|Peace Corps Writers May 2005
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Front page May 2005
And then Sarge said to me . . .
We begin our recounting of Shriver Stories with one from Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567), the first Peace Corps Volunteer to publish a novel about her experiences in the Peace Corps, that is entitled Lament For A Silver-Eyed Woman:
In 1971, my husband and I were walking along Park Avenue toward Grand Central Station late at night after enjoying a Manhattan Transfer concert. We passed a couple standing in the shadows of a building and my husband stopped short. He grabbed me and hissed into my ear, Thats Sargent Shriver and Eunice! He couldnt help himself he called out, Hi Sarge, I used to work for you.
Shriver came right over and we told him we were former Volunteers (my husband, Uruguay, me, Cameroon). He turned to his wife and then Sarge said, Eunice. Come meet some Volunteers. She was shy at first until I thanked her for the work she was doing for mentally disabled children.
Then we all chatted, Shriver very excited to tell us that Teddy had won the Michigan primary that day. Then their car pulled up and we told them to please not let us disrupt their plans but they would have none of it. We talked for another twenty minutes before parting company Sarge was truly reluctant to leave us. His Volunteers were very important to him, as much as he was to us.
Send an account of an encounter you had with Sarge to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Think Xerox, Think Fiction
Xerox is working with Lulu.com to promote their DocuTech POD machines to the creators of what they estimate as 450,000 manuscripts annually. Their Xerox Aspiring Authors fiction contest is pitched as designed to stop the cycle of rejection letters that keep so many from seeing their work in print.
The winner will get 100 copies of their book and $5,000, but entrants are enticed with the promise that every entrant will get a single copy of their work for free. (Fine print indicates that they may only consider the first 1,000 submissions as qualifying entries though. Go to the Xerox site and look it over. www.XeroxAspiringAuthors.com
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
In the Aftermath of Genocide
The U.S. Role in Rwanda
by Robert E. Gribbin (Kenya 196870)
Letters from Zaire
A Peace Corps Life in Africa
by John S. Jochum (Zaire 197578)
You and Me Together
Moms, Dads, and Kids Around the World
by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 1981-83)
National Geographic Society
Love and War in Afghanistan
by Alexander Klaits (Kyrgyz Republic 199597) and Gulchin Gulmamadova-Klaits
Seven Stories Press
The Ex-Offenders Job Hunting Guide
10 Steps to a New Life in the Work World
by Ron Krannich (Thailand 1967) and Caryl Krannich
I Thought I was a Goner
by Robert Roberg (Peru 196668)
Chirp Cricket in the Moonlight Dance on Bear
by Robert Roberg (Peru 196668)
I'm a Dying Cockroach
by Robert Roberg (Peru 196668)
by Robert Roberg (Peru 196668)
On the Eve of the Apocalypse
(Art 37 full color Revelation paintings)
by Robert Roberg (Peru 1966-1968)
A Novel of the Revolution
by Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 196466)
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
by Stephen Vincent (Nigeria 196567)
Exeter, England: Shearsman Books Ltd.
Literary Type May 2005
A TV movie, based on Third Man Out, written by Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 196264) who writes under the name of Richard Stevenson was featured in The New York Times in the Business section on April 11th in an article on the new gay and lesbian television network.
In The Wall Street Journals weekend edition on March 25, a lead article on audio books featured Ask Not by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968). The subject of the book, writes the Journal was, How the famous 1961 inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy (Ask not what your country can do for you . . .) affected the lives of the Americans who first heard it. The author, 14 years old at the time, says the presidents words inspired him to join the Peace Corps.
Theres more talk about Ask Not. The Arts section of The New York Times carried an article on Tuesday, May 10, on Clarkes book and another one written by Richard J. Tofel, entitled, Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedys Inaugural Address being published in July. Tofel writes that the man who really wrote the speech was Theodore Sorensen. Sorensen, Kennedys policy adviser, legal counsel and chief speechwriter, steadfastly has maintained that Kennedy was the driving force behind the speech. (The speech, which can be read or listened to at www.jfklibrary.org, is thought by many scholars to be among the finest inaugural addresses in the nations history.) Sorensen tells the Times, Ive just simply refused to take credit when I didnt deserve the credit. According to Clarke, the Sorensen material that Kennedy incorporated into his speech turns out to be largely a compilation of ideas and themes that Kennedy had been voicing throughout his adult life. According to Thurston, Kennedy was not only the architect of the speech, but its stonecutter and mason.
Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466) had two poems A Bouquet for One Lost in the Crusades and The Lady and Her Knight published in the Spring/Summer issue of Writers Against War at the website WritersagainstWar.com. A Bouquet had been a finalist for a previous Dallas Poetry Community Contest.
Husband and wife team, Alex Klaits (Kyrgyz Republic 199597) and Gulchin Gulmamadova-Klaits have just published Love and War in Afghanistan, (Seven Stories Press) a unique collection of true stories of fourteen ordinary men and women living in Northern Afghanistan. These are tales of young lovers who elope against the wishes of their kin; a mullah whose wit is his only defense against his armed captors; a defector from the Soviet army; a woman who is forced to stand up to gangsters in Tajikistan. Among the praises for the book, Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writes on the blurb, Alex Klaits and Gulchin Gulmamadova-Klaits have woven a beautiful, moving and haunting tapestry of individual lives in war-torn Afghanistan. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about and wants to grasp present-day Afghanistan.
Laurel West Kessler (Eritrea 196466) has had her second published piece included in Portfolio North, an anthology of northern California writers. The Bride Wore Red is about the 1993 wedding of a former student from Laurels Peace Corps service. Her first published piece, Leaving Eritrea (about being evacuated during the Eritreas border war with Ethiopia) appeared in the Fall 1998 edition of WorldView. She and her husband, Wayne, are writing a book about the seven years they recently spent in Eritrea.
Karen Beatty (Thailand 196870) published May the Circle Be Unbroken in Eureka Literary Magazine, Volume 13, No. 1(Fall 2004). She also received a first prize award for her essay So, Where Are You From? in New England Writers Network (Spring 2004). In forthcoming issues, the literary magazines Snowy Egret and Writers Post Journal will publish, respectively, Down the Brook and Why I Kissed the Carpet Guy.
Affiliated with John Jay College of the City University of New York, Dr. Beatty works in trauma response counseling and is writing a novel entitled Dodging Prayers and Bullets.
Ann Jansen is writing a homestudy course for elementary and secondary school children and is looking for poems about Africa to include in the lesson plans. While she has a for profit business, part of the profits from this project will be donated to a mission school in Lagos, Nigeria through www.AVSI.org. If you are interested, contact Ann at email@example.com. She is not an RPCV.
Recently Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 199698) was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship to study in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. Katherine was a student in the second Peace Corps Writers on-line writing workshop and has been published by Lonely Planet, Newsday and Lynx Eye. She is also the winner of the 2001 Peace Corps Experience Award for her short essay, Telling Time. Today Katherine is working on a collection of stories about her experiences in Guyana.
Scott Zesch (Kenya 198284), author of The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier is speaking at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Ave. at 40th St., on Wednesday, June 1 at 6:30 P.M. The talk is about his efforts to follow the lives of nine children who were abducted and eventually adopted by Comanches or Apaches and finally returned to their parents. It focuses on their adaptation to Indian life and the problems they faced when they reentered their own culture.
In Vinnytsia, Ukraine, Alice Brew (Ukriane 200305) wrote and published an art book, Art Recipes, Cook Up Some Art With Things Around the Home, which is written in English and Ukrainian for children ages 310 but especially for children with disabilities. Alice worked at a Center for Severely Mentally Challenged Children Nadiya (Hope). Once settled at home in Phoenix, Alice will sell the book as a fundraiser to support the Center.
The Spring 2005 issue of Abroad View magazine features a Closer Look section that focuses on The Peace Corps Experience, and includes contributions from Jason Boog (Guatemala 200002), Harria Bostic II (Guinea 198890), Alyson M. Carr (Namibia 19982000), Tara Deubel (Burkina Faso 199799), Jennifer Helsea Fortin (PCV Bulgaria), Kara Garbe (Burkina Faso 200204), Jessi Flynn (Panama 200104), Matt Heller (Mongolia 199597), Amber Lancaster (Zimbabwe, PCV Morocco 2001 ), Chris Laycock (PCV Bulgaria), Mark Lydon (Tanzania), Dan McLauglin (Slovakia 19992002), Deborah C. McNamara (Mali 199799), Mark Morrison (Panama), Colleen O'Dell (Turkmenistan 199698), Doug Reilly (Slovakia 19992001), Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496), Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576), Andrea Tehan (PCV Jamaica),
plus an interview with PC Director Mark Gearan (199599), and an excerpt from So You Want to Join the Peace Corps by Dillon Banerjee (Cameroon 199496).
Go to www.abroadviewmagazine.com/spring_05/05_spring_toc.html and click on "Click here for the entire Closer Look Section a 1 file" under The Peace Corps Experience to get a pdf of all the articles.
Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I do not know Karen Larsen (Bulgaria 19961998). Ive never met Karen Larsen. I first heard about her book when it was nominated for the best books by RPCV awards that Peace Corps Writers gives every year. Reading Breaking the Limit: One Womans Motorcycle Journey Through North America I was taken by her great spirit and love of adventure, and tracked her down not that she was easy to find. Now, I want you to read my interview with her, but I dont want you to read it unless you read it from beginning to end and no skipping ahead to get to the best parts. Karen is an amazing person and we are lucky to have her as one of our own. I have known a lot of RPCVs in my years of tracking Peace Corps writers. Karen Larson is not the best writer, as she might be the first to admit, but she is a fine woman, and that is proven page after page in her book as she tells of her ride from New Jersey to Alaska on her Harley-Davidson. And also youve got to love someone who when leaving graduate school and Princeton University on her bike knows just how to time the blasts from her Harley so the sound sets off the alarm systems on all the expensive cars parked on trendy Nassau Street. So read what we talked about over the winter and then go out and buy her book.
Where are you from, Karen?
Im from Ontario, originally, a mining city called Sudbury. My Dad is a Danish immigrant and moved the family to America when he was accepted to graduate school in Boston. I grew up in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
And you went to college where?
The University of Maine in Orono. I have both a B.S. in Secondary Education and a B.A. in European History. When I completed my Peace Corps tour, I went directly into Princetons Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs where I earned an M.P.A in International Development.
What got you into the Peace Corps?
Those proverbial stories about influential high school social studies teachers are true. Some of them, anyway. Andre Joseph taught U.S. History at Concord-Carlisle High and it was in his classroom that I learned about Kennedy and the Peace Corps. The idea of service, of travel, of reckless immersion in a culture struck me as a purposeful thing to do, as well as a possibility for great and grand adventure. I never shook free of those ideas (although I modified them substantially after I actually joined the Peace Corps) and ten years after that high school classroom introduction I was on a plane to Bulgaria.
When was that?
My primary assignment was as an English teacher in a language school in the small town of Cherven Bryag (Red Bank) in the north-western part of Bulgaria. My cohort and I had the dubious experience of arriving just before both the government and the economy imploded in the fall of 1996. As that particular set of social disasters unfolded I kept teaching but also morphed into community needs assessment and working with a couple of local orphanages and elderly groups on procuring basic support.
We havent interviewed any RPCV writer from Bulgaria. Tell us about life there as a Volunteer.
