Peace Corps Writers March 2007
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Peace Corps Writers March 2007
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
Peace Corps Writers awards
Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books published during 2006 and written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Do you have a favorite to nominate? Or did you write a book that you would like to have considered? Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Children’s Book
Send in your nominations to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Born to blog”
That’s what someone said about me and it might be true.
For those of you who can’t wait two months for the next issue of Peace Corps Writers, Marian Beil has set up a blog for me at: PeaceCorpsWriters.blogs.com/johncoynebabbles
On a nearly daily basis I comment on writers, current events, Peace Corps or anything else I think is interesting or worthwhile. You might want to check it out.
Then Sarge Said to Me!
Most of you know Kevin Quigley. He is the President and CEO (why do we need all these titles?) of the National Peace Corps Association. He was also a PCV in Thailand from 197679 and he sent us a short account of a meeting he had with Sarge a few years ago.
WHEN I FIRST MET Sargent Shriver in September 2003, I had just become President of the NPCA.
Years before as a young Irish-American I heard a great deal about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. After he was elected, I learned about his establishing the Peace Corps, and that my mother was a college classmate of the President’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, wife of the Peace Corps founder.
By chance, on the day I was to first meet with Sargent Shriver my parents were visiting. Over breakfast, my mother mentioned that she and Eunice had shared a gym locker at Manhattanville College in New York City. My mother rather sheepishly said that Eunice had left behind a pair of field hockey sneakers that my grandmother had wore for the next 20 years.
My meeting with Mr. Shriver was at his office at the Special Olympics. The office was replete with mementos of a remarkably successful life in every regard: personally, politically, and spiritually. The walls were covered with pictures of him with family members, Presidents and Popes, movie stars and Peace Corps Volunteers.
Given all I saw, I expected Sargent Shriver would want to talk about the past. Not quite sure of where to start, I began by saying that he and I had something in common: “My mother and your wife shared a gym locker.”
After a quick laugh, Sargent Shriver said: “Looking at your resume, you seem to have a good background . . . Now, I want to know what are your plans?”
Thinking I had just been thrown a softball, I launched into a discussion of preparations leading up to the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary celebration in 2011, about which he quickly seemed to lose interest.
Instead, Mr. Shriver rephrased his question, “What are you going to do to make the world more peaceful and prosperous; and let’s not just think about 2011 but 2050.”
During our conversation, I was struck by his ongoing vision, passion and deep concern for the future which was everything I had heard it would be.
I left the meeting feeling profoundly grateful that Peace Corps had Sargent Shriver as its founder, and as an ongoing inspiration to do all we possibly can to make the future brighter than today.
In This Issue
My interview this issue is with Mo Tejani (Thailand 197980) about his book, and his life before and after the Peace Corps. He is one of those PCVs who never came home and for Mo home is a tough place to locate. He is from Africa and has lived in England, the U.S., Latin America, and now Asia and has tales to tell from all parts of the world.
Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 196365), a friend from the first days of the Peace Corps, is a wonderful writer who has had a long career working on African issues at Africare. For Peace Corps Writers he looks at blood diamonds through the prism of his Peace Corps experience. And John Charles Miller (Dominican Republic 196264) in “You Can’t Pick Up Raindrops” recalls an experience in the DR that seems as though it was predestined. Both essays are “A Writer Writes” columns.
There are of course new books, reviews and wonderful news of RPCV writers. Read on.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers March 2007
Saving Our Youth One Kid at a Time
by Paul D. White with Ron Arias (Peru 196364)
Morgan Road Books
Everyone Has A Good Story Football
Meredith Pike-Baky (Togo 197173) contributor
Barcelona: Café Diverso
22.50€ (1€ supports UNESCO literacy program)
(Order from publisher)
The Father of All Things
A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697)
by Charles G. Blewitt (Grenada 196971)
Laflin, Pa: Offset Paperback Manufacturers, Inc.
(Send payment to: Charles G. Blewitt, 184 E. Dorrance St., Kingston, Pa. 18640)
Culture Shock! London
by Orin Hargraves (Morocco 198082)
Graphic Arts Books
From Peace Corps with Love
by Judythe Pearson Patberg (Philippines 197072)
Michigan’s State Forests
A Century of Stewardship
William B. Botti and Michael D. Moore (El Salvador, 196264)
Michigan State University Press
A Man of Peace in A World of War
by Stanley Meisler (PC/W Staff 196467)
John Wiley & Sons
by Carole Lexa Schaefer (Micronesia 196769); illustrated by Pierr Morgan
by Tom Tatum (Fiji 196871)
Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show
by Richard Wiley (Korea 196769)
University of Texas Press
Literary Type March 2007
Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991), associate professor of English, rhetoric and writing at Berry College, has been awarded the largest book-publication prize for poetry in the United States for her third collection of poems, Biogeography.
The Dorset Prize consists of a $10,000 cash for the author and a guarantee of national and international distribution for the winning entry. Biogeography will be released by Tupelo Press in spring 2008.
In 2003 Peace Corps Writers gave Sandra our annual award for her collection of poems Nomadic Foundations.
Over the years Sandra has published in many of the poetry magazines, including Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. Twice, she has been recognized with the Georgia Author of the Year Award for poetry by the Georgia Writers Association, first for Nomadic Foundations (2003) and later for Burn (2006).
Richard Wiley’s (Korea 196769) novel Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show that just came out from the University of Texas Press received a star review from Publisher’s Weekly no small achievement. Buy the book! Here’s the review:
In 1854, when the U.S. Navy’s Commodore Perry sailed into Edo (now Tokyo) with the grand goal of opening Japan to trade, he brought major change and minor entertainment a black-face minstrel show that amazed and perplexed its audience. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Wiley, shifting perspectives with deft ease, follows two fictional white minstrels, Ace Bledsoe and Ned Clark, as they confront Japanese society, while he subversively engages the reader in a deeply allegorical reading of cultural exchange. Ace and Ned come under the wing of interpreter Manjiro Okubo, whose powerful family is locked in an old clan rivalry. The rivals’ plot to kidnap the musicians sets off a train of events romantic and tragic, with touches of Keystone Kops: with tantalizing authorial discretion, lovers enjoy one another, villains flash lethal swords, beauty balances bawdy, and rivalries and enmities explode. (Readers need not have read Wiley’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Soldiers in Hiding, for which this novel is a way-back prequel.) This absorbing and immensely pleasurable book achieves momentum through Wiley’s fluid style, the lightness with which he bears his learning, and the vitality and wit with which he brings a vanished world to life.
