Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tony D’Sousa (page 2)
 Talking with
Tony D’Sousa
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And you went to Cote d’Ivoire? 

Yes. I served two and a half years in Cote d’Ivoire (May 2000 to September 2002) and four months in Madagascar. I was evacuated from Cote d’Ivoire during my third year, and transferred to Madagascar to help re-start their suspended program. In Madagascar, I was haunted by the violence in Cote d’Ivoire, and shirked my duties and wandered around the southern part of the island for two months, ending my sojourn in the mountains, and when I came back down, the CD gave me the choice of Admin Sep or early termination, so I ETed.

What were your Peace Corps assignments?

In Cote d’Ivoire, I was assigned to a Muslim village of 700 people as an Education Volunteer. My main duty was HIV/AIDS education.
In Madagascar, I was supposed to teach English at a rural high school while living at a Catholic orphanage. I taught two months until the Christmas holiday and then I disappeared on my walkabout and that was all she wrote for me and the Corps.

Where you writing when you were overseas?

I did try to write in my village, wrote everyday by lamplight for the first three months. I sent those pieces home and my mother submitted them to the journals. I gave her an old Writers’ Market and left her to it. She had better luck than I ever had. I had pieces accepted by good journals in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States, but the foreign ones made me happiest because my stories are set all over the world and I like to think that I write for an international audience.
But sitting in your hut with your door closed is unbelievably anti-social, and people asked me what I was doing all the time. Anyway, I put the hard craft of fiction aside, and kept my journals for the next two years, let Africa happen to me on its terms. Now and again I’d hole up in our flophouse in Seguela and crank out a story over a weekend. Then my mother wrote that that she couldn’t handle all the rejection slips and that she wouldn’t send my stuff out anymore. I wanted to be like, “Ma, you got four stories published in three months, that’s huge success!” But it was good for both of us because when we talked about it later she told me she had no idea how much rejection was involved in what I had chosen to do with my life.
I had a few finished stories and five or six spiral notebooks with my musings on Africa when the war started. I had to leave them behind and they are gone. I wrote new stuff in Madagascar and kept new journals, but was mugged and beaten in Park Station, Jo’burg on my last day in Africa and lost that, too. Hemingway crying his whole life about those three manuscripts Hadley had stolen from her in the train station always struck me as a bit insincere. I decided not to mourn about mine. I know that they were used to wrap fried bananas and other street foods. So what? Every story is just a trout leaping out of the river of the Ur story to hang in the sun for its moment. Just like we are. People in New Orleans lost whole lifetimes worth of work in Katrina. It’s not something I’d want to go through day after day, but at some point you have to give up that regret. Besides, one story, “The Hard Life” was sent back very slowly by Black Mountain Review in Ireland, so I got this gift in the mail soon after I returned Stateside, something I thought was lost which wasn’t. It came out in Front&Centre in Canada last year. 

How did you get your agent?

A woman in my training group, Merle Rubine, had retired from her career as a producer at Dateline, NBC. We were both stationed in the Seguela region, and became close friends. She read a few of my stories and said I should send them to her friend Liz, who was a literary agent in New York. So I did. Liz wrote back that she liked the stories but didn’t think that there was a market for stories, to send her a novel when I had one. I wrote a silly political anti-Bush novel in six weeks a couple of months after getting home in ’03, sent it to her, she sent it back, but kept her door open. A year to the day later, I sent her Whiteman, and she picked it up. She just happens to be Liz Darhansoff, a legend whose agency’s recent titles include Memoirs of a Geisha, The Shipping News, Cold Mountain, The Life of Pi, and Brokeback Mountain. Getting her to represent me was the single most important moment of my career. When I got the e-mail from her saying she wanted Whiteman, I pumped my fists in my office for an hour, easy. I was teaching composition at a community college in California, and everyone came in to see what was up. Her taste is so good, that in some ways, I was writing for her. I simply knew as fact that if she picked up my book, everything would be good.


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