Shall we start with my home? I lived only a hundred yards from the Dr. Peter Beron School where I taught. My apartment was a one-room space with a kitchen alcove and a door fronted by heavy steel grate that had to be unlocked with a medieval-looking key. The building was of the Stalinist school of architecture; concrete, angular and forbidding, with untrapped drainage pipes that let the cockroaches in and left everything smelling vaguely of sewer gas in the summer. There was a broad window and narrow balcony however, which let in hazy light and the green smell of tiny garden plots below.
On warm days the old people sat on the crumbling stairs outside, watching the goats and the children and the Roma women carrying bags of used clothing to the market. One of my colleagues lived with her husband and young son in a flat on the floor below mine. She and I would sit and smoke cigarettes together, our conversations half in English half in Bulgarian, the subjects that women everywhere share: family and health, hardship and employment, modern fashion, hopes for the future, jokes at the expense of men, where to find bread, our exhaustion and the vacations that we were too poor and too overworked to take.
And your town?
My town was a tough place. I say that with some reserve in that, unlike many Peace Corps Volunteers, I did not spend my service living in a bamboo structure as monsoon season raged. The electricity did not always work, the pipes froze and I hauled water across the city from a filthy spring burbling up from under a railroad trestle, but there was electricity, and access to a (mostly) functional telephone. Life was hard, but in a Balkan sort of way: instability, violence, grinding poverty and the emotional dislocation of a society in transition. There was no malaria, though, no schistosomiasis, no big snakes, or scorpions, and for that I was grateful and felt like my Peace Corps experience was easier than that of others in different, more tropical parts of the world.
You were in a one-Volunteer town?
Yes. When I arrived in Bulgaria I was twenty-six and already had a few years of professional experience and independent living under my belt. For those reasons, the Peace Corps sent me alone to a town that had a reputation for chewing up Volunteers. The first PCV in Cherven Bryag lasted eight months, the second less than four. I was the third. Yet Cherven Bryag was a place that was rough through circumstance rather than choice. Once it had been a prosperous, orderly and safe place to live and raise a family.
The town had been built to house the workers of an enormous defense contracting factory that built heavy weaponry for the Soviet-era market. With the collapse of that economic system, that factory, along with so many other Bulgarian state enterprises, hemorrhaged money for several years until late in 1996 when the financial and governmental structures utterly collapsed.
I arrived in Cherven Bryag as the massive lay-offs, which ultimately threw eighty percent of the population out of work, reached their zenith. When inflation reached three-hundred percent a month, and banks had long since frozen accounts to avoid runs, it was obvious that life in Cherven Bryag was becoming extremely difficult.
For most people, there was nowhere else to go. Those with connections to the surrounding villages, and those who had access to garden plots on the outskirts of the town, faired better than those who had no family on the land. Strangely, the one industry that did fabulously well during this time was organized crime. We were close enough to the Serbian border that smugglers did a booming business petrol, washing machines, weapons, drugs, women anything that could be bought cheaply in Bulgaria and sold across the border for profit was fair game.
The insurance business was vigorous too. The local police and governmental structures were permissive and, it was whispered, in the pay of the thugs locally called wrestlers who extorted money under the guise of protecting people in those uncertain times. They were dangerous men. They beat one of my neighbors to death, leaving his body, minus an eye and a hand, hanging by the neck in a shower stall for his elderly mother to find. A bad loan with the wrong people his mothers friends said as they came to pay their respects.
As difficult as it was there, I loved my students and I loved the small courtesies of Bulgarian life, even in the most meager circumstances. I am a jogger and as it was dangerous (and considered very odd) for me to run alone, one of my colleagues would come a few times a week at six in the morning and we would run together, down to the sports arena near the river. He called himself my Bulgarian Father and I loved his gentle humor and his correction of my dreadful grammar.
When insurance men kicked in the door of my apartment and took everything I owned, my students showed up en mass that afternoon with food and hand-drawn cards and, assuming that I would leave, begged me to stay. I was mad as hell and told them I wasnt going anywhere.
The police interrogated me twice under accusations of spying, and an English language colleague always accompanied me and spent those hours under the bare bulbs making sure that I understood the nuances of every question and that there was no dispute about my replies. Students took me to visit their grandmothers in outlying villages on holiday weekends. Sometimes a lamb was slaughtered and we would eat and drink and sing into the night.
There is more. Much more. Seven years has gone by and I still think about Bulgaria every day.
Lets talk about your book.
Why the book? What was the reason for the bike ride?
The motorcycle trip to Alaska began as a tour of the North American continent. Although I had done some wandering through the Appalachians and had a passing familiarity with the wilderness and mining districts north of Lake Huron, I was almost completely ignorant of the rest of my country or, rather, countries. Also, it was becoming increasingly odd to me that I had walked beaches in Mozambique but had never seen Pacific Coast. The deserts of Jordan? Been there. The deserts of the Southwest? Never. The farming villages of Central Asia? I had been through many of those, but the farming communities of Alberta or Kansas? None.
When I came out of Princeton in May of 2000, intellectually weary and thoroughly sick of the filtered atmosphere of subterranean classrooms, it seemed a good time to both blow off the dust of the academy and to explore a few thousand miles of American and Canadian back roads before a new job began in September.
There was something else, too. A health issue in the spring of 2000 forced me to contact my biological family who had given me up for adoption when I was an infant. Most of them live in communities scattered up the Canadian Pacific Coast and when I telephoned them, they gave me not only the information I needed, but invited me to visit when I rolled through British Columbia and Alberta later that summer.
It was a summer of asking questions, exploring concepts of family and nationality, and simply doing something that I really love: riding motorcycles. It was not supposed to be a summer that would become a book. That came later.
Why a motorcycle?
When I was about fifteen my older brother rode up the driveway on a black and chrome Yamaha 650 Special. He was sixteen and well into his teenage rebellion, part of which consisted of spending all his money on vehicles that our parents considered either ugly or dangerous. He never took me for a ride and he sold the Yamaha a few weeks later after a minor accident, but I was fascinated by the look of that bike and knew that one day I had to have one. There was, of course, my own rebelliousness. I grew up in an affluent Boston suburb where nice girls did not ride motorcycles. I did everything else that I thought I was supposed to do, everything my friends did: I went to school, got good grades, had part-time jobs and played sports, but riding motorcycles was something that was mine and mine alone. I was sixteen when I bought my first bike and riding it was something that made me feel free and powerful and in control. Its years later now, many years later, but riding motorcycles still gives me that feeling.
In your book you write about how other women tend to have a bad stereotype of women motorcyclists. Did that happen to you on your trip?
Well, let me clarify. I mention in my book that I have rarely experienced prejudicial behavior based on the motorcycle that I drive or the leather jacket that I wear. On the rare occasions when people have been confrontational it has, sadly, tended to be other women. They have been women who assumed that am some sort of a slut or a renegade and that, whatever I was, they did not want their husbands, sons or boyfriends anywhere near me. I think that this fear that I am some sort of a threat or a dangerous example of black-leather sexuality is based on lack of experience with actual motorcyclists and the growing number of women who ride, race and tour.
During the trip, most of the people that I met were curious about, and supportive of, women riding their own motorcycles. At worst, the reaction to what I did was couched in terms of risky behavior or you look too small or too young to handle that machine, or where is your boyfriend or husband, you shouldnt be doing this alone. That sort of commentary happened often, daily actually, but I didnt consider it to be confrontational. I had very few incidents where people treated me with anything but decency and respect.
After the trip, when you look back, what do you remember?
The North American continent is a stunningly beautiful place. I was truly amazed. There were so many places where I thought this must be the most magnificent spot on the continent and then the next week, a few hundred miles down the road, another awesome vista would open up. I loved the roll and the space of the Great Plains and would like to return to the wild places of the Yukon and Northern British Columbia one day. It is difficult to pick just one or two spots as favorites, but in terms of specific places where land and sky and weather conspired to perfection on the particular days that I was there, I might chose the cerulean blue of Crater Lake in Oregon or the hanging glaciers and rampart mountain walls that surround the Jasper and Lake Louise areas of the Canadian Rockies.
How do you go about writing the book? Did you take notes along the way, or make tapes of your impressions?
Many of those descriptions did come from journal entries. I kept notes as I traveled, mostly because I wanted to tell family and friends, who were not overly enthusiastic about my spending the summer wandering around the continent on a motorcycle by myself, some of the specific things, both affirming and difficult, that had made this journey a deeply meaningful one. I wanted to provide windows into what had actually happened on a given day in Iowa, for example, not just a recitation of the roads that I had ridden or the towns that I had passed through.
There are many people whom I remember vividly from my trip, so many who were kind, curious, helpful and welcoming, and who generously shared their lives and their communities with me even if it was just for the duration of a cup of coffee. There was Pat, for example, a lady whom I met in Logan, Kansas when I wandered into the local diner looking for information on how far away the nearest gas station was. I was running low on fuel, and in that part of rural Kansas community gas needs are often served by an unattended co-op pump for which one had to have a membership card. Pat got up from her lunch, took me down to the pump, filled my tank and then refused to let me pay for it. Two dollars worth of gas is a small thing, but her kindness toward a total stranger was indicative of the way I was generally received and treated by people living in the small towns through which I passed.
There were many experiences that I now look back on and think how incredibly lucky I was to have been there. I had the great good luck to meet a man on Alaskas Kenai Peninsula who held a permit that allowed him to dipnet for salmon. The cohos were running in their schools of tens-of-thousands and the day that I spent with him on the water, pulling fish after fish out of into a small inflatable boat remains a highlight of the trip. What else? Storms blowing down off the high ridges of the Saint Elias Mountains, taking the ferry up the Inside Passage, riding through rainbows in Northern British Columbia, encountering a she-wolf on the road near Grand Cache, Alberta, I could go on and on. Youll just have to read the book!
Okay, tell me what was your motorcycle trip really all about?
I cannot pretend that the intent of my book involved the development of existential, or essential, maxims for life and living. The trip was in some elements a search, in others a circus stunt, but always a personal journey. I am, however, always delighted when someone finds meaning, inspiration, or simply the resonance and temporary transportation, of a traveler's tale within those pages.
What are you doing now with your life?
What am I doing now? Pretending, unsuccessfully, that I have escaped writing and that this is something I no longer wish or need to do. I creep back to it; yellow sticky notes with a few lines of poetry, essay fragments on half-pages of graph paper, a trip to New York that spawns an essay about stained glass and diplomats. Meanwhile, I teach, and love that too in a more simple and understandable way.
Declining student enrollment will eventually claim my job in this smallest of state capitols, but until then I will continue to teach high school Social Studies in Montpelier, Vermont. This year I have taught European History, Psychology, U.S. Civics, and Women's Humanities. The international element keeps creeping in and I throw nets around any foreigners who come within my reach; Rwandans sang to my students in November, Kyrgyz and Azeri educators have been visitors in these last weeks.
Apart from that, I run and ski with my labrador-pit bull pooch, love my husband to distraction, and am currently building a beehive that will house a few tens of thousands of Russian hybrid bees come spring.
Are you writing another book?
I am teaching, and loving it . . . although the third quarter ended just this past week and I have been doing those sixteen hour days to get exams written, administered, corrected and grades tabulated. The classroom is magic, the paperwork less so. This is the nature of the education beast. Student enrollment is, however, declining precipitously in my district. My job is assured for one more year, and I will be taking on my departments Advanced Placement courses, but by this time next year, I may very well be looking for work. Last hired, first fired, it happens. Maybe its time to write another book!