Tom Tatum (Fiji 196871) has published Fiji 1970, a POD novel from Xlibris. POD stands for ’print-on-demand, i.e., a ’self-published’ book that you can buy off the Internet. It came out in February and we’ll be reviewing it in an upcoming issue of Peace CorpsWriters. You have to give Tom credit for knowing how to market his book. In real life, Tom makes movies out in Colorado. Check out:
Chris Delcher (El Salvador 19982000) is trying to find the maps and mapmakers of the Peace Corps. Many Volunteers are trained to make community maps while in service. These maps range from the hand-drawn variety that live in tattered journals to very sophisticated maps created with digital Geographic Information Systems. Chris’ own hand-drawn maps focused on pubic health by displaying the problem of minimal latrine coverage in his town but Volunteers from all Peace Corps programs are using maps for many reasons. No matter the size or sophistication, if you have a map (or even a picture of you next to a map that you have created) from your service or know an RPCV that does, please contact Chris at email@example.com. Chris is writing an article for Cartographic Perspectives on his own maps while he was in the Peace Corps. Chris is an epidemiologist who does disease mapping and he is trying to tie together the hand-drawn epidemiological maps of his Peace Corps days with the sophisticated digital type that he is doing now. In his research, Chris realized that the breadth of maps was much larger than just his own experience so he is looking for other examples. He hopes [someday] to write more comprehensively regarding maps and mapmakers in the Peace Corps. If you can help him, drop him an email of what map(s) you might have.
Jan Worth’s (Tonga 197678) Peace Corps novel Night Blind is a top ten finalist in literary fiction in the ForeWord Magazine 2006 Book of the Year Awards. Worth’s novel is a fictionalized account of what happened after the murder of Debbie Gardner in the Kingdom of Tonga in 1976. Winners will be announced June 1, 2007 at the BookExpo in New York City.
John I. Blanck, Jr. (Lesotho 1989-91) recently published an essay discussing the Maritime Labor Convention (2006) in the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. The treaty is designed to raise seafarer labor standards. Now he is writing an essay about his first motorcycle accident and living in Egypt and working for a peacekeeping organization.
John Sherman (Nigeria/Biafra 196667 and Malawi 196768) has written the libretto for a 3-act opera, “Biafra,” based on his book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra. Nathan Blume composed the score for 20 minutes’ worth of the opera that had its world premiere in December in Indianapolis.
To download and view the performance and John’s remarks about the opera visit www.mesaverdepress.com/biafra/biafra.swf. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony D’Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203) is following a murder case in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua where he had visited. Tony has a 9,000 word article about the murder and trial coming out in the June issue of Outside Magazine. Tony appeared on the Today Show to speak about the case.
Besides that, Tony’s Peace Corps novel Whiteman has won or is short listed for a number of major book awards. The list includes: finalist for the LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for Best First Fiction, winner to be announced April 27th, 2007; finalist, The New York Public Library Young Lions Award, winner announced May 21st, 2007; winner, The American Academy of Arts & Letters Sue Kaufman Award for Best First Fiction; winner, Florida Gold Medal for General Fiction;winner, Poets & Writers Magazine Best First Fiction.
Tony also had short story “The Man Who Married a Tree” selected for the 2007 Best American Fantasy anthology to be published by Prime Books. The story previously appeared in McSweeney’s.
Author and Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair Maureen Orth (Colombia 196567), continues to write and to fulfill the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. She is leaving shortly for Colombia where she has set up a Colombian foundation for a school that she built when she was a PCV, Escuela Rural Marina Orth, just outside of Medellin.
Maureen is working with another RPCV, Jack Whelan (Colombia 196365), who was supervisor of bi-lingual education in Lynne, MA, before his retirement, and is down at the Universidad Pedagogica in Tunja now as a visiting professor. Maureen and Jack are hoping to get some of his new Colombian teachers to work at Escuela Rural Marina Orth. Any (preferably Spanish speaking) RPCV who would like to get involved in Maureen’s project should contact her through her website maureenorth.com. She is looking for teachers to come to Colombia, especially those who know how to teach English as a second language to Colombian teachers, as well as for supplies, and, if not that, money!
Meanwhile, in her journalist role, Maureen has an article coming out in the May issue of O Magazine about a remarkable nun, Sister Janet Harris, 77 who began a writing program in the juvenile prison in Los Angeles and was instrumental in having the sentence vacated of a sixteen-year-old who had been tried as an adult for murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The March/April 2007 issue of Poets & Writers, a major publication for writers, has a wonderful article by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast and Madagascar 200003) entitled “The Peace Corps: A Literary Line of Volunteers,” and another article entitled “All The Things He Did Not Know” about Tom Bissell’s (Uzbekistan 199697) quick rise as a serious writer of fiction and non-fiction.
Tony sums up his article about Peace Corps writers by saying, “When President Kennedy, creating the Peace Corps forty-six years ago, asked Americans to journey abroad, he inspired not only a community of global citizens, he spurred on future generations of global writers.”
In “All The Things He Did Not Know” Bissell says of his bittersweet Peace Corps experience in Uzbekistan, “I figured once I joined the Peace Corps I would have something to write about. And Holy God, did I get a lot to write about. I got so much that I only recently stopped writing about it.” He wrote a book, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, based in part on his Peace Corps experience that was published in 2003. Tom’s agent sold the book to Pantheon based on his one-page idea for an advance of $100,000. Not bad for a first book. Not bad for a Peace Corps writer. Keep writing everyone!
Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
AS IS OFTEN THE CASE, an RPCV writes a book and goes looking for a way to let the world know. Most Peace Corps writers use the Internet, type in key words like: Peace Corps and writers and up pops our website. Something like that happened when Mo Tejani (Thailand 197980) published his memoir of an amazing life that stretches from Africa to the United Sates, Latin America, and Asia. The Peace Corps experience is a thin slice of a life-journey that has taken him to love and adventures on five continents. While important to him, his Peace Corps experience pales when it is compared to everything else that has happened to this man who came out of Africa to take on the world.
His book, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, was listed and reviewed in the last issue of Peace Corps Writers. Mo is one member of a hardy band of RPCVs writers who live and work [mostly as travel writers] around the world, publishing on-line and in many travel magazines only available overseas. Since hearing from Mo I have been emailing him about his life and the writing of his memoir. Here are some of the things he has to say.
Where did you go to college, Mo?
I attended the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England in 1972 and 1973, then transferred to Albion College in Michigan, from 1973 to ’74. I got my BA there and then went to the University of Michigan for my Masters in English Language and Literature. Ten years later, I got a Masters in International Affairs from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1985.
Tell us a bit about your Peace Corps service.
I was in Thailand from 1979 to 1980 as a University TEFL Volunteer, my first year at Phuket Teacher’s College and then at Chiang Rai Teacher’s College in Thailand. I taught courses on English language and English literature to would be Thai teachers of English.
During the summer breaks, I worked at Khao I Dang and Ban Vinai Vietnamese/Hmong refugee camps in Thailand to help with the thousands of South Vietnamese (Boat People) and Hmong (who worked for CIA in the bombing of Laos), who were escaping their respective countries into Thailand in fear of their lives.
Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
I joined the Peace Corps to gain English teaching experience in Asia, learn a new language and explore Asia after my two year tour of duty.
When you finished your tour what did you do?
Being fluent in Lao/Thai and Spanish, I spent a year and a half working as a resettlement social worker for the International Rescue Committee in Washington D.C., resettling Lao and Cuban refugees in the metropolitan DC area.
Then in ’82, I returned to Asia and worked as an American cultural orientation supervisor for the Experiment for International Living, which is now known as World Learning. I was training Indonesian teachers, and teaching Vietnamese and Khmer refugees about resettlement life in America. From ’83 through ’84 I did the same work for the same agency in Panat Nikhom Refugee camp, Thailand for Vietnamese/Khmer/Lao refugees bound for resettlement in America.
Go back to your early family history and tell us a little of the Uganda story of your life? I realize that there is a lot more in you memoir.
My family parents (who were originally from India) and nine children all lived in Kampala, the capital city in Uganda from 1953 through 1972. We all had Ugandan passports. My father was a teacher at first and then an accountant. My mother was a housewife. There are three doctors in the family, my older brother and his wife, and my sister. The second oldest brother is also a writer who was working with Kenyan writer James Ngugi. Four other sisters worked at different professional jobs in the city. One other brother was studying at Makerere University and I, being the youngest, had just finished high school, A-levels, when Amin gave all 80,000 Asians 90 days to leave the country.
What was Kampala like at that moment in history?
In January 1971, Amin took over through a military coup, and by August of 1972 he had implemented the Asian expulsion. The time was wrought with terror. A brother-in-law of mine was kidnapped, another sister was badly assaulted, my doctor sister escaped rape because she was a doctor who had given medical treatment to one of the soldiers who invaded and pillaged her home.
My family lost eight homes, all our possessions and belongings, six cars, and a medical clinic. We left Kampala, as decreed by Amin, with 50 British pounds in our pockets. At least we got out with our lives intact unlike some 300,000 black Ugandans who were murdered during the Amin’s reign of genocide.
Have you been back to Uganda?
Yes, I went back to East Africa in 1997 for three months. It was a quarter century after leaving and the emotional roller coaster of that trip is spelt out in detail in my memoir. Most of my family lives now in the United States and Canada, but many have made the trip back to Uganda in the last decade with their children to show them our family roots in Africa.
I read recently where Dixon Kamukama, a history professor at Makerere University in Kampala, said something to the effect that what Amin was attempting to do was to move the economy into the hands of the indigenous people, that his methods were crude, but that it had to be done. What do you think?
That the English speaking Ugandan Asians, invited by the British, were the backbone of the economy, used by the colonial British as the middlemen in their economic exploitation of the country’s agricultural resources coffee, tea, cotton, sisal and sugar cane is a fact. That most Asians never really integrated in Ugandan society and remained cultural isolationists, just like the British, is also a fact. That the current President, Musoweni, in the 1990’s made special trips to England, the United States and Canada to meet with the Ugandan Asian community to ask them to please come back and help recover Uganda’s ailing economy along with promises of compensation for properties and businesses lost, is also a fact. Historians, and writers, with their own biases and preferences, will certainly put out their own versions of this historic event (just like I do in my book by unearthing British government documents declassified after thirty years of what actually went on in the corridors of power at 10 Downing Street, the White House and the Parliament in Kampala.) The interested reader will make his or her own conclusions.
Where do you live now?
I live in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
What do you do for a living?
I write books, articles for travel magazines and feature stories on events in Asia for various publications worldwide. I no longer work with NGOs, but devote all my time to writing.
A great many RPCVs write about their Peace Corps experience. You have written about your whole life. Did you think in terms of writing several books, or did you just want to get it all out?
In my case, since my Peace Corps experience was over a quarter century ago, and, since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to roam all five continents of the world through my work with NGOs, focusing on just my Peace Corps experience would have been limiting and somewhat outdated. This first volume of my travel memoirs spans thirty-four years of travel over three decades in anecdotal format. This format allows me the literary freedom to jump back and forth in geographical and chronological time so as to weave both the central theme of the book (what is “home” for global nomads?), and the topics chosen for each chapter- as the “glue” to the myriad of anecdotes and characters floating in and out of my life.
The second volume will focus on three parts of the detailed lives of my large extended family (65 members at last count). The first part will focus on our life in Africa for over two decades, the second on life in refugee exile in the United States, Canada and England, and the third on what the future holds for the second generation of children of my siblings in this now easily accessible planet of ours.
