Peace Corps Writers November 2005
This print version of Peace Corps Writers does not include information from the Current Issue page that provides links to each of the articles, any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, links, book covers, photos or other graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include newly archived or resource material including copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, bibliographic listings, or Journals of Peace material.
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Peace Corps Writers: front page November 2005
Online writing workshop
Over the last two years we have offered three online ten-week writing workshops for RPCVs working on fiction or non-fiction manuscripts based on their overseas experience.
We are now considering offering another workshop beginning in March 2006, but will only do so if there is sufficient interest from RPCV writers. If you are interested, email publisher Marian Haley Beil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our last workshop group that met this past March through May found the class to be so inspiring that they have continued to post writings weekly for comments from their fellow students!
Peace Corps Writer blog
We have had six terrific pieces posted at www.PeaceCorpsWriters.blogs.com. This is our new blog site where PCVs and RPCVs can share writings about their experiences during their Volunteer service. We hope that you will visit the site to read what has been written about Ethiopia, Gabon, Iran, Nepal, Niger and Senegal. And that you will post your own short items (2000 words max) about your Peace Corps experience to share with the world.
And then Sarge said to me . . .
After his Peace Corps tour Ronald Schwarz (Colombia 196163) became an anthropologist, trained other Volunteers, and spent 12 years in research and teaching in Colombia. He taught at Williams College, Colgate and the Johns Hopkins University and later established a consulting firm, Development Solutions for Africa based in Nairobi. He is currently writing a book about his group, Colombia One the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers. Here he recalls his first meeting with Shriver.
SARGE WAS ILL-AT-EASE standing before us at Rutgers University. June 26th 1961 was a hot and humid New Jersey day and the 84 men sitting on makeshift wooden bleachers were the first Peace Corps Trainees he had ever seen. But it wasn’t the humidity troubling him. He was aware of grumbling and concern within the selection committee about our limited qualifications. Many of us lacked a university degree, only a handful met the language requirement, a dozen or so had not even taken the Peace Corps test, and our “special skills” fell far short of what the Colombian government and the Peace Corps wanted.
Sarge removed his jacket and warned us that these were deeply troubled times. Hardly an exaggeration in view of the recent Bay of Pigs fiasco. “This may be our last chance to show that we are really qualified to lead the free world,” he began and told a story of an exchange with a woman in India during a recent visit. “She reminded me that Indians knew the American Revolution as the first successful revolution in the world and asked me, ‘Can you bring it here? . . . The Russians have their system, but America has spirit and idealism. Can your Peace Corps bring that to India?’”
We sat quietly on the creaking bleachers as Sarge lectured us, “The American voice has got to be clear and decisively open. In Colombia, Peace Corps will help them achieve what they want in their own free way . . . you can do more than 10 guys like me . . .. It’s like work on the old American frontier. You can show them how to achieve a free way of life.” Then he added, “what we would accomplish in community development, may well have a greater impact for good than the entire $600,000,000 aid program for Latin America.”
Around us, behind us, and flanking Shriver were newspaper reporters, TV cameras, and a collection of CARE officials, professors and administrators from Rutgers University and the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sarge stopped talking and opened the meeting to questions.
Someone in the back of the bleachers shouted out, “What about horse training?”
“I don’t know about the horse training,” Shriver replied, shaking his head. “Down there you’ll ride mules. I know there’s a difference, but the riding principle is the same.”
“Can we write articles for our town newspaper?” asked a trainee from Chicago.
“You’re going overseas to help with community development and not to become freelance writers,” Sarge reminded him.
A Latino trainee diplomatically inquired about Peace Corps policy on fraternization. Shriver responded carefully, “As Peace Corpsmen you will be representatives of the United States . . .. If one fellow blows, it will affect the whole program . . .. In Colombia as in other nations the customs for making friends are totally different than in this country . . .. In Sicily, if a man took a girl out to dinner he “would have to marry her.”
Sarge kept fielding questions that revealed how little we knew about this Peace Corps adventure and what our lives would be like in the next two years. As Sarge was summing up, he mentioned that a department store had contacted him and offered to supply the entire Peace Corps with work outfits but that he was forced to refuse the donation.
“Why?” I asked. It was my first question of Sarge that afternoon.
“Because it’s against the law,” Shriver replied.
“Then why don’t you get Congress to change the law.”
Sarge stared at me for a long moment. I could feel the sweat dripping and it wasn’t because of the humidity. Then he grinned and pumped his fist in that famous way of his and declared, “That’s the kind of spirit we like to see in the Peace Corps!”
Ten weeks later as we boarded a chartered Avianca Super Constellation we were handed duffle bags full of clothes, boots, flashlights, and tools, all courtesy of Sears & Roebuck. Sarge and friends from Chicago had made another successful end run around Congress and the Peace Corps was on its way.
In this issue
This November issue we bring you six reviews of new books by RPCV writers, including reviews of books by George Packer (Togo 198283) and Karin Muller (Philippines 198789). We also interviewed Karin about her special PBS documentary on Japan.
Writings by RPCVs include two “A Writer Writes” essays by Celeste Hamilton (Guyana 200305) and Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698). Additionally, award winning short story writer Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567) sent us a wonderful travel account of her pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain this past summer. It was a walk she took with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 196567), from Le Puy en Velay in France, over the Pyreness and on to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain.
In the Book Locker, we recall High Risk/High Gain written by Alan Weiss that was published in 1968. And we have the news in Literary Type. Finally for writers, we have both a new “Friendly Editor” and a new “Friendly Publicist.”
Recent books by Peace Corps writers 11/2005
If Life is a Game, These are the Stories.
True Stories by Real People Around the World About Being Human
Edited by Cherrie Carter Scott
Charles Kastner (Seychelles 198081), contributor
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Emile’s Travel Log to Yemen
by Diana Parrotta (Yemen Arab Republic 198284)
Hang In There
My Journey of Service Living in Caribbean and West African Cultures
by Elizabeth J. Quinn (Jamaica 198588, Sierra Leone 198990)
(To purchase, send $15 plus $2 P/H to the author at: 7100 Gloria Drive, #72, Sacramento CA 95831)
Fever & Thirst
Dr. Grant and the Christian Tribes of Kurdistann Cultures
by Gordon Taylor (Turkey)
Academy Chicago Publishers
Moon Handbooks Nicaragua
by Randy Wood (Nicaragua 19982000)
& Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000)
Avalon Travel Publishing
Literary Type November 2005
The New York Times Book Section on Sunday, October 30, 2005, featured (in a very big way) books by two RPCVs. George Packer’s (Togo 196264) book on Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate was reviewed by Fareed Zakaria, who wrote, “Packer, who was in favor of the war, reserves judgment and commentary in most of the book but finally cannot contain himself: ‘Swaddled in abstract ideas . . . indifferent to accountability,’ those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq ‘turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one,’ he writes. ‘ When things went wrong, they found other people to blame.”
Also reviewed in the issue was Karin Muller’s (Philippines 1987-89) Japanland, a book and National Geographic special. The Times reviewer writes, “Muller is brash, intrepid and more than a trifle wacky.” (Sounds like an RPCV to me.) Then adds, “Muller’s strength is her fresh eye. She watches as crowds in Osaka ‘waterfall’ down the station steps; when her hostess is annoyed, ‘Yukiko shoots me a look that would drop a cockroach in its trcks’”; and when Muller is thrown in a judo match, her ‘body hits the ground with a sound like a wet frog thrown against a piece of tile.’”
Elle Hungary, a member of the international family of Elle publications, presented its second year of Elle Literary Awards. Each month a different panel of 11 readers who had a month to read 6 books 3 fiction and 3 non-fiction, chose the best book in both categories. In August 2005 Peter Hessler’s (China 199698) book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze was selected as the “book of the month” in the non-fiction category, and then received the best book of the year in the non-fiction category.
Peter published a short piece in The Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker in the December 5, 2005 issue on the Hongqiao Market in southern Beijing which has become a new tourist attraction for visiting Westerners. Hessler, who lives in Beijing, writes that the market has replaced the Great Wall as the “obligatory stop on any state visit to the People’s Republic.” Hessler’s next book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present will be published next spring.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s (Cameroon 196567) memoir, Girls of Tender Age (Free Press), will be available in December and Mary-Ann will have a reading at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore on Upper West Side (2289 Broadway and 82nd St.), NYC, on Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 7:30 PM.
The memoir is the Borders Original Voices selection for January and February. Her Peace Corps service gets a couple of paragraphs in this memoir.
Amazon.com has selected Girls of Tender Age as one of the top memoirs of 2005. Her book is about the recovery of repressed memories of a 1953 murder by a serial killer of an 11-year-old friend and neighbor in a blue-collar enclave in Hartford, Connecticut. In recalling her childhood, Mary-Ann describes her upbringing in a fractured family whose existence centered on placating her older brother, Tyler, an autistic boy who couldn’t bear sounds of any kind crying, laughing, sneezing, dog barking.
Moon Handbooks Belize by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998-2000) and Chicki Mallan just won a Lowell Thomas Travel Award (Bronze) in the Best Guidebook Category.
The Second Edition of Moon Handbooks Nicaragua that Joshua did with Randy Wood (Nicaragua 1998-2000) is now in bookstores.
Joshua is currently documenting his year-long, round-the-world honeymoon on his Tranquilo Traveler blog. He invites you to visit the site and read about his time volunteering on Indian, tea gardens or trekking in Pakistan’s breathtaking Hindu Kush.