Have you read any other RPCVs, people like Theroux, or Hessler, or Sarah Erdman?
Hesslers River Town and Erdmans Nine Hills are in the waiting. I have heard tremendous things about both pieces, but I have yet to read them. Soon, however.
Theroux and I are old acquaintances, although I have never met the man. Frankly, I am not sure that I would want to. It is trite, obvious, and probably unfair to say, but I like Therouxs earlier work better than his latter, his non-fiction much more than his fiction. He is a gorgeous, bitter, painful and lonely writer. I come away from his books exhausted, ready to unpack, and wishing that he would take up gardening.
Are you as nice a person as you appear in the pages of your book?
No, I dont think so. My students claim I am a hard ass, mostly because of my policies on academic honesty. I get cranky and solitary when I am tired and even the people who love me best claim that I am stubborn to the point of self-destruction. However, I do make a great martini and I like to think that my dog is fiercely protective of me for more reasons than twice-a-day kibble.
Okay, but who are you really?
Oh, Im a little confused . . . but let me try to answer what I think you are asking and then we can clarify from there. Okay?
Okay. Start with your relationship with your biological parents and how that fits into your trip?
The adoption issue does add different kinds of thread to a weft that was originally designed to structure a relatively straightforward travel narrative.
Finding Gloria and Dave happened on a number of levels and is for that matter, still happening. I did indeed know about them before I left New Jersey, and Gloria and I had met several years before. An incident that did not make it into the book was that she had come to my Princeton graduation and met my parents there for the first time. I won a departmental prize that year and when my professors asked my parents to stand and be recognized for their support of the work I had done, my mother also pulled Gloria to her feet and they stood together, the three of them, in the middle of all those cheering people. It was one of the finest things I have ever seen.
Dave was much more of an unknown when I rode north that summer, but in considering both Dave and Gloria, and what roles we would or could play in each others lives, the element that I was most unsure of and most nervous about was meeting with their families. What I share with Gloria and Dave as individuals is grounded, at least in part, in biological reality. It is genetic and undeniable. That connection reflects little, however, of the important things that bind people together communication, trust, affection and love. In many ways I felt like I was intruding upon the primary bonds that Gloria and Dave shared with their families and that in dropping into their lives, if only for a few days, that I would disrupt three families: theirs and my own. All of those things were huge unknowns as I started on that motorcycle summer, unknowns that needed time and communication to sort through. We are still sorting them through today.
So indeed, yes, there are parts of the narrative and of the trip itself that function as metaphor for that search to define, or at least to explore, the nature of those connections with my biological family. How heavy that theme pulls on the pages, however, I leave to you to define. I will add that my publishers, Hyperion, were interested in seeing more of the family and adoption issue than I was willing to write about and that led to some tension.
A couple more questions. A lot of RPCVs who want to write read our site, so I have the writers explain how they went about publishing their books. Tell the story of your book with details on how many drafts did it take, did you have an agent, and if not, how did you get it published, how long did it take to find a publisher, was your book rejected by some editors, etc., etc.? Okay?
Such an odd tale. What happened with the development of my book project was like getting hit by lightening. What needs to be said first is that I am not writer. Neither training nor the dedicated attempt at the trade has defined anything of mine has gone into print. I write when an encounter or the possibility of a story intrigues me but the vocation to write, which is both a blessing and a curse, has left me almost completely alone. Sometimes I am grateful for that, other times I wish I had that passion that drives other writers in their three-in-the-morning garret studio efforts.
In the spring of 2001 I was working at an urban non-profit development organization in Trenton, New Jersey. I was the better part of a year back from my motorcycle trip and had no intention of doing more than typing up the detailed journal that I had kept while on the road. The journal was important to me, although not from a literary perspective, and it was never intended to be the foundation of book. The journal was something that I kept for my family to read. My parents were wildly unenthusiastic about my motorcycle predilections and were understandably concerned about what the meetings with my biological family might mean. I wanted to help them understand what a tremendous experience that summer on the road had been. I wanted to show them what a gorgeous and powerful thing it is to ride a bike for months circling the continent. I wanted to write for them what meeting Dave and Gloria and their respective families had been like. In my parents home, where Scandinavian sensibilities of reserve and restraint are dominant, a transcript of a journal was going to be an easier platform to get those things across than (god forbid) actually having to sit down and have those discussions. I had typed up only a few pages of it, however, when it precipitously became a book project.
I had a former professor from Princeton a traveler himself, an old Alaska hand, and a fisherman with whom I would get together from time to time to have lunch and tell lies about trout. He was the one who suggested that my journal might become a book and that I should consider writing up a proposal and sending it off to a few agents. I was busy with my new job and delayed for a few months, but one week in late spring I decided to stay at work for a few extra evenings and typed up twenty pages. My proposal was basic: a sample chapter, a few excerpts, and a cover letter. I sent it off to seven or eight agents and did not really expect anything other than those slim letters that start with thank you for your submission, but . . .. I did in fact get a couple of those letters, but strangely, the rest of the agents called interested in the possibility of representation. They were all in and around the New York, so I took a couple of days and went into the city for interviews.
Truthfully, this was a blue smoke and banana peel process as I did not really know what agents do, and these interviews were at least as much about me trying to get information without looking like an idiot as they were about me choosing an agent. In the end I settled with Virginia Barber at the William Morris Agency. I chose her in part because she had a reputation for impeccable integrity but mostly because I truly enjoyed her conversation, her intellect, and I thought that we could build a business relationship that also had a base of honesty and open communication. Ms. Barber is retired now but I am eternally grateful to her for taking me on as the last client of her career and for stewarding me through the process that resulted in Breaking the Limit.
Ms. Barber told me that book can take months to be sold to publishers, and sometimes not get sold at all, so I should be prepared for a long wait at best, utter disappointment at worst. This was fine with me; at the time I was figuring out how to get my boss out of Kosovo and a conference that he was supposed to be attending on international strategy sharing for grass-roots NGOs. Macedonia was in crisis and he would be traveling through the shelling near the border. Literature seemed of rather secondary importance. When Ms. Barber called two weeks after our initial meeting to say that there was interest in my book, I took a half a day off from work, went to the city, had a one-oclock meeting at one publishing house, a three oclock at a second publishing house, and had a book contract by four oclock. Ridiculous and unbelievable as it is, it happened that quickly.
Having told that tale, I am also cognizant that at that moment in June of 2001, my book project fit a profile that publishers were looking for and I was, frankly, the fortunate recipient of a whole lot of dumb luck.
Krakauers Into Thin Air was huge at the time, as was Jungers Perfect Storm. The nonfiction market was awash in money generated by male-adventure-tales. People were buying books that listed place to go Before You Die, planning their next adventure to Central America, taking up rock-climbing in urban gyms, and buying books mostly written by men to support the same. What was missing? Women on motorcycles, apparently. My project was gobbled up not, I think, for its literary merit, but for a demographic that publishers hoped to tap into.
This was my first learning experience in the world of publishing. As hopelessly naive as it sounds, I truly believed that book publishing was all about providing people with good (and sometimes great) literature. I have yet to become completely cynical about the business of books, but it is now much more obvious to me that books are in large part just that: a business that the publishing industry hopes to make money from. How shocking!
This realization became an issue in September of that year. I was most of the way through my first draft, an eight-hundred page jungle of text, when planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania. Among the great tragedies and losses of those terrible days and in the in the carnage and violence that has followed, a minor fatality was the collapse of the adventure-travel market. Who wants to go bungee jumping in Brazil when New York has just been bombed? In those days of suspicion when the Department of Homeland Security was telling us to seal ourselves in our homes with a gallon of water and a roll of duct tape, who wants to go crashing around the countryside on a motorcycle?
I was fortunate in that I had a consistent and careful editor at Hyperion. She was with me through the duration of my project and I have enormous respect for the care she took in answering my questions, the pruning that she did with my manuscript, and her gentle attempts to coach me through the new directions that Hyperion given the events of 2001 hoped I would take my book.
By early 2002 they made it clear that they would prefer a deeper book, something focused much more strongly on family, adoption, and the human saga of my story, as opposed to the travel narrative that they had bought. I was not capable of nor was I willing to write-the sort of material, exposing both myself and my family, that would have underpinned the sort of book that they wanted. Those were difficult conversations. It took three drafts and the better part of two years, but I think we ultimately we came to a collective and collaborative understanding that resulted in the book that you now have.
Thats the story, John, strange as it is.
You are back teaching, correct? But you think youll be out of work, is that it?
I am teaching, and loving it . . . although the third quarter ended just this past week and I have been doing those sixteen hour days to get exams written, administered, corrected and grades tabulated. The classroom is magic, the paperwork less so. This is the nature of the education beast. Student enrollment is, however, declining precipitously in my district. My job is assured for one more year, and I will be taking on my departments Advanced Placement courses, but by this time next year, I may very well be looking for work. Last hired, first fired, it happens. Maybe its time to write another book!
What about Daves family . . . are you in touch with them, with you natural mother?
Absolutely, with both Dave and Gloria and their respective families. The best snapshot I can offer is that when Brad and I were married in October of 2002, they ALL came to the wedding. It was the first time that my parents met Dave, Colleen and the girls, and Gloria and Dave had not seen one another in more than twenty years. It was a great night for all sorts of reasons. All of these relationships are still developing and I would be untruthful in pretending that it felt normal and natural all the time. But we all keep talking and writing and visiting, and it seems to be working. Gloria and Isabel were here in Vermont last fall and Brad and I will be taking a sun-holiday of some sort (Belize perhaps?) with the Innisfail gang next Spring.
Your husband must be really someone special to have corralled you. Is he an RPCV?
He is the best of men. With the possible exception of my Dad, Brad is the finest human being I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. It is sappy, but I still can not quite believe that he and I get to do this marriage-thing for the rest of our lives. It is very sweet. He is not, however, an RPCV. In fact, before we took our honeymoon to Italy we rented a tiny apartment in Venice he had never been on an international flight.
He is, however, a traveler; we met through a shared interest in long-distance motorcycling. He has done the solo Alaska run as well and now that his feet have been dampened in the lagoons of Venice, he is more than suggestible about other wanderings. We were in Iceland together this past year, and Bulgaria is definitely on the travel itinerary sometime in the not-too-distant future.
I think he would have done well in Peace Corps. Hes compassionate and tough, a skilled craftsman he builds custom millwork and fine furniture and has a strong sense of responsibility to give something toward the future. The long-term plan here in Vermont, in conjunction with the woodshop that he is now building, is to one day open a small school to teach an art that is sadly on the wane. Brad is also a survivor.
We had been home from Venice all of two months when a hit-and-run driver ran him down in crosswalk almost directly in front of our home. He nearly died that night so did I for that matter and the next year and a half was a nightmarish progression of reconstructive surgeries, five months in a wheelchair, and grueling physical therapy. I tell people that this is part of the bargain, that creating a life together also means that one partner cares for the other when it is needed, and that ultimately one partner listens to the last breath of the other, but we never thought that those considerations would some quite so early. We survived and continue to live and love and build our life.
Thank you, Karen.
