|Peace Corps Writers May 2004
This print version of Peace Corps Writers does not include information from the Current Issue page that provides links to each of the articles, any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, links, book covers, photos or other graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include newly archived or resource material including copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, bibliographic listings, or Journals of Peace material.
Click on title of article to jump down to read. Or just print the whole thing!
Peace Corps Writers
Come to the Chicago RPCV conference
The RPCV conference in Chicago is not too far off August 5 to 8. To register, get a hotel, check out the schedule and see who else will be coming, go to the National Peace Corps association website page “About the Conference.” We hope you are planning to attend.
As previously announced, Peace Corps Writers will present four workshops. The topics and times are as follows:
- Careers in Publishing Friday, 1:00 to 2:00 pm
- Peace Corps Prose: Literature from the Peace Corps Friday, 2:30 to 3:30 pm
- Self-publishing on the Web Saturday, 11:30 am to 12:30 pm
- Publishing your Peace Corps Story (fiction or non-fiction) Saturday, 9:00 to 10 am
Writers interested in being on a panel should contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You MUST be registered for the conference to be on a panel.
The Book Stall an independent book seller in Winnetka will have a booth at the MarketPlace to sell books by Peace Corps writers and other books of interest to RPCVs that have been published by large publishing houses.
Peace Corps Writers will have a booth for those writers who have self-published and wish to come and sell their own books. Contact Marian Haley Beil at: email@example.com to make arrangements.
Published writers in attendance will be signing their books at both of these booths.
RPCV writers finish the semester
Nine RPCVs took the first online writing course offered by Peace Corps Writers this spring. The class, which focused on writing books about the Peace Corps experience, had participants living across the continental U.S., and as far away as southern France and Hawaii. The ten-week course was completed in early May.
For information on how the class is conducted check out our course Q & A. We are tentatively planning that the next class (if there is enough interest) will begin in the fall, but we will make a firm announcement in the July issue of Peace Corps Writers about it.
In This Issue
Shriver honored in D.C.
To celebrate the life and work of Sargent Shriver, a panel discussion was held on May 5th in Washington. Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (PC/W 19942001) sent us a “Letter from Washington” reporting on the afternoon of honoring the accomplishments of the first director of the Peace Corps.
Also in this issue is a review by Maureen Carroll (Philippines 196163) of the new authorized biography of Shriver.
How not to write a Peace Corps book
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698) served as a health Volunteer in Gabon after having been a writer/editor and food professional in NYC for many years. An honors graduate of Columbia University’s writing program, she is the author of the nonfiction book, Somewhere Child, and now lives in rural northern New Mexico where she teaches essay writing at the University of New Mexico at Taos. Bonnie is also working on her second book and is a free lance editor for RPCV writers seeking help in the editing of their manuscripts. We asked Bonnie for her advice to RPCV writers working on their own Peace Corps story. Her essay, “The Ticking” appears in this issue. Read it before putting pen to paper.
Two Corps, Peace and War: A Memoir
Jim Jackson went to India in 1965 with the Peace Corps and then he came home to work briefly on the Peace Corps Training staff before being drafted into the army and going to Vietnam. This is his memoir of the two experiences, and the second installment of our occasional essays by and about PCVs who also went to Vietnam. In moving prose, Jim delineates his two experiences, from dreaming of food in India, to living on the edge of terror at Long Binh, a U.S. Army base 20 miles from Saigon. Surviving the Peace Corps and Vietnam, Jim is today a lawyer living and working as a law school librarian in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
We are publishing two amusing short essays by PCVs who served in Latin America. The essays are nice bookends for all of our experiences in the Peace Corps. Finn Honore’ (Colombia 196769) lives in Ashland, Oregon where he works as a free lance journalist. His “At First Light” is about his third morning in Cartagena where he wandered into a café looking for breakfast and asked a favor of a woman “might she bring my coffee first?” and then thinks to himself: “A gringo who spoke Spanish and was mannerly. Already I was an ambassador of good will, ordering with ease and deference. I could do this.” Well, maybe not. “Bringing the Peace Corps Back Home” is from Meghan Maguire (Honduras 200103). Meghan writes, “Now that I’m back in the U.S., I love smelling like a girl again.” Meghan lived in Danlí, Honduras and worked as a Municipal Development Volunteer, teaching computer and basic writing skills to women, girls, and local government employees. In her essay she remembers what she misses and what she can live without from her Peace Corps tour.
We have seven reviews of new books by RPCVs, an interview with Maureen Orth about her career and new book The Importance of Being Famous (which is one of our reviewed books). There is also the list of newly published books, and news about what RPCVs are writing and where they are being published in “Literary Type.”
All of the above might not be “beach reading,” but it is well worth your time to check out the May issue of Peace Corps Writers. And as many waiters and waitresses irritatingly say, “Enjoy!”
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
And Other Matters of Perception
by Joshua Caine Anchors (Zimbabwe 199800)
Logic Made Easy
How to Know When Language Deceives You
by Deborah J. Bennett (Ghana 198081)
W.W. Norton & Co.
Genius versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution
by Edmund Blair Bolles (Tanzania 196668)
Joseph Henry Press
Our Natural History
Lessons from Lewis and Clark
by Daniel Botkin (Philippines 196264)
Two Years in a Forgotten Place
by Sharon Dirlam (Russia 199698)
by Kent Haruf (Turkey 196567)
From Rucksack to Backpack
A Young Woman's Journey in a
Newly Evolving World
by Juliane Heyman (Staff PC/W 196166)
Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul
Fish Tales to Hook Your Spirit and Snag Your Funny Bone
Phil Bob Hellmich (Sierra Leone 198589), contributor
Genesis, Structure, and Meaning in Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End
by Anthony Hunt (Nigeria 196365)
University of Nevada Press
Sojourns in West Africa
by Steven E. Keenan (Liberia 1963-65)
The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat
The Story of the Penicillian Miracle
by Eric Lax (Micronesia 196668)
John Macrae/Henry Holt
Against the Current
The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel - Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal
by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 196365)
with Dina Bangdel
Bangkok: Orchid Press; Weatherhill Inc.
The Importance of Being Famous
Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex
by Maureen Orth (Colombia 196466)
Henry Holt & Company
(children ages 48)
by James Rumford (Chad 197174; Afghanistan 197475)
The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver
by Scott Stossel
Smithsonian Institution Press
Best Fiction, V. 1
edited by Tom Dooley
David Taylor (Mauritania 198385), contributor
by Elsa Watson (Guinea-Bissau 199698)
A Murder in the Peace Corps
by Philip Weiss
- The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held on the UCLA campus on the weekend of April 24th was saturated with Peace Corps writers. The Peace Corps Los Angeles Recruitment office had a booth at the Fair where a number of RPCVs displayed and sold their books. Among them Maureen Orth (Colombia 196567), George Packer (Togo 198283), Eric Lax (Micronesia 196668) and Laurence Leamer (Nepal 196567) signed their recently published books.
- David Taylor (Mauritania 198385) has several offerings in recent fiction and nonfiction media:
- Stories have appeared recently in journals Wind and Zone 3.
- “Pelagro” was published in an anthology, Eclectica Magazine: Best Fiction, Vol One.
- His story “Monsters,” published in the February 11, 2003 issue of Pindeldyboz, was named a Notable Online Story of 2003 in storySouth’s Million Writers Contest.
- His essay about retracing the Federal Writers’ Project in Nebraska appears in the Spring 2004 issue of Prairie Schooner; and a documentary that grew from that story is being developed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- An article on the StoryCorps oral-history project will be in Smithsonian magazine this summer.
- The Butter Man by Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983-86) and Ali Alalou will be published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children in the fall of 2005. It is the story of a father telling his daughter of the famine in his village in the High Atlas Mountains. Letts’ novel, Quality of Care, will be published by Penguin/NAL in March 2005. It is about an obstetrician who is unable to save the life of a childhood friend in an emergency, and is forced to reexamine the demons of her past and to explore the question of what it means to “save” someone.
- Rachel Alt (Burkina Faso 1996-98), a third-year medical student at Harvard University, published an essay entitled “Fonyon” this spring in The Dudley Review, 2004, Issue 10: Errata & Contradiction. This journal is produced by Dudley House, the center for graduate students at Harvard University. Rachel’s essay focuses on the coming of AIDS to Africa and her village of Kasangé where Rachel worked as a health Volunteer. Rachel is planning to return to Africa after she finishes her residency.
- The May issue of Golf Magazine carries a travel article by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980) on playing golf in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
- The March issue of Islands Magazine had a piece by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196769) on Tinian where the Navy Seasbees once resided, and from where the Enola Gay was loaded and took off.
- George Packer (Togo 198283), staff writer for The New Yorker, has been reporting from Baghdad and his article, “Caught in the Crossfire,” appeared in the magazine’s May 17th issue. In the article he says that recent revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad will likely have a strong effect on the attitudes of many of Iraq’s moderates, as well as the support for the war here at home.
Packer received two Overseas Press Club awards this year, for “War After the War,” about Iraq, and “The Children of Freetown,” about the legacy of the war in Sierra Leone.
- Phil Bob Hellmich’s (Sierra Leone 198589) essay “Fishing in Sierra Leone” has been published in the newest of the Chicken Soup book series for the Fisherman’s Soul. This story is about Phil Bob’s return to his village nine years after he served there as a PCV.
- Early word on Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s (Cameroon 196567) next book, She Smiled Sweetly: A Poppy Rice Mystery is that this third book featuring a D.C.-based FBI agent is a blend of literary brilliance and outstanding mystery. Publisher’s Weekly writes, “Smith shines in this superb whodunit.” The book is coming from Holt in June.