Talk a little about the process of writing The Chameleon’s Tale. Did you do many drafts over many years? Was it an easy book to write? How did you do the research? Did you change names or telescope events?
Over the years, I have compiled journals, photo albums, taped interviews with family members, collected music and artifacts from different countries that invoke special events of my life. In writing the book, a process that took me some eighteen months from start to finished edited copy for print, I used them all to recall specific events, details of characters and scene setting background wherever any anecdote warranted each or several of these aspects.
The book went through three different drafts during my writing process before it went to the editor. Numerous editing sessions with the editor on what to keep in, what to take out, how to rearrange the anecdotes and chapters, all took place in Bangkok in what turned out to be a challenging but exciting endeavor.
Once the prologue and the overall outline of the book was fine tuned, and the “search for home” theme was established, the book flowed out of me in spontaneous flurry of anecdotes, week after week, till the epilogue was done.
In the editing process, some events were telescoped and names changed where real characters requested as much so as to preserve both, coherence and privacy.
How did you go about getting the book published?
Through a friend I met Paiboon Publishing owner, Benjawan Terlecky, and I presented a proposal and book outline to her. I then sent her the first chapter of the book to review before a book contract was signed with time frames for completion. I was very fortunate to have a publisher who gave me total freedom in the choice of my editor, artistic freedom in the content and design of both the book cover and the inset black and white photographs included at the beginning of each chapter.
What sort of reaction have you had to the book?
Distribution of some 20 pre-printing promotional copies of the book generated eight positive reviews captions from which appear on the first page of the book. Since publication, over the last six months, another 10 excellent reviews in various travel magazines in Thailand and USA, have appeared including two in the major daily newspapers in Thailand, The Bangkok Post and the Sunday edition of The Nation. From readers who purchased the book on Amazon.com, five have written reviews all giving the book a five star rating. Lonely Planet author, Joe Cummings (Thailand 197778) has graciously provided a juicy blurb of his impressions of the book. A book reading tour in four major cities of Thailand, sponsored by the publisher, has generated decent book sales and good initial exposure to the Asia reading public. A supplementary book website www.mo-tejani.com complete with photographs, excerpts and detailed book reviews and dialogues with the author is now up and running.
How has your family reacted to your telling the family story?
Given that I expose many personal details of their lives in Uganda, the “kudos” have been forthcoming and gratifying.
What has surprised you the most with the publication of the book?
Fellow travelers who have read the book some long lost friends from my past, but the majority, total strangers who identified with this theme have contacted me to celebrate their own travel journeys in search of their own nesting grounds. Through calls during book radio talk shows, emails at the book website, these nomads, have confided in me, revealing the trails and tribulations they have gone through in their own enticing journeys around the globe in search of a place to call home.
Finally, what did you think of the recently released movie “Last King of Scotland” about Uganda and Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning lead role as Idi Amin?
Forest Whitaker’s schizophrenic depiction of Amin as both a charming, down to earth, humorous soldier and yet a brutal tyrant with a demagogic flare for genocide certainly merits the award. I do, however, feel cheated that the movie plot, rather than focusing on this socio-political setting as a background to this tragic era of Ugandan history, opts to emphasize the plight of a young gullible Scottish doctor and his incredulous antics with Amin thereby seriously minimizing the impact of historical lessons learnt from the movie for the world audience.
Black Man’s Grave
Letters from Sierra Leone
by Guy Stewart (Sierra Leone 196870)
and John Amman (Sierra Leone 197982)
Cold Run Books
Reviewed by Liz Richardson (Togo 200305)
THE FIRST THING that struck me upon receiving my copy of Black Man’s Grave was the message on the back cover: “The book they thought you should read . . . but refused to publish.” If this was a publicity angle, it seemed a rather nonsensical one to take. Who is “they”? Why did “they” think we should read it but then refuse to publish it? And if they refused to publish it, how could I be holding it in my hand?
Though I am loathe to admit that I am one of those people who will actually judge a book by its cover, it is hardly a secret that packaging matters. The surface of things is not without meaning. What you say is no more or less important than how you say it. For the last few months I have been working in communications for a nonprofit, and in my more cynical moments I have sometimes wondered if good writing is nothing more than a form of attractive packaging.
Of course, I imagine that these thoughts are more an indictment of my way of thinking than anything else, but there were many moments in Black Man’s Grave where the message got lost in the faults of the medium. Though the book is informative and well-researched, its effectiveness is hampered to a certain extent by the writing. My quarrel with the book is not so much with its substance, but with its style.
The preceding paragraph notwithstanding, there is actually much to admire about this book. The authors take pains to convey the events of Sierra Leone’s civil war as much as possible through the eyes of the people living in it, often directly transcribing the text of the letters they received from their friends. Both of the authors were Volunteers in the same village, though years apart, and as such they are well placed to comment on the Sierra Leone they both knew. The background they provided on the years leading up to the war is brief but informative, and they recount faithfully every turn that the war took as it dragged on. I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything from reading the book.
But is that all the authors were trying to do? If so, then my complaints do not amount to much, but I cannot help but feel that Stewart and Amman missed the opportunity to tell the story in a more compelling way. For them, this civil war must have been incredibly personal, and yet they are nowhere in the telling of it. For all their attempts to personalize the events by relating what happened to the people they knew, their efforts are ultimately undone by their decision to tell the story in the third person. The letters from Sierra Leone are printed on the page as if they were addressed to the omniscient narrator. No mention is made (except in the introduction) of the men these Sierra Leoneans are writing to, of how they felt when they learned that their friends were being driven from their homes, were struggling to feed themselves, were being shot at by rebels and soldiers alike. As I read I grew increasingly frustrated by the distance the authors placed between themselves and the events. I can imagine there were a number of good reasons to tell this story in the third person, but an omniscient narrator is inherently impersonal, and so they missed the opportunity to make the war personal for the reader.
