Peace Corps Writers — July 2006

Peace Corps Writers — 7/2006

    The 2006 Award Winners —
    Publisher Marian Haley Beil, (Ethiopia 1962–64) and I are pleased to announce the winners of the 2006 Peace Corps Writers Awards for books published during 2005. The winning books and authors are:

      Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
      Last Moon Dancing: A Memoir of Love and Real Life In Africa

      by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 1998–2000)

      Maria Thomas Fiction Award
      The Manhattan Beach Project
      by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962–64)

      Award for Best Poetry Book
      San Miguel De Allende
      by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966–71)


      African Stiltdancer
      by Andrew H. Oerke

      Award for Best Travel Writing
      Moon Handbooks Nicaragua
      (2nd Edition)
      by Randy Wood (Nicaragua 1998–2000)
      and Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998–2000)

      Award for Best Children’s Writing
      Circles of Hope
      by Karen Lynn Williams (Malawi 1980–83)
      illustrated by Linda Saport

      Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
      “The Rainy Season in Guatemala”
      by Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000–02)

      Award for Artistic Merit
      Bill Owens (Jamaica 1964–66)

      In 1972 Bill Owens published a collection of photographs on suburbia entitled Suburbia. In this cult classic book photographer Owens acted as an anthropologist objectively documenting suburban inhabitants, their native environs, and their daily rituals. By pairing the images with quotes made by the subjects, Owens created a hilarious and absurd account of life in the suburbs. A life that included Tupperware parties, backyard barbecues, and going to the hairdresser.
           Last year the fourth and final volume in his landmark Suburbia series [Suburbia (1973; 1999), Our Kind Of People (1975), Working — I Do It For The Money (1977), and Leisure (2004)]. In his introduction to Leisure, photographer Gregory Crewdson writes: “Owens’ photographs belong to an American aesthetic tradition of art that explores the intersection of everyday life and theatricality. Like the paintings of Edward Hopper, the photographs of Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, and the short stories of John Cheever and Raymond Carver, Owens’ photographs find unexpected beauty and mystery within the American vernacular.”
           While most RPCVs take photos, Owens has made it an art form. It is true that one of Bill’s photographs is worth a thousand words. And for that, and for his genius in capturing the host country nationals (HCNs) of America, Peace Corps Writers presents Bill Owens its first Award for Artistic Merit for his career in documenting on film the America society that created the Peace Corps.

    Each award winner will receive a framed certificate plus $200. We congratulate these winners and all the writers from the Peace Corps.

    RPCV writer workshop in New York City
    Peace Corps Writers, in cooperation with the Peace Corps Fund, and the NY Writers Coalition, one of the largest community-based writing organizations in the country, has organized for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers an 8-week creative writing workshop beginning on September 14, 2006. This workshop is for RPCVs only and will be limited to the first 8 RPCVs who apply.
          Writers of all genres, levels of experience and subject matter are welcomed. (However, the participants are encouraged to write about their Peace Corps experience and bring the world back home through the printed word to Americans who know little about the peoples and cultures of the developing world.) Workshop members will be given freedom to find and strengthen their individual and unique voices, as well as to experiment with form, style and new genres. In addition, the workshop will provide a structure for writers to produce new work on a regular basis.
         John Coyne, editor Peace Corps Writers, and editor of several anthologies of Peace Corps writings, will work individually with workshop participants to help them publish their work.
         The workshop will be led by Sean Tanner, writer, certified NY Writers Coalition workshop leader and experienced international volunteer.
         The workshop will begin on Thursday, September 14 at 7 pm and be held on Thursday evenings for 8 weeks. The workshop will be given at
         Peace Corps Fund Office
         Neighborhood Preservation Center
         232 East 11th Street
         New York

         The workshop cost is $75 for 8 weeks. Peace Corps Writers will provide one scholarship to the most recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer.Contact Stacey Flanagan to apply at

    Candida’s Book Store features Peace Corps writers
    Candida’s World of Books in Washington, D.C., is now featuring books by Peace Corps writers by placing them on a special display shelf at the front of the store. To my knowledge this is the first commercial book store to have a separate section for Peace Corps books. The store located is at 1541 14th Street, NW, in downtown D.C. and it is the area’s only travel bookstore. The story is owned and operated by Candida Mannozzi.
         For Peace Corps writers and readers, Candida will order and ship books to you WHEREVER you live in the world. Contact her at: Tell Candida you read about her store in Peace Corps Writers.
        Peace Corps writers might want to alert Candida if they have a published book that focuses on travel or an international subject area, including an international cookbook, a children’s book, a travel guide, etc. Email Candida about your book. However, the store is not able to handle Print-on-Demand publications or other types of self-published books.

    And then Sarge said to me . . .
    . . .
    John Durand (Philippines 1962–63)

    I WAS FLAT ON MY BACK in a Manila hospital when Sargent Shriver paid me a visit in 1962. I’d been pulled out of my remote station in Catarman on the island of Samar, Philippines to be hospitalized so doctors could figure out what kind of mysterious tropical illness had laid me low with severe joint pain.
         Sarge visited a couple other Volunteers also hospitalized at the time, then came into my room with his entourage and he was carrying a bunch of American magazines. After a few pleasantries he handed me the magazines and said he’d read them on the plane on the way over and was finished with them and thought I might like to read something from home. Of course, I said, and later devoured them.
         Sometime later one of our Peace Corps staff reported the truth of the matter: Sarge had stopped them all in the lobby, perplexed that he had nothing to bring us hospitalized Volunteers. In the hospital gift shop he’d dug into his own pocket to clean out their supply of American magazines so he could present them to us.
         I’ve remembered that act of thoughtful generosity ever since.