- Eventide, the new novel by Kent Haruf (Turkey 1965-67) is reviewed in this issue, and was also reviewed in The New York Times book section by Jonathan Miles on Sunday, May 23. Miles sums up: “Kent Haruf’s achievement lies in his ability to depict the frangible values of rural communities, not advocate them. Dusting the West with sugar isn’t necessary; what dust there is is sweet enough.” The New Yorker in the May 31 issue in “Briefly Noted” notes: “It’s rate that such slow, deliberate prose is this highly charged, but Haruf’s writing draws power from his sense of character its limitations and its possibilities and how it propels action.” Then in the daily New York Times on May 25, the demanding reviewer Michoko Kakutani writes of Haruf’s novel, “In the hands of another writer these events might read like a hick town soap opera, but Mr. Haruf’s understated prose, combined with his emotional wisdom and his easy affection for his characters turns these events into affecting drama.”
- Eric Lax (Micronesia 196668) is receiving a series of positive reviews for his book: The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle published this month by Henry Holt. In the May 26, New York Times, reviewer Simon Winchester says Lax’s book is “admirable, superbly researched” and that Lax has “done at long last is to hand out the properly deserved degrees of merit to all who were involved in the making of this extraordinary and fugitive piece of magical chemistry.”
- Halford E. Jones (Philippines 1963-68) has been described as a world class adventurer, a leading authority on Philippine martial arts, one of the oldest full-contact stick fighters in the United States, an expert in several southeast Asian martial arts, and an expert and living encyclopedia on martial arts. His martial arts articles have appeared, not only in the United States, but also in the Philippines. He has contributed to nearly all major martial arts publications in the United States and has been doing so since the late 1960s. Currently he is the Executive editor of the Filipino Martial Arts magazine (www.FilipinoMag.com).
- Les Young (Ecuador 196365) is creating a new website www.FirstStrike-YesNo.com that will go online on July 4, 2004. It will publish essays and poems by the public that assess the “wisdom” or “imprudence” of our nation’s “Preemptive Self-Defense Strategy, the Bush Doctrine.” Les is seeking submissions which can be original material or re-prints of favorite essays or poems. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Author and investigative journalist Bernard Lefkowitz (who served briefly in the Peace Corps, years and country not known) died of thymic carcinoma, a cancer of the thymic gland, on May 21 in New York City. In 1997, Lefkowitz wrote Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, about the 1989 gang rape of a mentally disabled girl by a group of popular high school students in an affluent New Jersey suburb. An Edgar award-winning author, he had written three earlier books on social issues, including Tough Change: Growing Up on Your Own in America. His articles have appeared in Esquire, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, New York, Psychology Today, Ladies' Home Journal, The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and The Los Angeles Times. He also taught journalism at Columbia University.
Talking with . . .
MAUREEN ORTH (Colombia 196466) is perhaps the RPCV community’s premier journalist, having written for a number of major publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Newsweek. Today she is a Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair magazine. Prior to joining Vanity Fair, she was a contributing editor at Vogue and a columnist for New York Woman. And prior to that, she was a senior editor for New York and New West magazines.
One of the first women to write for Newsweek, Maureen won a National Magazine Award for group coverage of the arts while at the weekly. It was also while she was at Newsweek that she “discovered” Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769) and wrote about him for the magazine only because, she says, Kinky had been a PCV. During this period, Maureen also took a leave of absence from Newsweek to be Swiss/Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s assistant on the film “Seven Beauties,” but then returned to journalism.
She began to write for Vanity Fair in 1988, and among the people she has profiled was murder suspect Andrew Cunanan in the September 1997 issue. This was the first in-depth report on the man who killed Gianni Versace and served as the basis for her book, Vulgar Favors, published in 1999. Another of her articles on Michael and Arianna Huffington was nominated for a National Magazine Award in reporting.
Maureen has a new book out that is a collection of her essays about famous people including Arianna Huffington, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industial Complex.
I first met Maureen in the mid-eighties when she wrote an article for my wife, then an editor at Glamour Magazine. During this decade Maureen and I worked together on two major fund raising events for the RPCV community. Maureen had moved to Washington with her husband and young son, and briefly became involved with the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (now the NPCA). That experience with the NCRPCV even today sends her into mild fits of rage so I saved my questions about the NPCA until the end of this interview.
Maureen, what was your Peace Corps assignment?
I was in urban community development in Colombia.
How did you Peace Corps experience help your career?
My Peace Corps experience, particularly learning Spanish, was of great help to me.
In journalism, you have to have energy and curiosity, and be willing to plunge into whatever environment the story takes you that is very parallel to the Peace Corps experience. Ditto being able to fit in and be culturally sensitive to your surroundings.
The Peace Corps teaches empathy that is essential to winning people’s trust, particularly if you are dealing with people who are deciding whether to TRUST you or not with sensitive information or any information for that matter.
I have gone all over the world in my assignments, and after two years in the Peace Corps at an early age I believe one is much better suited to deal with everything from impossible bureaucracy to difficult living conditions in pursuit of the goal which is getting the story.
Of all the people you have profiled, who has impressed you the most?
Some people who have impressed me most are not those I most admire at all. Imagine the Sir Walter Scott rhyme “Oh! what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive!” I am amazed at the lengths some people go to to invent themselves anew or try to gain status and power, so in that regard I have been impressed with the strivers and deceivers: Mohamed Fayed, Arianna Huffington, Andrew Cunanan and the rascal politico who was President of Argentina, Carlos Menem. Others I feel more sympathy for: I found Margaret Thatcher in the moment she fell from power to be a poignant character, although at the time she had become very unpopular. Tina Turner is just a great dame. I had the most fun watching designer Karl Lagerfeld ply his trade equal amounts of creative and marketing genius. With the ultra famous such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, it is more a question of trying to find the nature of the there there. With Michael Jackson and Woody Allen, both considered geniuses and therefore not accountable to the rules the rest of us have to follow, it is not very pretty.
Much of what makes your articles so good are your great quotes. How do you get them?
Getting great quotes is a function of listening well. When someone says something that strikes me as interesting, I often ask them if they mean such and such and often they repeat my last words as the first words in their answer. I think hearing a good quote, though, is more an instinctive ability it really cannot be taught: either you can or you can’t. It is probably akin to writing dialog for the fiction writer.
What were you trying to achieve with The Importance of Being Famous?
First and foremost this book should be an entertaining read of profiles of famous and remarkable people across the globe some brilliant, others extreme in their ambition and desire to be famous or powerful. I often think of the old big game hunter, Frank Buck, and his phrase: “Bring ’em back alive.” That is what I try to do with these celebrities. Strip them of the artifice and bring ’em back, but truthfully alive to the reader. I coined the phrase “the celebrity industrial complex” to show the whole apparatus of the fame industry today with big media conglomerates on one side and all the handlers from accountants to stylists on the other. With the advent of the internet and 24 hour cable news on TV, the whole nature of celebrity and fame has changed RADICALLY today someone is just as likely to be recognized for infamy as for achievement. Fame so often today is unearned: Paris Hilton and Scott Peterson SPRING TO MIND, and this book tries to show the machinery behind these stories and how the famous are recognized for their lifestyles as much as for their work today.
THIS phenomenon of instant and extreme recognition is not only confined to show business. For example, I dissect how Private Jessica Lynch, who never fired her gun, was created by the Pentagon to be a great hero and used to gain sympathy for the war in Iraq. I begin the book with Laci Peterson to show how an ordinary young California woman and her husband came to rule the airwaves for so long. An underlying theme of my book is how the rules of journalism are being seriously bent and undermined, and how so much of our culture is being ruled by tabloid subject matter.
Whom do you admire?
People I admire: of those in the book my favorites is the late prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn whom I interviewed at the end of her life while she was living on a small Panamanian finca that reminded me totally of Peace Corps territory. For decades she had the world’s applause and admiration she danced for kings and queens and accepted thousand upon thousands of roses thrown at her feet, yet she had fallen madly in love with her husband, a difficult and complex Panamanian politician who had been wheelchair bound after an assassination attempt. Because of his demands and needed care, she had to dance for decades longer than she wished and while she was travelling, he dallied with a young mistress who committed suicide the day he died. Margot Fonteyn had such dignity and grace, was so totally unaffected by the fame and glory and so completely above the fray and staunch in what she wanted in the end this humble finca that I found her tremendously admirable.
You have traveled in both private planes and in far more difficult ways to get your stories. Tell us about one or two of your memorable travel adventures.
I recount in the book a trip I took with basketball star Shaq O’Neal and his team, the Orlando Magic on their specially outfitted private jet which had seven foot ceilings. Shaq was wearing a huge belt buckle with the letters TWISM: This World Is Mine.
And indeed it was. Private planes are really the way that privilege is most determined among celebrities today. Not having to go through security or lines, being whisked off the field in big cars as the Magic players were it is truly a different world. Julio Iglesias once told me he could not wait to get off the stage and go to his plane and “fly above the world through the heavens.”
Of course I more often have experienced the other side of the coin: shortly after September 11, 2001, I was flying from a border town in Tajikistan to Dushanbe, the capital, in a Tajik airliner with burlap straps on the seats and a filthy strip of carpet in the aisle that was not tacked down. The night was pitch black and there were no airport lights. The metal detector for security had unconnectd wires hanging from it so there was no need to go through. Before we boarded, the stewardess had to knock on the plane’s door to wake up the pilot and tell him to open up. I was writing about the relationship between drugs and terrorism and to my eye most of the passengers were drug dealers. I luckily was seated next to a British cotton broker who spoke English. Upon takeoff I said I thought we were climbing nearly vertically awfully fast. “I certainly hope so,” he said. “because there is a 7,000 foot mountain directly in front of us.”