John Flynn (Moldova 199395) has short stories due out this winter and spring current edition of The Paterson Review, #34 (available at bookstores); The Powhatan Review; eclips.us (online), a Canadian e-zine; Plumb Biscuit (online), the e-zine of the New York Writers Coalition; and The Redwood Coast Review. His latest story, “Desire Equals Rain,” about a young traveler in Amsterdam, is available online at www.verbsap.com.
Imagine a House by Angela Gustafson (Dominican Republic 199496) was featured in the October 2005 issue of Nick Jr. Family Magazine. Designed as a two-page spread, an excerpt of the book was a pull out section for kids.
In her feature article, “The Dark Side of Paris,” in Glimpse magazine, (www.glimpseabroad.org) writer Valerie Broadwell (Morocco 198183) chronicles her tour of subterranean Paris with French urban explorers. The article was excerpted from Broadwell’s book on the subject, City of Lights, City of Dark that will be published in the spring.
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880), will have an article published in The San Francisco Chronicle on December 11, 2005. His story “Serprise Package From Skippy,” and the photo that goes with it, Paul writes, “is about the Korean war, his daughter’s request for a dog, and a disturbing old photo of bombs that finally makes terrible sense.”
Karen Beatty’s (Thailand 1968-70) essay “In Blizzard Mode” is a brief rumination on a unique aspect of life in Manhattan that appears in Barbaric Yawp Volume 9, No.3 (September 2005), a literary quarterly edited by John and Nancy Berbrich and named for the Walt Whitman phrase.
A new short story by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) entitled “The Best Year Of My Life” appeared in the November 14, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.
A paper by Aliona Gibson (South Africa 199901), part of her book on South Africa, has been selected to appear on the brand new website of the Museum of the African Diaspora entitled I’ve Known Rivers: The MOAD Stories Project. The website will go up the same time the museum opens on December 3, 2005. The story will be at www.iveknownrivers.org. Go to Movement Stories>“Bittersweet.”
The museum is in San Francisco. Its web site is www.moadsf.org.
Karen Unger (Liberia 197780) has a story in the December 2005 issue of Chronogram a literary/events monthly published in the mid and upper Hudson Valley (NY). Based on her experiences in Liberia, the piece, entitled “The Heart of the Cottonwood Tree,” can be read at the monthly’s site.
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
FOR SEVERAL YEARS I have been trying to find Karin Muller. I had heard about her first book Hitchkiking Vietnam; I knew her editor at National Geographic, and even had an email address, but still I couldn’t find Karin. The problem, of course, is that Karin is always on the go and seldom in the United States.
Filmmaker, author, and photographer, Karin Muller has moved far beyond most RPCVs when it comes to living the adventurous life. She spent seven months along the Inca Road (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile), and not only wrote about it, she filmed Lost Road of the Inca, a National Geographic adventure-travel documentary series.
Before that, she hitchhiked around Vietnam, another seven-month journey, and produced a 400-page book, as well as a PBS documentary.
And most recently, Karin has written and produced Japanland, a four-hour documentary series, and a companion book, published by Rodale Press in October 2005.
Karin carries Swiss-American dual citizenship, is fluent in German, Spanish, Tagalog, Illongo, and Japanese. She is also a licensed hang glider, paraglider, and ultralight pilot. Karin scuba dives, sails, and is an instructor in judo (blackbelt) and jujitsu martial arts. And for a year, she carried a briefcase, wore heels, and had what our parents would call “a real job.” Then she started to travel and write about it as well as make films.
Luckily for us, she found our Peace Corps site and she found me, and before she could disappear for another seven months of travel, I suggested an interview. Karin was all for the interview, but first she had to go on a book tour. So, what you are reading is the result of lots of emails.
Where are you from, Karin?
I was born in Switzerland (to Swiss parents) and was naturalized at 16. I grew up in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Australia. I went to Williams College and got a degree in of all things economics.
Where were you in the Peace Corps?
I was in the Philippines from 1987 to 1989, ostensibly as a marine fisheries Volunteer. Unfortunately the fishermen all thought that women were bad luck on boats, so I ended up digging 60 wells, building a school, and trying to launch about 80 other projects, almost all of them monumental flops.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
To change the world, of course. I remember marching into my village and rolling up my sleeves, thinking we’ll put a school here and a medical clinic over there and would someone please tie up those pigs? I was 21 and righteous. I don’t know how my village survived me. Also I wanted to have a grand adventure before I settled down to a regular job and family. I still haven’t quite gotten around to the settling-down part.
Besides the Peace Corps and before you started writing where did you work and live?
Once I got back from the Philippines I decided to my parents’ enormous joy to join a management consulting firm and I got engaged. I was miserable. Two years later to my parents’ great disappointment I quit that job to start my own company. Two years after that I sold the company and got disengaged. At that point I realized I was at a crossroads, and if I didn't take the plunge and follow my dreams, I was never going to do it. So I packed my bags and headed for Vietnam to become a travel writer.
What was your first published piece based on your Peace Corps experience?
The first thing I ever published was a short story based on the opening chapter of a manuscript (still unpublished) that I had written about my time in the Peace Corps. It appeared in an anthology and I think the payment was three copies of the book.
How did you get your book on Vietnam published?
When I got back from Vietnam I put aside my cameras and wrote the manuscript over a period of five months. I then started to send it out. Again. And again. And again. Eventually I found an agent a 21-year-old intern who had yet to sell her first book. She started sending it out. Again. And again (between the two of us it was eventually submitted to 72 agents and publishers before it found a home).
One day I looked at my footage and thought, if I can just get ten minutes of my footage on local television, it will help sell the book. So I took a course at a university (to get access to the equipment.)
I went to Vietnam with no videomaking experience, a tiny home-video (hi8) camera, and no expectations of a career in documentaries. Sure, I may have fantasized from time to time about actually seeing a ten-minute cut of my stuff on local T.V. (I also fantasized about winning the lottery and having Robert Redford come knocking on my door) but I never thought anything would actually come of it.
Shortly before I left for Vietnam I called a cameraman friend of mine and said, “how do I turn this thing on and what do with it then?” Bless his heart, he answered me with a straight face. I jotted his dozen “rules” down on the back of an envelope, learned them on the plane and tried never to break them. For the next seven months I shot 52 hours of footage, took 5000 slides, kept detailed notes for a book, learned Vietnamese, and generally figured out how to get around, stay healthy, well-fed, and suitably housed.
When I returned to America I wrote the manuscript, logged the tapes, and sat down at an ancient editing system to make a rough cut. I called the same cameraman friend and said, “okay, I’m back from Vietnam. How do I turn this thing on and then what do I do?”
He suggested I look at a few documentaries I liked and try to figure out what made them compelling. I took my favorite adventure series The Ring of Fire and completely deconstructed one of the episodes. I then did a forty-minute rough cut of my own footage.
Not surprisingly, some of the word choice and a lot of the style of The Ring of Fire wormed its way into my demo tape. By the time I was done editing I had fallen in love with the music from The Ring of Fire and decided to use it steal it for the theme song of my demo. Who was going to know?
I then sent 27 copies of the tape out to PBS stations. Most of them lost it, or sent it back, or wanted to know if I had any money to give them so that they could rent me equipment to keep working on it. A few smaller stations made offers to do a local co-production. One of the stations was kind enough to forward it to a man named David Fanning, the executive producer of Frontline at WGBH in Boston.
By coincidence David Fanning was also the executive producer of The Ring of Fire. When my tape landed on his desk he stuck it in the VCR, watched a bit of it, and called me. I was mortified. I knew he must have recognized the music and the style. I spent ten minutes babbling to him about how plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. He hung up the phone and must have decided that I had a point because a week later he called me back and offered to executive produce a final cut of Hitchhiking Vietnam and ask PBS to fund the post-production which they did.
I spent the next twelve weeks sweating blood in the editing room (with a real editor this time), utterly convinced that I would never be able to produce and write a broadcast-quality documentary, that everyone would realize it sooner or later and I would be revealed for the impostor I was.
But I squeaked through. Once we were done, PBS online agreed to fund the website. REI came on board as an underwriter and a small promotion budget started getting it reviewed by some of the larger newspapers. Eventually the overseas rights were sold to National Geographic.
So I’ve learned two things from this experience. The first is that plagiarism works. The second is that . . . Anything is possible.
Then how did you publish the book itself?
Just before the documentary aired, PBS online called me up and asked me if I wanted to do a website for them. The manuscript still wasn’t sold, so I said yes and spent the next 12 days (all we had until our airdate) putting together an enormous website in which I buried about a third of the book.
The documentary was a success. The website won lots of awards and got over half a million hits a week. The manuscript remained unsold.
Then shortly after the documentary came out I went to the Outdoor Retailers Expo to see if I could pick up some corporate sponsorship. While there I was introduced to a member of the Outside Magazine staff by a friend, who introduced me (briefly) to the (then) CEO of Backpacker magazine. He put in a good word with Globe-Pequot Press (who had already turned me down four times) and someone from their marketing department called me up and asked me to submit again. They took it, published it, and sent me on a huge book tour.
Which is all just a long way of explaining how fickle the publishing industry is. Luck is definitely a factor, but the more tenacity you have, the less luck you need. And if you are not Martha Stewart (or someone equally famous), and you want to be a travel writer, you had better pick a country that is extremely interesting, make sure you finish (and polish!) your entire manuscript before submitting, and have a superb proposal (which will hopefully get you a superb agent) with a rock-solid marketing plan. I wish it were as easy as writing a great book, but nowadays that is only a small part of the process. Lots of great books out there never get published. You have to be able to sell it (and yourself) or your book will never see the light of day.
