|This version of the January 2002 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers.
It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include listings from 40 Years of Peace Corps Writers: The Tour, archived copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, any bibliographic listings or "Links of Interest."
Peace Corps Writers January 2002
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Peace Corps Writers January 2002
THE LAND BY MILDRED D. TAYLOR (Ethiopia 1965-67) was awarded the 2002 Coretta Scott King Award on January 21, 2002 at the American Library Associations midwinter meeting. This award for African-American authors, commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and honors his widow, Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination in continuing the work for peace and world brotherhood.
The Land chronicles the triumphs and struggles of Paul-Edward Logan, son of a white owner and an enslaved African-Indian women. Set in Mississippi during the 1800s, the book introduces readers to the grandfather of Cassie Logan, the hero of Taylors 1976 Newbery Award winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Millie, as she was known as a PCV, started to write while a Volunteer. She taught English and history in the town of Yirgalem in southern Ethiopia. It was in Ethiopia, she has written, where she observed black pride and independence, and this reminded her of stories her father had told her which she has turned into award winning fiction. Millie has received critical acclaim for her original interpretation of the black experience. In 1997, Millie was the recipient of the ALAN Award which honors those who have made outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature. It is presented by The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, a special interest group of the National Council of Teachers of English.
The 2002 Caldecott Awards, which honor the illustrators of the most distinguished American picture books of the year, were also announced at the American Library Association meeting. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins illustrated by Brian Selznick, and written by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 198183), was named a 2002 Honor Book. Published by Scholastic Press, the book is tells the true story of a Victorian sculptor who built the worlds first life-size dinosaur models.
In April 2002, Barbaras third childrens book, A Cool Drink of Water, will be published by National Geographic Childrens Books. It is a simple, lyrical text about drinking water around the world. It will be illustrated with National Geographics photographs.
40 + One
By now you should have received word that the National Peace Corps Association has rescheduled the 40th Anniversary conference. Now dubbed the 40+1, the conference will be held at a Washington, D.C. hotel and all the workshops, bookstore, etc. will take place within that hotel. The dates for the Conference are June 2023.
Writers workshops at Conference
Peace Corps Writers will reschedule the same series of workshops we had previously planned. We are starting over with assignments for writers to panels. If you will be registering for the conference and would like to be on a panel, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what panel you would like to be on. We will try to honor all requests, if possible. The workshops have been tentatively set for Friday, June 21st 15 pm and Saturday, June 22nd 93 pm. The panels are:
The Peace Corps Novel as Literature
Poetry from the Peace Corps Experience
Travel Now, Write Later
Write! Edit! Publish!
Writing about the Environment
Writing Childrens Books
Writing Your Peace Corps Story
Working with Words
How to Write A Novel in 100 Days or Less
When we have information on what bookstore will be selling books at the conference, we will let writers know so that they can arrange for a signings.
Reading Out Loud
Joe Kovacs has kindly agreed to again handle the readings at the conference. If you wish to read from your writings about your Peace Corps experience, please let Joe know. Joe has a new email account with a title thats very fitting for his role in the conference planning: email@example.com.
Peace Corps Writers awards
The Peace Corps Writers Awards for outstanding books published by RPCVs, PCVs, and Peace Corps staff during 2001 will be presented at the NPCA conference in Washington, D.C., 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 1-page evocation of the Peace Corps experience)
Award for Best Poetry
Award for Best Travel Writing
Award for Best Childrens Writing
Please send in your nominations to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Awards for the winners of competition for the outstanding books from 2000 will also be presented at the conference.
New at our site
We have added a page of links to sites by PCVs and RPCVs about their Peace Corps countries and service. Please write our webmaster if you know of sites that should be added. Thanks.
In other news
Peace Corps directorship
Gaddi H. Vasquez was confirmed on Friday, January 25, 2002, as the sixteenth director of the Peace Corps. His confirmation was one of 30 made by unanimous voice vote in a nearly empty Senate chamber. PeaceCorpsWriters.org wishes Mr. Vasquez success during his tour as director of the agency.
Legendary Peace Corps writer dies
We have just learned that Meridan Bennett (Peace Corps staff: 196266) died last March in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Med Bennett was the first, and only, country director in Cyprus, and then an evaluator for the Peace Corps. He did evaluations of the programs in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Nepal and Pakistan. Bennett was one of the early thinkers of the agency and, with David Hapgood, published one of the first critical books on the Peace Corps, Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps, published in 1968. PeaceCorpsWriter.org published an article written by Bennett in 1965 entitled The Real Job of the Peace Corps One Mans View in our To Preserve and to Learn column.
Like many of the great men and women who were part of the early days of Peace Corps, Med passed through the agency, gave his ideas and vision, left a lasting contribution on how the Volunteers should work overseas, and then moved on with his life. He was 73.
In this Issue
A Literary Life
Many PCVs who served in Morocco, or ended up there for one reason or the other, sought out the writer and composer, Paul Bowles, who through his life, made being an expatriate romantic and possible for others who followed including not a few PCVs. Bowles lived in Morocco for over forty years, dying there in 1999. Many have read his book The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, or seen the movie. Author of several other novels, poetry, short story collections, and nonfiction inclucing travel books, he was also a well-known composer of classical music, film scores, and theatrical music.
In September 1993, we published in our newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers, a piece by a young RPCV, Sarah Streed (Morocco 198486) entitled, Sitting in Paul Bowles Chair telling of a visit she had made to Bowles in Tangiers when she was a Volunteer. In this issue, in our A Writer Writes column, we are pleased to publish an essay about Paul Bowles by David Espey, a returned Volunteer from Morocco (196264), who came to know Bowles after his Peace Corps service when he returned to Morocco on a Fulbright grant. Espey is the director of the English Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
This issues Letter Home is from Eugenia Hepworth Jenson (Ukraine 199597). Her letter home, written as a prose poem, is based on a true story.
Also . . .
This issue also has a lengthy list of new books by RPCVs, reviews of recently published books, Literary Talk, and much more. Take a few minutes now (you dont have anything better to do than get-up-to-speed on what Peace Corps writers are doing, saying, and writing) and treat yourself to some wonderful prose and information.
A writer writes
Remembering Paul Bowles
by David Espey (Morocco 196264)
IN HIS TRAVEL BOOK ON THE MEDITERRANEAN, The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux ends his long trip by paying a visit to Paul Bowles, the expatriate American novelist who lived in Tangier until his death in 1999. Theroux made his visit in the early 1990s, when Bowles was already aged and infirm, but still receiving visitors in his modest apartment. From his bed (actually a mattress on the floor, surrounded by medicines and papers), Bowles conversed amiably for several hours, and Theroux found him to be fascinating company.
Therouxs account took me back to a time nearly 25 years ago when I was a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco and dropped in often on Bowles, who was always gracious about receiving visitors. But my memories of Bowles go back even further, to the early 1960s, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first project to Morocco. At that time, I and my fellow Volunteers were reading with fascination a book about a poor, illiterate Moroccan named Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an oral autobiography entitled A Life Full of Holes. Bowles, whom I had never heard of, was listed as the translator.