Why do you think no one trusts the media?
Having experienced both sides, I can understand why the media gets pummelled. The internet, especially, is such an unfiltered medium that anyone can say anything about anyone, including website columnists, and nothing ever has to be corrected. Part of the thesis of my book is how the voracious media beast, always hungry to be fed, completely bends the rules of journaIism. For example, I have written very long, exhaustively researched articles about Michael Jackson and three of them are in the book. To me, the issue of child molestation is extremely serious, and I believe that Michael Jackson is the apotheosis of celebrity corruption. Yet, despite all the evidence I mount, I still get attacked or dismissed and not just by rabid fans of his. This morning on “The Today Show,” a reporter, who knows better, said that MJ’s drug use Vanity Fair wrote about is “of course unconfirmed.” There is a documented trail of drug use he has publicly checked into detox previously just for starters. But to me it goes with the territory.
On the other hand, there is so much fawning, trivial reporting in celebrity journalism and so much power on the side of the celebrity in the interview situation today, that they tend to view anything less than a puff as an offense. My point is that we are so drenched in celebrity and fame in our culture that it demands to be examined much more carefully.
What type of stories are you doing now?
So much of my reporting now is investigative, but my stories about the domestic murders at Fort Bragg by Afghan vets, the story of the pedophile priest, Paul Shanley, and the drugs and terrorism piece did not fit into the book. However, my stories about people like Denise and Marc Rich and his presidential pardon from Bill Clinton and, the profile of Arianna Huffington, both of which are in the book, are essentially political reporting. So in recent years I have been able to tackle tough, thorny subjects which take a tremendous amount of research. I remember reading about nine books on Northern Ireland just to prep for the Gerry Adams profile.
Don’t you at times just want to leave all of these people behind and go off to a convent?
I’m too curious to lead a cloistered life. But in the last third of my life or so I hope to do something with international themes perhaps about women or a woman or do a great biography of someone.
You have been involved with Returned Peace Corps Volunteer projects over the last twenty years. What are your thoughts on the NPCA?
I always thought the idea of organizing returned Volunteers to help immigrants in their own U.S. communities was a great idea. We speak the languages and know the cultures. The Hispanic community, especially, needs help in the education system, and at least one model to do that with RPCVs has been created.
I have raised a lot of money for the NPCA, but every time I get involved with them I end up tearing my hair out.
Mountains Diminish Underfoot:
Journal Entries from Peace Corps Nepal 1982 to 1985
by Maggie Finefrock (Nepal 198285)
The Learning Project Press
Reviewed by Deborah M. Ball (Niger 199294)
“THE TWENTIETH CENTURY SEEMS not yet upon us . . . the paths I walk upon are ancient . . . knowledge of farming and survival in this awesome country has been passed down [through the generations] along with stories, dances, ritual and folk beliefs.” Maggie Finefrock invites the reader into Nepali village life through journal entries written during her Peace Corps Volunteer service.
She conveys the simple ways villagers navigate forces of nature to eke out a living on the mountain cliffs. The reader watches her be continually humbled by the wisdom of children who know the practicalities of this life; how to put on a sari, plant rice, fix a lantern wick, and, prepare a meal over a wood fire.
Maggie gains perspective comparing Western culture with her new Nepali community. She notes a refreshing cultural difference, “the concept of letting someone else create your entertainment has not yet caught on.” The children amuse her with their antics and creative use of “local technology.” One of her friends, a fourteen year-old “professor of recycling” surprises her by fixing her broken flip-flops through skillfully melting the rubber pieces back together.
Maggie adventures through Nepal’s remote and undeveloped regions to get to the bank, find out plane schedules and participate in teacher trainings. These provide a window into the characters, trials and surprising joys of life in the mountains. As the author cracks open Nepali culture she also reveals her own interior landscape as she learns to explore and contribute to this community. She describes discovering deeper ways to communicate that do not involve words or knowledge, “I am learning to reach out to people with the person I am rather than with what I know.”
Through her eyes we look deeper than the villagers’ material poverty and struggle to witness their rich heart and spirit. The reader accompanies Maggie on paths where “the only traffic is an occasional obstinate water buffalo.” We discover how hospitality and community provide a survival net in this rugged terrain. Unknown mountain farmers, “guardian angles,” call out directions as she navigates step passes. During one journey she meets a teacher, Ram Chandra, who leaves a strong impression. Due to disabled legs, he travels through the mountains on the palms of his hands. Indeed, Ram Chandra’s “unique gait, fluid motion and courage” over the mountain trails inspired this reader.
For Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or Himalayan trekkers, this read evokes nostalgic memories. Moreover, the author assumes a familiarity with village life. As the work stands, she shares snapshots of experiences and insight. The reader is left to extract the overall flow and meaning. Maggie acknowledges these journal excerpts are unedited, but still would have done well to summarize overarching themes of experience and gained wisdom in a prologue or postlude.
Yet, the reader can not help but admire Maggie’s thoughtful, gentle manner and keen insights as she witnesses wealth “in the abundance of this land, and the smiles . . . of its people.” This work closes with essays by two Nepali students expressing their gratitude to their former teacher. They describe Maggie’s imprint upon their own journeys and hearts stating, “the love she showered on us removed all fear.”
Deborah M. Ball, Resident Chaplain at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, received her Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and, Master of Cultural Anthropology at University of Hawai’i. She traveled in Nepal twice, once to trek in the Himalayas and once to practice at a Buddhist Monastery.
Pilgrimage of the Heart
A Hero’s Journey of Love And Philanthropy
by Maggie Finefrock (Nepal 198285)
(writing as Maya Namarnus)
The Learning Project Press,
Reviewed by Deborah M. Ball (Niger 199294)
PILGRIMAGE OF THE HEART expresses spirit, depth, despair and elation. Maya Namarnus leads the reader into the depths of relationality with oneself and with others. Themes of love, “Eros-enlivening, Philia-connecting, Agape- Unifying,” are beautifully woven through her poetry.
How did we learn how to love? Do we know what “love” is? We stand witness to an unfolding interior landscape, the development of Maya’s heart-soul. Through relationships, angst and gained insight, she conveys the nuances of love-relations. The collection displays the maturing process of authentic love.
In violet ink, the journey begins with a young girl who believes she is “a wild horse trapped in a gangly body.” This wild horse-girl is “aware of the callings of her soul, bursting with curiosity and connection to all things.” She senses that her boundless love is too large for others. To ease other peoples discomfort she stores her abundance “in a box.” However, through time and writing “her love and great spirit slipped out.”
The pilgrimage starts with Eros, “romantic love.” She longs for and chases socialized versions of Eros. Imagining her deepest gift will be fulfilled through another person, she compromises her power, only to discovers Jekyll and rejection;
who has ravaged my gifts,
rejected my open hands
and left my questioning eyes
Not realizing her own inner wholeness, she struggles with painful forces of degenerating passion;
magnolia blossoms lay
Eros’s enlivening love often burns and transforms. The mystery of human connections shift with the flowing wind and sea of relationality;
nature is ruled by constant change
in tragic pantomime
no answers are given
when sand grains are scattered
by the whirlpool of time.
Next port of the heart visited is that of Philia, “love for one’s fellow beings.” This experience is one of mutuality. It is an opportunity to meet “person to person, not actor to actor.” This love is a deeper expression than the performance of social roles and rehearsed lines. We watch Maya befriend her interior-dragons and start to heal. She meets Chris, a sister on the path of life. Chris’s gentle eyes and words affirm Maya’s own authenticity.
Through the difficult and rewarding task of learning how to love, she uncovers her desire to serve humanity. Love is how we live and what we do. This precious way of heart allows us to maintain our own integrity while honoring another’s dignity. As our hearts widen we realize “Philia,” not a needy and greedy Eros love, but a joyous, responsible love. Love full of acceptance and forgiveness.
Then the author invites us to climb the far reaches of our souls by introducing Agape, spiritual love. To taste this “love feast” we must move through false beliefs that veil our inner truth. Maya states, “[o]ur uniqueness, love and respect add to the synergy of the world, not our conformity.” We must remember who we really are and what our purpose is, this cultivates a natural love which then ripples forth to others. Our innate uniqueness, our illumination, is not to be hidden under a bushel. “Jesus did not stop at the point of thoughtful solitude . . . [and] . . . Buddha got up to teach after enlightenment.” We must discover and express “the dance of our own being.”
Maya does not share the early “wounding” that began her journey. This “shadow” could possibly offer further understanding and wisdom to the reader. But, her mindful words still wake the reader into the light of life. One particularly appreciated the “prayer stone” Maya gives us a reminder to take ourselves lightly. As she describes,
uncovering humor under layers of doubt
while laughing, I slowly go sane.
The tool of laughter can guide us home to our deepest selves. This unconditional freedom, the Jubilee, is now, if we listen to our heart’s natural inscriptions,
Living our stories fully
enables us to find,
The author dares us to live out of our hearts. She involves us in an intentional quest to explore the intricacies and possibilities of love. Doing so, we discover our true capacities. Maya calls the reader back to the one source. “Drink deep”, she offers. May we manifest our fullest potential, being our own unique form of “love and only love expressing.”
Deborah M. Ball, Resident Chaplain at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, received her Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Master of Cultural Anthropology at University of Hawaii. She also studied and practiced under the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France a place of philia and agape love.
