|Peace Corps Writers September 2004
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Peace Corps Writers September 2004
Peace Corps Writers at the Miami International Book Fair
For the first time in its twenty-year history, the Miami Book Fair International (MBFI) has invited Peace Corps Writers to present a panel of RPCV writers that will discuss their unique perspectives on the developing world and literature. The MBFI, the largest book fair in America and an event eagerly anticipated annually by hundreds of thousands of book lovers, will take place November 7 to November 14.
The Peace Corps Writers participation was made possible by Leita Kaldi (Senegal 199396) and Helene Dudley (Colombia 196466). The panel will feature award winning writers Sarah Erdman (Cote D'Ivoire 19982000) and Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576).
Peace Corps Writers is also sponsoring an information booth at the MBFI Street Fair with the Peace Corps/Atlanta Regional Recruitment Office. The Fair will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m Friday, November 12th through the 14th.
For information on the Book Fair, contact Leita Kaldi at firstname.lastname@example.org or Helene Dudley at email@example.com.
The Fair will be covered by CSPAN over the November 1314 weekend when the RPCV panel will present. For a program of readings and special activities, please see www.miamibookfair.com
Second writing workshop in session
Eight RPCVs are now enrolled in the second on-line workshop on writing a Peace Corps book offered by Peace Corps Writers. For anyone interested in taking a future class, you can now check out the student evaluations of the first session that took place in the spring.
Why write? No one is reading.
Literary reading continues to decline in the U.S. Today fewer than half of American adults now read literature, according to a new National Endowment for the Arts survey. The survey reports that there is a drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline 28 percent occurring in the youngest age groups. Since 1982 there has been an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade. We should have been rock stars.
In this issue
PCVs and Vietnam
We continue our series about Peace Corps Volunteers who came home from overseas and were faced with the reality of serving in Vietnam with an essay by Phil Damon (Ethiopia 196365). Phil and I taught together in Ethiopia at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa. Phil lived down the street from my place on a street that was locally called Dont Holler for Help. Each morning before 8 a.m. the two of us would walk about a mile down Churchill Road to our secondary school that many people or maybe it was just the two of us considered the best high school in the Empire. On these brisk walks, we would discuss the larger issues of life that only, Im sure, Peace Corps Volunteers discuss. We did this while brushing the flies off each others backs and carrying a load of students exercise books packed tightly inside the green Ethiopian Airlines bags slung over our shoulders. We last saw each other early on a July morning in 1964 when I flew out of Ethiopia for Europe and home and Phil began his second year as a PCV.
This August at the Chicago/NPCA Conference we met again for the first time since Addis Ababa and it was as if we had been seeing each other every morning since our time together at the Commercial School. In fact, Phil went about brushing the flies off my back in Chicago when we went out for breakfast after his morning run. Like a real Ethiopian, he has become a marathon runner. Now retired after 34 years of teaching writing and spiritual literature at the University of Hawaii, Phil lives in Bellingham, Washington where he conducts seminars in spiritual autobiography [read about that in Literary Type], and writes a column, Dancing on The Brink, for The Bellingham Weekly, where his piece on the Peace Corps and Vietnam recently appeared. It is another example of the fine writing being done by RPCVs.
New at the site The Booklocker
In an effort to alert everyone to fine books and fine writing from RPCVs, I will include in each issue a book that Ive come across that perhaps you have not read. The first book is a collection of stories, Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa, by Baker Morrow (Somalia 196869)
This issue has six reviews of books written by RPCVs, and two A Writer Writes pieces. One is entitled, Crafting a Canoe and is by Jeb Bridges (Republic of Kiribati 199799); the second is Le Onze Septembre by Matt Brown (Guinea 2001-03).
It is an issue filled with fine writing by fine RPCV writers. Ill stop there and let you read on.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers September 2004
The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Henry Holt & Co.
The Odyssey of Mary B
A True Tale
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
The Sea of Trolls
by Nancy Farmer (India 196365)
Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
Social Work Macro Practice Workbook
by David P. Fauri (Nigeria 196466),
Mary Katherine O'Connor (Brazil 196773) and F. Ellen Netting
The Art of the Interview
Lessons from a Master of the Craft
by Larry Grobel (Ghana 196871)
Three Rivers Press
Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives
edited by John Sumwalt,
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880), contributor
Change Your Job Change Your Life
by Ron Krannich (Thailand 1967)
The Treasures and Pleasures of Thailand and Myanmar
Best of the Best in Travel and Shopping
by Ron Krannich (Thailand 1967) and Caryl Krannich
In Search of Shelter
Subjectivity and Spaces of Loss in the Fiction of Paule Constant
by Margot Miller (Niger 197274)
Lanham MD: Lexington Books/Roman & Littlefield, September 2003
The Fight Is for Democracy
Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World
edited by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Introduction to Health Care Economics & Financial Management
Fundamental Concepts with Practical Applications
by Susan (Myers) Penner(Honduras 19751977)
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
The Best of Andy Russell
by Andy Russell, edited by R. Bruce Morrison (Nepal 196365)
McClelland and Stewart Ltd.
2005 Novel & Short Story Writer's Market
by Ann Bowling and Michael Schweer
Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496), contributor
Writers Digest Books
Americans at Work
A Guide to the Can-Do People
by Craig Storti (Morocco 197072)
Kenyan Encounters and African Dreams
by Allan M. Winkler (Philippines 196769)
University Press of America
Why Marriage Matters:
America, Equality, and Gay Peoples Right to Marry
by Evan Wolfson (Togo 197879)
Simon & Schuster
An Ecuadorian Cookbook
edited by Laurel Zaks (Ecuador 199701)
Quito, Ecuador: Fabla Latina Press
Literary Type September 2004
On September 1, the Boston Globe carried a review of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver by Scott Stossel. The reviewer, Scott W. Helman, sums up: . . . its [Shrivers] legacy that lives on in the immeasurable good the Peace Corps has done in the world, the untold Americans helped by Head Start, and the athletes who cross the finish line at the Special Olympics. Stossel has done the man not only justice, but a great and enduring honor.
The IRE Journal, a magazine with resources for journalists including how-tos and tips, is published by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. In a recent issue, senior contributing editor and a former executive director of IRE Steve Weinberg wrote about Maureen Orths (Colombia 196466) book The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex calling it The best [investigative reporting] of 2004. Weinberg writes of the profiles in the book, all are examples of in-depth reporting. Best of all for lifelong learners without our craft, Orth includes seven intermingled essays about how and why she reports as she reports, writes as she writes. Orth says one technique is leaving the courthouse and private-home stakeouts [while covering the murder of Laci Peterson in Modesto, Calif., for Vanity Fair, for example] to dig in grubby places. My early experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Medellin, Colombia, prepared me to fit in at any level.
Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives published by CSS Press is a collection of inspirational religion-based non-fiction stories which reinforce spiritual happenings in regular peoples lives. One story, Too Churchy by Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880) is the tale of a chiropractor who goes on a religious mission to Kenya. He is over-whelmed by the desperate need of the poor around him and he questions the purpose of his mission. However, he has a surprising moment with a former Olympic runner which solves any personal doubts he had.
Nick Wreden (Korea 197476), author of FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future, was quoted in USA Today on Tuesday, August 31 in an article about giving the city of Atlanta a slogan. As the article pointed out, across the nation cities, counties, states and even small towns are trying to reinvent themselves in the same fashion Atlanta is. They are adopting catchy new slogans and often dumping old ones to lure tourists, draw business and capture attention in a crowded marketplace. Nick says, Its a happening trend. Government is seeing itself as more of a business than before. The goal (for Atlanta) is to find a slogan that plays up the characteristics of a place, resonates nationally and has a ring of truth. Pennsylvania, rich in the history of the nations founding, became The State of Independence this year. Columbia, S.C., is Where Friendliness Flows, and the Golden Gate city boasts, Only in San Francisco.
Some people, including Wreden, question the effectiveness of slogans. Look at Los Angeles, he says in the article, That is the most happening city in the country, and it doesnt have a slogan. What does that tell you about slogans?
Well, I I think Las Vegas has them all beat with What happens here, stays here.
Philip Damon (Ethiopia 196365) teaches Life Story Workshop, a unique approach to autobiographical awareness, combining the principles of narrative writing with a universal spiritual perspective to emphasize the heroic purpose of individual life. Working with the elements of narrative in their Life Story Journals, participants recognize the story nature of the events, places and people in their lives, in retrospect as well as the here and now, realizing increasingly deeper levels of personal meaning. Narrative skills and personal insights are enhanced by small-group sharing and large-group discussion. The workshop is being offered for seven Saturdays, from October 2 to November 20, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Bellingham, Washington. Cost is $100 for all seven sessions. Call 360/738-9337 for registration and further information.