Why the Japan book?
I wanted to improve my judo, and also to get a fresh perspective on the meaning of my life. I wanted to understand Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. I wanted more than an understanding of the tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun. I was in search of wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone.
So, I spent twelve months traveling from one end of the country to the other, living at the host country level, speaking the language and trying to open the door to the secret side of Japanese life. I speak Japanese, and have studied judo for nine years, so I had some understanding, but very little really when it came to actually being in the country. I joined a samurai mounted archery team, for example, and learned how to handle a longbow on a galloping horse. I made a 900-mile pilgrimage, and helped to light ten thousand floating lanterns during Obon, The Festival of the Dead. I did what any good PCV would do, I immersed myself as best I could in the local culture.
What’s next for Karin Muller?
Oh, I don’t know. Nothing solid yet, since I have to sell the film idea before I can commit to the journey. My publisher really wants me to go to Cuba, and that’s at the top of the list if a broadcaster buys into it. We’ll see in 2006!
Thanks, Karin, and good luck on this book and whatever comes next. Keep in touch.
Thank you, John. And I will try not to disappear for too long.
An American Affair
(Short story collection)
(Winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize: Stories)
by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
Texas Review Press
SERVICE AS A PEACE CORPS Volunteer for all the cross-cultural benefits, for all the lives it changes is in many ways a curse. The problem is: you never get over it. Ten or twenty years later, many RPCVs look back upon their service with a wistful sense of loss and disorientation. The mundanity of air-conditioned shopping centers and well-paved highways in America too often pales in comparison to the excitement of living abroad, to the fulfillment of a time when you felt appreciated and needed. With the Peace Corps behind one, life assumes an air of extended anti-climax. Many RPCV’s are consequently struck with incurable wanderlust. They’ve lost their bearings in the world.
It is a fact commonly accepted, then, that post-service readjustment back to the States is more difficult than leaving ever was. In Mark Brazaitis’s compelling second collection of stories, An American Affair, this readjustment never ends.
Brazaitis’s stories, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize, are not conventional Peace Corps tales, but explorations of the aftermath. The volunteers, farmers, nurses, aid workers, and writers who populate the twelve stories (not all of them Peace Corps, it should be noted) are united by the common travails of life in the developing world primarily Guatemala. They are united too by their compassion, by their aspirations to serve both America and their host country, as well as by their confusion. They have been changed by their time abroad, and recurring questions haunt them throughout their post-service lives: Where, if anywhere, do they now belong? Whom should they marry? What if they had married differently? Should they return home, or make a life in their host country? Could they have done more good, saved more people?
The characters are wonderfully complex. In “The Poet and The General,” a Central American tyrant known as “the Butcher of Bananera” cannot sleep at night without watching reruns of The Three Stooges. In “The Foreign Correspondent” an American journalist imagines the funeral of her Latin boyfriend and thinks, ““I loved him,” and alternately, “I didn’t know him.”
In “The Day and the Night of the Day” a professor conducting research in Guatemala, and experimenting with a separation from his wife in the States, witnesses the devastation of September 11th through the disorienting lens of a foreign setting. Desiring above all else not to be alone, he takes refuge in a bar, where a Guatemalan named Hector confronts him: “‘I am sorry about your country,’ Hector says. And, after a pause, he adds, ‘Now you know.’”
Indeed loneliness, and the fear of it, lies at the heart of many of these stories. For all the teeming vividness of Latin American street life in these stories, Brazaitis’s characters hover in their own existential bubbles, wondering how and where they might be happier. In the powerful title story, “An American Affair,” Terry brings up the subject of repatriation to his Guatemalan wife:
“I was thinking I might consider a job in the States,” he said. Paulina frowned and opened her mouth, no doubt about to object, but he continued, “Marco isn’t learning as much English as he should. Living in the Sates would help him. It wouldn’t have to be a long time. We could stay a few years, then move back here.”
She said, “You know how I feel about the United States of America.” She spoke the last words with emphasis and a scrunched expression, as if she’d bitten a lemon.”
Later, trying to acquire some of the fatalistic resiliency of his adopted country, Terry tells himself, “If he stayed in Guatemala the rest of his life, married to a woman he didn’t know, raising a son he felt estranged from, it wasn’t his fault. It was the way God wanted it.”
There is certainly thematic repetition here, but across the twelve stories it never feels redundant. Rather, the artistic effect is that of a Bach fugue: an energetic playing with the possibilities and variations of a theme. Brazaitis explores the depths of these lives from every conceivable angle from parents investigating the death of their writer son, killed while backpacking in Bolivia, or from a terminally ill cancer patient who revisits the village where she served thirty years before. Sometimes these experiments result in a bit of a stretch. The ambitious “The Life He Left Behind” unravels in a surreal way that recalls Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, but ultimately fails at the level of believability. Sometimes, frustratingly, a story such as “The Day and the Night of the Day” is not given enough development, and ends too abruptly the music cut off.
But in their originality, scope, and poignancy, there’s a great deal to enjoy and contemplate here. For those considering service in the Peace Corps, “An American Affair” should be required reading. Take these tales as a far-sighted warning not only of the challenges to expect during your two years abroad, but for the rest of your life.
Robert Rosenberg teaches writing at Bucknell University. He is the author of the novel, This Is Not Civilization.
The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
“A RUEFUL LIBERAL HAWK explores the road to war in Iraq and its chaotic aftermath” is The Washington Post subtitle for its very positive review of The Assassin’s Gate. Both the Post and The Economist ponder the lack of a clear conclusion from the author, George Packer, about the efficacy of the war.
Mr. Packer’s thoroughness and objectivity, however, give this book a consequential and important status. Based on his reporting for The New Yorker, The Assassin’s Gate captures the essential aspects of the Iraq conflict through the stories, thoughts and feelings of people entwined in the war; protagonists and victims, Americans and Iraqis, major and minor, the author effectively avoids preconception.
The Assassin’s Gate is superbly written, provocative and probing, illuminating and compelling. Most impressive to me is how it personalizes the Iraq experience just what we’d expect from an RPCV. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable read that invokes much thought and reflection. It lingers.
As a Washingtonian and opposed to our Iraq policy I was particularly intrigued by Mr. Packer’s revelations about the decision process within the Bush Administration which took America into this war. The Assassin’s Gate adeptly chronicles the ideological preconceptions, faulty assumptions and the lack of open and informed deliberation by the Bush Administration in crafting the Iraq policy and garnering support for it.
The book reveals the misinformed and opaque interplay between the various conspirators neocon and traditional right-wingers and the resulting twisted and faulty war policy. A textbook on how important public policy should not be crafted.
For example, the feckless architects of the Iraq war assumed no need for a strategy and resources to secure Iraq and its assets, protect its people and help build a viable state after the fall of Saddam. In the rush to war, therefore, no plan was developed. It was assumed that once Saddam was toppled everything good would automatically happen and a democratic Iraq would emerge naturally. Opposing views were simply not solicited nor tolerated.
The tragic (and predicted) result was that “liberation” became “occupation” and millions of Iraqis who might have reveled in the overthrow of Saddam were quickly disillusioned. Tragically, Iraqis, American soldiers and Marines and American influence around the world continue to pay the price of this incompetence. Meanwhile, the real fight against terrorism withers and the Bush apologists thrash about in denial and controversy.
Much has transpired in and about Iraq since The Assassin’s Gate was published earlier this year. One suspects that Mr. Packer might now have reached a conclusion about the war. The question lingers but only adds to the appeal of the book. Its currency is actually enhanced as events unfold!
Much else recommends this excellent work! One can only hope that Mr. Packer will next focus his enviable reporting skills on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is there and in Central Asia, I suggest, that the war on terrorism must ultimately be fought and won. Iraq may well prove to be a disastrous diversion.
After his Peace Corps service Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue his own business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 196668) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he was made Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Ken is now an independent consultant, and semi-retired. He is also the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
The Christmas Contest
by Virginia Mekkelson (Ethiopia 196870)
writing as Valentina Gilbert
IMAGINE A WORLDWIDE CONTEST to promote the Christmas spirit, initiated by the granddaughter of Santa Claus himself. This light-hearted premise sends the reader on a journey from the North Pole to a shopping mall in Wisconsin where Siri Claus decides to set up her base of operations.
The Christmas Contest interprets Santa Claus and his family business in a new way by bringing the fantasy of Christmas into a mundane, grassroots setting. The book also sheds a practical light on matters at the North Pole, adding to the humorous tone of the story.
“We already have those lamps, remember? We got them after the pool hall burned down, and so many elves were diagnosed with bi-polar disorder,” Jerry reminded her. He shook his head. What a nightmare that had been.
At the shopping mall, the cast of characters ranges from a Santa-loving mall director to a juvenile delinquent who resorts to wreaking havoc in order to provide opportunities to commit good deeds. In the end, as expected, the Christmas Contest is a success, bringing the spirit of Christmas back to one small town while providing hope for the rest of the world.
The slightness of the book would suggest it is aimed at younger readers, yet the age of the central characters leaves me a bit confused as to who the actual audience should be. But, the book definitely has a Christmas glow about it, and would work well for an evening read-aloud during the holiday season, reminding us all of the Christmas spirit and how to keep it alive year round.
Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen is an award-winning children’s author who lives in southern Washington.
Golfing with God
A Novel of Heaven and Earth
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
Reviewed by Don Beil (Somalia 196466)
IT’S NOT OFTEN that an author has the opportunity to write dialog for God, let alone God’s dialog about golf. It’s not that God’s name and golf don’t often go together; anyone who’s ever played or who has lip-read golfers on TV can attest to that. And certainly, God, like golf, often go together when they are “found” as one grows older.
