|Peace Corps Writers July 2005
Peace Corps Writers 7/2005
The 2005 Award Winners
We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2005 Peace Corps Writers Awards.
Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex
by Maureen Orth (Colombia 196466)
Maria Thomas Fiction Award
This Is Not Civilization
by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 199496)
Award for Best Poetry Book
The Way They Say Yes Here
by Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 199295)
Award for Best Childrens Writing
The Biggest Soap
by Carole Lexa Schaefer (Micronesia 196769)
Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
The Things I Gave Her
by Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 19982000)
Winners receive a special citation and cash awards from Peace Corps Writers, an Associate Member of the National Peace Corps Association. Our congratulations to all the winners and all the RPCVs who published books in 2005.
Books by RPCV writers to be featured at fund raiser
Over 35 RPCV authors have already donated signed copies of their books to be auctioned off at the first annual Peace Corps Fund Living a Life of Service celebration. The celebration will recognize RPCVs who in their careers as outstanding teachers in New York City have provided a domestic dividend to their Peace Corps service overseas. Caroline Kennedy is the Honorary Chair of this event taking place on September 29th at the historic Puck Building in New York City.
A special feature of the evening will be international cuisine food and wine from the five continents where Peace Corps Volunteeers have served.
Contact Stacey Flanagan (Costa Rica 199497) at: email@example.com if you:
- Would like to nominate a Peace Corps teacher who taught or is teaching in Greater New York City.
- Are an author who would like to donate one of your signed books for the auction.
- Have a Peace Corps country artifact that you would like to donate for the auction.
- Would like to purchase a ticket to attend.
Check out the Peace Corps Fund at www.PeaceCorpsFund.org
Award Winning Essays
Over 40 RPCVs applied for the two writing scholarships to attend the international known and well respected non-fiction writing workshop at Goucher College. These scholarships were sponsored by Peace Corps Writers. According to the college, selection was very difficult and the two winners, both women, represent some of the best writing that is being done by RPCV writers.
Winner Melissa Moses (Lesotho 200204) is from Colorado and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was an education Volunteer in Africa. Working, she said, with wonderful and dedicated early childhood teachers.
While not familiar with our website, Melissa learned about the Peace Corps Writers scholarship from an announcement in the Peace Corps Hotline. I sent in a story that was very personal, describing my feelings of vulnerability. While I loved my experience in Lesotho, there were definitely periods when I didnt quite know how I was going to make it through the day.
The second winner was Kathleen Moore (Ethiopia 196466). Kathleen is an old friend of our website. She submitted a section of her manuscript about her experiences in a small village in Ethiopia, entitled Seasons. Kathleen writes, It is about the rain pounding on the tin roof of our classroom, the students taking shelter and singing until the rain stopped, and a little boy who never came to school but at 8 years old was the poet laureate of Emdeber. The essay is also about the festival Meskal and prayers and religion and how much alike were my religious upbringing and that of the Guragi people in Emdeber.
Both women sent us their winning essays to share with our readers and we wish them a productive and (hopefully cool) time in Baltimore, Maryland on the beautiful campus of Goucher College.
And, yes, we want to continue this scholarship for RPCV writers to attend the Goucher Nonfiction Summer Writing Workshop. It all depends on whether we can raise the money to make the scholarship possible. And in that regard, we thank all the members of the Writers & Readers Roundtable who over the years continue to support the work of Peace Corps Writers.
And then Sarge said to me
Charles Baquet III (Somalia 196567) retired several years ago from the Foreign Service. His last overseas tour was as the Ambassador to Djibouti, and he then served for five years as the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. Today Chuck is the Director of the Center for Intercultural and International Programs at Xavier University of Louisiana. Here Chuck recalls what Sarge Shriver said to him in the fall of 1993.
IN EARLY FALL 1993 I was at the Embassy in Djibouti when I got a call from the White House asking me if I were interested in serving as Peace Corps Deputy Director. It took me about ten seconds to say yes! The Department of State sent travel orders and I returned to Washington to report to the White House personnel office. There I dutifully settled into filling out forms and experiencing interviews conducted by young White House staffers who evidenced a lack of knowledge of where it was I served or just what it was I did for the Clinton administration.
Just after lunch on day two, I rotated back to the White House staffer who originally interviewed me. He asked me if I knew Sargent Shriver and then handed me a slip of paper with an address, a phone number and he suggested that I make an appointment to interview with Mr. Shriver.
My first Foreign Service assignment had been to Embassy Paris when Sarge was our Ambassador there. I wasnt sure if this tasking was a joke or a test but I pocketed the slip of paper looking forward to seeing my ambassador again.
I had not anticipated first meeting Sarges famous secretary, fondly called by everyone who wanted to see Sarge, the Gatekeeper from Hell. She was tough and determined not to permit anyone even a couple of minutes with Sarge. Just as I was about to give up, Sarge breezed in. He introduced himself, I explained who I was then he led me back to his office. He initiated our interview which was more like a general interrogation about African affairs.
Sarge asked about my work in Djibouti and how the Horn of Africa had faired since the departure of Said Barre of Somalia and Mengheistu of Ethiopia. He asked about my assignment to Cape Town, Mendelas health and U.S. involvements in South Africa as we all worked towards the run-up to the referendum that would create the new Republic of South Africa. We talked about the growing HIV/AIDS crisis, the dearth of primary health care delivery systems and the compelling need for education reform continent wide.
At about this point Mrs. Shriver stuck her head in the office to remind Sarge that they were due at the White House in half an hour. As he changed his tie, he allowed as how he enjoyed our conversation and asked if he could do anything for me.
Immediately I asked for his recommendation to the White House for the Deputys position at Peace Corps. He advised that he thought that I should be Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa. I responded that that position was already filled and that I wanted to serve as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. And then Sarge said to me, I dont make recommendations to the White House. That is a political activity which I avoid as best I can. Mrs. Shriver then reappeared at the door ready to go and they left for the White House.
Somewhat dejected, I remember sitting in his office watching early evening traffic build and the citys lights come on. Finally, I dragged myself back to my hotel and went to bed.
Rising early, I determined to execute plan B: return to White House personnel to do my travel voucher, turn in papers and try to book an evening flight to Paris enroute back to my embassy in Djibouti.
Arriving at the personnel office, I was greeted with where the hell have you been? We tried all evening to contact you. I said that I did not think that my meeting with Sarge went particularly well so I decided to call it a day. He gave me a quizzical look and asked if I knew that Mrs. Shriver was honored last evening by the White House for the work she does with mentally/physically challenged Americans through the Special Olympics? It seems that while the President, Mrs. Clinton and the Shrivers were in a holding area, prior to the commencement of ceremonies, Sarge bent the Presidents ear about the U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, someone who could easily serve as an assistant secretary, currently visiting White House personnel talking about a job in the administration. You know, my White House personnel minder said, we didnt expect that you would get to see Sargent Shriver. As far as we know you are the only candidate who did. Then he handed me another appointment slip. You are scheduled to meet this morning with Senator Chris Dodds foreign affairs staffer for a pre-confirmation hearing get-to-know-you meeting. If this meeting goes as badly as the one you had with Mr. Shriver, you will soon be our next Peace Corps Deputy Director.
In This Issue
July has been a long time coming, or as we use to say in Ethiopia, Ishi, nege, but here is the issue, and it is jammed with wonderful pieces of writing and news, all of it good. Check out the six book reviews, the list of 21 new books, and two essays by RPCV writers who contributed to our A Writer Writes column. They are The Fireflies of Kalai by Christine Taylor (Namibia 1999-2000) and Scouts by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 1996-98). PLUS the two scholarship winning essays.
We also interviewed the charming and very successful novelist, Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 196466), who has made a career out of writing historical novels. Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) writes about what it is like to see his book made into a TV movie. It will be shown nationally this fall on HereTV.
For our on-going series by RPCVs who were both in the military (Vietnam mostly) and the Peace Corps, we publish David Gurrs (Ethiopia 1962-64) essay: Footprints in the Sand: My Time in Vietnam. And dont forget to check out Literary Type. We have great news about new books and stories appearing on-line, and in hardback.
And for those old enough to remember, we have The Zinzin Road by Fletcher Knebel (PC/Evaluation 1964), this months selection in the Book Locker.
Sorry we are late for July, but youll see when you read the issue, it was worth the wait.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers July 2005
(Children, grades 26)
by Kathy Beckwith (India 196871)
Lea Lyons, illustrator
The Sand Castle:
Blockade Running and the Battle of
by Margaret Whitman Blair (Thailand 197577)
Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing
The Chinese Laundry
A Novel of the San Juan Mountains
by Robert B. Boeder (Malawi 196566)
Fayetteville, NC: Old Mountain Press
$12.95 + $3.50 s&h
There Comes A Time
by Terry Campbell (Tanzania 198587, Dominican Republic 198992; Crisis Corps El Salvador 200102)
Fresh California Oranges and Other True Life Stories
edited by Frances Lief Neer
Don Christians (PC Staff/Ethiopia 196769, Dominican Republic 197072), contributor
Paul Karrer (Western.Samoa 197880), contributor
(Buy from Trafford)
Uzbekistan: A Short Road Traveled
My Peace Corps Experience, 2001
by William C. Duncan (Uzbekistan 2001)
A Dozen Lemons in Autotropolis
by John Flynn
Pudding House Publications (www.puddinghouse.com)
Texas Hold 'Em
How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
St. Martins Press
Around the World in 857 Days
(Peace Corps experience book)
by Edward Gibney (Ukraine 200305)
(Buy from Lulu)
The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger
by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 196466)
St. Martin's Press
by Paule Constant
translated by Margot Miller (Niger 197274)
$60.00 cloth; $16.00 paper
The Christmas Contest
by Virginia Mekkelson (Ethiopia 196870)
writing as Valentina Gilbert
Five Days in Philadelphia
The Amazing We Want Willkie! Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World
by Charles Peters (PC/W Staff 196167)
Italy, A Love Story
Women Write About the Italian Experience
edited by Camille Cusumano
Terez Rose (Gabon 198587), contributor
Apollonius of Tyana and the Shroud of Turin
by Robert Russell (Ethiopia 196365)
writing under the name Rob Solarion
The Bora-Bora Dress
by Carole Lexa Schaeffer (Micronesia 196769)
Catherine Stock, illustrator
Last Moon Dancing
A Memoir of Love and Real Life in Africa
(Peace Corps experience book)
by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 19982000)
Clover Park Press
The Best Worst Brother
(Children's picture book)
by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198991)
Charlotte Fremau, illustrator
by Carlos Wark (Ecuador 198486)
(Peace Corps experience book)
by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 197476)
(Modern Nations of the World series)
by Tony Zurlo
Literary Type July 2005
Tony DSouzas (Cote DIvoire 200002, Madagascar 200203) forthcoming Whiteman is an extraordinary novel about a maverick American relief worker deep in the West African bush. Although funding for his official mandate has been cut off, Jack Diaz refuses to leave his post, a Muslim village in the Ivory Coast, as Christians and Muslims square off for war. Against a backdrop of bloody sectarian conflict and vibrant African life, Jack and his village guardian, Mamadou, learn that hate knows no color, that true heroism waits for us where we least expect it.
Tony DSouza was born and raised in Chicago, served a year and a half in Cote DIvoire (until the evacuation in 2002.) He then served six months in Madagascar. His fiction has been published in Stand, The Black Warrior Review, The Literary Review, and elsewhere, and chapters of Whiteman are forthcoming in The New Yorker (Sept), Tin House, and Playboy. Tonys mother, also was a PCV, serving in India from 196668.
Karin Mullers (Philippines 198789) new book Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa will be published by Rodale Press in October 2005. Her four-hour documentary series on Japan will air on public television also in the fall. Her previous documentaries, Hitchhiking Vietnam and Along the Inca Road, premiered in 1998 (on PBS) and 2000 (on the National Geographic Channel and MSNBC), respectively. Muller is an expert lecturer on Japan for the National Geographic Society, and her writing appears in National Geographic and Traveler magazines. She appears also on Marketplace and other National Public Radio broadcast. Karin lives now in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clover Park Press announces that Last Moon Dancing: A Memoir of Love and Real Life in Africa, by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 19982000), has been chosen as the December selection of the Pulpwood Queens book clubs (as seen on Good Morning America and Oprah). The tiara wearing and book sharing Pulpwood Queens currently have 65 clubs with more than 1,000 members in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Monique will spend two days in December meeting with the Queens during their annual holiday gathering. Last Moon Dancing is the first Peace Corps book to become a club selection. The deal was brokered by publisher Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 196264).
Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, in a review of George Packers (Togo 1982-84) book on Iraq, The Assassins Gatewrites due in October: His [Packers] book rests on three main pillars: analysis of the intellectual origins of the Iraq war, summary of the political argument that preceded and then led to it, and firsthand description of the consequences on the ground. In each capacity, Packer shows himself once more to be the best chronicler, apart perhaps from John Burns of the New York Times, that the conflict has produced . . .. The Iraq debate has long needed someone who is both tough-minded enough, and sufficiently sensitive, to register all its complexities. In George Packers work, this need is answered.