Damon taught creative writing and spiritual literature at the University of Hawaii for thirty-four years and his fiction and non-fiction have been widely published and anthologized. In addition to his university teaching, he has given spirituality workshops in Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico and Hawaii. He now lives in Sudden Valley, Washington, and his column Dancing on the Brink is a regular feature in The Bellingham Weekly.
Five photos by Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466) accompanied an article about Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the September 19th issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) has a story, Blue Doily Dreams, in the current Fiction Warehouse. It can be found at http://www.fictionwarehouse.com/yr03/stories/040825.asp
2005 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market has an in-depth interview with him about his online literary journal, storySouth, and the sites Million Writers Award, his Peace Corps days, how to write a great story, and how the online writing community is shaking up the literary world.
John Shermans (Nigeria 196667; Malawi 196768) War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra was self-published in 2002, and John has been an eager beaver and hustler for his book what all writers need to do to get attention. John hasnt had any major reviews, but he was reviewed in the Indiana Daily Student by Brittany Ausmus, a junior majoring in finance and business economics and public policy, who wrote, I highly recommend War Stories. It was an extremely interesting and informative read. The book was also reviewed in WIND Magazine, that John writes is a highly respected literary magazine. The publication, which is currently undergoing editorial staff changes, said, War Stories provides a window on a horrific period in Nigerian history, and on one mans attempt to keep people alive in a sea of death.
While unable to get many reviews, John has been successful in getting his book mentioned in magazines and on the radio. So far he is up to 15 mentions! The book has been noted in such publications as The Friends of Nigeria Newsletter; Commission Notes, a publication of the Indiana Arts Commission; The Boox Review; even Vanlar.com. The Midwest Book Review said it was, vivid, compelling and The Boox Review, which is no longer published, wrote that the story is seen through the eyes and heart of one man who so desperately yearned to make a difference for the better. John was also reviewed in this website by another Nigeria Volunteer who was negative about War Stories and John wants to make sure readers of this publication know that his book have been well received elsewhere, especially in the Midwest.
John, who is in real life an independent public relations executive, also managed to get on Dialogue, a national radio program, and be reviewed in the Albuquerque Journal, where he once lived, and in the Santa Fe Reporter, for which he once wrote a column. Reviewer Anne Hillerman in the Reporter wrote, From his acknowledgements, Sherman makes it clear that he worked on the book while in Santa Fe, because he thanks many local writers for their assistance. Johns book was also selected as Best Book of Indy in 2003 by the Indianapolis Monthly.
What John has proven is that is if you want to get reviewed you have to promote your book, take it around, call old friends and get them to review and mention your name. It helps to have Johns outgoing personality and PR background and his determination two years later to keep promoting his book. He is an example for any writer out there, self published or not, on what needs to be done to have your work noticed.
Clifford Garstangs (Korea 197677) short story, Flood, 1978 was published online in the Summer 2004 issue (#30) of The Circle Magazine.
The June 28th Newsweek had a nice My Turn by Joan Lowell, a PCV with her husband in Kazakhstan 199496, about being an older Volunteer. They went overseas as business Vols and they have continued to travel and work with nonprofits overseas.
Talking with . . .
An interview conducted by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Elsa Watson served with her husband in Guinea-Bissau (199698) where she began writing her novel Maid Marian rumor has it . . . in long hand and by lamplight. After her Peace Corps tour she worked at Stanford Universitys Continuing Studies Program before moving to her home state of Washington. She lives now on beautiful Bainbridge Island in a small home she and her husband built, and where we found her alone with her dog and cat looking out at the soft rain and the green hillside that might remind one especially if one has a novelists eye of Sherwood Forest.
Tell us a bit about your college experience.
I graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a degree in classical languages.
Are you from Minnesota?
No, I grew up in Seattle and wanted to return to this part of the world. On days like today, I sit at my desk listening to the wind howl and watching the drizzle. I like the rain, but no one else in our household (dog and cat included) feel quite the same.
Elsa, what was your assignment in the Peace Corps?
We were assigned to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, just south of Senegal. We lived in Galomaro, a village in the eastern, rural part of the country, so we learned both Fula (the language spoken in the east) and Kriolu (the countrys primary language). My husband and I worked as Agriculture Volunteers the first year, focusing on community gardens and livestock health. The second year we transferred to the capital, Bissau, and became Environmental Education Volunteers. There we worked with IUCN, the World Conservation Union, documenting the countrys first national park and writing forest valuation grants.
You were married before you joined the Peace Corps?
Yes. We werent married when we applied to the Peace Corps, and it came as something of a shock that we would have to be married to be placed together. We got over the shock, however, took a trip to the court house, and have now been married for eight years. The other PCVs referred to us as the married couple since we were the only ones in our group. Silly as it sounds, that was a big help during those days when we were still getting used to saying the words husband and wife without laughing.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
We joined for a host of reasons: to improve the world; for adventure; and to feel that genuine connection with humanity that you find around people who speak a different language and live in a different culture. In part, I was looking for whats common to all people, and I found it in parents love of their children, in the universal impulse to laugh, in curiosity and kindness.
What was your village like?
Galomaro was the end of the public transportation line, so it was a hub of sorts for the smaller villages in the forest around it. It had a small market, a tiny school, and two tailors. Like many places in Guinea-Bissau, it contained a mix of people: most were Fula, but our host family was Mandinka, and the girl down the road who sold us millet porridge was Serekunde. Its a very rural town, right next to the rice fields, with goats and cows wandering through the market and monkeys within sight of our yard.
Have you thought about writing about your Peace Corps experience?
Ive written a few short stories set in Guinea-Bissau, but I find the Peace Corps experience very difficult to write about. Even five years after returning, my memories are so full of emotion that its hard to pull them apart. A good story requires just a few, well-chosen details; its almost impossible for me to winnow my memories down sufficiently to make a story. At the same time, because turmoil was such a real part of life there, its painful to frame a story thats tense and full of conflict. My mind rebels every time (thats not fiction, thats reality!). I find it much easier to let my imagination roam in a place and time Ive never seen (medieval England, say) than to write about problems and people that are all too real in memory.
I intend, however, to keep trying. One day, with enough distance, I hope to write something that reflects at least one aspect of either the Peace Corps life or of Guinean life. At the moment I content myself with weaving bits of my experience into my other stories. For example, there is a section in Maid Marian in which our heroine spends the night with a poor, farming family. As she meets the family, Marian is struck by much of the awkward shyness I felt when I went to my first host-family. At night, she combats more mundane problems: sharing a bed with the rest of the family; rats racing around in the roof-thatch. All of this was drawn from things I remember in Guinea-Bissau.
Well, with that segue from the Peace Corps to Maid Marian, lets talk about your novel. What inspired you to retell the Maid Marian/Robin Hood story?
Maid Marian has intrigued me since childhood. Ive always been a fan of the Robin Hood story, but I could never understand why so much of the attention went to Robin, and so little to Marian. It struck me as strange that her name is so well known, yet no one has a sense of her character beyond her role as Robin Hoods consort. Once it occurred to me to write her story myself, I couldnt let the idea rest. I wanted to show how complex her own life might have been, and how she might have struggled with the choices she made.
How did you reimagine the love story between Marian and Robin?
Through all its variations, the Robin Hood/Maid Marian romance is about opposites who attract. Each version describes the story in a different way in some, Robin Hood is the noble, in others its Maid Marian but most open with these two characters on opposites sides of the medieval tracks. Their romance, then, has immense obstacles to overcome. Concessions will have to be made on both sides. Their love for each other will, without question, leave both of them permanently altered. That, I think, is the bedrock of a moving story, and one that allows for serious risks, bravery, and genuine sacrifice the elements of a touching romance. Since this is told in the first person, I also wanted to include the internal doubts that accompany first love. Marian is inexperienced when she first meets Robin Hood, and she has to feel her way through the situation something she isnt accustomed to.
What is it about the story and the Sherwood Forest characters that continues to be popular?
What we love about the Sherwood Forest characters is the freedom theyve found in the midst of oppression. Robin Hood epitomizes this idea we love his disrespect for authority and his drive to maintain a merry lifestyle right under the Sheriff of Nottinghams nose. When I began Maid Marian, I wanted to demonstrate this in her story as well. I wanted to show the restrictions on her life, and then let her break them in pursuit of her own course.
Robin Hood is also beloved because he is the champion of the little man, the independent spirit who looks after the poor even when theyve been abandoned by their own rulers. He and his men fulfill our need to find goodness in typically bad characters. The notion of a civic-minded band of thieves is inherently charming. Between their hunting skills and their boisterous laughter, they strike us as being very much alive and in touch with their world something our society increasingly covets as we find ourselves becoming more removed from our natural environment.
In the book you have many of the historical conventions women struggled with during those times. Was that important to the story?