The early 60s were a time when Africa seemed full of promise before the devastating civil wars and famines, before terrorism and hijackings, before leaders like Idi Amin, before AIDS, before Islamic fundamentalism. Even in North Africa, more a part of the Arab world than the African continent, newly-independent countries radiated a kind of hope and energy. The French had left Morocco only six years before, and Algeria was celebrating independence after its long colonial war. Nobody had heard of Vietnam. Even the Six-Day War had not yet happened, and pictures of Egypts President Nassar adorned the walls of Moroccan homes next to portraits of the new king, Hassan II. John F. Kennedy was still alive, the Peace Corps was in its infancy, and we Volunteers, products of the Eisenhower era and the Cold War, were just beginning to discover the emerging Third World. I remember hitchhiking across an Algeria festooned with banners proclaiming the optimistic slogans of socialism. It was a mark of the times that I, as an American, was welcomed warmly in Algeria. (Today I would risk getting my throat cut!)
A Life Full of Holes reveals poverty to Volunteers
Bowless book stirred such interest among Volunteers because it dramatized in a plain and moving manner the pain and humiliation of poverty. Poverty, I must admit, probably held a naïve attraction for us. Bowles, who spoke the local dialect of Arabic, had struck up a conversation with Charhadi, who had a gift for storytelling. He gradually coaxed out the sad story of the mans life and tape-recorded it over a number of sessions. Then he translated it, edited the narrative, and published it in English. The book attracted attention, came out in a French version, and sold well. Happily and this is what impressed the Volunteers Bowles divided the proceeds from the book with Charhadi, who was able to buy a house, get married, and thus escape poverty.
I didnt get to know Bowless other writing nihilistic novels like The Sheltering Sky and the grotesque short stories of The Delicate Prey, until I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, during the Vietnam era. Until then, I had only thought of Bowles as the rather altruistic translator of Charhadi. Bowless own autobiography, Without Stopping, came out in 1973, and I found that he had been a composer and a collaborator with writers like Tennessee Williams. As a young man, he had known Gertrude Stein, traveled with Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. The Beats Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso had visited him in Tangier, and he was a friend of William Burroughs. Bowles other novels, one set in Tangier, another in Fez, and especially his travel writing about the Sahara, Casablanca, and Berber music made me nostalgic for Morocco.
Elmira and Morocco an unlikely shared experience
The debacle of Vietnam, the Nixon years, Watergate all made me want to get out of the U.S. and I found I was thinking more of Morocco and those earlier, sunnier days of the Peace Corps. In the mid-1970s I went back to the country as a Fulbright lecturer at the national university, Mohammed V, in Rabat. Before I left for Morocco, I made a visit to the Humanities Research Center to read the archives of Bowles and his wife Jane, also a writer of note. What intrigued me in Bowless autobiography was his memory of visiting his grandparents in Elmira, N. Y. which happened to be my hometown and the only world I knew before I went off to Morocco with the Peace Corps. From his description, his grandparents house was on Church Street, just a few blocks from where I lived. I wrote to Bowles, mentioned that we had Elmira and Morocco in common, and asked if I could call on him in Tangier. He wrote back a warm letter of invitation, with the comment that he still visited the streets of Elmira, but only in his dreams.
Moroccan city life
Compared to my Peace Corps years in the villages and back country of Morocco, it was a kind of luxury to live in Rabat, a pleasant city on the Atlantic Coast which combines a white-washed air of the French Mediterranean with the centuries-old walls, fortress, and bazaar of the Moorish city. Equally beautiful was Bowless adopted home of Tangier, across from the straits of Gibraltar. (Being a Volunteer in Morocco had been a kind of schizophrenic experience long periods of isolation in remote rural posts interrupted by in-country visits to alluring cities like Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez, with their cafes, cinemas, tourist hotels, and European veneer.)
Tangier was one city I had not gotten to know as a Volunteer, since it was in the extreme northwestern corner of the country, just below Spain and Gibraltar. (It is curious to remember that as Volunteers in Morocco, we were forbidden to go to Europe a mark perhaps of some neo-Puritan strain in the early Peace Corps. Needless to say, the Volunteers soon ignored the policy and made their way to Spain and France on holidays.) For most of us, Morocco was not only the Third World it was the first experience with continental European culture cafes, wine with meals, French cinema. (I saw my first Godard film in Morocco Breathless, with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.)
A visit with the writer
Bowles lived in a nondescript apartment block, a walk-up surrounded by empty lots. Therouxs account of entering the dark building and climbing up the damp stairwell brings back vividly my own impressions of my first visit there:
I went up and rang the bell and waited. I rang it four times, sanding in the semidarkness of the hallway. Except for the jangling of the bell, there was no other sound inside. The afternoon was cold and damp, the building smelled gloomily of stewed meat. I thought: If I am spared, if I attain the age of eighty-five, I do not want to live in a place like this. Give me sunshine.
When I arrived for my first visit, a tall Moroccan answered the door and motioned me in. I sat for a few moments in the small, dimly lit salon of the apartment, taking in the book-laden shelves and the skull of an animal over the small fireplace, in which a log was burning. (It was October, and Tangier was rainy and windy.)
Bowles appeared, cigarette-holder in hand, and offered me tea, which I accepted, and one of his kif-filled cigarettes, which I declined. (A smoker of kif, the potent Moroccan brand of hashish, Bowles has written about how smoking and even eating majoun, a kind of candy made from the substance, helped him write certain scenes in his fiction, including the famous death-vision of the protagonist in The Sheltering Sky.) He looked just like his pictures a slight, trim man, white-haired, in his late 60s. I had brought with me a picture of his grandfathers house in Elmira to present him, and he scrutinized the old Victorian style dwelling with interest. It has different paint, but otherwise looks pretty much as I remember it.
We began to talk of Morocco, and he seemed pleased that I knew some Moroccan Arabic. (I had been chatting with his housemaid in the dialect when he came in.) I had read somewhere that The Sheltering Sky was now being used in Peace Corps training for Morocco, and Bowles was incredulous. What can fiction about ignorant expatriates in the 1940s, set in French Algeria, help in training community development workers? He agreed that one of his books made from the tapes of Moroccan storytellers might offer more to Volunteers in training.
By the time I met him, Bowles was writing little of his own fiction, and his main literary efforts were translations of Moroccan storytellers Tangier residents like Mohamed Choukri and Mohamed Mrabet, both of whom I later met. Bowles was fascinated with those parts of Moroccan society which have been little affected by western civilization. In the 1950s, he traveled to remote parts of Morocco to record native Berber music which is slowly dying out, and he deplored the effects of radio and popular music on traditional Moroccan culture. In his fiction about North Africa, he has written of characters moved by such music to feats of self-mutilation. Thus he has been viewed by some as an enemy of development, a kind of primitivist. My Moroccan colleagues at the university, young professors who had been trained in the U.S. or the U.K., didnt think much of Bowles. One of them remarked, What would you think of a Moroccan who lived in the U.S. and presumed to understand American culture because he had spent time with the Apaches?
The drug of choice
Bowless first collection of short stories is dedicated to his mother, who first read me Poe, and his fiction is distinguished by torture, mutilation, murder, incest, and various nightmare visions and death agonies. So visitors are surprised to be met by a rather formal, proper, gentle, soft-spoken figure. The only reminders of his fictional world were the small skull on the mantlepiece and the hashish smoke that gathered in the small room as we talked. Bowles would take a cigarette from a pack, roll it lightly in his fingers to remove the tobacco, which he replaced with hashish from a pouch. He smoked constantly, and I was amazed at how lucid he remained. As with each of my subsequent visits, even though I wasnt smoking, after an hour or two of conversation my clothes became saturated with the pungent odor of the kif, and I felt the effects of second-hand smoke.