It’s the wonderful unexpected notion of Golfing with God: A Novel of Heaven and Earth, by Roland Merullo, that God needs help with His/Her golf game. (Merullo is careful to tell us quite early that “. . . sometimes He’s a He, and other times He’s a She, and many times God takes a form that cannot be described as either.”) With over 8,000 8,187 to be exact golf courses in heaven, and with infinite time to practice you’d think that God would not need a golf coach. But that’s exactly the role “Jack” is assigned when he arrives in heaven.
A pro at golf, but not life, Jack has had his problems on earth while still alive both the metaphorical earth, as well as the earth beneath his feet when on the golf course. A great teacher, but unsuccessful as a pro on the circuit, Jack uses and faces golf as a metaphor for life as he tries to help God improve His (and Her) game.
This is a premise that has the potential to be too cute, and now and then it does cross the cuteness line (“‘Beauty, Mom,’ Jesus said” after Mary hit) but not enough to be troublesome.
You don’t need to know the difference between a slice and a hook one golf shot goes off to one side and the other off to the other side in order to enjoy the book. You already know enough about Buddha, Moses, and others to fantasize with the author about how they might approach the game. And the opportunity to learn what people in heaven do about eating and jobs, about time and the difference between night and day, about missions to earth, about “the single greatest difference between heavenly and earthly life,” and on a grander scale about the meaning of life, provide a great deal of entertaining reading.
Don Beil (Somalia 196466), has worked at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, for the last 30 years, primarily as a teacher of computing. The author of multiple books on computing not golf he has recently been spending less time computing and more time playing the game.
A Year in Search of Wa
by Karin Muller (Philippines 198789)
THIS IS AN AMAZING BOOK. I believe it is my first experience reading a companion piece to a documentary film its release is timed to coincide with the film’s broadcast on PBS but I read it like a novel, a travelogue, a memoir, and an investigation into the maze that is Japan, all rolled into one. This is also a book that is quite distinctly divided into two halves; first the author’s “home stay” with the Tanaka family near Tokyo, and second a myriad collection of what I can only think to call “in-depth snapshots” of various aspects of Japanese culture, both esoteric and mainstream.
The first half first. The Tanaka family is comprised of Genji, the patriarch, a successful businessman and Judo master, who has agreed not only to take Karin Muller in, but to teach her the intricacies of modern Japanese life, Yukiko, his (traditional and irritating) wife, and Junko, their mostly off-stage, trapped and miserable daughter.
Ms. Muller’s stay with the Tanakas is moving and complexly rendered. She has painted Genji with such deft brushstrokes that I was reminded not only of men I knew during my own years in Japan (some three decades ago) but of characters from film and literature. And Yukiko, whom I was predisposed to like because she bears the name of the magnificent heroine in Junichiro Tanizaki’s masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters, is such a subtle horror, so evenly mean-spirited with her American visitor, that I wanted to make my way to Tokyo and throttle her. This is a woman who seems not only to have fled into modern times from an earlier century, but to have brought with her a dozen little straight-jackets, all meant to blunt the movement and growth of the foreigner. When Ms. Muller tries to nurture a small vegetable garden, for example, in order to offer the family a gift of her own making, Yukiko has it covered over because it is unsightly. When she chats with Genji, asking him questions about Japan in pre-dinner conversation, Yukiko turns frigid because she hasn’t come directly into the kitchen to help prepare the store-bought vegetables. Yukiko is a hateful woman and Ms. Muller’s time with the Tanakas is doomed, though she is forever trying to understand and forgive the rough treatment she receives.
This first half of Japanland is novelistic and it made me want to give Yukiko her comeuppance. Yet Ms. Muller, perhaps because she fears a living breathing Yukiko will either read her book or see her film, has made a forced-sounding tribute to her near the end of the book. “And Yukiko,” she writes, “She had the courage to take a stranger into her house and the patience to give me one hundred times more chances than I deserved.” In her acknowledgements Ms. Muller quite correctly writes that “An expedition is an iceberg.” But Yukiko is an iceberg, too, and my own writerly instincts desperately wanted something to happen to melt her.
The second half of Japanland is very different, both in style and depth of discourse. Cut loose from the Tanakas Ms. Muller moves to Osaka, shares lodging with a gay and slovenly foreigner, and begins a series of treks to the north and south and east and west. She is brave and adventurous, just as she was with the Tanakas, but also one gets the feeling that she has so much to get done, so much to “cover” during her remaining time in Japan, that she opts for a series of vignettes. Still, she is wildly successful in finding entree to the disparate worlds of geisha, yakuza, Zen monasteries, midnight nude bathing rituals, Japan’s growing homeless population, and various street artists, to name just a few. She is a quick study, seeming to have ventured more deeply into some aspects of Japanese culture than many who live there for years, and to have acquired a phenomenal ability in that most difficult of all that Japan has to offer: its language. She engaged with people openly, using charm and a lightness of touch that I’m sure would succeed most anywhere in the world, and thus has given us a view of Japan that I, who love the country, treasure.
The subtitle of the book, A Year in Search of Wa, (harmony) sits in direct opposition to its main title, Japanland, in that the first is a pun on Japan (alas) having turned into Disneyland, and the second is a steadfast attempt to uncover the inner complexity of the place. Karin Muller has shown us the first sad truth without flinching, and the second, far more timeless one, with grace and humor insight.
I can’t wait to see the film for the book has succeeded marvelously.
Richard Wiley is the author of five novels. His sixth, Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show will be published next year by the University of Texas Press, and his first, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning, Soldiers In Hiding will be reissued in September by Hawthorne Books.
The Woodsman’s Daughter
by Gwyn Hyman Rubio (Costa Rica 197173)
WHEN YOUR FIRST NOVEL is an Oprah Book Club Selection and a New York Times Notable Book of the year, it’s a daunting task to come up with an encore. So if you’re wise, you create a novel different enough from the first that makes it unfair to invite comparison. Icy Sparks author Gwyn Hyman Rubio succeeds both with this and with the tale in her latest, an epic multigenerational family saga.
The story, set in the longleaf pine country of post-Civil War south Georgia, revolves around Dalia, the daughter of Monroe Miller, a prosperous turpentine business owner. Monroe loves his family in his own bumbling way, but all is not well at the family’s lavish home. Dalia’s sister Nellie Ann, blind from birth, joins Dalia in alternately loving and scorning their father, a heavy drinker who spends long periods away at his turpentine camps. The girls’ mother, a well-bred women contemptuous of her husband’s coarse, unrefined ways, hides away most the day in a laudanum-induced fog. Beneath these family conflicts, however, lurks a darker, more devastating secret.
The discovery of this secret and the tragic consequences that play out deliver the reader into Part II, where, four years later, Dalia has moved on to settle in Samson, a small town where she hopes to recreate a new life for herself. The canny, resourceful Dalia initially achieves all she set out to do, but finds that it comes with a price. She has two children, first Marion, a boy she finds difficult to love due to his resemblance to his father, whom Dalia has grown to despise. When Clara Nell, a longed-for daughter arrives years later, Dalia smothers her with excessive love and attention.
Part III, narrated mostly from Clara Nell’s perspective, chronicles Clara Nell’s coming of age and her subsequent forays into independence. This creates rather predictable dissent in the family and conflict ensues. Ultimately, Dalia learns the hard way that you cannot protect the ones you love from life and what it brings.
Rubio, a Georgia native, excels in vividly detailing the longleaf pine country, as well as late 19th century daily life. The description of a shantytown commissary its apothecary jars filled with herbs; barrels of dried beans and black-eyed peas; drums of flour, grits, cornmeal lined up against the wall paint a vivid portrait, as does the description of the cured hams, “dotted with so many flies that they could have been mistaken for cloves if not for the buzzing.”
She lyrically describes the pastoral scenery:
The scuppernong arbor glittered in the sun. The slick, copper-colored skin of the grapes peeked out from among the leaves like a blanket of cat’s-eye marbles. A soft-spoken breeze tickled the moss in the grand oak trees.
Characters are well-portrayed, like a child from the turpentine camps, with “his patched dungarees and flour sack shirt,” his dirt-creased neck and his eyes, “too close together, of no pure color, grayish brown like the bark of one of [the] trees.” As well, there’s the deliciously unlikable Dr. McKee, with skin “as blanched as peeled almonds; his fingers, long and delicate, like those of a pianist, not a dentist.” He spoke “in a voice that wasn’t exactly effeminate, yet bleached of virility, as though it had crept into the soul of a male fetus by mistake.”
Another standout is Katie Mae, an African-American who served the Miller family and now rejoins Dalia, providing both her and the story with wisdom and sass. Clarice, Dr. McKee’s housekeeper and cook, is another compelling character, a potential source of conflict for Delia and the story, but one that never fully actualizes.
This takes me to my greatest complaint. The first two-thirds of the story succeeds with its rich, memorable characters and its swirling undercurrents of tension and haunting emotion. Thereafter, however, the antagonists and thus vital tension disappear. Rubio’s smooth plotting and excellent detail still drive the story forward and make it interesting to read. The story here is not without conflict, but it seems to settle into more commercial fodder that lacks startling turns of events and difficult choices that trouble both character and reader. Granted, the issues of the past still haunt Dalia and manifest themselves in her efforts to control and protect her daughter, but they didn’t haunt me as the reader. Instead, her compulsive, predictable behavior rather annoyed me, heralding the approaching conflict with the subtlety of a marching band in a living room.
