Peace Corps Writers May 2007
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Front Page 5/07
Still time to nominate your favorite Peace Corps book
Do you have a favorite book written by a Peace Corps writer that was published during 2006? Nominations are still being accepted for awards for the best books of the year written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
- 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 Book
Send in your nominations to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Then Sarge Said to Me!
David Gurr who was in Ethiopia with Marian Haley Beil and myself recalls this story of when Sarge visited the Empire early in our tour as the first Volunteers to Ethiopia. Dave recently retired as a project officer for AmeriCorps*VISTA at the Corporation for National and Community Service, then moved to Los Angeles to be near his son and daughter. He sent us this account of Sarge in Addis.
SARGE THOUGHT NOTHING OF simply packing up and going to meet Volunteers around the world. When he visited the Middle East, he came to visit us in Addis Ababa in October 1962. When his presence became known, he was informed by the American Ambassador that he had to meet His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. The Emperor had requested that the Peace Corps send teachers to Ethiopia in the first place. It was rumored that he had done so over the objections of some of his ministers who thought that the Volunteers would be a bunch of hippies. When we arrived, the Emperor expressed his enthusiasm for the Peace Corps by inviting us to the palace and each of us was introduced to him.
When it was Sarge’s turn to meet the Emperor, he had to be presented in “soap and fish” (striped trousers and grey coat) the traditional formal attire for ambassadors, and Sarge did not have it. So he borrowed the American ambassador’s. However, Sarge was much taller than the ambassador. When he was presented to the Emperor, he was photographed full length by the for the English-language newspaper in Addis, The Ethiopian Herald. When the photo was published in the paper, it showed Sarge bowing in front of the Emperor with his pants up over his calves and with white socks showing. Some years later I tried to get a copy of the photo from the Herald, but was unable to as the old Herald was out of business.
In this issue
Writing for “To Preserve and to Learn: Occasional essays about the history of the Peace Corps,” Dick Irish (Philippines 196264) recalls Warren Wiggins, former deputy director of the agency, who was with Shriver from the first when the Peace Corps was hatched in several rooms of the old Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Warren passed away this month and Dick writes about working with Warren and establishing the social action agency, TransCentury. Warren was a towering figure at the agency, who wrote [with Bill Josephson] “The Towering Task,” the paper that outlined the the blueprint we all followed overseas when we joined the Peace Corps.
In a second “To Preserve and to Learn” piece John Krauskopf (Iran 196567) recalls in entertaining detail his Peace Corps training in the summer of ’65 at the University of Texas in his essay “Tequila and Temblors.”
[This is another addition to our collection of Peace Corps stories that would be lost except RPCVs have long memories and can write. If you have a tale from your time in the Peace Corps, write it down and send it to us.]
A folktale well told
Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 197882) is one of those legendary PCVs he was captured by Sierra Leone rebels and escaped from them. Michael says that the rebels just got tired of feeding him and let him walk away, but he managed to turn that experience into a career. I first met Michael when he was working at PC/Washington in the mid-nineties, making the world safe for PCVs as the agency “security person.” Now he is the Security Director for Save the Children and also the co-chair of the Security Advisory Group of InterAction, a consortium of American-based NGOs. [Why don’t we make O’Neill head of Homeland Security?] Anyway, when Michael was a community development PCV in Sierra Leone he made a habit of inquiring about the history of the places he visited. One of the questions he asked the local people was how did the village get its name. Once, while providing assistance in building a grain store, he drove into a village named Helebu. In response to his usual inquiry, the elders described the turn of events that resulted in the village’s strange name. Read O’Neill’s retelling of the tale of the naming of Helebu in “A Writer Writes.”
In this issue we also review four new books, and note the arrival of thirteen more books to our increasing number of Peace Corps novels, non-fiction, and books of poetry. We now have over 3,100 published books by 928 Peace Corps writers listied in our Bibliography.
Speaking of poetry, we interview poet Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91) about her writing.
There’s more in the issue, of course, there is always more. Read on.