Again, I was reminded of how innocent we had been in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Alcohol was the drug of choice then, and we made do with the watery local beer or the more potent red wine of North Africa, both developed by the French during the colonial days. When we would come to Rabat or Casablanca for an in-country meeting, we would try to get Scotch or Bourbon from one of the Americans who had PX privileges. (One of the ironies of being in the Peace Corps in Morocco was the presence of U.S. military bases, where B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons regularly patrolled the skies of the Atlantic and Mediterranean.) One could get onto the bases with a U.S. passport, but we couldnt get into the PX or buy liquor, though it was readily available from American servicemen or embassy types. The marijuana-smoking generation of American youth was still in the future. For us Volunteers, kif was just something that old Moroccans smoked in seedy cafes in the medinas, the old quarters of the cities. Once I remember a group of Volunteers experimenting with hashish. Someone had gotten a small bag, and we sat in a circle and passed the pipe. We were all giggling, because we thought of ourselves as imitating old Moroccan men. No one got high (we probably wouldnt have known what that was), and no one thought enough of the experience to repeat it.
Bowles once wrote an article comparing alcohol to hashish, and argued that the latter was much healthier. He had seen a lot of his artist and writer friends in the 1930s and 40s ruin their health with alcohol or drink themselves to death, and he himself switched from alcohol to hashish and was the healthier for it. Bowles always was very careful with his health he declined my invitation to a restaurant because he feared not only bacteria but also the exposure to the wet and cold. He must have been right, because he lived almost to the age of 90.
Tangier had been an international city when Bowles first arrived, and over the years he had become a fixture in the expatriate society which still existed there. To the first-time tourist coming over to North Africa from Spain or Gibraltar, Tangier gives the impression of a border town, full of touts and parasites and invitations to all sorts of louche pleasures. It was a world that Bowles exploited in his fiction, especially in the novel Let It Come Down. Tangier has a reputation not unlike San Franciscos as a place beloved by gays, but the word gay just doesnt fit a somber figure like Bowles, who wrote in his autobiography of encounters with both sexes both, he said, embarrassing and overrated.
Another famous-writer sighting results
On one of my later visits to Bowles, my wife Molly, who had read all his work, came along to meet him. It was interesting to see Bowles become almost courtly, and he immediately got out pictures of his late wife Jane and began to reminisce about her. Molly was quite taken with him she said later that he reminded her of Fred Astaire. Bowles was in as genial a mood as I had ever seen him. He showed us a couple of first editions off his shelves early works of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce two writers who had been in the avant-garde when he was a young man. In his excitement, he had inadvertently dropped a bit of cigarette ash on his sofa, and we began to smell a different odor not the fumes of hashish but burning fabric, which we quickly extinguished. Perhaps his excitement was also stirred by the fact, as he told us an a reverent whisper, that Beckett is in town!
Samuel Beckett? I asked, incredulously.
He comes to Tangier occasionally, Bowles replied. He had heard through the Tangier grapevine that the great man had been spotted. He eats often at La Grenouille, he confided. (This was an old French restaurant, a favorite expatriate hangout.)
So Molly and I went to La Grenouille that night and sure enough, as we were halfway through the meal, in shuffled a very old Samuel Beckett. No mistaking that hawklike profile, even more pronounced in his old age. He moved slowly, tended by a very motherly wife, and they took a table in a dark corner behind us. We prolonged our meal, trying to be discreet but turning as often as possible to catch a glimpse of him. He seemed to whine a bit and fuss over his food, and his wife spoke to him in low, comforting tones.
I reported all this back to Bowles, and for a moment we were like a couple of Beckett groupies, savoring the sighting.
Composing vs. writing
What interested me most about Bowles was the relation of his music to his writing. For years he had been a composer, having given up writing, because, as he said, he just didnt understand human beings. He gradually moved back into fiction through the technique of automatic writing (these first efforts were a kind of beast fable, but he soon turned to humans who behaved in animal fashion.) It was very different than writing music, he said. Composing was quite logical and rational, and maddeningly internal. He felt that composing enclosed one too much within ones brain. Often when he composed, he would go for long walks compulsively while working out the harmonies and musical relationships in his head. Writing fiction was much less frustrating than writing music he said, once he had gotten back into it.
Bowles wrote background music for movies and plays one of the best known is Tennessee Williamss The Glass Menagerie. The purpose of background music is to emphasize and heighten the emotional effects of the story. In his own fiction, one can find a kind of sound track a whole array of background noises that give depth and resonance to the narrative. In The Sheltering Sky for example, the protagonist is lured to an encounter with a prostitute by the enticing sound of flute music. He later dies an agonizing death from typhoid fever as the wind screams outside in a kind of chorus for his own cries of pain.
In one of his stories, a professor lured into a desert abyss by the sound of native music gets his tongue cut out. In another, a murderer is punished by being buried up to his neck in the sand. While he screams out in his death agonies, the wind blows dust into his mouth.
When I once remarked to him that in many of his stories, the violent sounds of nature or the equally devastating silence of the desert seem to overwhelm the language of the characters, Bowles replied, I have always considered language to be essentially sound. And he left me to ponder the nihilistic implications of that. I thought of a line from Shakespeare, echoed by Faulkner: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Travel writing without the darkness
It is a long way from our sunny, youthful, and altruistic days in the Peace Corps to the dark fictional world of Paul Bowles, full of images of the abyss and the void. But I have always felt that Bowless travel writing he wrote many articles for Holiday Magazine in the 1950s and 60s shows a different side. In these pieces, many of them collected in a book called Their Heads Are Green, Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, Bowles shows a kind of humor, affection for North Africa, and a love of travel which is quite absent in the fiction. Even his fiction shows an increasing movement away from the perspective of western characters towards the imaginative world of the North Africans, until he puts aside his own fiction in favor of recording and translating the oral tales of Moroccan storytellers. And he has always shared profits from the books with the native storytellers.
Paul Theroux uses his encounter with Bowles to end the account of his own Mediterranean travels. I like the way Theroux, the most successful writer to come out of the Peace Corps, expresses a kind of kinship with Bowles, the most resolutely expatriate of American writers. Theroux contemplates the aged man in his last days, bedridden and surrounded with medicines, but still working on manuscripts:
He seemed to me a man who masked all his feelings; he had a glittering eye, but a cold gaze. He seemed at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, detached, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, egomaniacal, and hospitable to praise. He was like almost every other writer I had known in my life.
David Espey taught English as a Volunteer in Morocco. He has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Michigan. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the English Writing Program. He has had Fulbright grants to Morocco, Turkey, and Japan. His home page is www.english.upenn.edu/~despey/.
A letter from . . .
THERE HAD BEEN A PRISON in Lutsk. A concentration camp actually. I waited a month before you would take me there. A razed courtyard. To the left the Nazis had set up a theatre. Films for the children on Sundays. Your aunt went one weekend against her mothers wishes. On that day, after the doors were shut, the soldiers made their way down the aisles. Your aunt hid beneath a pile of coats. The only child to escape. All the rest were herded onto trucks and taken across the border to Auschwitz.
I watch your breath come out in frosted bursts. We are standing outside a small Orthodox church at the edge of a broken city. Feeble old women, heads covered in shawls, line up outside the doors. Above the altar I can see one small glimmer of light. The arm of the Savior carved above a marble terrace. His hammered fist.
Eugenia Hepworth Jenson (Ukraine 199597)
Eugenia was in the fifth Peace Corps group to go to the Urkraine a group of 70 business teachers and 70 English teachers who were the first PCVs to work in rural areas of the country.
Eugenia was assigned to teach at a secondary school in a village in the west of the country. Being in the west, she studied the Ukrainian language and not Russian. She taught 2nd to 11th form in the school of 300 students. Her secondary project was teaching at summer camps throughout the Ukraine.