The situation of women was critical to this story. In the Middle Ages, very few people of either sex were truly independent, but women were certainly the worst off. Noble women were practically sold as marriage prizes; common women toiled as serfs. As I imagined Marian living in such a society, I felt intense frustration over her situation. I wanted her to feel that frustration too, to such an extent that she was willing to take grave risks for a chance to change her future.
Marian is the sort of person who wants to be the decision-maker, the one in control it made sense to me that she would do nearly anything to gain autonomy. Also, beyond the restrictions of planned marriages, I wanted to show the tedium of womens lives: rich women endlessly spinning and sewing; poor women caught in the drudgery of fieldwork. I thought these elements gave important background texture to the story and helped explain why Marian felt so eager to break free of the mold.
You mentioned in the novel the tensions between the Normans and the Saxons. How important is this to the main story?
In some ways I mentally compared Norman England of 1190 with the United States today, 140 years after the Civil War. Despite the time thats passed, no one would say racial conflicts have evaporated in this country the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved that, 100 years after the war, tremendous division still existed between the races. England experienced similar racial blending after the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, became the rulers of the English, who were primarily Saxon. It seems reasonable to me that, 120 years later, when my story begins, tensions would be nearly as high as they had been in the years after the invasion.
The Robin Hood legends, passed down to us through songs, are folklore the stories of the common people. I wanted, therefore, to emphasize the issues they would have cared about, such as the prejudice and injustice of the Norman elite. It seemed natural to make Robin Hood a Saxon-speaking character who came from laboring people. And I purposefully chose to make Marian a Norman noble, knowing that each would bring a set of biases to their meeting and that this would increase the tension of their romance. Annie, Marians Saxon nurse, also plays an important role by introducing Marian to both Saxon culture and its language.
How does your book differ from others?
In the 1800s, Thomas Love Peacock wrote a novel entitled Maid Marian, in which both Marian and Robin are nobles. There have been some young adult books on the subject, but the overwhelming number of Robin Hood retellings dwarfs the number of stories specifically about Maid Marian. In most versions of the Robin Hood legend, Marian is relegated to a minor characters role. I wanted to bring her story to the forefront, to give her a voice of her own. I chose to write it in the first person so readers could enter into her thoughts and feel personally involved in her journey.
The rumor is that you started to write this book by candle light while living in the village true?
Well, I started writing in Peace Corps, though not this book. At some point in the first year, probably when I was sick of reading the true crime books Id picked up in the PCV library, I decided to write a book, just to see if I could. Thinking that romance novels were pretty simple (so untrue!), I wrote one on a couple tablets of paper Id scrounged from somewhere. When we went in to the capital, Id type up whatever I had until it was done, at maybe 200 pages.
My husband and some other PCVs were kind enough to read it and give me some encouragement, so I started on a second one. The second book caused me a lot more trouble, and I learned some tough lessons about plotting and story structure it was a really rocky sophomoric attempt. By the time we left, I think I had two and a half books done, none of them really worth anything except the writing lessons theyd taught, one of which was that romance novels arent simple at all. I have them here in my never to see the light of day folder.
Are you working on another novel?
Im between novels at the moment. Ive just finished editing the two I wrote while Maid Marian was in production, and those are floating around right now in search of buyers. One of those is a King Arthur saga, about his mother, Ygraine. The other involves Anne Bonney, a pirate who sailed the Caribbean in the early 1700s. I have a topic chosen for my next book, but Ive decided to stick with freelance work until I sell another book, since that earns a paycheck.
You say you are free lancing . . . what sort of writing?
Right now Im writing travel guides, non-fiction articles on historical figures, and camping articles. Its quite fun, but I honestly cant wait to get back to fiction. Doing the freelance work has shown me that part of what I love about working on fiction is the way it involves you so completely. When Im planning a novel or in the middle of writing it, I think about it all the time when Im out for a walk, or sitting around, or falling asleep at night. Non-fiction, I find, is work I need to do at my desk, not something I can or need to spend time dreaming on. I find I miss that deep immersion.
Have you read any Peace Corps books?
Only Under the Neem Tree by Susan Lowerre (Senegal 198587) which seems to be the quintessential African Peace Corps book.
A couple questions about process: How long was your first draft of Maid Marian?
I wrote the first draft in about three months, writing about six pages (or 1800 words) a day. I probably spent another month editing it, then turned my attention to finding an agent.
How did you go about getting an agent?
I made a huge, tiered list using the listings in the Writers Market, then sent out batches of queries, some with chapters, some without. I think received forty or fifty rejections, a few of them very kind ones (but mostly curt), before anyone showed any real interest. In the end, my book caught the eye of one person in my agency who championed it around the office. The lesson there, I think, is that you shouldnt give up on your project if you really love it. Keep sending it out and hope for that good bit of serendipity.
Then what happened?
Once I signed on with my agency a good four or five months after finishing the book they took charge. They sent it around to various houses, forwarding the rejections, until it found a home a Crown one or two months later. That was in the summer of 2002. I would guess I spent another two months editing the manuscript with my editors guidance, then the book came out in April, 2004.
Do you have any suggestions for would-be writers who were in the Peace Corps about writing novels or non-fiction of any sort?
Id say jump in there and give it a go. The first hurdles you have to overcome are hurdles of confidence: you have to learn that you can write a whole book, that you can come up with a plot thats large enough to carry a story, and can build characters that are interesting. Once you have that confidence, you can focus on other things your narrative style, the books point and purpose, the changes your character will go through, etc.
Also, if your first attempts dont receive much attention, dont give up. Take the lessons youve learned and apply them to your next project. I dont want to sound discouraging, but I wrote five practice books before the one that was published. I believed in each one as I was working on it, but I didnt really find my voice until Maid Marian. I should add one caveat here, though: I think I could have produced a better book earlier if I hadnt neglected the editing process. I had a tendency to dodge the hard work of editing, choosing to move on to something new instead of rolling up my sleeves. Ive since learned that what they say is true, that the real quality of a book comes from its re-writing.
Last of all and this is key when youre feeling serious about your writing, go to a writers conference. The conference speakers and attendees will teach you what you need to know about finding an agent and surviving in the publishing industry.
Thank you, Elsa. Good luck on the next novel.
Thank you so much, John, and thanks for your help, and to Marian and you for the great website. I love reading all the wonderful writing by other RPCVs, especially on rainy days. And we do have a lot of rainy days on Bainbridge Island.
The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Henry Holt & Co.
THERE IS NO FRIGATE like a book to take us lands away, Emily Dickinson tells us. And for me, there is no sea captain like an author with whom wed eagerly sail anywhere. Thurston Clarke, whos written ten books since he left Peace Corps (Tunisia 1968), is such an author.
The first voyage I took with Clarke was back to West Africa in his book, The Last Caravan). Id recently returned to the U.S. after living in Mali for nearly three years, and I was, frankly, homesick for the place Id grown to love. Clarkes book promised a magic carpet ride, and it didnt disappoint. It is a moving and vivid account of the nomadic Tuareg tribes struggles due to drought and famine in the early 70s, a tale of bravery, dignity, and survival.
Then, hooked on Clarkes sleek writing style and spurred by the question that nagged me throughout my Peace Corps service in Gabon (Is it the equatorial heat thats to blame for this all-pervasive paralysis?), I journeyed with Clarke around the worlds waistline in his book Equator. We visited the continents in order, traveling east, going from South America to Africa and Asia and then back to South America; and all the while I was swept up in his astute observations and deliciously evocative prose. We entered Africa at Libreville, Gabons capital, where Clarke felt like a small roast in a large microwave, cooked to the bone. Aye, aye, Captain.
Not long after, I set sail again with Clarke to a different place and time, a time just before I was born and a place Ive never been: Budapest, Hungary, during Nazi occupation. Lost Hero is the achingly sorrowful true account of the young Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenbergs tragic disappearance into the Russian prison system, after having successfully saved 30,000 Hungarian Jews from certain annihilation.
Now, with his newest book, Clarke has lifted me up and taken me back to another time in history, this time American history in my lifetime, when we were all so young, innocent, and hopeful. Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and The Speech That Changed America is a thoughtfully, gracefully, elegantly written book which every PCV and RPCV, especially, will want to read. More than a thousand books have been written about the Kennedys in the past forty years, but none of them has focused so thoroughly on the speech that, in Clarkes words, closed one era and launched the next. It was on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedys inauguration day, and not 1,038 days later, in November, 1963, when he was assassinated, that Americans stepped through an invisible membrane in time, Clarke contends.
