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 he 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 196668) 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.
And you went to Cote d’Ivoire?
Yes. I served two and a half years in Cote d’Ivoire (May 2000 to September 2002) and four months in Madagascar. I was evacuated from Cote d’Ivoire during my third year, and transferred to Madagascar to help re-start their suspended program. In Madagascar, I was haunted by the violence in Cote d’Ivoire, and shirked my duties and wandered around the southern part of the island for two months, ending my sojourn in the mountains, and when I came back down, the CD gave me the choice of Admin Sep or early termination, so I ETed.
What were your Peace Corps assignments?
In Cote d’Ivoire, I was assigned to a Muslim village of 700 people as an Education Volunteer. My main duty was HIV/AIDS education.
In Madagascar, I was supposed to teach English at a rural high school while living at a Catholic orphanage. I taught two months until the Christmas holiday and then I disappeared on my walkabout and that was all she wrote for me and the Corps.
Where you writing when you were overseas?
I did try to write in my village, wrote everyday by lamplight for the first three months. I sent those pieces home and my mother submitted them to the journals. I gave her an old Writers’ Market and left her to it. She had better luck than I ever had. I had pieces accepted by good journals in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States, but the foreign ones made me happiest because my stories are set all over the world and I like to think that I write for an international audience.
But sitting in your hut with your door closed is unbelievably anti-social, and people asked me what I was doing all the time. Anyway, I put the hard craft of fiction aside, and kept my journals for the next two years, let Africa happen to me on its terms. Now and again I’d hole up in our flophouse in Seguela and crank out a story over a weekend. Then my mother wrote that that she couldn’t handle all the rejection slips and that she wouldn’t send my stuff out anymore. I wanted to be like, “Ma, you got four stories published in three months, that’s huge success!” But it was good for both of us because when we talked about it later she told me she had no idea how much rejection was involved in what I had chosen to do with my life.
I had a few finished stories and five or six spiral notebooks with my musings on Africa when the war started. I had to leave them behind and they are gone. I wrote new stuff in Madagascar and kept new journals, but was mugged and beaten in Park Station, Jo’burg on my last day in Africa and lost that, too. Hemingway crying his whole life about those three manuscripts Hadley had stolen from her in the train station always struck me as a bit insincere. I decided not to mourn about mine. I know that they were used to wrap fried bananas and other street foods. So what? Every story is just a trout leaping out of the river of the Ur story to hang in the sun for its moment. Just like we are. People in New Orleans lost whole lifetimes worth of work in Katrina. It’s not something I’d want to go through day after day, but at some point you have to give up that regret. Besides, one story, “The Hard Life” was sent back very slowly by Black Mountain Review in Ireland, so I got this gift in the mail soon after I returned Stateside, something I thought was lost which wasn’t. It came out in Front&Centre in Canada last year.
How did you get your agent?
A woman in my training group, Merle Rubine, had retired from her career as a producer at Dateline, NBC. We were both stationed in the Seguela region, and became close friends. She read a few of my stories and said I should send them to her friend Liz, who was a literary agent in New York. So I did. Liz wrote back that she liked the stories but didn’t think that there was a market for stories, to send her a novel when I had one. I wrote a silly political anti-Bush novel in six weeks a couple of months after getting home in ’03, sent it to her, she sent it back, but kept her door open. A year to the day later, I sent her Whiteman, and she picked it up. She just happens to be Liz Darhansoff, a legend whose agency’s recent titles include Memoirs of a Geisha, The Shipping News, Cold Mountain, The Life of Pi, and Brokeback Mountain. Getting her to represent me was the single most important moment of my career. When I got the e-mail from her saying she wanted Whiteman, I pumped my fists in my office for an hour, easy. I was teaching composition at a community college in California, and everyone came in to see what was up. Her taste is so good, that in some ways, I was writing for her. I simply knew as fact that if she picked up my book, everything would be good.
Let’s talk about Whiteman. How long did it take you to write it? How many drafts? How did you get it accepted for publication?