Another West African RPCV Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) has sold her memoir, Girls of Tender Age to Simon & Schuster. One of the photos in the book is a group shot of Mary-Ann and her students in front of the Buea Nursery School, West Cameroon, circa 1966. The book will be published in January. S&S also purchased the audio rights to the book.
A review in the influential Booklist of Laurence Leamers (Nepal 196567) Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger says, Although Schwarzenegger granted Leamer an interview, this is not an authorized work. Nor is it a wrecking ball of dishing . . .. Leamer skillfully sails between the idolaters and the iconoclasts, heading toward the multitude of readers interested in Arnolds character and life.
John Sherman (Nigeria 196667; Malawi 196768) has received a $7,500 Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, funded by The Lilly Endowment, Inc., to be used to fund a return trip to Nigeria for research, lectures, book signings, photo shoots, and other activities associated with his 2002 book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra. The book is based on a diary he kept while working with the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Nigerian Civil War. (After being evacuated from Nigeria because of the war, he spent the next year as a PCV in Malawi, then returned to Nigeria to work with the Red Cross in 196869).
Charlene C. Duline (Peru 196466) is seeking submissions from minority RPCVs on their experiences as a minority in host country for a proposed anthology. No word limit. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 1978-80), author of The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and an active proponent of the gathering multitudes in favor of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley and keeping the O'Shaugnessey Dam in place, has been active on radio and television in the San Francisco area.
A short story entitled Whack a Cracker Upside the Head written by Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) has won the hypnologic 2.1 writing contest at Fiction Warehouse. The story received the second most number of public votes and was selected as the winner by the contest judge. The story can be checked out at http://www.fictionwarehouse.com. The spring 2005 issue of storySouth, a magazine edited by Jason, is now online at www.storysouth.com.
Fresh California Oranges and Other True Life Stories, edited by Frances Lief Neer, has published pieces by two Peace Corps writers. One by Don Christians (PC Staff/Ethiopia 196769, Dominican Republic 197072), current host of Turning Pages, a weekly radio program on KWMR in Pt, Reyes Station Ca. Paul Karrer (Western.Samoa 197880), author of six stories in the Chicken Soup series. Paul has three stories in this collection: Long Lasting Lunch, Kimchee Tales and Vegetable or Fruit.
LOpera de Monsieur Jean (inspired by La Maison de Fantaisie) written by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 199698) won honorable mention in the inaugural Telltale Press competition. It can be found at: Telltalepress.net/winners0705/honorable1.html
The stories in the competition had to be 2000 or fewer words and include pre-set characters and settings.
The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264), is the story of one summer afternoon in 1946 when Hogan changed the lives of a beautiful girl, a young golfing phenomenon, and the 14-year-old caddie who carried his bag. The novel will be published in the spring 2006 by St. Martins Press. Coyne was represented by John Silbersack, one of our Friendly Agents who also is the agent for two other RPCV writers.
Talking with . . .
Lucia St. Clair Robson
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
ACCORDING TO HER WEBSITE Lucia St. Clair Robson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in South Florida. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer (Venezuela 1964-66) and a teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She has also lived in Japan, South Carolina, Miami, and southern Arizona. After earning her masters degree in Library Science at Florida State University, she worked as a public librarian in Annapolis, Maryland. She lives today near Annapolis in a wooded community on the Severn River.
The Western Writers of America awarded Lucias first book, Ride the Wind, the Golden Spur Award for best historical western of 1982; the book also made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 best westerns of the 20th century.
Since then she has written Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Marys Land, Fearless: Novel of Sarah Bowman, and Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches (a finalist for the 2003 Golden Spur). Her newest, Shadow Patriots: A Novel of the Revolution, has already won critical acclaim.
When we caught up with Lucia, we asked
What was your Peace Corps assignment in Venezuela?
I was an Urban Community Development Volunteer.
Looking back, what was your tour like?
It was the best experience imaginable. It made me feel at ease wherever I happened to be in the world. It gave me confidence, knowledge, and insight.
Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience, fiction or non-fiction?
Not yet. That experience is percolating, but my group, Urban Community Development II, got back together via the internet and had a reunion a couple years ago. Ive been encouraging them to write their memories down and send them to me by e-mail if necessary. I have a whiskey carton in my office where I throw what they produce. Theres quite a stack. One day I want to get them to collaborate with me in putting their thoughts, memories, and experiences together in a book. Like all PCV groups, theyre a funny, smart, socially-committed bunch.
What about your writing, when did you start writing novels?
I began my first novel, Ride the Wind, in 1979. And much of what I had experienced in the Peace Corps found its way into that book, which was about a young girl trying to assimilate into another culture, learn another language.
Give us some examples of what you mean.
Well, I described the main character standing in the Comanche encampment of teepees at night and thinking how familiar it had all become. That was my exact experience, standing in the street of Los Cerritos, Caripito, Venezuela, with the lights in the windows of the row of houses. Later on, a neighbors baby died and I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of her keening. When I had to describe mourning in the Comanche village, I knew what it sounded like.
Then there was my initial experience in Lost Cerritos. People crowded into the house when we first arrived in country, everyone curious to see us. Thats how I described it for Cynthia Ann, waking up in a teepee that first morning. And also, certainly, just the experience of being dropped into a different culture and having to learn the language and the customs.
For those who havent read you novels, could you tell us what your books are about?
Sure. Lets see! Ride the Wind is about Cynthia Ann Parker who was captured by Comanches in Texas and grew up with them. By the way, it has been in print 23 years and has 90 five-star reader reviews on Amazon.com. Walk in My Soul is about Sam Houstons life among the Cherokee; Light a Distant Fire is the story of Osceola and the Second Seminole War in Florida; Tokaido Road is based on the famous event in Japanese history that took place in 1702; Marys Land is on the settlement of Maryland in the 1630s; Fearless is set during the Mexican War of 18461848; Ghost Warrior is the story of the Chiricahua Apaches and Lozen, the only single woman that I know of to ride with the men as a warrior.
My latest book, Shadow Patriots: A Novel of the Revolution is about the Culper Ring, a group of spies who gathered intelligence for George Washington through most of the War. Central to the story is 355, the Culpers code for lady, but whose real identity is still unknown.
Clearly you have done a tremendous amount of research for the variety of fiction that you have written. In terms of % how much time is done on the research? How much time on the writing?
Hard to say. Maybe 25% research, 75% writing. But were talking about a book that can take years, because Im a slow writer. So that means a lot of reading over time. Usually I go through 150300 sources with the requisite note-taking and filing of cards with info.
Do you do all the research before you start to write?
No. I find enough information on the subject to write a proposal that consists of a summary of the story. Once I have a contract I research as I write, trying to keep a chapter ahead of the class as it were. And I cant stop even after I mail in the manuscript. I keep reading through the galley process. Years after the book comes out I collect books and other material on the subject.
Do you have any tricks of the trade with regard to doing research?
I have a Masters in Library Science, so my first trick of the trade is to utilize my local public librarys interlibrary loan system which gets more amazing as technology advances. For Shadow Patriots the library found me a microfilm copy of a jest book published in 1739. Fantastic period humor to add to my story. The Internet can answer simple questions, but for details you didnt even know to look for, books are the place to go.
The other trick is never to assume you have enough information. Therere always more fascinating facts and insights out there, and even when I think I have enough, Ill come across some odd incident or phrase that will kick-start the writing process.
How do you decide who you will write about? What do you need to make it an interesting story for you, or a reader?
Surprise. I like to be surprised. I like to find historical characters who are little known, and who have done the unexpected. Thats why so many of my main characters are women. One expects Andrew Jackson to take New Orleans or William Tecumseh Sherman to march through Georgia. That was their job. What intrigues me are people who did the unexpected (Ulysses S. Grant tried out for the role of Desdemona in the officers production of Othello before invading Mexico in 1846. That makes Grant even more interesting to me).
When women went to war, or spied for George Washington, they were doing the unexpected. They were facing not only physical opposition from an armed enemy, but something more insidious, societal opposition.
Your fiction has been called historical fiction as well as historical romance. What do you call it?
My first book, Ride the Wind, opened with a massacre. I would not call it or any of the seven that followed historical romance. All of my books have a love interest somewhere in them because life does too. But I dont do happily-ever-after endings. So, what I write is historical fiction.
Since you do so much research, why turn it into fiction?
Writing fiction is more fun. Its more fun because I can speculate on why people do things as well as what they do. I prefer fiction because I like to add historical, cultural, and social tidbits that have no place in a non-fiction book. Because dialogue gives an opportunity to put in jokes and stories from the period, as well as attitudes.
The result of all that, oddly enough, is often a look at history thats more accurate in a way than just laying out the facts. I wouldnt presume to make that claim except that readers have told me its so. As in the case of the Cherokee descendants of the family I wrote about in my second book, Walk in My Soul. One of them called to tell me that the incidents I wrote about in that book were stories only the family knew.
And in my first book, Ride the Wind, the park ranger at Parker Fort verified that my description of the site was closer to the original than the re-creation built in the 1930s.
What other historical fiction writers would you compare yourself to?
Gads I never compare. Others have compared me to James Michener and Jean Aul, but I would say our bank accounts show a great disparity.
You appear to always have a female as the lead character. You are obviously doing this on purpose. Why?
Well, that is not entirely correct. My third book, Light A Distant Fire, has a male protagonist, Osceola, war leader of the Seminoles. The "co-star" of Ghost Warrior, about the Apaches Wars is a guy named Rafe. Shadow Patriots features a Quaker named Robert Townsend.
I dont set out to choose women protagonists, but, as I pointed out, I like to write about people who do the unexpected. The one common factor with all my female characters is that they bucked the social restrictions of their time.
Some practical questions for other Peace Corps writers. How did you get your first novel published?
I ran into an editor at a convention and told him the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Comanches and he encouraged me to take a shot at it, so I did. I sent the first 80 pages to Ballantine Books and they gave me a contract. The finished manuscript was 996 manuscript pages and I was holding down a full-time library job while I wrote that novel.
What kind of convention was that?
The Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in 1979. A great gathering. Always fun. I read a lot of science fiction for escape before I started escaping into the past on a daily basis.
Do you write full time now or are you still a librarian?
Ive been writing full time (If you dont count the goofing-off hours) since I quite my day job in 1982.
You mentioned science fiction . . . have you written science fiction novels?
Ive never written science fiction, but until his death, I lived with the science fiction writer Brian Daley (author of the first three Han Solo novels and the NPR serializations of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as numerous books of his own). Brian and I did a lot of cross-pollenization. (For more about him, go to www.brian-daley.com).
Oh, and my book about feudal Japan, Tokaido Road, received a lengthy review in a magazine called NIEKAS: Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Brian also talked me into writing a couple episodes for the 1980s Science Fiction animated series, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I hear theyre now coming out on DVD.
Of course, you must have a website.
Yes, with more information than anyone needs to know is at www.luciastclairrobson.com.
What do you like the best about being a novelist?
Being my own boss. Working at home. Hearing from readers. Feeling that Ive produced something that will be around after Im gone.
What are you working on now (or day-dreaming about writing)?
Im halfway through a novel set during the Mexican Revolution of 19101917. Im calling it Last Train from Cuernavaca.
Lucia, give us an example of something that you wrote that you find particularly good.
I wouldnt characterize anything I write as particularly good. But heres a descriptive passage from Chapter Eight, p.73 of Shadow Patriots:
The American encampment sprawled across a wind-swept hillside bounded on three sides by two creeks and a bend of the Schuylkill River. Hundreds of women and children shared the soldiers huts, or they would when there were huts to share . . ..
The engineers had marked out the arrangement of huts by companies, battalions, and brigades, but their efforts looked more like wreckage than construction. The temporary quarters of dugouts, leantos, and tents were hard to distinguish from the heaps of rubbish. No one had completed the first log hut, and the soldiers dragged the timbers across the survey lines, churning the ground to icy mud. The engineers swore at the soldiers and the soldiers swore back . . .. Kate smelled a lot of odors, but not the aroma of meat cooking.
Thank you, Lucia.
Thank you, John.
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
SLADE STEADMAN yes, thats really his name lives in a very strange world. In the opening pages of Paul Therouxs new novel Blinding Light, we meet Steadman, a blocked writer on his way to Ecuador on a mission to ingest drugs in the hopes of unblocking himself. The scenario itself is not all that extraordinary, but Steadman, who 20 years ago wrote Trespassing a famously popular travel book is surrounded by people sporting Trespassing travel gear:
Now he saw that the clothes on that woman behind him with his book on her lap were from the catalogue; and the man next to her, the others around her, all of them wore travel outfits bearing the TOG [Trespassing] logo . . ..
Steadman, it seems, is the center of the world.
Chapter by chapter, Theroux develops Steadmans world, from the Ecuadorian countryside to the streets of Boston and Miami but the books world never really expands beyond Steadmans perceptions. Even after consuming the drugs given to him by the somewhat stereotypically drawn Ecuadorian Manfred, who reappears later in the novel in the guise of a hero Steadmans thoughts and reality remain deeply rooted in only himself.
And then he goes blind.
Sight, blindness, blindfolds, vision from the title to the last page, these themes run throughout Therouxs book. Indeed, Theroux seems to use the themes to illustrate Steadmans quest as spiritual he sees more clearly once his sight is gone:
My vision is excellent, Steadman said. Its my eyesight thats a little faulty.
