LAST MOON DANCING PROVIDES AN UNUSUALLY textured account of one Peace Corps Volunteers teaching assignment in the small West African nation of Benin. Monique Maria Schmidts debut book is a pastiche of prose, poetry, song, scraps of letters to Schmidts childhood friend Angela and an occasional language lesson for her school students, providing readers with a glimpse of her two years in West Africa. The result is a raw and humorous narrative which would resound with any Volunteer.
Schmidt served as an English teacher in Glazoue, a small town along the Queme River several hours north of the coastal city of Cotonou. Her arrival heralds a number of judgments against her from the community, which, while not intentionally malicious, are pointed enough to affect Schmidts sensitivities. Her usefulness is questioned because she cannot balance a basin of water on her head. (Two students fetch well water for Schmidt and her lone attempt to perform the task herself ends in disaster.) While teaching a lesson on similes, Schmidt displays consternation at a students ability to write a technically correct sentence about her: Madame is as fat as an elephant. And while enjoying the privacy of her own living quarters, Schmidts solitude becomes ironically the source of greater public attention with neighbors wondering where her husband is. Villagers explain away her frustrations with Glazoue life as a lack of sufficient sex.
Still, the apparent absurdities that often serve as bottom-line judgments of Americans in the developing world (along with the frequent accusation that were all CIA agents!) hide the more significant affection that host-country nationals typically hold for Volunteers. Following an argument with Big Mama, a villager with whom Schmidt enjoys a close relationship, Schmidt purchases a bush rat at the market as an act of contrition (bush rat being a local delicacy.) Confronted by villagers who want to know how she came by the rat, an emotional Schmidt blurts out that she caught it. As disbelieving villagers await an explanation, Big Mama coyly describes the process for capturing a rat so that all Schmidt needs to do is agree that yes, this is exactly what happened to save face and not get caught in a humiliating lie. Thus is a close friendship restored between two women across cultures, rendering as unimportant the easy laughter that typically confronts Schmidt in her daily dealings with Glazoue.
The narrative moves easily between Schmidts experience in Africa and her childhood memories. Surrounded by unfamiliar cultural entities in Glazoue, Schmidt backtracks to her past to discover her identitys roots: recalling adolescent concerns about sexual relationships, lingering misunderstandings about how her parents came together as Mennonite farmers in South Dakota, and comic memories of an endless series of dogs that lived with the family. Still, whatever insecurities she may confess regarding relationships and occasional bouts with loneliness, Schmidt does develop a close friendship with another Volunteer, Beaker, and several students who exhibit a spirited optimism unlike other defeated villagers.
Schmidt holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She had the good fortune, following her two years of international service, to learn how to write and relive in words her Benin experience. The manuscript of Last Moon Rising became her graduate school thesis, and the book itself is a celebration of language and Schmidts versatile ability to confer meaning in words, as well as a story about Africa. Shifts between Roman prose, italicized poetry and typewritten letters draw attention to the very written means of communication. Schmidt confesses in her book that she had an insurmountable need to tell her stories. They [the stories] will tussle with each other, different versions taking different shapes and then trying to get out. Trying to squeeze themselves out of where you have shelved them with the reassurance that you will come back. Someday. Someday you will come back to them.
Fortunately for the reader, this self-conscious attempt to articulate her stories so soon after her Peace Corps service before time or unreliable memory could dilute their power helps Schmidt retain the raw sense of her experience. She conjures narrative images of dancing and singing and the almost sensual effect of the wind brushing her body, restoring an enchanting spiritual immediacy to the events, the sense that they are occurring at the moment she writes them. She chooses unusual poetic juxtapositions of imagery (. . . my heart wanted to dance with tigers, scratch the noses of hippos, If I drowned in my own sweat, would it be a catastrophe, mosquitoes wings quivering into silence?), offering a lyrical shift in pacing from the more straightforward prose accounts of life in Glazoue. I found the effect of her poems unbalanced: while many did fabulously draw attention to the depth of her personal experiences, I found other images puzzling more than enlightening. Still, Schmidt does not lack in ambition and her words read like smoldering flames streaming across the pages.
One would expect that Last Moon Rising helped this RPCV bookend her overseas experience with a cathartic narrative. She confesses in the acknowledgments section that she has never gotten over her Peace Corps experience. Some days it nourishes my soul; some days I worry it will break me. This sentiment will sound undoubtedly familiar to other Volunteers. Seven years after my service has ended, I still find threads of the Peace Corps experience in my daily life, in the nature of my writing, in the friends I keep and in the work I do. Last Moon Dancing offers Schmidt an opportunity to share an account of her life in Benin that is up close and personal. No doubt the words she has penned, and a million other words about her experience, will live on in her head for the rest of her life. A book, after all, is done once it is published; memory, on the other hand, never dies.
Joe Kovacs served as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka. He writes for WorldView magazine and is currently seeking an agent for his novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. He also is a martial arts practitioner and holds the rank of brown belt in tae kwon do.