Her village of Solonka was 20 minutes by bus from Lviv, one of the most Nationalistic areas of Ukraine, where Ukrainian is spoken and used in schools. This area of the country had previously been a part of Poland. In fact, Lviv and Krakow, Poland had at one time been sister cities. Lviv has some of the most amazing architecture to be found in Europe and Hitler had forbidden Lviv to be bombed during World War II because of its ancient Prussian heritage.
Talking with Stephen Foehr
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
STEPHEN FOEHR WAS ONE OF THOSE FAMOUS bad boys of Peace Corps/ Ethiopia. I know because Stephen was one of my responsibilities when I was an Associate Director in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1967. He was stationed in a difficult, one-Volunteer town called Debark, several hours north of Gondar (and about 425 km north-northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa, as the crow flies). Driving north from Gondar in my LandRover to the last town on my route, I was never sure that Id find Stephen at home or in the classroom for Debark was the base from which people would explore Ethiopias Simien Mountains. Often Id arrive in Debark only to find that Steve wasnt teaching, but was out hiking high up in the Simien, home of the fabled endemic Gelada baboon and the Walia ibex. He was, however, regardless of how he drove the Peace Corps Staff crazy (myself included), one of the more interesting and infamous PCVs of his training group. Years later, whenever I ran into an Ethiopian Volunteer from his era, theyd always ask, whatever happened to Steve Foehr? Finally, with this interview, we get to tell what happened to Steve after he left Debark, Ethiopia.
For the record, Steve, where and when did you serve in Peace Corps?
I taught from 1964-66 in the small highland village of Debark, Ethiopia.
Okay, what happened to you after Ethiopia?
I hitchhiked around the world for four years. I set up households and worked in Israel, Greece, Denmark, Japan, and Hong Kong doing various jobs teaching English as a second language, movie extra, advertising copywriter, some minor scams. About half that time was in the Far East, including Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia during the war. I spent time in Southeast Asia before going to India and returning to Europe through the Middle East. Then I returned to the U.S. for a year.
And you started writing then?
When I returned to the States, I became a police reporter for City News in Chicago. After that baptism by fire, I decided that being an international feature writer would be more glamorous and moved to London for a year. I managed to publish some travel articles and that started a freelance career. Magazine credits include Escape, Islands, Outside, Travel & Leisure, Travel Holiday, Buzzworm, Geo, Shamabala, and 17 others. Newspapers include London Observer, Daily Express Sunday magazine, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, and another 20 or so. I was a co-founder of the Straight Creek Journal, an underground paper in Denver.
How did the Taj Mahal book come about?
Taj and I had a common friend. That friend knew that Taj wanted a book written but his management had been dragging their feet to get it launched. Taj was frustrated. The friend suggested that I call him and gave me the phone number. We agreed to meet in Oakland and spent three days hanging out talking. We decided that we liked and trusted each other enough to proceed with the book.
How do you get into writing travel pieces?
Usually I think of a place I want to go and then do research to find a story angle to get an assignment. Other times, publications contact me with ideas. The trick is to find a valid story within the destination other than just a story on the place itself. I am not interested in writing postcard articles. I focus primarily on cultural travel, that is, what gives a place its authenticity and how do the people function within that context, perhaps on the environmental level, or the arts, or daily living within the economy. For example, I spent time with the Hodi, jungle nomads in the Venezuela highlands, who have a society based on generosity. They live very lightly on the land and largely in harmony. I found lessons in their primitive society very apropos to our developed society. For my Cuban and Jamaican books, I used music as a vehicle into the society and culture.
What would you consider your first important travel assignment?
The first big publication assignment was for Islands Magazine on the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, where the Cuna Indians live in their autonomous territory. I spent a couple weeks living with a Cuna family, meeting the shamans, traveling the islands, learning the economic reality, and the cultural legends and beliefs that underpin their culture.
What was the background on your Cuba books?
I had always wanted to go to Cuba since the 1957 Revolution. I seriously began thinking about the trip while living in Jamaica to research the reggae culture book. There were direct flights from Montego Bay and Havana and I met people who had gone. They raved about Cuba. When the Jamaican book was finished, I queried the publisher about a Cuban book, using the same approach of music/travel. Fortuitously, they were looking for a Latin music book at that very moment and a deal was quickly struck.
What about Dancing with Fidel? How long did it take to research and write?
The total project took eight months. I spent four months reading about the colonial history, the Revolution history, current social/racial/political commentaries, background on Santeria and its African origin, music/cultural history, and talking with Cuban musicians in this country.
I lived in Cuba from February to March 2001. I spent most of the time in Havana interviewing musicians but traveled to the western province of Pinar del Rio, to the beach resort of Varadero, to the opposite end of the island to Santiago de Cuba, over the mountains to Baracoa and the very tip of eastern Cuba, then returned up the south coast to Havana. Often I did 2 to 3 interviews a day. It was a non-stop 60-day sprint of information gathering.
I wrote the book in eight weeks way too fast. But the publisher pushed up the release date to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month. Originally, I had planned to spend four months actually writing the book.
Do you write from a journal? notes? tape recorder?
I take copious research notes (200 pages for the Cuban book). I organize these into categories and cross-reference. So, if I want to check about the colonial history, I have a file of notes at hand. I read these booklets many times and know exactly where the information can be found. I want to know what Im looking for before I actually go to the place. I have lines
of inquires thought out and contacts I need to make. Yet, perhaps 80 percent of the work happens spontaneously once Im on location.
I always tape formal interviews. I always carry a notebook to record impressions, snatches of dialogue, facts, ideas. I try to write daily about what happened on location, even if its just street scenes. These are often only extended notes. I check my research, assumptions, facts, and impressions with first-hand sources. I immerse myself in the information and in the place so I can make connections, see links, see new directions of inquiry, find insights.
If some young RPCV were starting out, wanting a career as a writer, what would you suggest?
On a practical level, get a byline, even if its in the hometown paper, and build on that. The short upfront pieces are the easiest way to break into magazines. Ask a magazine for its editorial calendar so you can see what
they are planning six months ahead, and then find ideas to fit. (If the editor wont send you the calendar, ask marketing.) Study the publications style, but always work on developing your own writers voice. That is what editors will eventually buy.
On a person level, work hard to control the multi-techniques of the writing craft; and work hard to surrender control to the art of your writing. In this, writing is a life philosophy. Be in control yet lose control. Be in the dance of discipline and freedom within the tune you create.
Literary Type January 2002
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 13251354, written and illustrated by James Rumford (Chad 197174; Afghanistan 197475) was featured in a lengthy article in USAToday's Books section under the title Bringing the Muslim world to young readers (1/8/02) Traveling Man tells of the 29-year journey of a young Moroccan who left his home on his hajj and went to China and back. Rumford has been fulfilling his Third Goal oblications by visiting schools, bookstores and libraries to talk about the book, and he has found great interest in Islam and its history among the children in his audiences.
Bob Schacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576), author most recently of The Immaculate Invasion his account of the United States special forces in Haiti, who now teaches at Florida State University, had an Op-Ed in The New York Times on Friday, December 21, 2001 on the upcoming governors race in Florida. Bob compared the race to the Latin American soaps, the telenovelas: highly emotive tales of power, privilege and betrayal staged in a hot mist of unrequited love.