(In keeping with Steadmans strange world, he speaks these words to the president of the United States, who is a character in the novel, as are the writer William Styron and the producer/director Mike Nichols, among other well-known public personalities.)
Theroux is the author of more than 20 books and no stranger to travels, quests, life on the edges, or of celebrity personalities, for that matter. Many of Therouxs books have centered on similar themes he is an expert at offering world-weary characters, surprising encounters, and unique, sometimes odd settings. He is also versed at offering, through his characters, reflections on travel, world politics, and writing itself. As with other prolific writers, one sometimes wonders if these themes havent already been done enough justice.
Another favorite theme of Theroux, which is also found in Blinding Light, is sexuality especially when its linked to attraction, knowledge, and power. Steadman even manages to find Halloween arousing:
. . . looking at Halloween kids . . . Steadman could not help attaching sexuality to the masked people, even the skinny-legged girls, whom he saw as teasing, even provocative.
Steadman sees sex everywhere and seems to need it everywhere:
Sex was a form of departure, a passionate sacrifice of farewell, and even his writing these days had the unanswerable finality of a suicide note.
Travelling with Blinding Lights protagonist is his newly ex-girlfriend Ava, who becomes increasingly sexually uninhibited as the novel progresses, allowing herself to play with Steadman like she never had while they were a couple. Though titillating, the sexual encounters between these two come off heavy handed. Instead of a well-drawn realistic woman, Ava comes off as just another item that exists to please Steadman. Even her own pleasure seems somehow centered around him. At one point, she tells Steadman she was sucking the life out of you to grow stronger, and she means it literally.
Ava turns out to be duplicitous (which should be no surprise the middle of the novel contains a scathing description of Steadmans dislike of his first wife, who he ended up divorcing in part because she did not read his first novel; misogyny may be another oft-used theme in Therouxs books). His vision comes back, albeit ambiguously.
But in the end, none of these physical and emotional challenges matter. Steadman gets what he was after, his quest is over, and he is presumably spiritually, physically, and artistically whole again.
Early on in the novel, Theroux writes: As a writer, nothing pleased Steadman more than holding a conversation in which the other person told him everything and he responded giving nothing away.
Unfortunately, in Blinding Light, we are given too much of Steadman his strange world is claustrophobic and too little of other people.
Amy Mehringer lives in Syracuse, N.Y. Her stories have been published in The Washington Review, The Baltimore Review, Folio, Timber Creek Review, Kiosk and River City. She works as a writer on the staff of Cornell University and was a teacher-trainer PCV in Cape Verde.
The Chinese Laundry
A Novel of the San Juan Mountains
by Robert B. Boeder (Malawi 196566)
Fayetteville, NC: Old Mountain Press
$12.95 + $3.50 s&h
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS my wife and I have traveled to Colorado two or three times a year visiting our son and my wifes relatives. Tracking down ancestral graves and homesteads have consumed parts of our visits there and now I find several of my more distant relatives also live in Colorado. Consequently, we have been plied with all kinds of literature and information about this wonderful state.
Robert Boeder has taken us further into the historical aspects of Colorado with this book about a fictitious Chinese laundryman in Silverton, Colorado at the end of the 19th century. I enjoyed the background material and Boeders descriptions of the setting for this story. His descriptions are full and vivid. I have no difficulty imagining the area in and around Silverton. I suppose many of us are intrigued by mining in the old West, the politics of minerals and small towns, the characters seeking elusive fortunes in a multitude of endeavors, successes and failures, life and death in a difficult environment, the seedy side of a romantic past.
But, I was disappointed by this so-called novel I guess I would call it a novella. The type is large and the story line is thin. I havent counted pages but I feel that more words were devoted to the young woman, Rose, who came to join her brother, who died shortly before she arrived. Lee, the laundryman, and Roses lives intersect and intertwine. The book could have easily been titled The Downfall of the Innocent Maiden A Novel of the San Juan Mountains. From the title and the description on the cover, I expected to learn more about the plight of Asian immigrants in Western mining towns. I learned something but not much more than I already knew. Roses downfall was also predictable.
I suppose this book could easily serve as an outline for a made-for-TV movie. Nothing too deep or controversial. Easily covered in an hour or two.
The writing is easy to follow and nicely descriptive. The characters are clearly drawn and human. The skeleton for a novel is there but there is not enough meat. I would have been happier if this had been described as a long short story or a short novel. Then I would not have had expectations of something more complex and detailed.
For a self-published book, the editing is fairly good. The typos are minimal there are some though they are not distracting. The indentation of paragraphs sometimes failed. The treatment of colloquial contractions is not consistent and this did irritate me as an old teacher. Most of the descriptions rang true to me. I do wonder if children were called kids in the late 19th century. After describing the difficulty of obtaining supplies, cranberries mysteriously appeared for Christmas tree decorations and Thanksgiving meals. On page 42, even if I had not seen my mother make her own laundry soap when I was young, right after WWII, my high school chemistry class would have told me that soap could not possibly be made the way Boeder describes it!
An easy and interesting read good for a short story (unfortunately its sold as a novel). I would expect more for the money.
Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, and eventually returned to Africa and taught in Zambia, Botswana and Malawi from 1973 to 1986. He and his wife Diane (Ghana 196164, and a native Coloradoan), have spent many hours in the mountains and old towns of Utah and Colorado, learning about the miners (some of Dianes forebears) and mining towns (especially Leadville where her parents and siblings were born) and marveling at the intricacies of geology and geological history in our magnificently beautiful western states.
The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger
by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 196466)
St. Martin's Press
UNTIL RECENTLY, before his polls began heading south, Arnold Schwarzenegger could do no wrong. He went from success to success, from attaining the top slot in world-class body building to becoming an action hero money machine for Hollywood. Even his flops wound up turning a profit in the global market, and from early in his career he demonstrated exceptional savvy in plowing dollars into California real estate (as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did before him). By the time he reached fifty, Schwarzenegger had amassed an enormous fortune and enjoyed great fame. Along the way he married Maria Shriver, the supreme princess of Irish-Americanism, and they have stayed together, raising four children, defying the standard showbiz scenario.
What Laurence Leamer succeeds in conveying forcefully is the sheer gusto of the man, together with a sense of his keen practical intelligence and outsize ambition. Eunice got me involved with Special Olympics, Leamer quotes him as saying of his mother-in-law. And I realized it felt good to do good, and whatever makes me feel good, I like to do. This is a concise statement of the California credo, or a benign (Peace Corps?) version of it. Leamer goes on to make his own assessment:
Arnolds friends had noticed a startling transformation in the man. He was still the egocentric, self-centered, fun-loving Arnold they had always known, but there was a deeper, philosophical quality to him. He had a full measure of what the Greeks considered the most unique and highest form of love, agape, a love of humanity. Which did not mean that he would necessarily be a good governor, merely that his most exalted emotions came from doing what he thought was good.
Arnold, to quote another deceptively casual insight by Leamer, obsessed over nothing but endlessly moved on, discarding whatever was unpleasant and negative and carrying forward only what inspired and moved him.
More accurately, Schwarzenegger has a knack for selecting which details to sweat and which to ignore. I saw the terrific discipline and confidence he had, Leamer cites one agent as observing. There were no limits on his ambition. He exerts a tremendous amount of control. He had a vision, and he knew he could turn it into reality. In his mind, whatever hes doing is like getting a film made.
Fantastic is full of tidbits like this that bring the story to life without repetition. Leamer is hardly new to the celebrity bio game, having written three best sellers about the Kennedys, and you can see that he has a sensitive eye for the world of mega-houses, over-produced receptions, and stratospheric insecurities and rivalries at the peak of a slippery power structure. Reading Fantastic is like watching a master director of photography light a scene. Instead of simply downloading gossip, Leamers gift is to select the high points. The prose exemplifies the best of the writing youll find in venues like Vanity Fair: clarity, immediacy, and a whiff of the pathos you pick up as a refrain in The Great Gatsby. It is as if those long, ruminative pieces in The New Yorker of the 40s and 50s had gotten their testosterone boosters and learned something about the velocity of presenting personalities from the New Journalism of the 60s. Leamers sentences are nowhere as ostentatiously electric as Anthony Lanes, but they are still punchy by comparison with the old days.
The book is a page turner, a beach read with depth. It is not mere froth. Yet Leamer doesnt pause long enough for a more considered assessment of what Schwarzenegger represents and where he may be headed. The style of coverage reflects a quickness an MTV-like jump-cutting that mirrors the attention-challenged tempo of the world in which Schwarzenegger thrives. (My use of Schwarzenegger rather than Arnold is a tip-off to my own stodginess. Few Californians refer to him except by his first name, but then the same goes for populist, strong-man rulers in Latin America. It was never President Vargas but always Dr. Getúlio in Brazil, or Fidel in Cuba.) Schwarzenegger comes off looking a bit like the genial buffoon who somehow got it right, a there-but-for-fortune, cunning version of the doofus (Paul Giamatti) who played opposite Thomas Haden Churchs depressive character in Sideways. There is more to Schwarzenegger than this, as Leamer suggests, but there are also more powerful forces surrounding the governor than Leamer bothers to examine except cursorily.
Leamer may have run up against the same dilemma as Bob Woodward. Access comes with a cost. Occasional criticisms are not the issue, except for Maria Shriver, who appears to react with attack-dog loyalty when it comes to her husband. No one expects hagiographies of movie stars or politicians, and celebrities and their handlers have to calculate what the cost might be of not opening their doors to writers like Leamer, who have no evident axe to grind. A just-the-facts-please exposition has the advantage of allowing readers to make up their own minds. The downside is that it is hard to make out the forest for the trees. This is not a fatal flaw, especially since Schwarzenegger is still a work in progress. Yet more analytical bite into the psychological neediness of a man who let his long-time publicist go because he felt she wasnt giving him sufficiently upbeat news (wasnt her job to project a positive image to the outside rather than protect her boss from what was really going on?) would help. There seems to be barely an introspective much less a tragic bone in Schwarzenegger body. Lincoln hes not. One of the accomplishments of this guy was to make the Hummer a desirable brand name. Isnt downsizing an option, or does that smack too much of the lowered expectations favored by Jerry Brown, the states one-time Governor Moonbeam? A fuller look at the economic coalition striving to reshape California politics through the governors office would also help.
On balance, Fantastic makes a genuine contribution. It can be read as part of a triptych, alongside Where I Was From, the new memoir by Californias own sibyl of malaise, Joan Didion, and Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 19902003, the last volume in a monumental history by Kevin Starr. It was Starr who a few months ago published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times positioning Schwarzenegger within the tradition of fusion politics (as opposed to polarizing politics) that goes back a long way in the state and pointing mysteriously, if not very convincingly, to the European Catholic roots of the social conscience in the governors agenda.
Peter McDonough lives in Glendale, California, just outside L.A. (dont we all?) His most recent book, co-authored with Gene Bianchi, is Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits (University of California Press, 2002). The working title of his current project is The Catholic Labyrinth: Remaking the Church after Vatican II.
Letters from Zaire
A Peace Corps Life in Africa
by John S. Jochum (Zaire 197578)
WHEN A LATTER DAY KEN BURNS decides to do the history of the Peace Corps, there will be no dearth of first-hand information for pictures and quotations. This book will be one of those quoted.
With little editing (apparently) these are the letters of John Jochum written between July 13, 1975 and Feb. 19, 1979. Nearly all were written in Cameroon or Zaire to his family in the United States. The letters were straight-forwardly written and of the moment. They represent a record of Johns life as a Trainee and Volunteer in a fisheries project to boost fish/protein production in man-built ponds. His successes and failures, achievements and frustrations are detailed during a turbulent period in Zaire (when hasnt it been turbulent?).
I enjoyed the book for the chronicle that it is. It is a good reflection of the changing awareness that many (all?) Volunteers go through during their time in service. It reflects everyday life, food, weather, health problems, etc. His continuing concern for the reliability of the mails is one that many of us worried about. The gratitude for news from home is a recurring theme.
The style is neither exciting, nor Shakespearean. It is, however, engaging and engrossing. It is the story of many PCVs who had some idealism and an honest desire to help their fellow human beings and to make the World a little bit better place to live. It ends with realization of the complexities of local and world politics the pettiness of people and bureaucrats the world over.
The short epilogue seems entirely too naïve to the letters that it follows. I think the letters deserve better. An updated review of events over the decades in this part of the African continent would have benefited those who have not followed recent history. In the 70s the author expressed his desire for more governmental transparency concerning the U.S./Zaire relationship and he was concerned by the United States continued support of the Mobutu regime then. A more perceptive analysis of the situation in Zaire (by whatever name these days) and some historical perspective would have made this volume immeasurably more valuable.
The editing is flawless as far as I can see. There is a fine collection of colored photographs taken at the time the letters were written. Unfortunately, few are labeled so that you can connect a face with a name. His fellow Volunteers are frequently mentioned, but rarely is there a caption to let you know who is in a picture. The chapter headings are particularly attractive.
