Talking with . . .

Monique Maria Schmidt

    An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    OVER A YEAR AGO I received an email from a woman wanting to know if Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64) was the “real thing” because Geraldine wanted to publish her Peace Corps book. I emailed the woman saying that not only was Geraldine the “real thing” but if Geraldine wanted to publish her book then she was truly fortunate. I did not hear from the woman again, but Geraldine sent me a note saying she had found a “great writer” and shortly afterwards Geraldine sent me a book by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 1998–2000) entitled Last Moon Dancing. “Ah,” I said, so this is the great writer and her book. And what a book it is. Monique tells the story of her two years teaching in Benin with great humor and great prose, and while we haven’t met, I understand that in person, Monique is quite the great woman herself.
         From Geraldine, I received Monique’s email address and we began a correspondence about Last Moon Dancing. This was not easily done because Monique has the habit of not reading her email and she tends to move around a lot.
         Nevertheless, here is what she had to say when we did connect.

    Monique, what prompted you to join the Peace Corps?
    I spent my junior year abroad in France and wanted to travel again and be able to use my French. However, I didn’t want to be just a tourist. I wanted to actually be a part of a community. I also wanted to do something more “rugged” than the university in France — and Africa definitely was. I thought Peace Corps provided an ideal opportunity to help others while learning.

    Where did you go to college?
    I went to undergrad at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and graduated with majors in French and Communications. I went to grad school for creative writing at Syracuse University after my service.

    Did you go to the Peace Corps right after college?
    Yes. I left for Africa a week after my college graduation.

    What was your Peace Corps assignment?
    I was teaching English in the village of Glazoue, Benin, West Africa.

    You have a great sense of humor that comes out in your book. Tell us the funniest thing that happened to you while you were a Volunteer?
    Hmmmm . . . there were so many moments . . . however, I think the moment that makes me laugh the most often since my return happened on the “safari” some of my Peace Corps friends arranged. It was our first vacation in-country and probably one of the best vacations during my service. We didn’t have enough money to go on a real safari or stay in a hotel; so we rented a “mini-van” and a hired a guide and bought baguettes and cans of tuna-fish for our three day trip. On the first night, one of my friends opened the can of tuna-fish and spilled it all over her jeans . . . and she didn’t have another pair to change into . . . after sleeping on the ground and then riding on top of the mini-van for three days in tuna-oil covered pants, she made quite the contrast when we walked past the French tourists sipping champagne next to their range-rover. That combined with her wind blown hair is an image I’ll always remember.

    Were you thinking about writing a book about the Peace Corps while you were in Africa?
    No. When I was in Africa, I was more interested in writing letters home to people and writing poems for myself and others. However, Africa was when I discovered that I truly loved writing and came to believe in the power/necessity of the written word. I decided during my Peace Corps service that I wanted writing to be part of my life; I just wasn’t sure exactly how to make it work.

    In terms of writing the book, what was the process? For example, did you use a journal or those letters home?
    The process of writing this book was fairly complicated. I reread my journals and letters I had written and the letters others had written me. I looked at the poems I had written in Africa and tried to mesh them with the ones I was writing at graduate school. It was tricky because the environment changed my writing. The material from Africa was more rhythmical and spiritual. My writing in grad school became more “crafted.” Also, I didn’t want to write a standard “narrative.” I wanted the form of the book to capture the emotional intensity of the experience while trying to present life as it was for me . . . some actual living, some reflective journaling, and some letter writing. The form really made the writing process challenging . . . a lot of small pieces of paper arranged and rearranged and then rearranged again.

    How many drafts did you write (roughly) of the book?
    Ohhhh . . . the drafts!!! Each time I thought it was finished, it wasn’t. It has been in four or five forms

    How did you find your editor?
    I looked for small presses, and I also looked at the Peace Corps Writer web page for editors accepting Peace Corps material. Clover Park Press was the one which accepted my manuscript.

    Do you have an agent?

    Have you read any other books written by RPCVs? If so, which ones did you like, or think are like your book?
    I’ve read the book of short stories written by various Volunteers, and I think, content-wise, we have similar stories. I’ve also read Marnie Mueller’s Green Fires, and I admire the fact that she writes a very lively, human, yet political, story.

