Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tony D’Sousa (page 8)
 Talking with
Tony D’Sousa
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If you had to do it over again would you join the Peace Corps?

Would I do it again? Absolutely. I served nearly three years against a backdrop of constant violence. Half of my training group left after a year. My service ended as an ET and because of that I’m precluded from Crisis Corps or another tour later in life. I feel like some career soldier stripped of his insignia and slapped across the face. Of course I’m ashamed. Of course I wish it had ended some other way.

What makes a great Volunteer in your opinion?

A great Vol is one who stays. There were a number who spent their services watching movies in Abidjan or in sick bay. These people angered me for awhile because I didn’t want them to be able to claim they’d done anything like the hard core mud hut service I’d done when we’d get home. That’s not a great issue for me any longer. Everyone does the best that they can, and even spending two years on a couch in Abidjan is a better experience for our greater collective good that staying at home. Or is it? Maybe those people could have stayed home and worked with the homeless more successfully. I don’t know.
     
Peace Corps is not a competition, though Volunteers are competitive with each other, about how many projects they’ve done, about how assimilated they become. I lorded my abilities over others at times and regret that now. The language and culture came easy to me and in that way I was blessed. But I don’t know that I achieved as much personally as a woman in my group who was clearly exhausted by Africa and the language everyday, and yet there she was at the end, breaking down in tears because she had done it. So many went home. For a few it was the right choice, but for most of the others I think that they regret it. I wouldn’t want to wake in the night and look at the ceiling and say, “’I failed.”
     
The great secret about Peace Corps, at least in my experience in a disintegrating Cote d’Ivoire, is that very, very little gets done. It’s less about developing the Third World than it is about developing the American. That the taxpayers foot the bill for us to go out into the world and discover who we are in it is unbelievable. Don’t tell anybody. Let’s keep it that way.

If you could pick a short piece from the book, one of your favorite pieces, what would it be and why did you select that particular passage?
  

My favorite scene in my book chronicles a fight in the village. A man comes home to find his wife in the very act of adultery. Instantly, he and the lover are beating each other senseless, naked, a very brutal scene. The whole village is roused and everyone jumps into the fray, taking the opportunity to avenge old wrongs on their neighbors. The chief’s sons come with cattle whips to break it up, and even they get caught up in the lust of it, whipping everyone indiscriminately.
     
My narrator, Jack, runs out from his hut in his underwear, and there is a full moon and he witnesses the scene and the village in the silver moon light as though everything is covered in snow. For the first time, no one really notices him or calls him “Whiteman.” It’s a voyeuristic scene in a book in which he is very involved. But for this one moment, he is simply a part of the village, not white nor black. The fight is beautiful to him, as the war soon will be. The cuckold is truly hurt, the lovers are really in love, people rail at each other about the petty things they’ve suffered that burn them up in their day to day. I think that this is one of the points in the book where the story transcends Africa to tell a tale of our collective humanity. How we hurt each other, how we carry around our resentments until it’s much too late. If you read it as that — when and if you read it, I’m pleased. That’s what I was trying to do.

Thanks, Tony. And thank you for this great interview. And all the best with the book.

Thanks, John. And thanks to you and Marian for all your help you give new Peace Corps writers.

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