Believe me, if you are a writer, you don’t want to know the story of the writing and sale of Whiteman. It took me five months to write. It consumed me, and I thought about it with every breath when I wasn’t working on it, which was five to twelve hours a day. I was teaching a 4/4 comp load with 35 students per section, serving on the Curriculum and Author’s Series committees and juggling a couple of relationships. It was like being hopped up the whole run of it. It just felt right and right and right, night after night. I wonder now if I’ll ever feel that way again. Sometimes I’d finish a chapter and sit back and say “Whoa.” I mean, you might read my book and hate it. But the feeling I had when I wrote it is the thing I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life.
The hardest part for me was how to write the Peace Corps out of the story and still have a young American in a remote African village for two years. I just couldn’t come up with the solution. Then Barry Spacks, a distinguished poet, came to my college in our Author’s Series and he said he’d look at what I was working on, and he read a couple of the proto-chapters, and he gave me the idea of the fictional aid organization that my character works for. It was a simple solution, laughably so. But there it was. That was in mid July ’04. The writing went off like one of those long fuses Coyote lights in the Road Runner cartoons.
Keeping the Peace Corps out of the book was the most important thing, because of all the assumptions pro and con that go along with it. People are either instantly sympathetic or dismissive. I did not want that for this character and this experience.
But writing Whiteman was not easy. There are twelve chapters in the book, and it’s no secret now that they each work alone as stories since so many have appeared in the serials. The manuscript ran out at 81,000 words, about 270 pages, and to get that I wrote 1000 pages. The thing was, I just kept throwing parts away that I knew didn’t work, pressed on to the next thing. But I did move chapter by chapter, following a timeline. I don’t outline. I have a vague feeling, usually the vision of a character, and then I look for the right lines that carry the story along. There is one chapter that I’m not a big fan of, but needed it for a bridge, and a couple more that just never felt perfect, or that they could ever be perfect. I had to go back and write a couple chapters to fill holes. It wasn’t magical, it was work, but it was magical to be that consumed.
The original title was “Africa Unchained,” the title of the opening chapter. I wrote a proto-form of that chapter in our Seguela flop-house in 2000, right after getting tear gassed in a riot. I sent it to my friend and teacher William O’Rourke just to look at, and a year later he sent me a copy of the Notre Dame Review where he’d published it as the lead story. Quite a surprise to get in the mail in Africa. It was really that story that spurred me on to write the book after my return. It’s such a violent and dark piece. Yes, that was my Africa, but the humor and vibrancy that runs through the rest of Whiteman until the war at the end was also my Africa. I had to tell people about that as well, because they hear so much about the darkness.
Nobody liked “Africa Unchained” as a title for the whole book but me my editor at Harcourt let me know we’d have to come up with another one. So I went to my chess buddy and proof reader Joel Dunsany’s house with a vegetarian pizza and a sack full of bottles of Grolsch, and he coached me through dozens and dozens of titles long into the night. He lives in a remote cabin and there was snow outside. He kept saying, “What is the essence of your book, Tony? What is the true thing?” Well, they called me Toubaboo everywhere I went in Africa, as they do my character, Jack. It binds his identity and frees him. It becomes who he is. In English, Toubaboo translates into Whiteman. That was a magical moment, and we both knew it was the perfect title and cheered. I’m really proud that I came up with it. They were a little hesitant at Harcourt at first. But I knew it would grow on them and it did.
I wrote all of Whiteman in an old building called the Mortuary in Dunsmuir, a mountain town on the Upper Sacramento River in far northern California. The town was very blue collar, with tough railroad and forestry folk, a scattering of stubborn intellectuals. I had a wonderful writers group there and was surrounded by beauty. I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all by American culture. I felt isolated and anonymous and in touch with nature. It was a great place to write.
I finished Whiteman in mid-November last year, finished the last revisions on Thanksgiving night. I sent it to Liz and she was back to me on it in ten days. The first week of December, she told me to sit by my office phone at such and such an hour, and for three days I took calls from the editors of the major American publishing houses. My colleagues were constantly in and out of my office to hear me recount those conversations, and all night I was on the phone with friends. At first I thought I had to impress the editors, but quickly understood that they really liked my book. That Wednesday evening, Liz told me that we weren’t going to take any more calls, that the book would be sold on Monday. She asked what house I liked, and I liked Harcourt because Becky Saletan and Tina Pohlman said things about what they though I had been trying to do that made me breathe with pleasure, plus the fact that they publish Jose Saramago, who is my favorite living writer. It was a very tough decision. I can’t say enough about how much I respect Carol Houck Smith at Norton and how nice she was to me on the phone and since. So three weeks after I finished the book, it was sold. I know that there was interest from at least five publishers, Liz knows all the ins and outs of that. But it was a very charmed period of time in my life.