A short story by Karen M. Unger (Liberia 197780), The Heart of the Cottonwood Tree, based on her Peace Corps experience, was published in the literary magazine, Grand Street, Issue #47. Her book for preteens, Too Old for This, Too Young for That: Your Survival Guide for the Middle School Years, published by Free Spirt Press in 2000 is in its fourth reprint. Karen co-authored the book with Harriet Mosatche.
Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, edited by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264) continues to receive positive reviews, this time from Patrick Shannon of Penn State University. His review appeared in the November 2001 issue of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
None of the contributors are protagonists in their chapters, but each chapter is based on some event that the writer witnessed, experienced, or heard about. By telling the stories, the contributors seem to reconsider their experiences overseas and enable readers to consider (or perhaps reconsider) U.S. actions in the developing world. Those actions can serve as a metaphor for readers experiences with human and cultural differences. In this way, the book offers a triple treat. Readers learn a little about parts of the world they may never see for themselves, they are entertained by a good yarn, and they can learn about themselves as well.
What more could a writer (or editor) want?
In the January 2002 on-line issue of Common-Place there is an interesting piece by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193), entitled Vox Pop: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which details the history of American Girl dolls and books. Common-place is an Interactive Journal of Early American Life before 1900 and is published quarterly in October, January, April, and July by the American Antiquarian Society and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. It is, as they write, A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine.
The Winter 2002 issue of storySouth a magazine edited by Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496), featuring the best fiction and poetry the new south has to offer is now online. Among the highlights in this issue is a special section on the life and poetry of Forrest Gander, one of the south's most distinctive poets. And if that isn't enough, there is also an essay on how much exposure online and print publications really give new writers. To seek out the issue, go to: http://www.storysouth.com
Dale Dapkins (Turkey 1968) was the back-to-back grand prize winner of the nationwide Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition for the years 1999 and 2000. The competition supports and encourages the efforts of emerging writers of short fiction. His two stories are Alpaca Potato and Church of the Bunny, and can be read at www.themightyorgan.com.
Coming this March is My Mothers Island, a novel by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 196365.) This is Marnies third novel. Publishers Weekly in a recent review says, As a novel, this is a lovely but painful account of a difficult journey two women must take together to bring their problematic relationship to a close. On a deeper level, Mueller has crafted an exceptional book about the spirituality of death and dying that gets inside the reality of losing a parent with an intimacy and depth that no self-help treatise can hope to match.
Marnie will be touring the country with this new novel and PeaceCorpsWriters.org will let you know where and when she is appearing.
Due this spring is Nuclear History-Nuclear Destiny, Jim Leragers (Ethiopia 196869, Ghana 196971) journey through the human and environmental impact of the nuclear age around the world.
Last November 27th, Jim displaying 15 of the 120 photos in the book at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.
Judy Mann, in her Washinton Post column (November 9, 2001) entitled Peace Corps Deserves Better Than GOP Deadwood, quotes from Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264) letter that appeared in the September issue of our website. Mann, who worked at the Peace Corps as a high school intern over the summers of 1961 and '1962 also posted our www address.
Recent Books by Peace Corps writers January 2002
The Shattered Pearl
By Sara Armstrong (Uganda 196668)
Trafford Publishing, $14.00
by Don Christians (PC staff: Ethiopia 196770, Dominican Republic 197072)
Creative Arts Book Co., $14.95
What There Is
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
The Argonne House Press, $8.00
P.0. Box 21069
Washington, DC 20009
by Nicole DeCanio (Ghana 2000 )
Lightning Source, $31.99
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins:
An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer
Named a 2002 Caldecott Honor Book (Children 48)
by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 198183), illustrated by Brian Selznick
Dick McNabb, Private Dick
by John McCafferty (Russia 199698)
McSeas Books, $7.00
1532 Santa Rosa Aveune
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
Tales from the Jungel
. . . a gringa in Nicaragua
by Rachael Tyng McClennen (Nicaragua 199698)
Amigos de las Americas, $15.00
P.0. Box 30129
Seattle, Washington 98103-0129
For the Good of Mankind:
A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands
by Jack Niedenthal (Marshall Islands 198184)
Bravo Publishers, $16.99
Ka-hala-o-puna, ka u'i o Manoa: The Beauty of Manoa
by James Rumford (Chad 197174; Afghanistan 197475)
Honolulu: Manoa Press, $12.95
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 13251354
by James Rumford (Chad 197174; Afghanistan 197475)
Houghton Mifflin, $16.00
Love Her Madly
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
Henry Holt, $25.00
by Mildred Taylor (Ethiopia 196567)
Recipient of 2002 Coretta Scott King Award (Children 912)
Phyllis Fogelman Books, $17.99
Criminal Procedure: Constitution and Society
by Marvin Zalman (Nigeria 196668)
Prentice Hall, $69.33
Moses in Sinai
by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193)
Black Heron Press, $23.95
(Indigenous People of Africa, Children)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
Lucent Books, $27.45
Review two books of poetry
I Want This World
By Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475)
Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, $13.95
The Circumference of Arrival
By Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
Minneapolis: Elixir Press, $7.00
P.O. Box 18010
Minneapolis, MN 55418
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
DURING A PREVIOUS TROUBLED TIME in American history, President Herbert Hoover said that what the country needed was a good poem. Its hard to imagine George W. Bush making a similar pronouncement, but if he were to do so, he might follow it by pointing readers to two recent collections by returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Margaret Szumowskis I Want This World and Sandra Meeks The Circumference of Arrival are filled with good poems. Szumowski has more of them, but only because hers is a full-length book whereas Meeks is a chapbook. Both volumes feature careful, vivid language, keen intelligence and, in Szumowskis case, a welcome wit.
I Want This World is several books in one. The early poems center around Szumowskis father and mother and their perilous hold on life in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. Another part of the book examines life in the Rio Grande Valley. A third section is highlighted by poems written about a younger generation. The last section, with its wonderful concluding poem, Ngorogoro, the Crater, contains what might be called Peace Corps poems sharp, sensitive evocations of life abroad.
Szumowski beautifully evokes her father in The Trickster. In each succeeding stanza, one line longer than its predecessor, her father becomes more elusive. He is evoked in the first stanza as having hoodwinked the Germans, in the second as living off wild onions and in the third as playing chess in the top bunk of a place in which they locked you in to die. By the fourth and final stanza, however, Szumowskis father threatens to perform his disappearing act on her. Naturally, she rebels:
I want you in the flesh.
I will be your fiercest guard,
make a stout cage of these arms.
Szumowski is adept at probing the metaphorical resonance of commonplace items, especially foods. In The Potato, she traces the tubers significance to both her parents generation and her own. In both cases, the potato represents a kind of endurance and, therefore, assumes a holy place in her familys world:
Szumowski displays a sensitive eye in capturing landscapes. Borders, in the books second section, paints a picture of both sides of the Rio Grande, first Brownsville, where trees flame and the sun/beats blood-red through palms, then the Mexican side:
Here are the men pushing carts,
orange and yellow fruit, big jars
of pink, green, purple juices.
The poets subtle wit is in evidence in this poem as well. It concludes with an observation travelers to countries south of the United States will no doubt have made themselves:
Nowhere is Szumowskis wit more in evidence than in the third section of I Want This World. At the Fancy Feet Boutique With My Punk Ballerina is an exasperated yet sensitive look at a young womans effort to find her place in the world. Although the poems heroine dresses like deaths bailiff, her appearance belies her physical grace. In the four concluding lines of this lyric, the narrators understanding of her daughter is turned on end. The girl with blackish-purple hair and ears with seven holes is transformed when performing:
In the concluding section, Szumowski shows how experiences overseas can be the stuff of rich literature. Incident on the Gondar Road will resonate with returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Instead of reaching the Blue Nile, as theyd set off to do, the dumb Yanks who narrate the poem hit an old man who stepped in front of their car. Their destination is altered, as they have to travel to Addis Abada to find a doctor. The poem never says it outright, but its implication is clear. The trip with the old man represents a special journey in its own right:
Anyway, you should have seen the old man staring
at Addis. Tall buildings, fast cars, women he loved it!
