Peace Corps Writers March 2006
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.
Click on title of article to jump down to read. Or just print the whole thing!
Peace Corps Writers: Front Page 3/06
Peace Corps Writers awards
Do you have a favorite book written by a Peace Corps writer that was published during 2005? Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books of the year written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
Send in your nominations to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Children’s Writing
Fulbright & You
If you want to go overseas again and not in the Peace Corps think about a Fulbright Grant. Gary Garrison (Tunisia 196669), Assistant Director for Asia and the Middle East at the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, was kind enough to drop us a note about the opportunities for international teaching and research available in the Fulbright Scholar Program. Gary writes, “We value the experience and expertise of former Peace Corps Volunteers who wish to participate in another great international opportunity, the Fulbright Program.” Gary focuses on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia but there are grants open for many more locations and for creative writers, journalists, as well as teachers and those of you doing country or area specific research. Gary can be reached at: 202-686-4019 or email@example.com
And then Sarge said to me . . .
Patricia Baldi Waak (Brazil 196668) was not an early Volunteer in the Peace Corps. In fact, she did not serve under Shriver, but she has had a long connection with Sarge and she was kind enough to send us some of her best recollections of the first director of the Peace Corps.
DESPITE THE MEMORIES of some of the original creators of the Peace Corps, I was not one of them. I don’t know whether that is a compliment or not, since I am slightly younger but at the same time am accepted as one of the original group. In 1961 I was graduating from high school. Though inspired by John F. Kennedy and his brilliant and visionary brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, I did not enter the Peace Corps until the February of 1966. Sarge was just passing the mantle to Jack Vaughn.
My work directly with Sarge would come later when I went from George McGovern’s presidential staff to Sarge’s vice-presidential staff during the 1972 McGovern-Shriver Presidential Campaign. Since I was primarily in Washington, D.C. and he was on the road, contact was in group settings. Sarge has always been a great story teller, and there lies some of my favorite memories.
So in 1975 when the Shriver friends began to mount a Presidential campaign on his behalf, I was ready. I would become the first woman Deputy Campaign Manager, something fairly common these days. And in the beginning I traveled with Sarge and the entourage through the Midwest.
It was the stories that captured my attention. We often had lengthy discussions crossing the frozen fields of Iowa about the beginning of the social programs he established. Some of these stories have become history. Others have been lost. I want to recount just a couple about the Peace Corps.
Creating the Peace Corps
It was two lines in a speech that the new President John F. Kennedy gave in California. He then turned to Sarge to make it happen. Sarge says he told the president that this was a political plum. He should offer the appointment to one of his political friends. According to Sarge, Jack Kennedy told him, “Sarge, you don’t understand. Everyone says this is going to be a lemon. It is much easier to fire a relative than a friend.”
Women in the Peace Corps
And of course, it was not a lemon. Sarge said he gathered some of the best minds and together they came up with the concept of the Peace Corps. One thing they worried about was women Volunteers. Remember this was the 1960s. Could they live overseas unprotected? What kind of training would they need? He told me that as it turned out, women were more adaptable, learned the language easier, stayed their full tour of duty more often, were more successful and were extremely well-treated by the host country. I wasn’t surprised, but it was good to hear it from him.
There are tons of other stories that would be shared over the course of those months of the campaign and the years that I have known him since. I have saved hand-written notes, and my own memories are clear. Four years ago when I ran for Congress in Colorado, he once more sent a contribution with a letter “instructing” me on issues. I am most fortunate to be one of the people who received his wisdom and friendship.
New recruitment book from the Peace Corps
This month the Peace Corps issued A Life Inspired: Tales of Peace Corps Service. It was published by the agency’s Office of Communications and is the fourth book in the recent series of Peace Corps-printed publications that highlight the experiences of PCVs. The very first book of this kind was entitled The Peace Corps Reader and published by Quadrangle Books for the Peace Corps in 1966. That book was an expansion of a “monograph series” started by Donovan McClure, then director of Public Affairs for the Peace Corps. McClure had been the CD in Sierra Leone and after returning to PC/W commissioned several Volunteers and staff members to write monographs about the Peace Corps. These monographs were circulated on college campuses in an attempt to reveal more about the “real life” of a PCV. McClure’s successor as Director of Public Affairs, Andy Hays, turned the monograph series into the first edition of The Peace Corps Reader. The editor of these two editions was Mary Hoyt. Paul Reed, the Peace Corps’ art and production director designed the first two volumes.
In the mid-1990s when I returned to work at the Peace Corps, I reconceived the idea of Peace Corps stories to be used in recruitment and edited three editions: To Touch the World, followed by At Home In The World (1996) and The Great Adventures (1997). Many of these essays came from newsletter Marian Haley Beil and I started in 1989, Peace Corps Writers & Readers. Approximately 125,000 copies were printed of each issue of these recruitment books. The books were free for the asking.
This new edition is also free, though the Government Printing Office is also selling it as a paperback for $15.95. (I suggest you call 1.800.424.8580, Option # 1, and when they answer, say you are thinking about joining the Peace Corps and would like a free copy of A Life Inspired.) By the way, the GPO has categorized the book as “Inspiration/Travel/Adventure.”
In this issue
I’m not sure if this March issue is a lion or a lamb in terms of length and content, but we continue to review the many books written by RPCVs and this issue has five such reviews. In “A Writer Writes” there are two fine pieces of prose. Orin Hargraves (Morocco 198083) recalls with warmth and much love the life of a Moroccan woman very dear to many PCVs in his essay, “Maid in Morocco.” Current PCV Jayant Kairam (Cape Verde 200406) then tells us how he chewed off more than he could handle in “Let Him Eat Bread.”
Besides these items, we have a list of newly published books and lots of news in Literary Type. And in honor of the recent St. Patrick’s Day . . . as we say in Irish: Go raibh mile maith agat! A thousand thanks on to you.
Enjoy your reading.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers 3/06
Somalia, As It Was
by Jim Alinder (Somalia 196466)
A Fine Place to Daydream
Racehorses, Romance and the Irish
by Bill Barich (Nigeria 196466)
The Unswept Path
Contemporary American Haiku
edited by John Brandi (Ecuador 196668) and Dennis Maloney
White Pine Press
Water Shining Beyond the Fields
Haibun Travels Southeast Asia,
by John Brandi (Ecuador 196668)
Tres Chicas Books
Chronic Pain 2006
(for the Cleveland Clinic)
by Jim M. Brown (Colombia 196264)
Belvoir Media Group
Children Kept from the Sun
Excerpts from an Afghan Journal 19731976
by Frances Garrett Connell (Afghanistan 197376)
by Tony D'Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203)
Service Without Guns,
by Donald J. Eberly (PC/W staff: 1961)
with Reuven Gal
Words to Rhyme With
A Rhyming Dictionary
by Willard R. Espy, updated by Orin Hargraves (Morocco 198082)
February 2006 (third editon)
A Life Inspired
Tales of Peace Corps Service
Essays by RPCVs
Government Printing Office
When I Was Elena
by Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand (Guatemala 199193) Permanent Press
The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela
A Tale from Africa
by Cristina Kessler (Honduras 197375, Kenya 197576, Seychelles 197678);
Leonard Jenkins (Illustrator)
James Madison: Patriot, Politician, and President
(The Library of American Lives & Times)
by David B. Mattern (Mali 197678)
Rosen Publishing Group
The Papers of James Madison
Secretary of State Series; 2 April - 31 August 1804
David B. Mattern (Mali 197678), editor et al.
Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia
San Miguel De Allende
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff:Tanzania, Uganda, CD-Malawi, CD Jamaica 196671)
(Special discount for RPCVs. Both new books by Andrew Oerke for $20. Contact: Hans Janitshek, United Nations Society of Writers and Artists, 212/288-5716)
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff:Tanzania, Uganda, CD-Malawi, CD Jamaica 196671)
(Special discount for RPCVs. Both new books by Andrew Oerke for $20. Contact: Hans Janitshek, United Nations Society of Writers and Artists, 212/288-5716)
Pacific Nations & Territories
by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 197173)
by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 197173)
Literary Type 3/06
Tony D’Souza’s (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203) Whiteman has begun to receive positive reviews. In the Library Journal reviewer Evelyn Beck of Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, South Carolina, writing about the main character says, “Jack’s adventures as an honored outsider are alternately amusing, sexy, moving, and, when war erupts, frightening.” She recommended the book for all public libraries.
More good news on the novel comes everyday for Whiteman:
- Entertainment Weekly is running a review and picture.
- On the Amazon.com page for the novel, there are links for Tony’s recommendations “10 African novels to Read” and “7 African Films to See.”
- The April issue of Vanity Fair has mention of it.
- Outside Magazine, a mention in May
- Poets & Writers just selected the book as a Best First Fiction and will run a passage and an interview with Tony in their May issue.
Bill Barich (Nigeria 196466), a former New Yorker writer, who moved to Dublin years ago has a new book on horses and racing in Ireland. Barich, who is famous for his 1981 classic horse-racing book Laughing in the Hills, now turns to steeplechase racing with this book, A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance and the Irish that follows a steeplechase season from October to March, culminating in a weeklong series of races at Cheltenham, England. The book came out this month from Knopf.
A Fine Place to Daydream was the lead featured book in the March 16th USA Today article “Some other tales of the Irish: Celebrate the Emerald Isle’s literary tradition with these books” by Deirdre Donahue.
Amy Mehringer (Cape Verde 19982000) has a short story, “In Apartment 1-A,” coming out in April in the Bellevue Literary Review. Amy is the Communications Manager at the prestigious Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University.
Jayant Kairam (Cape Verde 200406) who wrote one of the “A Writer Writes” essays in this issue on his country of service has another article on Cape Verde in the Spring 2006 issue of Glimpse, the very fine cross-cultural magazine that provides a forum for sharing the experiences of young adults living and studying abroad.
Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali written by Kris Holloway (Mali 198991) will be published next September by Waveland Press. This true story is about the life and death of a midwife as seen through the eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer who worked with her in Mali. Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 196365 & Peace Corps Director 199395) in endorsing the book says, “It should be required reading for anyone considering the Peace Corps and for any student of anthropology, international studies, or women’s health. It is a tale of the potential of cross-cultural friendship and the power of intercultural exchange.”
Holloway writes that a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to a new rural women’s health clinic “Cabinet de soins Monique,” begun in Mali to honor Monique and continue her work.
We’ll let the Peace Corps community know when the book is in print.