The Prisoner of Vandam Street
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 198587)
KINKY FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR OF The Prisoner of Vandam Street, is just your average RPCV: a Texas Jew with a New York attitude, provocative name and a past incarnation as a country-western singer. (Who could forget his hit, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”?) His popularity, outrageous humor and irreverence shine through in the bumper stickers that herald his gubernatorial run, stating, “He Ain’t Kinky, He’s My Governor.” Now he’s back on the shelves with the 16th book of his eponymous mystery series.
Recovering or not from a bout of malaria (“plasmodium falciparum the only truly deadly strain”), the same-named Kinky, coincidentally an RPCV and former country-western singer, convalesces at home under the care of his colorful friends, the Village Irregulars. Fevered, babbling and fading in and out of a lucid state, Kinky sees the anxious expressions on his friends’ faces, confirming his suspicions that this time, he’s “hanging by spit directly above the trapdoor.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of malaria, Kinky muses between hallucinations, is that “you never know if something that has just happened is really something that has just happened.” The reader, therefore, doesn’t know what to think when Kinky, an amateur detective, glances through opera glasses out the window (à la Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”) and witnesses a man mercilessly beating a woman in a third-floor unit across the street. Horrified and helpless, not to mention still feverish, Kinky staggers to the phone and calls 911. The dispatched police search the building, and return to inform Kinky and his friends that the third floor is an unoccupied warehouse. The Village Irregulars shake their heads, regard Kinky with pity and tell him to go back to bed.
But Kinky is determined to find and help the young woman he knows he saw. When Kent Perkins, his private investigator friend calls, Kinky enlists his aid. Upon his arrival, Kent sets to work, assisted by the Village Irregulars and the internet. This is not Kinky’s favorite form of sleuthing: feverish and bed-ridden, relying on the support of others. Worse, the malaria continues to act against Kinky and play with his mind. He sees the woman again or does he? She needs his help or does she? “Malaria,” an acquaintance once told him during his Peace Corps days in Borneo, “is the only way one can see the world as it really is.”
And indeed, Kinky reaches this somber conclusion as well, realizing, “it was not possible to save anybody in this life, not even myself. All you could ever hope to do was to lead people to the light, which you couldn’t even really see yourself. The malaria helped me in a way. I could watch myself walking on this lost highway of life. I could see that there was no light to see.”
Hard-core crime fiction fans will need to look elsewhere for nonstop action, jaw-dropping plot developments and hourly chase scenes. That’s not a Kinky trademark. Scatological humor, bawdy references, lots of alcohol and cigars now we’re talking “the Kinkster,” and it’s what his cult readership expects and wants. The Prisoner of Vandam Street, however, is more brooding and pensive than his other books. Action plays second to introspection. Some of Kinky’s loyal readers might thumb through the pages and wonder, like the Village Irregulars, if the old Kinkster has really gone off the edge this time, and is it something permanent or will he be back to his more cheerful high jinks a year from now? But the book’s power lies in its subtlety, its Zen-like musings about departed loved ones, sanity, and pets who stand (well . . . crouch) beside you.
I loved the book, finding its darker nature highly appropriate for these troubled political times we live in today. I could fully appreciate the character’s dilemma of helplessly watching violence and gun-brandishing from a distance, knowing that any protests or shouts of warning will go unheard. But as Kinky would say, “That, gentile reader, is life, so get over it.”
I’ll resist the temptation to employ the usual har-har clichés about getting Kinky and reading Kinky and “some good Kinky stuff out there,” but I will go so far as to say, if you’ve never gotten Kinky before, now’s the perfect time. Even, or particularly if you’re not a mystery reader. But don’t read it for the thriller/adventure/crime fiction fix. Read it because it’s got a lot to say about humanity, friendship, Guinness and cat feces. In this game we call life, that just about sums it up.
Terez Rose’s writing has appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Writers Journal. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003) and the upcoming A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004). She has recently completed her first novel.
The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver
by Scott Stossel
Smithsonian Institution Press
Reviewed by Maureen J. Carroll (Philippines 1961-63)
I APPROACHED THIS BOOK with high enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation. I regard R. Sargent Shriver as the finest public servant I encountered during my long professional life in Washington DC, and I was eager to delve into this in-depth biography. Yet, I was fearful that like other of my late 20th century heroes, he might be revealed as a lesser man than I thought him to be. The trepidation was totally unfounded. This comprehensive, detailed rendering of Shriver’s life underscores how remarkable he is and treats the reader to an instructive account of a life well-lived.
Scott Stossel, a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly, has written a highly readable chronological account of Shriver’s life from his birth in 1915 to the present. The early chapters about his family history, his education, his first romantic love, and his Naval service in World War II provide rich and predictive detail that underscores the importance of early influences and experiences on character and accomplishment. In 1934 Shriver was among the first young Americans chosen to go abroad through the Experiment in International Living, then a fledgling organization committed to the notion that if young people from different countries could be exposed to other cultures, the mutual understanding that would be generated would inhibit war. At Yale University he began his regime as chairman of the Yale Daily News by describing the editorial board under his leadership as Christian, democratist, and Aristotelian. “We are optimists,” he wrote. “We believe that things can be accomplished; that those who have ideals and are willing to work for them can often attain their ambitions; in short, that the world is not too much with us but by sincere and untiring effort can be made a better place to live in . . . . There is delight in accepting responsibility in a world of men who shun it.” Shriver wrote these words at the ripe age of 20. As Stossel says, the content and the style of the declamation were “pure Shriver” and certainly prescient of the way he has lived the rest of his life.
Shriver meets the Kenndys
And what a life it has been determined in great part for good, and perhaps a bit of ill, by becoming a Kennedy family member in the early 1950’s. During the immediate post-war years in New York City, Shriver worked at a law firm (he hated it!) and at Newsweek as an assistant editor. He met and fell for Eunice Kennedy, who was at best desultory in her response. Then Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the clan, summoned him to a breakfast meeting and asked him as an editor to look over a family memoir about Joseph Kennedy, his oldest son who had been killed in the war. Shriver tells Kennedy that the memoir is not publishable. Kennedy, impressed by the young man’s candor and probably sizing him up as a future son-in-law, offers him a job with Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises. Shriver gets conflicting advice about aligning himself with the Kennedys, but he does ostensibly as a means of staying in Eunice’s orbit. Next we find him in Chicago as Kennedy’s ears and eyes at the Merchandise Mart the largest piece of real estate in the world. He plays a major role in turning about the fortunes of the market and over the space of 12 years in Chicago builds a reputation and a following for his civic work, most notably in race relations and education, that stand him in good stead for a political career of his own perhaps as Governor or even as a US President someday.
But fate intervenes when Jack Kennedy wins the presidency of the United States. Shriver had finally married Eunice Kennedy in 1953, following a seven-year courtship. As a family member, he of course plays a major role in the campaign. Some say that through his relationship with Mayor Richard Daley, he was responsible for the win in Illinois that clinches the election. He also got Jack Kennedy to call Coretta King when Martin Luther King is incarcerated, solidifying Kennedy’s standing within the black community. Shriver goes on to run the Talent Hunt for the Kennedy administration, and following the inauguration returns to Chicago, most likely to launch a Senate campaign. He’s home only one-day when he gets a call from the President to return to DC to launch the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps and the War on Poverty
Stossel devotes half of the chapters in the book to Shriver’s leadership of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty between 1961 and 1968, a short time in Shriver’s long life, but undeniably his very finest hours in a lifetime of sustained, extraordinary public service.
These chapters convey vividly the faith and optimism of the times as well as of the man, and chronicle in detail the establishment of new, often controversial government programs (Peace Corps, Community Action, Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, Legal Services). Shriver’s selling of these programs on Capitol Hill is textbook material. It may be surprising to Peace Corps veterans to know how little support Shriver had from the Kennedy White House to establish the Peace Corps as an independent agency. It is Lyndon Johnson who personally intervenes with Kennedy to keep the Peace Corps separate from the Agency for International Development. As a result of that victory, Shriver got even less support from the White House in getting the legislation passed.
Shriver’s enduring strengths were formidable in making the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty programs come to pass: powerful idealism, intellectual flexibility, an openness to new experiences and cultures, a superhuman capacity for hard work, an indomitable spirit, an allergy to bureaucracy, a belief in having fun at work, and perhaps, most important, an ability to attract and select outstanding staff.
A personal recollection of Shriver
I myself joined the headquarters Peace Corps staff in late 1963, immediately following my Volunteer service in the Philippines from 1961 to 1963. There was no finer place to work. I was surrounded by extremely bright, personable, committed people who inspired healthy competition to do the best work possible. I was especially fortunate to work in the Office of Evaluation, a unique to this day government operation that Shriver initiated. Evaluators, most with journalism backgrounds, went out to look at Peace Corps programs so they could report directly to Sarge what was really happening in the field, reports independent of the operational staff who had designed or managed them. The evaluators took pride in writing clear, convincing, sometimes lyrical prose. Sarge read every report and sprinkled his reactions liberally through the texts in bold pen, often directing senior staff members to take action immediately to fix problems noted. Evaluators awaited these “report cards” with great anticipation, learning quickly if they had made their case effectively. Everyone in the agency thrived on the prospect or the reality of having direct contact with Shriver. He WAS the Peace Corps and his daring, his idealism, his palpable commitment to the mission of the agency, his belief that anything was possible were infectious and inspiring.