If Szumowskis poems are strong because of the stories they tell and their pointed, tender observations mixed with humor, Meeks The Circumference of Arrival succeeds because of its intense language and intelligent, sometimes brilliant juxtaposition of objects and ideas. Her chapbooks title sums up her approach. Usually we gauge our arrival in terms of miles or kilometers, but Meek is interested in an arrivals circumference. Immediately we know were in the hands of a poet who will look at the world in a distinct way, examining the rounded while poets of less vivid imagination might concentrate on the straight and narrow.
And if Szumowskis focus is on the personal, Meeks is on the metaphysical. In Seventh Year, she writes,
No one knows if cicada dream the earth
as original erasure, or long for the dark
airless cradles . . .
And in Driving the Desert, she writes,
Dawn, no rain, nothing
spilling the skys hourglass, sand a horizontal rush
belief stalls, believing
itself the movement . . .
The narrators in Meeks poems seem incidental. Larger forces time, destruction, death, the life impulse drive her work. Evolution, Lambertsbaii, South Africa, 1992 is a meditation on the borders between land, sky and sea and the creatures who inhabit each domain. It opens with a girl on the beach and concludes with penguins taking the first wobbling human steps to shore.
Meeks strengths as a poet are particularly evident in Dune #7, in which a sand dune stands as a symbol of our passage across history. Here Meek displays both her precise descriptive skills (a raincoat is a storks wings umbrellaed open) and her metaphysical concerns. The dune, like our lifes journey, is continually being transformed, and Meek writes, . . . What is/is never the same . . . Even as sand erases the way out, the narrator concludes we will never leave. This, Meek seems to say, is the way life is lived, forever forward, with history dissolving behind us. The poem ends, I think we have always been/here, wandering this crushed bone.
Good poems offer a means toward reflection and repose. And whether during the Great Depression or in the aftermath of September 11th, poems can comfort us with their wisdom and delight us with their ingenious use of language. Szumowski and Meek have written fine books filled with poems to elevate our minds and moods.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala and Steal My Heart, both works of fiction. An assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, he has published poetry in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Slant: A Journal of Poetry and other literary magazines.
The Rhythm of Compassion
Caring for Self, Connecting with Society
by Gail Straub (Ivory Coast 197173)
Journey Editions $19.95
Circle of Compassion
Meditations for Caring
For the Self and for the World
by Gail Straub (Ivory Coast 197173)
Journey Editions $14.95
Reviewed by Susan Hundt Bergan (Ethiopia 196668)
THE RHYTHM OF COMPASSION TAKES ON a big task for a small book. It purports to guide the reader on a journey of self-discovery that will lead to acceptance and healing of the self; a commitment to serving the larger world; and, through spiritual discipline, the grace to find and maintain a balance among the self, the world and God. The author does a surprisingly good job of this daunting undertaking.
Gail Straub has led a committed and adventuresome life as a teacher and an activist. After returning from her Peace Corps assignment in Africa, she and her husband, David Gershon, founded Empowerment Training Programs and have taught widely in the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, and East Asia. Eventually she began to offer a program for people who wanted to incorporate spiritual development into their commitment to social and environmental justice. The Rhythm of Compassion grew out of that work with activists who were fighting burnout and struggling to strike a reasonable balance between their personal and public lives. The book incorporates and reflects Ms. Straubs quest to achieve that balance in her own life.
The organization of The Rhythm of Compassion is based on the presumption that a persons search for meaning and wisdom must start with self-knowledge. Accordingly, the book is organized into three parts: caring for the self; caring for the world; uniting the inner and the outer worlds in the embrace of the Divine; and having reached that state, maintaining a dynamic balance. Ms. Straub acknowledges from the start that we live in a broken world and that it is only by accepting the brokenness in ourselves and the world, by accepting suffering as individual, universal, and necessary, that we can progress on the journey to wholeness and peace.
Ms. Straub directs the reader to start the first leg of the journey towards self-knowledge and self-acceptance by searching for what she calls the central image of his or her life. This concept comes from the Pathwork Lectures of Eva Pierrakos, a series that Straub says constitutes her central spiritual text. The reader is directed to identify this central image in his or her life, using techniques recommended; to decipher the significance of this memory or image in ones life; and then accept and take responsibility for it. These steps must be accomplished if one is to grow in maturity and self-knowledge.
The curious aspect of the central image is that it is always a negative one and thus a source of painful memories and destructive influences in ones life. This entire construct suggests another variation on the victim mentality that is currently prevalent in American society. Why must the central image always be a painful one? Couldnt ones central image just as easily be a positive one and a wellspring of energy and inspiration? Perhaps the approach Straub presents is simply a renaming or reinterpretation of what in Christianity is called the doctrine of original sin, namely, that there is a fundamental wound or brokenness in each of us and in all of creation. In Christian theology, creation is healed and saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who died for our sins. Each person then has the choice to cooperate in the plan of salvation and enjoy its fruits of peace and joy or reject Gods grace.
The author uses life stories, her own and those of some of her students, to illustrate the process she has developed. The reader observes Ms. Straub and several others search for understanding as they: uncover their central image; examine their parents lives to further understand their own strengths and weaknesses; identify where they feel most and least comfortable in their lives; and search for the deeper heartbreaks and the radical surprises that offer an opportunity to accept the suffering in their lives as an opportunity for growth and connection with others. As the last element of each stage in the process, the reader is provided with an exercise a series of questions and suggestions and techniques that can function as stepping stones to reaching the objectives laid out by the author. Often she will also counsel that a person may want to seek professional psychological or spiritual assistance.
After working through the process of self-understanding, Straub begins the task of helping the now more insightful reader prepare for service to others. This process involves such things as cultivating a quiet mind and an open heart;cultivating presence and radical simplicity, and viewing service and stewardship as a spiritual practice. Finally, she brings it all home in Part III where she describes what results when a persons inner and outer manifestations become one:
we find that we are disappearing and a divine presence is taking over. She quotes William Blake speaking of this same state of being: I myself do nothing. The Holy Spirit accomplishes all through me. At this stage of development, a person displays a mature compassion, a wholeness, a oneness with the world and with God. Straub is insistent that a person cannot achieve this point of peace without a vibrant and consistent spiritual life. The author summarizes this joyous state of being as follows: When we find our rhythm of compassion, we have come home, we are in a state of grace. We are in tune with a great universal cadence where a rich inner life is balanced with a passionate engagement with the world. Conversely we need grace an unmerited gift from God to find that universal rhythm.
Those readers who are well launched on their spiritual journey may find the first section of this book the search for the central image unhelpful or perhaps irrelevant. However, its likely that everyone will find much that is sensible and useful in the section on determining where and how one will serve others. Here the author singles out busyness as a singular curse of our times. She quotes Thomas Merton: The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. And Jacob Needleman writes, in Time and Self: The time famine of our lives and culture is in fact a symptom of metaphysical starvation. Every reader will appreciate the quotations from great spiritual leaders that the author uses liberally throughout the book. These powerful and challenging quotations will have the reader heading to the bookstore or library for works by Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Naht Hanh and Meister Eckhart, and others, eager for more.