    As for the joint pain, Filipino doctors thought it might be rheumatoid disease, and the doctors in Catarman had thought it might be what they called “broken bone” sickness. It was neither and since his Peace Corps years the pain has never returned to reduce John, as he says, to tears.
         Now retired from a career as a human services administrator at the state and county levels, John has gone on to write two well received historical novels and a memoir.

    [Do you have a Sarge Shriver story you’d like to share? Send it along to and we’ll add it to our growing collection of Then Sarge Said to Me! Tales from the early days of the Peace Corps.]

    In This Issue
    Mike Learned (Malawi 1963–65) talks with Michael McColly (Senegal 1981–83), author of The After-Death Room: Journeys into Spiritual Activism. Learned also reviews this important memoir of living with AIDS.
         This issue has five more reviews of new books, and a list of books just published by RPCV writers. Also, check out Literary Type for some amazingly good news about Peace Corps writers.

    Again, Marian and I thank you for your support, your ideas, and the prose and poetry you share with us and everyone connected with the Peace Corps, past, present, and future.

    John Coyne

Recent books by Peace Corps writers — 7/2006

How the Plumber Saved Civilization
by W. Hodding Carter (Kenya 1984–86)
May 2006
256 pages

Changing the Face of Hunger
The Story of How Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, and People of Faith are Joining Forces in a New Movement to Help the Hungry, the Poor, and the Oppressed
by Tony Hall (Thailand 1966–68)
with Tom Price
W Publishing Group,
April 2006
192 pages

Monique and the Mango Rains
Two Years with a Midwife in Mali
by Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91)
Waveland Press
July 2006
240 pages

Kids Like Me
Voices of the Immigrant Experience
by Judith M. Blohm (Liberia) and Terri Lapinsky (Gabon)
Intercultural Press
March 2006
296 pages

Westbound Freight
by John Michael Flynn (Moldova 1993–95)
Pudding House Publications
April 2006

Living the Dream
Sailing the South Pacific and Southeast Asia

by Vern and Connie Madison (staff/Malaysia)
368 pages

Proof Positive
by Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1965–67)
June 2006
320 pages
$ 25.95

The After-Death Room
Journey Into Spiritual Activism
by Michael McColly (Senegal 1981–83)
Soft Skull Press
June 2006
288 pages

Taking Sides
Clashing Views on African Issues
(2nd edition)
edited by William G. Moseley (Mali 1987–89)
Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill
May 2006
404 pages

A Land Without Time
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan
by John Sumser (Afghanistan 1977–78)
Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers
June 2006
205 pages

River of No Reprieve
Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90; PC/Staff Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Houghton Mifflin
June 2006
230 pages

Ginseng, the Divine Root
The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
Algonquin Press,
June 2006
308 pages

Literary Type — 7/2006

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban by Sarah Chayes (Morocco 1984–86) will be coming out in August from Penguin Press. Steve Coll, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Ghost Wars writes that Sarah has “produced a passionate, involving, important work of journalism.” Sarah was a reporter in Afghanistan for NPR and then became “field director” of Afghans for Civil Society. Publishers Weekly sums up the book this way, “her hands-on experience as a deeply immersed reporter and activist gives her analysis and prescriptions a practical scope and persuasive authority.”

Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prizes for 2006 — the official name is the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prizes — were won by two RPCV writers. Joanna Luloff (Sri Lanka 1996-98) was recognized for her short story “Let Them Ask,” and Erica Bleeg (Benin 1997-99) for her creative nonfiction essay “Obedience.” Each winner received $3,000, plus publication in the spring 2006 issue of the Missouri Review.
Joanna wrote me recently: “I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka right up until the program was eventually closed due to the unrest of the civil war there. I worked as a TEFL teacher at an all boys’ school in a southern village called Baddegama. The story “Let Them Ask” that won the Missouri Review contest is part of a linked short-story collection set in Sri Lanka that, in part, examines the effects of the civil war on a southern Sinhalese family, a north-eastern Tamil family, and a handful of westerners working on the island. I received my MFA in fiction from Emerson College in 2001 where I taught literature and creative writing for five years before my move to England where I am living now, working on finishing the collection and researching and writing.
     Erica, who grew up in Rochester, New York, earned an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa. “Obedience,” her award winning nonfiction story, follows Erica’s attempts to befriend her host family’s live-in servant from whom she is divided by language and privilege. Erica arrived in Benin at the beginning of a national women’s movement. Here and there, Beninois villages were holding International Women’s Day celebrations and yet less than 7% of the students in secondary schools were girls. Erica is currently working on a memoir with the working title is Out of Obscurity about working with women in rural Benin during this pivotal time in African women’s history. Today, Erica is moving from Portland, Maine back to Iowa City, Iowa. 

Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97) wrote the front page review of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart in the June 11, 2006 The New York Times Book Review. Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. His new book, The Father of All Things will be published next year.

Tony D’Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03) published a short essay, “Ivory Coast, 2000” in the June 12, 2006 New Yorker. The essay was part of the magazine’s annual issue focusing on international issues and writing.
     D’Souza’s debut novel Whiteman has received the same charmed launch in the UK as it did in the States, enjoying rave reviews from all the major London papers. Tony appeared on the BBC, contributed an essay to The Mail one Sunday, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Of London, he says, “It may be the birth place of our very language, but what’s with the food? Bangers and mash? Bubble and squeak? And they ask me how I could have eaten bat in Africa.”
     In the July/August 2006 issue of Poet&Writers Tony is one of four first-time novelist featured by the magazine. Tony talks about how his mother, who was a PCV in India from 1966-69, suggested that he join the Peace Corps — “she said I’d have plenty of time to write in the Corps. Well, maybe in India, but not in my village. There were flies on my eyelashes, the paper stuck to my arm, and there were twenty-five kids at the door.” A year after he returned from Africa, Tony spent five months writing Whiteman. His agent sold it three week later to Harcourt.