In the hands of stronger writers, this flaw might have been overcome. A story does not have to be told in the first person to be compelling, and the civil war in Sierra Leone was astonishingly brutal, even on a continent that has seen more than its fair share of brutality. The members of the Revolutionary United Front were notorious for their tendency to cut off hands and legs, and even a fairly straightforward account of their exploits can engender a kind of horrified fascination. But the book’s just-the-facts-ma’am approach is so dry that my attention actually began to wander. What’s more, the authors make little attempt to analyze what ultimately caused the members of the RUF to pick up machetes and begin to literally hack their fellow countrymen into pieces. Political repression, extreme poverty, and the promise of sharing in Sierra Leone’s rich diamond deposits undoubtedly played a role, but I am not entirely satisfied with this answer. At no point do we have the opportunity to hear from one of the rebels themselves. I can only imagine how difficult obtaining such an account would have been for Amman and Stewart, but without it we are left with no real means of understanding what would lead a person to such acts. Many people live in oppressive and poverty-stricken circumstances. What separated the RUF rebels from everyone else?
Though I was ultimately unsatisfied by some of the aspects of Black Man’s Grave, I was deeply touched by some of the letters printed on its pages. They provide a window into a time and place that is hard to imagine even for those of us who have been privileged enough to spend time in Africa. Whatever reservations I may have about the way their story is told, their letters stand as a moving testimony to the ways in which human beings survive in the face of horror, and of how a country struggles to move on after a decade of war.
Liz Richardson lives in Washington DC, and works as a communications assistant for a vaccine development program.
Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show
by Richard Wiley (Korea 196769)
University of Texas Press
Reviewed by Karl Luntta (Botswana 197780)
WHEN COMMODORE MATTHEW PERRY, commander of the United States East-India Fleet, sailed into Japan in the 1850s to complete the decades-long task of forcing the island nation to open its doors to trade, many in that country had no idea what that was to mean in real terms. Japan, then a famously closed society characterized by a complicated social strata and arcane feudalism, was practically the model for xenophobic overreaction. She’d been closed off, effectively, from the outside world for some 200 years. When she allowed the first Americans officially to her shores, she was not unlike a butterfly opening her wings for the pin. That might be hard to imagine in a country that today sports Elvis impersonators, champion competitive hot-dog eaters, and the best-selling automobiles in the world, but this may only serve to illustrate that perhaps in Japan, when things change, they change big.
Treaties between the United States and Japan were signed in 1854, and Japan irrevocably changed. In Richard Wiley’s imaginative, often sensuous novel, we focus on a family in the ruling Shogunate who are thrust into the whirlwind the treaties leave in the wake of their signing. Manjiro, the second son of Lord Okubo of the Great Council, is one of the few Japanese who speak English, and is therefore in demand during the negotiations. His older brother Einosuke, Lord Okubo’s representative in Edo today’s Tokyo is contemplative and not a little bit jealous of the attention the more impulsive Manjiro receives during the difficult negotiations, and elsewhere. And here’s what drives the narrative of this elegant book Einosuke is one of many in the ruling class who feel that having allowed the Americans into the ports is disastrous at least, suicidal at worst. Add to this complicated but ultimately familiar clan: Fumiko, Einosuke’s wife, who is loyal to him but vexed by her recurring attraction to one of the Americans; a semi-retired samurai; a few wise and wise-cracking teenagers; and a distraught Lord Okubo, nearly driven to ritual suicide by what he perceives as the treachery of one of his sons.
Among those deeply distrustful of the Americans is Lord Abe, the leader of the Council. The Americans are smelly, rude, big, and ugly, and so are their eight steamships, which sailed into Edo’s bay in 1853 in clouds of black smoke, armed to the gunwales (Perry was the first commodore of a steamship fleet in the United States, and gaseous emissions seem to follow him throughout his career, and this book). Lord Abe has been backed into a corner by the steamship guns and by Perry himself here presented as a somewhat mystified but jaw-forward, can-do American type.
Perry also brings with him, of all things, a traveling minstrel show, meant to entertain his Japanese hosts and perhaps display a bit of American culture. The show, presented by singers Ned Clark and Ace Bledsoe, in blackface of course, alternately horrifies and enthralls the Japanese hosts. Bledsoe later explains to the uncomprehending Manjiro that the show is an abolitionist act, meant to be taken with irony. Of course, for the unfortunate Ace, who is committed to an antislavery stance, it’s hard to explain that irony to someone from a country where unquestioning servitude is a way of life. Irony, unfortunately, crosses cultures badly.
Yet Richard Wiley makes a good case that cultural dexterity will be vital to the relationships, on any level and ultimately whether they’re good or bad, between the Americans and Japanese. He shows us a Japan of multiple sensibilities, one where a powerful man works out his frustrations by crafting elegant rock gardens, yet who tumbles with his wife in almost violent lovemaking in the same calm garden. This Japan knows gallantry backed by the creed and loyalty of the samurai, yet is the same Japan where roving bands of samurai act as paid assassins, hunting down Americans on the run from a plot to sabotage the treaties. It’s a Japan struggling with intrinsic, if not stated, knowledge that a way of life has come to an abrupt and unsettling end and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
Wiley has an authoritative command of Japan’s history and a clear respect for Japanese culture, evidenced by his earlier PEN/Faulkner Award-winning work Soldiers in Hiding (1986), which highlighted the plight of Japanese-Americans and their loyalties at the onset of World War II. Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show, which serves as a prequel to Soldiers, illustrates his ability to acknowledge culture’s depth and force and still reach inside each character for universals. He’s a global literary traveler indeed, one for whom, it has to be believed, truth can come in many languages, and many faces.
Karl Luntta is the media relations director of the State University of New York at Albany. He is a former newspaper and magazine columnist and has published fiction in International Quarterly, Baltimore Review, North Atlantic Review, Toronto Review, and others. Know it by Heart, his first novel, won the 2004 Maria Thomas Fiction Award.