A few weaknesses
The sum total of his strengths overshadowed or mitigated the mistakes that also characterized his leadership. The most patent of these for me was a reflection of his personal expansiveness, his seeming belief that you could never have too much of a good thing. As a Volunteer in a program that grew from 120 to 700 Volunteers within a year, with most not having any jobs, and as an evaluator in the agency when it was at its largest, I saw firsthand the downside of the poor programming or training or support that were fallouts of the rapid growth. I also may have witnessed one of Shriver’s worst public performances during a visit to the Philippines (other more positive sides of the trip are in the book) when his appearance before a large group of frustrated and angry Volunteers was a failure in communication and understanding. And yet, we forgave him, for his faults paled against his strengths. And, there is a good deal of legitimacy to the argument that if he had not “gone big” at the start, it’s likely the agency never would have gotten off the ground and most likely never would have survived as the highly respected, independent agency it is today.
Not just the Peace Corps
Although the Peace Corps chapters are a magnetic draw for those of us who have served in the organization, there is much to learn and to enjoy in the rest of the book. The War on Poverty chapters are an excellent chronicle of the activist, turbulent 60s, of the challenges of trying to do at home in the backyards of elected officials what we were promoting overseas to empower people and eliminate poverty. Stossel amply covers the years in Paris as the US Ambassador, Shriver’s unsuccessful attempts to become vice-president and president, the fascinating period in private law practice, his activism in nuclear disarmament efforts, and his leadership of Special Olympics. Along the way, the reader “meets” many of the leading figures of American and world history in the latter part of the 20th century.
Life with the Kennedys
An important theme throughout the book is Shriver’s complex relationship with the Kennedys individually and as a clan. While it is clear how the connection benefited Shriver, it is also clear that despite his great service and loyalty to the family, he was treated quite unevenly by them, and his own political potential was thwarted at every turn by family rules about who was to get first dibs at opportunity in what order. The relationship with Bobby Kennedy, complicated by Shriver’s working for Lyndon Johnson, is the most problematic. Yet, throughout his life Shriver remains stalwart and circumspect in his support and graceful under fire. The account of Shriver’s management of the arrangements for President Kennedy’s funeral is absorbing reading; his performance is a significant tribute not only to his to his leadership and abilities but also to his importance in the family. By the end of the book, I was convinced that Shriver was the truest Kennedy of all i.e. the way he has lived his life is much more consistent with the traits and values ascribed to the “real” Kennedys because of their style, rhetoric and the Camelot imagery that ensued from the assassination rather than from their deeds.
The man’s a saint!
Stossel gives substantial attention to the centrality of religion or faith throughout Shriver’s life and refers often to his intimate knowledge of philosophy and theology. It is impressive that his devotion to his Catholic faith never seems to have ever bordered on sanctimony or evangelism. As Bill Moyers says in his foreword to the book, “He is the Christian who comes closest, in my experience, to the imitation of Christ in a life of service.” What’s more, Stossel quotes Colman McCarthy, a journalist who was a former Trappist monk and a former staff member at OEO, as saying that he believes that Shriver and his wife will one day be canonized for having touched so many lives in such positive ways. I must confess that about three quarters of the way through the book, the same thought about Shriver passed through my mind as I saw more and more the deep connection between the man’s beliefs and his actions. At that point I also stopped and wondered if Stossel, like so many of us, had been seduced by the Shriver magic. In the last chapter of the book, Stossel acknowledges, “there is always a danger, when writing about someone like Shriver, who has done so much for so many and who is sincerely motivated more by concern for the commonweal than by his own self interest, of sliding into hagiography.” Stossel had adequate opportunity to write a balanced book, given the access he had to material not previously available, his long interviews with Shriver and family members in the late 1990s, interviews with colleagues over the years, and the exhaustive research he has done at various libraries and archives during the seven years the book was in progress. I believe he has succeeded, capturing the man and his times admirably.
Maureen Carroll’s Philippines group arrived in Manila on a propeller plane on October 12, 1961 and they were the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Asia.
A legendary PCV and RPCV, Maureen was among the earliest RPCVs hired by the Peace Corps in 1963, as the tours of the first PCVs came to an end, and she was the first woman evaluator hired by Office of Evaluation. She returned to the Peace Corps in the 1990s as the Country Director in Botswana, and later worked in Washington as head of the Office of Planning, Policy and Analysis and the director of the Africa Region before going, as all PCVs and staff do “in, up and out.”
Letter to Peace Corps friends
May 5, 2004
It was a magical moment. It was an afternoon with the Shriver family, Senator Edward M. and Vicki Kennedy, and the many friends of Sargent Shriver as they honored him by presenting a panel discussion to celebrate Sarge and renew his challenge to promote peace and social justice in today’s world. It was also a time to celebrate the release of the new biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver written by Scott Stossel and published by Smithsonian Books.
It was a memorable panel. Held at The World Bank and moderated by Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, it featuring noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Representative Harold Ford, Jr., Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, and RPCV Maureen Orth, Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair magazine.
Over 400 friends of Sarge filled the Preston Auditorium to recall the great career of this great man. Shriver has been an inspiration to generations of Americans as the creator of the Peace Corps, and Director of the War on Poverty who started Job Corps, Head Start, Foster Grandparents, and Legal Neighborhood Services. In his public life he was also Ambassador to France and head of the Special Olympics. It has been a career that spanned 60 years, changed the lives of thousands of people and influenced the world for the better.
Michael Beschloss highlighted Sargent Shriver’s role in “helping President Johnson become his best self.” Thomas Friedman spoke not only of what Sarge has already done, but how he is influencing the world today. Friedman focused on five characteristics of Shriver’s contribution to the world.
- Creating institutions like the Peace Corps to promote peace.
- Exporting hope to the world, not fear.
- Building collaborative peace efforts throughout the world.
- Becoming a global citizen.
- Being a creative person in a time of tragedy.
In living this life of service, Friedman said, “Sargent Shriver has been a role model for the world.”
Maureen Orth in her touching remarks called Sargent Shriver her “George Washington” and spoke of the early days in the development of the Peace Corps when the agency gave the world a new verb, “to shriverize,” meaning to speed up and to imagine creatively. Maureen, who served in Colombia during the 1960s, gave Sarge credit for “training women and men exactly the same,” and then she named an honor role of successful women who got their start in life by joining the Peace Corps.
She personalized her story by speaking eloquently about her service when she started a school in Medellin, Colombia that was named in her honor Escuela Marina Orth. Upon returning years later she saw that her school had been improved and modernized, growing from two classrooms and 35 students to 120 children in grades one through five. During that visit she was honored for what she had given the town. “I told them,” Maureen recalled, “that the whole idea of the Peace Corps was to plant the seed so that the community could go on as they had. This was my real thanks that they had persevered.” And all of that was because Sargent Shriver had made the Peace Corps possible.
Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. spoke about Sargent Shriver’s pioneer work in the civil rights movement and his dedication to improving the lives of so many around the world and at home. Ford lamented that Shriver’s deft diplomatic touch is not in use today in the Middle East.
Author Scott Stossel, for his part, recalled how when interviewing former colleagues of Sargent Shriver the most common sentence he heard was, “he changed my life, and there is nothing that I wouldn’t do for the man.” Stossel went onto say that he received hundred of letters about Shriver and all of them had similar themes: how this good man has changed the world without losing his goodness. Shriver was, everyone agreed, a role model for the future, a great man who sought out greatness in others.
Glancing around the filled auditorium, I spotted dozens of the other “great men and women” from the generation that had started the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, diplomats who had worked with Shriver when they were young and had gone on to successful careers in and out of government. Among the many luminaries was Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania who had been with Shriver at the Mayflower Hotel when the Peace Corps concept was developed, and Jack Hood Vaughn, the man who followed Shriver as Director at the Peace Corps and then went on to become an Ambassador and a leading environmentalist in Latin America.
It was touching and warm to see so many people who had worked for and loved Sargent Shriver come back to honor and recall with him a time in their lives when they believed they could change the world for good.
And for one lovely spring afternoon in Washington, D.C., in that small corner of the world just blocks away from where the Peace Corps first started, many in that crowded auditorium still believe it is possible to do and make peace, and as these women and men from “our greatest generation” once said, “lets go shriverize the world!” We say, yes! We have come, as Sarge keeps reminding us, “to serve, serve, serve.”
Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (PC/W staff: 1994-2001) was the first cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps, and the co-author, with Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72), of Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workshop. Prior to working at the Peace Corps, she served as a Senior Associate for Expatriation and Repatriation Programs for the World Group. Today, Laurette works for The World Bank as the Manager of the African Global Mobility Program.
A Writer Writes
WATER FROM THE FOUNTAIN in the park across from the hotel creates a fine mist that is carried upward into the trees by the wind. Children gather on the grass near the fountain and dance in the spray, their brown bodies glistening with the wet, their laughter breaking the mid-day stillness. I stand on the sidewalk watching them, their faces tilted upward, eyes shut, spinning, holding their arms close to their chests.
I had been in Cartagena only two days and already I was enchanted by its beauty, stunned by its poverty, a place of startling and unsettling contrasts.
Early in the morning of my third day, eyes gritty, sleep elusive, I left the hotel at first light and made my way along the narrow streets toward the ocean to a cafe I had noticed the day before. I carried a tattered copy of Time magazine under one arm and a paperback novel pushed down in my back pocket, my shields against an abiding sense of isolation and loneliness.
The cafe was a small place, wood frame, painted green, its tin roof rust-stained, and canvas window coverings rolled up and tied. Inside were a few tables and chairs. A bright yellow and green sign hung above the doorway.