The influential Kirkus Review gave a star review in the June 15, 2006 issue to Kris Holloway’s (Mali 1989–91) memoir of her Peace Corps years, Monique and the Mango Rains. Writing about the memoir, the reviewer said the book is a “moving story of a warm friendship between an American Peace Corps volunteer fresh out of college and a young Malian health worker.” And then adds how when Monique came to America she agreed to only “after learning that she will be able to sit inside the plane and not cling to the outside.” Watch for this book; it is the best Peace Corps memoir to be published since Sarah Erdman’s Nine Hills to Nambonkaha.

With the help of her agent, Scott Mendel, Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 1989-91) sold her young adult novel The Compound in a two book deal to Feiwel and Friends, the new children’s imprint at Holtzbrinck.

Margot Porter Miller (Niger 1972–74) has published in 2006 fiction pieces: “Waves” in Chick Flicks Ezine, March, 2006; “Close Encounter” in Long Story Short, April, 2006; “Waking Accidentally in the Dark,” winner of the May 2006 Fiction Writing Contest at Subtle Tea, May/June 2006; and “The Old Maths Teacher” in LitDispatch (Two) in Jun, 2006. This summer the following stories will appear: “Naked and Stranded” and ”Untitled”, both in Long Story Short, July 7, 2006; and “The Farewell” in Steel Moon, August 2006.
     Her recently published creative non-fiction is: “Warren Peabody,” appeared in Long Story Short in April, 2006; “On Time”, the unabridged version of the piece called “Aissa,” on the Peace Corps Writers blog at its inception, and also appeared on-line at Write Side Up, Spring 2006 and in their print edition.
     In poetry, Miller has published “Carry-on Baggage” in Moonlit Thoughts, edited by Mark Lane and Amanda Read, Dogma Publications, “Bicester, Oxon, UK,” June 2006. Three poems will appear in Static Movement Online, July 2006: “Into the Sea of Shattered Silicate”, “My Mother Never Held My Hand”, and ”All Done Here, Going Out of Business.”

Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988–90) has a short story “The Wild Track” online at the literary journal The King’s English. Click on "Current Issue" to read the story.
     This year, Chris has published Thundershowers at Dusk a collection of five Gothic stories published by Rock Village Publishing; and Poe’s Lighthouse, an original fiction anthology edited by Chris and published by Cemetery Dance.

Josh Swiller (Zambia 1994–96) just sold his memoir to Henry Holt juxtaposing his experiences as the first deaf Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his formative years relegated to the sidelines of the hearing world. It will be published in the summer of 2007. Recently, Washington Post Magazine published a piece he wrote about getting a cochlear implant.
     Josh has a blog at

Bill Owens (Jamaica 1964–66), the winner of the 2006 Peace Corps Writers Award for Artistic Merit, has put his web movies on one video blog, You can watch streaming video and nothing downloads to your computer.
     The movies are also available as podcasts from the iTunes Music store where you can download movies and subscribe to his podcasts. Bill writes: “It’s free! Please sign up so I get lots of hits and become popular with the masses. I am tired of having a cult following.”

Talking with Michael McColly

An interview by Mike Learned (Malawi 1963–65)

    MICHAEL McCOLLY WAS A VOLUNTEER in Senegal in the early ’80s working in community development and public health. He was profoundly affected by the spirituality of the people who lived in his village and nearby. Fifteen years later he became HIV positive. While trying to care for himself he experienced the growth of his own spirituality which eventually led to life as an AIDS activist. Michael’s book about this transition, The After Death Room: Journeys into Spiritual Activism, has just been published by Soft Skull Press.

    Michael, tell us something about how you were raised, your motivation for joining Peace Corps, and how your experience as a Volunteer in Senegal affected the way you’ve come to look at life.
    My childhood and the cultural environment of the ’60s and ’70s shaped who I am and the path I have chosen. My parents were educators, progressive people, Unitarian types. They liked to travel and they exposed my sisters and me to a less privileged America. So in a way the Peace Corps was in the cards. I joined though, like many other 22-year-olds, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life. I was also terrified of dealing with my bisexuality and I used Peace Corps to run away from that. The Peace Corps experience didn’t help me handle my sexuality, but it did shatter most of my intellectual, political and spiritual framework. I had never experienced the kind of religiosity that permeated Senegalese life, particularly among the rural Sufi sect of Mourides with whom I lived. The intensity of their faith and belief not only in Islam but in their traditional beliefs deeply impressed me.

    How did your experiences during and after your time in Senegal help you cope with the reality of your HIV infection?
    When I came back from Senegal, I entered divinity school at the University of Chicago. You talk about a reversal of landscapes, South Side Chicago and the Senegalese savannah. It was a kind of poetic irony to be sitting in Hyde Park in an ivory tower and looking out a window at housing projects and discussing liberation theology and philosophy. I suffered an acute case of cultural shock, and eventually dropped the idea of getting a PhD. Though I cursed Chicago for its intellectual coldness, it propelled me deeper into the issues that animate much of what I write about — the intersection of spirituality with activism and ethics. Both Senegal and Chicago were fertile grounds for an empty minded, small town, Midwestern white kid. They turned me into a writer. They demanded that I ask more questions of myself and the world. So when I became infected in the mid ’90s, I’d already felt in some ways prepared for the existential and spiritual crisis that accompanied my diagnosis. When you face HIV and AIDS, you learn that you have to immediately face three psycho-spiritual challenges: your body no longer can be ignored and needs to be embraced with your full self; that your ego is no longer (and never was) in control of your life; and that you now represent the deepest fears in most people who are around you — death, illness, sexual rebellion. Here is where my Peace Corps experience resurfaced and offered a surprising lifeline. I remembered how the people of my village dealt with economic marginality, suffering, illness, and death with such dignity and power. I began to identify more and more with those outside the mainstream world I’d been groomed and educated to work in and defend. HIV connected me to the larger world, both metaphorically and literally, as this virus had passed through so many people to land inside me.