Gene Stone (Niger 197476) author of the instant best-seller The Bush Survival Bible is writing a new one entitled, Duck! The Dick Cheney Survival Bible: 250 Ways to Find Cover from the Man Who Calls the Shots, Pulls the Strings, and Shoots the Lawyers. By the time you read this, I’m sure, the book will be written and published as it’s due out from Villard April 11th. Here are a few items from Duck’s Table of Contents:
- 12 ways to tell if you’re Dick Cheny
- 10 other famous dicks
- 9 people who hate Dick Cheney
- 6 terrible vice presidents
- 9 things about Halliburton you don’t know
- 8 people worse than Dick
- 8 lies Dick hasn’t told yet
- 5 countries where Cheney would be a successful leader
- 9 steps if your significant other starts acting like Cheney
- 5 ways to serve quail
Coming in June is a new book by Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger (Liberia 197880) entitled Where Should I Sit at Lunch? The Ultimate 24/7 Guide for High School Survival: Everything teenagers need to know about surviving the four most dramatic and difficult years of their lives. Karen Unger is a freelance writer and editor, a writer at Poughkeepsie Day School and the co-author of Too Old for This, Too Young for That! Your Survival Guide for the Middle School Years, Free Spirit Publishing.
In early March, Senator Chris Dodd (Dominican Republic 196567) was interviewed by Don Imus about the Senator’s new legislation, a bill called Combating Autism. In talking with Imus, Dodd remarked, “There’s this terrific book written by a woman from Hartford called Girls of Tender Age.” From there Dodd went on to describe Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s (Cameroon 196567) memoir of her life with her autistic brother during a time when autism was not yet diagnosed. Dodd said the memoir was a great and eloquent story that revealed the staggering problems of a family with a developmentally disabled child. He also qualified all this by telling the I-Man that he wasn’t in the business of promoting books.
Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 197374) has just published her second story on “Amazon Shorts” Amazon’s attempt to make literature iPod friendly. Her new short-short story is entitled, “Walking Funerals and High-Heeled Pumps.” Readers can download the story for 49 cents. Susan’s first story “The Bingo Game” is also available on Amazon.
Babu’s Song by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 1989-91) was named a finalist for the 2006-2007 South Carolina Picture Book Award.
Currently a resident of Washington State, Stephanie will join the faculty of the Whidbey Island Writers Association’s MFA program in August.
Stephanie and her family will appear in Jean-Michel Cousteau’s April documentary for PBS, A Voyage to Kure, which was filmed while they lived on Midway Atoll.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review of March 12th reviewed The Bora-Bora Dress by Carole Lexa Schaeffer (Micronesia 196769) with illustrations by Catherine Stock. Reviewer Emily Jenkins said the book gives the girl in the story, as well as its readers, a new appreciation of the beauty of the world.
This April marks the tenth anniversary of National Poetry Month, and to help celebrate, Alfred A. Knopf is sending free via email poems by some of it’s illustrious poets to anyone who registers on it’s website.
What began eight years ago as a modest project to send a poem a day during the month of April to a list of about a thousand friends and supporters, has grown to an active community of 25,000 subscribers.
It’s fast and easy. Anyone can register and sign up as many people as they like. The poems are free and can be faxed, forwarded, printed, or posted.
Included at the bottom of each email will be a direct link to the poetry site, which will also feature essays, author Q&As, and beautiful downloadable broadsides designed by Knopf’s talented team of inhouse artists. The wonderful world of poetry is only a click away.
New this year, Knopf will also be pod-casting “iPoems for your iPod.” They’ll have writers reading some of their favorite poems, such as Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Mark Haddon, and John Updike, in addition to poets who will be reading from their own work.
Talking with . . .
Tony D'Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203)
Aan interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
THE FIRST EMAIL I received from Tony D’Souza told me that he had been a PCV and written about his experience in Africa, but that his book wasn’t “a Peace Corps novel” so he didn’t know if it qualified for our website. He then went on to tell me about his book Whiteman and his experiences in Cote d’Ivoire. After hearing his story, all I could say was that the novel was one of the best Peace Corps stories I had ever heard or read about. Remember this title Whiteman. You’ll be hearing a lot of about Tony D’Souza. He is the real thing when it comes to being an RPCV writer.
Tony’s internationally award winning fiction has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, Stand, The Literary Review, The Black Warrior Review, Iron Horse, and many others, and is forthcoming in Tin House and Playboy.
Whiteman, chronicles his life in a small African village, before, during, and after a civil war. Today Tony lives in Sarasota, Florida. He is working on another book. What follows is what he had to say about his Peace Corps experience and his new novel. The interview was done by emails and over drinks at the Algonquian where else? in New York City. It is a very long interview, but Tony’s struggles to stay alive in Cote d’Ivoire and then what happened to him afterwards when he transferred to Madagascar is as compelling as how he got his novel published.
Tell about your life before Peace Corps, Tony.
I was born in Chicago to an RPCV mother (India 196668) and Indian father, and raised in Park Ridge, Illinois, the home of Hillary Clinton. I attended St. Ignatius high school where I lettered in tennis and wrestling, rode a bicycle across Alaska after graduation, and then went to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin after flunking West Point’s physical exam for color blindness.
I earned a BA in English in two and a half years at Carthage, then did a six-month internship at a defense think tank in Washington, D.C. I also worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and rode a bicycle across Europe during those years. My father died suddenly when I was 22. I earned an MA in English at Hollins University in Roanoke Virginia, then an MFA at the University of Notre Dame.
My first published short story won the Black Warrior Review Award for Fiction; my second published story won the 3rd prize in Stand’s International Fiction Competition. I was 23 at the time. I spent part of one semester at Notre Dame in Havana, Cuba, chosen by Writers of the Americas to represent the United States as a young fiction writer at the first US-Cuba writers’ summit in 2000. I also earned ’Best Thesis’ honors at both graduate programs. Then when I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Cote d’Ivoire.
Was the MFA at the University of Notre Dame good for you? Would you recommend this path for RPCV writers? What were the benefits for you?
Writers need other writers. To talk about books and the art with passion, about what came before and how great things were accomplished. To figure it out, even though, ultimately, the real thing can only be figured out alone.
The MFA for me was an important aspect of my writing life; it was where I met my readers, where I was able to see my own dedication to the art in comparison to others. I went with a few notions that served me well, the most important being that no one could teach me how to write but myself, and the second most important being that I would not be in competition with my peers in the workshops, but with the best writers I’d ever read. That said, I had excellent teachers that saved me a lot of time and turned me on to great books.
I don’t have patience with the idea that real writers don’t get an MFA. Hemingway had Anderson and Stein and all those folks in Paris and later he had Perkins. The Bronte sisters had each other. Even Dickinson wrote and met with other writers. Tell me a writer who didn’t have a correspondence with another writer. The MFA is a more formalized, forced version of that. If you continue with the art, you get the more natural thing later.
My advice to younger writers is to stay out of debt. I don’t think it makes sense to pay for a degree in art, and a little research turns up a number of free programs.
Great books will be written by people. Some will have MFAs and some won’t. The MFA gave me two years to surround myself with people who loved books. Most of life isn’t as pleasant as that.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I joined to travel, to honor my mother, to voice my dissatisfaction with the continual growth of capitalism, to live in a foreign language, to experience black Africa, for adventure, a challenge, to be able to brag about being in the Peace Corps for the rest of my life, to do something good in the world.
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.
Let’s talk about Whiteman. How long did it take you to write it? How many drafts? How did you get it accepted for publication?
Believe me, if you are a writer, you don’t want to know the story of the writing and sale of Whiteman. It took me five months to write. It consumed me, and I thought about it with every breath when I wasn’t working on it, which was five to twelve hours a day. I was teaching a 4/4 comp load with 35 students per section, serving on the Curriculum and Author’s Series committees and juggling a couple of relationships. It was like being hopped up the whole run of it. It just felt right and right and right, night after night. I wonder now if I’ll ever feel that way again. Sometimes I’d finish a chapter and sit back and say “Whoa.” I mean, you might read my book and hate it. But the feeling I had when I wrote it is the thing I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life.
The hardest part for me was how to write the Peace Corps out of the story and still have a young American in a remote African village for two years. I just couldn’t come up with the solution. Then Barry Spacks, a distinguished poet, came to my college in our Author’s Series and he said he’d look at what I was working on, and he read a couple of the proto-chapters, and he gave me the idea of the fictional aid organization that my character works for. It was a simple solution, laughably so. But there it was. That was in mid July ’04. The writing went off like one of those long fuses Coyote lights in the Road Runner cartoons.
Keeping the Peace Corps out of the book was the most important thing, because of all the assumptions pro and con that go along with it. People are either instantly sympathetic or dismissive. I did not want that for this character and this experience.
But writing Whiteman was not easy. There are twelve chapters in the book, and it’s no secret now that they each work alone as stories since so many have appeared in the serials. The manuscript ran out at 81,000 words, about 270 pages, and to get that I wrote 1000 pages. The thing was, I just kept throwing parts away that I knew didn’t work, pressed on to the next thing. But I did move chapter by chapter, following a timeline. I don’t outline. I have a vague feeling, usually the vision of a character, and then I look for the right lines that carry the story along. There is one chapter that I’m not a big fan of, but needed it for a bridge, and a couple more that just never felt perfect, or that they could ever be perfect. I had to go back and write a couple chapters to fill holes. It wasn’t magical, it was work, but it was magical to be that consumed.
The original title was “Africa Unchained,” the title of the opening chapter. I wrote a proto-form of that chapter in our Seguela flop-house in 2000, right after getting tear gassed in a riot. I sent it to my friend and teacher William O’Rourke just to look at, and a year later he sent me a copy of the Notre Dame Review where he’d published it as the lead story. Quite a surprise to get in the mail in Africa. It was really that story that spurred me on to write the book after my return. It’s such a violent and dark piece. Yes, that was my Africa, but the humor and vibrancy that runs through the rest of Whiteman until the war at the end was also my Africa. I had to tell people about that as well, because they hear so much about the darkness.
Nobody liked “Africa Unchained” as a title for the whole book but me my editor at Harcourt let me know we’d have to come up with another one. So I went to my chess buddy and proof reader Joel Dunsany’s house with a vegetarian pizza and a sack full of bottles of Grolsch, and he coached me through dozens and dozens of titles long into the night. He lives in a remote cabin and there was snow outside. He kept saying, “What is the essence of your book, Tony? What is the true thing?” Well, they called me Toubaboo everywhere I went in Africa, as they do my character, Jack. It binds his identity and frees him. It becomes who he is. In English, Toubaboo translates into Whiteman. That was a magical moment, and we both knew it was the perfect title and cheered. I’m really proud that I came up with it. They were a little hesitant at Harcourt at first. But I knew it would grow on them and it did.