In March, The New Yorker bought a chapter, and in August, Playboy and Tin House bought chapters. We went through a few cover designs before my editor, Tina Pohlman, said “Have you heard of the Ivorian artist Outtara Watts?” Three seconds into looking at his work, I knew it was right, and picked out the cover Three Skulls. Tina told me not to get excited because Watts has a big reputation and he either might not want to do it, or might be too expensive. He called us that evening and gave us the permissions for free in exchange for copies of the book. I was recently in New York and bought the actual painting. It was the first and best major purchase of my life. Jacques de Loustal did a great illustration based on the chapter in the New Yorker, Liz sold UK rights last week. I do a lot of media and have seen my face way too up close in glossy magazines. It’s been a year since I finished writing Whiteman, and in that time I’ve written one very good short story, and one very good poem, and not much else. I feel a lot of pressure from myself to write some huge, huge second novel quickly, and I am of course worried that Whiteman will be a success. I work nearly everyday, but I’m going through a creatively dry period, everything goes straight to the trash can. I am confused and way off my keel. It has been a year of dreams.
How did you arrive at this cover?
We went through eight or so cover ideas. To me, everything was gratuitous African images from ethnicities totally unrelated to the one I write about. On this certain one, my editor said “Everyone at Harcourt likes this, we really, really think you should like this, too.” I didn’t. It was a San cave painting. That’s what, 2500 miles away from West Africa! I called my agent. The next day my genius editor came to me with the Outtara Watts suggestion and I picked the cover art out of a dozen of his pieces.
How did you work with your editor on the book?
My editor, Tina Pohlman, really helped me smoothen out continuity between the chapters, and trim out some repetition and pendanticness, my major weakness. It really has been a crazy and emotional year, so much excitement, so much fear, so many moral questions to ask about writing about people without their consent, profiting from tragedy and horror. I did not go to Africa to write a book, and yet I was a writer the whole time I was there. I have prayed to the universe daily since I was 22 to make me a writer, just please please please send the Muse. I didn’t care about anything but the writing and being recognized for the work I’ve done. I know that’s what we all want. To actually have it, sometimes this light comes into me and I feel like I’m tripping. Other times I know this will destroy me as a writer.
One of the first things I did after selling Whiteman was to go on this crazy hell raising trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey. The second thing was to go on this crazy hell raising trip through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with my pal and RPCV Adam Huebner. They have email in all the bars of the world it seems but here. So sooner or later I’d check my email in a foreign bar and there would be an email from Tina. That she somehow didn’t get sick of the crazy emails I sent back and kept me focused on Whiteman is a wonder. She’s a great editor. She really managed me through the emotions.
I am lucky and grateful for what’s happened. But I don’t understand this question tons of people put to me: “What are you going to do now?”
Hello! I am going to write until there is nothing left. And then I am going to try again.
Explain some things about how you write. Do you write on a computer? Do you write for so many hours a day?
I write at night, after dark. I pace around at first, smoke, drink, settle my soul. Then I sit down before the paper with an image or a scene and try to find a true line that makes me want to look for the next one. I have always written with a pen and paper in a quiet and bare room close to a window where I can see the night. 99% of the time, I produce five to twenty pages, go to bed, look at it in the morning and throw it away. But once in a while, the Muse comes into me and I hurry to the end not to lose it. Re-reading it, I can’t remember where it came from. It’s never what I thought it would be, and that’s my main strength in writing, to let the story be what it wants to be, to go there even when I have no idea about where it’s going. It’s narcotic to be taken away like that. It keeps me going back.
Writing is not fun for me. It’s hard and a frightening sort of way to try to pay your way through the world. But to hold that electric current of the Muse in your hands, it’s worth the trouble. My best work comes out in a rush. It has the magic and continuity and liquidity that building and building a story can’t. I don’t think many writers write that way, but to each his own art. My best stories come out in great rushes of one or two sessions. Then there are the weeks or months it takes to get the clay of it formed up into the right shape.