In his book A Thousand Days Arthur Schlesinger states that the energies Kennedy released, the purposes he inspired, the goals he established would guide the land he loved for years to come. Those years are ending, says Clarke: Soon [JFKs] words will have to stand on their own merits, unsupported by the memories of those who heard them. Now, before that happens, might be a good time to ask why the words of this supposedly cool and unemotional man had such an impact on so many lives, elicited such a passionate response, and launched such an intense and, in retrospect, heartbreaking era of public happiness.
Clarke begins and ends this book with Kennedys entire inaugural address, and in between tells how it came to be, especially within the ten days leading up to its delivery in front of the Capitol building on that historic, cold and snowy January afternoon. Far from an academic exercise in literary analysis, Clarke gives us a human drama played out on a grand stage.
Kennedy began formal work on his inaugural address on January 10, 1961, on a flight to his familys home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he would spend a week prior to the inauguration. On that flight, he dictated his first draft to his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. Throughout the ensuing week he edited and revised his speech, writing his changes in longhand on lined yellow legal pads, and working on the patio, in a first-floor study, or in the ground-floor bedroom he shared with Jackie.
Kennedys goal was to go down in history, not only as a great President but also as one who inspired eloquence. As a young man hed been a professional writer; hed written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book; his literary standards were high. He could write quickly, too, Clarke says, because he knew who he was and what he wanted to say. He also had an excellent memory, and famous quotations were already part of his personal oratorical archive. The two men whom Kennedy quoted most were Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
On the morning of January 17, three days before his inaugural address was to be delivered, Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, sat outside on the patio at the Palm Beach house, editing and polishing the latest revision. By this point, Clarke points out, Kennedy had apparently decided that ask not would be its great and immortal master sentence, its equivalent of Roosevelts the only thing we have to fear is fear itself and Lincolns With malice toward none; with charity for all.
Ask not was more than the master sentence of Kennedys inaugural, according to Clarke. It was the master sentence of his life what his thoughts, books, and speeches had been leading toward for a quarter century.
When Kennedy returned to Washington on January 17, the speech he carried with him was in fact his philosophical autobiography.
On the morning of January 20, 1961, Kennedy continued reading his inaugural aloud as he dressed and walked downstairs to breakfast. At 8:55 he left his house to attend mass at a nearby church. Clarke paints this vivid scene outside:
Imagine a brilliant sun in a piercing blue sky, dazzling snowbanks, trees sheathed in ice, and a city of glistening marble. Imagine air so exhilarating it electrifies the senses and an ideal light for black-and-white television, with knife-sharp shadows and an art-film palette of shadings, the kind of day when you can see to the horizon. Imagine all this, and you have Washington, D.C., on the morning of John F. Kennedys inauguration.
Near the end of the book, as JFK is delivering his speech to the rapt crowd in front of him and the 60 million Americans watching on TV, I could hear his voice come through the page, I could see him again alive and feel his energy:
Now the trumpet summons us again not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself . . ..
And tears blurred my eyes.
Will we ever have another JFK?
Perhaps. Perhaps he too will want to write his own, eloquent inaugural address. Perhaps he will aspire to a message that is as uplifting, life-changing, and majestic as John Fitzgerald Kennedys. If so, one hopes he reads Ask Not by Thurston Clarke beforehand, for both guidance and inspiration. And one can only hope that will be soon.
Bonnie Lee Black, an honors graduate of Columbia Universitys writing program, is the author of Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981). She teaches English at UNM-Taos and lives in Dixon, NM.
A Year in the Life of an African Village
by Bret Galloway (Botswana 198991)
BRET GALLOWAYS Black Papyrus, A Year in the Life of an African Village is an elegy of sorts, a love song to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. The people and tribal groups of Botswanas Okavango Delta region are a mishmash of languages and cultures, groups originating from Angola to the north and Namibia to the west, mingling with Batswana and South Africans from the southeast in the wary way that African tribes mix on the post-colonial continent sometimes to disastrous effect.
These groups are wary to be sure, but they tread around each other with guarded admiration, and the lives they lead are not unimaginable. Theyre petty, sometimes noble, sometimes proud, vain, jealous, slothful, deeply industrious and, at their core, people not a whole lot different from characters who inhabit some of the worlds most compelling volumes of fiction. The stories in Black Papyrus are showcases for character development, and indeed, the tales, which are connected by references to seasons and meant to be read in sequence, are finely wrought snapshots, with vigorous dialogue, set against one of the most exotic backdrops in Africa. Anyone whose travels have brought them to developing world enclaves knows the stock characters the young people possibly tragically in love, the weary witch-doctor, the feisty, wronged woman who owns an illegal bar. In the case of the story Queen of Kgadi one of my favorites, the woman who runs one of the shebeens (serving kgadi, a sorghum beer) that populate southern Africa manages to be both a gossip and a sage, and it is through her gossip that we get a glimpse of the world around her. It is a story of a vain man whose pain she somehow shared when his expensive suit was ruined by rain, the difference between those who drink at day and those who imbibe at night, her philandering husband who now has a sickness, the history of the area, and the lack of that integral commodity in southern Africa rain. It is small moments like these when Galloways language shines. Kotlo, the queen says, It has not rained for two weeks, and yet I could feel that it was trying very hard today. Did you not feel the wetness in the air? The longing?
Other stories outline the quotidian lives of the Batswana who inhabit them, through deaths and distraction, and, in the collections title story, through the life of a fire as it sweeps through the delta. This is perhaps the most stark and estimable of Galloways stories here. The fire moves, first as seen by a Namibian game warden, and then the story works backwards in time, on its way killing animals notably an elephant and a crocodile trying to save her eggs, and driving people from their homes, until it ends with a man wielding a match. Galloways tone here is as of a fire moving quickly from scene to scene, relentless, and without sentiment.
I will raise a quibble. Galloway loads his paragraphs with what is ultimately distracting amounts of the local language. He frequently laces the dialogue with Setswana and other local languages, and bits of Afrikaans, and tosses in so many words and phrases that I came away reeling from a few pages and I speak, or once spoke, Setswana. He even includes a glossary in the book that vaguely hints at a quiz at the end of class. And to what end does he employ this language lesson? The answer is found in the preface to Black Papyrus he tells us that learning the words will lead to a fuller experience and a closer link to the characters in the stories, and that the foreign language will drive home the point that the way of life and manner of thinking of the characters in this book are profoundly different from those found in the technologically advanced countries . . . .. This, of course, is not under dispute. But his tactic is dodgy. A writer emphasizing foreign language to remind us that the characters in the book are different from us serves literature less than pedantry. Because we were Volunteers and because we learned a host country language to the degree that we did which is to say, some much more that others many of us tend to like to show off what we know. Mingle with any group of returned Volunteers and youll know what I mean. The trouble is, what we know about the language of our host countries is, I would wager, inadequate for depicting true and deep thoughts and feelings in that language. Galloway might be a whiz at Setswana, but we shouldnt have to be the same to understand that within his extraordinary depiction of these people and their lives we are indeed in a different place, yet at once in familiar territory.
Karl Luntta is the director of Media Relations at the State University of New York at Albany. He is a former newspaper and magazine columnist and the author of seven travel books and numerous articles in such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Caribbean Travel and Life, and The Boston Globe. He has published fiction in International Quarterly, Baltimore Review, North Atlantic Review, Toronto Review, and others. Know it by Heart, his first novel, won this years Maria Thomas Fiction Award.
From Rucksack to Backpack
A Young Woman's Journey in a
Newly Evolving World
by Juliane Heyman (Staff PC/W 196166)
THE FIRST ANECDOTE in this charming memoir opens in the spring of 1943 with the Dansig-born author hiking with a Swedish friend in the Poconos. They are carrying rucksacks and have arrived at a small town where they are looking for accommodations for the night. To their astonishment they are ordered into a police car and taken to the local station for questioning. Women hiking with packs were so rare in the United States at that time that the officers assumed they were runaways on their way to prostitution. This first story is a lovely preparation for the travel adventures of a rare young woman traveling ahead of her time, in parts of the world where her presence invites a crowd, where she meets hardship and uncertainty with curiosity and grace.
In the introduction Juliane Heyman briefly describes her familys long and harrowing flight from the Nazis (including her parents brief imprisonment) and eventual relocation in the United States. Most of her relatives were killed in concentration camps and as a young girl she survived many narrow escapes. When they reach New York, she says I had not been in school for a year and a half. My parents sent me first to a boarding school to learn English where I experienced culture shock, since the high school girls were so different from me. I hardly knew what they were talking about. One might expect her difficult early years to turn her into a homebody, but, after graduating from Barnard College and earning two masters degrees from the University of California, she chose to go out into the world, and got a job as a civilian librarian for the Air Force in Japan . . . . It was the beginning of life in other countries.