I wrote all of Whiteman in an old building called the Mortuary in Dunsmuir, a mountain town on the Upper Sacramento River in far northern California. The town was very blue collar, with tough railroad and forestry folk, a scattering of stubborn intellectuals. I had a wonderful writers group there and was surrounded by beauty. I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all by American culture. I felt isolated and anonymous and in touch with nature. It was a great place to write.
I finished Whiteman in mid-November last year, finished the last revisions on Thanksgiving night. I sent it to Liz and she was back to me on it in ten days. The first week of December, she told me to sit by my office phone at such and such an hour, and for three days I took calls from the editors of the major American publishing houses. My colleagues were constantly in and out of my office to hear me recount those conversations, and all night I was on the phone with friends. At first I thought I had to impress the editors, but quickly understood that they really liked my book. That Wednesday evening, Liz told me that we weren’t going to take any more calls, that the book would be sold on Monday. She asked what house I liked, and I liked Harcourt because Becky Saletan and Tina Pohlman said things about what they though I had been trying to do that made me breathe with pleasure, plus the fact that they publish Jose Saramago, who is my favorite living writer. It was a very tough decision. I can’t say enough about how much I respect Carol Houck Smith at Norton and how nice she was to me on the phone and since. So three weeks after I finished the book, it was sold. I know that there was interest from at least five publishers, Liz knows all the ins and outs of that. But it was a very charmed period of time in my life.
In March, The New Yorker bought a chapter, and in August, Playboy and Tin House bought chapters. We went through a few cover designs before my editor, Tina Pohlman, said “Have you heard of the Ivorian artist Outtara Watts?” Three seconds into looking at his work, I knew it was right, and picked out the cover Three Skulls. Tina told me not to get excited because Watts has a big reputation and he either might not want to do it, or might be too expensive. He called us that evening and gave us the permissions for free in exchange for copies of the book. I was recently in New York and bought the actual painting. It was the first and best major purchase of my life. Jacques de Loustal did a great illustration based on the chapter in the New Yorker, Liz sold UK rights last week. I do a lot of media and have seen my face way too up close in glossy magazines. It’s been a year since I finished writing Whiteman, and in that time I’ve written one very good short story, and one very good poem, and not much else. I feel a lot of pressure from myself to write some huge, huge second novel quickly, and I am of course worried that Whiteman will be a success. I work nearly everyday, but I’m going through a creatively dry period, everything goes straight to the trash can. I am confused and way off my keel. It has been a year of dreams.
How did you arrive at this cover?
We went through eight or so cover ideas. To me, everything was gratuitous African images from ethnicities totally unrelated to the one I write about. On this certain one, my editor said “Everyone at Harcourt likes this, we really, really think you should like this, too.” I didn’t. It was a San cave painting. That’s what, 2500 miles away from West Africa! I called my agent. The next day my genius editor came to me with the Outtara Watts suggestion and I picked the cover art out of a dozen of his pieces.
How did you work with your editor on the book?
My editor, Tina Pohlman, really helped me smoothen out continuity between the chapters, and trim out some repetition and pendanticness, my major weakness. It really has been a crazy and emotional year, so much excitement, so much fear, so many moral questions to ask about writing about people without their consent, profiting from tragedy and horror. I did not go to Africa to write a book, and yet I was a writer the whole time I was there. I have prayed to the universe daily since I was 22 to make me a writer, just please please please send the Muse. I didn’t care about anything but the writing and being recognized for the work I’ve done. I know that’s what we all want. To actually have it, sometimes this light comes into me and I feel like I’m tripping. Other times I know this will destroy me as a writer.
One of the first things I did after selling Whiteman was to go on this crazy hell raising trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey. The second thing was to go on this crazy hell raising trip through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with my pal and RPCV Adam Huebner. They have email in all the bars of the world it seems but here. So sooner or later I’d check my email in a foreign bar and there would be an email from Tina. That she somehow didn’t get sick of the crazy emails I sent back and kept me focused on Whiteman is a wonder. She’s a great editor. She really managed me through the emotions.
I am lucky and grateful for what’s happened. But I don’t understand this question tons of people put to me: “What are you going to do now?”
Hello! I am going to write until there is nothing left. And then I am going to try again.
Explain some things about how you write. Do you write on a computer? Do you write for so many hours a day?
I write at night, after dark. I pace around at first, smoke, drink, settle my soul. Then I sit down before the paper with an image or a scene and try to find a true line that makes me want to look for the next one. I have always written with a pen and paper in a quiet and bare room close to a window where I can see the night. 99% of the time, I produce five to twenty pages, go to bed, look at it in the morning and throw it away. But once in a while, the Muse comes into me and I hurry to the end not to lose it. Re-reading it, I can’t remember where it came from. It’s never what I thought it would be, and that’s my main strength in writing, to let the story be what it wants to be, to go there even when I have no idea about where it’s going. It’s narcotic to be taken away like that. It keeps me going back.
Writing is not fun for me. It’s hard and a frightening sort of way to try to pay your way through the world. But to hold that electric current of the Muse in your hands, it’s worth the trouble. My best work comes out in a rush. It has the magic and continuity and liquidity that building and building a story can’t. I don’t think many writers write that way, but to each his own art. My best stories come out in great rushes of one or two sessions. Then there are the weeks or months it takes to get the clay of it formed up into the right shape.
I like to reread my best stuff. In that way I write for myself. But I am also very conscious of reaching an audience. It has to move me, and if it does, I know it will move someone else. I care about all of my characters, even the vile ones. I want to find each one’s truth. If I don’t think it is something that will last, I throw it away. I have thrown 200 page manuscripts into the fireplace. It’s a terrible and frustrating feeling to watch all that paper burn, but cathartic and reaffirming, too. If I don’t like it, why should I let it be?
How do you go about editing yourself?
Editing for me is the easy part. The hard part is getting the good clay to work with. It’s hard to mess it up if it’s fundamentally a good story, even in rough form. I go through it and every time I hesitate, I stop at that part and ponder until I find the thing to make it right. It’s hard sometimes to force myself to admit that some line isn’t right, to not be lazy and try to slip it by someone, but I just don’t settle for it. I don’t send stories out until they are done. Until Whiteman, I haven’t had an editor change more than a word or two here and there. And even with Whiteman, there are very few differences between what I sent in and what will come out in April.
What Peace Corps writers have impressed you?
I’ve read lots and lots of Peace Corps books, fiction and non. Moritz Thomsen blows me away. Both Theroux and Shacochis figured largely in my decision to join the Peace Corps. Recently, I loved PF Kluge’s Biggest Elvis. I had no idea he had been in the Peace Corps from that book, and was really proud when I found out. I think a worry for a lot of us is that we’ll be pigeon holed or dismissed as “Peace Corps writers.” I certainly want more out of my career than to be That Guy Who Went to Africa and Wrote That Book. I look to guys like Rush, Wiley, Tidwell, Hessler and know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Of course writers join the Peace Corps. What would writers be if they didn’t want to know the world?
Sorry I have to ask this, but what did you think of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman?
Oh Lordy. I don’t want to talk about Nine Hills. Everybody asks me about it with a raised eyebrow like they expect us to be in some sort of competition. What Sarah and I are doing is apples and oranges. But of course my heart sunk when I first heard that her book had come out. Then I read it praying that it wasn’t going leave me any room to say something of my own about Cote d’Ivoire. I quickly saw that it was a completely different thing, non-fiction, about a pre-conflict Cote d’Ivoire that I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t enjoy it at the time because I was worried we were going to be fighting over the same literary territory. I know we’ll eventually cross paths. I wonder how that will be. Congratulatory from both sides, certainly. When you have two books on the same subject, you know people are going to wonder which one is more authoritative. Asking me about Nine Hills is either very unfair, or reveals me for the small person I am, or both. It’s like you have this really great mousetrap that you put your heart and soul into designing, and just when you are about to unveil it, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, did you hear about So&So’s mousetrap? I heard it’s pretty good.”
When I saw Nine Hills, I said, “Oh crap, there goes my shot.” Who has heard of New York publishing two books on an obscure African country so quickly in succession?
Then again I wonder how Sarah feels. I know she cares about her book as much as I do mine. I hope we don’t get stuck on panel after panel together in coming years like some endless waltz on an interminable blind date. I hope Sarah will give me a chance after she reads or hears about this. Her book came out at a time when I was really struggling to come to terms with the war and my own seemingly lost career as a writer.
Tell us a little more about Cote d’Ivoire and your experience there as that is the central story of your novel.
I loved Cote d’Ivoire from the moment I first saw it, when the plane descended through the clouds. It was a world of green, like Conrad’s Africa. We were flying over the palm oil plantations, though I didn’t know it then. Then there was a long lagoon and a man poling a dugout canoe across it. It was a misted morning, steam coming off the trees. It is so hard to escape the West, and twenty years from now it will be completely impossible. Well of course it already is. There are televisions and cell phones in every village, even if the villages are purely mud huts. Actually, I did find a few tech-free villages here and there and they were always a treat to spend a couple nights in. But the people had all their conceptions about the West and what we have as opposed to what they perceived they did or didn’t have.
Why did I want to live in a “reduced” state so badly? Because the people there want all the tech that we have, they think it will make them happy. Well a young adulthood in the West with all its racism, inequality, cultural arrogance, and disrespect for the environment hadn’t left me skipping through tulips. I wanted to know what it is like to grow your own food, to live by the cycles of the seasons, to see the stars in a place with no lights. I mean, I would have liked to known life as a pre-agrarian hunter-gather. Maybe [Thomas] Hobbes was right and it was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It seemed to have worked for us for 190,000 years, and they had plenty of time to paint that outrageous stuff at Lascaux and the Matopos. I don’t know that that wasn’t better than the West’s current, “overweight, bored, dim, harried, and frightened.”
