Peace Corps Writers
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  In The New Yorker — the July 7th issue — is another report by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) from Beijing entitled “Underwater” on how the world’s biggest dam is flooding China’s past. In the article, Hessler writes about teaching in Fuling as a Peace Corps Volunteer, which is two hundred miles upstream from Wushan and behind the Three Gorges Dam. Since completing his service, Peter has been watching the river rise, which he writes, “is like tracking the progress of the clock’s short hand: it’s all but imperceptible.”
How the Water Feels Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976–78) collection of stories, How the Water Feels published by Southern Methodist University Press recently won the 2003 Paterson Fiction Prize of $1000. The collection features stories derived from his Peace Corps and United Nations experiences in Malaysia.
   Norm Rush (Botswana CD 1978–83) has nothing but wonderful things to say about Sarah Erdman’s (Côte d’Ivoire 1998–2000) new book about her experiences in rural Côte d’Ivoire. For the book’s jacket, Rush writes:
This account of two years of development work in West Africa is exemplary in many ways. Erdman conveys faithfully the complex maneuvering between hope and disillusion that characterizes such efforts. The observations of persons, place, social life are acute and vivid. The writing has the narrative pulse of good fiction, and is as absorbing. This is a beautifully done book.
Mortals And speaking of Norm Rush! Poets & Writers Magazine has a profile of Norm and his wife Elsa in the July/August 2003 issue. While the profile focuses, naturally, on the new novel, the writer, Sandy Asirvatham (who is a writer and jazz pianist/singer living in Baltimore), writes about how they got into the Peace Corps in the first place:
He (Rush) has taught school and run an antiquarian book dealership, but most significantly, he and Elsa were hired by the State Department to be the guinea pigs in a pilot program to hire couples as codirectors of Peace Corps units. The job possibility had come up unexpectedly, and Norman and Elsa — thinking they were long-shot candidates — went to Washington, D.C. and treated the job interview as something of a lark.

The Peace Corps offered them joint positions and they went to Botswana in 1979 and stayed until 1983. “Once we were offered the job, and decided after long thought to accept it, both of us were daunted and dead serious about doing it right,” Rush said. “The job was relentlessly hard. We were responsible for the safety and useful functioning of hundreds of American volunteers many of them working in difficult circumstances. It took us a couple of years after we got back to the U.S. to react normally when the phone rang.”
One of “their” Volunteers was writer Karl Luntta (Botswana 1978–80) who is interviewed in this issue of the newsletter. He talks about his Peace Corps codirectors in the article.

    The May/June 2003 issue of Book Magazine, now owned by Barnes & Noble, focuses on travel and writers. Oddly Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) doesn’t make any of their made-up lists, but Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) is featured in a listing entitled “The Dangerous Lives of Fiction Writers.” Shacochis, according to the author Adam Langer, calls himself an “experience slut” who has covered wars in Kosovo and Haiti, journeyed across the Himalayas, and is now planning a trip to Pitcairn Island. Listing his “odd jobs” in his long writing career, Bob says he worked as a chef on a ship with a suicidal, drug-running captain and searched for treasure aboard sunken Spanish galleons in the San Andrés Archipelago, but the only time he was in trouble was while in the Peace Corps where he fought off a notorious bandit who stabbed him in the face with a diving knife. “The world is hypnotically fascinating,” sums up Shacochis. “The only thing that bores me is writing.”
War Stories In early July, John Sherman (Nigeria 1966–67; Malawi 1967–68) was interviewed by George Liston Seay, host of the NPR radio program, “Dialogue,” about his book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra. The program is broadcast across the U.S. as well as overseas.
     John’s book is based on the diary he kept in the months he worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. It also contains flashbacks to the year he spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the same area of Nigeria/Biafra.
    Mystery writer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) has a new book coming out next spring that is the third in her series featuring detective Poppy Rice. In the book, entitled She Smiled Sweetly, Mary-Ann manages to bring in a Peace Corps connection.