    What happened to take you from an individual trying to live with and survive HIV toward becoming an activist for people around the world living with the same affliction?
    It all started with the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000. Again, Africa had come to wake me up. I’d kept my distance about AIDS in Chicago; no walks, no runs, no benefits. When I heard something on TV or saw an article in a magazine, I turned away. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had it; that was enough. By this time, I was practicing and teaching yoga and one day I found myself doing a workshop for people with HIV in Chicago. From there, I was doing yoga workshops in Durban for AIDS activists and advocates from all over the world. People came up to me and wanted more workshops. Teenage girls from Soweto wanted me to come to their churches. Women from Kenya wanted me to come to their women’s group in Nairobi. I was stunned and unprepared for this outpouring. It was the Peace Corps guilt all over again: “You said you wanted to help, so why can’t you stay and help us?”

    After the AIDS Conference you started traveling to parts of the developing world where HIV was rapidly spreading. Where did your journeys take you?
    This was the beginning of the book. I came back to Chicago haunted by the work of the activists I met in South Africa and their pleas for me to stay and help. So I sold my belongings, took a leave of absence from my teaching position, and headed to Asia and back to Africa to chronicle the remarkable work of AIDS activists and their work, focusing primarily on HIV positive activists. In the course of my travels through India, Thailand, Vietnam, and back to Senegal, and at home in Chicago, I interviewed well over a hundred activists, social workers, doctors, healers, government officials, clergy, and people living with HIV. I decided to go to India first, as the pandemic seemed to be exploding there.

    Tell us about this time in India.
    I had traveled to India four years before to study yoga. Then, India and its people had a powerful effect on me. But when I got off the plane in Chennai, I only had a telephone number for a man who ran a community organization to help male sex workers. An hour later I was sitting among a group of young men in the offices of Sahodaran. India takes you, swallows you, makes you listen and drop your bullshit. You can’t fight it. You can’t control anything. I went to a clinic and got yelled at by a doctor for bothering them until I told him that I was HIV positive; then, he told me he was too. Social workers invited me into their homes. People fed me and were concerned about my health. I followed these young men as they passed out condoms to other male sex workers in alleys, on filthy river banks and along train tracks. Before I left I offered a yoga workshop for them. So there I was in India teaching yoga to male sex workers who knew the Sanskrit names of the poses but couldn’t understand my English. India is a land of irony, to be sure.

    What are some of the things you saw that really disturbed you?
    Like here in the States, fear and self-righteous authorities are the biggest obstacles to changing policy and educating those most at-risk. More than anything, AIDS is driven by greed and the cultural beliefs that deny the rights and power of those most at risk: women (particularly young women), sex workers (male and female), drug users, gay and bisexual young men and the poor. To witness the cruelty and the despair of people who are banished from their families was painful. But perhaps the most difficult of all was to have to face hundreds of people whose lives are in jeopardy because they don’t have the drugs and treatment I have access to. This will stay with me for the rest of my life.

    Your journey ends with a visit to the village where you lived in Senegal. Tell us about your return?
    Yes, the final scene in my book is in my village in southern Senegal. I went there the day after meeting with female sex workers about 30 miles away in the town of Kaolack. I broke down when these women began calling on Allah to protect me and keep me from death. I was so moved by their prayers I could barely walk out of their hut. Later in my village, I was treated as if I’d never left. Scores and scores of people came to the village chief’s hut to greet me, thanking Allah for bringing me back to them. This was only months after 9/11. Sadly, due to the cruelties of world agricultural markets and trade agreements, they had become poorer and unable to compete with peanut farmers in other countries. And yet, here were people with only their meager belongings and beliefs in hard work and Allah’s mercy blessing my family and all my old PCV friends and all of America. It was a deeply humbling experience. I tried to tell them why I’d come back to Senegal, but I couldn’t tell them I had HIV. The village chief, a 14 year old when I’d left, sobbed, fell to the ground, and covered his face when I recalled his father. Was it me who came back or was it Allah who brought me back to these sacred people of the savannahs of Senegambia?

    How did you go about getting your book published?
    I had very little experience with getting my writing published. I had collected a series of ethnographic and personal essays written by students from writing classes I’d taught in Chicago in the ’90s published as The World is Round. I wrote the introduction on how they affected me and my writing. They really taught me about presenting the personal narrative. After I started my travels I wrote smaller pieces on South Africa, India and Viet Nam for magazines. I then put together a proposal for a non-fiction book with an outline of some chapters. I went around to agents and publishers with little luck. Later I found Soft Skull Press through Transition magazine out of Harvard. It’s all very confusing to me. Who does what in publishing? How do you get a good agent and then get your work to the right editor? I started with one agent who dropped me, but luckily I found Joy Harris of Joy Harris Agency and we tried again.

    What’s your next writing project?
    I’m still exhausted from this book: six years, all the travel, research, deeply personal reflection, and now the promotion. In the next year I want to keep speaking about the issues I raised in my book. I have been speaking on college campuses, in churches, and at conferences. My research, interviews and study of yoga have interested me in the relationship between sexuality and spirituality and how they influence each other. I think it is critically important to inform people from across religious, cultural, and social lines about sexual health and its relationship to social responsibility, spiritual maturity and activism.