The Father of All Things
A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697)
Reviewed by John Krauskopf (Iran 196567)
TOM BISSELL TELLS US in his author’s note at the beginning of The Father of All Things that there are thirty thousand books on Vietnam currently in print. Thousands of journalists, participants, and scholars have sensed the importance of that war in recent American history and its influence on the American psyche and tried to make sense of it for themselves and others. What he doesn’t say is that many of the previous efforts are dry and almost unreadable while other authors are self-serving and, therefore, unreliable guides for someone trying to understand Vietnam. Bissell has produced a book that takes the reader through the complexities of Vietnamese history and the American involvement in the war in a compelling and absorbable way using two literary devices.
First, in the main section of the book titled “An Illness Caused by Youth,” he arranges to take his Marine veteran father, John Bissell, on a trip back to Vietnam. The observations and comments of the father are a springboard for the son to fill in for the reader some of the background he has gathered by researching a significant portion of those thirty thousand volumes. (His bibliography lists 121 titles, with many evaluative comments about the sources.)
Second, in order to try to bring some order to what he and his father see and the random data uncovered by his reading, Bissell poses a series of questions such as “Why did officials at all levels of the U.S. military and government lie so often during the war?” and “Could the U.S. have won the war in Viet Nam?”
The first section of the book (90 pages), titled “The Fall,” focuses on Tom’s attempt to reconstruct how his combat-veteran father felt on learning the news of the fall of Saigon at his home in Escanaba, Michigan, and contrasts this with a detailed account of the chaotic last days of South Vietnam. Tom shows us the incongruity between John Bissell’s sense of what might have been or should have been, and the reality of the anarchic evacuation of the remaining American diplomatic and civilian personnel and a portion of the many compromised South Vietnamese nationals. His father’s personal war experience was revivified by news of the fall of Saigon eight years after his tour, and his frustration that his righteous martial effort in the early part of the war didn’t lead to victory was starkly reinforced by the spring 1975 media reports from that city.
Bissell is sure that this sense of the futility of his father’s sacrifice and the sacrifices in the cohesive military unit that the Marines built around him contributed to the break-up of his parents’ marriage. He is also sure that other aspects of his father’s personality and the father-son relationship are strongly influenced by John Bissell’s Vietnam combat experience as a 30-year-old. The joint trip by John and Tom to modern day Vietnam is part of a not wholly successful effort by Tom who is not a combat veteran to understand the war’s influence on his father.
As a non-military visitor in Vietnam in 1969, I was struck hard by the absurdities of the war then raging. Bissell recounts two examples that are exact parallels to illogicalities I witnessed. In writing about Da Lat, a mountain resort area, Bissell wrote,
An ARVN [South Vietnamese] military academy had been located here, as had an NLF [Viet Cong] villa for tired vacation-needing guerillas. Both sides were aware of the other, but there is no record that any of them exchanged anything but dark glances in the market.
In a second example, Tom describes an unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” similar to one I observed during my ten days in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho. Bissell reported an ARVN commander’s response to a question about why he didn’t choose a more favorable campground. “The Viet Cong already occupy [that campground]” To the follow up question, “Why don’t you go after the VC?” the commander replied, “As long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.”
For some of the more sensitive of the American personnel the bitterest memories they carried from the war are of times when one of these “gentlemen’s agreements” were breached. I was taken to a scene where a land mine had blown up a road grader and killed a couple of Navy Seabees who were scraping out an irrigation canal for a village. The Americans had thought that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” in place with the local guerillas for the irrigation project to be protected. The sense comes through Bissell’s writing that this kind of betrayal of the helping hand offered by the military was what had affected his father the most.
At the end of the book is a 20-page section titled “The Children of the War Speak.” Eighteen American and Vietnamese children remember their Vietnam War veteran parents. They appear to be responding to the unstated question, “How did the war shape your parent’s personality and your relationship?” This was Bissell’s question to himself, and his answer took a whole book. After reading the brief and thoughtful but anonymous responses of the children of the veterans, I was left wanting to know more of their situations, perhaps not another Bissell length book, but more.
Tom Bissell’s writing skill as well as his careful research lifts The Father of All Things above most of its many predecessors. Describing the boat traffic in the Perfume River in Hue he writes, “Large tourist ‘dragon boats,’ painted a cheerfully ugly mixture of blue and yellow and green, chugged down the Perfume’s center, leaving a wake that looked as though the river were being unzipped.” In providing some background for the conflict Tom notes, “Landlords had been despised in Vietnam long before the social abacus of Communism slid them over into a distinct class.”
Bissell does not restrict himself to the standard narrative form, and the book’s three-section format and the rhetorical questions work well. However, in the first section, use of the grammatical second person to convey what he has learned of his father’s wartime and post-war life through the 1975 fall of Saigon does not work as smoothly. This is only a minor distraction in a book that is both a sensitive personal narrative and a powerful synthesis of Vietnam War era history.
The Father of All Things may help veterans and Americans who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam come to terms with their feelings as John Bissell started to do on this journey. For others who protested the war and contemplated life in Canada, the book’s historical narrative will confirm with riveting and carefully researched detail what they had suspected all along.
After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, John Krauskopf spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences.
He authored the article “Christmas on the Mekong” that appeared in the November 2004 issue of Peace Corps Writers as part of our ongoing series “War and Peace Corps.”
A Writer Writes
Blood Diamonds, Failed States and African Youth
by Kevin G. Lowther (Sierra Leone 196365)
IN DECEMBER 1963, two Peace Corps colleagues and I were lost deep in the Sierra Leone bush. Exhausted from having climbed the 6,000-foot slopes of Mount Bintumani, just north of the country’s diamond region, we were trying to find a path to the nearest village. But the sun was setting and our circa 1940 colonial map was no help.
Then one of us spotted a wispy column of smoke. We made for it and soon confronted two men cooking chicken and rice in front of a rudely-thatched hut. When they had recovered from the shock of seeing three white men stumble into their midst, they immediately offered us their food and their shelter.
We could barely communicate, even in Krio, the patois which serves as Sierra Leone’s lingua franca. But these two men, who were tending their fields, had taught us the first law of Africa: Thou shalt be hospitable to all, especially to strangers.
