Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand (page 3)
 Talking with
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
page 1
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How do you think this book will be received by RPCVs?

If anyone can appreciate this book, certainly RPCVs can. They don’t have to agree with my impressions or share my experiences, but I trust they will appreciate my motives in writing about those years. How the Peace Corps as an organization, specifically as a governmental organization, will receive the book . . . I can only speculate. I would hope it is received as a truthful portrait of an institution that is at once both flawed in minor ways and fabulous in the important ones, as many goodwill institutions are. For you will find no greater advocate for Peace Corps service than I. I know of no more remarkable vehicle by which Americans can acquire a diplomatic understanding of the world, while at the same time recognizing that idealism alone cannot eliminate suffering. Despite the hardships to which it exposed me, I still count it as one of the smartest, most wonderful things I have ever done.

Do you recommend the Peace Corps to anyone? Why should someone join the agency today?

To build character. To discover courage in oneself. To learn what one’s core strengths are and to become comfortable in one’s own company. To acquire a sense of self-reliance and resilience and fortitude. And, finally, to expand the myopic brand of nationalism that staying too long in one place can subversively impose upon oneself.

Lets go back to your book again. Why did you write it?

My primary goal in writing this book was not so much to toss my own voice into the literary fray, but to repay the trust and friendship extended to me by the women of Guatemala by speaking of, and for, them. These women are virtually silenced, by means of illiteracy and conditioning, and they live within a culture that is also largely unheard from. I originally made the same mistake I think many do, which is to minimize the value and the example of Guatemalan women. I failed to appreciate their strengths in person; I was still too immature at that time in my life. It wasn’t until I had some distance, some time, some age-won wisdom, that I came to respect their quiet brand of fortitude. Setting their stories as a counterpoint to my own experiences seemed to be the way to throw their lives into greatest relief. What I am most proud of as a person, and then as an author, is my willingness to appreciate the plight of these women and endeavor to empathize with their perspectives. I feel that is what makes When I Was Elena a wholly unique accomplishment.

This book is intriguing in that it is authored by you, but comes across as if it is written by eight very different women. How did you pull that off?
When I Was Elena is a literary endeavor, not an act of journalistic reporting. It is a personal, creative work, and as the craftsman of that work, I assumed authority for developing the narrative in a way that was most advantageous from a story-telling perspective. In the years-long process of deciding how to do that, long before I ever wrote a single word, it slowly dawned on me that speaking in the voices of those other women would be most compelling. Realizing I couldn’t switch back and forth between my voice and theirs without developing a sizable personality disorder, I got my own stories out of the way first. Then I embarked on what turned out to be a fascinating process of “becoming” those other women while I wrote. I felt like a medium; everything about them came alive for me again. I could hear their voices while I typed; I could feel the weathered skin on their hands and smell their hair. It turned into the return trip to Guatemala that I had not yet managed in person. By far, though, the most surprising, and rewarding, outcome of “becoming” them for the book is this: I finally, fully, appreciated the concealed strengths in them to which I had previously been blinded. It was a humbling, heartening endeavor.
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