This book would have been more enlightening if John had elaborated on some of the references to his family and friends. His answers to questions would have benefited if he had included the questions (in the letters he is answering). A good read not a great book.
Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, and eventually returned to Africa and taught in Zambia (197378, 198086), Botswana (197980), and Malawi (1980). Upon returning to the United States in 1986 he and his wife, Diane (Ghana 196164), owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota until retiring to California in 2002 where he has become a student of gardening in a Mediterranean climate.
A Novel of the Revolution
by Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 196466)
IN 2003, TRUE WEST MAGAZINE named Lucia St. Clair Robson the years Best Living Western Historical Novelist, combining a historian's knowledge of facts with a novelist's understanding of the human condition. As a result, the article continues, she's able to transport her readers to a world that is so real, they can smell the sweat."
This aptly sums up her latest effort, Shadow Patriots, where Robson has left the West behind to explore the terrain of colonial America during the Revolutionary War. The story revolves around one of George Washingtons key spy operations, called The Culper Ring, and the crucial participation of 355 (code word for lady), a female spy whose true identity has remained a mystery.
The Darby family lives in Philadelphia. They are Quakers, and as per the precepts of their religion, do not fight or take sides in armed conflicts. This is a period of tumult, however, in which one is branded either a patriot or a loyalist. Siblings Kate and Seth Darby, both young adults, realize they cant continue to stand at the sidelines. Seth slips away by night to go serve his fledgling country in the army. Kate, at seventeen, is more rational and pragmatic than her hotheaded younger brother. But soon circumstances force her to confront the temptations and intrigue lurking outside her door. In addition to the lure of the patriot cause, theres the winsome British Major, John André a hugely appealing character brought to vivid life by Robsons pen who is temporarily posted in her family home. And then theres the more mysterious but frustratingly shy Rob Townsend who catches her eye, and she his. Through Rob and her brother Seth, Kate grows more deeply involved in the countrys struggle for independence. Espionage, secret codes and invisible ink messages lead to ever greater danger and drama during this decisive period in American history.
Robson, whose work includes the 1982 bestseller Ride the Wind, now in its 17th printing, has made a name for herself in writing authentic historical fiction. Her background a Masters degree in Library Science supports her extensive research efforts (up to 300 sources per project). While only a quarter of that research may show up on the finalized page, the other three-quarters lends authority to the authors voice. Occasionally a gesture or statement would cause me to wonder, would that really happen then? Did Quakers treat their black servants with such warm familiarity and affection? Were the women of that era really so bawdy and earthy, often wearing nothing at all beneath their hoop skirts? Did mice truly find a home in some of the powdered wigs? Robsons clear command of her subject tells me, yes, these are all accurate, and she put them in precisely because they were quirky, true and noteworthy.
Reading Shadow Patriots is like paging through a fascinating history book, with characters such as George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Alexander Hamilton springing to life in a visceral fashion unparalleled by any nonfiction on the same subject. The reader learns how people dressed, spoke, and what colonial Philadelphia and New York looked and smelled like (the answer: dirty and stinky). Each description both moves the story forward and offers us a whimsical history lesson. The American encampment at Valley Forge, for example, is brilliantly depicted.
The engineers had marked out the arrangement of huts by companies, battalions, and brigades, but their efforts looked more like wreckage than construction. The temporary quarters of dugouts, lean-tos, and tents were hard to distinguish from the heaps of rubbish. No one had completed the first log hut, and the soldiers dragged the timbers across the survey lines, churning the ground into icy mud.
Robson shines particularly in her descriptions of people, be it the maccaronis trendy men with foot-high wigs, lace and face powder, or the general population with their dirty homespun smocks, manure-caked boots and missing teeth.
Mary Ludwig Hayes looked as if someone had thrown her clothes on with a pitchfork. Her pinned-up skirt revealed a mans boots and stout ankles in wool stockings that she described as more holey than righteous. Her hair rioted around the ruffled bottom of the dirty linen mob cap. In Marys case, mob was an apt name for it.
Few words are wasted in this novel its a veritable treasure trove of interesting, pertinent history. This, however, leads to my one complaint. So much information in a short space proved overwhelming. In the first thirty-six pages, characters from history are fired at the reader like cannonballs: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Rob Townsend, New York mayor David Matthews, Hercules Mulligan, William Cunningham, Benjamin Tallmadge, Nathan Hale, General William Howe, Elizabeth Loring. They were all well-drawn, but I felt myself flailing, unsure of who was to become a key character. By chapter four, when the reader meets Kate and Seth Darby, the story begins to settle into place. Had I known my Revolutionary War history, I might have better appreciated the historical characters presence in the story.
The books flaws, however, are minor compared to its virtues. As accurate, lively, historical fiction, this book succeeds wildly, and as such, I would highly recommend it to fans of that genre. To others, Id still recommend it. But you might want to dust off your history book first.
Terez Roses work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Midwest Book Review, the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Peace Corps Online. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Womans Europe (Travelers Tales, June 2004) and Italy, a Love Story: Women Write about the Italian Experience (Seal Press, June 2005). She is currently at work on her second novel.
A Short Road Traveled My Peace Corps Experience, 2001
by William C. Duncan (Uzbekistan 2001)
THERE IS NO DEARTH of idealism in William C. Duncans brief memoir, Uzbekistan: A Short Road Traveled. The author, who served in Uzbekistan in 2001, has taken the Peace Corps goal to bring the world back home to heart. Duncan wants the reader to feel what it was like to adapt to a new life, to enter a new country with very little idea of what lies ahead. That this is a self-published book demonstrates his commitment to sharing his experience with others.
The story of his days in Uzbekistan on the eve of September 11th makes an intriguing and timely premise. The author barely began his service when Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated after the terror attacks. Duncans memoir records what will forever remain first impressions, as he and his group just begin to adapt to their lives overseas before they are all withdrawn from the country.
Idealism, however, does not always translate into readability. Reviewing a book like this presents a bit of a dilemma I admire Duncans effort to publish his story by his own efforts, but I am unable to say that Uzbekistan is a very well-written book.
The author seems to have taken most of the text directly from his diary, but without the kind of thorough editing and contextualizing that would help his story appeal to a general audience. Duncan provides very little information about the country itself, and what information he offers is either inaccurate or irrelevant. His text is littered with grammatical errors and typos, tenses change from past to present in the same sentence, and redundancies abound, which relieve me to see that he was a Business Development Volunteer, rather than an English teacher.
Duncans narrative relies almost entirely on simple platitudes (Packing for this adventure was an incredible challenge), not all of which are semantically or grammatically correct (Our new lifestyles were starting to show their ugly head), and some of which are plainly awkward (I had always wanted to see Turkey, a country veiled in ancient history and forbidden tales). The reader frequently encounters passages notable for their inscrutability: After dinner we had a session on the local music with our teachers who demonstrated dance steps that we could use if we attended any weddings or parties . . . . It was pretty entertaining for me because I have a few moves of my own.
The most interesting part of the book is the final chapter, when he deals with the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Duncan describes the confusion and fear that gripped his group of Volunteers, and details the many kindnesses, which the Uzbek people showed him in terrors aftermath. It is here, at the very end, that his writing provides the kind of insight that explains what made him want to write this book:
Thinking back only a few days ago, when I last left the bus in Uzbekistan, I imagined I was walking down the dusty street in my village with images of yesterday still in my head . . .. The hugs, kisses, and tears could still be felt as I try to get on with my life, waiting for whats up ahead, just down the road.
Uzbekistan: A Short Road Traveled reveals the essential caveat of writing a travel memoir to convey a unique, personal experience to a wider audience is difficult, even if it is an audience of like-minded people. The best writers know how to essentialize their story, adding the context that renders the unfamiliar accessible, compressing the myriad memories into a few well-polished images that can stir and haunt the reader. Duncan does not quite manage it, and it is a shame, because he has a story that is worth telling.
Joshua Abrams lives and works in Tajikistan. He has written on Central Asia for the Old Town Review (www.oldtownreview.com) and the Baltimore Sun, and had a Peace Corps memoir piece in the January 2005 issue of Peace Corps Writers.
The Zinzin Road
by Fletcher Knebel (PC Staff 1963)
The Zinzin Road by Fletcher Knebel (PC/Evaluation 1963) is the first commercial novel written about the Peace Corps. Set in the fictional West African country of Kalya, it focuses on early PCVs and life in West Africa. The book was published by Doubleday in 1966 and a few copies can still be found in well stocked libraries and yard sales. Also, used book sellers listed with Amazon carry the novel for as little as $0.28.
Knebel was a well-known Washington, D.C. journalist who in 1962 wrote (with fellow writer Charles W. Bailey II) Seven Days In May, a fictional account wherein the military overthrows the President. This book became an instant bestseller, running number one on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year, and was made into a movie in 1964. Following this success Knebel quit journalism and started to write full time. He wrote several other best sellers include Night of Camp David.
Knebel gathered his material for The Zinzin Road when he was hired by the head of Peace Corps Evaluation, Charlie Peters, to do an evaluation of the Liberia program, which became the setting for this page-turner. Over the years, Ive met several RPCVs who claim they were the prototypes for the PCVs Knebel wrote about. Knowing them, it could be true. Was is particularly enjoyable about the book for old-timers is reading how Knebel skewers early Peace Corps/Washington staffers who traveled to Peace Corps countries for a look/see as they often called their trips overseas. A fun book full of lots of early Peace Corps lore.
A Writer Writes
by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 1996-98)
IT WAS A STEADY JUNGLE NIGHT, dark and sweet. We slept in the tent as they approached and awakened to their voices, baiting us from our dreams.
Hey scouts, youre not staying up to watch Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein? is what I heard first, the foreign names awkward on the tongue of an Amerindian man, young and drunk.
Whats wrong scouts, youre tired? There were two of them, hitting each syllable and verb tense to imitate an American accent. They seemed to be standing directly outside of our tent. Our bodies were still warm with sleep but we were awake now, looking into the enclosed darkness, no longer alone. The jungle was silent.
We are looking for our boat. Someone has gone with our boat, I noticed that the voice was slurred this time, louder than it needed to be.
The first voice spoke again, We have to hear where our boat has gone, and then both of them were laughing and moving around slowly, shuffling against the soft dirt of the campsite.
Amerindians are the indigenous people of Guyana, descended from the ancient tribes that first populated South America and the Caribbean. In a poor country, they are the poorest, yet they still have knowledge of the land and are the only ones who can survive in the Interior. We were two young women, a Guyanese from the coastland and an American, camping in a village that we needed a permit to visit, outsiders sleeping in a tent by the creek a half-mile away from the village huts.
For a time there was nothing and then the shadow of a fist on the top of the tent, a slight pressure on the canvas bearing down. It occurred to me then that tent was like an eggshell, only the pretense of a barrier, a paltry safety. There were no boundaries that could protect us, certainly not this synthetic sheath. We were inches away from them, just black air between us. Our tent was permeable, wispy, the hand above insistent. Our tent was a joke.
Open up scouts! the hand said, and then bounced a little on the tent roof, sending ripples of material down the side.
We cant go away until we hear from the scouts! more laughing then. There are only two of them I thought, just two of them. All day long the river, the village children, the palm trees on the edge of the jungle had seemed so idyllic, so safe, but they must have been watching us because they knew we were two women alone in the tent. We were so lost in our own understanding of ourselves, our greater sense of freedom here camping in the rainforest, outside the watching eyes of the city, that we had forgotten the watching eyes of the country. We imagined ourselves hidden and invisible, our greatest threat the nighttime mosquitoes. They must have been planning all day to come to us together in the night.
Striptease, we need a striptease . . . Like the Brits! and now we went to hold on, instinctively reaching for each others elbows and wrists as if to protect the parts we thought might break first. We were shivering, barely visible to each other in the dark, tensed with fear, hearts beating. No time for a plan, no way to speak or make sounds now, just knowing all we had was this same tissue paper tent, we held each other.
It is a strange thing how you reckon danger, adding up the possibilities, the potential of two men outside your isolated tent by a river near a rainforest in South America. How much risk is there, exactly, what are the chances they will move on us? I felt it in my chest, this small sense of flying, a growing, tickling anxiety as their voices talked on and on of nothing, baiting us. We were like bats in a cave, lying in the shadows of our tent, pretending to be dead. We were playing dead because we were being hunted.
Do you scouts like Bob Marley? Do you like Bill Clinton? What did they feel like, talking to a tent? Were they certain of what they would do next or were they deciding? How would they decide?
In Guyana the line between safety and danger was always wavering, always uncertain. There was a constant vacillation between life and death, as if you were just playing the percentages, riding the good chances that came your way and kept you above water. But in a moment it could swing in the other direction, in the bite of a snake, a speeding bus, the footsteps of strangers at your tent. Survival is not a given, it is granted to those who pay attention, those who appreciate that not all survive. I remember it as a sense of uh-oh a kind of dumb, cartoonish fall, the bottom just dropping out on you, comical but maybe deadly too. You never knew when it was coming and you never knew if it was the last time it would come.
Can we borrow your cup, scouts? They were picking up our cooking gear now and we heard the hollow metal of a pot being dropped on the ground.