I was sent to a Muslim village of 700 people on the edge of the forest and savannah, what would later be the war front. Cote d’Ivoire was violent all of the time that I was there, in fact I was pulled down from site twice and spent roughly four weeks on consolidation before the eventual evacuation. My regional capital, Seguela, was a particularly violent place, and Peace Corps held us Seguela region Volunteers on consolidation even after the rest of the Volunteers had returned to their sites. We had a little flop house in the city, and twice in 2000, we spent a week or so in that house with no services while the military seized the city. This was before anybody was talking about civil war. The people were so angry with the government, and we were so in tune to what was going on that we’d call Abidjan and say, “Uh, there’s probably going to be a big hullabaloo next Thursday, maybe you should pull us down,” and they’d be like, “Oh, no it’s going to be calm, go back to your site.” Then I’d sit in my village with my friends and we’d watch these heavily armed commandos march along the road with rocket launchers and all the gear. Then on Thursday, just like everybody had said, the town’s youth would kill a couple soldiers at a checkpoint and burn their bodies and liberate everybody from the jail, even the crazies, and then the soldiers would roar in on their jeeps to take the city back and one of the teachers from our school would wander into the village to my hut and hand me this note with an official stamp on it from the School’s Superintendent in Seguela, “Monsieur Tony is kindly informed by Peace Corps to appear in Abidjan for a special training meeting.” That of course was the consolidation code for me to get the heck out of there, and what could I do but just shake my head because to get out of there I had to go to Seguela, the belly of the beast. And of course the military would siege the city and we’d all get stuck in the center of the maelstrom with no food or water so that by the time we could get down to Abidjan a week later, the trouble was over and to add insult to injury, after a week of not knowing when you’d eat next or when the military or the mob would come in and kick down the door and say goodnight everybody, we then had to spend a week going to Peace Corps training meetings.
This happened twice within my first three months of service. So I quickly lost faith in the Peace Corps Administration, in the United States Foreign Service, and especially the CIA. The security people at the US Embassy asked us what we knew about what was going on by way of informing us about it, and they couldn’t pronounce the names of the major Ivorian political players correctly. Shameful.
But it liberated me, too. Before that I had been diligent about filling out all the quarterly report stuff and what not. Even when it consisted of, “The Chief asked for a tractor again. Repeated inquires to USAID reveal that there will be no tractor forthwith.” I just dropped the pretense that big things were going to happen and concentrated on learning the language and customs of the people. My days consisted of farming and hunting, my nights of story telling and talking about girls with the other young men. Now and again another Volunteer would show up at my site and I’d be shocked at how white they were. Then I’d remember that that was who I was as well, and I’d be thrown off for a few days. Then I’d ask myself all these things like, “What are you doing here? Who are you kidding?”
By the end of my second year I realized how comfortable I had become not just in my village, but in the Seguela region. Everyone knew me or knew of me and though I don’t know what they really thought of me, I know that they respected my ability with the language. I had good friends there and frankly, loved the place. I knew its roads, its paths, the different villages, what was unique about each one. I knew people’s genealogies and the stories that went along with them. And I felt like I had my place in it too, Adama Toubaboo-Che, “The White Worodougou.” I did a number of AIDS projects to justify my stay, including a few major ones in Seguela with the other Seg-region Volunteers. So when it was time for me to COS, I re-upped for a third year. I knew when the war would start to the day. And it did.
While I thought I had seen violence before the war, the war was something else, violence distilled. For two days I walked and hid in the forest and villages on the way to Seguela. All the villagers were scared in a way I hadn’t seen before. They were scared for me too. They wanted to hide me. I knew that there were a lot of very new Volunteers in the region who had been at their sites for all of a week and were still having trouble asking for a drink of water properly. Also, I just wasn’t brave enough to stay behind and cut my ties with Peace Corps. I didn’t know how bad it would get and just knew that sooner or later my currency as a whiteman would be used by someone and bad things would happen. We spent a week under siege in that house, then had to make a run for it across the war zone the same day that the rebels arrived to take the city for good. This is in my book and I neither want to relive it here in writing about it, or blow the ending of Whiteman. But it’s not a dull read, believe me.
What happened to you in Madagascar? Did all the Cote d’Ivoire violence comes roaring back to you?
My transfer to Madagascar was really just a selfish thing I did, very cynical. I did not want to return to the US, but had no money. I thought I’d chill in Madagascar until Cote d’Ivoire calmed down so I could go back in, start a falafel shop in Seguela, who knows what.
We had a five-week abbreviated training in Madagascar. The Peace Corps had closed there in ’01 because of violence; we were there to reopen the island for Peace Corps service. Most of the crew from Seguela had transferred, in fact of the eight of us who had crossed the war zone from Seguela, five of us decided to go to Madagascar together, plus another Seg Vol who had been down in Abidjan when the war started. Maybe it was a Band of Brothers sort of thing, even though it was mostly girls. We liked each other. We had a lot of intense history to share. The training was a blast: we didn’t stay with families, but at a resort on this lake. The food was great, we all played volleyball and swam and got healthy. My language gift showed itself off with flair. I was conversational in Malagasy by the fourth week.
Then it was time for service again, and I was sent way down the island to a small town to teach English at the high school. I was housed at a Catholic orphanage, given a small room above the kitchen. The conditions were grim, I had to adjust to Madagascar and cope with the stuff that had happened in Cote d’Ivoire at the same time. The special training at the resort was a sort of reprieve, but alone again at my Madagascar site, I began to think about things that had happened in Cote d’Ivoire, about my friends, and especially about the times that I had abused my position as a whiteman to get things or get away with things, whether it was to make a kid get me a cigarette from a kiosk, or humiliate a soldier at a checkpoint, or spend a night with an Abidjan hooker.
Though I had known the war was coming, it wasn’t until afterwards that I understood how much it degraded and debased human life. I found my own heart of darkness in Cote d’Ivoire, found that the darkness was in me. The war had been exciting; I had been excited and attracted to it. I had looked forward to it. But I had not known what the horror it really was would mean for people, and I had that disgusting black spot in my soul to regret and make me question my own goodness. So I’d teach my classes at the high school and then go up to my smoke filled room (the kitchen smoke ran through my room before exiting the building) on my burlap sack mattress filled with rice chaff, and I’d think about it and think about it. I’d thought I’d been this good, good guy. But I had been just as excited as any of your basic mob machete butcher by the prospect of the war. So for the first time in my life I began to hate myself and feel that I’d fucked up the sacred thing that my life was for good. I don’t know that I still don’t feel that way.
At the Christmas break, I went on this long, long sojourn with another Seg-Vol all through the south of the country, and when she went back to her site in the north, I just kept wandering and wandering, all the way up the highest peak in southern Madagascar, Andrigitra, these sacred granite mountains. Well there are no more answers at the top of a mountain than at its base because the only answers are in the heart. And my heart told me that I had fucked up, and that human life is fucked up, and I was despairing and joyless. Back at the orphanage, I quickly learned that all hell had broken loose in the six weeks that I’d been away, and that I was in a lot of trouble with the Peace Corps. A grenade had been thrown at an Embassy family’s compound, and we’d gone on consolidation, and I wasn’t anywhere to be found. For weeks. This felt very distant to me and didn’t trouble me. Up in Antananarivo, we went through the formalities of documenting my disappearances from site with stiff letters and communiqués from Washington and what not, but I was done and wanted to be done. I was on a plane to Johannesburg in two days. Then I wandered for months through the continent, from Jo’burg to Kampala and back again. I went through Zimbabwe when even the border guards told me I’d get killed in it, went to the border of Burundi and Congo, and was turned back. My money ran out in Mozambique. The war was still raging in Cote d’Ivoire and where did I have left to go but home? I have been back for two and a half years.
If you had to do it over again would you join the Peace Corps?
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I served nearly three years against a backdrop of constant violence. Half of my training group left after a year. My service ended as an ET and because of that I’m precluded from Crisis Corps or another tour later in life. I feel like some career soldier stripped of his insignia and slapped across the face. Of course I’m ashamed. Of course I wish it had ended some other way.
What makes a great Volunteer in your opinion?
A great Vol is one who stays. There were a number who spent their services watching movies in Abidjan or in sick bay. These people angered me for awhile because I didn’t want them to be able to claim they’d done anything like the hard core mud hut service I’d done when we’d get home. That’s not a great issue for me any longer. Everyone does the best that they can, and even spending two years on a couch in Abidjan is a better experience for our greater collective good that staying at home. Or is it? Maybe those people could have stayed home and worked with the homeless more successfully. I don’t know.
Peace Corps is not a competition, though Volunteers are competitive with each other, about how many projects they’ve done, about how assimilated they become. I lorded my abilities over others at times and regret that now. The language and culture came easy to me and in that way I was blessed. But I don’t know that I achieved as much personally as a woman in my group who was clearly exhausted by Africa and the language everyday, and yet there she was at the end, breaking down in tears because she had done it. So many went home. For a few it was the right choice, but for most of the others I think that they regret it. I wouldn’t want to wake in the night and look at the ceiling and say, “’I failed.”
The great secret about Peace Corps, at least in my experience in a disintegrating Cote d’Ivoire, is that very, very little gets done. It’s less about developing the Third World than it is about developing the American. That the taxpayers foot the bill for us to go out into the world and discover who we are in it is unbelievable. Don’t tell anybody. Let’s keep it that way.
If you could pick a short piece from the book, one of your favorite pieces, what would it be and why did you select that particular passage?
My favorite scene in my book chronicles a fight in the village. A man comes home to find his wife in the very act of adultery. Instantly, he and the lover are beating each other senseless, naked, a very brutal scene. The whole village is roused and everyone jumps into the fray, taking the opportunity to avenge old wrongs on their neighbors. The chief’s sons come with cattle whips to break it up, and even they get caught up in the lust of it, whipping everyone indiscriminately.
My narrator, Jack, runs out from his hut in his underwear, and there is a full moon and he witnesses the scene and the village in the silver moon light as though everything is covered in snow. For the first time, no one really notices him or calls him “Whiteman.” It’s a voyeuristic scene in a book in which he is very involved. But for this one moment, he is simply a part of the village, not white nor black. The fight is beautiful to him, as the war soon will be. The cuckold is truly hurt, the lovers are really in love, people rail at each other about the petty things they’ve suffered that burn them up in their day to day. I think that this is one of the points in the book where the story transcends Africa to tell a tale of our collective humanity. How we hurt each other, how we carry around our resentments until it’s much too late. If you read it as that when and if you read it, I’m pleased. That’s what I was trying to do.
Thanks, Tony. And thank you for this great interview. And all the best with the book.
Thanks, John. And thanks to you and Marian for all your help you give new Peace Corps writers.
