Peace Corps Writers

November 1999

Go to In This Issue to discover all the new articles in November 1999 issue of

In Resources you will find our Bibliography of Peace Corps writers and other resources including links that might be of interest.

In the Archives you will find: back issues of Peace Corps Writers, a listing of the books that won writing awards that we've given in the past; the winners of the Peace Corps Experience Award.
   The Archives will be growing over time to include special articles from past issues of the newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers and who knows what else!

I loved my Lettera. My Olivetti Lettera 32. My slim, blue 13-pound typewriter. It told the world I was a writer, even when I wasn’t.
     It meant adventure. Romance. It meant I was heroic and daring. (Even if I wasn’t.) But most of all, it meant I was a writer.
     My Olivetti Lettera 32 was the touchstone of my great dream: to be a writer.
     Though, in truth, all I wrote at first were letters home.
     In the fall of 1962, I slipped a thin blue air letter under the platen, spun the knob, and typed:

    Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
         Dear Mom & Dad

     A letter home from Africa.
     For the next twenty years, my Olivetti helped me write more than just letters home. Letters from Nairobi, Kenya; Tel Aviv, Israel; Mahon, Menorca; Galway, Ireland; Beijing, China.
     I began to bang out — in its tiny pica type — articles, poetry, essays, travel pieces, more letters home, and eventually, a half dozen novels. Even when I was home in America, I kept typing with my Olivetti, believing in the good luck that the small machine had brought me as a writer.
     It wasn’t until early in the 1980s that I gave up the typewriter and turned to the computer for word processing, buying a giant, ugly Radio Shack computer with its nine-inch disks. I slipped my blue baby back into its thin case. I had stepped — like almost every other writer — into the computer age.

The other day I found my old Lettera 32 again. I came across it in a dark back corner of the attic. There was my old blue baby, thick with dust, its zipper broken. I tapped the keyboard, surprised at the soft touch. The worn black ribbon did not leave an impression. Lifting it, I realized how heavy 13 pounds was, though in the early sixties, I had marveled at its lightness. It didn’t seem heavy to me as I strode through foreign airports.
     I touched its keys lovingly and it was again forty years ago. I was going to Africa. I was starting the great adventure of my young life. Boarding the TWA jet late on a hot September night at Idlewild Airport, I carried my Lettera 32 with me. It was my only carry-on luggage.
     Halfway across the Atlantic, the charter plane full of slumbering Volunteers, I pulled the machine from under the seat and zipped it open, settled it on the drop-down tray, and typed the first pages of a novel that I never finished. It was an act of love.
     I would carry the Lettera 32 on and off dozens of planes, from DC 3s to 747s. Once, arriving in Israel, I was greeted by the husband of an old friend.
     “Nira told me to look for a man carrying a typewriter,” he explained, approaching me.
     Others found me by the sound of rapid typing. In Mahon, Menorca, on a still Mediterranean afternoon in a new apartment complex, there was a knock at my apartment door and a breathtakingly beautiful woman greeted me. She had been sent by friends of friends and had only the general location of my flat, not the number.
     “I knew you were a writer," she explained. "I followed the sound of your typing.”
     What I loved, too, was carrying my Olivetti off planes and onto waiting airport buses, or wedging it between suitcases in crowded European train compartments. It attracted attention, as rumpled London Fog raincoats once did. Who was this mysterious stranger? Journalist? Novelist? Revolutionary?
     There’s something about a portable typewriter.
     Do you remember the scene in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”— Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston going off in search of gold, and carrying a black portable typewriter? Or the photo of Hemingway in Cuba, bare-chested as he peers at his portable in Finca Vigia? Alas, not a Lettera 32.
     Well, no one is perfect.
     How many RPCVs carried portable typewriters with them into the world? Now, of course, they carry PCs and send e-mail home.

Drop me a note about how your Olivetti or Underwood kept you in touch with home, and what you wrote on it. E-mail me what you wrote home and I’ll select some of your letters and put them on-line in upcoming issues.

What’s new
Meanwhile, in this November issue, we are featuring an interview by Jeff Martin with Kent Haruf, whose novel Plainsong is being called “An American masterwork.” There’s also a short history of the establishment of the Peace Corps published under a new column entitled “To Preserve and to Learn: Occasional Essays about the History of the Peace Corps.” And there are reviews of new RPCVs books, a chapter from Bill Shurtleff’s (Nigeria 1964–65) Peace Corps book, A Peace Corps Year with Nigerians, published (and now out of print) in Germany in 1966. There’s also some “hot” literary gossip and a request that you vote for two RPCVs on the short list for the new New Yorker prize. Read all about it in “Literary Talk.” To see the full, detailed listing of all that’s new, go to our November 1999 issue.

— John Coyne, editor

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