Peace Corps Writers: front page — November 2005

Online writing workshop
Over the last two years we have offered three online ten-week writing workshops for RPCVs working on fiction or non-fiction manuscripts based on their overseas experience.
     We are now considering offering another workshop beginning in March 2006, but will only do so if there is sufficient interest from RPCV writers. If you are interested, email publisher Marian Haley Beil at webmaster@peacecorpswriters.org.
     Our last workshop group that met this past March through May found the class to be so inspiring that they have continued to post writings weekly for comments from their fellow students!

Peace Corps Writer blog
We have had six terrific pieces posted at www.PeaceCorpsWriters.blogs.com. This is our new blog site where PCVs and RPCVs can share writings about their experiences during their Volunteer service. We hope that you will visit the site to read what has been written about Ethiopia, Gabon, Iran, Nepal, Niger and Senegal. And that you will post your own short items (2000 words max) about your Peace Corps experience to share with the world.

And then Sarge said to me . . .
After his Peace Corps tour Ronald Schwarz (Colombia 1961–63) became an anthropologist, trained other Volunteers, and spent 12 years in research and teaching in Colombia. He taught at Williams College, Colgate and the Johns Hopkins University and later established a consulting firm, Development Solutions for Africa based in Nairobi. He is currently writing a book about his group, Colombia One — the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers. Here he recalls his first meeting with Shriver.

SARGE WAS ILL-AT-EASE standing before us at Rutgers University. June 26th 1961 was a hot and humid New Jersey day and the 84 men sitting on makeshift wooden bleachers were the first Peace Corps Trainees he had ever seen. But it wasn’t the humidity troubling him. He was aware of grumbling and concern within the selection committee about our limited qualifications. Many of us lacked a university degree, only a handful met the language requirement, a dozen or so had not even taken the Peace Corps test, and our “special skills” fell far short of what the Colombian government and the Peace Corps wanted.
    Sarge removed his jacket and warned us that these were deeply troubled times. Hardly an exaggeration in view of the recent Bay of Pigs fiasco. “This may be our last chance to show that we are really qualified to lead the free world,” he began and told a story of an exchange with a woman in India during a recent visit. “She reminded me that Indians knew the American Revolution as the first successful revolution in the world and asked me, ‘Can you bring it here? . . . The Russians have their system, but America has spirit and idealism. Can your Peace Corps bring that to India?’”
     We sat quietly on the creaking bleachers as Sarge lectured us, “The American voice has got to be clear and decisively open. In Colombia, Peace Corps will help them achieve what they want in their own free way . . . you can do more than 10 guys like me . . .. It’s like work on the old American frontier. You can show them how to achieve a free way of life.” Then he added, “what we would accomplish in community development, may well have a greater impact for good than the entire $600,000,000 aid program for Latin America.”
     Around us, behind us, and flanking Shriver were newspaper reporters, TV cameras, and a collection of CARE officials, professors and administrators from Rutgers University and the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sarge stopped talking and opened the meeting to questions.
     Someone in the back of the bleachers shouted out, “What about horse training?”
     “I don’t know about the horse training,” Shriver replied, shaking his head. “Down there you’ll ride mules. I know there’s a difference, but the riding principle is the same.”
     “Can we write articles for our town newspaper?” asked a trainee from Chicago.
     “You’re going overseas to help with community development and not to become freelance writers,” Sarge reminded him.
     A Latino trainee diplomatically inquired about Peace Corps policy on fraternization. Shriver responded carefully, “As Peace Corpsmen you will be representatives of the United States . . .. If one fellow blows, it will affect the whole program . . .. In Colombia as in other nations the customs for making friends are totally different than in this country . . .. In Sicily, if a man took a girl out to dinner he “would have to marry her.”
     Sarge kept fielding questions that revealed how little we knew about this Peace Corps adventure and what our lives would be like in the next two years. As Sarge was summing up, he mentioned that a department store had contacted him and offered to supply the entire Peace Corps with work outfits but that he was forced to refuse the donation.
     “Why?” I asked. It was my first question of Sarge that afternoon.
     “Because it’s against the law,” Shriver replied.
     “Then why don’t you get Congress to change the law.”
     Sarge stared at me for a long moment. I could feel the sweat dripping and it wasn’t because of the humidity. Then he grinned and pumped his fist in that famous way of his and declared, “That’s the kind of spirit we like to see in the Peace Corps!”
     Ten weeks later as we boarded a chartered Avianca Super Constellation we were handed duffle bags full of clothes, boots, flashlights, and tools, all courtesy of Sears & Roebuck. Sarge and friends from Chicago had made another successful end run around Congress and the Peace Corps was on its way.

In this issue
This November issue we bring you six reviews of new books by RPCV writers, including reviews of books by George Packer (Togo 1982–83) and Karin Muller (Philippines 1987–89). We also interviewed Karin about her special PBS documentary on Japan.
     Writings by RPCVs include two “A Writer Writes” essays by Celeste Hamilton (Guyana 2003–05) and Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98). Additionally, award winning short story writer Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67) sent us a wonderful travel account of her pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain this past summer. It was a walk she took with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67), from Le Puy en Velay in France, over the Pyreness and on to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain.
     In the Book Locker, we recall High Risk/High Gain written by Alan Weiss that was published in 1968. And we have the news in Literary Type. Finally for writers, we have both a new “Friendly Editor” and a new “Friendly Publicist.”

     Happy Reading.

John Coyne
Editor