In the Aftermath of Genocide
The U.S. Role in Rwanda
by Robert E. Gribbin (Kenya 196870)
Reviewed by David Lillie (Morocco 198890)
TOURING A RWANDAN CHURCH, site of unimaginable genocidal horror, the newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, Robert E. Gribbin, heard a “crunch underfoot,” revealing a human jawbone. Hours earlier, he visited a Kigali prison teeming with over 10,000 men accused of committing the very horrors that led to one of the most efficient and well-planned genocides in modern history. Space was so tight men sat and slept in shifts.
And that was Gribbin’s second day on the job.
Gribbin, a former Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer who actually sought the position in which he served from 1995 to 1999, recounts his many macabre and insightful stories in his book, In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda.
“There are not a lot of secrets to tell,” he humbly confides, but then proceeds to reveal candid political and diplomatic details that 20 years of experience with the country makes him eminently, and perhaps uniquely, qualified to tell.
Following Peace Corps service, Gribbin joined the Foreign Service and served as a State Department desk officer for Rwanda. He then served as deputy chief of mission in Rwanda and Uganda, among other postings in Africa, before taking the Rwanda ambassadorial position one year after nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered by the majority Rwandan Hutus. When offered the position, he did not hesitate.
“I pondered over and over how the peaceful land I once knew could have descended into such a hell,” he said. “Now it seemed I might find out.”
Shortly after the U.S. military’s debacle in Somalia, the Clinton administration had little stomach for another African entanglement where no vital U.S. interest was at stake. A cookie-cutter noninvolvement “policy” quickly held sway. Gribbin was appalled.
“U.S. officials danced around trying to make the circumstances conform to the policy,” he said. More “inexcusable,” he continued, the United States refused to let the UN Security Council act. “We have never been shy of trying to make UN policy reflect American policy.”
The plot to exterminate the Tutsis of Rwanda began when a missile downed the plane of the Rwandan president on April 6, 2004, and was only stopped by advancing Tutsi opposition fighters. Fleeing Hutu hardliners encouraged over a million Hutus to flock into neighboring Zaire and Tanzania where the hardliners maintained control over refugee camps that stretched as far as the eye could see.
In the aftermath, humanitarian teams soon herded into Rwanda and Zaire. Over 100 arrived in Rwanda alone. Gribbin’s opinion of these UN and non-governmental organizations was both admiring and disdainful. Without them, many more people would have died. But lured by money, they inadvertently deterred the earlier return of Rwandan refugees and allowed the Hutu killers to regroup and continue atrocities.
“I called it the ‘humanitarian industrial complex,’” he said. “Thousands of jobs and lots of contracts depended on the presence of refugees.” While their hearts were in the right place, “. . . the system served them and their organizations as much as it served their impoverished clients.”
In his four years as Ambassador, Gribbin witnessed the sudden return of one million refugees, monitored two wars in neighboring Zaire (both abetted by Rwanda), and reported on scores of “terrorist” attacks by unrepentant Hutu killers who infiltrated back into Rwanda with the refugees.
Through it all, Gribbin never lost his love for the country or its people.
David Lillie worked with the American Refugee Committee in Rwanda and Goma, Zaire, from 1995 to 1996. Currently, he is a program officer with USAID in Washington, DC.
Landscape as Spirit
Creating a Comtemplative Garden
by Martin Hakubai Mosko (India 196567) and Alxe Noden
Reviewed by Baker H. Morrow, FASLA (Somalia 196869)
THE WESTERN WORLD HAS HAD a love affair going with Eastern gardens ever since the days of William Kent and Capability Brown in the eighteenth century. Brilliant Chinese scrolls, with their paintings of naturalistic gardens revealing the poetic nuances of mountains, stones, and water, fired the Western imagination first in Italy and then, most famously, in Britain. Kent and Brown and their colleagues, pioneering landscape gardeners all, reworked the estates of their aristocratic patrons at an immense scale, creating rolling hills, meandering streams, artful copses of trees, and carefully placed follies small temples or ersatz ruins designed to pique a visitor’s curiosity.
This naturalistic tradition, derived largely from Zen practice, is much loved in the West, and the basis for among other forms many private modern gardens and the public park systems of North America. But its origins continue to be poorly understood.
Into the breach steps Martin Hakubai Mosko, ASLA, with his colleague Alxe Hoden. Mosko is a Buddhist monk, landscape architect, and contractor, trained at Yale in painting and Sanskrit. He practices in the Rocky Mountains, and the underlying template for his design work is the Buddhist mandala, the central formative idea within which earth, water, fire, air, and space must be expressed as the garden develops.
The objective? A garden that lends itself to meditation, to inner contemplation. The “balanced garden” will be an outer symbol of inner harmony if all goes well. The critical problem, of course, is slowing down Americans enough to appreciate this sort of thing getting them to sit still, look around, and be quiet.
Mosko and Hoden have written a book that attempts to do just this. Garden design is best presented, perhaps, with plans, sketches, and photographs accompanied by notes, and the photography in Landscape as Spirit is good and compelling, and all in color. The gardens, all high-end and private, are frequently exquisite, and boiling with ideas. They are chockfull of elegantly arranged plants, stones, water, and accessories.
But the book is also an active invitation to metaphysics, especially in the early chapters, and the attentive reader may well have to wade through “the energy flow of the garden” before he or she can proceed to the design work.
As an unexpected grace note, Mosko’s Zen gardens are frequently packed with brilliant banks of bulbs and perennial flowers, anathema in the classic Muromachi Period, perhaps, but welcome and joyful in the modern Rockies.
Baker H. Morrow is the principal landscape architect, president, and chief administrative office of Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller, Ltd. Landscape Architects in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of the collection of short stories, all set in Somalia, entitled Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa, and published in 2001 by the University Press of Colorado in 2001.
Me May Mary
by Mary Cameron Kilgour (Philippines 196264)
Child & Family Press
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
FIRST LET ME put my cards on the table. When my memoir was published recently, I received an email from Mary Cameron Kilgour who told me that she had also written a memoir. Like mine, hers was a Hartford, CT, life and like me, she had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the sixties, her assignment the Philippines. She also told me she had self-published a collection of short stories, Creative Recollections of a Foreign Service Life, reviewed here in Peace Corps Writers. The reviewer, however, had neglected to note that the stories had all appeared in legitimate publications, often quite prestigious publications. Kilgour self-published because she couldn’t get an editor interested in her collection (no surprise there since, as we all know, publishing houses are as interested in short story collections as they are in lyre-playing in the Dordogne).
I ordered Kilgour’s memoir from Amazon at the same time I contacted John Coyne to see if he’d heard of it. He hadn’t and asked me to review it.
I loved Me May Mary, the title the progression of names the author was called as she grew to adulthood. By today’s standards, the book is as much autobiography as memoir; it does not dwell on the after-the-fact introspection we’ve come to expect in the genre. All the same, Kilgour’s sound and compelling voice, and a narrative full of rich detail, allow the reader to see vividly the life of a child whose circumstances cast her on a downward spiral where there would be no advocate to rescue her.
We get most of Me’s life (Me is the Scottish pronunciation of May) from age eleven until she’s a freshman in high school. Her parents, who we know as Mom and Dad via their daughters’ point of view, are heavy drinkers. When Mary is in the sixth grade, her father reaches a point where he loses any desire to fight his alcoholism and becomes, basically, a falling-down drunk. He can’t work; the family goes on welfare; and in a short stretch of time Me and her brother Jacky, who is three years older, survive on bread dipped in cans of chicken gravy. They live in a one-bedroom apartment where Me sleeps on the living room couch and Jacky on the floor beside her. When Mom is particularly soused, she will act on the perceived wrongs of her children by charging into the living room while they are asleep to give them a good punch or yank them by the hair.
It is left to Jacky to feed himself and his little sister which he does through the money he earns setting pins at the local bowling alley. Mary contributes selling greeting cards door to door. But by high school, May is forced to steal what clothes she needs at the big Hartford department stores. Here is a train wreck waiting to happen. A shoplifting charge is soon filed against her right about the time her parents have gone from screaming fights to the point where Mom nearly severs Dad’s arm with a broken bottle. He is hospitalized with gangrene, and when he returns home her mother contracts pneumonia and is dead within two week. A month later, May is awakened by her brother one night and he tells her Dad is sitting up in bed dead. The children must handle the police and the removal of his body, and deal with the knowledge that the authorities will put them in foster homes. A scene that takes place after the funeral shows the reader the child and the adult at odds in May’s emotions:
Jacky and I went over to the park to get some privacy. We strolled along the red clay road at the top of Lookout mountain until Jacky shouted, “C’mon, I’ll race you!” He started running and I took off after him. We laughed out loud as we ran, releasing what was inside us into the fresh air. At the bottom lying on the cold dry grass, breathing hard, I had a sensation of release, of freedom . . .. I took from my pocket the copies of the obituaries from the newspaper, sent to us encased in plastic, and I read them while Jacky looked toward the sky.
Mary is fortunate to end up with her pastor’s family, but she is unable to appreciate the sudden regimentation and loss of freedom and chooses the alternative: The House of Good Shepherd the home for bad girls in Hartford. The home has two buildings; one for orphans and girls with nowhere to live, and one for unwed mothers. Under the care of cloistered nuns, Mary thrives, and goes on to succeed at school and life, as does her brother Jacky who joins the Navy at 17 and proceeds to college; he eventually earns a Ph.D as does Mary, from Harvard.
There is a leitmotif carried across the pages of this book. The first chapter opens on a summer day when May escapes her mother’s line-up of chores and heads down to the Hog River where she and her girlfriend had spotted a deserted raft. They will go for a sail. But three teenaged boys are lurking, and they try to rape eleven-year-old May. She screams and fights as they pull off her bathing suit until finally one of them determines the effort is not worth their while. This near-rape haunts the child throughout her days, the memory of it always waiting just beneath the surface of her mind to erode any self-esteem she might have. She is overwhelmed with guilt that the attack was her own fault and inhabits a cloud of terrible shame at the image she can’t shake, of lying naked on the grass with the boys trying to spread her legs apart. This event, plus the despicable home life she endured led her to maintain a solitary life within her Peace Corps experience and a long career with USAID, unmarried with no children of her own, finding happiness in being alone in a quiet room with a good book. But her childhood tragedy along with the lessons she took from the nuns and residents at the House of Good Shepherd, also meant a life devoted to children in need. Kilgour is still working, now a volunteer in the Guardian ad Litem program in Gainesville, Florida, a program with a mission to promote the well-being of children and protect all children from harm.
The reader’s heart goes out to little Me, and the troubled adolescent, May, but there can be nothing but admiration for the adult Mary.