After her tour in Japan she travels around the world in the early 1950s. With two young Swiss men she makes the nearly impossible journey by car from India to Europe, going through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Yugoslavia. It was a time when roads were chancy and petrol not always available. The recital of her other adventures sounds like somebodys wish list including working on a kibbutz in Israel, establishing a library in Hue, Viet Nam in the late 50s, and working as a library consultant in Pakistan in the early 60s where she met Sargent Shriver.
Her meeting with Shriver inspired her to become a founding member of the Peace Corps staff, working from 1961 to 1966 as a training officer and later Deputy of the Near East/South Asia Division of the Training Department. In this position she traveled often to Asia and trekked in Nepal. We did not see any Westerners, as trekking in Nepal only became popular a few years later. I admit to reading this book with a great deal of envy because she traveled before the world had shrunk to its present size; before western culture permeated every corner of the earth; before it was dangerous for an American to travel in Iran and Afghanistan; before the advent of adventure travel.
Her style is modest, simple, straightforward. Her adventures are quickly told, with sparse detail and little reflection, interspersed with some wonderful old photographs of people she met along the way. The book is more album than memoir. Perhaps it is a characteristic of her generation not to be introspective, not to dwell on hardships, not to elaborate on the political contexts she found herself in, nor to focus on her own courage and perseverance. As she says at the end, This book represents only a few stories of my interesting and rich life that are meant to give a view of a world that no longer exists. If there is any disappointment in this slight volume, it is the feeling that there is much more to know and experience through the eyes of this remarkable woman.
Kathleen Coskrans short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck, and is working on a novel.
by Elsa Watson (Guinea-Bissau 199698)
THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD gets a new spin in Elsa Watsons elegant debut, Maid Marian, a novel filled with adventure, romance, twelfth-century intrigue and a dollop of Peace Corps philosophy. As an orphaned child of landed nobility, Marian is a ward of the king and thus a political pawn. Wed at age five to Hugh of Sencaster, she becomes a widow at seventeen when Hugh dies under mysterious circumstances. Following her mourning period, Marian learns of communication between Lady Pernelle, her former mother-in-law, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who holds the key to Marians fate. Distrustful of Lady Pernelle, whod balked before returning Marians lands following Hughs death, Marian seeks out the renowned Robin Hood to help intercept a letter between the two women. From it, she learns the queen has granted permission for marriage between Marian and Lady Pernelles youngest son.
Dreading the prison of a loveless marriage again and unable to reconcile with the treacherous Lady Pernelle, Marian seizes the opportunity to escape when Robin Hood shows up on her wedding morning. She joins his band in Sherwood Forest and soon finds her friendship with Robin deepening into love. Before they can settle together, however, they must resolve the issue of Marians lands, forfeited by her disappearance. After living with a peasant family, Marian disguises herself as a servant girl and gains employment at Lady Pernelles estate, where she stumbles upon greater intrigue than ever expected.
As a longtime fan of Pamela Kaufmans similarly-themed Shield of Three Lions, I enjoyed this evocative return to Britain of the turbulent Middle Ages. Watsons lyrical, polished prose goes a long way in smoothing over bumpy spots in the story. Highlights in the book include Marions overnight visit to her servant Annies village home, a vivid scene that could have been taken from a Peace Corps memoir. Through the long, awkward evening, Marian struggles with the strangeness of different customs, language and food. Both uncomfortable with and shocked by the substandard accommodations, she wonders how shes going to survive the evening, much less the night. (Sounding familiar?) Also entertaining are the excellent descriptions of court life for a young noblewoman in the twelfth century, including the unlikely perspective of a five-year-old on her wedding day (wear stiff clothes, tug at heavy jewelry, recite words and then run off to play again).
The storys weakness, for me, lies three-quarters into the story, when two key issues are resolved. With a happy ending all but guaranteed and only sixty pages remaining, the page-turning momentum subsides. The recounting of how Robin and Marian scheme to outsmart the royals for repossession of Marians land reads almost as a tacked-on story, one that relies heavily on coincidence, fabulous luck and excessive explanation.
Additionally, the storys credibility becomes strained when Marian disguises herself (by changing her hair color) and returns to Lady Pernelles household to work and spy. She gradually becomes indispensable to Lady Pernelle as an advisor and a close confidant, yet Lady Pernelle never recognizes the daughter-in-law she knew for a dozen years. As well, the divulging of important information when Lady Pernelle, assuming Marian understands only Saxon, speaks her thoughts out loud in French, seems entirely too convenient. These contrivances, however, succeed in giving the story a final burst of momentum that produces a happily ever after conclusion that left me smiling.
The strength of this book, for me, lies in its fascinating portrayal of twelfth-century norms, social hierarchies and the musings of a noblewoman thrown into a world shed overlooked. I see Watsons Peace Corps experience reflected in Marians growing awareness of the plight of the oppressed, as she lives and toils alongside them. Marian, we know, will be a more compassionate noble for having spent time on the other side, much the same way the RPCVs life is permanently altered by their Peace Corps experience.
I found Maid Marian to be an accomplished debut effort and a delightful, easy read. Watson, who began her novel writing career by candlelight during her Peace Corps years, has used facts, legend and a dusting of fairy tale to weave a compelling portrait of what might have been, as well as offering readers (particularly young females) an empowering lesson on striving for freedom amid lifes oppression. To fans of Shield of Three Lions and The Mists of Avalon, and anyone who enjoys romantic historical fiction, Id give this novel two thumbs up.
Terez Roses writing has appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Literary Mama and Writers Journal. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Womans Europe (Travelers Tales, June 2004) and the upcoming Migrants and Stowaways (Knoxville Writers Guild, October 2004). She has recently completed her first novel.
The Mold in Dr. Floreys Coat
The Story of the Penicillian Miracle
by Eric Lax (Micronesia 196668)
John Macrae/Henry Holt
Reviewed by Carol Christensen Cordy, M.D. (Ethiopia 196668)
MY HUSBAND IS a New York Times crossword puzzle and trivia expert so when I asked him Who discovered penicillin? of course he answered Alexander Fleming. Had he ever heard of Howard Florey? No.
Eric Laxs book The Mold in Dr. Floreys Coat tells the story of how Howard Florey and his team at Oxford University took Alexander Flemings penicillin mold, which Fleming had dismissed as too difficult to extract and purify, and developed the first wonder drug that would save hundreds and eventually millions of lives worldwide. The most Fleming had done with his penicillin mold broth was to use it to decontaminate petri dishes in his lab.
Eric Lax regularly reads obituaries and it was in June of 1999 that the obituary of Anne Miller caught his eye. In 1942 Mrs. Miller was dying of a systemic streptococcal infection after suffering a miscarriage. Mrs. Millers doctor happened to know a friend of Floreys and was able to obtain a teaspoon of the still experimental drug that saved her life. Mrs. Millers temperature was 105.5 when she got the penicillin. By the next morning her temperature was normal for the first time in a month.
So begins the frustrating and fascinating story of how science and discovery, as with many group endeavors, are influenced by personality, politics and happenstance. And how families are often secondary to science in the lives of men like Howard Florey and his colleagues.
The use of molds, including mushrooms, to treat various human ailments dates back to early Greek and Roman societies. Fleming certainly deserves the credit for recognizing that there was something potentially important in his mold. Many had stumbled upon penicillin mold but Fleming was the only one who looked at what he had tripped on. Fleming was the first to recognize the antibacterial qualities in penicillin and wrote several papers on penicillin in the late 1920s. However, when he found it too difficult to extract and refine the active ingredient in the mold, he went on to other things. It was Howard Florey, a Rhodes scholar from Australia, who painstakingly did the work that made penicillin a life saving reality.
Eric Lax weaves the personal lives, mental illnesses and medical histories of Florey and his colleagues with their professional lives, to produce the fabric of the story of penicillin. Personalities clash again and again until reaching a crescendo during the controversy over who would receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. To Florey and his colleagues dismay, Alexander Fleming had received most of the public acclaim for the discovery of penicillin and didnt do much to give credit to Florey and his team for its development. While Fleming enjoyed the public attention, other fellow scientists supported Florey and his colleagues. One friend wrote to Florey In time, even the public will realize that the thing that mattered most has been the persistent and highly meritorious work of your laboratory. The dish you have turned out is so great that you must swallow the rather nauseating but temporary publicity ingredient with a smile. Because of such support, the Nobel Prize was given to Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain, a German scientist who worked with Florey at Oxford.
The technical problems of growing the most potent mold, discovering which bacteria were effected by penicillin, evaluating the effects of penicillin on human cells and tissues, identifying the chemical structure of penicillin and how it acted were just some of the issues that faced Florey and his team. It was an Englishman, Norman Heatley, who, although not a recipient of the Nobel Prize, was key in solving the riddle of penicillins instability and developing a method for producing penicillin that had eluded Fleming. Heatleys method for extracting penicillin was used hundreds of millions of times by scientists around the world. He did most of his research during World War II and had to use parachute silk for filter bags and biscuit tins, dust bins, gas cans and bed pans for growing and purifying penicillin.