Recent Books May 2007
The Best Travel Writing 2007
True Stories from Around the World
edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly
contrubutor: Usha Alexander (Vanuatu 199697)
Head, Heart, and Body in West African Development Work
(Peace Corps experience)
by Laurie L. Charlés (Togo 199901)
Left Coast Press
$52.00; tradepaper $23.96
27 Chefs Talk About What Got Them into the Kitchen
by Dorothy Hamilton (Thailand 197274)
Night Falls on Damascus
by Frederick Highland (Micronesia 196769)
St. Martin's Minotaur
An African Mask
by Nicholas Ivancic (Liberia 196466)
Contemporary American Poets Abroad
Editor and contributor: Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991);
Contributors: Derick Burleson (Rwanda 199193),
John Isles (Estonia 199294),
Susan Rich (Niger 198486) and
Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475)
A Tropical Place Like That
Stories of Mexico
by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 196869)
University of New Mexico Press
What Kills What Kills Us
Winner of the 2005 Gerald Cable Book Award
by Kurt S. Olsson (Kyrgyzstan, 199698)
Silverfish Review Press
Village in the Meadows
(Peace Corps experience)
by Malcolm Pfunder (Turkey 196567)
According to Abraham and the Prophets
by Robert Roberg (Peru 1966-68)
Don’ Touch My Hat!
by James Rumford (Chad 197174; Afghanistan 197475)
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Antonia Saw the Oryx First
(20th Anniversary Edition)
by Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 197173)]
with an introduction by George Packer (Togo 198283)
by Stephen Vincent (Nigeria 196567)
(to order go to www.junctionpress.com)
Literary Type May 2007
The 2006 Lantern Book Essay Competiton, worth $1000, was won by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 199698) for her essay “Too Much of One Thing Ain’t Good for Nothing: Lessons from a Non-Throw Away Society.” The aim of the essay competition is to allow new thinking to emerge on the key subjects of Lantern’s publishing program and to encourage new voices to step forward to shape the debate of the future. Lantern Books publishes books for all “wanting to live with greater spiritual depth and commitment to the preservation of the natural world.”
In 2001 Katherine won the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award given by Peace Corps Writers for her entry “Telling Time.” She is now studying at the famous Iowa graduate writing program where such writers as Richard Wiley (Korea 196769); Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576); Phil Damon (Ethiopia 196365) and other fine RPCV writers have studied.
You can read Katherine’s award winning essay on life in the Peace Corps at: www.lanternbooks.com/blog/entry.php?id=430.
Steve Reed (Morocco 199294) is an editor for the New York Times Regional Media Group, a chain of small and mid-size newspapers in the South and California owned by the New York Times Company, and lives in New York City. In addition to writing, Steve explores his practice of Zen Buddhism through photography, focusing on transience and subjects such as shadows and graffiti. You can view his blog at
Sandra Meek (1989-91), an Associate Professor of English at Berry College, has just completed editing an anthology of poems. The anthology is coming out this month from Nineback Press, a new literary press that Meek along with three other editors founded. The book is entitled Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad.
Thirty-four poets are represented here by three poems each; each poet also contributed a short prose piece to the book about the significance of travel and international experience in his/her life and work. Several RPCVs Derick Burleson (Rwanda 199193), John Isles (Estonia 199294), Susan Rich (Niger 198486) and Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475) are included in the anthology.
Usha Alexander’s (Vanuatu 199697) essay about her Peace Corps experience appears in Best Travel Writing 2007, released in February by Travelers’ Tales publishers. Her first novel, Only the Eyes Are Mine, published in India in 2005, was selected as a semi-finalist for the Independent Publisher’s Book Awards 2006 Multicultural Fiction (Adult) category.
Recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after two years spent traveling throughout India, Usha is now working on a second novel and more travel essays. Visit her on the web at www.ushaalexander.net.
Patrick Chura (Lithuania 199294) guest-edited “American Perspectives on Cultural Transition,” a special issue of the quarterly journal Lituanus published in March 2007. The issue, which includes essays and poetry by Peace Corps/Lithuania returned Volunteers and staff, describes cultural change in the Republic of Lithuania as the country regained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. The journal website is www.lituanus.org.