I could not put this book down.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels and a memoir, Girls of Tender Age.
The Night of the Lunar Eclipse
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374; Ethiopia 197475)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
IN TIMES AS STRANGE AND TROUBLING as ours, we need a good laugh every so often. We need to laugh because otherwise we’d cry or do worse. And we need to mine humor from whatever source we can get it from Comedy Central, from old Woody Allen movies, from why not? poetry.
Didn’t poetry stop being funny when Dorothy Parker died?
While no contemporary poet possesses Parker’s saber-sharp wit, modern poetry isn’t devoid of funny versifiers. Think, for example, of Denise Duhamel’s Queen for a Day with its riffs on Barbie (as a bisexual, as a soldier, as a bored housewife). Think of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, whose light touch, even on weighty subjects such as the atom bomb, is designed to encourage a smile
And think, too, of the Peace Corps’ own Margaret Szumowski, who isn’t afraid to take aim at our funny bones.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of Szumowski’s new poems aren’t intended to be funny. They succeed in ways other than eliciting laughs. But the poems here that do attempt the comedic succeed wonderfully.
Unlike with, say, Duhamel, whose success has more to do with her quirky look at pop culture than with her way with words, Szumowski’s humor comes from her use of language or languages, in her collection’s most memorable case. Former Peace Corps Volunteers in French-speaking countries will surely delight in “Men in Love with Parisiennes.” Here’s a taste, the poem’s first stanza:
Some handsome friend of mine says French
women vraiment “know how to dress.” What do
they do, that we do not? French women steal our men.
And while I would hate to spoil the poem’s ending, I will offer this reassurance: Italian men enter to offer a fitting counterpart to men-stealing French women.
What’s remarkable about “Men in Love” is the trust the poet places in her readers. Nearly the entire last stanza is in French. It takes faith to think readers who don’t know French will see the poem to its finish. But equally as remarkable: This reader, who hasn’t studied French since eighth grade, understood it perfectly. And laughed!
The other prime example of Szumowski’s humor at work is “Taking His Name in Translation,” a rhapsody on the author’s married name. Quick: name a contemporary poet who has made recent comedic use of onomatopoeia. Put Szumowski on the list:
Margaret Szumowski loves the mouth of her last name,
the zoom that gave her the last name,
the zoom that gave her the oom, the oom pah pah
of a lover, the zooming in of a morning lover, the zoo
of marriage and children, the oom of loving his
delicious self again and again . . .
While most of Szumowksi’s other poems in this book don’t aim for comedic heights the ways these two do, others are not without a celebratory quality that is at least in the same metaphysical neighborhood as humor. In “Falling in at Summer School,” she writes of two young women (one presumably the poet herself) who, during an Iowa City summer, “took the wrong courses, met the wrong men.”
And yet by summer’s end, or at least poem’s end, “One man/leaned me so far over the water to kiss me,/I thought I’d fall in.”
There are, too, poems of dead seriousness, the kind of poems one might hear recited at anti-war rallies. “Beauty Pageant in Sarajevo” should be read for its exquisite observations and heartbreaking ending. “She is a Nation” spares the reader nothing in its portrait of brutality and offers this poignant truth:
A nation where suddenly
those who live close together,
slice down their neighbors,
neighbors so close the killers
are cutting their very own throats.
Aren’t we all cutting our own throats nowadays?
Is there anything not to like in Szumowski’s collection? Well, I’m not as fond of the poems here seeped in religion and religious imagery. But this objection has little to do with the poems themselves and more to do with my general wariness about the way religion has come to dominate our world. I’m with John Lennon: Imagine there’s no heaven.
But I’m guessing that Szumowski’s with him, too. Or at least one of the book’s final poems, “Christ Goes Out in the World,” in which Jesus is resurrected in Italy, leads me to think so. In the poem, Christ has returned to the world, but no one notices him except the poem’s speaker, who offers him bread and chocolate to go with his coffee. And Christ has one request of the speaker a kiss, “a good one.”
How different might the world look if its religions preached only the power of a kiss?
Before closing, I should add this note: Szumowski is so at ease with the formal poem that their forms are barely noticeable. A couple of times I read a poem oblivious to its form only to return to it again and think, “Ah-hah I see the rhyme scheme now!”
Also, and this seems important as well: While her poems are intelligent and require an active engagement on the part of the reader (a few of Billy Collins’ poems can be read with one eye on the television), they are never purposefully unintelligible or so esoteric as to be unreadable.
Szumowski’s book is as beautiful outside as it is inside. Tupelo Press does gorgeous work. This is a book to own, to read, to re-read.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of three works of fiction: The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Steal My Heart, winner of the 2001 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Writers, and An American Affair: Stories, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Award from Texas Review Press. His poems have been published in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Poetry International, Red Wheelbarrow, and other literary magazines.
When I Was Elena
by Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand (Guatemala 199193) Permanent Press
Reviewed Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 199295)
ANYONE WHO HAS OR HAS NOT traveled in South America, joined or not joined the Peace Corps, taken or avoided taking a bus ride through the mountains should enjoy Ellen Hiltebrand’s When I Was Elena. As with any memorable story about an “other” place, Hiltebrand extends a generosity of attention that allows readers to create their own sense of familiarity with Guatemala. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer and rider of buses through mountains in Southern Africa, I was captivated by both the shocking and the quotidian aspects of Hiltebrand’s two years in Guatemala.
One of the book’s strengths is the author’s three-dimensional self-characterization. Some writers of travel memoirs appear so invincible and well adapted to the foreign that while they are admirable they also seem somewhat unbelievable; or, in contrast, some stories aim to report only the hilarious, the hapless, or the tragic. While Hiltebrand is nothing if not invincible at moments, we also read about her humor and her fear, her uncertainty and regret. Hiltebrand writes about losing some of her youthful naivety. Those of us who have traveled when young know that being betrayed or saved when far from home leaves a distinct impression.
The author conveys clear and varied images of herself at different stages of her Peace Corps experiences, from her pristine, beribboned self upon arrival (her fellow Volunteers immediately place bets on how long she’ll last) to some of her least decorous moments (trying to swab her dog’s excrement from the bus seat), to the everyday and extraordinary in-between actions, like the regular efforts to keep herself clean, fed and healthy in places with no amenities, few essentials, and sometimes imminent threat.
One of my favorite moments in the book, for the footage it offers of the special blend of resourcefulness and “inanity” that can characterize cross-cultural challenges, is when Hiltebrand, with faithful German Shepherd and newly purchased horse, must cross a river. When both horse and dog balk at the muddy, flooded river, Hiltebrand declares, “I like a good fight.” She reports, “I coaxed. I cajoled. Finally, I stepped back and pinched them.” They start off in the manner she imagined: she rides the horse and, with a grip on the dog’s collar, they enter the current. But the horse rears, throws its rider, and the dog is swept away. Hiltebrand treads water, tries to keep a hand on the horse, and hollers encouragement to the dog as it swims back toward them, finally leaping onto the horse’s back “where she clung like a withered saddle. Plan be damned, here’s how we paraded back into town: I swam, the horse got pulled, the dog rode triumphantly home.”
The humor is tempered with tragedy, in the form of some very, very close calls for the author, and the tragedy for the author’s friends. The book is arranged in chapters that alternate between traditional first-person memoir (“Elena’s Story”) and chapters in the voices of women that populate Hiltebrand’s story (“Rosa’s Story”, “Hermilda’s Story”). The form promises additional perspective on Hiltebrand’s presence as well as potential insight into some of the Guatemalan women the author befriended.
The chapters written in the voices of Guatemalan women have some problems in that they unfold in a somewhat simplified English which, though may be true to the English some of the women speak or would speak if they knew English, this has the effect of simplifying the women’s thoughts and making them sound too much alike. And though readers agree that the women have much to praise about Hiltebrand, when she has the women express admiration for her the self-praise feels awkward to read.
Yet the intention to give voice to the voiceless is important work. A great deal of sadness lies within these stories. Poverty and a range of abuses physical, psychological, sexual characterize part or all of the women’s lives. What makes Hiltebrand’s inclusion of their stories admirable is that her formal choice focuses on the telling testimony rather than condemnation. These stories also testify to Hiltebrand’s impact and involvement in Guatemala she made friends there. By covering the same events as the chapters written in first-person, the chapters written from the other women’s perspectives also succeed in inviting readers to consider how one’s actions are perceived by a cultural other, and provide a glimpse of the unusual, ephemeral and very memorable circumstance created when different worlds temporarily combine.
Jacqueline Lyons is the author of the book of poetry The Way They Say Yes Here (Hanging Loose Press 2004) and of numerous other poems and essays. She holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in 2003. She’s currently Faculty-in-Residence in the English Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
by Tony D'Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203)
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
IN FRANZ KAFKA’S WELL-KNOWN STORY, n Franz Kafka’s well-known story, The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa awoke from disturbing dreams one morning to find himself transformed into a giant vermin.” The transfiguration of a man who works too hard, lacks interest in his relationships with friends and family and who is, in fact, valued more by others for his income than his self, is quick, disturbing and unexpected. Whiteman, the debut novel of Tony D’Souza, is an exercise in self-conscious transformation that never achieves its intended result. If we are all creatures of our environment, as some might suggest, the metamorphosis of American aid worker Jack Diaz who lives three years in the Cote d’Ivoire village of Tegeso should be inevitable. Alas, it is not. He does not turn African but remains, by the end of the novel, following a dramatic escape from the northern war, a white man who must return to America. There is the truth of metaphor (Kafka), and the truth of international development, told by returned Peace Corps Volunteers and other aid workers who spend sufficient time in global grassroots communities to wonder whether they can ever go home again.
Jack works for Potable Water International, an American aid organization, which in many respects resembles the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, funds for projects at his rural site (and those of other PWI workers), have been redirected toward the war on terrorism, leaving Jack to fend for himself within a local tribe. We learn little of Jack’s history back home in Chicago other than that his father died when Jack was a boy; the unusually large number of older men whom Jack befriends including Chauffeur, a well-respected villager who teaches him how to hunt francolins, the medicine man, the village chief and the Chinese expatriate Wu leads one to presume our protagonist is a 25-year-old man searching emotionally for an identity in an unusual international location.