Nearly as much time was spent in obtaining grants to help support Floreys research as in the research itself. Eventually it was pharmaceutical companies in the United States and not Great Britain Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle who took interest in the mass production of penicillin. Fleming, Florey, and Chain never made a cent on penicillin, except for their share of the Nobel Prize. While the Oxford team developed penicillin for only a few thousand dollars it takes up to $900 million to develop a new drug today. And antibiotics are often only good for a few years before bacteria become resistant to them. Interestingly however, group A streptococcus, the bacteria that causes strep throat, is still as sensitive to penicillin as it was sixty years ago.
Florey never wrote his memoirs. If he had, he might well have claimed that the first beneficiary of penicillin was not Anne Miller but actually Alexander Fleming. The neuroscientist Maxwell Cowan wrote Fleming was the first person Florey saved. Without Floreys work he would have gone down as a somewhat eccentric microbiologist.
I am giving Eric Laxs book to my husband so when Howard Florey makes it to the New York Times crossword puzzle, as the person who developed penicillin, he will get it right.
Carol Christensen Cordy taught English and mathematics in Debra Tabor and Makele, Ethiopia. Today, Dr. Cordy works as a family physician at a community clinic in Seattle, Washington a city full of mold where she and her husband of 34 years have raised three children and many plants and pets.
Study Abroad 101
by Wendy Williamson (Cameroon 199496; Ecuador 199698)
AS THE AUTHOR SAYS, the stated purpose of this book [is] to point you to various external resources that may be helpful to you . . .. That is what this book does. If the reader is looking for a quick introduction to the issues that should be considered when planning to study abroad, then Study Abroad 101 is the right book for a quick read.
A glance at the Table of Contents tells the reader that nothing is going to be handled in any detail; however, the book does supply a mind-boggling number of references to websites to which a reader can refer for more information. It also provides the authors slant on many of the questions a person traveling to another country might ask, and then refers the reader to a website for more information. The reader is left to him or herself to judge whether the website is useful or accurate. All the author does is give the reference.
For more in-depth treatment of many of the subjects mentioned in this book, Id suggest that readers go to the publication list of Intercultural Press. The Intercultural Press has a list of books that give serious discussions about the dynamics of traveling and living in another culture, as well as careful discussions of many other cultures besides those of the U.S.
Study Abroad 101 is apparently a book that is based upon the personal experience of the author. The book demonstrates the authors pet peeves and reflects upon her own personal experience, most of which must have been positive. There are no references to other writers, except in passing, and no bibliography. The author also uses the term culture loosely, applying it to subgroups in society and equating it with shared experiences. Culture has been defined much more precisely by anthropologists as the set of learned symbols, which people in a particular society share and which they use to define their environment and on which their system of values is based. Culture is fundamentally unconscious for most people and is instilled in childhood. It is not something which can be learned as an adult. It can only be modified.
This reviewer also had trouble with the authors use of stereotypes as a positive source of understanding. She thinks they should be avoided only when it is based upon misinformation. But how is someone supposed to know when the stereotype they are reacting to is positive or negative? Making cultural assumptions about anyone is always negative.
The author states that she thinks studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, the hope is that studying abroad for anyone will be a door-opening experience resulting in many-times-in-a-lifetime sets of experiences.
For many RPCVs the first overseas experience was with the Peace Corps. It was truly an eye-opening and self-realizing experience, and for many it was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The first experience abroad should result in someone becoming sensitized to his or her own cultural system and appreciative of the system of others. It should not be so short-term or Westernized, that the student is kept from experiencing another culture.
If a student is about to study abroad, or an instructor is trying to prepare students for that experience, Study Abroad 101 is a good beginning, but it is not enough. It does give the impression that the author thinks study abroad and the intercultural experience is worthwhile. It is not something that should be taken lightly, applying quick fixes, as the author tries to do. Much more studying and reading is needed. Students and instructors who are preparing to go abroad should go beyond this one book and consult the wide literature on the cross-cultural experience that is available.
Alan W. Boyd is the Director of International Student and Faculty Services at Ohio Univesity, Athens, Ohio. Since the Peace Corps he has finished various degrees, the most significant of which was his Ph.D. in Anthropology, with a special emphasis in African music. Married to Sue Nighswander Boyd, who was also a PCV in Ethiopia, they are the parents of two children, Justin and Christina. Christina was a PCV in Nepal from 1991 to 1993. A total of eight members of their extended family have served in the Peace Corps.
Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa
by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 196669)
University Press of Colorado
Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa by Baker Morrow is a book of nine stories set in Somalia just after its independence in the 1960s. Baker writes in his introduction of his time in Somalia, A trickle of doctors, nurses, teachers, and lawyers appeared from half the countries in the world. Livestock exports boomed. For a time, it seemed that something novel and wonderful was about to take place in this fabled country renowned in ancient Egypt for its pungent frankincense and myrrh.
The stories are not about the Peace Corps, but rather they paint vivid (and quiet) portraits of the many different lives that intertwine along the Horn of Africa. A ruthless horse dealer comes up against the best tracker in the Somali army; transplanted Italian farmers look to a future of stark disintegration as they struggle to hold on to their lands and their families; gutsy American women attempt to establish lives of their own in the remote East African desert; and a beggar and an idealist meet in a chance encounter on the steps of a Mogadishu bank, with mind-numbing consequences.
Baker Morrow is a very fine writer who lives now in New Mexico and makes his living as a landscape architect, but years ago he went to Africa and came home to write wonderfully about it.
A Writer Writes
Crafting a Canoe
by Jeb Bridges (Republic of Kiribati 199799)
IT WAS LATE JULY in the South Pacific when I asked Benuera again to help me get my own canoe. This time he did not resist.
You have done well, he said, and taken the time to learn many different forms of our fishing. It will serve you well in the rest of your time here.
Thank you Benuera. I was flattered.
But fishing in the canoe is very different. As I told you before it is very dangerous. It is the open ocean with strong wind and waves and current and your canoe will be very small. Each time you go out it is possible you will not return. I want you to know that right now.
It was a grave statement and one I did not take lightly.
Very well. My father, Mbwe (Mmm-bway), is perhaps the best canoe builder on the island. He lives in Manriki, and I have already spoken to him about you. He has agreed to take on the project. There are some things you need to understand before we begin.
In Kiribati there are certain traditions about building a canoe. The man for whom the canoe is being built must agree to provide the food for lunch for all the men who come to help during the process. Every day. Besides that you must provide whatever building materials you can; the fishing line, chalk, glue, and paint. My father has a driftwood log that will provide us with the wood, but you must try and find a saw.
I slowly digested the terms. They sounded fair to me.
In return for my father building this canoe for you, it must be agreed that you will return it to him when you leave to go back to America, that is, if you do not take it with you.
No problem, Benuera. I agree.
Good then, it is settled. I will tell my father tomorrow and he can begin arranging things. There is much work to be done.
TWO DAYS LATER I biked with Benuera to the village of Manriki where Mbwe and his wife Karea lived together with his youngest son Beara and his family. They had a large area off the road with no house but two large buias and a thatched work shed situated under three very large breadfruit trees. The compound was enveloped in the shade no matter what time of day and would be a nice place to work.
We parked our bikes out front by the first buia and walked towards the interior. Mbwe and Beara sat on mats on the ground under the work shed sipping tea. Mbwe was small and frail, with grey hair and dark brown eyes. He smiled as we approached, and called us over.
With introductions and formalities completed, we sipped tea and talked of the heat and the impending work. With Benuera busy at school, there would be 6 of us working full time. Mbwe, Beara, me, Teinai, Keaki, and Kauone. The last three members of the group lived in the village and were recruited by Mbwe.
Beara, a strong barrel-chested man, asked to see what I had brought with me. With Benueras guidance and assistance, I had acquired a small box of white chalk, seven 40-yard rolls of 30-pound test fishing line, 2 bottles of wood glue from the school, and a handsaw from Tieemea.
This is good stuff, Beara said. Do you have any paint?
Akea te kanganga, he said. No problem. Well need to get some later, but we are far from there. For now this will be good.
I nodded in understanding, thinking I could write to a friend of mine in Tarawa and get him to send me some paint.
Mbwe spoke. We have most of the wood but we need to make it ready. We dont have an outrigger yet, but we have many weeks until we will need it as it goes on last. The best kind of tree for that doesnt grow here. I know a man who lives on Tamana, the next island to the south. There are many of those trees there. I will send word to him. Maybe he can help us.
What are we using for wood? I asked.
Mbwe very subtly raised his chin and pursed his lips towards a large log underneath his buia. It was the Kiribati way of pointing.
Where did you get it?