I like to reread my best stuff. In that way I write for myself. But I am also very conscious of reaching an audience. It has to move me, and if it does, I know it will move someone else. I care about all of my characters, even the vile ones. I want to find each one’s truth. If I don’t think it is something that will last, I throw it away. I have thrown 200 page manuscripts into the fireplace. It’s a terrible and frustrating feeling to watch all that paper burn, but cathartic and reaffirming, too. If I don’t like it, why should I let it be?
How do you go about editing yourself?
Editing for me is the easy part. The hard part is getting the good clay to work with. It’s hard to mess it up if it’s fundamentally a good story, even in rough form. I go through it and every time I hesitate, I stop at that part and ponder until I find the thing to make it right. It’s hard sometimes to force myself to admit that some line isn’t right, to not be lazy and try to slip it by someone, but I just don’t settle for it. I don’t send stories out until they are done. Until Whiteman, I haven’t had an editor change more than a word or two here and there. And even with Whiteman, there are very few differences between what I sent in and what will come out in April.
What Peace Corps writers have impressed you?
I’ve read lots and lots of Peace Corps books, fiction and non. Moritz Thomsen blows me away. Both Theroux and Shacochis figured largely in my decision to join the Peace Corps. Recently, I loved PF Kluge’s Biggest Elvis. I had no idea he had been in the Peace Corps from that book, and was really proud when I found out. I think a worry for a lot of us is that we’ll be pigeon holed or dismissed as “Peace Corps writers.” I certainly want more out of my career than to be That Guy Who Went to Africa and Wrote That Book. I look to guys like Rush, Wiley, Tidwell, Hessler and know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Of course writers join the Peace Corps. What would writers be if they didn’t want to know the world?
Sorry I have to ask this, but what did you think of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman?
Oh Lordy. I don’t want to talk about Nine Hills. Everybody asks me about it with a raised eyebrow like they expect us to be in some sort of competition. What Sarah and I are doing is apples and oranges. But of course my heart sunk when I first heard that her book had come out. Then I read it praying that it wasn’t going leave me any room to say something of my own about Cote d’Ivoire. I quickly saw that it was a completely different thing, non-fiction, about a pre-conflict Cote d’Ivoire that I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t enjoy it at the time because I was worried we were going to be fighting over the same literary territory. I know we’ll eventually cross paths. I wonder how that will be. Congratulatory from both sides, certainly. When you have two books on the same subject, you know people are going to wonder which one is more authoritative. Asking me about Nine Hills is either very unfair, or reveals me for the small person I am, or both. It’s like you have this really great mousetrap that you put your heart and soul into designing, and just when you are about to unveil it, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, did you hear about So&So’s mousetrap? I heard it’s pretty good.”
When I saw Nine Hills, I said, “Oh crap, there goes my shot.” Who has heard of New York publishing two books on an obscure African country so quickly in succession?
Then again I wonder how Sarah feels. I know she cares about her book as much as I do mine. I hope we don’t get stuck on panel after panel together in coming years like some endless waltz on an interminable blind date. I hope Sarah will give me a chance after she reads or hears about this. Her book came out at a time when I was really struggling to come to terms with the war and my own seemingly lost career as a writer.
Tell us a little more about Cote d’Ivoire and your experience there as that is the central story of your novel.
I loved Cote d’Ivoire from the moment I first saw it, when the plane descended through the clouds. It was a world of green, like Conrad’s Africa. We were flying over the palm oil plantations, though I didn’t know it then. Then there was a long lagoon and a man poling a dugout canoe across it. It was a misted morning, steam coming off the trees. It is so hard to escape the West, and twenty years from now it will be completely impossible. Well of course it already is. There are televisions and cell phones in every village, even if the villages are purely mud huts. Actually, I did find a few tech-free villages here and there and they were always a treat to spend a couple nights in. But the people had all their conceptions about the West and what we have as opposed to what they perceived they did or didn’t have.