    What do you have to say to former Peace Corps Volunteers who are living with HIV disease?
    My advice is to find ways to transform your body and mind from that of a victim dependent on others and medicine for your health to that of an actor in your own rediscovery of your body and health. We are all diseased bodies; we are all sacred entities. Find your strength and cultivate it. Find your tribe of people and get involved in helping others. No doubt, your strength is the same strength that carried you out into the world to join the Peace Corps.

    Mike Learned is the group leader and newsletter editor of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs, an active affiliate of the NPCA. The newsletter and other information about this organization are available on their web site,
         Mike lives in San Francisco and works for a consulting firm in Boston. He trains technical and web content writers around the world. In recent years Mike has become fascinated by the remote parts of our world, particularly those near the two poles. He’s spending a month and a half this summer in the far north (mostly Iceland and Greenland). He wants to see it all before it and we melt. Mike can be contacted at


The After-Death Room
Journey Into Spiritual Activism
by Michael McColly (Senegal 1981–83)
soft Skull Press
June 2006
288 pages

Reviewed by Mike Learned (Malawi 1963–65)

    MICHAEL McCOLLY’S MEMOIR/ODYSSEY of the AIDS pandemic is published 25 years (almost to the day) after Dr. Michael Gottlieb, an immunologist at the UCLA School of Medicine, reported five cases of PCP, a rare pneumonia, among gay men in Los Angeles. Each had a profoundly depressed immune system. Although AIDS had killed before, his report in the weekly bulletin of the CDC was the first medical description of what would come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In the 25 years since Dr. Gottlieb’s short report AIDS has killed 25 million around the world. Today it is estimated that close to 40 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Millions more are likely to die.
         Michael McColly was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the early ’80s. Fifteen years later, living in Chicago he was infected with HIV. The After-Death Room is his chronicle of the events that took him from that day in a Chicago clinic when he heard the news that so affected his life, to the many steps he took to reconcile himself with his condition, to becoming a world traveled AIDS activist and journalist.
         Although stabilized with antiretroviral drugs, it was yoga and his spirituality that kept him moving forward. His world-wide saga began with a trip to the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000. He had taught yoga to people living with AIDS in Chicago as a means to maintain health and sustain energy. He did the same in South Africa. This was his first exposure to large numbers of AIDS activists from the developing world, many of them HIV positive themselves. The experience changed his life. Back home in Chicago he got the minutiae of his life in order, and took off to meet, report on and to write a book about AIDS activists, especially those with HIV disease. He then traveled to India, Thailand, Vietnam, and back in Senegal where he had served in Peace Corps.
         We have all read the reports about the impact of AIDS, particularly from Africa. Do we need another one? Is McColly’s any different? I think very much so. Although a writer and a journalist, his story is of one who is with the many people he meets, rather than of one who observes and reports. The difference is profound. He is sometimes reluctant to reveal his HIV status to the AIDS activists he meets. Again and again he realizes the importance of telling the truth to these people. “How many times had I been reminded in my travels that telling the truth about myself made the difference between being invited into the lives of the people and being shut out?”
         Michael meets former Peace Corps Volunteers throughout his travels who are now working for AIDS agencies and community organizations. He has many knowing things to say about the Peace Corps experience and the ways it can move the lives of Volunteers on. My favorite is his description of an unstated Peace Corps hierarchy: those who sign up and never complete their service, those who hate it but stay the course, those who love it and never stop telling their stories, those who have eyes on some sort of career and stick around and get some sort of government or NGO job, and then there are those who leave the Peace Corps and are so completely transformed by their work and experiences that they never return home. During his journeys he met several RPCVs in the last three categories.
         For me the most moving part of Michael’s chronicle comes at the end, his return to Darou Mouniaguene, the village on the Senegalese savannah where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Many of us have gone back to the place where we lived, seen the changes — often very sad, and visited with the people we worked with and knew. I think it is at this point that Michael is able to answer a question that so many have asked him on his journeys. “Why are you here and why are you writing a book about us?” Michael’s answer is stated in a question, “Why is it that we must listen to the stories of others before we can realizes that the story we need to tell is our own.” Michael McColly tells us his remarkable story.

    Mike Learned is the group leader and newsletter editor of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs, an active affiliate of the NPCA. The newsletter and other information about this organization are available on their web site,
         Mike lives in San Francisco and works for a consulting firm in Boston. He trains technical and web content writers around the world. In recent years Mike has become fascinated by the remote parts of our world, particularly those near the two poles. He’s spending a month and a half this summer in the far north (mostly Iceland and Greenland). He wants to see it all before it and we melt. Mike can be contacted at


Ginseng, the Divine Root
The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
Algonquin Press,
June 2006
308 pages

Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962-64)