Part of this could stem from the fact that I did just what I claimed would be unfair to do I compared this work to Icy Sparks, Rubio’s first novel, a luminous, highly original work that seemed to breathe life with its characterization and heartbreaking premise. In The Woodsman’s Daughter, Rubio’s intention seemed to be to cast a broader scope, that of a flawed family whose problems come full circle. And in this she succeeds, lyrically and descriptively. While fans of Icy Sparks might not find the story they long to see repeated, they’ll find a new facet to Rubio’s writing that should win her new readers, particularly those who like Southern and/or family-saga fiction.
Terez Rose’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Literary Mama, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the San Jose Mercury-News and Peace Corps Online. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Woman’s 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.
High Risk/High Gain
A Freewheeling Account
of Peace Corps Training
by Alan Weiss (Nigeria 196364)
St. Martin’s Press
THE NEXT TIME someone remarks that they’ve “read all the great Peace Corps books” wait a beat and innocently ask, “What do you think of High Risk/High Gain by Alan Weiss?” . . . and then watch a blank look cross that person’s face. High Risk/High Gain is perhaps the most obscure, least known, and most unread of all the books written about the Peace Corps experience. Published in 1968 by St. Martin’s Press it has as its subtitle: “A Freewheeling Account of Peace Corps Training,” and that about sums up the personality of its author, Alan “freewheeling” Weiss. This book has been out of print for forty years.
Weiss joined the Peace Corps after graduating with a math degree from M.I.T. He was from Chicago and went to Columbia University in New York City to train for Nigeria and his book is about that “sick circus of training,” as he termed it, that he went through in the summer of 1963. The book ends with Weiss leaving Manhattan for Africa.
Much of Peace Corps training in the early 1960s was like the movie Animal House. Everyone was a little crazy, especially the psychiatrists and psychologists who hovered around all of us trying to make sure Peace Corps Trainees were the “right stuff” for service.
It was Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., that came up with a measurement standard for Trainees’ overseas success. Potential “Super Volunteers” were classified as Low Risk/High Gain. Trainees destined for failure were classified as High Risk/Low Gain. Alan Weiss discovered in his training days that he was High Risk/ High Gain.
I did not know Weiss in the Peace Corps but I have friends who did, and whenever they gather, stories about him are retold as they remember with fondness his life in Africa. Alan was the kind of PCV who drove APCDs crazy, but he was also the rallying point when other PCVs from his group gathered in Lagos.
Weiss didn’t last long as a Volunteer. A year into his service his girl friend arrived from Chicago. At the conclusion of his book, summing up his Peace Corps history, Weiss writes, “in the fiery heat of the West African dry season, Saltonstall [Country Director of Nigeria] would inform me, friendly and considerate, that I was in violation of a Peace Corps regulation about importing women from abroad, and say, regretfully, that while he would do whatever he could to help me stay in Africa, he would have to ask for my resignation.”
His book today is valuable because he captures the “craziness” of those early years of the agency when the Peace Corps hierarchy and Peace Corps training sites [mostly colleges and universities] joined up to prepare A.B. Generalists to work in the developing world.
It is valuable, too, because it is funny and outrageous and sad and the true story of more than one training site in the early years of the Peace Corps. In time, I hope, more than a handful of RPCVs, historians, and just those curious about this phenomenon called the Peace Corps will realize Alan Weiss got it right. Alan Weiss died before he could realized what a contribution he had made to the total Peace Corps story. Do yourself a favor and find the book. And if you can find it, hold onto your copy. In time, who knows what a valuable piece of prose you’ll have in your library.
To read more about Alan and his book check out the July 1999 issue on this site that includes:
- An interview with Robert Cohen who talks with John Coyne about his Peace Corps housemate, Alan Weiss.
- Remembering Alan Weiss by his Peace Corps friend Ed Gruberg.
- A review of High Risk/High Gain.
- Excerpts from High Risk/High Gain.
A Writer Writes
Petit a Petit
SOME DAYS THE BUGS not to mention the ubiquitous dirt and paralyzing heat really, really bugged me. These bugs were like no other bugs I’d ever known. They were more than brazen pests; they were terrorists and tormentors. They knew the power of their numbers. They knew, despite their diminutive individual size, that they could do-in seemingly superior human beings.
Just one hungry mosquito’s bite in the night could bring with it potentially deadly malaria. (Fortunately, we PCVs were supplied with costly prophylactics to help prevent such an outcome.) One bott fly could lay her eggs in your wet laundry, and those eggs could burrow like living, breathing, growing boils into your skin. One foo-roo, smaller than a pinhead, could give you a mysterious, debilitating arbovirus. Another, day-biting mosquito, could take you down with dengue fever, for which no treatment exists.
But even beyond the health threats they posed, these ever-present legions of tropical insects were just plain monumentally infuriating to me. When my hands were too busy to swat them, for example, such as when I was kneading bread or digging in my nascent garden, the bugs would take the most advantage. Big, black flies would saunter across the lenses of my eyeglasses, blurring my vision. Other, smaller, bugs would crawl up my nose. Still more would fly into my ears, demonically jangling my nerves with their high-pitched whine. Foo-roos ate at my ankles, wrists, neck wherever some sweet skin was exposed to them leaving red, itchy welts that I scratched until they bled and then soon became infected.
Perhaps because I refused to cover myself from scalp to foot with it or put it, godforbid, inside my ears commercial insect repellant was next to useless to me. Like most modern remedial products on the international market, store-bought repellants clearly weren’t designed with Africa in mind. Perhaps the Africans were inured to the bugs’ annoyance. Or maybe their skin was not as thin as mine. Or, perhaps, they had their own, time-tested, traditional remedes that repelled insects fairly successfully; if so, they remained a well-kept secret to me. Consequently, there were days when and I couldn’t even admit this weakness to my maman Leora privately, within the confines of my own solitary existence there, the bugs got me down.
AND NOT ONLY THAT. My inability to communicate with the local people in French was even more disheartening to me. To learn to speak fluent French at last after nearly thirty-five years (since high school) of false starts and unsuccessful attempts through dry textbooks, tedious cassette tapes, and brief trips to Paris had been a major motivating factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps and serve in a Francophone African country in the first place.
I had learned to speak culinary French when I changed careers ten years before. After my mother died, I used some of the inheritance she left me to attend a summer course at La Varenne, a well-known cooking school then in Paris, as the first step in becoming a food professional in New York. My mother had been a wonderful cook, and I, as the eldest daughter, her helper and disciple, had learned how to cook at her knee. I saw that my cooking had made her happy during the two years cancer cells slowly destroyed her brain and ultimately took her life, so I knew she would approve of this risky career change, this potentially gratifying use of her gift.
To recover from my mother’s cancer as well as from a broken wedding engagement to a colleague whom I’d mistakenly believed was Mr. Right I took a leave of absence from my stressful job as a writer-editor in New York and stayed with a friend in Paris that summer. As my heart gradually healed, I fell in love with all things French especially the sense of style and timeless beauty, the respectful love and appreciation for true food, and the supremely symphonic language.
I vowed to my Parisian friend, Marie-Laure (with whom I spoke English because she was an English teacher at the time and enjoyed the chance to practice her English with me), I would surprise her by speaking French with her one day. “Learn French!” then became my adamant New Year’s resolution every subsequent year, but Marie-Laure would often tease me in letters: “I think you start with Chapter One from the same French grammar book every New Year’s Day and give up on it before February arrives.”
I am nothing if not stubborn. I was determined to learn to speak French, one way or the other, if it was the last thing I did which is why “Learn to speak French well” was near the top of my list of things to do before I died. But here, in Francophone Gabon, on the ground, at my post, my inability to converse intelligently in French was a daily source of embarrassment and personal disappointment for me. I felt like a small child speaking baby talk. I felt stupid (and good for nothing). It made me want to (and I often did), in the privacy of my own home, cry.
I could read and write in French (especially with a fat dictionary nearby). I could speak some French slowly, painstakingly, word-by-well-accented-word within a finite vocabulary. I just couldn’t carry on real, live, animated, back-and-forth conversations with other human beings in the town where I’d been sent to live and work for two years.
I could ask polite questions, such as, How are you? Ca va? or inquire cheerily, What’s new? Quelles nouvelles? But if the answer I received was longer than short, which it usually was among Africans, for whom the social niceties of elaborate greetings are enormously important, I probably couldn’t understand what they were saying.
I would hear sounds that seemed like French coming out of people’s mouths in long, fast-moving, seamless streams; but I couldn’t discern individual words. To my ear, there were no breaks at all, no telling where one word ended and another began. And the accents so vital to this musical language seemed to me to be everywhere but where they belonged. It was, I thought, like learning to speak English in Jamaica.
Sometimes I rationalized: Everyone here is at least bilingual. French is a second, if not third, language for all of us. In this town of over twenty different ethnicities, each with its own first language. French taught only in school, where few people had spent much time as the common denominator of communication, was bound to suffer.
MY TOWN, centrally located Lastoursville, was a crossroads town that attracted people from outlying villages as well as entrepreneurs and adventurers from other African countries. For those Gabonese who dreamed of dressing for success and working in air-conditioned offices, there was nowhere to go but the capital, Libreville, ten hours away by train. But for those with more modest, or realistic, employment goals, Lastoursville and the surrounding area offered a few opportunities.
People from local tribes, such as the Banjabi, Baduma, and Bakota, might find work at the hospital, the post office, or the regional high school situated in Lastoursville. Men from other Gabonese tribes, from further away, such as the Bateki, Bapunu, or Fang, might be found working in the forestry camps just outside of Lastoursville.