Why did I want to live in a “reduced” state so badly? Because the people there want all the tech that we have, they think it will make them happy. Well a young adulthood in the West with all its racism, inequality, cultural arrogance, and disrespect for the environment hadn’t left me skipping through tulips. I wanted to know what it is like to grow your own food, to live by the cycles of the seasons, to see the stars in a place with no lights. I mean, I would have liked to known life as a pre-agrarian hunter-gather. Maybe [Thomas] Hobbes was right and it was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It seemed to have worked for us for 190,000 years, and they had plenty of time to paint that outrageous stuff at Lascaux and the Matopos. I don’t know that that wasn’t better than the West’s current, “overweight, bored, dim, harried, and frightened.”
I was sent to a Muslim village of 700 people on the edge of the forest and savannah, what would later be the war front. Cote d’Ivoire was violent all of the time that I was there, in fact I was pulled down from site twice and spent roughly four weeks on consolidation before the eventual evacuation. My regional capital, Seguela, was a particularly violent place, and Peace Corps held us Seguela region Volunteers on consolidation even after the rest of the Volunteers had returned to their sites. We had a little flop house in the city, and twice in 2000, we spent a week or so in that house with no services while the military seized the city. This was before anybody was talking about civil war. The people were so angry with the government, and we were so in tune to what was going on that we’d call Abidjan and say, “Uh, there’s probably going to be a big hullabaloo next Thursday, maybe you should pull us down,” and they’d be like, “Oh, no it’s going to be calm, go back to your site.” Then I’d sit in my village with my friends and we’d watch these heavily armed commandos march along the road with rocket launchers and all the gear. Then on Thursday, just like everybody had said, the town’s youth would kill a couple soldiers at a checkpoint and burn their bodies and liberate everybody from the jail, even the crazies, and then the soldiers would roar in on their jeeps to take the city back and one of the teachers from our school would wander into the village to my hut and hand me this note with an official stamp on it from the School’s Superintendent in Seguela, “Monsieur Tony is kindly informed by Peace Corps to appear in Abidjan for a special training meeting.” That of course was the consolidation code for me to get the heck out of there, and what could I do but just shake my head because to get out of there I had to go to Seguela, the belly of the beast. And of course the military would siege the city and we’d all get stuck in the center of the maelstrom with no food or water so that by the time we could get down to Abidjan a week later, the trouble was over and to add insult to injury, after a week of not knowing when you’d eat next or when the military or the mob would come in and kick down the door and say goodnight everybody, we then had to spend a week going to Peace Corps training meetings.
This happened twice within my first three months of service. So I quickly lost faith in the Peace Corps Administration, in the United States Foreign Service, and especially the CIA. The security people at the US Embassy asked us what we knew about what was going on by way of informing us about it, and they couldn’t pronounce the names of the major Ivorian political players correctly. Shameful.
But it liberated me, too. Before that I had been diligent about filling out all the quarterly report stuff and what not. Even when it consisted of, “The Chief asked for a tractor again. Repeated inquires to USAID reveal that there will be no tractor forthwith.” I just dropped the pretense that big things were going to happen and concentrated on learning the language and customs of the people. My days consisted of farming and hunting, my nights of story telling and talking about girls with the other young men. Now and again another Volunteer would show up at my site and I’d be shocked at how white they were. Then I’d remember that that was who I was as well, and I’d be thrown off for a few days. Then I’d ask myself all these things like, “What are you doing here? Who are you kidding?”
By the end of my second year I realized how comfortable I had become not just in my village, but in the Seguela region. Everyone knew me or knew of me and though I don’t know what they really thought of me, I know that they respected my ability with the language. I had good friends there and frankly, loved the place. I knew its roads, its paths, the different villages, what was unique about each one. I knew people’s genealogies and the stories that went along with them. And I felt like I had my place in it too, Adama Toubaboo-Che, “The White Worodougou.” I did a number of AIDS projects to justify my stay, including a few major ones in Seguela with the other Seg-region Volunteers. So when it was time for me to COS, I re-upped for a third year. I knew when the war would start to the day. And it did.
