Literary Type 11/06

    Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91) author of the recently published, Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years With a Midwife in Mali had a short essay, “Obedience Training,” in the November 5 issue of the The New York Times Magazine. Her story, which was featured in “Lives” on the last page of the magazine, is one that many PCVs experienced when adopting a dog in the developing world and have to leave their pet behind. Kris, however, had a tougher goodbye than most Volunteers.
         Kris ran up against a feticheur, the leader of the traditional religious community that scarified animals to bring honor, luck and rain to the village. Kris knew this man ate dogs and her pet was especially valuable because it belonged to an American.
         Saying goodbye in Africa meant more to Kris than leaving her village and her host family. And what it meant she tells us in this short touching essay in this week’s Times.

    The New Yorker, November 13, 2006 issue, has a long piece by George Packer (Togo 1982–83) entitled “The Megacity: Decoding the chaos of Lagos.”

    Novelist Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 2000–02; Madagascar 2002–03) finished his second novel a few months ago. It will be published by Harcourt next October. The novel is entitled The Konkans and is a love story set against the little known and real Goan (Konkan) Inquisition in India, instituted by St. Francis Xavier, which lasted 252 years, burned hundreds of thousands of Hindus at the Catholic stake, and is drawn from Tony’s family history. Tony’s mother was a PCV (India 1966–68) and met Tony’s father while serving overseas.
         Recently Tony received a writing residency for 2007 at the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Tony is now driving his pick-up truck through Mexico and Central America learning Spanish and writing. While on this drive, Tony heard that he had also won a Japan Friendship Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This will allow Tony to have six months with all expenses paid to live and write in a Japanese town of his choice. Tony will leave for Japan in April, 2007.

    Nita Noveno (Cameroon 1988–90) is the recipient of a fellowship for the Summer Literary Seminar in Kenya this December which will host distinguished African writers. She has most recently been published in Lost and Found: An Anthology of Teachers Writing and Worldview magazine and was a finalist for the Missouri Review’s 2005 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story “Mindanao” will be out on (forthcoming Dec 2006). Nita is ecstatic about returning to Africa.

    Washington D.C. resident John I. Blanck Jr. (Lesotho 1989-91) recently published an op-ed piece, “Not Enough Respect on the Road” in the Washington Times about car-motorcycle accidents. He is currently working on an essay related to his first motorcycle accident.

    It has taken Jan Worth (Tonga 1976–78) 30+ years, but finally she has written her novel of the October 14, 1976 murder on the island of Tonga of the PCV Deborah Gardner. You might have read Phil Weiss’s haunting non-fiction account of that crime, American Taboo, and now Jan, who lived through that tragedy, has used the same murder in her novel Night Blind, just out from iUniverse.
         Jan teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. She has published essays, poems, short stories and reviews in such diverse places as The Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Drexel Online Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Passages North, Fourth Genre, Controlled Burn and Marlboro Review; and her poems have appeared in two editions of Contemporary Michigan Poetry, published by Wayne State Press.
         Jan’s recent marriage has seeds of another novel. When Phil Weiss was researching American Taboo, he reconnected Jan and Ted Nelson (Turkey 1964–66), a PC/Washington staff member she had met in Tonga in 1976 while he was doing In-Country Training shortly after the murder took place. They began to correspond via email and in 2001 they met again after 25 years. They were married in 2005.
         While visiting Washington, D.C. this fall, Ted and Jan took a taxi to the Peace Corps Headquarters only to find that on Saturday morning the building was closed. Not wanting to miss a romantic opportunity, they had the taxi driver take a photo of them kissing in front of the building. How’s that for a nice ending, or a nice beginning for another novel!

    Starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later as a Nairobi-based consultant, Mark Hankins (Kenya 1983–87) has worked all over East and Southern Africa building the solar energy industry. When not working, a passion for African music has put Mark on stage with dozens of African artists, and Hankins (aka Markus Kamau) has built up a remarkable fluency for African pop. His new CD, “Chants Sans Frontieres,” is the culmination of 20 years of cross-cultural song writing and performance for him. For “Chants,” Kamau composed in Swahili, and raps with a deep expressive voice reminiscent of Manu Dibango. Leading the Boda Boda Band, he fuses rock and roll hooks, with soca rhythms, Congolese ndombolo guitar, Luo benga and Maasai chanting. Part of the attraction of this CD is the excellent musicianship of Boda Boda band and the guest artists, a who’s who of Nairobi players (including Kora-award winner Eric Wainiaina). Kamau’s song writing, whether it be in Swahili or English, tells real stories about Africa from the vantage of someone who has been on the ground, understood and can bring it back home.  Have a look and listen at:

    John Flynn (Moldova 1993-95) has a new story out at Hiss Quarterly. Read “Charred Rotator” at the site.

    That Old China Gang
    Few Peace Corps countries can boast of the writing talent and dedication to their host country by the first groups to serve there as can China.

