Peace Corps Writers
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Read the REVIEW of This Is Not Civilization by Mark Brazaitis

An interview by John Coyne
AS WE ALL KNOW, we Volunteers had incomperable experiences during our service, yetPrinter friendly version though most Peace Corps books are interesting, and some well written, few are literature. Nevertheless, every ten years or so a Peace Corps novel comes along that transcends our experience, transcends the ordinary “Peace Corps story.” I can think of a handful of truly first rate books of fiction about our experience. Richard Wiley’s novel, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, comes immediately to mind, as does Roland Merullo’s Leaving Losapas, and Melanie Sumner’s writings about Senegal. And now we have Robert Rosenberg and his novel, This Is Not Civilization, which links together an Apache reservation in the Arizona desert and a village in Kyrgyzstan. In time, these two seemingly disparate worlds converge in Istanbul, the crossroads of East and West, where four exiles find common ground, unaware that the city will soon experience one of the most devastating earthquakes in history. Now, does that sound like a Peace Corps novel or what? Of this book and its author, Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96), Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) writes: “For the past twenty years, returned Peace Corps Volunteers — Paul Theroux, Norman Rush, Maria Thomas, Richard Wiley, et al. — have won just about every major literary award in the country, and Robert Rosenberg seems destined to be a member of this distinguished group of writers. This Is Not Civilization is a wonderful first novel, full of the marvelous compressions and juxtapositions and clashes that have indeed made the world a very small place.”
     With Bob’s recommendation in mind, I set out to find out more about this amazing young writer, Robert Rosenberg.
   Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and grew up in Howell, New Jersey, near the Jersey shore.
     I studied English at Columbia University. Later, through the Peace Corps Fellows Program, I completed my M.Ed. in Secondary English at Northern Arizona University. And later still, I did my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.
In Kyrgyzstan, what was your assignment?
I was a TEFL Volunteer. The country had only declared independence three years before, so it was an amazing time to be sent there. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been ten years. Like a lot of RPCVs, I still find I think of myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Even ten years after serving, it’s often the first thing I tell people about myself. It leaves that indelible a mark.
As I understand it, you came home after the Peace Corps and lived in a town called Cibecue where you started a high school. What about that experience?
That’s right. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I suffered through the readjustment period, like many RPCVs, feeling let down because it was over, and looking for another challenge and adventure. Through the Peace Corps Fellows program, I was offered the chance to complete a certification and Masters Degree at Northern Arizona University, at very little cost, in exchange for teaching a few years on one of the reservations in Arizona.
     I wound up in Cibecue, this small village on the White Mountain Apache reservation. It’s an amazingly unique place for many reasons. Because of its isolation, almost the entire town of two thousand people speak Apache as their first language. That’s very unusual for reservations in the continental U.S. Many of the students are limited English speakers. The principal was eager to hire me because the town was struggling to establish its own high school. Until then, students in the village usually stopped school after eighth grade, or were sent off to boarding school far from home (and usually returned, or were kicked out, in a matter of months). It was a fairly desperate situation for the town, not having a high school of its own, and it contributed to this continuous cycle of unemployment, especially among the young.
     There were only four teachers, as well as a counselor, and a principal. That was the staff. I taught the English classes, and for the first two years we taught in trailers. We started out with about eighty students, but the numbers quickly diminished each year to about fifteen or twenty kids. Still, it was a start. In the second year, we actually graduated a few students, and that spring the girls at the school won the State Championship in Basketball. There was a parade in town to celebrate, and the high school even threw its first prom. Limos, dresses, and all.
     The number of students has steadily increased each year since then. The town has pieced together funds to build an enormous dome, and last year classes were held in it for the first time. Just last month the gymnasium opened in the dome, and eight students graduated. And, what sometimes seems most important to the community, since 1999 the school has won five or six basketball and volleyball state championships. Last year their girl’s team played in the finals at America West Arena in Phoenix. So it’s exciting to see so much progress, the kind of optimism education can inspire.
     Still, it’s a very isolated place, and I only taught for two years before I moved on to Istanbul. But last year, when I finished up at Iowa, the principal called my wife — she’s also an RPCV — and me again, asking us to return. I couldn’t come back to teach — I was too busy finishing up the book, but my wife was offered the Gifted and Talented position at the school, so we came back. I’ve been able to write full time in this quiet, wildly beautiful place, and my wife teaches about thirty yards from our house. But she gets me to help out with bake sales and science fairs whatever chance she has.
     I guess, in terms of the isolation, the feeling of living in a foreign place and being an outsider, it’s about as close to a Peace Corps experience as you can have in America. We like it for that reason.
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