Entering, I noticed two women in the back, each wearing a light blue bib apron, ironing what looked to be white table cloths. They both glanced up when I entered. I sat at the table nearest the front, looking out the large open windows at the empty street. It was still early and there were few people and little traffic. I listened to the muted sounds of the women ironing and talking, their irons hitting the cloth with muffled thuds, their words spoken softly, none of which I understood.
I sat for a time, my magazine open, waiting, anticipating strong coffee, warm bread, eggs mixed with onions and sausage. I was famished.
The morning light grew sharper, the sun now well above the horizon, already dominating the day. Across the street a dog came around a corner, moving slowly, pausing to stretch first one hind leg then the other, then walked stiffly over to a small bush and sniffed. Finally, unsteadily, the dog lifted its hind leg.
Looking around the cafe, I noticed there were no menus, no napkins or flatware. But this was Colombia and since I had arrived, nothing had been as expected, nothing as it seemed.
The day before I had gone to a bank and stood in a line that wasn’t a line but a cordial shoving match. I bought a few things at a small grocery store near the hotel and struggled to make myself understood when I asked for shaving cream. I couldn’t think of the verb, to shave. An older woman, soon joined by her husband, stood behind the counter looking at me intently, curious, as I shook a pretend can, squeezed white foam into the palm of my hand, and mimicked shaving. Finally, the woman threw her hands up in the air, saying “Si! Si! Jabon. Para lavar su cara. El hombre quiere jabon.” Soap to wash his face. The man wants soap, she said, beaming at me.
Her husband raised both hands, shrugging, “Naturalmente. Jabon. Claro.” Naturally, soap. And he, too, shook an imaginary can, rubbing his hands together. “Jabon,” he said smiling. “Jabon,” the woman said, nodding her head, seeming happy and relieved.
Encouraged, believing we were making progress, I said, “Si, jabon. Tienen jabon?” Do you have soap?
The senora looked at me and smiled. “No. No jabon.”
Later, I passed the long afternoon sitting at a small table in an open-air cafe, surrounded by men in dark suits, many drinking strong coffee in diminutive cups with water chasers, all talking emphatically as the sun dropped toward the horizon. In the dim light I stared at a local newspaper, the headlines and paragraphs enigmatic, elusive, and beyond my three hundred hours of Spanish training.
That evening, in the hotel dining room, I ordered the catch of the day and was brought a plate of beef and tubular vegetables and the waiter stood next to me waiting until I took my first bite. When I did, he smiled at me and I smiled back, nodding my head in approval. Satisfied, he walked away toward the kitchen, a damp towel over his shoulder.
After my meal I sat in the lobby of the hotel looking out at the park, a corner streetlamp casting a faint nimbus of light on the sidewalk, the fountain all but obscured. Feeling spent, I went up to my room and lay on the bed in the darkness watching the ceiling fan turn, distant voices on the street reaching me, the heavy night air resistant, unmoving. I tried to sleep.
Turning in my chair, I glanced back at the two women who were intent on their ironing, hoping to catch their eye, to say with my expression that I was ready to order. It would be the order I had practiced earlier in my room: huevos rancheros, cafe’y pan, por Favor. I would say the words cleanly, clearly.
The two women continued to iron, one pushing her hair back behind her ears, occasionally dipping her hand in a tin of water, sprinkling the table cloth, water falling from her fingertips. The taller one looked across the room at me and said something to the other and they both glanced at me, smiling.
I pulled out my paperback, Franny and Zooey, and tried to read, waiting for the coffee.
After a time, the woman returned carrying a large porcelain cup of steaming coffee, setting it on the table first, then a plate of eggs and bread. In her apron pocket she had a knife and fork wrapped in a cloth napkin and a shaker of salt. She placed all in front of me and left.
The eggs were tender, the portion generous, the bread warm, the steaming coffee strong and very good. People passed on the sidewalk now, but no one entered the cafe and I sat alone at my table, taking my time with the meal, watching the street gradually fill with early morning traffic. On a corner, a man in a white tropical suit stood fanning himself with a folded newspaper, turning to look up at the sun. His suit was deeply creased at the arms and across his lap and his narrow black tie was already loosened.
Drinking the last of my coffee, I looked around for the women, but they were gone, the cafe empty. I waited and when they didn’t reappear, I stood, uncertain, then walked to the back of the café noticing piles of folded laundry stacked neatly on a long wooden table. An old sewing machine, the name Singer written in ornate gold script, stood against one wall. Behind a curtain of beads I could make out a small room with two narrow cots and in one corner a sink and pan for washing dishes. Spools of thread and remnants of material were piled neatly on a chair. “Senoras,” I called out. No one answered.
Walking back to my table, I left twenty pesos under the coffee cup, hoping it was enough. Out on the street I looked back at the cafe and the sign above the door. Vista Del Mar, it said. View of the Sea. Indeed.
I returned to my hotel and walked across the lobby. Already it was warm, the heat gauze-like, the sun throwing shafts of bright light through the high arching windows. The concierge, standing at the front desk, asked me if I had enjoyed my breakfast.
“Very well,” I said. “The food was excellent and the coffee especially good.”
“Indeed. Where did you take your breakfast?” he asked, looking at me with interest.
“Just down the street. A small place, the cafe with the yellow and green sign,” I said, hesitating, searching for the Spanish word for sign.
“Yellow and green…” said the concierge. “Ah, yes. Did the sign say, ‘Vista Del Mar’?”
“Si. Si, senor.”
“Really. And you took your breakfast there?”
“Yes. A place very agreeable.”
The concierge looked at me for a moment, then asked, “And who served you your breakfast?”
“A young woman, tall, one of two.”
“Very good, sir,” he said, a smile working at the corners of his mouth, pressing the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb, “but before you return for another breakfast, you should know that this is a place where one takes ones laundry to be washed and ironed. The two women are the owners and they live in the back. They also sew and mend.”
I stared at the concierge for a long moment, thinking back on the morning, the two women ironing, the meal brought to me, spools of thread and squares of folded cloth on the table and chairs, and, of course, the sewing machine.
Over the concierge’s shoulder I noticed four old men sitting in large chairs in the lobby, one reading a newspaper, smoking a cigar, the others sipping coffee from small white cups, saying little, and in the park the fountain sent up a shimmering, luminescent spray.
The park was empty except for a small boy and a girl. They walked to a bench and sat down. The boy had a toy airplane in his hand and he sat quietly on the bench, apart from the girl. He held the plane by the fuselage at eye level, flying it back and forth in tight circles, pausing in flight to spin its propeller.
I looked at the concierge, weighing carefully what he had told me, finally saying that it was a great lastima, a great shame, for I had never had a better cup of coffee.
When I glanced back toward the park, I saw that the girl and boy were gone and for a brief moment a rainbow appeared in the fountain’s rising mist, then disappeared.
Finn Honore’ lives in Asland, Oregon where he works as a free lance journalist.
A Writer Writes
Bringing the Peace Corps Back Home
by Meghan Maguire (Honduras 200103)
NOW THAT I’M BACK in the U.S., I love smelling like a girl again. I love reading The New York Times on Sunday mornings. I love being able to call my best friend just to make a joke. I love drinking Steak n’ Shake chocolate malts whenever I want. I love, and I mean love “Law and Order: SVU.”
Now that I’m back in the U.S., I don’t miss finding mystery bug bites on my inner thighs. I don’t miss the pervasive smell of hot, mouldering trash. I don’t miss having to fight for respect as a North American woman in a Central American town. I don’t miss missing loved ones back home.
As the last few months have disappeared however, I do find myself missing countless aspects of my time in Honduras. This morning I was sitting in front of my computer at work when it suddenly hit me that this is my favorite time of year in Honduras: when the mornings and evenings are cool and clear, and the blooming bougainvillea signals the start of the dry season. I had to put my face in my hands for a moment to be okay with where I was.
I am not alone in this returned Volunteer nostalgia. It is the final and perhaps most bittersweet rite of passage in any Peace Corps Volunteer’s completion of service. My friend Heather misses cheap African beer. Janet, who served as a 1963 Volunteer in Senegal says she longs for the sounds nighttime drums and dancing. Janet’s husband John, who also served in Senegal, says he misses never having to deal with telephone calls. My friend Justin who is well into his first year in Ukraine says he’s sure he’ll miss the daily family meals.
Before I started Peace Corps in 2001 and I heard returned Volunteers wax nostalgic about their countries of service, I thought they were out of their minds. I thought they’d really lost it, gone native, broken some sort of anthropological code about distance and emotional attachment. I was excited about getting to know my host culture, but I also secretly believed that I would never love that culture; I was so certain that I would return to the U.S. with nothing but open arms and a passionate respect for pasteurized dairy products. It wasn’t that I thought the U.S. was better than what I thought Honduras would be it just didn’t seem possible that I would ever think of Honduras as my home.
Yet here I am, exactly where an enormous part of me wanted to be on wet, lonely Honduran Sundays or long, sleepless, Honduran nights and I am simply filled up with memories of a far away place I couldn’t have imagined loving. I am stunned by my overwhelming love for a place I often hated. Suddenly there are smells, songs, articles of clothing I cannot physically bear because it’s like running across memorabilia from a past lover that one great love that changes you forever.
Friends and aquaintances frequently ask me what I think I’ve learned from Peace Corps. This is an enormously difficult question to answer at this point because my Peace Corps service is wrapped in so many layers of discoveries that I’m still processing. Some of those discoveries are just little blips, slight quirks I now know that I really love fried chicken and some of those discoveries are more complex. I’ve learned for example, that nothing is immutable and seemingly forever circumstances disappear before we’ve had time to say proper goodbyes.
