Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
    

Author Readings

An interview by John Coyne

THE FIRST EMAIL I received from Tony D’Souza told me that he had been a PCV and written about his experience in Africa, but that his book wasn’t “a Peace Corps novel” so hePrinter friendly version didn’t know if it qualified for our website. He then went on to tell me about his book Whiteman and his experiences in Cote d’Ivoire. After hearing his story, all I could say was that the novel was one of the best Peace Corps stories I had ever heard or read about. Remember this title Whiteman. You’ll be hearing a lot of about Tony D’Souza. He is the real thing when it comes to being an RPCV writer.
     Tony’s internationally award winning fiction has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, Stand, The Literary Review, The Black Warrior Review, Iron Horse, and many others, and is forthcoming in Tin House and Playboy.
     Whiteman, chronicles his life in a small African village, before, during, and after a civil war. Today Tony lives in Sarasota, Florida. He is working on another book. What follows is what he had to say about his Peace Corps experience and his new novel. The interview was done by emails and over drinks at the Algonquian — where else? — in New York City. It is a very long interview, but Tony’s struggles to stay alive in Cote d’Ivoire and then what happened to him afterwards when he transferred to Madagascar is as compelling as how he got his novel published.

Tell about your life before Peace Corps, Tony.

I was born in Chicago to an RPCV mother (India 1966–68) and Indian father, and raised in Park Ridge, Illinois, the home of Hillary Clinton. I attended St. Ignatius high school where I lettered in tennis and wrestling, rode a bicycle across Alaska after graduation, and then went to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin after flunking West Point’s physical exam for color blindness.
     
I earned a BA in English in two and a half years at Carthage, then did a six-month internship at a defense think tank in Washington, D.C. I also worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and rode a bicycle across Europe during those years. My father died suddenly when I was 22. I earned an MA in English at Hollins University in Roanoke Virginia, then an MFA at the University of Notre Dame.
     
My first published short story won the Black Warrior Review Award for Fiction; my second published story won the 3rd prize in Stand’s International Fiction Competition. I was 23 at the time. I spent part of one semester at Notre Dame in Havana, Cuba, chosen by Writers of the Americas to represent the United States as a young fiction writer at the first US-Cuba writers’ summit in 2000. I also earned “Best Thesis” honors at both graduate programs. Then when I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Cote d’Ivoire.

Was the MFA at the University of Notre Dame good for you? Would you recommend this path for RPCV writers? What were the benefits for you?

  

Writers need other writers. To talk about books and the art with passion, about what came before and how great things were accomplished. To figure it out, even though, ultimately, the real thing can only be figured out alone.
     
The MFA for me was an important aspect of my writing life; it was where I met my readers, where I was able to see my own dedication to the art in comparison to others. I went with a few notions that served me well, the most important being that no one could teach me how to write but myself, and the second most important being that I would not be in competition with my peers in the workshops, but with the best writers I’d ever read. That said, I had excellent teachers that saved me a lot of time and turned me on to great books.
     
I don’t have patience with the idea that real writers don’t get an MFA. Hemingway had Anderson and Stein and all those folks in Paris and later he had Perkins. The Bronte sisters had each other. Even Dickinson wrote and met with other writers. Tell me a writer who didn’t have a correspondence with another writer. The MFA is a more formalized, forced version of that. If you continue with the art, you get the more natural thing later.
     
My advice to younger writers is to stay out of debt. I don’t think it makes sense to pay for a degree in art, and a little research turns up a number of free programs.
     
Great books will be written by people. Some will have MFAs and some won’t. The MFA gave me two years to surround myself with people who loved books. Most of life isn’t as pleasant as that.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I joined to travel, to honor my mother, to voice my dissatisfaction with the continual growth of capitalism, to live in a foreign language, to experience black Africa, for adventure, a challenge, to be able to brag about being in the Peace Corps for the rest of my life, to do something good in the world.

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