     To set the stage — a sales clerk in a women’s clothing store recalls a customer: “The Peace Corps girl didn’t care how much things cost, didn’t look at the sale racks. Apparently the Peace Corps gives you a readjustment allowance when you come home so you don’t starve. That’s what she called it — her readjustment allowance. And this girl was going to spend every dime.”
     Watch for She Smiled Sweetly.
Ties That Bind Another famous RPCV mystery writer is Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1962–64) who came home from Africa to attend New York University School of Law, then found his way to Portland, Oregon where from 1972 to 1996 he was in private practice specializing in criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels. As a trial attorney, Phillip has handled all sorts of criminal cases in state and federal court, and he has represented approximately 30 people charged with homicide, including several who have faced the death penalty. He also was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a battered woman accused of murdering her spouse.
     Since 1996, however, Margolin has been writing full-time. All seven of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. His first novel, Heartstone, was nominated for an Edgar Award for best original paperback mystery by the Mystery Writers of America. His second book, The Last Innocent Man, was made into an HBO movie. Gone, But Not Forgotten, sold to more than 25 foreign publishers. His other titles include, After Dark, The Burning Man, The Undertaker’s Widow, and Wild Justice. His new book, published this March, is entitled Ties That Bind.
     In addition to all this, his daughter grew up to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.
   In the summer issue of The Public Interest, there’s an article, “Measuring Achievement: The West and the Rest” by Charles Murray (Thailand 1965–67) famous for such books as The Bell Curve that linked intelligence, race and genes. In this article, using various measurements, Murray concludes that since 1400, Europe has “overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment both in the arts and sciences.” His argument is “What the human species can claim to its credit in the arts and sciences is owed in astonishing degree to what was accomplished in just a half-dozen centuries by the people of one small portion of the northwestern Eurasian land mass.” Murray comments that “Eurocentrism has in recent years joined racism and sexism as one of the postmodern mortal sins . . . . The assumption that Eurocentrism is a real problem accounts for the reluctance of many to celebrate Western culture — or even defend it.” Today, Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Imagine a House In August 1994, Angela and Brian Gustafson left for the Dominican Republic to begin an incredible two-year journey as Peace Corps Volunteers along the Haitian border. The culture, environment and friendships they experienced as Volunteers not only fostered a passion for learning about other cultures, but planted an idea to share that knowledge through products they would want for their own children.
     In 1998, Angela and Brian (Dominican Republic 1994–96) established the Out of the Box company to create books and other products “that make learning about the world we live in a uniquely fun experience for the young and not-so-young alike!” Imagine a House: A Journey to Fascinating Houses Around the World by Angela Gustafson is their debut book in a series of books entitled, What a World We Live In. The website for Out of the Box is:
Another terrific book by an RPCV, though one who ETed, Tom Bissell, who went to Uzbekistan in 1996 and left after a few miserable months. Haunted by his failure, Bissell decided in 2001 to return to Uzbekistan — this time to investigate the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea and to try to help in a way that he hadn't before. The book is called — in the way of Nineteen Century travel journals — Chasing the Sea: Being A Narrative Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe.
In praise of the book Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) writes, “I've earmarked nearly every page of this extraordinary travelogue, drawn back again and again to savor the dervish spin of Tom Bissell's prose, the dazzling starburst digressions of blazing intelligence, the banquet of historical narrative and fresh geopolitical commentary, the honest human drama of the author's journey through the haunting landscapes and flashpoint cultures of Central Asia.” Wow! Look for the book this September from Pantheon Books.
Michael McColly (Senegal 1981–83) turns up again in the Travel Section of The New York Times. This time in the July 20th edition with a charming essay entitled, “The Education of a World Traveler.” The essay recalls the pleasure of traveling with his parents and what they taught Michael and his sister as the family did cross-country treks every summer on what his mother called “educational experiences.”
     Last September 1st he wrote of a trip back to Senegal that he had made earlier in the year with his sister who had always wanted to “have a chance to visit an African village.”
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