|| Paul Theroux, it is generally agreed, reinvented the art of travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975. He returned the genre to the place it held when Mary Kingsley and Evelyn Waugh were crossing Africa and globe-trotting the world. Many Peace Corps writers have followed, most notably Mike Tidwell, Thurston Clarke, Jeffrey Tayler, Karen Muller, Bill Barich, Karl Luntta, Stephan Foehr, Joe Cummings, Tom Brosnahan, and Peter Hessler, among many, many others.
Expatriates and exiles
Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective, even a new vocabulary, as Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality around, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, thats what I learned.
The experience is also intensely educational. The late novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, it was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.
For all these writers, their Peace Corps years were a time to learn the rules of another culture, as well as a time to learn about themselves in relation to the world, as well as in relation to the United States.
John Givens, a Volunteer in Korea and author of three novels published in the 1980s, says that the Peace Corps suggested that experience was not limited to the mores and expectations of central California where I grew up. The wideness of the world came home to me vividly in Korea, and Ive been exploring the world ever since. And novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience bring the outsiders perspective, which weve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, its something we cant not do.
Bob Shacochis characterizes the modern generation of writers as followers. We are torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are 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 with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the exotic as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.
Myth and mythology
Finally we come back to Gertrude Steins famous comment to Hemingway. You are all a lost generation, she told him. The truth is that Stein had heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics and their poor repair skills as une génération perdue.
All Gertrude Stein wanted was competent mechanics to repair her car but Hemingway, seizing the expression, as any good writer would, identified a literary movement and a new way of looking at the world.
Peace Corps writers do the same by bringing the world back home through their own writing. They have an understanding of parts of the world few Americans will ever know. And as PCVs they have a way of looking at this world that is new and fresh and insightful. Fulfilling the Third Goal of the Peace Corps means telling your tales at home.
So, see how far you can go with a good line or two.