We dont have to do anything unless they touch the tent opening, I whispered to Ardis. She nodded silently. It seemed to make sense what I had said, but maybe it didnt. They could have started kicking the tent, they could have picked it, tipped it over, trapped us in its thin shelter. Maybe we should speak up now and tell them to leave. But the artifice of the tent kept us still and silent, pretending that they could not hurt us.
Then we heard the tiny clicking as the teeth of the zipper was pulled, the zipper of the flap of the tent. It was a delicate sound, careful and strange, the sound of clothes being removed. It was more terrifying than the voices.
We both sat up now as the opening of the tent widened. There was a moon that night and we could see by the dim light the outline of two heads peering in, the shadows thick between them. Here were the heads to the voices, just heads after all, mouths and throats and the slight glimmer of eyeballs, but we could not see their expression or their age.
They gazed at us and we gazed at them and though only a moment passed it was the moment between the hunter and the hunted. It was thick with the differential of life and death, it spoke of the possibility of violence, of things done to people in the night. The tent filled with our eyes looking at each other across the distance of gender, culture, race, power. We were strangers in their village, women camping alone. They could hurt us.
Another voice seemed the only defense against this silence. I sat up in the tent, my head almost reaching the top. Please go away now, I said forcefully with the edge of a schoolteacher in my throat. I said it to them and into the night, I said it to be heard by people who were not there but might be listening. We are trying to sleep and you are disturbing us. I spoke of their intrusion as a disturbance rather than a threat, as if the thought had not crossed our minds what else they might be intending. Please leave us alone.
The heads floated in the tent window. One was directly in front of the moon, so as he shifted the moon came into view and then was blocked again. They were not big people, they did not move suddenly. We watched them watching us, but we could still not see their eyes or their expressions. Maybe they could see us as we saw them, maybe they could see more, floating there in the tent window. They regarded us in our nest of sheets and sleeping bags, and we were as aliens to them, our foreign-made tent a spaceship from the coastland. Even the ways they might harm us were a mystery.
Then, they stood suddenly and were gone, their heads cleared from the space of the tent window, the moon and the palm trees wavering behind them. We stayed frozen, not believing they had really left, waiting for the badgering returned, the lap of water on the small sandbar, the buzzing of mosquitoes, the subtle flaps and rustles of animals. We breathed the sighs of nature coming back to us and reckoned our lives, together and alone.
Katherine Jamieson joined the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer in 1996. Her work has been published by Lonely Planet, Newsday and Lynx Eye, and she is working on a collection of stories about her experiences in Guyana. She won the 2001 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award from Peace Corps Writers for her essay Telling Time. Recently she was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship to study in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, where she will begin this fall.
A Writer Writes
Hey, I'm On TV!
by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264)
AT THE PRE-SCREENING FESTIVITIES, somebody mentioned in passing that the Philadelphia Inquirer critic had given the film a mixed review. This caught my interest, for I was afraid that the TV-movie treatment of my private-eye novel, Third Man Out, premiering at the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival July 7, was going to be wretched. Mixed sounded promising.
Although a number of television pros were involved screenwriter Mark Saltzman, director Ron Oliver, star Chad Allen (of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) the film had been done on a minuscule budget and shot in Vancouver in 14 days. My opinions had not been sought, and Saltzman had not been asked to be present at the shoot. He told me the old Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer.
When HereTV, a new gay cable channel, bought the novel and optioned the seven others in my Don Strachey series a year ago, it all felt like a win-win proposition. Id make some money from the TV and film rights sale $5,000 for each book filmed and Id sell some books, too. Enthusiasm for the series, written under my pseudonym, Richard Stevenson, had been waning for years, and the TV deal would revive interest in the Strachey books by, among others, me. Plus, the thing might even be good. In any case, I recalled Raymond Chandlers reply when somebody said wasnt it awful what Hollywood had done to his books. Hollywood hasnt done anything to my books, the creator of Philip Marlowe calmly explained, my books are right up there on the shelf. If the great Chandler could be so cold-bloodedly sane about it, God knows I could. But as the reality of the first screening approached, I began to sweat. Some people enjoy these gay-life social comedies in the form of mysteries and some people dont. Anyway, I have grown fond and protective of Strachey and his longtime partner Timothy Callahan over time, so I didnt want to see them trashed.
And they werent, exactly. At the screening, part of the festivals opening-night gala at a big downtown Philly movie house, the audience pretty much laughed when it was meant to and gasped at the right spots. My partner Joe Wheaton and I were so relieved that the thing wasnt catastrophically awful that when it was over we were elated. I was thrilled to see my characters recognizable as themselves cavorting on a big screen. Its a surreal experience. Allen, as Strachey, is excellent. Hes only 30 ten years younger than Strachey was when the first book came out in 1981 but hes solid and grown-up and as an actor hes got the chops. Sean Carey as Timmy is pretty good, too, though in a few misdirected comic scenes he comes across as a kind of gay Dagwood Bumstead. And the cute music on the soundtrack, cuing the audience when to be amused, seems to have wandered in from some other movie, maybe Francis the Talking Mule.
Some of the other actors are less than wonderful union rules say most must be Canadian and Vancouver looks nothing like Albany, New York, where the story is set. Theres some awkward editing, too, and, worst of all, the producers hired a gay-porn star, Matthew Rush, for a brief scene where Strachey interviews a former porn actor running a phone-sex operation in an Albany business park. Its an amusing gimmick, but the guys acting abilities are scant and with his pectorals like 52 Buicks and biceps the size of warthogs hes an appalling sight. He was at the screening, and Joe wondered, What if he explodes?
The Inquirer critic, Carrie Rickey, called the film a cheesy whodunit that dishes more humor than suspense, and thats not altogether unfair. Director Oliver was looking, he said, for a combination of film noir and The Thin Man, and he mostly gets that. The tone wobbles sometimes, and on a few occasions fails altogether. When, in a tense scene, Timmy blurts, You SHOT your boyfriend!? the audience howls. Thats not what was meant.
Rickey was wrong about one thing. Labeling the film cheesy, she went on, Were not talking brie, were talking Velveeta. Its a good line, but Joe said Havarti with dill is more like it, and thats about right. It all feels like a moderately successful combination of a good sixties TV PI show with The Thin Man except the Nick and Nora here are two men who are healthy and smart and playful and plainly nuts about each other. This is novel and refreshing on TV, no matter how cheesy the execution. When other Peace Corps writers books are filmed, I hope theyre as flavorsome and true to the spirit of the original as Third Man Out is and that the authors ARE PAID MORE THAN I WAS.
Third Man Out will air on HereTV periodically from September 1 to October 28 in those households that can receive it. Mine and those of several Here vice presidents are the ones that I know of. Next, HereTV plans to film Ice Blues, set during a brutal Albany winter though if its shot in Vancouver it may have to be called Light-mist Blues.
Richard Lipez worked as a Peace Corps program evaluator for three years following his Ethiopia service. He ran the Pittsfield, MA community action agency from 196871. A writer since then, Lipez has written for Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, The Progressive, Glamour, Redbook, and other publications. He is a regular mystery reviewer for The Washington Post and an editorial writer for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield. He co-authored Grand Scam, a caper novel in 1979, and since 1981 has written eight Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson, all published by St.Martins Press.
A Writer Writes
The Fireflies of Kalai
by Christine Taylor (Namibia 19992000)
AS I ROUND THE DUSTY CORNER near my house in Rundu, the ground rumbles. Low, dull noise like tumbling rocks comes from the direction of the Okavango River. I halt and look down the street. The air, already gray, holds puffs of black smoke. I think I hear a woman screaming.
I take off running. Blasts from near the river buzz in my ear. The toe of my sneaker catches the edge of a pothole. The sound of a sharp round of fire whistles through the air. I fall. I think Im hit. The road is rocky and sandy. I crawl in the gravel. I realize that Im still in one piece. I get up. I cover my head. I run like hell.
I reach the gate to my familys compound just as the white van with the red and blue Peace Corps emblem hangs the corner. I ignore the van, and run through my gate.
Get in the car! Jim, our regional director, says.
I run into my room and grab the purple box of Whiskas from my storage locker. Im emptying the entire box into Nias, my cats, bowl when Jim flies in the door.
Weve gotta get outta here!
My hand starts to shake, and a few nuggets of cat food bounce onto the floor. I look up at Jim. I have to feed the animals, I say.
I told my family who are away on December holiday that I would feed their ducks and rabbits.
I have promised.
A thundering rumble from cannonfire shakes the ground again.
Fine, Jim says and throws his hands up in the air. He pushes his dirty blond hair off his forehead. I grab my emergency bag which I thought Id never need and run to the front of the compound. Jim is close behind when I stop and fall to my knees in the sand. He trips over me.
What? he says, his eyes wide.
The dogs, I say and point. Ive been chased in the street by the neighbors dogs before, barely scrambling over the fence in time to save my limbs. Now these two strange mutt-combinations of broad heads, clenched jaws, and long legs rippled with muscles growl as they approach.
So what! Jim says and jumps to his feet. He throws sand in the dogs eyes blinding them like mace. They yelp and cry. Jim clubs them with a stray tool from the yard. They run back next door.
Im still kneeling in the sand.
I watch Jim run to the front of the compound and dump seeds, pellets, and water into bowls and onto the floor of the animals pen.
Im still kneeling in the sand.
Jim pulls me to my feet. He wobbles. His footing is off-balance on the shifting ground. The air has turned blacker with smoke. My eyes begin to burn. My vision blurs. Jim is dragging me to the car.
Just get in the car! Jim shoves me in the door, and I fall in next to my friend Aimee. He has already picked her up from Kaisosi, her village just outside Rundu. I put my hand on the window.
Shell be alright, Aimee says, laying her hand on my knee.
Jim nails the accelerator, and sand is kicked up behind the van. As he peels off, I keep looking out the window for a little black ball of fur running across the sand or hiding in a tree. I never see her. I only see the clouds of smoke coming from the river. I pray that my boyfriend Masatih, one of the towns AIDS prevention workers, has stayed in his little hut on the other end of town. That he hasnt gone out to distribute condoms to local villagers. That he hasnt ventured out to buy dried fish from the market. That he doesnt walk to my house. As the Angolan civil war spills over Namibias borders from the town Kalai I try to think of Nia tussling with a lizard, tossing it between her front paws. This will make me smile.
EARLIER THAT YEAR, Jose dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) the ruling political party declares yet another insurgence of the quarter-century civil war. This time, the MPLA vows to capture all the political strongholds of the opposing force, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), for refusing to uphold their part of the 1994 Peace Treaty. As the war moves closer to the southern end of Angola, thousands of refugees flood into northern Namibia from Angolan towns such as Muhopi and Kalai near the Okavango River border. They settle into a camp called Kasava on the outskirts of Rundu. From here, the refugees are transported to Osire, a larger refugee camp near the capital, Windhoek. By Christmas 1999, Osire bursts with 5,000 Angolan refugees. It has been built for 2,000.
The Peace Corps has known. They have known about the southern advancement of the Angolan civil war. It has been reported. But Group Thirteen, my group, is recruited anyway in May 1999, to train Namibian teachers at posts along the border. Namibia deserves a chance at development, country director Judith Oki says of the decision. We have to give her a chance. And when I receive my welcome packet in April, just three weeks before my graduation from university, I sign the contract and prepare to say good-bye to all my friends. I and twelve other do-gooders accept the charge.
When Jose dos Santos is planning the battle at Kalai, he calls on Namibian president, Sam Nujoma, for help. Nujoma tells him to use Namibian soil to launch MPLA attacks. Nujoma is quoted as saying that Angola is Namibias ally. So, dos Santos sends hundreds of MPLA soldiers over the Okavango to set up cannons aimed at UNITA rebels in Kalai. However, the soldiers of the MPLA are ill cared for by their government; and they themselves, like the refugees, are starving and without supplies. The soldiers ransack clinics, markets, and citizens homes in search of food and medical supplies. Men are beaten. Women are raped.
We Peace Corps Volunteers remain at our posts.
UNITA rebels get wind of Nujomas pact with dos Santos and send in soldiers for revenge. Again, whatever is left from the MPLA ravishments fall into the clutches of UNITA rebels. They ambush cars on the Trans-Caprivi Highway, the only paved road leading east from Rundu into Caprivi, the Namibian panhandle. UNITA rebels carjack a group of French tourists. The rebels shoot their three children. In the head. The American Embassy posts a restriction banning U.S. citizens from traveling on the highway into the Caprivi region. The Caprivi Volunteers are finally evacuated, although the Okavango are not.
We Peace Corps Volunteers remain at our posts.
This is our life.
This is my life. I walk six kilometers to Rundu Junior Primary School every morning at 6 a.m. past the river, past suspicious men that I have never seen in town before. I teach people how to manage their classrooms, how to create learning aids, and how to read and speak English. I gossip with my friends. I eat fried fatcakes from a roadside vendor for lunch. I walk into town after school in the scorching afternoon sun. I stop at the HIV/AIDS prevention center to fetch Masatih from work. We grab cool drinks and shoot pool. He walks me home. After my nap, I jog to the outskirts of town past Kasava. The people wandering outside the camp are never the same. I wait for Aimee to walk in from Kaisosi so that we can watch the sunset over the Okavango River. This is my life.