I knew that my service would last exactly twenty-seven months I had the dates memorized but I experienced my time in Honduras as an eternity. I was routinely frustrated and maddened and disheartened by the seeming elasticity of my time in Honduras. And yet the ultimate irony of fighting Honduran time and missing everything back home was that I couldn’t conceive of a point in my life when I would not be a Peace Corps Volunteer. My head knew that my completion of service date was October 19, 2003, but my heart never caught on; without reason or thought, I felt I would always be a Peace Corps Volunteer. My life in Honduras was like watching a bathtub drain: When it’s full you can’t see the water funneling away but before you know what’s happening, it empties out very all-of-a-sudden.
Now that my Peace Corps service is over, I find it difficult to grasp the new reality of where I am. I can’t believe that I no longer wake up to my neighbor Carmen sweeping the dirt outside my windows. I don’t recognize the pale, white girl in the mirror and I mourn the loss of my freckles and the peeling sunburn on the bridge of my nose. My bed feels very cold and exposed without my mosquito net and I’m never warm enough no matter how many layers of clothing I wear.
This sense of loss of daily, quiet, grief has produced my most profound, personal lesson and this final lesson is Peace Corps’ greatest legacy to me: my Peace Corps, my Honduras, my service are gone forever. My Honduran present has passed and what was my wished-for future is now all around me. As a result, for the first time in my life, I am trying to understand the difficult balance of living with time of remembering and respecting what is no longer and having hopes for the future, but trusting that there is much to appreciate about the present as well. I finally “get” that my present circircumstances will soon become pasts worth missing. I finally know in my heart that if I don’t start experiencing each moment ferociously, I will find myself sitting in front of other computers in other places with my face in my hands, trying not to grieve for a past I’m not sure I fully appreciated when it was mine to cling to.
Meghan Maguire lived in Danlí, Honduras for 27 months, working as a Municipal Development Volunteer. She taught computer and basic writing skills to women, girls, and local government employees. She also worked on a variety of community pride cultural events. Meghan has a B.A. in Anthropology and French from Colby College, and an M.A. in French and Cultural Studies from Columbia University. She is currently employed as a World Languages Editor/Producer at McGraw-Hill Educational Publishing.
War and Peace Corps: from a Volunteer perspective
Two Corps, Peace and War: A Memoir
by Jim Jackson (India 196567)
I AM LOOKING AT a black and white snap shot taken in 1969 of me, a twenty-seven year old U.S. Army SP4 in jungle fatigues, squinting into the bright Vietnamese sunlight. Dog tags hang from my neck. Behind me are sand-bagged bunkers which guard the company’s perimeter. Beyond lies concertina wire separating the bunkers from a road.
The year before, during Tet 1968, the road was littered with Viet Cong bodies. When the picture was taken only a few bullet and RPG holes remained. One of the dead V.C. was a barber for my company. As a result, I never felt at ease getting a haircut when the Vietnamese barber used a straight razor.
I look at my picture and wonder what I was thinking. I can’t remember, but now I’m grateful to still be here, breathing, feeling the keyboard as I write this, and seeing sunlight through the blinds.
The seeming contradiction of serving both in the Peace Corps and in the military in Vietnam was not unusual. In my Peace Corps group, two others were drafted after Peace Corps and one also served in Vietnam. Considering all of the PCVs from that time, there must have been many who did double duty. Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 197374), an army nurse in Vietnam and author of Don’t Mean Nothing, said it also worked the other way: she and her husband and others were in the war first, then were PCVs. To my knowledge no one knows how many served in both capacities. There is no list.
To understand the contradiction of warrior and promoter of peace, one must try to understand the 1960s. For me, this is what they were like. In 1960, the NAACP Chapter in Oklahoma City conducted sit-in demonstrations at downtown department stores. I participated because I was in favor of civil rights, but I was afraid.
The sit-ins at the John A. Brown Department Store were not as bad as I feared. I was merely spit on, called a “nigger lover” and cursed.
Besides the sit-ins there were marches, one led by Charlton Heston star of “The Ten Commandments.” There was Moses, minus the beard and long hair, marching with demonstrators down one of Oklahoma City’s main streets. Now some disparage Charlton Heston because of his NRA connection, and his politics. But I will always remember him as I see him now in memory’s eye on that autumn day in 1960 marching for civil rights.
Later, when I decided the war in Vietnam was a mistake, I demonstrated against the war.
The Peace Corps
Out of college, I volunteered for the Peace Corps. My training group India 20-B began with 95 people, mostly singles with a smattering of married couples, for a project in rural health, sanitation and nutrition. About a third of the group were registered nurses, so although most of us were stereotypical A.B. generalists, we had some genuine experts. Three other PCVs and I were assigned to the Health Training Centre in Ramanagaram, Bangalore District. The centre, similar to a county public health facility in the U.S., also served as a training site for health workers.
All the time I was in India there was a cloud over my head as two attempts were made to draft me into the armed forces. FDR had appointed the chairman of my local draft board during World War II and he took the position that the war in Vietnam was not just against Communism but also against the international Jewish conspiracy. I have no idea what he thought about the Peace Corps. Following my return to the U.S. from India, and a job helping train India-51, a family planning project for Bihar State, I was drafted.
I had considered leaving the U.S., as many draft dodgers did, and relocating to Canada, or even Europe. There were several reasons why I did not. Leaving would have driven a wedge between me and my family. And once a person left the U.S. there was no coming back. In effect, you renounced your citizenship and faced imprisonment if you returned. I figured probability was on my side, that if I went to Vietnam, chances were mathematically good that I would survive and return.
I also considered the future. I had successfully taken the Foreign Service exams and looked forward to that as a career. I believed I could have a positive influence on U.S. foreign policy, perhaps keeping us out of future situations such as the one in Vietnam.
But my choice was not clear and I was not sure I was doing the right thing. What if I came back maimed or in a body bag? What if I had to kill Vietnamese? I did not want to, but if it were kill or be killed, I might not have a choice. I had to choose, but for years afterwards I second-guessed my decision.
After I was drafted, my company’s first sergeant tried to talk me into going to OCS because I had a college degree, but OCS meant additional time in the army, and I decided not to apply. What a stroke of luck! Later in Vietnam I learned that many OCS grads were infantry platoon leaders, commonly known as canon fodder.
At Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport my incoming group of replacements passed G.I.s on their way out who began to scream and curse us. They acted deranged, brought on by the relief of surviving. Again and again they shouted “you’ll be sorry!”
I was assigned to the Headquarters of the 79th Engineer Group at Long Binh, a large U.S. Army base about 20 miles from Saigon. On my first day after processing and orientation, I retired with new acquaintances to a nearby E.M. for a beer. A movie was being shown outside, so we got drinks and walked over to the screen. The movie was “The Green Berets” starring John Wayne. I thought “This can’t be happening! How can they be showing that movie?”
After the film began, suddenly there was WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! and cries of “Incoming!” Rockets were detonating inside the compound and everyone scrambled into nearby trenches. I landed prone with my arms outstretched, my two beer cans upright and unspilled. “This is a little more serious than I thought it would be,” I said to myself, “At least I didn’t spill the beer.” One person in the company next to us had been killed and two wounded.
I worked in the personnel section of group headquarters, a desk job that was not too hard. I carried with me my helmet, flack jacket, M-14 rifle and web belt with ammunition. Usually, I just went from the “hooches” (barracks) where I lived to work and to guard posts. Occasionally, we made trips to the P.X. (post exchange), or to Saigon, and very occasionally we went to one of the group’s battalions in Cu Chi or Tay Ninh. From time to time we patrolled areas around the base. Nights were for the E.M and a movie if you didn’t have guard duty.
My situation was like being on another planet compared to the grunts who humped the boonies and who referred to me and troopers similarly situated as REMFs. Most of them would have given anything to trade places. As scared as I was, I was in a relatively safe place.
Our southern hemisphere allies
For a while Australian combat engineers were stationed next to my company. In the morning they left in APCs and at night they came roaring back at full throttle, racing each other to the nearest E.M. Club.
After a while at the club our southern hemisphere allies would take a few cases of beer and head back to their tents. Since our guard positions overlapped, they would drop by, hauling the beer with them and climbing onto the roof of our bunker, where they serenaded all within earshot, including V.C. They usually offered us some beer as they shouted their greetings.
At some point each evening the first body would hit the ground as those on the roof became unsteady and toppled off. Their comrades, at least those who could, would jump down, grab the prone figure by his arms and legs, give a few heave-hos for momentum and toss the person back onto the roof. Then they would climb back up and continue the sing-a-long.
Now drinking on guard duty was a bad idea, but we had to be careful how we declined so as not to offend. We had an M-60 machine gun, and one evening they thought we should allow them to have “a bit of fun and let us fire off a few rounds, mate.”
The Aussies wanted to shoot our officers, who they did not like, although it was not personal. They didn’t like their officers either. I don’t think they liked any officers. The American officers knew it and kept a safe distance. The officer on duty, who would ordinarily visit our guard posts during the night, would not come near us if the Australians were present.
One night I met an American soldier with the Australians. He had been AWOL for two months, an offense punishable by imprisonment at hard labor. The Australians befriended him, hid him in their tents in the day, and brought him out at night to party and enjoy their companionship.
Unlike us, the Australians were volunteers and expected to be in Vietnam. They were friendly to us individually if we were white, but they ridiculed our armed forces because we had “wogs” in our army.
Race was a continual problem, perhaps because Long Binh was relatively safe. In field units, because everyone depended on everyone else for survival, race was not as significant, or at least not acted on.