Refugees and immigrants, both legal and illegal, from other African countries came to sparsely populated Gabon with their trades and specialties as well as their hopes of a better life. Muslim West Africans, from Senegal, Mali, and Chad, for example, set up shop in Lastoursville as small-scale commercants. Nigerians were barbers; Ghanaians, tailors; Congolese, painters; Sao Tomeans, builders, Beninois, auto mechanics; Camerounians, restaurateurs.
Lebanese men left their wives and children back home in Lebanon to run the largest grocery stores in Lastoursville, where they sold tinned goods that were past their expiration date and other items that were clearly seconds all at first-rate prices. Frenchmen, who seldom showed their rugged, tanned-white faces in town, managed the chantiers, or logging camps, along the nearby train line. There were only two white women in town both American, both in their fifties Bev, a Christian Alliance missionary who was often on the road on business, and me.
French, then, became the common link among all of Lastoursville’s disparate people. It wasn’t textbook French or the symphonic French I’d dreamed of speaking one day, but it was serviceable French. It helped to keep the peace. It made it possible for people to communicate using commonly understood words instead of with the swoosh of a fast-moving machete or the thud of a bullet in the chest.
WHAT THE CITIZENRY of Lastoursville lacked in French language accuracy, though, they made up for in speed.
“Lentement, s’il vous plait,” I would beg, smiling sheepishly to cover up the tears of frustration welling in my eyes. I’d press a flat hand down into thin air, as if applying brakes. Please speak more slowly.
And invariably the African would say to me, kindly, knowingly, empathetically, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid.’”
Yes, I thought, nodding agreeably, “little by little the bird builds his nest. But for me the clock is ticking; I only have two years here. I’m a New Yorker, which means impatient. I have so much to do, and so little time. How can I teach and learn or even belong without words?”
Time and again, when I tried to have an exchange with someone and he or she could see my difficulties finding le mot juste or following their half of the conversation, the person would try to soothe and comfort me. It was as if he or she were saying in English, There, there. It’ll be all right. You’ll get it. You’ll do fine . . .. Instead, what they said in French was, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a Petit’ . . ..”
And I’d jump in and complete the saying, to let the person know I knew it. But did I? This maxim was repeated so often to me it became like a tinselly advertising slogan: empty words.
APART FROM MY WALKS to the marche every morning and my visits there with maman Leora who spoke French to me slowly and clearly, like a mother to a young child I didn’t do much socializing. How could I socialize without words?
Instead, I spent my first weeks transforming my dream house into a homey nest that would be clean and welcoming and safe from intruders specifically, the hateful bugs. Alone, with a bucket and brushes, I scrubbed and painted. By hand, I sewed curtains and covered cheap foam pillows with bright African fabrics. I designed an L-shaped sofa for the living room that a local carpenter built for me for the equivalent of $40. I made a coffee table from a flat, discarded door, supported by five-gallon paint tins, and spread delicious-looking issues of Gourmet magazine on the top of it. Bev, the missionary, whom I’d befriended and with whom I could speak beloved English, loaned me a folding table and plastic chairs for my dining room. I bought a small stove-oven combination, made in Eastern Europe, from one of the local Lebanese merchants with some of my Peace Corps allowance, so I could bake bread. I arranged for window screens to be installed, to keep the loathsome bugs forever out of my house.
MY WORK AT THE HOSPITAL was due to begin soon. One morning, at the makeshift desk I’d set up in the front bedroom, on the small, portable Smith-Corona typewriter I’d brought with me from New York, I prepared a two-page, single-spaced, typewritten memorandum in French outlining the community health projects I had in mind and the subjects I hoped to teach at the hospital’s mother-infant clinic. The memo was addressed to the hospital’s head, Dr. Christophe Djimet, Medecin Chef, Centre Medical de Lastoursville; from me, Agent de Sante, Corps de la Paix. The lecture subjects I listed included nutrition, breastfeeding, weaning, family planning, hygiene, diarrheal diseases, insect-borne diseases, vaccinations, STD/AIDS, cooking, gardening, composting, recycling, and more. I had high hopes and big dreams. Now all I needed to do was learn how to communicate in French.
It had become my morning ritual, since moving into this house on the hill, to rise before dawn. I made a tea tray and brought it into this front room, where I would pray for strength for the day, write in my journal, write letters to friends, study French, watch the sun yawningly rise from behind the mist-shrouded mountains in the distance, and listen to the nearby birds sing. The songbirds in the big palm tree outside this front window yellow birds, called Village Weavers, because they were bold enough to live in towns seemed to me to be the happiest creatures alive. For them, every day was a feast day, because of the abundance of bugs. The bugs that I detested made these birds fat and happy and gave them their joyous songs to sing. How could I, then, go on wishing the insects’ extinction? Where would my mornings be without the birdsong?
As I sat at my Smith-Corona by the window, typing the memo to Dr. Djimet and worrying how I would achieve all my lofty goals, I looked out for inspiration at the yellow birds, gleefully singing and seemingly dancing in the air as they worked in the palm tree. I took the time to watch them. My own nest was nearing completion. My work at the clinic wouldn’t start for a week or more. For the first time in my life, it seemed, I had time to sit back and observe birds. In my twenty years in New York City I was always in a rush, always stressed. The only birds I ever noticed there were the citified, opportunistic pigeons, who never sang. Or if they did, they never sang to me.
I watched one Village Weaver use her beak to tear thin palm fronds into thinner strips and then weave them, patiently, methodically, painstakingly into her ingenious, elongated, capsule-like nest. She was indefatigable. She didn’t quit. And she seemed so happy in her work singing full-heartedly the whole time.
Dozens of nests just like hers hung from the palm tree like Christmas ornaments. These nests, with their openings underneath, I’d noticed, miraculously, stayed put despite the lashing rains and gale-like winds of the rainy season that had just begun. These nests were built to last. What little architectural wonders, I thought. And what skill and tenacity it took to weave them!
“Ah, oui! ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid’ indeed,” I told myself. “I must learn from these patient, wise, observant Africans how to take a lesson from the birds.”
Bonnie Lee Black is the author of the creative nonfiction book Somewhere Child (Viking Press, NY, 1981), and is hard at work on her second book, How to Cook a Crocodile, a memoir about her recent experiences in Africa. An honors graduate (BA, Lit./Writing) of Columbia University, she has been a professional writer and editor for more than 25 years and an educator (in the U.S. and overseas) for over 15 years. She now lives in Dixon, New Mexico and teaches English at UNM-Taos, and is a freelance book editor for RPCVs and other writers.
A Writer Writes
YOU CAN FIND HIM EVERYDAY on the corner of the market entrance sandwiched between the shifty Indian currency-changing men and the women on their way to the market to sell splotched pink flip-flops or buy freshly butchered chicken. Irreverent and erratic chutney music blares from the dilapidated upstairs rum shop. On this crowded and dirty back corner of stands Claude Stevens, looking for the man who said he’d come back Tuesday to buy his coconut tree painting, anticipating somebody to discover his artistic talent. In the midst of the raucous hustling and transient bustling Stevens waits quiet, patient, stolid.
You can find him every night on the corner of the Demico Quik Serve, the fast food place whose specialty is soggy fries, cheap ice cream cones and service with a scowl. The hustling on this street corner is for a different commodity: sex. Boys wearing Sean John jerseys and sideways hats walk with a swagger and talk of dirty romance in hopes of securing a date for the next Bootyfest. The latest dub music blares from the trunks of cars in front of all the Chinese restaurants as dreadlocked Rastas sit on bicycles smoking joints, women with huge gold hoop earrings with the word “SEXY” in it sell cigarettes and little children scream in joy as they swing in the playground next door. In the midst of this menagerie of New Amsterdam residents and lively chatter, a bittersweet smell of rum and ice cream wafts over the spot where Stevens leans against the wall, making no movement except to adjust the painting he is holding with both hands.
Stevens has been standing in these same two spots for nine years now, struggling to sell his pieces of artwork. You would think that sharing his name with Monet would be a source of luck for him. But it hasn’t.
His native land Guyana leaves very little room for the art world and others like him. Only an independent nation since the 1966, Guyana is battling to find its cultural identity. Art is part of the process, and at age 55 Stevens is trying his best to open the eyes and consciousness of the Guyanese people, while making a few dollars on the side. Yet there is one problem. Stevens can barely see anymore.
CLAUDE STEVENS WAS BORN in New Amsterdam, Guyana and has lived there his whole life. His mom, a housewife and his dad, a mechanic both disapproved of his interest in art growing up. His older brother, an artist himself, encouraged Stevens to pick up a paintbrush at an early age. Stevens entered numerous art competitions in school and succeeded. But he needed to make money. He then started sign-writing and painting advertisements much like VS Naipul’s Mr. Biswas for various commercial businesses such as Pepsi, XM Rum and Banks Beer. Soon, however, the non-existent art community in Guyana became an issue for him. The only art to be found in New Amsterdam was tacky replicas of Hindu goddesses and mundane waterfall clocks. “I was very interested in selling my own work when I started looking around and seeing that a lot of walls here are very empty. I started building an interest in people by moving from place to place and having discussions about art,” he says. “I found that people started developing an interest in art in Berbice. Years ago there was nothing.”