Thank you, John.
by John Isles (Estonia 199294)
University of Iowa Press,
AS A POET, JOHN ISLES, like Odysseus, lives by his nerve. He is not head or heart or hand or foot. He is spine. In Ark, his first book, verbal impulses race across the syntax of sentences as if they were re-enacting dendritic processes in nerve cells. In terms of form and content, his poems belong somewhere on the continuum from Wallace Stevens to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. In terms of linguistic texture, they approach the gorgeousness of Keats.
Ark is a repository of broken things. Its images are like the shards of mirrors in Anselm Kiefers works the more they catch the light, the more loaded they become with the burdens of memory (in Kiefers case, with Kristallnacht). Like Kiefer, Isles is preoccupied with the question of how much mythic resonance a fragment of cultural history can carry. He is also obsessed with absence as opposed to presence. The monolithic whiteness in his poems recalls the monolithic greyness in Kiefers canvases. Sometimes the whiteness feels bridal. Sometimes it feels monotonous, like the silent equivalent of white noise. Mostly, it feels ghostly. Indeed ghosts serve as a trope in many of the poems. As Isles states in Carrion Days, whitewashed out as it were, the dead/ shape the air with their God-like absence.
To a significant extent, paradox drives the poems in Ark. We are in the territory of Robert Frosts Directive, with the poet standing in the ruins of the house that is no more a house. As Isles states in Natural History: The dust happens a thousand times/ clouds our eyes till were blind with seeing/ nobody. In too many of the poems in Ark, however, theres a Houdiniesque quality to the paradox. We escape from real truth into cleverness, riff after riff on nothingness.
The second section of How the Dead Kiss, which pushes off a Currier & Ives sugaring scene, reveals daylight/ distilling in amber, honeyed essence of
/ I want to say the moments soul/ time-being liquefied and oozing between boards. The strongest poems in Ark do exactly that: distill a moments soul in amber. My vote for the best poem in the book goes to In the Erogenous Zone of the Body Politic. In that poem, the existential streaming is purposeful. The lines and phrases dont feel like random dust motes in the stream of sunlight that is the poem. The randomness makes sense. It embodies the whims of history. What we get is the deconstruction of the deconstruction of the Eastern Block. Other favorites include To a Pretending Leaf, Our Daughter and Small Traveling Islands.
As Montaigne said, It is easier to write a mediocre poem than to understand a good one. The poems in Ark are brilliant in a linguistic sense. Each one is like the Frank-Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain a fugue of shimmering surfaces, undulation after undulation of airplane wing flying in the sun. In the end, though, I cant escape the admission that after trying pretty hard, I dont understand too many of them. Or at least, I dont understand them in an integrated sense. My understanding is Heraclitan the river in which I stand in line 29 is so different from the river in which I stood in line 8 that I might as well just say that I dont recognize it. This probably says more about me and my limitations than it does about Ark, but it nonetheless needs to be said.
Theres a rarified feel about Ark. Its a book written by a guy who studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was chosen by two of his teachers there, Mark Levine and Jorie Graham, to be published by the University of Iowa Press. This kind of incestuousness scares me. Yes, its a small poetry world after all, a small, small world. Will this smallness doom the audience for poetry? How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
In Ark, the definitive voice is not the captains. His voice is weak and solipsistic. Its the oceans. Only the sea which doesnt say can say. The ravings of ocean prove exquisite. John Isles has set forth impressively, as poet, on his maiden voyage.
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the RPCV Readers and Writers Award. She is currently completing a book-length sequence inspired by the Boston busing crisis. Recent work appears in the anthology Snakebird and is upcoming in the Mid-American Review. A professor of Creative Writing at Murray State University, she lives in western Kentucky with her husband and two sons.
Breaking the Limit
One Woman's Motorcycle Journey Through North America
by Karen Larsen (Bulgaria 199698)
SO THIS SLIP OF A GIRL gets on her bottom-of-the-line Harley christened Lucy and plows her way from Princeton, New Jersey, to the lip of the Arctic Circle somewhere in Alaska. (When she says shes going to ride to Alaska, shes not talking Anchorage.) She has two goals: to make it, and to meet her biological father for the first time and her biological mothers family including half-brothers and sisters shes never known. When she meets the first of these goals, reaches the Alaskan wilderness, does she then ship her bike home and fly back? No, she takes a different return route heading directly toward Lake Louise, Canada, because she saw a photograph when she was a child of the Lake Louise Chateau (a Grande Dame of a hotel right up there with the Savoy, Raffles and the Royal Hawaiian), and is determined to have tea in the conservatory before she dies. Such is the essence of the phenomenon known as wanderlust. (Epilogue: naturally, its a disappointment.)
The slip of a girl is Karen Larsen who I characterize as such because she tells us that she is pretty and petite. She has traveled the world including two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and she is one tough cookie. As my late father would have put it if hed met her: A pistol. At the same time, shes as sweet and cuddly as a golden retriever puppy mostly because of her idealized vision of what life should be like and how everyone should act based solely on her fantasies. I like people like that, so sure of themselves that they just steam roll along, shrugging off what doesnt measure up. Alas, the flip side of that characteristic is that just before the shrug, they make judgments and force-feed them to innocent bystanders in this case, the books readers. When someone is rude to Larsen in Aspen, she trashes everyone who lives there, managing to throw in the inhabitants of Princeton as well:
How could it be that people who had every material thing, and who lived in such a spectacularly beautiful place, should be so poor in spirit and human kindness? Aspen felt a lot like Princeton shifted west; the same aggressively wealthy, rather unfriendly atmosphere permeated the street. God help you if you werent white enough, rich enough, or well dressed enough to match their standards.
I could have done without the lectures. So much more refreshing when our author just flips someone a bird and peels out.
Larsen gives a running commentary of the vistas she and Lucy traverse and the characters they run into (sometimes, literally). As with anyone who views the world with rose-colored glasses, her physical depictions are right up there with the very best romance writers:
The lightening came in disconcerting and irregular combinations of huge, jagged white bolts and flashing incandescent sheets as the wind began to howl and fat raindrops exploded off my faceshield.
Four Canada geese flew by in a low and abbreviated V-formation, the sound of their feathers brushing through the wind in gentle counterpoint to the alto of their honks.
And her portrayals of the various types she meets are appropriate for those romance covers: His thick black hair, cropped short and swept back from high cheekbones, crowned the gold skin and almond-shaped eyes of his Eurasian face. And: He had the greenish gold eyes of a predator, hair a little long and curling where it brushed his collar, and curling where it . . .. Never mind the rest, you get it. If Ms. Larsen needs a hack job while she writes another book, she could easily crank out romance novels with one hand tied behind her back. (Take it from one who put food on the table producing true confessions while trying to write my first couple of novels.)
Larsen not only describes the open road and its denizens, she narrates the many trials she faced surviving violent thunderstorms, fingers so chilled to the bone she cant move them, a state of incessant grunge sufficiently disgusting for the reader to enjoy a hot shower as much as she does, and possible rapists (she gives us a formula for recognizing these fellows). In addition, she takes breaks for a series of phone calls which, collectively, encompass her break-up with her boyfriend who is an asshole. Way to go girl, one wants to shout.
At long last the second goal: the two meetings with her mother, and then her father. Both are heart-breaking yet heart-warming, but it is a place Larsen isnt quite ready to go to yet; the book is 388 pages and her parents get only seven apiece. Going along with the update on these folks, she gives a little history of life with her adopted family and there lies a gold mine waiting for her pick-axe, and if she wields it with same the command she wields that little Harley, stand back.
If purple prose is your own personal idea of a feast, you will devour this book. If its not, when you come up for air you will find yourself admiring the writers positive attitude despite adversity, as well as her courage and charm. And youll wish she were your friend so the two of you could go out and crack a few beers get to listen to more tales of Larsens life on the road with Lucy.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels, including the Poppy Rice mystery series. Her memoir, Girls of Tender Age, will be published in December.
The Manhattan Beach Project
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264)
Simon & Schuster
PETER LEFCOURTs The Manhattan Beach Project is a hilarious, off the cuff take on reality television. Lefcourts novel takes the story of one Charlie Berns, known from Lefcourts previous book, The Deal, and brings him back to life as an out of work, former Oscar-winning, Hollywood producer.
This time around, Charlie, who barely has enough money for gas, is hanging out at a Debtors Anonymous meeting in the West Los Angeles area of Brentwood, and is living in his nephew Lionels pool house. That is, until his nephew tells him to move out so that his nephews live-in personal organizer/girlfriend can have the pool house as her office. Besides hanging out at the local library and dodging his Vietnamese debt consolidation counselor, Charlies run out of options in this town.
The Debtors Anonymous meeting turns up a connection, and Charlie meets an eccentric and well-connected guy, named Kermit Fenster. Fenster claims connections in the State Department and CIA. With Fensters connections, Charlie wants to produce a reality show in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, called Warlord. Fenster coaches Charlie on how to get the basics of financing this project dealt with so they can show up, via Air Kazakhstan, and begin casting the television series. They arrive in Central Asia, hook up with their warlord, figure out how to cast the rest of the family, and begin to shoot footage for the show, all with Charlie learning along the way who he needs to pay off to get things done, who he needs to appease to not get killed, and where he can go to get an Oblomov to drink.
Warlord is being brought to the American viewing public, and piped into their homes, via ABCD, a small undercover division of ABC, conveniently tucked away in Manhattan Beach. ABCD is dedicated solely to producing extreme reality shows, though its so undercover that not even the employees at ABC know of its existence. And the few that do know, wont admit to it.
The show follows the life of Izbul Kharkov, a wanted warlord in The Stans, who follows all there is to know about The Sopranos via his satellite dish. Izbul can quote Alex Trebek of Jeopardy, use television slang, and appear to be busy running a household, a business, and a warlordship, simultaneously.
Hes the kind of guy who shoots camels and gets grenades thrown into his compound from rival warlords. His interesting take on American language involves mostly imitating television lines, swearing, and threatening anyone who upsets him that he will cut him a new one. Hes all for being the star of Warlord, thinking hell be the next Tony Soprano.
The reality of this warlord familys show is that Izbuls wife has not left her room in a long, long, long, long time. His Ukrainian mistress lives in the house, and one of his sons, Utkar Kharkov, aka Ali Mohammed, spends his whole time reading the Koran until he runs off to join the Taliban.
Into this mix, throw a Polish film crew doing a documentary about the ecological disaster of the disappearing Aral Sea who decide to take a break from their depressing project to join the Warlord set. They reason that the Aral Sea will still be disappearing in a few months anyhow, so theyll get back to it later.
Charlie, looking for some help in producing the show, hooks up with one Buzz (aka Barrett) Bowden, an AWOL Peace Corps Volunteer who gives up on building septic tanks in Samarkand for the more lucrative business of being a hash dealer.
Charlie and Buzz, decide that since no one at ABCD, and very few people in America even know where Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan are, let alone understand the language, they can create their own storylines and subtitles.
They create characters and storylines that American audiences are so plugged into that Warlord becomes the number one rated show in the U.S.. All of America wants to know whats going on with the wife, who theyve stated has gone away to get a facelift (since she still hasnt left her room for them to film her) and the Ukrainian mistress.The studio is hyping the upcoming episodes, and what will happen between Izbuls wife and mistress, when the wife finally returns from being away?
Buzz and Charlie have written subtitles that ratchet up the drama and suspense, but only work for audiences who dont understand Uzbek, and the network chooses to ignore the one or two letters they receive from Uzbeks stating that the subtitles do not translate what Izbul and his cohorts are actually saying.
