Peace Corps Writers — Page One

    Six hundred and counting
    Most people know a little Tennyson, but everybody remembers that “into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred!”
         There were six hundred Confederate prisoners of war who left Fort Delaware in 1864, bound for Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the pages of the history books.
         It’s been six hundred years (okay, six hundred and two, but who’s counting?) since Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type, which later made possible the printing press, and (Thanks, Jack!) spared the world six centuries of severe writer’s cramp.
         Researchers believe that dogs are capable of understanding about six hundred human words (although they pretend to understand fewer than that).
         Barry Bonds has hit six hundred home runs.
         And now, and most important of all . . . out of the 166,000 RPCVs the Peace Corps has produced in a little more than forty years, the number who have achieved the status of published novelists, poets, essayists, travel writers, anthologists, biographers, memoirists, critics, historians, anthropologists, ethicists, self-help experts, how-to gurus, and every other sort of published writers, has reached the number of six hundred! Actually, it’s six hundred and two, and we definitely are counting!
         Congratulations to all, and to the Peace Corps itself, for this handsome and continuing fulfillment of the Peace Corps’s Third Goal!

    Peace Corps Writers awards
    Do you have a favorite book written by a Peace Corps writer that was published during 2002? Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books of the year written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. 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 Writing

    Send in your nominations to:

    State Department book of essays
    The Bush administration has recruited prominent American writers to contribute to a State Department 6-page booklet of fifteen essays, and to give readings around the globe in a campaign started after 9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic interests. The participants include four Pulitzer Prize winners, the American poet laureate and two Arab-Americans. All were asked to write about what it means to be an American writer. The essays — “Writers on America” — can be read at the State Department website, but the book will not be published in the United States because it is information aimed at foreign audiences.
         What’s important here (besides the book) is that an RPCV writer dreamed up the idea.
         “This book originated as an intriguing suggestion by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80),” says George Clack, the State Department editor who produced the anthology. (Mark is an U.S. foreign service officer and a working novelist.)
         According to Clack, “If we were to ask a contemporary group of American poets, novelists, critics, and historians what it means to be an American writer, Jacobs proposed, the results could illuminate in an interesting way certain America values — freedom, diversity, democracy — that may not be well understood in all parts of the world.”
         Mark has a piece in the anthology, “Both Sides of the Border,” based on his Peace Corps experience. Mark’s next novel, his fourth, is entitled A Handful of Kings, and is set in Madrid, where he served as cultural affairs officer.

    Writers and writers who read wanted
    A national woman’s magazine has asked us to find short fiction for their publication that reaches over 4 million readers. The fiction editor is looking for positive short stories of less than 4,000 words that focus on women, families, and relationships. Stories must have positive, upbeat endings. Please send an email with the opening page and a very brief summary of the plot to If the story looks as if it is possible for the publication, we will forward it to the fiction editor.

    And . . .

    We regularly receive requests for Peace Corps writers to read at community events, libraries, and schools. If you are interested, please send your name, address, phone number to Marian Haley Beil at

    The RPCV archival project
    In 1986, at the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, sponsored by the Returned Volunteers of Washington, D.C., and the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, I organized the first panels on Peace Corps writers to discuss the writings of PCVs. At one of those sessions, Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 1961–63) made the suggestion that the written documents of RPCVs should be collected and saved. At the time there was a small collection of artifacts at the Smithsonian Institute. A committee was formed that included Suzy McKee Charnas, Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961–63), Margaret Pollock (Korea 1979–81) and myself. Writing letters and making contacts with a variety of libraries, we received replies expressing interest in hosting such a collection from both Notre Dame University and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and it was decided that the Kennedy Library was the natural place for such a collection of documents written by RPCVs. Today, The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library is the repository for personal materials that relate to the individual and group experiences of those who served as Peace Corps Volunteers from its inception in 1961 to the present. The Collection has letters, diaries, journals, photos, oral history interviews, and other items of unique archival value.

    In this issue —
    Being First
    In 1997 Bob Klein (Ghana 1961–63) began to look back at his Peace Corps years in Ghana with the first group of PCVs to serve overseas. He then traveled across the U.S. interviewing other Volunteers from the famous Ghana I, as well as former Peace Corps staff, deselected Trainees, and faculty members who trained the Peace Corps Volunteers at the University of California at Berkeley. Klein also went to Boston to listen to oral history interviews kept at the Kennedy Library, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for further research into the creation of the agency. In 2001 he completed the first draft of Being First: A Memoir of Ghana I. With his research and book, Klein is hoping to be a “model for other retired RPCVs” to do the same kind of research on their Peace Corps experiences. We are pleased to publish, as part of our on-going “To Preserve and to Learn” column, the opening chapters of Being First in which Klein writes about the establishment of the Peace Corps, meeting President Kennedy in the Rose Garden, and arriving in Ghana on the afternoon of September 1, 1961.

    We also have . . .
    Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96) tells us how to “Travels Right” through Prussia; Carol Welsh (Honduras 1962-64) shares her reading from the 40+1 Conference; Andy Trincia gives us another installment of his life in Romania as a PCV; there is “Songs From Africa” by David Kendall Grant (Chad 1990-92); a “Letter from Mauritius” written in 1973 by Suzanne Clark; and we have “Talking with . . . Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976-78), who won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2000 for his novel Saviors and recently published a collection of stories. Besides all that, there is a list of recent books by RPCVs; reviews of books written by RPCVs; and in Literary Type, gossip on all of these writers and much more.

    And finally —
    In the November issue of Men’s Journal there was a collection of articles published under the title “60 Things A Man Must Do in His Lifetime” — one of which was “Become an Expat” by Bob Shacochis (Eastern Carribean 1975–76).

    When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?
         And I don’t mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. “Put out,” as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, “into deep water.” A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT’S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, “Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.”
          If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two. Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.
          And here’s the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you’ll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn’t.
         You’ll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You’ll find out, to your surprise, how American you are — 100 percent, and you can never be anything but — and that is worth knowing. You’ll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you’ll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.
         You’ll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And you’ll understand in your survivor’s heart that it’s best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.
         When you come back home, it’s never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you.

    We couldn’t have said it better. Read on.

    — John Coyne