It was only at the age of 40 that Stevens gave up lucrative commercial art for art that was his own. Walk into any Internet café, private home or Chinese restaurant and you will see a painting of Stevens’. His paintings are quaint and evoke feelings of calm complacency and satisfaction with life. Filled with bright colors and thick, broad brushstrokes, the people and landscape of Guyana come alive through his work. Scenes of the Canje bridge with one car traveling over it, the Essequibo river shimmering as if its waters were made of gold, a lone man carrying his cane down a coconut- tree-lined dirt road, the awe-inspiring Kaeiteur falls they all recall the rustic feel of 18th century masters. His paintings highlight the natural beauty of Guyana as well as pay tribute to the struggles and successes of its people. They make one proud to be a Guyanese.
I SEE STEVENS as I am walking out of my home on Kent Street one day. His hands capture my attention. In them, he is holding a painting of crude and starkly contrasted geometric black shadowy figures against a white background. I walk closer and see that the figures are of an African mother and a small baby she is holding. Immediately I am interested. Stevens, who is tall and lean, is wearing a collared blue and yellow striped shirt with a rip at the bottom and a faded NY Transit hat. His hat is pulled over his tight, gray Afro curls so far down that it almost hides the dark sunglasses he is wearing. I’m not sure if he ever knows what’s going on or if he knows everything that is going on. I wave; he does not wave back. I come closer and closer until my face is close to his and it is only then that he recognizes me. We make the introductions and his low and slow raspy voice informs me that he has advanced cataracts. It would cost $800 to fix his eyes, a hefty price for Guyanese standards. I buy the painting partly out of a desire to help and partly because I am captivated by it.
Stevens’ art has become his bartering tool for his eyesight. He diligently works during the day and fastidiously sells at night to save money for an operation. Though New Amsterdam’s interest in art is minimal, he describes the community’s response as “reasonable.” Many people would like to buy more of his work but since Guyana is in a bad economic state, they worry about providing food on the table more than tacking a painting on the wall. This doesn’t stop Stevens. He is persistent, motivated by his health and love of art, even though it has caused him to somewhat retreat from normal society. “An artist’s life is just really funny at times because the more that you get involved, the more times it puts you away from society,” he says. “I’m an observer.” Still, people make him happy and he confesses that people from all walks are life are his muses. At any given moment you can find Stevens deep in conversation with a local passerby or an interested foreigner, and sometimes I even catch him talking to himself.
HOW SUCCESFUL has Stevens been in distributing his work and motivating the Guyanese art community? According to him, not very much. “I should say it’s very challenging. Because some of those things that I expect to achieve I haven’t achieved yet, I did a lot of art earlier that I found not a lot of people were ready for. Society was not ready or prepared to accept it.” One his pieces,True and False, depicts reproductive organs and alludes to the harmony of sexual intercourse. Guyana, an extremely religious country that hesitates to speak of sex, found the piece controversial. Mysteriously, the piece was stolen after it was exhibited. Stevens never found the culprit. Another two pieces, Cooperation and Separation, caused a stir due to the political nature of its content. Painted in 1973, just seven years after Guyana gained independence, Cooperation shows six links joined together with each link representing one of the six races in Guyana. Separation, painted a year later, shows divided links that resemble ammunition such as part of a gun or part of a blade to illustrated the post-colonial violent and divisive political climate. The Guyanese population didn’t like this one either; it was too in their face, too truthful. Stevens was forced to hide it in his home.
Censored and discouraged, Stevens at an early age realized that Guyana was too young to accept radical art and now molds his art to his people’s wants and needs. But sometimes his people disappoint him and he looks to the outside for praise and encouragement. Most of his work is sold to foreigners who are in Guyana temporarily, Peace Corps Volunteers or missionaries, who are fascinated that a man his age with advanced cataracts is still producing beautiful pieces of art. One time, a visiting Trinidadian man promised he was going to purchase a large handful of his paintings. The man left, but assured Stevens he was going to send friends to check back with Stevens. That was in 1987. He still hasn’t heard from him.
As I listen to Stevens I start to feel sympathy for his plight. Like anybody who creates, he needs a reason and motivation to keep going, and his ego to be stroked. “When somebody calls you a good artist, it makes you feel like your effort has been valid, your contribution to the world accepted,” he says. I decide that I am going to help him break out into the world. I envision his work in the Guggenheim; “Claude Stevens: Native Son.” It is a good theory. But I am forgetting one thing.
I contact my old college in Boston and as it so happens, there is a project specifically devoted to international artists. The Transcultural Exchange is collecting tiles from artists around the globe to be displayed in public places in the US, as in a park bench or as part of a wall. The tiles would represent a part of one’s culture or country. Perfect, I thought. I buy ceramic tiles, acrylic paints and paintbrushes for Stevens after he agrees to be involved. I patiently wait week after week. Still, no tiles. I approach him after one month. “Just now,” he tells me. “You see, my eyes. I’ve stopped all painting for the time being. But, I’ll have them. I need to get my work out there.” How could I have forgotten? I know he’s not lying or lazy. Sometimes I don’t think he realizes I am there until I’m breathing on him. One night I even escorted him across the street, my arm linked in his, because he could not see.
I also learn, however, that he has saved enough money ($400 to be exact) to get an operation for one eye. I am very excited, but hold back because I don’t know if he is telling me this to appease me. I see him two weeks later on his market corner and he informs me about the operation. “I can see again!” he excitedly exclaims. “The world . . . is just so different.” I look down at the painting he is holding. There is finer detail, more defined brushstrokes. The leaves on the palm tree are starkly outlined, the man who is harnessing the donkey cart reins looks weathered and beaten and is slightly smirking. Stevens is grinning from ear to ear. His future is hopeful again.
This optimistic attitude slowly wanes, though. Stevens still feels limited in many ways. For one, he doesn’t have or have access to many tools such as easels, different canvas mediums, art books, facilities, even paintbrushes and paint. The one store in Guyana that has these materials is in the capital city of Georgetown, too far for Stevens to travel to often, and is very expensive. Stevens is not immune to the poverty of Guyana. Daily life is a struggle for him like most Guyanese. Stevens also is tired of painting rivers and town halls but feels trapped due to financial concerns. “I’m not happy right now,” he admits. “I’m hoping to go into my area of art which I have more pleasure in doing. I like to do a lot of symbolic and abstract art but it’s not lucrative. I have to cater now for the people.” He also is interested in portraits and human figures, as inspired by his love of Van Gogh and DaVinci. He loves how the features, the lines and expressions on a person’s face all convey a message, or messages. A portrait of a Negro Rasta man and another of a white girl, he claims, are his best two pieces of work.
Though Stevens has created little of the kind of art he would like to do, he has an advantage over most painters his freedom. For Stevens knows what he knows and paints from his own experiences, his own emotions. He is free from the stifling academics of art history. He is free from art criticism. He is free from the who’s who of the art world. He just paints. However, his position in a Third World society negates his freedom. His mind is free but poverty traps him. He has a strong desire to use his talent and contribute to society by opening an art studio for children to teach them art techniques from all disciplines painting, sculpture and drawing. But he has little money. He doesn’t have an art space. He is without books. “Someday,” he says.
I think of this word as I am preparing to leave Guyana for good. Claude Stevens is one of the last people I see. He brings me a final painting for me to give to my grandparents a river man resting on a boat on one hazy, lazy afternoon on the Berbice river. As he stands at my gate, painting in his hand, I pause and look at a man who has devoted his life to art but art hasn’t returned his favor just yet. He has been successful, I think. Despite the lack of support, the theft of his paintings and the significant loss of his eyesight, Stevens continues to paint. I look at him and smile. He smiles back, then quickly mumbles something about sending him color acrylics. I nod thoughtlessly. “Someday,” I say. We shake hands goodbye. He stands for a few seconds then turns and walks down the pot-holed dirt road, seeing life again with the patient eye like that of the river man in his painting. The river is beautiful, but he must wait to travel down it.
Celeste Hamilton is a freelance journalist. She has written for The Long Island Press, UR Chicago and Outlook Arizona. She is currently living in Arizona doing HIV Prevention with homeless substance abusers, and is working towards her goal of becoming a Bollywood dancer.
The Road to Santiago
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567)
It is solved by walking.
WE WERE PILGRIMS THIS SUMMER, my husband Chuck and I, walking from Le Puy en Velay in France, over the Pyrenees and on to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain. We started in Le Puy because the Bishop of Le Puy was one of the first pilgrims in the year 951 and it is a thousand miles from Santiago. It would take us a while to get there. Lao Tzu said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” That was the journey we were on.
A pilgrim can start anywhere. Jerry began in Geneva; Gerhard started in northern Germany; Hans and Karen stepped out their front door in Austria last April and arrived in Santiago in mid-July. Susan put her flat up for sale in England, took the chunnel to France and began walking. Jean-Jacques has left his home in Egypt, every year for the past three to walk an étape, a stage of the road to Santiago. He walked for two weeks this summer and will get there next summer one more étape to go. Jean-Pierre was walking for the poetry, he said. Christine left her home in Sweden, her husband and two twenty-something daughters, told them she was going to France to begin walking to Santiago. She had been ill for 15 months before she left, sick with daily debilitating headaches, so exhausted she couldn’t get out of bed most days, hospitalized for weeks. No diagnosis and nothing helped. She didn’t know how long she would walk, how far she would get, but on May 10th she began walking, alone.
This was our family of the road, our fellow pilgrims. There were many more of course, Pierre, Alain and Eliane, Dante, Doug, Jean-Pierre, Stephan, Guy, Jerome, Bartholomew, the Argentinean brothers Roberto and Pedro, Thierry, Lona and Lotte from Denmark, Drew, Rob, Orling from the Dominican Republic. Orling means ray of light which describes her perfectly.