Then the crew from Entertainment Tonight wants to come do an exclusive interview with Izbuls wife, and Charlie and Buzz frantically try to keep everything from crashing.They find a manic-depressive, hash-addicted hooker in a burka, who Buzz thinks will make a great stand in for Izbuls wife, if they can just manage to keep her supplied with lithium and hash.
True to the nature of extreme reality television and the publics thirst for the newest, hottest thing on television, by the time Charlie gets in trouble, and the international political crisis and circus comes to a head, Warlord is passé, the news lasts only a short time, and then its on to the next seasons reality based program.
Lefcourts prose is tight and clean, wickedly funny at times, and a great lambasting of the publics thirst for reality television. The situations Charlie finds himself in are ones that any intrepid traveler, or person interested in rogue politics and Americans abroad would appreciate. Lefcourts wit and the occasional quirky character sketch make this book just plain funny. His plot is complicated enough to keep you interested, and the dialogue between the guys out of the studios in Burbank, and the reality on the ground in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan keep you wondering what next.
Amy Muscoplat, MLIS, MFA. lives near the beach in Santa Monica, California. Shes a childrens librarian and owns Childrens Creative Services, a company dedicated to turning kids into cool bookworms.
My Bones are Red
A Spiritual Journey with a Tri-Racial People in the Americas
by Patricia A. Waak (Brazil 196668)
Mercer University Press
I GULPED WHEN I PERUSED Patricia Waaks book and realized that, to write this review, I would be taking more than a spiritual journey. To give the book a fair treatment, I would have to travel with Professor Waak down a genealogical trail as arduous and challenging as was the Natchez Trace for her triracial ancestors, known as Red Bones. Historians and sociologists will find this book of special interest and will realize that, in discovering her own past, Dr. Waak has contributed to the body of knowledge and understanding of a long-ignored, multi-racial, multi-cultural people, who, despite overwhelming obstacles, contributed to the cultural backbone of this nation. Although heavily documented, the book is written in an accessible style and offers a treasure trove of sleuthing tips for genealogists.
Professor Waak, holds a Doctor of Ministry degree and boasts European, Native American, German, and British DNA. Despite the fact that I wished I had a pull-out genealogical chart, and that I wasnt sure if I wanted to be acquainted with so many of her ancestors, a patient reading yielded rewards. She made visible a people hidden within the pages of dusty books.
A thousand questions lie among the scattered pages of dusty books and leaves on trails across America. A thousand lies hide the people who struggled to make a place for themselves in a world that was colorless. And here I am, generations later, trying to reclaim with pride what they may have hidden for reasons of acceptance and survival . . . .
Dr. Waak has reclaimed for her ancestors credit for American cowboy culture. The original cowboys werent white but triracial isolates, known as cowboy Redbones, who in the early 1800s, followed Joseph Willis, their Baptist religious leader and one of Professor Waaks ancestors, to Louisiana. Although Louisiana was more amenable than other states to mixed-race people, the question of whether or not Rev. Willis had black blood persisted. In the 1930s, one of his descendants wrote his Master of Theology thesis to prove that Joseph Willis had no Negro blood. After all the legal wrangling, with testimony on both sides concerning facial and hair features, Rev. Willis turned out to be the first white Baptist minister and the first black Baptist minister west of the Mississippi.
In Tennessee, one of Professor Waaks ancestors, nominated for a judgeship, had to defend himself from charges that he had too much Negro blood to be a judge. Those who spoke on behalf of Jacob Perkins, the aspiring judge, claimed that he had no Negro blood, but that he was a Portuguese. The testimony against Perkins had a deeply unsettling effect on the writer. Racism always has created great anxiety for me, but now it is very personal.
This profound insight into racism created for me a lot of anger and anxiety. These people were castigated because of their color no matter what the source. The idea of the smell, that deepest level of consciousness, is so incredible. We prove our ideas because we identify a smell? Maybe racism has an odor.
The origins of the Red Bone people is frequently merged with those of the Melungeons, found in the Appalachian Mountains, particularly in Hancock County, Tennessee. As a group,
they have specific characteristics, including clearly identified names and other similar physical traits . . . . The source of the term Melungeon is also in question. Some theories are that the word comes from the French melange meaning mixture. Others claim that melungo, meaning shipmate or companion, comes from an Afro-Portuguese word.
The Melungeons are popularly thought to be descended from the dark-skinned people who may have survived the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, established by England off the coast of North Carolina in the late 1500s. The most persistent reference to ethnic background among the Melungeons, however, is Portuguese, although the main argument against that link is the lack of Portuguese names in the family and the tendency for most of the Melungeons to be Protestant.
Although My Bones Are Red, is chock-full of enticing history, I did get impatient with Ms. Waaks tendency to argue backward from her present love of nature and environmental values to her native American and African-American genes. No wonder I love the open spaces so much. It is in my blood, and We hunger for the simplest relationships with trees, wind, water, and soil. Polling present family members, she found that all of them had a mystical connection with the land and with nature. This is the conclusion of the Journey. Its as though she were saying, ah, ha, now it makes sense. The reason I care about the health of the planet and about community is because I have inherited the collective values and dreams of my non-European ancestors. While I applaud these values and share them with Professor Waak, using her reasoning, the environmental and spiritual values I share with her would have to be attributed to my familys Polish and German blood and roots.
Ms. Waak also links her response to Africa as a new Peace Corps Volunteer to that mystical connection to the earth and her ancestors.
As far back as I can remember, there has been a deep personal hunger for knowing and understanding Africa. For most of my life I could not understand the meaning of this longing, but my mother had the same feeling. Before my entrance into the Peace Corps, she told me that her dream had been to become a nurse and go to Africa. Whether this is an ancient memory that underlies what it means to be human or a specific ancestral call, it was present in her and in me. The day I first stepped off the plane onto African soil, an unbidden thought entered my mind I am home.
Those of us who wish to live fully, to use our talents to make the world a better place, to become ever more decent human beings, strive to understand the underpinnings of our personalities and values (I went to Auschwitz to see where some of my Jewish ancestors perished, despite having been raised as a Catholic).
My picky point, however, does not detract from the overall value of this book. Dr. Waaks journey proved to be a rich immersion into the cultural and genetic pool from which one line of her ancestors sprung. The journey was meticulously researched and executed. Many will benefit.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten is the author of Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy; The Mourning of Angels (A novel), and The Treasures of Pensacola Beach, Poetry and Photos. She also wrote the introduction to, and translation of The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist. Patricia is currently writing a screenplay of her novel.
The Mystery of Max Schmitt
Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins
by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 196466)
Turning Point Press
PHILIP DACEYS The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, through its aesthetic method as well as its subject, suggests that the artists role is to fuse the scientific urge to catalogue with an intuitive desire to enter deeply into subject, to know from the inside out. As the visual artist observes all sides and angles before painting a subject, Dacey rescues Eakins voice from found materials, speaks through Eakins imagined voice, observes Eakins as subject through the filter of his own personal perspective, and creates the voices of other historical figures speaking of and to Eakins and all within the first four poems of the collection.
As the detailed chronology of Eakins life beginning the book suggests, Dacey wants first, as did Eakins, whom he quotes, to [g]et things as they are. But [a]n outline of a man is not a man; to get Eakins as he was and as he remains, in his surviving artwork, Dacey observes his subject as Eakins would, from all angles, interior as well as exterior, and the persona poems that engage Eakins voice through imagination and collage are among the books strongest. These include the opening poem, Found Sonnet: Thomas Eakins on Painting, which juxtaposes phrases from Eakins writings to embody a reading of the artists guiding aesthetic, and the collections beautiful penultimate poem Reflections on Water: The Lost Lecture of Thomas Eakins, a meditation on water and light, and on the artists role of re-creating flux through the apparent stasis of canvas and paint.
Eakins painted to dissect, Dacey writes, and Daceys own desire to dissect can produce powerful scenes, such as in the second section of Elegiac, entitled Seymour Adelman: The Bonfire. While the scientific impulse insists first on the facts here, that this was 1729 Mount Vernon Street,/the year 1938, and Susan Eakins had just died, the poem moves quickly into the more generative territory of elegy, allowing us to mourn the incredible loss of work as we witness a misguided family friend burning boxes of Eakins photographs after his wifes death. While she believes she is protecting his reputation by destroying these fetishes, what we see is the destruction of the artists vision, of the beauty he drew from his subjects, those women rising
as ashes, flecks
papery breasts on a breeze, thighs pulsing upward
with red light, abstract hollows and dunes
once waists and hips . . . .
Knowledge of the human body, Eakins believed, was essential for the artist. By teaching his students how to paint the nude figure, he enables them to see themselves with an eye naked as Gods.//Or as a doctors, an aesthetic embodied in the best of Daceys poems, the scientific fully wed to the artists other half, the seer. Dacey, in portraying Eakins, understands that the artist who looks deeply into subject will discover there self as much as other, just as this artist who most carefully observes will see himself ultimately as part of the scape he paints. In Thomas Eakins: The Badlands, Eakins, on horseback, watches as a cowbird hops from his horses head to Eakins own knee; the bird reminds him and us why he has left Philadelphia: he has been dismissed from his position as Director of the Pennsylvania Academy School for using nude models in his classes, and is, as Dacey notes in the chronology, recuperating from the traumatic event:
The bird seemed to me a muscle with wings,
quick and compact and appetitive,
and I thought of the muscle in Philadelphia
the ladies did not want their daughters to see,
no bigger than a bird, its moves stitching
the seamless landscape of anatomy.
To Eakins, the bird behaves as if the human body were as natural as the bird itself, touching Eakins hand as if it were but part of wide Dakota,/handscape a form of landscape, and neither a threat.
Eakins life, his ideals and disappointments, and his art, both what survives and what has been lost, compose a continuous circle into which Dacey draws himself and his readers. In the books final poem, Coda: Painting Eakins, Dacey writes: I apply a word, here, there, step back, admire/. . .The face begins forming. Mine? The portrait as/self-portrait. I see him only in my light. But this is a wonder, not a failure, of the artistic venture: painter, writer, reader all are joined through that most human gaze, the artists single, and singular, vision. Whether on canvas or page, the artists creation is at once window and mirror, the horizon joining self to world. Through this books rich imagining of one artist, Thomas Eakins, what Dacey ultimately offers us is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of art itself, that most intimate labor.
Sandra Meek is the author of two books of poems, Burn (Elixir 2005), and Nomadic Foundations (Elixir 2002), a collection largely based on her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. In 2003, Meek was awarded the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry, and the Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry, both for Nomadic Foundations.
The Other Side of Russia
A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East
by Sharon Hudgins
Texas A&M University Press
READER BEWARE: Sharon Hudgins tells you up front that much of her memoir, The Other Side of Russia, might seem negative. She is not kidding. Hudgins chronicles, at times in excruciating detail, some 3,000 miles of life as I saw it across Russian Asia from August of 1993 to December of 1994. And what she saw, frankly, doesnt sound all that much fun. This is not the kind of travelogue that is going to pry the unadventurous from their sofas.
Hudgins and her husband Tom, teachers in a U.S.-Russian joint undergraduate business program at the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok and the State University in Irkutsk, endure power outages, picnic with the Mafia, eat stuffed sheeps stomach, and live in poorly-built high-rises with no working elevator. They are spied on, suffer loud neighbors, are frustrated by their students and discover that water in Russia can range in color from clear to amber to orange to purple to black, with accompanying aromas of petroleum, sewer gas, ham, rotten eggs, or fish.