I want this life back.
I remember sitting on the edge of the river with Aimee. Its nearly ten oclock two hours past sunset but the October heat hangs in the air and wraps around us like a wool blanket. The slow moving water catches slivers of moonlight which bounce back at us like boomerangs.
Its beautiful out here, Aimee says, her words coming out drawled because her chin is resting on her knees. Small beads of sweat glisten at her temple, and fine ringlets of brown hair are pasted to her skin. I can still see her freckles in the dark. Her head pops up. She points. Look, its starting.
Dozens of lights begin to flash far away on the Angolan side of the river. They come and go like momentary blinking bulbs shifting from one spot to another. Soon, dozens become twenty, ten, five, before dying out and reappearing a short distance away.
Aimee says, They remind me of fireflies back home in the summer.
I sigh. Yeah, just like fireflies.
I want this back.
I remember the mercury in the thermometer creeping closer to boiling, and Masatih showing up more regularly outside my bedroom window. The courtyard leading to my quarters is double-gated, so he has taken to spooking me through the window screen rather than banging on the outer gate and waiting for me to undo the locks.
Metaha zeni, he says, lets go for a swim.
Ewa, I say and meet him outside. He reaches out his hand for mine. I give it a quick squeeze and then try to release, but his long dark fingers envelope mine. I shake away. Its not proper to hold hands in public, even if I am a foreigner, and he knows it. He tests my knowledge of Kavango social practices from time to time and helps me understand his people. He is part of the reason that I belong. He laughs and runs over to the gate to open it for me. I feed the ducks and rabbits in my familys compound and head off to the river with him to swim for the rest of the day.
I want this back.
ON THE MORNING OF THE BATTLE at Kalai, Jim assures us that we will return to our posts after the fighting is over. As a Volunteer, I never return. The evacuated Volunteers are shuttled from campsite to campsite waiting for Nujoma to repeal his decision. The war continues, and the Namibian army is even called in to help fight against UNITA. After two months, Oki finally puts on the brakes: Youre going home.
The Peace Corps office staff allow me to use their telephone to call my mother in New Jersey. When she hears my voice, she lets out a long breath.
Whats going on over there? she asks. I saw on CNN that theres trouble, but they only play small parts . . .
Im coming home.
Good. I told you that you were going to get killed over there. When are you leaving?
I havent booked an airplane ticket. I tell my mother Ill surprise her.
Im not ready to leave.
Aimee and I, along with three other evacuated Volunteers, decide to rent a truck to go back to the Okavango region. To say goodbye. We owe at least this much to our host families. We owe at least this much to ourselves. Since the American Embassy has issued a travel restriction preventing citizens from entering the Okavango region, we leave in the middle of the night, hoping that no one who works for Peace Corps will see us leave town. After six hours of driving up the Trans-Namib highway, the sun starts to rise, and we reach the Red Line, the former segregating line during apartheid that is now used for livestock control. We cross over into the Okavango region and make our way up the B8 highway.
The first time we crossed the Red Line during our site visit in July, Aimee and I remarked at how lush and green the Okavango region is compared to the harsh desert surroundings in other parts of Namibia. As we traveled up the B8 highway, the greenery wrapped itself around us, and we knew we were home. Near Rundu, woodcarvers and clay molders lined the road selling their wares. We honked repeatedly at cows and goats in the road.
Today, however, there is no charm. The morning sun seems dull and the stillness is uncanny. As we get closer to Rundu, the road becomes increasingly pitted. The truck bumps and sways trying to avoid chunks of rock and tar. We are on the lookout for landmines. We realize that at any minute, the van could blow into smithereens. Sarah McLachlan plays from a dubbed cassette tape. No one speaks.
My house in Rundu is the first stop. Chipo hears me open the gate and, she runs out from the courtyard. We have been growing closer, but this is the first time I hug her. Her husband Alex is now standing near the door holding their son Kudzai. Tatenda, their daughter, runs up to me.
Auntie, Auntie! I saw your cat this morning, she says.
I call for Nia, but she doesnt come. I start to cry.
Aimee nudges me from behind. Cmon, shell come. There isnt much time.
I go inside with my family and frantically pull meaningless belongings out of my locker and shove them into a suitcase. All the while, Im railing to Chipo and Alex about what has happened since I have seen them last. I tell them that the Peace Corps says I cannot come back. In the middle of it, I notice that there are dead creepies all over my room: cicadas without wings, frogs legs, dismembered lizards. I run outside and call again for Nia. She comes bounding out of a tree and runs over to me. I pick her up and see that shes got a five-inch scar running across her belly. The skin flops down revealing the pink flesh underneath.
Alex comes up behind me. I noticed it the other day, but she wouldnt let me catch her. She only comes for you.
I pop Nia into the carrier that I have brought to take her away, my one piece of Namibia.
Tatenda stands just outside my room watching me. Auntie, what are you doing? Are you leaving, Auntie? When are you coming back?
How can I tell her that I wont be around for her seventh birthday, that I cant help her with her homework when school starts again, that Im never coming back?
I grab a stuffed beanbag lion off my bed. An old friend from the U.S. sent it to me to remind me to be brave. I hand the lion to Tatenda. Can you take care of him for me? Hell need a good home, and I know you will make him happy.
Tatenda looks me square in the eye, takes the lion, and clutches it against her chest. She nods her head knowingly while Alex pats her head.
Leaving my house, we must drive down the road near the river. Its the only paved road running east. The once lush riverbank is squashed, like herds of super-sized elephants have come crashing through. But no one on the street seems to notice. Old women still sell tomatoes and carrots on the roadside, children kick around soccer balls made from wads of plastic grocery bags, and a man sips beer while leaning on a pole in front of the post office. I wonder if Ill see Masatih on the road too. I dont.
We head to Aimees site in Kaisosi. After entering the homestead, we find her nane sitting with a group of women banging mahangu flour. She rises. Youre back, she says.
Just for a while, Aimee says. She goes over to greet her nane properly, holding her elbow while shaking hands, briefly squatting while kicking up one foot. I also greet her, and then lay my head quickly on her shoulder. Aimees nane has always allowed me this little bit of intimacy, maybe because Im brown too.
We go into Aimees mansion-sized mud hut, and she packs a few things. She turns to squat out of the door, but she is leaving behind a large wooden trunk that she bought from a woodcarver several months ago.
Aimee, what about your trunk? I say.
Ill be back for it.
I open my mouth to protest, but then just nod and follow her out the door.
We visit the other Volunteers sites farther down the Trans-Caprivi highway. All along the way, I scan the bushes lining the road. Once, I see an illusion of a soldier jumping out from behind a tree, his automatic rifle aimed at our truck, his eyes wild. I gasp, jerk, and nail my head on the window. The others laugh uneasily and tell me to think about other things. How do they know what Im thinking anyway?
After our last stop, we head back down the B8 highway. Its nearly evening. I stroke Nias nose through the bars of her carrier. She purrs. The officer at the Red Line waves us through. We connect to the Trans-Namib. We leave the Okavango for good.
SHORTLY AFTER PEACE CORPS evacuates from the Caprivi and Okavango regions of Namibia, the Angolan civil war turns west and heads to other border areas. More Volunteers are evacuated from these regions. Peace Corps continues to recruit new Volunteers, however, and places them in areas farther away from the border. The Angolan civil war rages on for another three years, finally coming to an end in April 2002, with the signing of a cease-fire treaty by both the MPLA and UNITA. This is the first period of long-standing peace in Angola since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. By the end of the 27-year civil war, it has been estimated that over 1.5 million lives were lost in the battles. One and a half million fireflies in the night.
IN MARCH 2005, I send Aimee an instant message to see whats new. Weve seen each other a few times since our Peace Corps tour, the last time being my wedding two years ago, but we keep in touch regularly by e-mail and IM. I tell her that we should take a trip to Namibia. For closure.
She writes, It just doesnt feel like its finished.
I dont know what has happened to my host family. Their e-mails stopped about a year ago and the local post is unpredictable. The last time I heard from them, Chipo tells me that Rundu is back to normal, like the battle had never happened. I pray that they are well.
Masatih sends me a random e-mail whenever he can get his hands on a computer, probably in one of the government offices. In his last message, he asks me when Im coming back to Namibia for him. I dont have the heart to tell him that Im married now. Maybe its not fair that my life has moved on when life in Rundu persists as it always has under the tireless desert sun.
TODAY, AS I WRITE THIS, Nia sleeps under a purple azalea bush in my backyard in Hong Kong. Some days, when she crazily digs up spots in the dirt, I think about the times when she kicked up and rolled in the hot Namibian sand and ran around the compound more brown than black. I think about the times when Masatih bought her dried fish from the market and appeared after dark at my window, only his smile visible through the screen. I think about the children running barefoot around town, and my own feet that became so calloused and cracked that I could run around barefoot too. I think about watching both the sunrise on the way to school and the sunset with Aimee in the evenings. And when I sit on my balcony overlooking the slow moving waves of the South China Sea, I think about the Okavango River. But all I see are stars.
This is now my life.
Christine Taylor accepted her Peace Corps assignment in Namibia three weeks before her graduation from Drew University. Skipping the ceremony, she began her service as a teacher-trainer in the Basic Education Support (BES) project in conjunction with USAID. After her interruption of service, Christine returned to the United States to teach ninth grade English in an inner-city district in New Jersey. Two years ago, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband Sean who is an assistant professor in Human Resource Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Christine works as an English language and literature tutor in a local learning center.
A Writer Writes
by Kathleen Moore (Ethiopia 196466)
THE SMALL RAINS CAME while school was in session. The downpour started just as we walked back to school after lunch. We plodded through the ankle-deep chica in boots and rubber rain coats while our students held enset leaves over their heads and walked barefoot to save their shoes. Those of us who wore shoes were commanded to take them off at the door by the boy whose job it was to clean the floor. We Peace Corps refused to do so after chiggers bore into our toes and laid eggs there. You dont know it is there for a few days until your toe swells hideously and hurts. Wondimu dug out my first chigger with the end of a pin in seconds and thought nothing of it but after that I kept my shoes on everywhere.
In this make shift school with its corrugated tin roof, the rain drowned out all other sounds, pounding like mortar fire on a battlefield. During the afternoon classes I had to write everything on the blackboard that was no bigger than an opened book. The students shouted their responses. Everyone was hoarse by the end of class.
When the rain finally stopped, the sudden silence was unearthly. I always expected a voice from heaven to speak as the sun shone through the raindrops making tiny rainbows everywhere. We talked in whispers for the first few minutes, then gradually resumed normal conversation, forgetting until tomorrow the sound that pounded all sense out of your brain.
The first day of the small rains we got soaked on our way home from school. I told the children who were with me to come in my house and get dry. We made a fire and they gathered around it. Someone said, Chawetah and I asked, Whats that? They translated it, Play. How do you do it? I asked, expecting a game of some sort.
The children formed a circle around the room while Frewo went to my landlords house for a drum. Demaketch came with a small hand held drum that vibrated a steady rhythm above the chorus of voices, the rhythm of a heart beat.
They had sung only two songs when a small boy appeared in the doorway. I had never seen Gebre at school but the children all knew him. He couldnt have been more than eight years old. His little body was amber, even his brown eyes showed flecks of gold in the firelight. I dont remember ever hearing him speak, only sing.
He had that clear, bell tone voice you hear in the Vienna Boys Choir. The little stranger was not the least curious about my house or me. The children placed him in the center of their circle and began a call and response song where a soloist sings a verse, usually made up on the spot, and the rest sing the chorus. Gebre was the acknowledged soloist. He made up verses that were poetry, comedy, tragedy. Not knowing the language, I could never fully appreciate the verses.
Frewo and Wondimu translated for me but much was lost. Gebres voice was so pure and wonderful to listen to that I didnt really care if I knew the meaning of what he sang. The sound was all.
The chawetah ended all too soon for me. I loved the deep, steady rhythm of the drum vibrating beneath the girls high, trilling voices and the boys throaty baritones and hated to let the children leave. But some of them lived a long way away and had to get home before dark. Fear of the hyenas was stronger than the joy of play. The children told me stories that their mothers must have told to keep them home and safe after dark.
They said one time a woman from another village had stayed too long at the market and had to go home alone after dark with her unsold goods and her baby on her back. The hyenas attacked her, they said, and ate the baby. There was the story about the old man who got drunk in the bar drinking tej. The woman who owned the bar said she last saw him staggering down the road to his house, singing loudly and waving his dula, his walking stick, in the air over his head. The next morning some boys found his dula on the road with teeth marks in it but the old man was never seen again.
Everyone said they heard the hyenas laughing loudly that night. They only laugh when they are hungry, Wondimu said solemnly. Gebre left with the others without a word to me, glowing even more golden in the light from the lantern that I let them borrow to see him home.
From then on it couldnt rain often enough for me. The children would crowd in my saar bet and Demaketch would come over with her drum and before the first song was finished Gebre would appear. If Abba Francois was near by, he came in to sit in my easy chair and listen to the songs. I asked him if I should give Gebre something. Money or food?
No, he said. This is his gift. He is always called for chawetah for weddings and festivals and holy days. He makes up verses for each occasion that people remember and continue to sing.