Yet despite its unfamiliar culture and the Worodougou language of its people, the Ivorian village of Tegeso is a powerful draw for Jack. The villagers are grounded in their work and their families; they suffer none of the angst that rattles Jack. Their complacency is all the more significant considering their nation is on the verge of war. While D’Souza explores Jack’s experience in a Muslim village, he likewise does a superb job of casually offering a few sentences here and there to remind readers of the treacherous context of the young man’s experience. Jack is aware of the problems between the north and the south, and, despite the dangers, he remains loyal to his northern village in the face of some hard observations. “Living among the Worodougou,” Jack says, “I saw firsthand how the Christian southerners kept the Muslims in a state of poverty so that they’d have no other option but to work as laborers on the commercial plantations.”
The villagers of Tegeso welcome the “white man” into their lives, even providing him an adopted name, Adama Diomande, that renders his American one insignificant. Jack spends a great deal of time pursing local women, motivated partially by lust, partially by a desire to dissolve into a local identity. He confesses, “I’d hold Mariam’s sleeping body in the night, imagine I was holding the whole of that hot continent.” His pursuit becomes reckless to the degree that he risks contracting AIDS through unprotected sex with a high-risk prostitute and has no qualms about taking another man’s wife as a lover. Yet two women with whom he feels a developing bond remain elusive in the end and benefit from his emotional vulnerability and his ready access to money. The ungraspable quality of Africa to a white American such as Jack is all the more apparent when Chauffer takes Jack out to the nighttime forest to witness the village’s young men engaging in a tribal ritual of dancing and writhing by firelight. Chauffer will not explain the ritual’s meaning to Jack, confessing: “. . . there are things we must keep for ourselves if we are to go on in this world as a people.” Jack, in turn, later reflects, “All the things I had been doing suddenly seemed as ridiculous as they really were. The forest, the people, they would never reveal themselves to me . . . [I was] as African as I would ever become, not African at all.” Despite their welcome, the Worodougou clearly are proud of their identity and clearly will not share it with an overeager foreigner.
Interestingly, Jack retreats from his one genuine opportunity to marry a local African: the beautiful Peul woman, Djamilla. During his courtship, Jack’s village counterpart, Mamadou, warns that the Peul are a people useful for commerce alone. Yet Jack continues his pursuit of this perceived outsider of a woman. When the engagement is announced, though, Jack does a startling about-face and escapes to the city for several weeks, returning only when it is understood that the courtship has been broken. For a young man searching for a sense of identity, his erratic behavior may seem surprising. Yet Jack also willingly concedes responsibility for an AIDS education project to Mamadou once a village chief refuses the paternal charity of a white American. The careful reader will observe that Jack, in his deepest heart, seems to recognize Africa is not his home and never can be. In those instances where the country finally appears prepared to open itself to him, Jack balks. Ultimately, and inevitably, he must return to America alone and with no lasting attachments to his host country.
D’Souza, in fine control of his narrative, draws the novel to a fitting if tragic close. While skirmishes and minor coups have filled the pages of Whiteman to this point, Jack knows, when television and radio broadcasts are finally terminated, that the greater national war between Muslims and Christians has begun. Jack and his PWI colleagues retreat to a sanctuary in the nearby city of Seguela, hoarding what few rations and cigarettes they have as Muslim rebels move through the north, cleansing the region of perceived enemies. Only through extortion, manipulation and bribery does the PWI team escape to the Christian south, the city of Abidjan and safety. Yet Jack feels little relief and shakes away the protective hands of Marines. In his retreat, Jack reveals elements of a lingering adolescence. “Sometimes I was scared, other times excited to be witnessing something I’d only otherwise read about in books. There was a glamour to it, a sense of pride. At times I let it quicken my pulse, though I know I shouldn’t have.” Yet, in the final pages, he likewise confesses that that despite his subsequent experience visiting other war-torn nations in the region, he never finds what he was looking for, and returns to America with a small dog named Small Africa, the sole lingering reminder of the three years he spent in Cote d’Ivoire. In the end, it seems, he understands life can only move forward and that Africa has tremendously impacted one important part of his personal maturity. Not every Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience may be as steeped in war as Jack’s, and D’Souza does an excellent job of showing that volunteers rarely succumb to a full Kafkaesque transformation into locals but leave only a piece of themselves behind whey they return home, older, more experienced and hopefully a bit wiser.
Joe Kovacs served as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka. He writes for WorldView magazine and is currently seeking an agent for his novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. He also is a martial arts practitioner and holds the rank of brown belt in tae kwon do.
A Writer Writes
Maid of Morocco
by Orin Hargraves (Morocco 198083)
I LEARNED A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO of the death Fatima Meskina, on January 9, 2006. I’m sure that no obituary appeared in any newspaper, and that her death and burial were modest and attended only by a few. But for me and I expect for a handful of others her death marked the passing of a legend: in the three years I spent in Morocco she was the most helpful, sometimes the most difficult, the most vivid, and for me personally the most influential person I met.
Fatima worked as a maid for a succession of Volunteers in various programs in the middle Atlas town of Azrou. She signed on with Volunteer Jeanne Spoeri in 1977 and got passed down, like many other Peace Corps accoutrements, to successive Volunteers over the next ten years or so. To pigeonhole Fatima as merely a maid, however, doesn’t tell anything about who she was. To the various Volunteers she shared her life with she was a maid as a matter of convenience, but her other roles were much more important: friend, teacher, cook, adviser, escort, shoulder to cry on, agent, fixer . . . the list goes on and on. She was the best Arabic teacher I had in my whole three years in Morocco; it would not be exaggerating to say that half of the Arabic that made its way into my brain came directly from her.
My Volunteer service was not in Azrou; I lived in another village, El Hajeb, 30 kilometers away. And except for one summer when I worked in Azrou, Fatima was never officially my maid: I got to know her through my neighbor Volunteers who employed her. Through Fatima’s stories, I became aware of the Volunteers she had worked for in the past. And through letters that she dictated after I left Morocco, I got to know the Volunteers she worked for afterwards. All together we constitute a sort of family: the handful of Americans who were lucky enough to have shared a part of our lives with Fatima.
This small group of Americans is a family in another, much more profound sense: we were Fatima’s family. Fatima had no siblings and grew up without parents. She married unsuccessfully several times, before any of us knew her, and she had no children. Her only blood relatives were distant relations in Midelt, a town three hours away. Her true family was the Peace Corps. She lived the best part of her life for and with Morocco PCVs. Those of us who knew her well had an infinitely richer experience in Morocco because of her: she was our entrée to countless experiences in Morocco that would have remained unknown to us otherwise, and that I think no other Moroccan could have provided us. Her association with Americans afforded Fatima some prestige, but without us, and even with us, she lived at the bottom rung of Moroccan society: her friends were prostitutes, old widows, and fellow kif [cannabis] addicts like herself: people for whom the family-is-everything culture of Morocco had no respectable place.
When I wrote my travel guide Culture Shock! Morocco in the 1990s I wrote a page and a half’s worth of acknowledgements that appear in the front of the book: it was my first book, and I didn’t know then that I would ever publish another, so I thought it was important not to leave anyone out. One of the people I mentioned in the acknowledgements was Fatima, and it would have been quite unjust not to do this: knowing her probably increased tenfold the depth and breadth of my penetration into Moroccan culture. I don’t even know that I would have had the confidence to write authoritatively about it if not for the many experiences that she led me to directly. One of the early Volunteers that Fatima had worked for, Debra Snell, picked up my book at some point and saw Fatima’s name. She emailed me, and through Debra, who now lives in Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship, I have had the benefit and the privilege of knowing about Fatima in her last years.
Fatima’s last years were difficult, but not as difficult as they could have been, had it not been for the efforts of those who stayed in touch with her and supported her financially. She had severe arthritis and was mostly bedridden since 2000 or so. I had always feared that she would die alone and friendless. Happily, events have proven me wrong, and I suppose I should have known that Fatima, after her extraordinary life, would never settle for what I thought would be her fate. I learned of her death from Debra and I can’t do better than to quote from her emails to me:
I was traveling here with three friends the first two weeks of this month, and our plan was to go to Azrou to see Fatima, so we ended up there last week Monday (Jan. 9). When we arrived we had coffee and then set out across the square to her house. A woman called out my name and it was “Little Fatima,” now a grown woman, about ten years old when I lived there. She said she had tried to call me the day before to tell me Fatima was “very sick” as opposed to “sick” . . . . My entourage got to Fatima’s place and I discovered she had been in a semicoma for three days. I leaned over, kissed her and told her who I was and I was there and she opened her eyes and looked at me for a few seconds. Then, two minutes later, she died.
. . .
I truly now believe this is why I have the Fulbright: to have seen Fatima in the last months of her life and to witness and be there when she died. Honestly, it is still hard to believe it happened.
In another email that went out to all of the people she knew who had also known Fatima, Debra also asked us to send her their reminiscences about Fatima; she was thinking about writing something. Shortly after I left Morocco in 1983 I wrote a short memoir of Fatima. It is part of a collection of my writings about Morocco, mostly fiction, that I circulated among agents and publishers for a while. The collection garnered a few admiring comments, but no offers, and it eventually settled down into a dormant area of my hard drive. But I got out the memoir of Fatima after I received Debra’s email and read through it again, for the first time in probably 15 years. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have to say that rereading the memoir blew me away. It brought back to me, far more vividly than I would have imagined was possible, people and places in my life that had slowly drifted out of active memory.
I sent the memoir off to Debra and put it on my website; it is now making the rounds of various Volunteers and others who knew Fatima. Aside from actually getting published, I have to say that receiving comments about the memoir from people who have read it is the most gratifying thing that has ever happened to me as a writer. I think the experience has a couple of interesting points regarding Peace Corps Volunteers and writing:
- For me now, in my early fifties, the great value of that memoir is that it recorded in considerable detail events that happened when I was a twenty-something. Paradoxically, I find that now, at this vantage 25 years after the fact, I have a much deeper understanding of who Fatima was and why her life was so singular than I ever did at the time. In the memoir I simply recorded what I saw and what I felt when it was fresh in my mind I reckon I wasn’t really grown up enough to understand a lot of it, and there is nothing like the passage of time to drill into you some of life’s more enduring truths. So the moral here is, get it while it’s hot. You will never again have as vividly in your mind the impressions of life as a Volunteer as you do when those experiences are still making your synapses fire.
- While we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are off in exotic places, gathering up impressions and experiences that last a lifetime, we may sometimes overlook the fact that the process is working the other way too: the experience of us in these faraway places may well constitute the experience of a lifetime for the people we meet there. This was certainly the case for Fatima. As I said, we were her family. She had no other. We were also her lifeline in a culture that had no place for a childless, old, drug-addicted spinster except as an object of pity, contempt, or charity. None of these roles was acceptable to Fatima: she was an indomitable, independent thinker who fashioned her own life against every prevailing current. She was lucky enough to find a group of people who enabled her to do it and validated her efforts. Because of that her gratitude to and love for us was every bit as great as ours toward her.