The Circle of Compassion is a small volume that grew out of The Rhythm of Compassion. It consists of short statements, one per page, to be used for meditation. Ms. Straub suggests they be used in the context of ones preferred spiritual practice. Many of the statements are excerpted from her earlier book.
Susan Hundt Bergan is studying to become a lay minister in the Roman Catholic Church. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Love Her Madly
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 19651967)
Henry Holt & Co., $25.00
Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 199698)
HERES A BOOK THATS as hard to pin down as it is to put down. Love Her Madly is a page-turning, icon-busting mystery, with a savvy and sassy female in the lead role. She has the unlikely name Poppy Rice.
Poppy is an FBI agent, not a private detective, and the story is more a What Happened? than a Who Done It?
There are more than the usual elements, though these are well represented: the grisly murders, the sleazy suspects, extenuating circumstances, crooked cops and nasty crooks. Add to these: Texas law and order, born-again Christians, Texas politics, the Catholic Church, Texas attitude.
It is this extra playing field that gives Mary-Ann Tirone Smith her space for witty commentary on some of the political realities of todays America. Heres Poppy saying, You would agree with our former President then? That sex isnt necessarily sex? And heres her boss commenting on TV news commentators: Switch to Brokaw. Rather lost his marbles years ago, Poppy. And heres her secretary noting that the Houston police department prides itself on its winning record for sheer numbers of convictions and death penalties. As one Texan tells Poppy: Were in a paranoid and punishin culture, maam. And its in that mighty state of Texas that convicted ax-murderer Rona Leigh Glueck is set to be put to death.
Agent Poppy Rice is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the trial and conviction of the pretty little born-again Christian that Rona has become, so Poppy heads on out to Houston to investigate. The cast of characters dead set on seeing that Rona gets her due punishment include a staunch Republican governor with aspirations for national office, his various and assorted law enforcement officials, a rich doctor with an ax to grind who also happens to be the governors close personal friend, and, most especially, the low-life widower of the wretched victim.
Tirone Smith, with a nicely honed stiletto in her repertoire, takes a few stabs at the landscape she describes. She has one of her characters calling Texas society an oxymoron. And she describes Rona as having pre-makeover Paula Jones matted bangs, a drooping lifeless clump of chemically permed, dyed-black curls surrounding her cherubic face.
Not that Poppys a prude. She has a one-night stand with a ballplayer she meets in a bar at two in the morning, and an ongoing friendly affair with a fellow Fed at the Department of Guys, the ATF: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Then there are some really quirky elements, such as a charismatic renegade Shaker who puts a postmodern orgasmic spin on religion and celibacy. And, theres a grand finale of an execution that turns out to be not so final.
The lengthy description of what goes on in the execution chamber, and the morbid step-by-step process of the legal killing itself, are just too good to be fictional. Sure, this is a story being told, but its fashioned from the fabric of cold, hard reality.
Tirone Smith has a good ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable, no matter how corrupt or blockheaded or just plain stupid they may be. Occasional conversations may go on too long after they lose their momentum (three pages, for example, on how to get to the prison) and there are so many Texas-type characters their separate identities tend to blur.
Yet there are times when sheer length itself becomes amusing, such as the list of what visitors cant wear in or bring in to a Texas prison: No hats, belts, sweaters, jackets, vests, coats, boots, hair ornaments, jewelry, handbags, briefcases, bags, cameras, computers, food, gum, candy, drinks, medications, cigarettes, cigars, newspapers, books, magazines, paper, pencils, pens, gifts, money.
Tirone Smith scores with an original and imaginative plot, frighteningly vivid violence, lurid sex, and most satisfying an ongoing uncertainty about what in the world will happen next.
Look for more Poppy Rice action, now in the works.
Journalist Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers Tales: A Womans World.
To Preserve and to Learn
Moritz Thomsens The Farm on the River of Emeralds
MORITZ THOMSEN (Ecuador 196567) ENDS HIS FIRST BOOK, Living Poor, on a vague note; not really knowing what do to once his Peace Corps duty comes to an end in 1968, he simply leaves the town of Rioverde, spending an unsettling last few weeks in the town he had hoped to transform three years earlier. My last weeks in Rioverde were punctuated by screams, he writes in his last chapter, as well as goodbyes to those who had long since given up viewing the gringo as a novelty, and a final, slow unraveling of the cooperative he had worked to form in the little fishing town. So, too, does it appear that his ties to Ramon Prado and his family (wife Ester and baby daughter Martita) unravel: But as I stepped off the porch to leave, Ester screamed, and I turned to see her, her face contorted and the tears streaming down her cheeks. We hugged each other, and Ramon rushed from the house and stood on the brow of the hill looking down intently into town.
Thomsens exit from Rioverde itself proved to be a lasting one, but he spent not even a full year back home in his native Seattle, Washington before he was back in Ecuador looking to keep a promise he made to Ramon: to come back and buy a farm with him, and to work as equal partners. He chronicles the first six years of their tumultuous partnership in his second book, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, published originally in 1978. He mentions his father Charlie in passing once again my father has just died, I have ten thousand dollars in my pocket and just as quickly, the elder Thomsen is dropped from the narrative. The plan seems so simple: Thomsen provides the money and know-how gleaned from his years as a pig farmer in the States following his service in WWII; Ramon, a much younger man than Thomsen (who has just turned 53), provides the toil and guides the old gringo in the ways of the Ecuadorian jungle; on a deeper level, Ramon is to play the son to Thomsens new role as cranky elder, together to forge a new life on their own terms. They find a farm on the Esmereldas River (River of Emeralds) and grin through their terror as they agree to buy it and enter into that most delicate and intimate of relationships a business partnership.
Now we had it, Thomsen writes of the sprawling jungle farm, or it had us.
And in no time at all Thomsens dreams of living peacefully as an equal to all around him, brought back to life by a perfect relationship Thomsen as teacher and the young, fully alive Ramon as pupil, living an idyllic existence in the finest tradition of the brotherhood of man crashes down around him. A cast of characters materializes from the jungle, ready to join Thomsen, the lone gringo, and Ramon, with his pregnant wife and young daughter. He finds himself once again a subject of curiosity among the locals; they come to him for jobs, treating him as the new patron or big daddy, unable to fathom the idea that Ramon, a black man like them, seemingly as poor as they, could really be half owner of the huge farm, an equal to the strange white man who has come to live among them. The ensuing struggles for power and respect and survival drive Thomsens book through to its explosive conclusion six years later.
Each chapter of The Farm on the River of Emeralds centers on these characters. The People of Male is about a sort of conglomeration of local men (boys among them as well, although in poor societies you dont find teenagers, just sickly infants and toddlers who seem to one day skip ahead to full, wounded adulthood). They just seem to come with the property at first: They mistook our pity for weakness, or perhaps they thought we were so stupid that we found them indispensable, he writes. At first they drive Ramon and Thomsen crazy with their laziness and ineptitude Thomsen often creeps up on them only to find them napping in the fields surrounded by orange and banana peels, or they see him coming and the whole group suddenly erupts into a slashing, frenzied blur of machetes and axes. He cant always bring himself to fire them, though; rather, he ends up hiring many of their sons and brothers, and begins to see not just laziness in their work habits:
Yet, watching, I began to grieve for them, for they were still under the illusion of their power to direct their own lives, lost in the magnificence of the newly awakened awareness of their own manhood, lost in their dreams of how they would conquer life. How modest their expectations and, in this brutal land, how impossible to fulfill. I knew they had no future; they lacked the opportunities and the inner discipline to do anything but end up like their fathers. Have you ever watched a little herd of lambs as they frisk and play in the slaughterhouse corral? . . . Watching them, one forgave them everything they were so trapped, so doomed. On the weekends it seemed relatively unimportant that they were impossibly lousy workers.