In between, the Hudgins find their silver lining in friendships and food. In fact, food quickly emerges as one of the most interesting themes of the book. The menu for their first dinner party spans three pages and the chapter on the Market Economy is almost exclusively dedicated to hunting and gathering in the food markets. It is only near the end of the book that it becomes clear why Hudgins reveals she is a food writer. (More astute readers would have learned this earlier by reading her bio on the back cover.)
She is also a scholar of Soviet-U.S. relations, and her knowledge of the history and people of Russian Asia bolsters her experiences with an authority and understanding that most current travel guides of the area lack.
Hudgins account of her seventeen months in a country emerging from authoritarianism is highly readable but never becomes a good story. Memories, anecdotes and amusing asides about life in strange land are difficult to package into a compelling plot that engages the reader. You know what Sharon and Tom did and endured in Russia, but never quite understand why they did it. The numerous, and entirely positive, reader reviews on Amazon.com laud the book for its humor, rich detail and sense of adventure in a place few Americans have gone. But none report a desire to follow in their footsteps. One reviewer writes:
Siberia is a cruel place, one must conclude from reading this book, yet a place where people survive in a hardtack economy buffeted with long cold winters and brief, sometimes sweltering summers, away from the dependable comforts of our world, a place pitifully short on glamour and indoor plumbing, a place I would rather read about than experience first hand.
When Sharon and Tom board their plane home, the reader shares their sense of joy that they are leaving Absurdistan, Toms name for his new home at the outset of the story.
Hudgins did, indeed, capture the absurdities of life in Russia beyond the Urals. In 1995, I myself followed in a few of her footsteps as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vladivostok. Her descriptions of battling babushkas on public transport and the surly salesgirls in the stores rang very true. As did her stories of long, soulful nights of vodka-drinking and zakuski-eating in the homes of new friends. It is a country of amazing contrasts, none less so than between the public and private spheres.
What is not reflected in her stories, though, is recognition that she and Tom were equally absurd. Two Americans gallivanting across Siberia and the Russian Far East in a period of intense economic and social change had to appear a bit odd to the natives. One of the most common questions I and every other Peace Corps Volunteer would get from Russians is what did you do wrong that they sent you here? The fact that we would voluntarily work and live in a place undergoing so much upheaval was as inexplicable to our hosts as much of the their way of life was to us. This would have been even more the case with Tom and Sharon, who arrived in the region two years earlier.
Unfortunately, Hudgins never exploits this mutual absurdity in her stories. We never have a chance to really get to know the Russians that she encounters. They seem to only have bit parts in her excursions, shopping expeditions and dinner parties. With a few exceptions, we never discover much about them, and we never find out what they really think about these two Americans who fell from the sky to teach them how to survive and prosper in their new world.
What you get, instead, is just life as she saw it. She has some terrific adventures, and for the uninitiated, she provides a real taste of life in Russia. Her chapter on the Buryat, an indigenous people who live on the edge of Siberia, is especially noteworthy. But, in the end, this is her way of saying that she was there.
Robert Greenan was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Russian Far East and is currently a Special Assistant in the Department of States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
A Writer Writes
The Boy on the Back of the Bike
by Terry Campbell
(Tanzania 198587; Dominican Republic 198992; Crisis Corps El Salvador 200102)
IN NOVEMBER November 2004, I returned to Tanzania where I had served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987. I had been wanting to go back for a long time, but as everyone knows, its expensive. Then I saw this deal on the internet and I grabbed it. After hitting the final purchase ticket button, I panicked a little. It had been seventeen years since Id left Tanzania! What was I thinking? Where was I going to stay? What was I going to do? What exactly was my motive for going back? I really had no answers to these questions.
I first went to Tanzania in 1985, at the height of the African Drought, during the time of Live Aid, the Concert for Africa, the song We Are The World, Bob Geldofs consideration for the Nobel Prize, Loret Ruppes TV commercials, I want to put ten thousand Volunteers in the field! The Drought was one of the greatest human tragedies of the 80s. So many Americans responded, young and old, male and female, idealistic, altruistic, from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
My group did stateside training in Frogmore, South Carolina, at Penn Center, on the campus of the first Black college in the United States, established, 1862. We trained to be agricultural extension agents. We raised small animals, had garden plots, lived with local families, went to Baptist church services, heard a sermon by Julian Bond, laughed, loved and lived with some of the best people Ive ever known in my life. It was a fantastic experience!
In September, we went to Tanzania. To be sure, it was not easy. There were many hardships and disappointments. Our ET rate was over sixty percent.
But it was the kind of experience that never leaves you. There are such things in life as defining moments, and Tanzania for me was just such a moment. I made friends, people who became like family. Why? Because the situation called for it. Because the circumstances were such that other Volunteers were the only people I could seriously relate to. I remember once being in a room of expatriates, just one other Volunteer and I. Everyone in the room was wearing a watch, except us. Why? Because we were Peace Corps Volunteers. Because we did not live by watches and schedules. I met people from other organizations, volunteers from England, Holland and Ireland. They were nothing like us. No foreigner in Tanzania spoke better Swahili than Peace Corps. Why? Because Peace Corps Volunteers actually lived with the people. Other volunteer organization didnt see it the way we did.
It was the philosophy of the Peace Corps that set us apart from all others. We werent there just to work, although work was a part of our assignment. We werent there just to build a resume, or prepare for a job in the foreign service. We were there to teach and to learn and to become a part of another culture.
I WENT BACK TO MY SITE last November 36 hours on a hot, overcrowded, broken down bus, just like before. When I arrived, some things were still the same. I was still the only mzungu, white man, in the area. The climate was still the same. People were still doing the same things they were doing when I was there before. But in other ways, Igunga had changed. A paved road now runs through the heart of town where once only a dirt road existed. A mill now grinds the corn that was once ground by hand. There is electricity.
I searched for people who might remember me, but I was looking for one in particular, his name was Abdallah. In 1985, Abdallah was a boy about seven years old. He was an abused child, forced by circumstances beyond his control, to beg on the street. His father was dead, his mother an alcoholic.
When I first met him, he had no shoes, and barely a shirt on his back. I helped him out with food, clothes and education for two years. He became like a son to me, and used to ride on the gas tank of my motorcycle all over town. People laughed and called his name, whenever we passed. After a while, people started calling him Abdallah Mzungu, as if that name made him my son. When I was getting ready to COS, the local people said, Take him back to America ; but I knew that was not the answer. Abdallah did not belong to me, he was not my son. I made arrangements to have him cared for, arrangements Im sure lasted about as long as a good African rainstorm. But it was the best I could do.
On the second day of my return visit, I started asking around. Do you know someone named Abdallah? I recounted the circumstances of his life. Quite a few people shook their heads. Finally, one man smiled and said, Oh, Abdallah. He did know him. The man said to go by the bus stop. Ask for him there. Ask for Abdallah Mzungu, he said. I felt a shiver up and down my spine when I heard that name.
I did find Abdallah. Funny, when I first saw him, I felt like a father who abandons his son, then tries to make up for it 20 years later. Of course my situation was not like an eighties sitcom, or a Michael Jackson illegitimate pregnancy song. Abdallah didnt belong to me, he was not really my son. When he came up to me, he looked exactly as he had twenty years before, no shoes, clothes dirty with soot. And I did exactly as I had done before, bought him new clothes and shoes, and after a shower at the guest house, we went for lunch.
We talked. His mother is dead; he works making charcoal, living in a room, three months behind in his rent. All that I took care of, naturally, thats what I do best. I did the same things I did twenty years ago. In some ways, I havent changed, and neither have they.
THERE ARE MANY lasting changes Peace Corps Volunteers make, and there are some things that cant be changed. And there is good and bad in everything we do. Igunga has a big paved highway running through it now. Development is great, but in many ways the town has lost its soul. Igunga, at one time, was like the Old West. It had character, a jail which looked like a Mexican hooskow, a bank which always made me feel like I was Jesse James. Now, Igunga is not much different than one of those overhead Howard Johnsons restaurants you see on highways in cities like Chicago. And I helped to make it that way.
Change can come on a big level, like a highway, a mill or electricity. Change can also come on a small, personal level, like helping someone, like Abdallah.
The highway is good, it gets people around better and faster, the mill is more efficient, it eliminates a dull and laborious task. I did some good too, but not as much or in the way I would have liked. I guess thats true on just about every level. I guess thats why you have to keep going back.
Terry Campbell worked as a construction PCV in the Mwamapuli irrigation project in Tanzania. The project involved clearing sixteen hundred acres of land for growing rice. In the Dominican Republic he worked in the Appropriate Technology Water program, and as a Crisis Corps Volunteer in El Salvador, responding to the earthquakes, he supervised the construction of fifty houses. Campbell was also in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam from 1968-70. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English Language and Literature and lives in the Chicago area where he is a self-employed landscaper.
A Writer Writes
by By Finn Honore (Colombia 196769)
I HAD BEEN STATIONED in Cartagena, Colombia just long enough to realize it was the tropics. The sun was relentless, harsh, glaring, and I wouldnt have been surprised if late one afternoon it had simply refused to drop below the horizon.
Only in the early morning, briefly, all seemed fresh and cool, the sky a bruise of gray and blue and orange, the breeze from the ocean stirring the breakfast room curtains almost reluctantly, as if unwilling to make too much of it.
Feeling spent, flattened, I often went to the beach, floating in the gentle surf, wondering if I could last. All was strange and new: the language a type of Spanish I had never heard before, words strung together, offered in a staccato delivery, consonants dropped or swallowed, all sounding unintelligible. Nothing was familiar, no smell, no taste, no sound. I was lost.
One Sunday morning I took a small ferry out to an island, just off shore. I had heard it was lush, lovely beyond description, encircled by aqua blue waters, wonderfully clear, a deep blue far from shore. And so it was. A postcard. Palm trees pushing down to elliptical beaches, the interior deeply green against a washed-out sky.
The ferry moored at a long, narrow dock and I stood for a moment, taking it all in. Small cabanas, each with an abbreviated porch, painted a riot of bright colors, were pushed back beneath sheltering palm trees.
A tienda, a small store, was just off to the left, one corner sinking into the sand, the corrugated tin roof covered with dried palm leaves. Tables and chairs were bunched near the front like an afterthought and ragged yellow and blue umbrellas stood at odd angles, creating an appaloosa of shade.
At the tienda I bought two rolled tortillas filled with chicken, cradled in wax paper, and a cold beer. For a time I sat under an umbrella, on a chair fashioned from a tin drum, and watched the ferry gently rise and fall, the mooring lines never coming into play. The tortillas were sublime, salsa dripping down my chin, the beer, straight from the bottle, so cold my eyes watered.
Then, as so often happened, I was struck by a sense of isolation that seemed overwhelming. Great good God, I thought, why am I here?
And I gazed north, my eyes lingering on the horizon, seeing only flat, blue water stretching in all directions. North meant home. America. California. And all that was familiar and known and predictable and oh so easy.
So easy. What was I thinking? You tell me. John Kennedy, who lived in the White House and had room service, called for volunteers, challenging them to ask not what their country can do for them but rather ask what they can do for their country: maybe go live in the tropics, in a third world country, be of service, dig a well, stand in front of a class of eager students, point the way.