    Do you think that RPCV writers have another way of looking (and writing) about the world because of their experiences as Volunteers?
    I don’t know about other writers, but for me, the answer is definitely yes. The two years I spent in Africa definitely changed the way I look at the world. I think a lot of my writing centers on people because that is one of the important lessons I took away from Peace Corps . . . the importance of good people, of strong communities. I also end up writing a lot about misperceptions . . . of myself by myself and others and of others by myself and others. Additionally, being an RPCV makes me aware of the effort needed for successful cross-cultural communication, within and outside one’s “home” culture; so a common theme in my writing is “belonging/not belonging.”
         Also, being in the Peace Corps made me realize the importance of stories in creating understanding and maintaining connections, on personal and national levels. Basically, I think good writing tries to present the “truth” of an experience, or accurately portray the humanity that can sometimes be overlooked in a fast-paced world, and my experiences in Africa made me more aware of the importance of finding the “truth” and appreciating humanity.

    Do you have plans for more travel?
    At this moment, no, but my life has never been predictable.

    You have just finished a masters in creative writing. Was getting that degree helpful to you in your writing?
    Grad school was very fundamental in my being able to write the book. It was three years spent focused on writing which gave me great opportunities to try different formats and styles while receiving feedback on what worked and what didn’t work. It was also very beneficial to be around people whose main focus was writing. Additionally, I was able to take classes that discussed literacy and women’s international issues which helped me understand my Peace Corps experience better.

    What are you working on now? Another book? A novel?
    I don’t know whether it will be a novel, or rather, I should say I don’t know what form it will be in. Poetry is my first love, but I really like the format of this book with its mixture of poetry and prose. The next one might be the same format — I’ll let you know when it’s finished.

    From your bio it appears you have had an interesting upbringing, being raised on a sheep farm in a Mennonite community. Have you thought about writing about your upbringing? Also, was this sort of childhood helpful for you in living in Africa?
    I definitely have an interest in my upbringing . . . the older I get, the more I realize how it has shaped who I am and what I value and how I see the world. I have thought about writing more about it, but I’m not so sure that it is interesting enough for others to want to read. And yes, the tenacity that it takes to keep a small family farm going is the same tenacity that I used in Africa. My childhood rooted in the Mennonite church definitely gave me the curiosity and the compassion to establish an initial interest in Peace Corps.

    You have also lived and worked in Japan, the West Indies and Latin America . . . can you tell us a little about what you were doing in these countries?
    I went to Japan while in high school on a Kikkoman/Youth For Understanding/FHA (Future Homemakers of America . . . now FCCLA) summer exchange program. I lived with a host family and went to school . . . but not often since I didn’t speak Japanese. In the West Indies I was working for an organization called Visions Service Adventures which gives high school students cross-cultural community service opportunities in the States and overseas, and in Latin America, I taught English at a University.

    Where are you living now in South Dakota?
    I’m on the farm right now . . . and actually really enjoying feeding the bottle lambs, even though they snot on my legs when I walk in the pen . . . “Snot” may not be a normal verb, but in lamb jargon it exists to describe the time when the lambs mistakenly think that by rubbing their wet noses up and down your legs, they will get them to produce milk . . . I don’t look at this phenomena as a sign of some lack of intelligence, rather, a sign of their optimistic whole-hearted belief in miracles.

    Do you have a poetic description of life on the farm?
    A poetic description . . . hmmm . . .

    A silent combine waits next to stacked straw bales. Flat gravel roads quietly hold sprawling sunsets as evening breezes grow overnight into winds which make biking in the mountains seem easy . . . mourning doves, hidden somewhere in the evergreens, accompany the sleek wriggle of my parents’ puppy as she chases dragon flies through chest-high purple Canadian thistles on the banks of our dug-out.

One last request. Pick a paragraph from you book that you love. Something that you think is well written. I’ll add that to your interview so people can get a “taste” of your prose and style.
I think I like the ending of the prologue because it really sums up (I hope) how meaningful my time in Africa was . . . even though I often joke about it . . .

I usually joke about my years spent in a West African village, as if they were simply a sweaty, stinky, rat eating, tummy-cramping adventure, as if Afi and the villages hadn't given their homes, their laughter, their grooves, their children, their food, their lives, as if they hadn't given and given and given their strength, their love, their spirit — concocted with a little mango breeze, some marche dirt, and a little Nigerian palm oil — bounded and danced and lived.
     So did I. With wind wrapped around my stomach, the sun scorched freckles on my skin. I danced at night under raving stars, living in the wild with God.

Thank you, Monique.
Thank you! This was fun.