    WHO KNEW — that the value of products sold today in the US with ginseng as an ingredient is $100 million per year; that a French Canadian Jesuit recognized that North American ginseng was very similar to Chinese ginseng and by 1752 Canada exported ginseng worth 500 thousand francs per year; that Daniel Boone was a ginseng digger in 1787 and lost tons when his keel boat was swamped; that 30 tons of ginseng was on the first American ship to China in 1784; that John Jacob Astor exported pelts of beaver and fox as well as ginseng to China in the mid-1790s; that Marathon County in Wisconsin is the largest source of cultivated ginseng in the US today with production values up to $100,00 per acre?
         Who knew that such an ordinary looking woodland plant would become so widely distributed and have such a fascinating history?
         Who knew that a plant/root that has been used in China since at least 2000 BC would now be found in hundreds of commercial products in grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, and health food stores?
         Ginseng is 2 (maybe 3) closely related species of Panax. The oriental ginseng species, Panax ginseng, is mirrored by the eastern North American ginseng, P. quinquefolius.
         With my botanical background, I thought this would be a moderately interesting read. What a pleasant surprise! Ginseng has a much more fascinating history than I had ever imagined. It has had a much more significant economic role in the exploration, exploitation, evolution and development of eastern North American than I would ever have guessed. (Okay, I’m historically naïve.) And beyond the hype there are even some measurable effects in the use of ginseng. In the course of reading this book we learn something about Chinese medicine, more about chi/qi — yin and yang. So you won’t be in suspense — who knew that Asian/Chinese ginseng is yang and North American ginseng is yin? (Okay, I’m also spiritually naïve.)
         The relaxed style of writing makes Ginseng, the Divine Root easy to read. The author frequently juxtaposes academic research with personal interviews with descriptions of field experiences — a nice mix. While not quite the page-turner of a Ludlum adventure, this book is crammed with an immense amount of information. There is a list of sources for each chapter if you want to delve further.
         I have two quibbles with the book. First, the title, Ginseng, the Divine Root. I don’t think the divinity of the root was explored, implied or demonstrated in any way. The religiously inclined will be disappointed, and the spiritually oriented probably know its purported properties already. Clearly this was a marketing ploy. But why not be honest with a titillating title like Ginseng, the Dark Underbelly of the Herbal Trade or Darkest Secrets of Collecting, Trading and Growing Ginseng?
         Second, a few illustrations could have been included, at least of the plant in its various guises and forms. What does a very old root really look like? What do those prongs and rings look like that are used for determining a root’s age? What are the differences in all those grades of ginseng. Can I see the difference between P. ginseng and P. quinquefolius, between wild and cultivated ginseng, etc. While the dust jacket gives us a glimpse of ginseng (the graphics obscure who knows what and the jacket won’t be with the book for the long term) there is a poor sketch on the title page. Given all the time and energy which apparently went into this very good book, why miss the obvious addition of illustrations, which would have made this an excellent book? We are too visually oriented these days to depend solely on the printed word. What’s the old saying about the worth of a picture?
         With these two caveats, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone. I think it would be especially valuable to those interested in history, economics, trade, endangered species, medicine, law enforcement, etc. This is a book about the infinite interconnections of events through time — “the curious history of the plant that captivated the world.”

    Wayne Handlos obtained his Ph.D. in plant taxonomy at Cornell University and is deeply involved with the International Geranium Society in California where he now lives. He has written about African ecology in various books, wrote a garden column for newspapers in Minnesota, now edits a monthly newsletter and once collected Panax trifolius for a Russian researcher.


A Land Without Time
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan
by John Sumser (Afghanistan 1977–78)
Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers
June 2006
205 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965–66)

    “AFGHANISTAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN the space between countries,” John Sumser writes in his introduction. In one succinct sentence, he nails the major problem Afghanistan faces in attaining legitimacy. Toward the end of Sumser’s tour in 1978, the Afghan communists toppled the nation’s president. To his credit, though, Sumser avoids political sermons, while chronicling his impressions of Afghanistan’s people and harsh physical environment.
         Sumser also avoids burdening readers with moral lessons. This is not another book about idealistic do-gooders who want to change the world. But it is in many ways a book about contrasting cultures. Sumser offers interesting vignettes of Afghanistan’s Islamic-based society.
         Sumser provides insight into Afghan social interaction with his characteristic ironic humor. He details the bartering nuances in the marketplace. To get a price quoted, the vendor must weigh the product. There are a variety of objects used to determine a weight, including truck parts. Sumser then explains the major philosophical dilemma. The standard used to determine weight was flexible: “[B]oth the weight of the object purchased and the weight of the object used as the criteria for weighing were in question. Every thing was negotiable.”
         This bargaining in the marketplace is culturally significant because it provides the core of Afghan social interaction with strangers. Sumser contrasts this with American culture, which defines “social life as private life, or personal life. . . . social life in the sense of public life dwindles to almost nothing. And so we develop a society in which interaction is unnecessary.” Afghans learn strategies for dealing with each other in this negotiating culture. And, as Sumser writes, “It was never adversarial. It was always an effort to come to some agreement about what was best for both the people involved.”
         Sumser’s concludes his memoirs by describing the rough-handed treatment he received from the Afghan communists in their 1978 coup. He was picked up by soldiers who were in the process of overthrowing Mohammad Daoud, the nation’s president. A Vietnam Vet and in top physical shape, Sumser fanaticizes James Bond escape plans. Finally he faces his interrogators. Sumser’s description is Chaplinesque:

    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Where did you get the photographs [of the ex-King of Afghanistan]?”
    “I don’t have any photographs.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.
    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Tell me the names of the Afghans you know.”
    “I don’t know any Afghans.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.
    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Who do you work for?”
    “I work for the Peace Corps.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.

    This routine was repeated over and over. Finally, the officer put a pistol to Sumser’s head and threatened to pull the trigger if Sumser didn’t confess where he got the photos. Apparently the officer was convinced of Sumser’s innocence and he was released after several hours of this near-tragedy.
         This book will not provide insight into the rise of the Taliban, the Soviet occupation, or the rise of al-Qaeda. What Sumser’s book does best, however, is demonstrate the resilience of many PCVs who often work under nearly surreal conditions.

    Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, with poetry and short fiction published in more than seventy five journals, magazines, and anthologies including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, and in The Cynic. He also has published nonfiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats.US, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews. He is currently finishing a book about the U.S. Congress.