- Do not despair if your writing about Peace Corps life, or any writing you do for that matter, does not find its ideal audience as soon as you dot the last i and cross the last t. To everything there is a season. The profuse thanks and appreciations I have received from readers of the memoir who knew Fatima well and who say that I really “captured” her have completely vaporized quite a few of those long-ago rejection slips.
Orin “Buz” Hargraves taught English as a Volunteer and worked as a trainer for Peace Corps/Morocco until late 1983. His first book was Culture Shock! Morocco: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette (
Graphic Arts Center Publishing
, 1995), and was followed by two other books in the Culture Shock! Series He parlayed his TEFL experience into a career in lexicography, and he has contributed substantially to dictionaries from publishers including Berlitz, Cambridge University Press, Chambers-Harrap, HarperCollins, Langenscheidt, Longman, Merriam-Webster, and Oxford University Press. He is also the author of numerous articles about language and of two language reference books: Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: A Guide to British and American Differences (Oxford University Press, 2003), , and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), due out next year, an ESL self-study book about American slang.
His unpublished fiction includes novels and short stories, some of which can be found on his website www.carr.org/~orinkh/Fiction/
Orin's 1983 memoir can be found at
A Writer Writes
Let Him Eat Bread
by Jayant Kairam (Cape Verde 200406)
I LOVE THE BREAD HERE. Its dense, slightly under-baked and when served warm, the butter melts into its nooks and crannies just like the way it did in those old Thomas’ English Muffins commercials. Outfitted with a cup of dark, saccharine coffee its like the body and blood (This, after all, being a Catholic country I have to find my biblical allusions somewhere). It’s the only way I can conceive starting my day and when those times come when the plate is bare, I am inconsolable. The emptiness becomes an unforgiving omen a black cloud that forebodes that the day just can’t be that good.
It has always been a little treasure for me. And in the year and change that I’ve been here it has yet to lose its charm. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the act itself the knowledge I have of where it comes from, who is making it, how it is bought, how it is served that makes it so special. These are things that food, when bought at the neighborhood Stop N Shop, never possessed. I have risen at five in the morning, before the light of day, to see the first batch go in, to try my hand at scooping them out of the cavernous stone oven. Every morning, I sit at the wobbly plastic table, and wait as Maria, my host mother, steadfastly prepares my breakfast. Bringing in one item at a time, and quietly ordering them before me, while handing one of the many youngsters a kitchen towel to fetch the freshest of the lot.
Discussing food with Cape Verdeans is like reliving past glories with an old high school buddy. It’s nice, but after awhile hashing out the same stories gets old. How many times can one really hear that midju di terra e mas sabi (Cape Verdean corn is the best) or cachupa ta da_u forca (Cathcupa a local dish will give you strength)? But this is how it is with many things here: music, people, religion. Repetition is one of those traits that develop when variety is a privilege, an affectation in a way. I found myself in a conversation with one of the local high-schoolers, Va, a typical teenager who likes to talk to me about sex and action flicks. We were seated at the ponta, the spot in town where men gather in the morning to watch the fishing boats go out. At some point the banter stalled, and as we sat silently, I grew more and more restless.
“Titina makes the best bread in Cape Verde,” I said.
“Better than Assomada (the nearest town)?” he asked.
“You’re joking right? That stuff from Assomada is trash. I could eat Titina’s bread all day.” I’ve never fancied myself as much of a gambler, risk-taker, etc. Playing it safe is more of a credo of life for me but on this particular occasion, endowed with a strange confidence, I felt I had no choice. “I bet I could eat ten in an hour.”
At first, Va laughed it off. I couldn’t blame him for taking it as a lark, one of those glib statements I’m prone to make in both Krioulu and English. But I pressed the issue and continued to bring it up as we left the ponta and headed to the Poli in search of some morning soccer. Eventually, at a point somewhere between gasps for air and painful barefoot sprints across the concrete floor, we reached an agreement. The posta would go down that Sunday. If I won, then he would pay the 100 escudos, if I didn’t, then I would. A swell rose up in my stomach.
THE INITIAL MINUTES were a bit confusing. Titina’s was already crowded with the early afternoon grogue-pounders. People moving in and out, looking for that missing lunch ingredient. When we first entered, no one was behind the counter. Va provided a final escape, which I stoutly refused, and then disappeared into the back of the house-store in search of someone to start slicing and buttering. He returned with a young girl, pointed out a seat for me, and brought over the first round. I checked my watch, gave a quick glance to the others in the room, one of whom was already doubled-over in a fit of laughter, and took my first bite.
Cape Verdeans enjoy a good show as much as anyone. This is at heart a very relaxed, let’s throw one back type of culture. It’s a strange foil to their fatalism. But such a paradox is quite normal here. Or maybe it’s hardly a paradox at all. When all else seems hopeless, why not just have a good time while you can? The first two went down easily enough. Two is my normal take. A quarter into the third I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I was getting more than I had bargained for. Perhaps I had overestimated myself. Or maybe I was just being neurotic. Hadn’t found my groove, my stride. I tried to relax my nerves with this last thought, while hiding my doubts under a veneer of nonchalance. Thankfully, most of my audience seemed more interested in my curious eating style. They appeared perplexed by my unorthodox bites, tears and rotations. I chalked it up to clever strategizing.
Lene is a twenty-year old waif. A good kid, but, like many Cape Verdeans, will take up any excuse to point out Cape Verdean’s strength and ability over American’s. I’m not the best person to contradict these unremitting challenges, especially when they concentrate on such manly pursuits as fishing, farming and drinking, but there’s only so many “Bo ka sabi”s (you don’t knows) and “Nos e mas ki bo”s (we’re better than yous) one can withstand. A little ways into my third piece Lene counseled me to stop. He had a half-sincerity in his eyes, the other half was occupied by an I told you so, you weak American-kind of look.
“Jay. Stop after four. You’re little stomach won’t give.”
I didn’t respond, like Homer Simpson, all I could think was “can’t talk, eating.”
After I had finished the third, Lene spoke up once more, “Jay. You can eat five. But afterwards you’re going to feel terrible.”
I seized the opportunity, “Wait. Before you said four, and now you’re turning around and saying five. What’s that about?” There was a split-second of silence and then an eruption of laughter, Lene sheepishly acknowledging his folly. A part of me felt as though I had won the bet already.
After six, reality began to catch up. I was faltering. I was asking for water. I was no longer sitting but pacing back and forth. Each bite felt like I was chewing through hardening cement. Moreover, time was not on my side. I had less then twenty-five minutes to put down four. All this and the crowd was growing. The pressure not to disappoint grew with each face that popped in. Those people that earlier had been coming and going were now stopping to see where I was at. They looked at me and chuckled, “Djey, no senti” (Jay, no sense). Some of the older women advised me to stop, their motherly instinct projected onto the increasing misery of my face. But in Va and the others, in between their harassment, I saw solidarity, a desire for me to pull it out. Like Cool Hand Luke I was doing it for the greater cause. It was that that got me through numbers six and seven.
By eight the party moved outside. A chair was brought and placed under the big acacia tree out front. Now, it was a crowd. The current record-holder, Pico, who had put down nine and a half, had even made it out. Though he didn’t look all that pleased by this pathetic American challenge, it was nice to see he cared. Between bites and chews, I did my best to listen. They called me stupid, crazy, too small. They told me to give it to the kids. They said I should stop. I would get sick. I would die. It was like John Madden, mind numbing, yet essential.
In the end, I failed. The hour struck, my hands holding parts of the ninth. When Va let me know, I spit out the mealy remains from my mouth and gave the rest to a few kids standing around. Holding myself up on the nearest wall, I dangled my head as if the next act was already scripted. Everyone around was expecting me to rabinda (vomit) they were practically cheering me on. Honestly, I was expecting it. But the reality dictated otherwise. The solid mass of dough anchored in my bowels wasn’t about to brave gravity. But if it did, I knew I’d swallow it down. This whole, gluttonous spectacle was about stymieing expectations, and I’d suffer in private rather then fulfilling them.
Realizing that the show was over, most folk went on their way. I hung around a little while longer, entertaining Va and a few stragglers with my twists and groans, before heading back to the house. My host family had already gotten word and was quick with the asides. One brother asked if it felt like I was pregnant. I told him that it was like being pregnant with bread (the bun in the oven reference apparently isn’t cross-cultural). One of my sisters kept making comments about how surprising it is that my little stomach, which normally fails to meet their demands, took down so many. Despite it though, I still had to connive my way out of lunch. At least now they knew for sure what I liked.
In the lull that is village life, the incident would soon trickle through ears and mouths, creating an amusing anecdote about the American. For a time, it would open conversations and even manifest a nickname, “NuPao.” The fact that I failed in my attempt would often be forgotten, replaced by shock and appreciation; appreciation that rose from my willingness to do such a thing. I suppose the solidarity rung true. Yet, eventually it passed on, only occasionally remembered by Va and his buddies when they would spot me in the middle of eating something. It’s conscious value faded into more the subconscious implications. It seemed as though an identity took shape, and I, who was once simply known, suddenly started to become it.
Jayant Kairam is still spending his mornings eating bread in the small fishing village of Rincon, Cape Verde. As for the rest of the day, he normally spends that carrying out the various responsibilities of the community development Volunteer, which range from organizing garbage clean-ups to running a women’s association and credit union. He graduated from Vassar College in 2003 and will be finishing up his service in September 2006. If you have any suggestions for what he might pursue in 2007 and beyond you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call for Peace Corps stories: Travelogue anthology of adventure and mayhem
An anthology of first-person travel stories written by Peace Corps Volunteers and compiled by two RPCVs Steve McNutt (Gabon 200002) and Jacob Fawson (Gabon 200002) both graduate students in Communication Studies and Nonfiction Writing. They are seeking, “funny, harrowing tales of self-deprecation and disaster. Sharply written and witty preferred over ‘how I saved the world.’ Meditative is good but make us laugh first. Vicarious fun. Think: bathrooms, food, medical, transportation, sex. Above all, think funny. Profits to charity.” Read about the guidelines at: peacecorpsbathroomreader.blogspot.com. The deadline is June 1, 2006. You can E-mail them at: stevemcnutt at earthlink.net or jfawson at gmail.com