    •      It begins with Peter Hessler (China 1996–98). Peter’s second book on China, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, has just been nominated for a National Book Award.
    • Following Peter is Mike Meyer (China 1995–97) who is writing his first book on living in a Beijing hutong. Mike spent his Peace Corps years in Neijiang, Sichuan, then the heroin capital of the nation. Mike writes from Beijing, “The book is titled Echo Wall: The Last Days of Old Beijing, and it will be published next year by Walker & Company/Bloomsbury. I’m still writing it, so I’m not sure of the delivery date. The book charts all that’s been going on in Beijing regarding the ancient city core, most of which is being destroyed for Olympics city-brightening. For the past year, I’ve been living in an old courtyard with several families, and volunteering every day as an English teacher at the elementary school. I wanted to recreate my Peace Corps experience, only in a Beijing setting. This experience has been even harder than my Corps work — here, I have no indoor plumbing, only the bathhouse and a latrine.” Check out Mike and the hutong at his YouTube site.
    • Another guy from China 3 is Rob Schmitz (China 1996-98), the Los Angeles bureau chief for KQED, the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. Rob spent the year 2000 doing freelance writing in China for newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and the Hong Kong Standard. He then earned his masters at Columbia School of Journalism where he met his wife the Chinese-American journalist and actress, Lenora Chu, who has appeared in, among shows, Desperate Housewives.
           In 2001 Rob went back to China to film World Birthday, a New York Times Television production that aired on The Learning Channel. The program was about childbirth around the world and Rob spent a couple of months in Beijing filming childbirth and child-rearing there.
           He returned again to China in 2002 on the Pew Fellowship for International Journalism, now known as the International Reporting Project, to film two documentaries in Tibetan areas of China and examined how modernization was influencing their culture. One of those films ended up on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
           He returned in late 2004 for a month to cover Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trade mission to China for KPCC, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles (He was working as a reporter in LA for them). Four or five stories on that trip all ended up on NPR. In May of this year he went back to China for a month to lead an educational tour of Yunnan Province organized by the American Museum of Natural History and to report environmental stories for KQED’s Pacific Time and for the business program Marketplace.
    • Michael Goettig (China 1996-98) was a freelance journalist in China for seven years and is now in his final year at Columbia Law School, where he is the editor of the Columbia Journal of Asian Law.
    • Also living in China is Craig Simons (China 1996–98), the Asia correspondent for Cox News, and Jake Hooker (China 1996-98) who is with the New York Times. According to Peter, “We live in Beijing and we see each other regularly.” Mike adds, “These guys are an enormous support and editing group, and I’m thankful for it. All of us have experienced the difficulty of making one’s way as a freelance writer.”

         Hessler will be breaking up “that old gang of theirs” very soon and move with his new wife, journalist Leslie T. Chang, to the American Southwest to finish his third book on China. Peter says, “Together these three books will cover the ten years I’ve lived here, and I envision them as a sort of trilogy. Each has a slightly different emphasis: geography to history to economy, each of them viewed in the context of average Chinese people. The new book isn’t titled yet and I’m now finishing the research. After that, I expect to write about non-China subjects for a while, so I don’t plan on continuing to cover China after I move. At some point I’m sure Leslie and I will live here again, but we don’t want to cover China from the U.S.”
         [Leslie herself is under contract now for a book about two generations of Chinese, partially about her grandfather who studied mining engineering in Michigan in the 1920s and was assassinated by the Communists in 1946 during the Civil War. Leslie, who was born in America, will tell her grandfather’s story, but also will look at the critical moments in modern Chinese history when people began to leave their homes in great numbers.]
         Quizzing Peter about why there are so many “China writers,” he emailed me that obviously the number of RPCV writers has a lot to do with the fact that China is a unique place at a unique moment. He goes on to say:

    “This is really the first period when it feels open for a writer. Ten to fifteen years ago it was extremely difficult to freelance. Government accreditations were hard to get, and independent freelancers were at risk of being expelled. It was hard for a foreigner to travel around without getting into trouble, and Chinese people didn’t like talking to journalists. That was already changing around the time I moved to Beijing, in ’99, and now it’s great for a freelancer, so much is happening, the accreditation issues are not as complicated, and it’s easy to live cheaply. Every one of the China RPCV writers spent time as a freelancer.
         “Of course, it makes a big difference if you can speak Chinese. It’s significant that, of the RPCV’s that are mentioned, not one of us studied Chinese before coming to this country. The Peace Corps has an excellent language training program and a motivated Volunteer can learn an enormous amount, because sites are located in small cities without many foreigners.a
         “And after service there are lots of opportunities to stay on and study informally or formally (both Meyer and Craig studied at Tsinghua University on fellowships).
         “With regard to language, we owe an enormous debt to Bill Speidel, the first country director, who is an old China hand and really cared about Volunteers learning Chinese. He set up the original training program in Chengdu.
         “It’s been wonderful having this small but close network of fellow writers and reporters with a similar background. The Peace Corps experience definitely shapes one’s writing and viewpoints, and I think that we have a different sensibility than most China-based journalists. All of us love to report from the provinces, where life reminds us of the years we spent as Volunteers. And our interests tend to be culture and society rather than straight politics.”