Murder at Ocean View College
by Karen Batchelor (Korea 1972–74)
Houghton Mifflin
March 2006
91 pages

Reviewed by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)

    AS TEACHER OF ENGLISH as a Second Language, I can heartily recommend Murder at Ocean View College for community college students, adult learners of ESL and remedial readers of English.
         Author Karen Batchelor has carefully constructed a simple plot in Murder. Jade Lee and Danny Soto, student police officers at Ocean View College, discover the body of English teacher Ms. Quinn wedged between filing cabinets in her office. They follow a steady trail of clues to the prime suspects and, finally, a fitting end. Batchelor fleshes out the detective action with realistic subplots which most students will understand, involving romance, jealousy, school pressures, strong friendships and immigrant family issues.
     Murder at Ocean View College has 91 pages in 32 chapters, each with a neat, discussable chunk of action and dialogue. Batchelor does not digress, and the vocabulary is well-chosen and embedded in plenty of context. Sentences are clear and direct, and most verbs are in the simple past tense. The action progresses evenly. Batchelor uses light comic touches and subplots to relieve the growing suspense.
         Readers have loved the novel, with its focus on action and dialogue. Fellow reviewer and teacher June McKay says of Murder: “Teachers who used the book in its prepublication form were consistently positive. An instructor who used it with high beginners said, ‘There is new vocabulary, but it is not overwhelming. Several students, of their own initiative, finished the book right away.’ Another instructor, who used it with high intermediate students, commented: ‘Students devoured the novel.’”
         Batchelor has included lead-ins for classroom exercises throughout her mystery. Chapter 3 ends with Jade wondering who could have committed the murder. I would ask my students to list their suspects, along with motives and means. As chapter 16 closes, Danny is brainstorming how to deal with three other characters. My students would discuss this orally or in writing, using the new terms. Chapter 27 is a pure narrative, which students could act out, retell or do as a cloze text. In chapter 32 we learn that the murderer has confessed. Students could write out the statement or speak it before the class.
         I liked Murder at Ocean View College a great deal and will probably use it in my ESL content courses. Batchelor has been a teacher for 30 years at City College in San Francisco and has co-written eight ESL textbooks, and her experience shows. This murder mystery has filled a big gap in ESL reading materials. I am eager to read more from this writer.

    Darcy Meijer is a teacher of English as a Second Language at the Center for English Language Learning (CELL) at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. Since teaching EFL in Gabon, she has notched 24 years as a teacher of English composition, ESL and EFL. She has just completed a ten-month Fulbright grant training teachers of English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


Step To Freedom
A Peace Corps Memoir of the Dominican Republic

by Joseph F. Zuiker (Dominican Republic 1965–67)
Foreword by Anton Zuiker (Republic of Vanuatu 1997–99)
Zuiker Chronicles
September 2005
147 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965–66)

    COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT WORK is probably the toughest job assignment for Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of the time, they face huge obstacles: the people’s abject poverty, distrust of government, and suspicions of Volunteers’ motives. Add in a revolution, and we have the conditions Joseph Zuiker faced from 1965 to 1967 in the Dominican Republic.
         Zuiker’s memoir provides an intimate account of his efforts to stimulate self-help projects in and around Santiago de la Cruz, near the Haitian border. He spent his first year meeting hundreds of families, fostering friendships with influential villagers, and gaining the trust of the people.
         In his final year, Zuiker managed to inspire and coax people into action. His incredible energy and tireless trips to authorities to neutralize bureaucracy continued to prop up the spirits of the villagers. They attended planning meetings, hauled sand from rivers and streams, retrieved stones from rocky hill sides, sliced down heavy vegetation in jungles, cut down trees in forests, dug foundations, and poured concrete. By the end of his tour, the small village of Campeche had completed a road so the farmers could truck their crops out and bring in supplies. And his home village of Santiago de la Cruz had built a new school building with several classrooms.
         From a literary point of view, there are plenty of points to criticize in this book. It is not polished writing. Actually, Joseph Zuiker did not write it himself. His father wrote it after listening to his son talk about his experiences. Another problem is Zuiker’s use of stereotypes that diminish the vitality of his story. He writes about one villager, “Like many Latins he was quite a ladies man.” About an important woman in the village, he declares, “[S]he could explode like many Latin Americans.”
         Awkward phrases and exaggerations also detract from the story’s effectiveness. “Every car had a life story to tell,” really means the person in the car has a story. On one page he says that “A publico is a car,” and soon after he describes publicos as people: “Where I had cussed out the publicos after my first ride, I now knew that few of them owned their own cars.”
         But this book stands as a testament to Zuiker’s determination and maturity as a PCV. To lead people to higher accomplishments, leaders need to understand group dynamics. They must gain the trust and cooperation of a wide range of people. Zuiker quickly became a master of organizing and inspiring group action. From this experience, Zuiker returned to the United States an adept leader.

    Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, with poetry and short fiction published in more than seventy five journals, magazines, and anthologies including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, and in The Cynic. He also has published nonfiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats.US, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEd News. He is currently finishing a book about the U.S. Congress.