If Gebres songs had been recorded, there would be a complete, although somewhat embellished, record of all the events of Emdeber life, including the coming of the five feringi Peace Corps volunteers.
Gebre never came to school. He seemed to know that he had no need to learn anything else, that there are some things more important than being able to write your name in a foreign language.
The language of song does not depend on the meaning of the words but on the sound of the voice that sings. He knew his value to this village and felt no need to be anything other than what he was.
EVEN DURING THE RAINY SEASON, it was always lovely weather in the highlands of Ethiopia, thirteen months of sunshine, just like the Ethiopian Tourist Organizations motto declared. The sun continued to shine even through the downpours. I missed not having seasons in the year, though. I missed snow, the soft white bits of nothing that tasted cold on your tongue when you were six years old. I couldnt explain snow to my students. We had hail in Emdeber once while I was there and I told them snow was like that only soft and white. Or like feathers but cold and it melted. I got puzzled looks. A friend sent me a photograph of her house in Minnesota buried up to its rafters in north country snow but still they didnt understand.
I missed autumn, too, with its changing colors. Here trees were always green, each day was like the one before it and the one to come, twelve hours of bright sun, clear skies, cool in the mornings and evenings, hot in the afternoons. Because it was always like that, it held no promise and no threat. It just was. There was a reminder of autumn, though, in the Meskal ceremony in early September.
Meskal is the celebration of the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe a piece of the cross is in Ethiopia, enshrined in an ancient church. One story has it that Egypt gave this piece of the cross to Ethiopia in return for a promise not to dam the Blue Nile River which would stop the annual flood of Egypts White Nile. It could be true for Ethiopia has never stopped the Blue Nile from merging with the White Nile.
I could see no connection between this Guragi celebration and the True Cross and suspect this is a more ancient ritual transposed to a Christian holy day, just as Europeans did when Christianity supplanted their earlier forms of worship. Each house in Emdeber had tall bunches of dry branches propped up in front of it to be burned at sunset on the day of Meskal. In the late afternoon, children and young women gathered in circles to sing and dance, going from house to house like old-fashioned Christmas carolers. As it got darker, the oldest male family member lit the branches standing outside his compound. The air smelled of autumns in Detroit when kids raked elm leaves into huge piles in the street and our fathers set them ablaze, the dry leaves burning in the almost-cold night air, smoke wrapping itself around bare tree branches, orange flames dancing. It was a mystical rite that I relived watching the Meskal fires.
Meskal also had a touch of spring with its bright yellow daisy-like flowers blooming around every saar-bet, in the fields and along the road. Boys and girls picked a fresh bouquet every day for their homes just as I had picked bouquets of violets and lily of the valley for my May altar every year. All good little Catholic girls decorated the top of their bedroom chest of drawers with blue and white crepe paper, put a statue of the Blessed Mother on it and gave her daily offerings of flowers picked from our yards where lilacs grew rampant for a short two weeks in spring. Tulips might still be out but they held no appeal for me; I thought them too plain to pick for Mary.
The heavy pink peonies were too big but I tried anyway to stuff them in vases and prop up their puffy blooms. I knelt each night before the altar and prayed, Hail Mary, full of grace, . . . blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . ., inhaling the ripe perfume of droopy flowers and felt only the peace of having an extra mother.
I wondered if my Emdeber students would have seen mirrored in my rites of faith, their own Orthodox Christian practices: priests in heavy, bright-colored robes; boys swinging incense burners, chanting in a language no one understood (their Geez ancient as my Latin), giving the priests money to pray for them. We were so much alike.
RELIGION WASNT ALWAYS obvious to us in Emdeber. None of us ever went to Mass at Abba Francois church and he never asked us to, never discussed religion with us, never acted like a priest with us.
Abba didnt seem to worry about our souls. If he did pray for us, he never told us about it. But for Ethiopians, religion is not a casual thing. Whether Christian, Muslim or Falasha (Jewish), they pray, fast, celebrate holy days, perform the rites required of them and hand down the faith of their fathers generation after generation. Emdeber was half Orthodox Christians and half Muslim. Any traditional animists left over from two thousand years ago didnt advertise their beliefs but Im sure there were some. I understood the depth of their beliefs because I had had the same ones. I knew about going to Mass every Sunday and on saints days; I knew about fasting and not eating meat; I knew about praying every day, not just to God, in fact, rarely to God; mostly to Mary and the saints and angels. The first prayer we learned as toddlers was Angel of God, my guardian dear . . . I taught this prayer to Wondimu and Frewo and they found it familiar and comforting.
A Writer Writes
by Melissa Moses (Lesotho 200204)
I AWAKEN WITH THE ROOSTERS, just as the closest stars begin to fade from the sky. Another day. Fifteen hours or so to survive. With a sigh, I push off the numerous blankets that must be used to stay warm. Time to run. My daily ritual. Many give me grief for running so early but I tend to find reasons not to go if I give myself the time. And the thirty pounds that Ive gained, eating my blues away, are making me even more depressed. This morning is no different than others, and I fight off the fleeting temptation to stay in bed cozy and warm. The rest of the day will likely be spent there.
I put on my running clothes a bit smelly as Ive been running in them for three days now. This morning is my bi-weekly long run and I prepare a bottle of Gatorade to carry with me. Ive tried to go without but begin to feel hallucinatory and shaky after about two hours. A package of cookies awaits my return carb replacement, I tell myself, yet the instant they are devoured I will begin to feel guilty.
The air feels like a second skin no longer chilly, not yet warm. I walk through my still sleeping village to get to the road. Restless animals eye me as I pass and renegade chickens flee from my path. They throw rocks at the creatures here all of the larger animals have cuts or scars on their flanks from the beatings. I can see the despair in their broken eyes. I claims to be numb to this, yet just yesterday caused a ruckus for attempting to rescue a poor puppy being thrashed by a group of young children.
I set off at a steady, constant pace. No one is out yet and I savor this time. To think, to breathe, to soar. Ive turned down numerous offers from people who wish to accompany me. The whole concept of alone time is unheard of here. I try to refuse politely, jokingly. There are cultural and linguistic barriers that I do not care to delve into. My previous attempts have failed; either the explanations were met with blank eyes or, worse, laughter. I cannot bear this reaction when my morning run is my salvation. The one thing that gets me out of my hut. The one thing that keeps me from smoking so much pot that upwards of three days can pass by in a sleepy, groggy stupor. With the sound of birds being the only thing disrupting the silence, the sun creeps over the peaks, illuminating the landscape with a soft light that grants everything beauty. For a few brief moments, I am able to appreciate this Switzerland of Africa.
I leave early to minimize the number of people that may be encountered. This lessens the potential for harassment. The run helps me to burn off residual anger only when there is no cause for it to bottle up during the course of the jog. Passing a bar where drunk men leer, hey baby/sweetie/sissy/mama, or children scream, hey white person, give me money, these dreaded occasions trespass on my brief feelings of freedom. They cause me to erupt in anger, telling quintessential starving African children to fuck off.
An hour passes. My route is defined. I run by distance and rarely glance at my watch. People are awakening and I am happy to turn onto a road that is rarely populated at this hour. A downhill stretch. My body is floating. Ive fallen into a pleasant rhythm that allows my thoughts to flow without focusing on my body, my breath, the amount of time remaining.
I notice the group of men approaching, three of them. They are quiet and do not appear to be amongst the throng of men who stagger home from the bars at daybreak. There are no bars out this way. I am not frightened. Men often head out early to tend to their herds, walk into work, etc. Still, my body becomes alert. Tense. An ingrained response in me, perhaps in all women, when confronting a group of men alone. I contemplate turning around but choose to continue, moving to the opposite side of the street. My eyes on the ground, my demeanor screams, leave me alone. It does not translate.
They begin calling out, run, run, white person, run! I feel my jaw clench and my fingernails dig into the skin of my palms. They start to run with me. I pick up the pace, hoping to discourage their pursuit. Laughing, they match me. I am not laughing. I turn and yell, No, stop! My hands are unconsciously thrust out in front of me, palms out, creating a physical wall in what I now know is the basic stance taught in self-defense. They stop, their faces fall, and their offense is obvious. A wave of exhaustion floods over me. Im so tired of this.
Feeling the bitch, I turn and head towards home. I cant take anymore. My serene state of mind is now busily calculating the amount of time remaining until I am able to go home. Home is personified by my mother. Twenty-four years old and all I want is my mom.
The rest of the run passes by in a haze of division. One-third of the way through this month, 2 months until I am halfway done, etc., etc. I round the curve that marks the beginning of my village and try to make my presence inconspicuous. I always cover my skin as much as possible, running in water-proof, canvas pants that cause sweat to accumulate in little droplets on my legs. A long-sleeved T-shirt disguises my arms. If I felt that it would help, I would rid myself of my blond hair I ache to blend in. But my differences seem ingrained. Dogs snarl at me, the lone animal rights activist in a country whose population has more immediate concerns. I sometimes wonder if, were it not for my white skin that leads to assumptions of money and sweets, the people here wouldnt snarl at me in the same manner. I slow to a walk a short cool-down before I retreat to my house. At the shop, two of my favorite children run to greet me. They live in the huts next door. One, my beloved, has a smile that can always soothe my seething. Nicknamed Mootaka for his nudist tendencies, he was terrified of me when I arrived. I fell in love with his little bottom fleeing whenever he caught wind of my presence. Months ago, I was sitting outside when I noticed him approaching alone. So brave, I thought, Had I finally won him over? About fifty feet away from my house, he covered his face with his hands, peering under his fingers to the ground to check his progress as he continued along. When he had almost passed my house, his hands came down into a sprinters stance as he bolted to his nearby compound. I moved to watch him and caught a glimpse of his infamous grin, thrown my way. Not meant for me, he was exalting in the thought that he had escaped unnoticed. Today, he is with his younger brother, less than two years old but already a firecracker. I dont understand a word from either of them but respond in a way that allows them to continue babbling on. I have never known such spectacular kids.
I leave them with promises to draw later and approach the home of my appointed father in the village. His truck is in the driveway, announcing his infrequent presence. In my ten months of residency, I have spoken with him maybe three times more of a father figure than hell ever know. His caretaker, who becomes, by default, caretaker of me, greets me with her usual ebullience. We know only about six words of the language of the other, yet she is one of three women that I care about in the village.
A young man is with her. The driver? The son? Even now, I dont know. He is my height and is dressed in the typical business casual style that is the norm in this impoverished country. Chino-esque trousers may have tiny holes in them from being dried on barbed wire fences, but one can rest assured they are clean and pressed. Polished shoes point out from under the cuffs and care is taken to match the pants with just the right T-shirt emblazoned with the latest NGO slogan.
The young man appears reserved as I stumble through the requisite question and answer session, Whats my name? Whats my work? Am I married? The answer to the last depends on my mood. Sometimes I scoff and make it clear that I would rather die than be married. Other times I am honest in my affirmative reply, though I never expand on the tumultuous details. My village, however, is aware of the saga. They heard the fighting. The woman in front of me now once had to physically separate myself and my husband. They all gathered in a circle to watch as he moved out.
The young man speaks a bit of English, but Im not in the mood to chat. I begin edging myself towards my house, trying to extricate myself from the situation. Before I am able to make my escape, he offers his hand. I hesitate. Too many times have I given my hand only to have it clasped so tightly that I am unable to pull away. One month or so previous, after an old man used this leverage to pull me in for a kiss, I vowed never again to surrender myself in such a way. This declaration had not yet been an issue as I could easily walk away from strangers in the street, not caring if I appeared rude. When do I not appear rude in this country? But this? This is home. This is family. I have to do this.
I give him my hand, smiling, always managing to outwardly express my ingrained American fakery, Nice to meet you! Ive gotta run! He grips my hand and I am enveloped in grease and heat. Dirty fingernails that have been God knows where glide across my skin. One phallic finger is freed from his hand and lecherously twists in a circle in my palm. I let my hand drop, stunned and sickened. This is a signal. A signal expressing his desire to let his dick do in another part of my body what his finger has done to my palm.
It feels like he is now twisting in my stomach.
I search the innocuous eyes of my caretaker. Her smile is unaltered. While energy and body language carry us through our daily interactions, the flames of rage radiating within me do not appear to singe her.
There is nothing to say. I turn and walk the twenty feet to my front door. There are kids outside of my house. More than content to amuse themselves with a variety of songs and games when I am absent, my arrival always causes everything to come to a halt. They call out my name and various desires; crayons, chalk, jump-ropes. The days when I actually used to play with them have long since passed. Now I just toss out the play things and wait for the polite knocking on my door that indicates their return. Today, I cant even manage that. Shaking my head, I storm past them. What must these people think of me? I pull the door closed behind me. Self-defense.
I can still feel his finger. Wiping my hands on my canvas pants, I have an overpowering desire to rid myself of everything affiliated with the event that just occurred. I strip off my running clothes why didnt the stench dissuade him? I pull on loose-fitting sweat pants my favorite jeans no longer fit; a roll of fat spills over the waist making them impossible to button. A baggy T-shirt, then an over-sized sweatshirt. A crocheted hat is pulled over my greasy, unwashed hair. There is a tiny mirror in my closet and I glimpse my reflection blank eyes staring out of a pudgy face that looks as though a child formed it with play-doh.