Thomsen is learning, and fast, that applying middle-class North American standards to the culture of poverty he is now smack in the middle of makes no sense whatsoever, and will serve only to alienate him further from his neighbors:
O.K., so the worker doesnt work very well because he eats so badly. O.K., so out of desperation a man steals. Now it gets complicated and confusing. How can this poor worker who suffers so from malnutrition dance for twelve hours straight or, on Sunday afternoons, play futbol [soccer] with such fierce sustained enthusiasm? Why does the thief like as not end up in the local saloon, dead drunk from the sale of your radio or his neighbors chickens? . . . And now that worst and most delicate of questions, which made the head reel, Wasnt it possible that the man who stole your radio actually regarded you as his friend?
Its probably no coincidence that The Farm on the River of Emeralds often reads like a war narrative Thomsen served as a bombardier on a B-17 squadron in the European theater in World War II and it was a war with many fronts. His equal partnership with Ramon is cause for many heated, painful exchanges; at the same time they must present a united front to the local workers, who bring their own battles and demands to the farm. Thomsens Peace Corps experience has left him with a belief that modern farming techniques can be the salvation of third-world farmers (I had wanted to stun the province with twentieth-century technology . . . that modern system of that uses fifteen times more energy per acre than a farmer in an undeveloped country.), a belief that dissolves in the face of monsoon-like rains, failed crops, non-existent markets, and the intractable mindset of desperately poor people, the Walking Wounded of a full chapter.
In that and other chapters Thomsen singles out individual members of the tragedy/comedy unfolding around him: Dalmiro, an old, white-haired, toothless, barefoot, wrinkled, wreck of a man with a raging libido and a disturbing habit of getting shitfaced drunk and urinating on the other workers as they slept; The Brothers Cortez, a package deal of four brothers who both exasperated and mesmerized their long-suffering bosses; Santo and the Peanut Pickers recounts perpetually horny Santo and his Quixote-like quest for love (With Santo, love was everything, habit nothing. Wasnt this perhaps his greatest virtue, that he refused to accept and live with stale and exhausted emotions? And wasnt this perhaps his tragedy?).
Thomsens writing is filled with foreshadowing, as well as visions that border on mystical, but perhaps what really defines his style is the use of shattering epiphany. His life was filled with them moments of absolute, terrifying clarity that destroy whatever perceptions he clung to in order to survive, and setting the course for the next stage of his life:
There are certain days in life so packed with horror or revelation that if you survive them your whole past stands rendered, the essence so distilled and clarified that it is impossible to keep on deluding yourself. In the revelation department one thinks of those religious conversions that strike one down like lightning, turning drunkards or thieves into missionaries. Days of revelation are the mileposts in life at which one makes ninety-degree turns or puts a bullet through ones head or murders ones wife or loops back violently, seeking again in the innocent past what had gradually faded away and made existence chaotic or meaningless.
One such experience leads him to join the Peace Corps in 1964 a twenty-four hour stretch during which he finally sees his California hog farm is doomed, finished; he has to put down his beloved dogs, sell his pigs, shut down the farm where he is already reduced to living in an unheated tool shed, and stand for the first time in a room filled with his butchered hogs: I had fallen under the malevolent eye of God, and He had more tricks up His sleeve. I didnt know if I could take any more that day, but I remember thinking, Its coming, whether or not you can take any more, and its coming today. It comes, all right, when a cow is dispatched right in front of him by a grinning slaughterhouse employee. As far as Thomsen was concerned, he was every bit as finished. A Peace Corps commercial on television that night put an idea in his shorted-out brain; it must have looked like a modern-day Foreign Legion: Spewed out of that deadening rural life, screaming with rage and self-pity, as bloody and battered as a new born child, I was given another chance at a brand new kind of life.
The revelations didnt stop once Thomsen left the United States; his first book, Living Poor, is filled with them. But Thomsen was a man of incredible stubbornness, a trait he applied to his belief that he could change the world in true Peace Corps fashion, and one after the other, he finds himself facing up to awful, shattering truths about his convictions. One that nearly does him in in The Farm on the River of Emeralds comes in Victor, a chapter near the end of the book on one of their most beloved (and ultimately disappointing) employees. Finally faced with the naked truth that Victor has been robbing Ramon and Thomsen blind, Ramon fires him, kicks him off the farm, shattering the façade of harmony they both had valued enough to turn a blind eye on Victors betrayals. Its the last straw, says Ramon, no more Mr. Nice Guy; the people for miles around steal from them and see that nothing is done and damn the reasons for their thievery or desperation, hes going to do something about it. Ramon rejects their new ideas for how to run a farm, asking, do you know how they control the stealing? at a large coconut farm up the river. Thomsen knows: Every year they shoot a few thieves right out of the trees. Thomsen watches Ramon as he leaves for his house that night:
How he had changed since I first knew him, how hard and sad and stubborn his face. I thought of those two ultimate sins, the two unforgivable sins against life: to murder and to be poor. Poor Ramon. It looked like he was moving toward that awful moment when he would have to commit the first one to get saved from committing the second.
It never comes to that in The Farm on the River of Emeralds, but the change in Ramon and the disintegration of his partnership with Thomsen loom large in the final chapters. As with Thomsens other books, this one raises far more questions than it could ever pretend to answer. Thomsen demonstrates that he is one of those unfortunate souls who must constantly seek out reasons and motivations what is it that makes a man steal pennies from your pockets as you sleep or punch his wife in a drunken rage or slash his neighbor with a rusty machete? But what Thomsen does best is observe what it is that leads to the way the dramas unfold around him, not taking the outrages and constant thievery and disgraceful behaviors he writes about at face value, never taking the easy route.
Opportunities for writers
- Writers conference in Cuba
RPCV writers with an interest in Cuba have a chance to participate in the Third Annual U.S.-Cuba Writers Conference, to be held in Havana, March 24April 3, 2002. This event brings together writers from the United States and Cuba and will take place on the grounds of the prestigious international cultural center, Casa de las Américas.
The sponsor, Writers of the Americas, will provide its writers with a U.S. license to travel to Cuba legally for the workshop and seminars.
Conference co-directors are Tom Miller, author of many books about Latin America and the American Southwest, and Rebecca Crocker, a California-based freelance writer and college instructor.
The WTA website, www.wtamericas.com, has full details of the program and its application procedure, faculty biographies, and writing sample requirements for each genre. Since most events will include Spanish, they encourage bilingual applicants.
Final deadline for application is February 8, 2002.
- The best-selling series Chicken Soup for the Soul is seeking inspiring stories, poems, quotations, anecdotes and other material for two wonderful and timely new titles:
- Chicken Soup for the Everyday Heros Soul
- Chicken Soup for the Soul of Home
Complete guidelines for each title may be found at: www.GOscape.com
They would like to receive submissions by March 1st, 2002.
- Don Christians (PC staff: Ethiopia 196770, Dominican Republic 197072) writes:
I have a program on a small community radio station on which I interview writers (published and unpublished). The show is called Turning Pages and is from 1011 AM Wednesdays. The station is KWMR Point Reyes Station , Marin County. If there are people in this area or travelling thru who would like to appear please have them e-mail: DonLChris@aol.com