Who could have known that, more than 30 years later, the remote villages scattered within sight of Bintumani would become a killing ground in one of Africa’s most gruesome wars? Or the backdrop for the film “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary Rhodesian diamond smuggler.
“Blood Diamond” leaves little to the imagination in depicting the wanton bloodshed and cruelty of Sierra Leone’s civil war. It also shows how the international diamond trade helped to stoke this and other African conflicts. But it fails to capture the underlying reality of Sierra Leone as a failed state.
Sierra Leone is a fairly typical example of the result of the haphazard manner in which European powers created colonial boundaries in Africa. The independent nations that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s were, by their very genesis, primed for instability and, in some cases, failure.
After completing my tour as a teacher at Sierra Leone’s most prestigious secondary school, I corresponded for several years with many of my students. Not long ago, I reread their letters. I was stunned by their collective message: “There is no place for me in this country because I do not have the right political or ethnic connections. I am hoping to get a scholarship abroad.”
Many, in fact, did escape what, even then in the hopeful first years of freedom appeared to be an empty future. Tens of thousands of talented young Sierra Leoneans have since arrived at the same conclusion and departed for greener and safer pastures in England, America and elsewhere.
Blood diamonds did not drive this mass emigration of Sierra Leone’s best and brightest. Diamonds did eventually distort the economy and corrupt the political system. The blood came later.
“Blood Diamond” misses what my former students understood long ago: That there was nothing for them in a state that already was failing; and that throughout Africa there are many millions of young people who have few prospects, and thus no vested interest in maintaining the states that have failed them.
Sierra Leone descended into its madness in part because the leader of the Revolutionary United Front could appeal to disaffected youth who had been left behind by a dysfunctional educational system and were ill-equipped to escape abroad.
I once asked a Sierra Leonean, who fled the country following the rebels’ sacking of Freetown in 1999, to define when the rot actually set in. Without pause, he said it was in the 1970s when the government began systematically to under fund the education budget.
There is a cautionary tale here for all of Africa. It is not the need to regulate the diamond trade. It is the urgency of ensuring that African youth literally half the continent’s population have access to an education and the means to earn a decent living. Africa otherwise will become a continent of increasingly alienated young men and women potential recruits like those who maimed and killed thousands of their fellow Sierra Leoneans.
Kevin G. Lowther has served as Africare’s Regional Director for Southern Africa since 1984 During this period the organization’s presence has grown from two to eight countries in the SADC region. He served as Africare’s first country representative in Zambia (197883) and spent eight years with the Peace Corps as a Volunteer (in Sierra Leone) and staff member for in Africa and Washington. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a former newspaper editor and has written extensively on development and related issues. He is co-author, with C. Payne Lucas, of Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critique of the Peace Corps’ first decade.
A Writer Writes
You Can’t Pick Up Raindrops
by John Charles Miller (Dominican Republic 196264)
IN LATE FEBRUARY 1946 southwest of St. Louis, Missouri, Mom and Dad have called us young boys together in the living room. With its dark wood trim and dark furniture, it is gloomy; the lights are off. It is not a welcoming room at any time, but now it seems even less friendly.
Mom and Dad sit on a dully-flowered couch and start to cry. We have never seen them cry before.
Mom explains, “Rosemary had a hole in her heart, and died. The doctors couldn’t fix it.”
Talking to Mom, years later, she said, “I regret not having a picture of Rosemary. At times I can see her, but the image won’t hold solid; it wavers and fades away.” She went on, “It’s like trying to pick up raindrops on a smooth cement sidewalk with your fingers and putting them in a glass. They just separate and move apart, no matter how hard you try. The whole of her little face never seems to pull together. With the years, she becomes even more elusive.”
IT IS NOW the spring of 1963, May 30 to be exact, and Memorial Day in the United States. It is also a special day here in the Dominican Republic. People are dancing, singing, drinking and partying. It is a day of celebration. Blaring radios in our rural community repeatedly play a meringue song, La Muerte del Chivo. This means, “The Death of the Goat.” Two years ago, Leonidas Trujillo, the US-supported dictator, was assassinated on a highway near Santo Domingo, the capital, much to the joy of the oppressed Dominicans.
“Bob, if they play that song one more time I am going to whack every radio to death with my machete!”
As Peace Corps Volunteers, Bob and I live on the second floor of the pale green, wooden casa curial, the parish house next to the small village church in way-off-the-road Puñal in the northern portion of the Dominican Republic. There is no electricity, running water or sewer. Rent is cheap; only twenty-five dollars out of the ninety-five we each get for our monthly allowance from the US government. You can buy a lot of rice and beans and Presidente beer with the rest. We only have to stay out of the way on Sundays when the priest comes from Santiago de los Caballeros, some twenty-five miles away. The rest of the time we work on our projects: water supplies with hand pumps from CARE, English classes, and youth baseball teams. We introduce new varieties of cigar wrapper tobacco. The local men learn windmill and pump repair. We do anything to keep busy and to better the lives of the Puñaleros.
One of our projects involves working with fifteen-year old Manny, the oldest Fernández boy of one of the many Fernández families. Bob and I are part of a team introducing a new breed of pigs into the country. They are Hampshire-Durocs, reddish shorthaired pigs that seem to do well in the heat.
It seems absurd that the pigs have a concrete floor for their pen, while Manny’s family lives in a house with a dirt floor and open-slatted, split palm tree walls, with tropical rain coming through during the heavy hurricane-related late summer storms.
After our breakfast of bread, fresh pineapple and strong Cibao Valley coffee finely ground and boiled in a sock-like bag, old Doña Aurora Fernández comes tapping on our door. She is queen of the big area-wide Fernández family. She knows what goes on with all of them. Bob and I laugh about it, saying, “It should have been called Villa Fernández instead of Puñal.”
Aurora, way less than five feet tall and plump, her long, fly-away, black-dyed hair with silver streaks tied back in a fat bun, looks up at us through her dark, brown-eyed years and her sun-baked wrinkles. She says seriously, “I have to speak to you, Juan and Roberto. Cirilito’s baby girl died in the hospital after six days of something the doctor calls colerín. He and his wife, Dulce, you know, la gordita, want a picture before they bury her.” Cirilito and Dulce are Manny’s parents.