And guess who raised his hand? Yep. You got it. Yours truly. Dear sweet Jesus. Its not Kennedy sitting on a tin drum on an atoll in the middle of the ocean five thousand miles from a Laundromat. Didnt someone, in a lucid moment, point out that you never volunteer? Isnt that written somewhere? Etched in stone? I bet it is. You, the one with your hand up, the one wearing rose-colored granny glasses, idealism etched in your naive smile. Please. Quickly. Put your hand down. Unless, of course, you have an abiding affinity for atolls. Or for places so remote and strange that the world, your world, suddenly seems a dream.
I walked from the tienda along the shoreline, coming around a promontory to a small sheltered cove revealing a crescent of white sand shaded by a necklace of palm trees. The ocean was a milky blue, the waves barely cresting as they rolled toward the beach.
I sat in the shade, leaning against a palm tree, watching small brown seabirds run through the foamy surf on long, fragile legs, their spade-like beaks probing the wet sand for small creatures. The wind moved the heavy palms above me, a whisper of dry paper, and birds chattered in the dense brush. Otherwise, everything was quiet.
Yep, not only did you volunteer, you prayed to whatever God was listening that you would get through the training, learn the language, survive the physical challenges. Three hundred hours of Spanish. Conjugation of verbs, endless vocabulary. And the Phys Ed coaches. Hell, they were fanatics, Mach-one jocks with their hair on fire, planning, with satisfied grins, forced marches through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, Outward Bound the steely template. And each evening a desiccated gumbo, boiled in a soot-covered pot over the coals of a small fire, was seasoned with a liturgy of platitudes, resembling mantras, such as, What doesnt kill you only makes you stronger. Followed by a chuckle, a grin, then, Of course, first we try to kill you.
And these purveyors of the crucible of character, who worshipped at the shrine of hustle, reported back to the staff shrinks, the high priests of normal, describing every nuance of our behavior, every tic, every slouching, grouchy, exhausted moment, made poignant by their weighty specificity.
And to our surprise, our joy, how sweet and unexpected, we were handed passports, immunization cards, folding money, and flown as a group direct to Bogota, Colombia, where we would be assigned our in-country domiciles.
Touching down in Colombia, anticipation, even euphoria ran rampant. Then gradually evaporated about the time most of us ran out of clean clothes.
And weeks later, I still didnt have a clue where to get anything washed, or where the damned buses went, or what words I might patch together like some randomly stitched quilt, resembling, remotely, a request for directions.
Someone, anyone, tell me: Why am I here?
And not to forget the two days spent sitting on the john puking into the bidet. The culprit? Maybe the goat-on-a-stick, bought for two pesos from a street vendor, happily sauteed in a kitchen no health department would ever see. And wiping his hands on a limp hand towel, once white, now the color of tobacco, the man took my crumpled bills, smiled politely, perhaps sympathetically, and watched intently, curiously, as I walked away.
Dear God. My kingdom for a pop tart. A burger. A drink of water straight from the tap. A bag of day-old fries. A glass of oh so cold milk, homogenized. Anything ordered from a laminated menu while seated on a swivel chair of bright chrome and red Naugahyde, delivered with a smile by a waitress named Flo who offers just one word, enjoy, in a husky, cigarette-filled voice, a voice so familiar, so friendly, that just the thought of it even now can bring tears to my eyes.
Sighing deeply, I gazed absently left, along the beach, and suddenly, coming around the point, walking on the firm, wet sand, was a black man leading six nuns, each in full habit. Their robes, heavy and flowing, covering them completely, were a startling, brilliant white, their faces framed by arched veils, making it difficult to see their expressions. All walked with hands hidden in cavernous sleeves, large black crosses swinging at their waists.
They moved in a tentative line, close behind the black man, who stopped at the waters edge. He wore khaki shorts and a faded red shirt, buttoned only at the bottom. Smiling and nodding, he motioned for the nuns to come close.
I sat very still, captivated, their presence on the beach so unexpected, so improbable, that all I could do was watch in wonderment. The man spoke to them, his voice lost in the wind. But I could see his white teeth flashing, his gestures emphatic and animated.
Abruptly, without hesitation, the nuns began to slip off their shoes and long black stockings, helping each other to balance. The man nodded in encouragement, and waded out into the water, leaving a line of wet on his shorts. Turning back, he called to them, dipping his cupped hands into the water and then lifting them up, letting the water spill over his face and slide down his arms, calling to them, Vengan. Come, see how wonderful it is.
As if by common agreement, in unison, the nuns walked toward him, their arms lifted high in the air, the milky blue ocean swirling around them. Some clapped their hands and I could see their smiles, hear their laughter, their robes flaring about them, ballooning with each wave like enormous white jellyfish.
The man came out of the water and took the hand of a nun who had ventured in only far enough to wet the hem of her robe. He pulled and coaxed her until she was standing up to her waist in the undulating swells. I heard her call out in surprise and delight, splashing the water with the flat of her hands, turning slowly like some strange, pirouetting ballerina.
In that one magical moment, a leitmotif for all that would follow, everything seemed to fall away. My isolation and wrenching loneliness were forgotten. There was only the beach. And the nuns and the black man.
Watching them was poetic and lovely and I sat and stared, looking long and hard, wanting never to forget the tableau before me: those remarkable nuns, moving in graceful slow motion, their white robes merging together, framed by the glorious blue water.
Finn Honore taught for two years in Cartagena and then spent two years as a project director in two barrios in Bogota working with children in a head start program. Now a freelance journalist, he lives in Ashland, Oregon. Finn is married with one son.
War & Peace Corps
Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
How The Draft And The Peace Corps Conspired To Give Me A Life
AS IM SURE IT DID FOR MOST of my 50-something-age mates, the controversy during the 2004 presidential campaign over how George W. Bush served the country during the Vietnam War (and over John Kerrys heroic service during the war and his equally heroic opposition to it afterwards) brought back memories Id just as soon have left unremembered.
The military draft was a central reality of life for male baby boomers, of which succeeding generations, bless them, have been granted blissful ignorance. For most of us men of a certain age, the draft hung in the background from the day we were born, waiting for us to turn 18, when we were required to register for it.
As the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam grew, the draft became something much more than a mere civic duty; indeed, it attained distinct life-or-death consequences. Many young men simply renounced their citizenship and headed for Canada. For those of us unwilling to take such a drastic step, the inevitable could be put off for a little while via draft eligibility deferments granted at the discretion of local draft boards. Virtually all undergrad college students got deferments until graduation, and, for college graduates, Peace Corps service was among the deferment options granted by some boards. (How common Peace Corps deferments were is attested to by the fact that the number of volunteers serving during the Vietnam years was at its historical highest. It also had more men than women serving, in contrast to todays female-to-male ratio of about 60% to 40%.) The inherent inequalities of these deferments have been discussed at length over the years, and I acknowledge right here that I took enthusiastic advantage of them. But thats not what Im writing about.
I certainly didnt want to go to Vietnam, but in my particular case it wasnt because I was unwilling to serve my country. I wanted no part of the military, period. I was a sensitive boy, you see. (OK. I was gay.) The idea of having to serve in the military had always scared the bejesus out of me. I wasnt man enough and didnt want to be in fact, the very idea filled me with dread. I had spent enough time suffering the cruel attentions of males of the real variety in high school gym. I cant speak for every young gay man in 1969, but contrary to what the self-flattering straight men who run the military believe today, this particular gay boy had no desire to be among the real men of the military 24 hours a day. I doubted I could survive any more unwanted attention, much less the carnage of war.
The idea of the Peace Corps had resonated with me from the time President Kennedy announced its formation in 1961. I was 15 years old at the time. I had no idea what I wanted to be as an adult, but the Peace Corps felt like a fit. As I progressed along with the 1960s, and the African-American civil rights movement took on steam, the idea of spending some time in Africa became increasingly attractive. I became resentful of the Jim Crow racial attitudes my DC-native family had instilled in me, and I felt I owed it to myself and my black American friends to experience life in a racially un-charged environment where skin color was a non-issue. And I actually did have a strong desire to serve my country in some way. I took it for granted that you probably couldnt be gay in the Peace Corps, but what the heck you couldnt be gay anywhere. Not fitting in with the Peace Corps seemed infinitely more doable than not fitting in with the military.
This Peace Corps idea grew as I left my parents home in the Washington, DC suburbs for college in Kentucky. The growth of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam certainly helped my interest along, but the real deal maker was my getting to know a guy named Joe Kimmins, the older brother of a dorm friend, who took me on as a sort trainee in intellectual matters and confided to me his intention to join the Peace Corps. This was in 1966, he was past college, and a medical disqualification had eliminated the draft as an issue for him. Joe joined the Peace Corps purely for reasons of self-fulfillment to see the world, to have an adventure, to give back. The intrinsic value of the Peace Corps spoke for itself through these motivating factors and it became real to me, not just a way to dodge the draft. In fact, I couldnt think of a better way to represent the United States overseas, especially at a time when, much like now, Americans were being vilified by most of the rest of the world.
But the draft, of course, was still hanging over all of these idealistic notions. Then, as now, it could take close to a year to get into the Peace Corps after you applied. I had submitted my application in plenty of time. My college major was French, and I saw a future in Africa as an English teacher in the French-speaking west of the continent. But my college graduation was in December, 1968, and those Peace Corps francophone Africa programs didnt leave until June at the earliest, giving Uncle Sam a good six months to have his way with me. I had dutifully informed my draft board of my application to the Peace Corps and that I was awaiting an assignment. They didnt respond, but they also didnt sweep me up right away. Of course I also made it my business to let the Peace Corps know, on just about a daily basis, that I was ready to go and that Id take almost anything in the way of an assignment. Peace Corps Placement Officers at the time were proactively snatching qualified male applicants from the jaws of the draft, and they came through for me. This complete generalist, steeped in Edith Piaf and vin de table, was invited to go to Panama to work in a co-ops program. The extent of my knowledge of Spanish was Ricky Ricardo. I knew even less of co-ops. But my total ignorance didnt seem to matter to the Peace Corps, so why should it to me? In February, 1969 I flew to Puerto Rico to train to be a community development Volunteer selling the idea of financial co-ops to Panamanian campesinos. My life was beginning, coveted deferment in hand.
I loved the Peace Corps from the moment I got off the plane in San Juan. I had never experienced such nurturing, supportive people on this massive scale. Gay was still something you didnt talk about, but it also didnt seem to matter. I burned up the training program, learning Spanish basically French with a different accent, I discovered so quickly that I scared my instructors. I was riding ecstatically high except one small problem: this nagging doubt about being dropped without introduction into a rural Panamanian village and somehow selling the people on the value of co-ops.
Of course, I needed preparation for such a thing, so I kept an open mind. I realized preparation was why I was in Puerto Rico in the first place. On a Friday afternoon a short time after arriving, I was dropped off at the entrance to a poor rural village and told to go find some place to stay for the weekend. What to do? The idea of a church sprang to mind I figured people in a church would probably be nice to me. So I walked up the road, found the village church, and walked into the enclosure of the house next to it. The goats and chickens, stock cast members in these scenes, were welcoming. It turned out the people in the house had nothing to do with the church, but they welcomed me, too, even if they were a bit perplexed to have this skinny 64 gringo asking if he could stay with them for a couple of days. The words cuerpo de paz, seemed to explain everything.
