Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Paul Theroux (page 2)
 Talking with Paul Theroux
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You were in country when Nyasaland became Malawi. What were those days like?
Very exciting to be present at Malawi’s independence. Remember, this was a time when people had no intention of emigrating — leaving their country and going to work in the USA. Malawians were committed to staying, working, building the nation. All that changed in the 1970s.      
What was the biggest contribution that you made as a Volunteer?
     I don’t know. I had lots of very good students. Last year, traveling to write Dark Star Safari, I stopped in Malawi and bumped into Sam Mpechetula. I had last seen him as a little barefoot kid in my English class. He was now a big gray-haired man, wearing nice shoes, married, and with three or four children. He was a teacher. He clearly remembered me and our classes and he said that other students had done well. I suppose that’s something.
When you came to Africa, were you thinking then that you would be a writer?
I had written a great deal while I was in college — stories, poems, plays, and had started a novel.
  You’ve written a great deal about Africa and the Peace Corps. Your first published writings were letters home from overseas. Can you remember the first essay (letter?) that you had published?
  First essay — “Letter from Africa” — was in The Christian Science Monitor in 1964. First poem in The Central African Examiner in June, 1964. I remember the dates well because I was eager to be published.
Your first three books were set in Africa: Waldo, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play. If I’m correct, Girls at Play is the first novel by a PCV that has a Peace Corps Volunteer as a character. Can you describe the backgrounds on these books?
Waldo was a novel I had started before going to Africa. I finished it in Malawi in 1965. I got the idea for Fong & the Indians in Kampala and was influenced by having met V S Naipaul there, as well as by the fact that Indians were being persecuted in Kenya.
     Though I denied it at the time, for legal reasons, I based Girls at Play on a school in Kenya where my then fiancée was teaching. I wrote it in 1968 in Kampala and it was published in 1969, when I was living in Singapore. One of the main characters (who gets raped and murdered) is a PCV.
Did you base that character in Girls at Play on any particular PCV?
No, only on the sort of innocence and naiveté that led some PCVs, including me, into dangerous territory.

Transition was Africa’s leading intellectual magazine in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1999 a book was published with selections from that time including "Tarzan is an Expatriate."
For a time, the Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia used your essay “Tarzan is an Expatriate” as training material for new PCVs. How did you come to publish that, and where was it published?
In March 1967 at Makerere University I was asked to give a lecture to the new VSOs. My subject was how Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe were models for the expatriate-in-Africa experience. The Tarzan essay was published in Transition magazine later that year and caused a fuss.
Speaking of expatriates — have you ever been taken with the Isak Dinesen myth and wanted to write about her and Happy Valley? And with Tom Dooley who was perhaps — metaphorically speaking — the first Peace Corps Volunteer?
There is something about Africa that makes it a breeding ground for mythomaniacs like Blixen/Dinesen and Hemingway and all the rest of them. I can’t stand their purple prose and their patronizing attitudes. I have written about this weirdness in Dark Star Safari.
     I have researched the life of Tom Dooley and wrote a screenplay for Oliver Stone on the subject (the movie has not been made). A very complex person, Dooley was booted out of the US Navy for being gay, reinvented himself as a missionary and anti-communist, and was a consummate narcissist, self-promoter and political lobbyist whose ideas helped start the Peace Corps (he was not, of course, a PCV), and also start the Vietnam War. A typical Dooley quote from his hospital in Laos: “Here I am, at the rim of Red Hell (China).”
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