I dont understand any of this. Im so obviously undesirable, yet am constantly told how beautiful I am. Im so rude, yet have never had anyone hold a grudge against me. My mood changes instantaneously, yet my explosions in anger do not cause people to write me off. Do these people have the innate ability to see through my self-defenses to the kind-hearted person that I pray to God has not been lost? Or does my white skin blind them from who I have become a person that I find difficulty claiming.
War and Peace Corps
Footprints in the Sand: My Time in Vietnam
by David Gurr (Ethiopia 196264)
AFTER RETURNING FROM PEACE CORPS in Ethiopia in the summer of 64, I assisted in the training of a group of Trainees for Brazil, and then the summer of 66, I assisted in the training of another group for Turkey, both at New York University. In between, I completed an MA that I had started before going to country myself.
During the summer of 1966 when I was working with the Turkey project, I met an RPCV from Peru who had walked into my office by mistake. She was attempting to sign up for the Teacher Corps, a project for RPCVs that enabled them to obtain a graduate degree in education, while teaching in the poorest schools of New York City. She left my office but returned after having left a book behind. I invited her to lunch and the rest is history.
We were married shortly after our meeting. After all, if we had survived Peace Corps Training with all of the psychological testing how could we go wrong? In early 67 I began to shop around for jobs back in the international sector. I had studied international economics and upon my return to the states, I had written a dissertation on Ethiopias first Five Year Plan. And, my new spouse wanted to go overseas again as well. However, I was turned down for two jobs with UNICEF because of my 3-A draft status. They had already had someone of my age, with two children drafted out of West Africa, and we were expecting our first.
An international job surfaces
My brother told me that the Chairman of the Political Science Department at NYU, and a friend of his, was joining the Simulmatics Corporation to conduct research on the impact of television on the Vietnamese, and suggested I apply to become part of it. The project was funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Advanced Research Projects Agency (OSD ARPA), the same group that Daniel Ellsberg worked for.
I was subsequently hired for the project on a one-year contract, and left for Saigon in May of 67, my wife followed in July, then later moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The overt purpose of the OSD ARPA project was to have teams of Vietnamese interview village residents about changes in their attitudes that were attributable to television in essence to learn if we were winning hearts and minds.
The projects covert mission was to obtain information using the Hamlet Evaluation System, a monthly reporting system that supplied the OSD ARPA with the results of the war for pacification, in order to validate its accuracy. This was some of the information that Ellsberg relied on when he made his about-face regarding the pacification efforts.
I spent six months in Saigon, Bac Lieu, An Yang, Can Tho, Vung Tao, Long Bin, Phouc Long, Dalat, Binh Dinh, Na Trang, Quin Yang and Pleiku. I oversaw each team, but stayed away from them during the day while they conducted their interviews so as not to appear to be an American effort. Hows that for naiveté! I soon realized that if someone walked into a hamlet during the day, either Vietnamese or American, they had to be government supported because the Viet Cong owned the night in all of the contested areas which at the time constituted a third of the country and the bulk of our survey sites.
TV or not TV
Our findings were the same as television surveys conducted with American audiences; TV was an entertainment medium, not an information medium. People saw the news and propaganda being presented to them, but it did not substantially change their minds, because, of course, it did not deal with the relative insecurity of the villages. After all, if villagers were overseen by the Vietnamese Government by day and Viet Cong by night, they lived in a schizophrenic environment.
But, I also concluded that TV WAS also a pacifier. On Friday nights, Chinese Opera was by far the most popular program and ran upwards of two and a half hours long. While it often had overt propaganda messages, e.g., parents: dont let you daughters move to Saigon because they risk becoming prostitutes, it was highly entertaining.
One evening, I went with the Vietnamese district officer and the US district advisor to watch the reactions of a TV audience in a hamlet. Part way through the show, I commented to the officer about the fact that I observed viewers in uniform with rifles, and asked if they shouldnt be guarding the perimeter of the hamlet instead of the program. He said yes, but he then subtly pointed out two plain-clothed members of the audience saying that they were suspected of being part of the Viet Cong infrastructure in the hamlet.
The Hamlet Evaluation System
On the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES) side of the survey, it was obvious that they were distorting the facts. The HES was based on all sorts of indicators (seventeen factors as I recall) of pacification, each with five indicators of success, e.g., for the factor extent of the Viet Cong infrastructure, the choices would range from totally intact to totally eliminated. A report was prepared each month for every single hamlet in a district by the US District Advisor, usually an Army captain, or navel equivalent.
I soon realized that positive responses to the HES probably correlated more with negative reports in the US press that the advisors read, than with any improvement in pacification outcomes. Like any good soldier, they wished to show that things were going well, a typical outcome of surveys that lack reliable ways of validating the responses and challenging the findings.
I also observed that the officers who were assigned to serve as district advisors were all trained in psychological warfare at Fort Bragg. However, none of the ones that I ever talked to had met a returning advisor while at Bragg, which I concluded was a big mistake. What I saw was how discouraged many of the advisors became, occasionally implying that we were working and fighting on the wrong side of the war. The level of discouragement seemed to me to be strongly correlated with how well acquainted an advisor was with his Vietnamese counterparts and how often he would eat in the local market instead of in an Army mess.
Leadership in hamlets, villages and the country
There was one success that I did observe that could be replicated in Iraq. The CIA organized Revolutionary Development teams recruited from strategic hamlets, i.e. ones that showed an inclination to fight the Viet Cong. They would take a group of 55 residents of a hamlet and give them training. Upon completion of training the group was issued small arms and returned to their hamlet not only to serve as a local security force, but to undertake community development projects strengthening the hamlet through both activities. The teams enjoyed support from their fellow residents because of their twin commitments to security and development of the village.
When President Dimh was elected in 1954, he dissolved all village councils and replaced them with officers from elsewhere. These councils had been democratically elected, and replacing them with officers who were not residents of the villages alienated many of the residents. Villages were very insular and really governed themselves. With ancestor worship and other animist beliefs, residents felt that it was in that village that all of their ancestors resided and that they must reside.
These traditional values governed even the most educated. As an example, Hein, the overall team leader of our three survey teams, was educated at the University of Saigon and raised as the off-spring of a French Vietnamese officer. I asked him who he would vote for in the election for a new president in the fall of 1967. The candidates were the current president and a neutral candidate who was perceived as being able to mediate between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese government whose philosophy Hein had espoused on many occasions. Hein responded that he could not vote for that candidate because one of his ancestors had been cheated out of a piece of land by an ancestral relative of the candidate.
The war in action
In general, the war was very low key at the time that I was there. I would occasionally see smoke from a nearby bombing. I would also hear H&I (harassment and interdiction) artillery fire that was allowed in what were designated as free-fire zones areas that if there was any movement seen, artillery could be fired without higher approval. Obviously, this did not go over well with the residents of those areas.
I witnessed one incident while in Bac Lieu that left an indelible impression on me. A spotter plane, called a Bird Dog, piloted by a Navy ensign, was flying west of the town and the pilot reported that a resident of a hamlet had come out of his home and fired a rifle at him. The pilot contacted the district base in Bac Lieu and requested an artillery response. Two 105 mm Howitzers fired more than 20 rounds at the hamlet, destroying the man's house, boat, and generally made a mess of things. I asked the US district advisor what each round of 105 mm cost and he said about $120, in essence a $2400 response to a rifle round. He also alleged that more rounds had been fired than necessary because there was a leak in the tube of the barrel, causing some inaccuracy, but this did not stop the fire. This encapsulated our overall response.
Later that day, I met the ensign who had been flying the Bird Dog. He was an Academy graduate, but out there, he was a cowboy. He carried an M-16 with him in the air and was known for shooting it at targets while flying. I could understand how someone could turn into, or revert back into what they have been before entering the Academy. Shades of our leadership, where a good education seems to have had no effect on attitude.
During my days spent in Bac Lieu, I met the only civilian psy-war [psychological warfare] district advisor who was from USIA. He took me to an interview with a Viet Cong captain that had just turned himself in hoi chan, as it was called. Because the government offered money for hoi chan, it was suspected that many who were doing it were just trying to escape being caught in the middle of a war and needed the money. In this case however, the advisor thought that man was an officer because he was carrying a .45 automatic pistol, still in use by the American forces. The reason that he gave for turning himself in was that he was being passed over for promotion by regroupees.
When a million Vietnamese went to South Vietnam after partician in 1954 and the election of Ho Chi Minh, about 400,000 went north. These were being infiltrated back into South Vietnam and according to the officer, taking over the command of the Viet Cong. The advisor thought that this would be a great message to capitalize upon in leaflet drops and posters.
Fortuitous trip to KL
Both fortunately and fortuitously, I went to Kuala Lumpur to be with my wife while our first child was being born. My wife, having not heard from me for nearly a month because I was in the field, insisted that her doctor induce birth, even a month early because she wanted me to be there for the event. Ironically, while helping the staff to move her from the bed to the birthing table, I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen and the next day, I was operated on for appendicitis. I spent the next week in the same bedroom as my wife, with our daughter between our beds. We were the talk of the hospital, a Catholic one no less. Ultimately, it turned out it was not appendicitis but rather an intestinal virus that was unknown at the time. Years later I read that a journalist had had the same experience in Vietnam.
When discussing my views about the war conveying the skeptic views that had been expressed to me by some district advisors, I was roundly criticized by some of the other researchers in essence saying why didnt I go home if I did not share both governments line about the war. At least one researcher, who had done work in North Vietnam in 1953 defended me saying that it was always appropriate to question research findings and beliefs.
Given my illness and fact that the firm had spent two thirds of the grant funds on one third of the survey, and the first of three waves of interviews with respondents, I was let go to return to the States.
I returned to Saigon from KL in mid-December and left on Christmas Day. A week later, the Tet Offensive occurred, forever changing the image of the war for the TV audience back home. One of the last things that I did before leaving Saigon was to cancel a rent-a-car that I had planned to drive with my wife and daughter to Phnom Penh. It had been expected that everyone would take a vacation, even the VC as had occurred during previous Tet observances.
Back to school
That same researcher who had supported my views about the war encouraged me to return to NYU and study for a doctorate, and when I returned home I followed his suggestion and re-enrolled in a graduate program. It was a slow process and, as I learned later, risky. It seemed that at least one member of the department was opposed to my being readmitted because I had worked in Vietnam. In fact, he ended up on my dissertation committee, and with my own challenges, he helped me to not get the degree, but the department chairman having sympathy for me awarded me an M Ph as a consolation prize. All of this is to underscore how divisive the war became in our lives.
I had maintained my belief that the best ways to understand the world and to have it understand us was in fact-to-face exchanges. What I was beginning to find was that this was somewhat idealist given the preponderance of alternative US policy towards others.
What is so striking to me now is the absolute comparison between our attitude toward Vietnam then and our attitude toward Iraq today. This might not have occurred to me had not Kerry and the Swift Boat guys restarted the war, 40 years later. It is as if no one read the history of the war in Vietnam. I think that it is because 1) we as a nation are in denial, with neocons believing that we lost the war because of the bad press, and 2) as George Bernard Shaw so well stated it, what we learn from history is that we dont!
A third axiom comes to mind: generals fight a current war the way that they fought the last one. However, in the case of Iraq, the civilians rather than the generals now think this and direct the war. The generals, at least those who express their hunches, are right, i.e., we should never have taken this one on. In the case of Vietnam, we had a plan for after the war with Arthur Smithies and another colleague working on such a plan. In Iraq, there now appears to have been no post-war plan and the military has privatized reconstruction, as well as supply lines with catastrophic and expensive results. In addition, the military has dropped its community development assistance that it had used for years. Just look how an occupation force entered Japan after WWII and turned the lights and the water back on, resulting in Japan becoming a dominate economic power. This was largely because of our ignoring the aftermath of WWI and the result of that action being WWII.
Another lesson for me is that the US never grasped the differences among the North, Central and South Vietnamese that they held for each of them. This was largely attributable to the fact that France oversaw all three as political entities and administered them in vastly different ways. Again, shades of Iraq with Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
Overall, I have always reflected on the fact that I spent years avoiding the draft, first by joining the Peace Corps, as well as having one of my U.S. Senators contact my draft board when I received my induction notice on the day that I had informed my draft board that I would return to the US from Peace Corps service. And then I end up going there voluntarily as a social science researcher!
And, like My Lia, we end up killing the very people we want to institute a western form of democracy. One of my wifes students from the United Arab Emirates, when I asked, said that western democracy does not work for them because each of the clans, tribes, whatever, have wise men who arrive at agreed upon decisions. As one American diplomat once observed on a morning following a request for a decision, looking outside, he could see the many footprints in the sand. And of course, this is the sand that we and they are drowning in today.
David Gurr works today for AmeriCorps/VISTA, Corporation for National and Community Service. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he taught Auto Mechanics and Shop Management at the secondary level, Economics at the undergraduate level, and played flute with the Ethiopian National Symphony. He is the father of two children, a daughter who is an Episcopal priest and a son who is a somatic psychologist and Celtic harpist.