On the beach, Beara said. Its good wood; strong but not too heavy. We think it will work well.
I eyed the thickness of the log, and glanced over to the handsaw I had brought. How will we cut it?
Well need to cut it first with a chainsaw. Then well use your handsaw. Your friend Buranke has a chainsaw. Maybe we can use that one.
WE STARTED WORK the next morning. Buranke had given me permission to borrow his chainsaw the only one on the island. I was elected to run it, and, though I had used one before, I was certainly no expert. I cut the log in half lengthwise, and then cut those two pieces in half again lengthwise, so we ended up with four pieces, each being about 6 inches thick. It was a crucial project, and there were many onlookers giving advice.
With the machine work behind us, Teinai and I got down to the business of cutting the thin planks of wood that would make up the hull of the canoe. An old 50-gallon oil drum was produced and the first quarter of the log was placed on top. Teinai motioned me to hop up and sit on the log, and he commenced sawing a 1/2 inch wide strip off the side with the handsaw. It was a brutally slow process, and we constantly flip-flopped the log back and forth on either side to ensure we were getting an even cut. To misjudge and saw too thin in an area would cause the piece to be too weak and would waste our precious wood; too thick and it would take forever to hand-plane it down to the correct thickness.
At the same time Mbwe and the others went about setting the keel. He had a 16-foot, 2x2-inch length of hardwood that he had obtained from a cargo ship the year before. Using hand-planes, Mbwe and Beara shaved off one corner smoothly until the keel was triangular in shape. At the same time, Kauone and Keaki went into the bush and cut three stout pieces of uri wood. They sharpened one end of each piece, and notched the other with machetes. Using a manual hand drill, they drilled a single hole in each piece about 3 inches below the bottom of the notch.
With the shaping completed, Mbwe carefully drilled a hole in the exact center of the keel and also at each end. The holes ran parallel to the flat side, not through it. He then measured and directed that the three stakes be driven into the ground in a straight line. The two end pieces were the same height and the middle was about 9 inches lower. The keel was placed in the notches flat side up, and lashed into place with monofilament fishing line threaded though the holes. It was a very sturdy arrangement, and the lower middle stake caused it to have a nice even bend. The others were ready to being shaping the side planks.
Hows it coming over there? Beara called over to us, laughing.
I was on the saw by this time. Beads of sweat poured off my face.
Teutana imwin teutana. Little by little, Teinai responded. We were on our third plank. The first two had taken us over an hour a piece. It was hard work.
E a tao, Mbwe called out. Thats enough for now. You must pace yourself.
But we have many planks to cut, I answered, short of breath.
True. But the fish will still be there in a month, he said, motioning towards the sea. Sit and rest.
And so it went for the next two weeks. Teinai and I struggling on the saw, Beara and Keaki planing and smoothing each plank that we produced, and Mbwe and Kauone fine tuning each plank so that they would fit together. Nothing was actually placed on the canoe until all the pieces were cut, planed, and honed.
Every day we ate lunch together on the ground beside the work area. Once a week I would go and buy five pounds of rice and sugar from the village store; and whenever I could, I would go out flyfishing on the east side and try and catch a few small trevallies as an addition. Teinai helped me out with this task, and on the mornings when I was busy with school or teaching in the villages, he would go out fishing himself.
One morning I arrived to find everyone sitting around the keel, fiddling with the drill and unrolling the fishing line.
Today the building will begin, Mbwe told me. Sit down and help.
I was thrilled to be done with sawing.
The first plank was placed up to the keel and held in place as small holes were drilled every six inches near the bottom of the plank and in matching increments in the top of the keel. Mbwe chalked the bottom of the plank well and as we held it in place he tightly rubbed it back and forth along the keel. We removed the plank and he examined the keel closely, making sure there were chalk marks along its entire upper edge, thereby ensuring a tight fit. He put a strip of glue on the bottom of the plank and we replaced it and held it tightly in place with makeshift clamps constructed from wooden pegs and kora. As the glue dried, Beara showed me how to run the fishing line through the holes in the bottom of the plank and the top of the keel several times in a certain way and cinch the knot down tight, securing the two pieces together every 6 inches. The next plank was fitted on top of the first in a similar manner, and we repeated the entire process; hole by hole, knot by knot, board by board. It was a slow, precise process, and the Kiribati men were very skillful. Two weeks later the hull was completed.
The remainder of the canoe was finished quickly. Notches were cut in the top planks and stout cross beams were lashed into place with kora every two feet. Five-foot outrigger booms were lashed on in a similar manner. Mbwes friend on Tamana had come through with the outrigger log, and Mbwe and Beara formed it into the shape of a 5-foot long torpedo, which was lashed to the booms with both kora and fishing line. My friend on Tarawa had come through by sending me two quarts of white and blue paint on the plane breaking all of the Air Kiribati security measures. It was worth it.
SIX WEEKS AFTER we had begun, the canoe was finished. After adding the final coats of paint, Mbwe stated that the next day we would see how it floated. A paddle, made from a short length of one of the extra planks shaped smoothly into a teardrop shape and carefully lashed to a stout 3-foot length of uri, was obtained from under the buia.
The next day we carried the canoe across the coral road and out to the beach. It was high tide and the ocean was extremely calm; only very small breakers were coming across the reef.
You sit like this, Beara said. A notched board was put in place over the top planks and he agilely hopped on and tested it out. He sat on top of the board and put his feet on one of the cross beams.
Remember to never put direct weight inside the bottom of the canoe, Mbwe reminded me. It is designed to take weight from the top, not pushing from the inside. You can stand up on the seat, but dont try and stand up anywhere else.
I dont think Ill be standing up at all, I said. While the canoe was about sixteen feet in length, the actual hull was extremely narrow, less than 18 inches from side to side. The outrigger extended out four feet to the left side.
Remember to always keep the outrigger on your left, Mbwe said, except when youre sailing. Then it will be on your left or your right, depending on the wind.
Beara paddled in the foam inside the reef for a few minutes to make sure everything was all right. He came back and hopped off at the edge of the beach.
It doesnt leak a bit, he said, and it tracks straight. Its a very good canoe.
We all stood and admired it for a moment. I couldnt believe it was actually mine.
Well, what are you waiting for? Mbwe asked. You have been waiting for this long enough. Hop on, the ocean awaits. He pursed his lips toward the reef.
What do you mean?
Take your canoe to Rungata and come in the channel there. Bearas father-in-law, Tieemi, lives one house to the north on the beach. He has agreed to keep it there for you. That way you can be near the channel and also not too far from your house.
You want me to take it there now?
Mbwe almost imperceptibly raised his eyebrows, the classic Kiribati way of saying yes without actually saying it. His eyes were smiling.
The ocean is calm today, he said. It will be good for you to practice. Teinai will take your bicycle and will be waiting there for you with Tieemi.
I was overcome with emotion. Our hard work had finally come to an end, and I would miss spending my time with these kind men. I wanted to tell them how much I enjoyed helping them with the building process, how much I appreciated their time and patience with me, but I knew it was not the Kiribati way. These men had sacrificed six weeks of their life just so I could have a canoe, just for this exact moment.
I carefully got on and put my feet where Bearas had been, looked back one last time at my smiling friends, and turned and paddled for the reef.
Jeb Bridges lived on a remote coral atoll in the South Pacific for two years in the Republic of Kiribati teaching health education and English and making community gardens. Following that he traveled for nine months by bus and bicycle from the southern tip of Argentina to Texas. For the past three years he has been a professional flyfishing guide in Montana, Chile, Argentina, and the Cayman Islands. Jeb has a degree in biology from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN and he is currently obtaining his Masters in Anesthesiology from Emory University in Atlanta. This piece part of his Peace Corps memoir was written by Jeb for the on-line writing course offered by PeaceCorpsWriters.org.
A Writer Writes
Le Onze Septembre
by Matt Brown (Guinea 200103)
THE BEST WAY TO LEARN a foreign language is to use the words in a practical context. I learned many French words that way in the summer of 2001 during my three month Peace Corps training in the sleepy little town of Dubreka, Guinea.
I learned the word for garbage can, poubelle, when I couldnt locate one in the house where I was living with my Guinean host family. I had to pile my refuse into a corner of my room and occasionally sneak it out to the familys pit latrine. Upon entering my room, my host brothers and sisters would stare in wide-eyed amazement at all the stuff I had brought from America, and all the waste I produced.
I learned the word pagaille, a great word meaning disorder, chaos, confusion, just after I taught my first English class to 70 Guinean high school students. As a result of having too few desks, they had to squeeze three kids onto one uncomfortable wooden bench, and the talking and noise level was so bad that I barely got through half of my lesson.
I quickly learned the word for beautiful, jolie, while sitting on the front porch with my host family in the humid evenings watching awesome lightening storms illuminate the dusk sky in front of towering green, mist-covered cliffs.