There were three great pilgrimages for Christians in the Middle Ages: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Santiago. The pilgrimage to Santiago began in the mid-tenth century and at the height of its popularity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, more than half a million people from all over Europe made the pilgrimage each year. It almost died out in the 18th century, but interest was rekindled at the end of the 20th and last year 179,944 people walked to Santiago.
Thousands of people make this pilgrimage but we walked alone most of the time, in others’ footsteps, but just the two of us walking through meadow after meadow of wild flowers, across pastures held in by ancient, unmortared rock walls, with vistas of fields and farmhouse, sheep, cows, horses, in every direction; through sun-dappled eucalyptus forests; through waist high grass that left us soaked to the skin.
The mornings were stunningly beautiful. Most days we rose before dawn and were on the road between 6 and 6:30, walking on high plateaus, down plunging gorges, along country lanes, in shadowy forests, through hamlets and villages and every morning we said to each other, “Isn’t this amazing? Have you ever seen such light? Look at the sky or the meadow or the glistening leaves or the sun rising and the moon sinking!”
We were enveloped by birdsong. The sweetest voice of all was the cuckoo, far at the edge of the forest, every morning. We didn’t feel that the day had truly begun until we heard, “Cuckoo, cuckoo!” At night we watched the swallows dip and dive around the church steeple, hundreds of them, dark shapes against the dusky sky in every town. In Spain, we watched the storks rearrange themselves in their nests atop almost every church steeple. More than once we met unaccompanied cows on the path. Somebody had opened the barn door and said, Go, to the cows. Go to the pasture, you know the way, and they did. And early one morning, somewhere in France, we met twenty horses in the woods, walking alone, single file, on their way to their pasture. We stepped to the side of the path and they walked silently by, the colts hurrying to cover their fear or shying away from us, mares and stallions trotting confidently by, heads held high as if we were only ghosts.
I’ve lived in the city all my life. Encountering horses in the misty forest, cows and sheep grazing across my path, being greeted by the cuckoo every morning was a mystical experience, was magical, was, finally, deeply spiritual. Such encounters can happen anywhere, on any trip, but not with the frequency or the intensity of a two-month pilgrimage. And it doesn’t happen if you travel by plane or car or even bicycle. You have to be on foot, moving slowly. As St. Augustine said, “Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.” I might add, it is also found by walking.
Chuck called the pilgrimage a monastic experience. There is a deep sense of community among pilgrims that is not dependent on language or profession or politics or wealth or nationality or, even, religion. There is communal living, archetypal dress, ritualized, basic work, and time for silence. Pilgrims for the last thousand years have carried a scallop shell as the symbol of the pilgrimage, worn a broad brimmed hat and carried a staff and they still do.
We stayed in refugios, refuges usually renovated buildings monasteries or seminaries once a tower large rooms with five to twenty bunk beds, blankets and pillows provided. Some were free donation asked, most cost 3 to 12 Euros per person, all reserved exclusively for pilgrims.
On an average day we walked 15 or 16 miles, a distance you could travel in less than 30 minutes by car, even on narrow country roads. It was slow and often difficult. The path was rocky or slippery or narrow. Our packs were heavy. By 10:00 it was hot. By 11:00 every item of clothing was soggy with sweat; by noon we were exhausted and, most days, we didn’t know exactly where we would sleep that night, if there would be a place for us, if it would be crowded, if there would be food available, if there would be hot showers, if we would see anybody we knew. We usually stopped by 1:00, sometimes not until 2:00 or 3:00 depending on the day and the terrain and the availability of refugios. When we found the refugio, we had our credentiale stamped proof that we were there paid our fee, chose a bed, stood in line for the shower, washed our sweat-drenched clothes, hung them up, ate, lay down to nap. Got up by 5:00 to see the church, shop for food, talk to others, write in our journal, take pictures. The walking and the preparations to walk were our work, our vocation. The time after showering and eating and napping were unimagined luxury because we had nothing to do during those hours, no phone calls to return, no presentations to prepare for, nothing to study, no meetings, no day planner or calendar in our back pack, nobody depending on us to do anything or be anything.
More than half of the people we met, men and women, were walking alone and there were more pilgrims than we expected. At first I was sorry not to be more unique, but then I understood what an amazing, marvelous thing it is that so many people from so many places were taking two weeks, two months, three months to hoist up their pack and walk to Santiago. In this fast paced, multi-tasking cell phone world, thousands of people of all ages put on the pack and the shell and the hat, take their pilgrim’s staff and head for Santiago, walking across the continent at a snail’s pace. Walking across the continent at a pace that allows you to notice the snails and the ants, the beetles and to hear the cuckoo and to see the swallows dive. We were transformed, not by our arrival in Santiago, but by setting out for Santiago, by getting up every day, swinging that pack to our shoulder and setting out, walking across another magnificent strip of this glorious planet, alone, with difficulty, with blistered feet, with shin splints, with aching knees, using the two feet God gave us, in the company of sheep and cows, barking dogs and other pilgrims.
How did we know where to go? The way is marked by balises in France, red and white stripes on rocks, trees, signs, buildings, to indicate the GR 65 grande route 65 and in Spain yellow arrows and scallop shells on rocks, trees, signs, curbs, and buildings. You don’t need a map or a guide. You follow the marks on the trees and rocks and curbs.
Christine said that when she started walking, she could hardly find her way. She was alone, ill and disoriented and had no idea how far she would go, or for how long, but after two weeks, her head began to clear, she said and she felt a little stronger. She kept going and by the time we met her in early July, not only was she walking at our speed, but she glowed with health and energy. The pilgrimage gave her her life back, she said. “I’m not Catholic, but I use these churches to cry.” Her husband was to meet her soon, nearly three months after she left home. “He won’t know me,” she said. “I am so transformed.”
We also stopped at every church that was on the path. Many were built for the pilgrims centuries ago. Some were small, dark stone chapels, 800 years old, with simple altars and a few poor pictures or statues. Many had statues of St. James. Like Christine we are not Catholic, but we always paused before St. James to give thanks, to touch his feet or cloak. When there was a mass, we went. When there was a pilgrim blessing, we went.
At Rabanal, in Spain, the 7:00 Vespers and the 9:30 Compline and Blessing of the Pilgrims are sung in Gregorian chant by three Benedictine monks in the tiny twelfth century Church of Our Lady. The voices of the three monks filled that small holy space crowded with pilgrims. There were translations in English, French, German, Spanish, but nobody needed them. The beauty of the Gregorian chant, the company of our fellow pilgrims, and the sacredness of that simple space were enough. We understood.
The last days were hard on Chuck; his knee completely gave out and he wasn’t sure he’d make it. We didn’t talk about that much, but there was the possibility that a strong will and courage wouldn’t be enough to get him to Santiago, so it was with full hearts that we mounted the steps of the cathedral in Santiago on our 58th day and stood just inside the door. The cathedral was packed, a mass had just begun, and we saw a friend almost immediately, Roberto, the older Argentinean brother. “You are here!” he said.
Yes, we were there.
You tell everybody you are walking to Santiago, but it is as if you don’t really expect to arrive. You focus on the walking, on the birds singing, on the steep descent, on the rocky path, on the promise of coffee in the next village, on the hope of seeing somebody you know when you push open the door of the refugio, on finding a boulangerie to buy bread, on the herd of sheep that follow you for hours as you cross the Pyrenees, on finding the church open when you finally stop for the day.
There are rituals around the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago de Compostela, rituals to remind you of the importance of ritual, of not just arriving and saying, “Well, I made it, here I am.” First you present yourself at the pilgrim office to offer your credenciale in order to obtain the Cathedral’s certificate of pilgrimage, the Compostela. Then you go to the cathedral and place your hand on the Tree of Jesse under the statue of St. James Sant-Iago. Your hand on the cool marble sinks into the imprint of the fingers and palms of the millions of pilgrims before you. Next you bow before the bust of Mateo, the architect of the great cathedral, and place your forehead against his to gain some of his wisdom. Then, you walk behind the 13th century statue of St. James high on the gold encrusted altar to give him the “hug for the apostle.”
The pilgrim mass at noon begins with a single woman singing a capella, her lovely voice embracing every stone, window, and chapel of the great cathedral. After the homily the priest announces the pilgrims who have arrived since noon of the previous day. “Two Americans dos Americanos arrived this day from Le Puy,” he says.
Christine was there. We hadn’t seen her in two weeks, but she was there in the cathedral with her tall, handsome husband, una pelegrina de Suecia had arrived in Santiago from Le Puy that day. She asked us how the fortieth day was for us, said it was hard for her and explained the many Biblical references to forty as a time of struggle. I was moved by her question, by how we search for some larger reference point for our struggle, for some reason for things to be so hard, for something that gives meaning . . . and we are still searching on the day of arrival.
Two days later as we left for Madrid to catch our plane home, we ran into Bartholomew at the train station. We’d dubbed him the great communicator because he talked to us so animatedly and at great length in spite of our obviously limited Spanish. Bartholomew had carried the most elaborately decorated staff of any pilgrim we knew, but he didn’t have it with him that day. “Where is your stick?”
“I left it in the cathedral,” he said, touching his heart. “A gift for Santiago. I must leave it here.”
Of course. The Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path.” And you leave or give a part of yourself with every step. It’s true of walking the pilgrimage with the cuckoo sounding at the edge of the forest every day, true of mounting the steps to a holy place, and true of walking out the door of your house every day of your life.
Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 196567, Kenya staff, 196971), and is working on a novel.
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