“Dulce wants the picture to remember her by; they have none. They lost two other children and don’t have pictures of them. Cirilito knows that you have a camera and asked me to talk to you.”
Bob doesn’t want to do it and, being a philosopher, nervously comes up with all sorts of theoretical cross-cultural excuses not to go. I briefly tell Bob the story of Rosemary Clare and my mother. “They need this picture, Bob.” Yet, despite what I say, I feel strange also.
He relents and comes with me past Aurora’s house where women are sewing and gossiping on a covered palm-thatch back patio. We wind our way down a twisting, narrow dirt path through a plantain patch, past running, squawking chickens and grazing goats, around big old mango trees, and through stands of coffee and orange trees. Chucho Fernández, squatting in an opening by the side of the path readying his rooster for the cockfights, waves with a toothy smile. At the tobacco drying sheds, Ramón and Eusebio look up from threading long needles through tobacco leaves ready to hang up to dry. Bob moves slowly along with his elevated bouncing and loping stride. At times he drags his feet, plough-like, not really sure that he should be coming.
Arriving at the house, we are greeted by the family. Cirilito and Dulce have eight children, ranging from about three to seventeen years old. There are five boys, Manny, Miguelito, Juan, Flavio and Mauricio, and three girls. Adela, the oldest child, is always giggling. She has a crush on Bob because of his blonde hair, blue eyes and six-foot plus height. The other two girls, like their mother Dulce, are so shy I don’t yet know their names. Cirilito and Dulce are dressed up, not city dressed up, but in their best freshly washed and ironed farm clothes, the ones they wear to church.
Cirilito struggles day and night to support his family. Despite arthritic hands and arms, he works with his machete in his small fields, planting, weeding, harvesting or taking his few bony cattle from one grassy area to another. How can he support his family of eight children in Puñal? I admire the way that he and his older sons work together to provide for the family. He is a leader in the local country church, organizing the frequent religious processions that wind ceremoniously through the fields and pathways of the community.
Sadness fills his greenish-gray eyes and long, narrow sun-creased face. He, like his father, old Cirilo, has the residual hawkish nose and high leathery cheekbones of pre-Spanish Hispaniola. Taller than most of the men in the area, he moves about with a determined walk, doing what has to be done.
He speaks to me briefly. My Spanish is getting better as I become more involved. However, the feelings coming out of his heart can’t really be translated into English.
“Juan, please understand that this is not for me so much as for Dulce. Our baby is beautiful, isn’t she? Look at her blond hair and blue eyes. She will be the most beautiful little angel in heaven don’t you think?”
The baby, eight months old, rests in a small white wooden coffin, dressed in her christening gown. Surprisingly, she has pale white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. I have sometimes seen such eyes in the area, probably old northern Spanish blood. Some of Cirilito and Dulce’s other children also have light colored eyes.
It seems as if death is not present. There is a lot of activity as kids run about, chasing each other and shouting.
Dizziness sets in on me while we sit there in the dark interior of the wood-slat house with its woven palm frond roof and small windows and low doorways. It is mid-morning, yet the faces around me are dark except for the high points. I suddenly remember another dark room from long ago.
There are too many people in here at one time; it’s oppressive and gloomy, I say to myself. Bob is getting to be quite restless; his feet kept twitching as he sits in the chair, ready to jump up and run off with a quick goodbye.
We finish the strong coffee and small tray of cookies offered to us as we sit in the best chairs they have. Working up my nerve, I say, “I guess it’s time for the picture.” Hoping to get out of the whole thing I add, “There is not enough light in here. I can’t take the picture.”
Cirilito picks up the light burden in her small coffin and carries it outside to the open front porch. “Dulce, come here and stand next to me. Yes, with the baby between us.”
There they stand, coffin propped upright against the two of them. The baby looks at me with her blue eyes, her mouth open slightly. She is a waxen angel!
It is an old pre-SLR camera, but it has a high quality lens. It is the one that has traveled with me to many places. Looking through the sighting window, I frame Cirilito and Dulce with their baby, the rest of the family crowding into the picture from the sides.
Bob says in a low voice, “I can’t believe what Manny and his brothers and sisters are doing.” However, it is a natural thing; folks here love to have their picture taken. Cirilito and Dulce say nothing; he just looks into my lens with his solemn face and she with her sweet sad smile. Click. Then, a second click to make sure. Later I will give them copies of the photographs.
As Bob and I walk back along the pathway he keeps saying, “That was really weird. Did you see Manny and the others crowding into the picture? I wanted to shake them to pieces.”
“Bob, there was more there than you saw. The living children were the loving frame to the sadness of Cirilito and Dulce. They did not care what was happening; they would be getting a photograph of the angel they would never see again. They won’t have to try to pick up raindrops and put them in a glass. Their glass is full.”
“What are you talking about?”
I didn’t try to explain it to him.
IN THE LATE AUTUMN of 1964, I am back from two years of Peace Corps service. Mom and Dad met the Fernández family when they visited me on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip, so it was fun showing them my slides and pictures.
I tell Mom the story about Cirilito and Dulce and show her the pictures. There is a slight, very pleased smile as I show her the photographs of the Fernández family. She smiles and her eyes sparkle with a bit of wetness. It is almost as if it is 1946 again, but different, better.
John Miller was in a well drilling group as a PCV, then earned a masters degree in geology at the University of Missouri. He has worked in the field for 38 years, including eight years of hydrogeological employment in Puerto Rico, Panama, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and the Dominican Republic. He is now writing a historical novel and living in Tampa, Florida.
Opportunities for Writers
The National Peace Corps Association’s WorldView magazine welcomes your non-fiction submissions (1,000-2,000 words) that tell about the people and communities of the Peace Corps world. Contact Bonnie Robinson, assistant editor, at email@example.com or click on “WorldView magazine” from the National Peace Corps Association’s website www.rpcv.org.