Thomas Prize website www.dylanthomasprize.com.