||Paris in the Twenties. The Second World War. Vietnam. Each of these tumultuous periods spawned a new generation of American writers.
Now a fourth literary generation is producing a significant body of work based on its own shared experience overseas an experience that was intense, long-lasting, and life-changing.
Unlike the expatriates of the Twenties in Paris, Peace Corps writers travel not to escape but to seep into the culture. They are unlike Hemingway, who went to Paris like some companys CEO, moving from movable feast to movable feast. They are unlike the small band of expatriates a lost generation, as Gertrude Stein phrased it who did not want to go native, even with the French. Peace Corps writers go to do a job, a difficult job in towns and villages far away from embassies, first-class hotels, and the privileges of being rich foreigners in poor countries.
A new kind of expatriate
Paris expatriates and World War II writers wrote about displacement, not integration. Henry James did not embrace the Old World; his characters often die from exposure to it. Peace Corps Volunteers are more in the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper. Like his Hawkeye among the Indians, they immerse themselves in the alien world.
Now a new group of American writers is emerging. They are the Peace Corps Writers and, just as their volunteer service in other countries transformed them, they are now transforming the literary landscape of America.
Paul Theroux, the most prominent of the Peace Corps Writers, confirms this. I do not believe, he writes, that Africa is a very different place for having played host to the Peace Corps in fact, Africa is in a much worse state. But America is quite a different place for having had so many returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The experience was an enlightening one for most Volunteers. We were the ones who were enriched.
Bob Shacochis, author of the award-winning Easy in the Islands, served in the Caribbean. He calls his fellow Peace Corps Writers descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature.
Richard Wiley, a Volunteer in Korea, won the 1986 Pen/Faulkner Award for Soldiers in Hiding, a novel set in Japan. His Peace Corps novel, set in Korea, is entitled Festival of Three Thousand Maidens. His latest book, Ahmeds Revenge, is set in Kenya, where Richard also lived.
Kathleen Coskran, winner of the 1988 Minnesota Book Award for her collection of short fiction, The High Price of Everything, set several of her stories in Ethiopia where she was a Volunteer. Significantly, she did not set out to write about Ethiopia as a strange, exotic, quaint place. Instead, she wanted to use the foreign setting to probe the character of the American, the expatriates who find themselves living in a place where they dont know what all the rules are.
Mark Brazaitis, on the other hand, began trying to make sense of his experience while he was still serving in Guatemala. There, he says, he was immersed in a foreign world and had to learn a new language with which to describe my life, find new words to describe things, and fit the words to what it was that I saw . . . . In Guatemala, I was forced to wake up. In 1998, his collection of short stories, The River of Lost Voices, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
Marnie Mueller, a Volunteer in Ecuador, wrote brilliantly of her host country in her first novel, Green Fires, which was selected by Barnes and Noble for the Great New Writers series. It also won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award.
Marnies latest novel, The Climate of the Country, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp where she was born
Kent Haruf served in Turkey in the late sixties and is the author of three novels. His novel, The Tie That Binds received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. He is also the author of Where You Once Belonged. Kents new novel, Plainsong, published by Knopf, has just been published and is the hot book of the fall 99 publishing season.
A Tradition Updated
Writers like these and many other fine Peace Corps writers are working within a long-established American literary tradition. But now, in their hands, it is a tradition updated, made current, even urgent, by history and the constant shrinking of our globe. It is a tradition made vivid and immediate by the personal, hands-on experience they bring to the page. The mirror they hold up to America and Americans may be smudged by foreign fingers, but it is now held closer to our faces than it ever was before.