While I thought I had seen violence before the war, the war was something else, violence distilled. For two days I walked and hid in the forest and villages on the way to Seguela. All the villagers were scared in a way I hadn’t seen before. They were scared for me too. They wanted to hide me. I knew that there were a lot of very new Volunteers in the region who had been at their sites for all of a week and were still having trouble asking for a drink of water properly. Also, I just wasn’t brave enough to stay behind and cut my ties with Peace Corps. I didn’t know how bad it would get and just knew that sooner or later my currency as a whiteman would be used by someone and bad things would happen. We spent a week under siege in that house, then had to make a run for it across the war zone the same day that the rebels arrived to take the city for good. This is in my book and I neither want to relive it here in writing about it, or blow the ending of Whiteman. But it’s not a dull read, believe me.
What happened to you in Madagascar? Did all the Cote d’Ivoire violence comes roaring back to you?
My transfer to Madagascar was really just a selfish thing I did, very cynical. I did not want to return to the US, but had no money. I thought I’d chill in Madagascar until Cote d’Ivoire calmed down so I could go back in, start a falafel shop in Seguela, who knows what.
We had a five-week abbreviated training in Madagascar. The Peace Corps had closed there in ’01 because of violence; we were there to reopen the island for Peace Corps service. Most of the crew from Seguela had transferred, in fact of the eight of us who had crossed the war zone from Seguela, five of us decided to go to Madagascar together, plus another Seg Vol who had been down in Abidjan when the war started. Maybe it was a Band of Brothers sort of thing, even though it was mostly girls. We liked each other. We had a lot of intense history to share. The training was a blast: we didn’t stay with families, but at a resort on this lake. The food was great, we all played volleyball and swam and got healthy. My language gift showed itself off with flair. I was conversational in Malagasy by the fourth week.
Then it was time for service again, and I was sent way down the island to a small town to teach English at the high school. I was housed at a Catholic orphanage, given a small room above the kitchen. The conditions were grim, I had to adjust to Madagascar and cope with the stuff that had happened in Cote d’Ivoire at the same time. The special training at the resort was a sort of reprieve, but alone again at my Madagascar site, I began to think about things that had happened in Cote d’Ivoire, about my friends, and especially about the times that I had abused my position as a whiteman to get things or get away with things, whether it was to make a kid get me a cigarette from a kiosk, or humiliate a soldier at a checkpoint, or spend a night with an Abidjan hooker.
Though I had known the war was coming, it wasn’t until afterwards that I understood how much it degraded and debased human life. I found my own heart of darkness in Cote d’Ivoire, found that the darkness was in me. The war had been exciting; I had been excited and attracted to it. I had looked forward to it. But I had not known what the horror it really was would mean for people, and I had that disgusting black spot in my soul to regret and make me question my own goodness. So I’d teach my classes at the high school and then go up to my smoke filled room (the kitchen smoke ran through my room before exiting the building) on my burlap sack mattress filled with rice chaff, and I’d think about it and think about it. I’d thought I’d been this good, good guy. But I had been just as excited as any of your basic mob machete butcher by the prospect of the war. So for the first time in my life I began to hate myself and feel that I’d fucked up the sacred thing that my life was for good. I don’t know that I still don’t feel that way.
At the Christmas break, I went on this long, long sojourn with another Seg-Vol all through the south of the country, and when she went back to her site in the north, I just kept wandering and wandering, all the way up the highest peak in southern Madagascar, Andrigitra, these sacred granite mountains. Well there are no more answers at the top of a mountain than at its base because the only answers are in the heart. And my heart told me that I had fucked up, and that human life is fucked up, and I was despairing and joyless. Back at the orphanage, I quickly learned that all hell had broken loose in the six weeks that I’d been away, and that I was in a lot of trouble with the Peace Corps. A grenade had been thrown at an Embassy family’s compound, and we’d gone on consolidation, and I wasn’t anywhere to be found. For weeks. This felt very distant to me and didn’t trouble me. Up in Antananarivo, we went through the formalities of documenting my disappearances from site with stiff letters and communiqués from Washington and what not, but I was done and wanted to be done. I was on a plane to Johannesburg in two days. Then I wandered for months through the continent, from Jo’burg to Kampala and back again. I went through Zimbabwe when even the border guards told me I’d get killed in it, went to the border of Burundi and Congo, and was turned back. My money ran out in Mozambique. The war was still raging in Cote d’Ivoire and where did I have left to go but home? I have been back for two and a half years.
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.