Everyone was armed, and drugs and alcohol were commonly used. Those unfortunate ingredients, plus racism, produced tragedy. For example, down the road from my unit were several entrances into the Long Binh perimeter. M.P.s stationed at the gates to monitor traffic in and out used poles with mirrors to examine the underside of every vehicle because “Charlie” liked to stick bombs in under-carriages timed to detonate inside the compound. A jeep with three African Americans drove up and was stopped. They argued with two white M.P.s and things got out of hand. As the jeep drove away without permission, a grenade was tossed out at the feet of the M.P.s, who responded by shooting the men in the jeep just before the grenade exploded.
Verbal and physical hostility were often directed toward the Vietnamese, including young men who were not in the ARVN for reasons besides racism. The American soldiers resented defending the country if the people who lived there wouldn’t defend it.
There were hundreds of Vietnamese civilian employees at Long Binh doing everything from laundry to barbering to collecting trash. Some of them were V.C. who collected intelligence on the job and paced off distances to better zero in on specific targets. American soldiers, white and black, referred to the Vietnamese as “gooks,” “slopes” or “dinks.”
The day before I left Vietnam, some of the men in my group were in a truck when another truck with ARVNs either passed them or was passed by them. Who tried to pass whom is not clear, but the trucks began racing and the men in both trucks began firing at each other. There were multiple fatalities.
More common incidents were comparatively mundane because they resulted in fewer fatalities. One day at the mess hall, a driver of one of our ten-ton trucks got in the chow line. He said he had just had a little problem while driving his truck. A Vietnamese boy about ten years old on a bicycle was in front of him. Either because the boy did not pull over, or for some other reason, the truck driver ran over and killed him. It had just happened, so someone asked, “Are you upset?” He responded, “Nah, it was just a gook.”
G.I. vs. G.I.
Arguments between G.I.s were also common. One involved a card game dispute. Both men were drinking or had been smoking dope, or both. Suddenly, one pulled out a .45 pistol, just like a cowboy in the movies, and shot the other.
The proximity of weapons
I am convinced the reason most of these things happened the truck-bicycle incident being an exception was the proximity of loaded weapons. That was brought home one night when we were taking mortar and rocket fire. That night my duty assignment was runner in the TOC Bunker. During attacks, the TOC Bunker was our command post. It was well protected, underground with layers of sandbags supposedly able to withstand a direct hit by a 107 mm rocket.
The group commander, a white-haired colonel, strode in nonchalantly, smoking a cigar. His demeanor was intended to put us at ease. A shell had hit one of our hooches and there were wounded. The medical attention that should have been available was not, but we didn’t know why. There was no field phone communication, so the other TOC runner was dispatched to find out what was going on and report back. I didn’t want to leave the bunker because a continuous barrage of rockets and mortar shells were detonating outside. We expected a ground assault and I was thinking “I’ll never see the sun come up!”
We didn’t hear back from the runner, and the wounded were still not being treated. In anger and exasperation the colonel called for a medivac chopper. In spite of the confusion and pressing concerns, the colonel assigned his orderly to make sure all weapons inside the bunker were unloaded. Even then I realized “Oh! That’s what we need to be afraid of!”
We chaffed at polishing boots and brass, wearing pressed uniforms and having fresh haircuts. These requirements ebbed and flowed as our first sergeant changed. But other NCOs took delight in “screwing with us.” One sergeant major on his way to a field unit was particularly unbearable. When he got to the field with the same attitude, someone tossed a grenade into his tent. Fortunately, he was not in it, but his tent was Swiss cheese. It got his attention. He transferred and was lucky he lived.
When bullets were flying, there was general confusion, and some people with grudges used the situation to get even.
Before I went to Vietnam, I knew we should not be there, and being there did not change that, but knowing it before was an intellectual proposition. Knowing it afterward became an indelible part of me. Because I couldn’t support what we were doing in the war, I told the Foreign Service “thanks but no thanks.”
In 1985 I attended the Peace Corps 25th Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C. and visited the newly completed Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I approached it in turmoil. My first impression, besides the sight of the memorial itself, was how quiet it was. There were lots of people but the only sound was an occasional squeaky foot step or bird chirp. A sense that it was a sacred place was inescapable. Something in the air, something I could feel against my skin was also touching the wall, the sidewalk, and the statute of the three soldiers at the near end of the memorial.
As I slowly walked along in front of the black, granite wall with its 58,000 names, I began sobbing, which shattered the silence and caused people to turn and look. I saw things people had left: a can of beer with a note, a pair of jungle boots, and a hand-lettered placard
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning,
We will remember them.
The people whose names were sliding past felt so near I could almost see them. I also felt the presence of the Vietnamese who died in the war, especially the children. Although they were not included on the wall, I felt them along with the American soldiers as if they were all together. My grief was for the loss of all of them, for the utter waste the war had been.
As my weeping subsided, the silence returned, but now it is only a memory. I returned to the memorial in 1997 and again there was a large crowd but they were not quiet. There were loud conversations and yelling. Children were running, playing tag and throwing a frisbee. A park policeman giving a tour was almost yelling so he could be heard over the din. And it was twelve years later, and twenty-four years since we pulled out of Vietnam. Memories were fading. The pain was fading. That is natural and to be expected. Sadness comes because the lessons we learned, if we learned any, may also be slipping away.
For many years I thought about the war almost daily. I suspect for those whose experience was much worse than mine, the memory of the war will stay as long as they live. Even for me it is never far below the surface. Nor do I think about the Peace Corps as much as in the past. Gradually, the 1960s recede.
Since his time in Vietnam Jim Jackson has practiced law and currently works as a law school librarian.
by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698)
THERE IS a classic fiction-writing-workshop story that goes something like this:
A man drove home from work, pulled into his driveway, and parked his car. As he opened his front door he called out, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” Then he settled into his favorite chair, exhausted, to read the evening paper.
“Sweetheart, I’m just putting a pie in the oven,” he heard his wife call out from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour.”
“Great,” said her husband, “I’m starving to death.”
“So what?” you say? “Who cares?” You put the story down right there. You have better things to do than read any more about these two too- ordinary people and their ho-hum suburban life.
My point exactly.
The revised version of this story might go something like this:
An evil elf climbed through the basement window of a suburban bungalow as the woman in the kitchen was rolling pastry dough for pie and singing softly to herself. The elf planted a ticking time bomb at the base of their old oil burner. The bomb was set to detonate in 30 minutes. The elf quickly climbed back out of the window and ran away.
Two minutes later, the owner drove home from work, pulled into his driveway, and parked his car. As he opened his front door he called out, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” Then he settled into his favorite chair, exhausted, to read the evening paper.
“Sweetheart, I’m just putting a pie in the oven,” he heard his wife call out from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour.”
“Great,” said her husband, “I’m starving to death.”
Interested now? Care to read on? Why? Because of the ticking.
This far-fetched story only serves to illustrate the writer’s obligation to engage the reader in some way if not with an evil elf, then with some other device that will create “the ticking,” something that will pique the reader’s interest and urge him or her to read on.
If the writer is too close to his or her “pie dough” to hear the time bomb ticking in the basement of the house, perhaps an editor can come to the rescue.
Sarah Erdman’s excellent account of her two years in rural Cote d’Ivoire, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha [Henry Holt and Co., 2003] comes to mind. Was it Sarah, I wonder, or her editor who suggested she begin her vivid chronicle with “A Memory,” out of chronological order? My guess is it was her editor who rearranged the chapters, like a shell game, to get the reader “hooked.”
From page one the reader is plunged into a dramatic, difficult-birth scene in a mud hut in the middle of the night, in which the frightened and inexperienced young health Volunteer is flipping through her Birthing for Midwives manual by headlamp-light, searching desperately for answers.
“The swollen head emerged slowly, and then the neck noosed with a blue umbilical cord,” Erdman writes. “I turned back to my book, trying frantically to find this particular complication. After the tense and sluggish delivery of the head, the rest of the baby slid right out, flopping against a cloth on the ground. I was used to scenes of babies smacked and screaming seconds out of the womb. This one lay still, translucent and whiter than me. The hut filled with our breathing.”
And so the ticking begins. We are invested in knowing what happens next. The author then deftly takes us back to the beginning; and we follow, as if under a spell, every step of the way.
One of the roles the manuscript editor plays is to act as the reader’s advocate, helping to bridge the gap between the writer’s cherished prose and the reader’s need to remain engaged. A good editor guides the words and shapes the story into something the reader would want to read. Writing a book may indeed be a solitary, agonizing pursuit, but getting that book published has to be a collaborative effort. A person who aspires to be a published author with a wide readership ignores this collaboration at his or her own peril.
What the American reading public needs now, more than ever, it seems to me, in this time of arrogant isolationism and creeping imperialism, is something Peace Corps writers are supremely poised to offer: stories drawn from our unique experience that take readers to far-off, “poor,” places places they’d never otherwise visit and might too easily dismiss and show them the rich lessons we learned there. Our responsibility to “bring the world home” has never been more urgent.
These stories, in order to reach the widest possible audience, must be well crafted, using every means of intellectual seduction possible to pull the reader in, capture his or her interest, and keep him or her engaged. Some of these methods include: compelling, well drawn characters; vivid descriptions of place; believable, true-to-life dialogue; logical, architectural structure; appropriate pacing; and, yes, please, ticking.
Bonnie Lee Black served as a Health volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, from 1996 to 1998, after having been a writer/editor and food professional in NYC for many years. An honors graduate of Columbia University's writing program, she is the author of the nonfiction book, SOMEWHERE CHILD (Viking Press, NY, 1981). She now lives in rural northern NM, teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos, and is working on her second book.