Peace Corps Writers

Not surprisingly we get e-mails about our interviews and our reviews (especially reviews that are negative.) To enhance exchanges within our Peace Corps community, we are starting to share those letters with you.
Here are two recent comments that we have received.

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Rebuttal of John Bidwell’s review of A Chameleon’s Tale from the book’s author Mo Tejani:

February 2007
Any author knows that once a book is published, the content is public domain for reviewers to critique as they best see fit. However when a reviewer decides to focus the first two paragraphs of his review on his son’s idiosyncrasies which have no bearing whatsoever to the book content, a rebuttal of such trivial analysis is both required and well deserved.
     Coming from the school of old fashioned Victorian literature wherein a book has to conform to his obsolete views of chronological structure (in time and geography) and character development for each and every single character introduced, Mr. Bidwell conveniently forgets to point out the following structural and stylistic innovations obvious to the most basic reader and numerous other book reviewers:

  • The beginning “prologue” clearly sets the tone that this travel memoir, spanning thirty-four years over five continents will purposefully skip chronological time and geography in the interests of focusing on specific topics, clearly glued together further by the title and quote at the beginning of each chapter. Chapter titles such as “Islam and Me” (focused on author’s relationship with Islam over five decades in various Muslim countries) or “Refugees” (outlining his work in refugee camps of South East Asia and Guantanamo over a decade) seems to have escaped Mr Bidwell’s supposedly discerning eye altogether. Furthermore, the overall theme of a man searching for a country — outlined in the beginning prologue, weaved throughout the book and concluded in the last chapter and the ensuing epilogue — is another poignant observation that escapes this reviewer’s trite tongue in cheek analysis.
  • As to lack of character development, in the examples that Mr Bidwell points out of characters like Nguyen and Pranee, once again, he conveniently forgets to mention that both characters reappear in other chapters in greater detail as how and why they influenced the author with their actions and behavior. Mr Bidwell’s need or expectations of wanting every single happenstance character to be extensively developed is, nothing more than an indication of his total lack of understanding of the writing style purposefully developed for this memoir — especially in the light of the fact that, later on in the review, he contradicts himself and even compliments the author by pointing out that chapter 4 on “African Days” does a wonderful job of spelling out both character and scene development of life in Uganda during the Idi Amin regime of terror.

     Perhaps I have pushed Mr Bidwell’s sensitive “buttons” by not painting such a rosy picture of the Peace Corps and the disastrous consequences of five decades of ill-thought out American Government foreign policy, as he would like, being an RPCV himself. If so, I have been more than successful in my intentions.

John Bidwell replies:

 Thanks for sending along Mo’s rebuttal. Again, I overestimated Mo’s abilities: this time I expected valid arguments. 
     Since when was chronological order “obsolete?”  If so, there are a number of accomplished writers who need to be told. Sure, a book doesn’t have to follow chronological order, but it takes talent to mess with convention. Copying “stylistic innovations” (read non-chronological order) doesn’t mean you do it well. My son intentionally copies Calder, but his mobiles aren’t in the Met (yet).
     I can only repeat that Mo’s character development is lacking. It has its moments, but falls short overall.
     Mo is right: I do have sensitive buttons. I am embarrassed about my eyebrow I shaved off by mistake last week. I did not, however, write a less than glowing review out of retribution. That strikes me as an odd assumption on his part. Like Mo just can’t believe that somebody would critique his work, so the criticism MUST be born of something else.
     John — just to let you know, I am capable of writing a positive review. I hope this back and forth with Mo has not soured you on my potential. I’d love to do another.

Rebuttal of Liz Richardson’s review of Black Man’s Grave: Letters From Sierra Leone from the book’s co-author Gary Stewart

March 2007
Thanks, I guess, for your review of Black Man’s Grave: Letters From Sierra Leone. For one who admits to judging a book by its cover your reviewer might have spent a bit more time with this one. Had she gotten past the headline that so offended, she would have found the answer to her question, “who?” What follows are four laudatory comments on the book from mainstream publishers’ rejection letters. Moving to the spine she would have seen the actual publisher’s name (not a corporate biggie) that got the book to her. A flip to the front cover would have revealed the correct spelling of my name. [This was the error of PCW. mhb]
She didn’t like our writing. Okay, but it provides the historical context for Sierra Leone’s civil war, something many (if not most) of the books on the subject from the last few years lack. (Perhaps she is unaware of the other current books on the subject?) Without a discussion of events that brought the country to the brink, the war itself makes no sense, nor do the letters from our friends.
As much as recent books about the war lack context, they make up for it with the overbearing presence of their (often uninformed) authors, who seem to parachute into the country, interview a few people, believe what they’ve heard, find out something about themselves, and then go back to America or Europe to write up their heroic adventure. (See Blood Diamonds or How De Body? for example.) Our Sierra Leonean friends are the story of Black Man’s Grave. They suffered through the country’s descent; we did not. Their stories are what is important, as your reviewer got around to acknowledging in her last paragraph.

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