Then, on September 11th, the day before my group was to swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers, I learned a word I will never forget, incroyable, unbelievable.
The last day of training began with mixed emotions for me. Like most Volunteers, I was happy that the long, challenging, yet necessary training was finally over, but I was also sad to leave the family I had grown close to over the previous three months. They called me Ishmael Bangoura after the most revered member of the family. They had fed me, taught me a great deal about their language and how to survive on my own in Guinea, nursed me back to health when I had malaria, and played games, danced, and befriended me on some otherwise lonely nights.
In the late morning, the 20 soon-to-be Volunteers held a party for our host families. We couldnt start the party without the proper Guinean authorities and in the two hour interval before they arrived, we taught our host brothers and sisters how to limbo, which got everyone laughing.
After the party, I went for one last bike ride around Dubreka to take some photos of my first home in Guinea. Getting back well after noon, I entered my familys house and was met by my usually jovial host father with a somber look on his face.
Ishmael, he said. You have to come and see this. Something bad has happened to your country.
I went into the living room where the French news was on the television. At first, I really didnt comprehend what I was looking at. I could see images of two smoking towers of the World Trade Center, and my first thought was that this was some new American action movie. Soon I realized, however, that this was the news, but, my French being poor, I couldnt quite catch everything the reporter was saying. I thought that maybe they were replaying footage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for some reason, but my host father reassured me that this was happening live.
As the towers fell one after another before my eyes, I stood there, transfixed to the news coverage. Incroyable! the reporter kept repeating. Incroyable!
Fifteen minutes later, a Peace Corps car appeared at the front door and spirited me off to the training center, where most of the other Volunteers were already gathered around shortwave radios listening to the raw reports on the BBC. Everyone was clearly in shock with glazed looks on our faces.
Within an hour, the Peace Corps country director arrived to talk to us. Soon after, the local government official came to offer his condolences in a heart warming gesture I would hear repeated by many sincere Guineans in the weeks to come.
Instead of happily spending that last day saying good-bye to our host families, we spent it together at the training center, a confused community of Americans far from home during this horrible tragedy. For the first few hours, no one thought about leaving the training center.
The next day was entirely too rushed. Our bus was leaving early for the capital, and I still had some packing to do that I had neglected from the day before. It wasnt the happy, teary-eyed good-bye that I had imagined having with my family, but rather a somber, teary-eyed good-bye. Du courage, have courage, was all my father could say to me as we parted.
Later that afternoon at the country directors house in Conakry, the U.S. Ambassador swore us in as Peace Corps Volunteers. Just as American policy makers were preparing to launch a war on the Muslim world, I was preparing to go off to a Muslim village in West Africa to teach. I was being given the incredible task of showing these people another side of America so that, hopefully, they would see that we are more than just soldiers and action heroes. I hoped that, like all the words they taught me, I could teach them the meaning of at least one English word: Peace.
Matt Brown has traveled to and lived in over 30 African countries and is currently a freelance writer and photographer based in Northern California. Matt's work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, Travel Africa Magazine, Destinationelsewhere.com, Hackwriters.com, Bootsnall.com, as well as the 2005 International Calendar produced by RPCVs of Wisconsin Madison.
At the moment he is living in Healdsburg, California and dreaming of his next adventure. Contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
War and Peace Corps
War and Peace: The American Way
by Phil Damon (Ethiopia 196365)
THERE ALWAYS BEEN an eerie parallel for me between the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. Conceived and born entangled together as fraternal twins spawned by the Kennedy administrations ambitious but morally ambiguous foreign policy they emerged from their mutual infancy under the watchful eye of the international family of nations, the good and bad seeds of our modern American bloodline. This was the sixties, several generations removed from the present day. Yet, in the context of our current war, hardly a day goes by without a reminder of the relevance of that earlier disaster. You dont hear much about the relevance of the Peace Corps though, and thats still going on.
It was the other way around forty years ago when I was a PCV in Ethiopia. Volunteers were a common sight just about everywhere in Africa, not to mention Latin America, Asia, Micronesia, India and Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, topping out at fifteen thousand Volunteers by 1966. And we were pretty much universally loved. Sure, the little war was smoldering in Southeast Asia, but who knew anything about that? The face of America was largely the face of peace. And it was the PCVs who personified it.
Then I came home, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was holding its earliest hearings on the war, and the countenance of America would be altered forever.
All of this came poignantly back to me recently as I attended the National Peace Corps Associations biannual conference in Chicago. Id been ambivalent at first about going. It would be the first event of its kind for me since my return in 1965, and when I decided to go it was as much to see old friends as to be inspired by memories of the hopes and ideals we carried overseas during that more optimistic time. Id pretty much given up on the Peace Corps ideal within a few years of my return largely, but not only, because of the war. And I found it increasingly difficult in the decades that followed to encourage young people to represent our countrys values out in the world.
A lot of this changed for me in Chicago. I was actually very inspired.
And no, I didnt get gung ho about globalization or the Americanization of every last nook and cranny of human habitation. I still hate the idea of that. Even in 63 I knew I was a tool of our countrys cold war policy. Its always been about winning the hearts, minds and labor of the developing world to our way of life. The cold wars over, though, and weve got Volunteers in all the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. But the nations ulterior motives aside how can this be such a bad thing? How can it be a bad thing when around the world people get to know Americans without uniforms, weapons or body armor; when Americans get to know people without intending to subdue, sell, or shamelessly exploit them? It has to be better than what weve got going in Iraq.
I was always skeptical when friends from Peace Corps called it the defining experience of their lives. Wasnt it time to move on? Most of us were in our twenties, after all. But without mincing words or minimizing the importance of later achievements, maybe the Peace Corps was that kind of seminal event for all of us. And maybe despite our countrys tattered image in the current global environment it continues to be so for our most recently returned Volunteers. How can there be a more transformative experience than to reach across so much distance to make personal contact with fellow humans of a foreign culture in some kind of common endeavor? You can never look at the world quite the same after that.
We heard lots of testimonials in Chicago, ranging from the governors of Ohio (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer/Tanzania) and Wisconsin (RPCV/Tunisia) to MSNBCs Hardball host Chris Mathews (RPCV/Swaziland) and a member of the Thai parliament who was inspired to a Harvard education by a PCV teacher. But the most meaningful testimonial for me was from the Indian-born, Fiji-raised, Australian woman I met at the hostel where I was staying, who pronounced herself a student of the Peace Corps and was delighted to accompany me one morning to the conference, where I hooked her up with some Fiji RPCVs from the seventies. How many millions of others like her, I wondered, are there all over this pathetically polarized planet? We could certainly stand to hear from a few of them now.
Quietly the number of Volunteers in this boutique agency has rebounded from less than five thousand during the late eighties to eight thousand in 71 countries, and with talk of doubling that number, its current allotment of $359 million represents l.5% of the budget for International Affairs. Among the many conference seminars which largely focused on fostering global understanding and harmony while sustaining natural resources and local economies several concentrated on career opportunities for our most recent RPCVs. I had the chance to talk to a number of these youngsters and was taken aback by their energy and enthusiasm in our otherwise troublesome times. All of them claimed to have connected profoundly with people in their host countries, despite what they recognized to be a growing distrust of our national policies.
In 1966, I joined a thousand of my fellow RPCVs in forming the Committee of Concerned Volunteers, as a way of expressing our opposition to the war in Vietnam. Certainly, we felt, our voices would be heard and heeded. We of all people had our fingers on the pulse of the developing world. On the contrary, we caused nary a ripple. Yet while we may not have affected the escalation of the war, it occurred to me last week that we may have made a greater impression in the world than Id given us credit for. It was a bittersweet feeling at best.
Phil Damon taught English at the famous Commercial School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, earned his masters in creative writing at the (equally famous) Iowa Writing Program, then went onto teach writing and spiritual literature at the University of Hawaii for 34 years. His fiction and non-fiction have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Ploughshares Reader, Going Up Country, and elsewhere. Now living in Bellingham, Washington, he conducts seminars in spiritual autobiography and writes the column Dancing on The Brink for The Bellingham Weekly, where this piece recently appeared.
Resources for writers
Peace Corps stories wanted Abroad View magazines spring 2005 Closer Look section will focus on The Peace Corps Experience. They are looking for articles from recent college graduates who have completed their assignments within the past few years or graduate school students who are currently enrolled in the Peace Corps. Articles should be honest and engaging, with an aim to giving prospective Volunteers an inside look at working for the Peace Corps. They are also seeking photos for the magazine. All articles should be between 8001,400 words in length. Submissions are due by November 1, 2004. Email articles (or questions) to email@example.com. One of the editors of this project is Doug Reilly (Slovakia 199901).