Wild Women with Tender Hearts
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
55 pages

Reviewed by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 1998–2000)

    IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE who needs the dust power-sprayed off his/her social conscience, who has yet to fall in love with language, or who yearns for the pleasant revelations found in a work of words; If you know someone who seeks honesty, who must laugh out loud, and who revels in the beauty and simplicity found in small moments, If you know someone who appreciates a strong voice, buy them Wild Women with Tender Hearts by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten!
         In a succinct and riveting collection, Edmisten gifts us with poems establishing connections between global and local social issues, between startled amusement and apprehensive worry, between the expressible and the unexplainable.
         I would like to say her poetry romps, except it’s not a romp, per say. Found in one poem after another, her knack for utilizing words to succinctly portray the monumental importance of life’s small moments rollicks through the collection like waves. With such lines as found in “Do Rwandan Women get the Blues?”— “Upon your regal heads,/ you bear water in earthen jugs/ secured by slim ballerina arms./ Your children struggle to keep up./ Not from surfeit are their bellies swollen,” her images flow and rivet in our minds the need for greater human awareness.
         However, the impressive part of her writing lies in the fact that her poems are not all waves. Towards the end of each poem, Edmisten crafts one sentence with such a solid nugget of truth in it, the words turn from an element of water into a solid boulder on the shore completely grounding the reader in a moment of exquisite astonishment. Such a moment is found in “Heels.” Edmisten forgoes mincing words or ideas, and the poem ends in the same manner as the girl it describes, “Tight ass no longer protruding for his pleasure,/ she walks pridefully for self.”
         Another beautiful moment of change in motion leaps at the reader in “Wild Woman,” the opening poem. This time Edmisten gives us a woman who “herald(s) power,” whose “strong, tanned feet dig into the yielding sand . . . Like a Carib queen, she laughs from the belly.” In the final line, “she returns to work, victim no more,” Edmisten lets us know that the language of the poem, like the woman’s laughter, hides the truth of the story: the woman had suffered.
         The reader soon discovers the poems sail, filled with wind, moving moving moving until the cadence or rhythm stops, changes direction and the movement of Edmisten’s thoughts takes the reader’s heart to the quiet place that is missed and remembered right upon awakening, the place where soul meets the world and the two understand. Edmisten has delectably collected honesty. She grasps language and doesn’t hesitate to wield its power, making the reader realize, “Wow, I just read that poem without breathing.”
         Like the moon’s pull on water, the writer’s words draw the reader from one poem to the next. Whether an avid fan of poetry or a novice picks up the book, Edmisten’s skill at describing precise details allows the reader to painfully understand the isolation in the eyes of the woman in the poem “Burqua” as she asks, “Does it make him feel good/ that no other man has seen your delicate white wrists.” The poem moves from world concepts (or misconceptions) “Do you wear explosives under all that yardage?” to practicalities “How do you pee in that wee water closet?/ How do you properly position yourself/ to not wet your robes?” As she ends the poem, “Only your eyes are hungry. / Forgive my suspicions, sister,” the reader can not miss the fact that Edmisten’s clean and clear writing is meant to erode barriers of ignorance. “Burqua” delivers moments of reflection on how clothing often does not protect women, and that some forms of protection actually invite more scrutiny instead of creating security.
         She switches to a different continent in “Do Rwandan Women get the Blues?” and reminds us of the multitude of levels on which humans establish connections and that Africa has a reality behind tourism with the line, “Marasmus and Kwashiorkor are not exotic safari destinations.”
         Part of being compelled to devour Edmisten’s poetry derives from the fact that she doesn’t bait the reader; she delivers lush moments of contemplation. Her view of the world gives the reader the initiative to fish his/her soul for resonance, for reverberations. Her words initiate a nourishing gathering, like good friends who bring wisdom and laughter along with their apple pie to park.
         Some of her poems, such as “My Shadow Side” must be shared with the friends and the apple pie at the park. Not only do her poems internally switch directions with the wind of her words, the entire collection does. One poem reminds us of human tragedy, the next piece of work gives us the “elfin” aspect of life. In “My Shadow Side,” her imp comes alive as Edminsten’s shadow side says “yes to hot fudge sundaes/ no to broccoli/ piss off to right wingers” and ends up “danc(ing) the tango with Antonio Bandeiras/ wearing fish net stockings and stiletto heels/ and lives in a hut on stilts/ on Bora Bora.”
         In “Dancer,” Edmisten moves from the tangible in nature, “ you float across the dance floor/ like a ripe pomegranate,” to the intangible, “Your papaya arms foretell the wealth of flesh/ beneath your luminous finery.” From flesh to soul, the whole woman dances. Using her innate understanding of language, Edmisten’s poems journey from internal to external. They are written on paper, meant for the heart. The last line of the poem uses the body’s foundation, legs, to create a stable end for the writing: “But who would have expected/ the legs of a ballerina?”
         Reading her book is like searching for a fine wine, and then realizing what is really needed is the snappy and unexpectedly wise T-shirt on the rack at the gas station off of Exit 37. The astute reader realizes, “This book of living fits. I deserve this.”

    So, if you know someone who respects life,
    who chases dragon flies,
    who inhales the Sunday paper,
    who would pole vault a fire pit,
    and perhaps counsels cheetahs:
    grant them several days with Wild Women with Tender Hearts. Chances are they will understand you are a kindred spirit and worthy of befriending.

    Monique Maria Schmidt, author of Last Moon Dancing, winner of the 2006 Peace Corps Writers’ Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award was born in Kansas and moved with her family to a sheep farm in Mennonite community in South Dakota. While completing her undergraduate degree, she studied and worked in France. After graduation, she joined the Peace Corps for two years of service in West Africa. She has also lived and worked in Japan, the West Indies, and Latin America. With an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, she has taught composition and creative writing in Colorado and New York. She is currently at work on her second book and is available for poetry readings and presentations about West Africa and volunteerism. Please contact her at


We received this email from a non-RPCV who had discovered our site.

I would like to be added to your email subcription list for when you have the new issues of the Peace Corp Writers posted online. I have enjoyed reading thus far the stories in the current issue. It has really openned up my eyes to the vast need for people to give of themselves to those in need. I am currently praying and asking the Lord for direction and guidence in my life; placing befor Him the Peace Corps as volunterring or in world missions. However I do have prior commitments and these have to be greatly considered. But I would like to receive updates for each issue regardless of the direction that the Lord Jesus Christ would have for me to follow.

Thanks and take care,
God Bless you
In Christ Jesus our Lord