I got through that weekend but was very glad to get back to the training camp. I knew wed be required to go back to the same villages at the end of the training program, for a whole week. As much as I was loving this training experience, my doubts kept growing. I knew at my core that I didnt want to go back to the village, and, worse, I really couldnt imagine myself living for two years in rural Panama. But always, the draft was there. I saw no alternative but to push down the doubts and forge ahead. I made it right up to the eve of the departure for the second village stay, and then just couldnt go on. Dropping all pretenses, I went to the psychologist (all Peace Corps training programs at that time had resident shrinks) and told him I wanted to go home.
When word filtered out it was a shock to my fellow trainees and to my instructors. (If such a seemingly successful trainee could fold, what about the rest of them?) The Peace Corps was required to notify my draft board of my decision to leave, which meant that Id be on the call-up list virtually as soon as I got back home. My instructors, my fellow trainees and I all knew this, and none of us could imagine me in the military. As a possible solution to what I was about to get myself into, they urged me to apply for conscientious objector status with the draft to declare my opposition to war on moral or religious grounds. If that was granted, I could still be drafted, but Id be guaranteed a non-combat assignment. The idea didnt sit well with me, however. I knew I was not fundamentally against all war. I never marched in anti-war rallies; indeed I suspected that the young men in the peace movement were mostly guys like me, all of us just scared and basically trying to save our skins. I perceived that the difference between them and me was that they were dressing their fears up in high-sounding blather about peace and love. Like going to Panama, that was something else I couldnt make myself do.
So in May of 1969 I found myself back home. Unwilling to just sit back and wait, I went to my draft board to try to plead my case. My original plan was to explain that I was working to find another Peace Corps program more appropriate to my skills, and to request a month or two of grace for something to materialize. But, as I sat at that draft board ladys desk, the words just slipped out: Id like to apply for conscientious objector status. Saying nothing, she opened a drawer and gave me the CO application, and then opened another drawer and, with a single swipe, erased my name from the next months draft call. A bullet dodged.
At that time, my father and I were alone in the house, my mother having traveled to New York State to help my older sister have a baby. It wasnt a very congenial time. For many reasons, not least my having to hide the essential, gay self I had grown comfortable with since living in Kentucky, my parents and I were estranged emotionally and walked on eggs around each other under the best of circumstances.
When I returned home from the draft board visit, I absently left the CO forms on a table with a stack of other papers and went to my room. When my father came home from work, he saw the forms and the roof fell in. In my 24 years of life I had never seen such anguish in my usually quiet father. He called my mother in New York. He called my Aunt Grace, his sister. He called just about everybody he knew, it seemed, to tell them his son was trying to be a conscientious objector. This man, who himself had been permanently deferred during WWII because his journalist profession was deemed necessary to the defense of the country, was ashamed. I wasnt being a man. My cousins, who had done their duty during The War and Korea, were tossed in my face as examples. How could I do this to the family? What was wrong with me? He knew, of course, but the word queer never passed his lips, thank God.
I had no life in DC outside of my family, so there was no choice but to continue breathing the deadly air in my parents house. With no like-minded friends nearby, I of course had no support whatsoever in my quest to have some control over my life and, incidentally, keep my young body intact. Given my parents hysterical reaction to the CO forms, I gave up on that idea. There was no way I could spring from that demoralizing atmosphere and present myself to the entire draft board to make a case. Still, I refused to be drafted. I went to an Air Force recruiter and let him talk me into an appointment for an aptitude test. Maybe I could use my language skills in some way.
I still have a hard time believing what happened next. Enter my old mentor, Joe Kimmins, who was by now the press liaison with the Peace Corps recruiting office in Atlanta. He called one morning in early June and told me to sit down. The director of the Peace Corps in Ghana, Ira Okun, had been in Atlanta the day before and Joe had gone out to lunch with him. Joe happened to mention my situation to Ira, and Ira responded that he saw no reason I why I couldnt join a class he had leaving at the end of that month. (The fact that invitations for this training class had long been completed and that all logistical arrangements for pre-departure formalities had been made didnt seem to matter to Ira.) Some calls were made to the Peace Corps in Washington, and the next day I had a hand-delivered invitation to Ghana. It was Africa, and, though English-speaking, at least surrounded by francophone countries. Close enough. These things just werent supposed to happen, so I was asking no questions. Within three weeks, on June 29, 1969, I was on a chartered jet to Africa in the company of 150 of Americas finest.
Ghana was all the things I had hoped for and some that I hadnt. The Peace Corps does things to you that you cannot expect. It was the journey of intense self-discovery that any returned Peace Corps Volunteer will talk about if you ask. I loved it.
And, oh yes, the draft. It still wasnt done with me.
The general practice of the draft boards was to call up men only through the age of 25, meaning if you got to 26 with no call you could consider yourself home free. You will not be surprised to learn that my situation was complicated in this regard. My birthday is in November and my service in Ghana was to end in September of 1971, when I was 25 years and 10 months old. In 1969, in an attempt to address at least some of the inequities of the system, the draft had instituted a lottery based on birth dates. Three hundred sixty-five balls representing each date of the year were drawn at random and you were then assigned a number, based on the order in which your birthday was drawn. The guys with the lowest numbers, say 1 to 100, were all but assured of being called to service. The next group, up to about 175, were less likely to be called but still couldnt feel free to make any personal plans. Only those with the highest numbers could breathe easy. My number was 156, right in the unknowable middle.
When my service in Ghana was scheduled to end in September, I received notification that my draft status had been changed to 1-A, meaning I was now regarded as prime meat. I asked the Peace Corps office in Accra if I could have a partial extension of my service to take me past my 26th birthday. They agreed, if I could find something to still make myself useful. While the school where I had taught liked me, they understandably didnt want to be saddled with finding a rare French teacher to replace me in the middle of a term. But Fred Bampoe, my Ghanaian landlord and good friend, told me hed be happy to use my services for as long as I needed to stay, translating technical French scientific papers into English for the agricultural research station where he worked. My ducks were in a row.
Meantime, back home in DC, my mother had gone to work unbeknownst to me. Even she thought it was unfair that I should still be subject to the draft after I had already served the country for 27 months. She phoned the draft board and by sheer grace happened to speak to the same sainted lady who had erased my name from the June, 1969 call. She advised my mother that I should appeal my 1-A classification. The appeal had to be done in person, but if I returned to Ghana afterwards, I would be regarded as an overseas resident. It took 60 days to process an overseas appeal, during which time I would reach the magic age of 26.
I went back to the office in Accra and explained this new wrinkle. The Peace Corps had granted my extension and allowed me to use leave for the trip home, but refused to finance the trip for this purpose. Like all Volunteers, I had a few hundred dollars saved up in my Peace Corps readjustment allowance ($75 a month in 1971). Volunteers could be given one-third of those accrued funds while still in-country at the end of their service so they could add it to the value of their Peace Corps-purchased return ticket to the States and take a slow trip home if they wanted. Much as I would have loved to meander when the time came, I used my one-third to go home and present my appeal.
I landed at Dulles airport on a rainy September evening. It was my first experience of the States in over two years, and, like all Peace Corps Volunteers fresh from their service, I was agog, my closest points of emotional reference still a continent away. As soon as my parents and I were settled in the car, my mother turned to me and said, You must have been really glad to get that letter. I was overwhelmed and jet-lagged, but I was sure I didnt know what she was talking about. What letter? I asked. The letter from the draft board, my mother said. Didnt you get it? The board had decided to honor the extension of my Peace Corps service and continue my deferment. A letter to this effect arrived in my mailbox at my work site in Kumasi while I was in Accra waiting for my flight home. I had geared myself up for a harrowing personal appearance before my draft board, and spent the precious one-third of my readjustment allowance, for nothing. I sat there in the back seat of the car, sensing relief, incredulity, and total dislocation. Anticlimax hardly does justice. I ended up staying home for a few weeks vacationing, and then returning to Ghana to stay until my 26th birthday. That means, essentially, that I read the letter, finished up my job with Fred Bampoe, and then left that sweet country for good.
A year or so passed. I had all this freedom to do as I pleased and no draft board to weigh in. I moved to Boston to try my hand at the professional singing career I had promised myself was the next thing. That didnt click, though, and soon I found myself at very loose ends, full of the experience of the previous two years but always thinking there must be something else for me to do, even though Ghana and the Peace Corps were practically all I talked about. People kept telling me I should be recruiting new people for it. I resisted.
In April 1973, I escaped a dreary, still wintry Boston for a few days to visit Dick Kimmins, my old dorm buddy and Joes brother, in Kentucky. Spring there was in full bloom, and nothing is more delicious than a Kentucky springtime. Dick and I drove to Churchill Downs in Louisville, the first time I had ever been there. We made our way to the infield on that fragrant morning and lay on our backs, catching up, luxuriating in the brilliant sky above us and the bluegrass carpet beneath. Totally at peace, I finally allowed myself the question: Why arent you recruiting for the Peace Corps?
I retired from the Peace Corps in August 2003, after more than 28 years of service. By yet another quirk of fate I was one of about 45 people in the Peace Corps history who were not forced to leave after five years of employment, as is normally required by the famous in, up and out rule insisted upon by Sarge Shriver, and written into the Peace Corps enabling legislation. Life after the Peace Corps? I neednt have worried. Luck? Design? Who knows? Im still asking no questions.
Ralph Cherry is currently spending his well-earned retirement with Steve Hopkins, his partner of 26 years, in Arlington, Virginia and Delaware.
Resources for Writers
Poets Take Note
by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1963-65)
Peace Corps Volunteers, returned or current, who are turning their experiences into poetry and looking for appropriate publishing outlets, ought to know about WordTech Communications of Cincinnati, publisher of my most recent book. Owned and operated by Kevin Walzer and Lori Jareo, WordTech specializes in poetry, utilizes print-on-demand technology, but and this is important is not a vanity press. The publishers are determined to make poetry profitable for all concerned without requiring subsidization by the poets themselves.
One sign of their seriousness is their ability to attract contemporary American poets who have a significant following already. Their list includes Barry Spacks, Allison Joseph, Frederick Turner, Rhina K. Espaillat, and Nick Carbo.
Jareo and Walzer are in fact well aware of the automatic association of p.o.d. technology and vanity publishing. They aim explicitly at severing that connection, demonstrating by their own example that the technology of printing is one thing and the publisher-author arrangement is a separate thing. (They dont even accept reading fees, which is standard for many non-p.o.d publishers; WordTech doesnt want your money; they want to create a broad, paying audience for excellent poetry.)
The two together bring to their enterprise much experience: two books of literary criticism, a book of poems, and ten years of magazine writing and editing. Both come from a corporate background; their combination of business and literary skills/interests make their success a good bet.
Books from WordTech appear under a variety of imprints including David Roberts Books, Word Press, and Turning Point. Different imprints tend to reflect different genres of poetry.
Given their interest in a wide variety of poetry lyric, narrative, formal, social, experimental I recommend WordTech Communications to the poets among you in search of a publisher.
A caveat: besides having nothing necessarily to do with vanity publishng, the p.o.d. technology should not suggest to anyone that the editors criteria are in any way different from the standards at non-p.o.d. outlets. The editors experience with, love for, and commitment to quality poetry mean that the submission of a manuscript to them comes with the definite risk of no, thank you as a response.
Good luck to you.