Roger Hirschland (Sierra Leone 1965-67) and World Wise Schools web guru Riley Graebner (China 2002-03 & Romania 2005) have been putting together podcasts for WWS. They post a new podcast every week that features an RPCV reading his or her story or being interviewed, or an interview conducted by a class of U.S. students of a currently serving Volunteer.
The interview from 05.03.07 is with Kris Holloway (Mali 198991). It was conducted by Amy Clark (Nepal 2003-04) who directs the Correspondence Match and Speakers Match programs for WWS.
Kris is the author of the wonderful Peace Corps memoir Monique and the Mango Rains. In the interview, Kris describes why she felt compelled to write the memoir and she talks about the obstacles she cleared in getting published.
You can hear Kris, and other podcasts at: www.peacecorps.gov/wws/multimedia/podcasts/
From the .03.29.07 the podcast is Kris reading her short story “The Death of Old Woman Kelema,” which can also be read online.
[Podcasts, by the way, are audio broadcasts available on the Internet.]
[Peace Corps Writers also has an interview with Kris and a review of her book on our website]
John Coyne's (Ethiopia 196264) novel The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan published last May won the Westchester Library Association 2006 Washington Irving Book Award for a book written by a Westchester author. The criteria for selection include a combination of “literary quality, readability, and wide general appeal.”
Cliff Garstang (Korea 197678) recently won the Georgia State University Review fiction contest for his short story “Nanking Mansion.” The story will be published in the in the Summer 2007 issue.
Other stories by Cliff have recently appeared in The Ledge, Confluence, Baltimore Review, and REAL, and online at R-KV-R-Y, Ray's Road Review, and Six Little Things (“The Learnéd Lama,“ Issue #5)
The June issue of National Geographic Magazine has a long piece by Peter Hessler (China 199698) on the development in a factory town in southeastern China over a period of fifteen months. Peter tracked one factory that was attempting to make the tiny nylon-covered rings used to adjust bra straps. As Peter writes, “There’s an epic story behind every piece of clothing.” The article is on line at: www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0706/feature4/ but it will be easier to read it in print.
Alissa Everett (Senegal 199597) has a travel article and stunning photographs in the spring 2007 issue of a new publication, Traveler Overseas. Alissa opens her article with these lines, “A bead of sweat drips down my back; the heat is stifling. I have not felt these temperature since I was in the Peace Corps over 10 years ago, when the hot season had reached over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and much, much higher in the sun.” You can read about and subscribe to this high-end publication at: www.traveleroverseas.com/magazine/
Mo Tejani’s (Thailand 197980) travel book A Chameleon’s Tale has been selected as one of nine finalists for the 2007 PEN/ Beyond Margins Book Award. This award confers five $1,000 prizes upon authors of color who have not received wide media coverage.
In the May 28th issue of The New Yorker Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) has a Letter from Turkmenistan entitled “The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov’s Reign of Insanity.”
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
SANDRA MEEK LIVES IN Rome, Georgia, with her dog Duende, and teaches writing and literature at Berry College where she is an associate professor, and co-editor of Ninebark Press. Sandy was a PCV in Botswana from 1989 to 1991.
Her first collection of poems was a chapbook, The Circumference of Arrival, published by Elixir Press in 2001. In 2002 Elixir Press published Nomadic Foundations that won the 2003 Poetry Prize from Peace Corps Writers. In 2005, Elixir published Burn. Recently she won the $10,000 Dorset Prize, the largest book-publication prize for poetry in the United States, for her third collection of poems, Biogeography. This collection will be released by Tupelo Press in the spring of 2008.
I spoke to Sandra recently about her Peace Corps experience and her writing.
Sandra, where are you from and what is your academic background?
I was born in El Paso, Texas, but we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado when I was four, and that’s where I grew up.
I have a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University (1986, 1989), and a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing, from the University of Denver (1995).
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I wanted to feel like I was doing something worthwhile, and something exciting the Peace Corps seemed both.
Tell us a bit about your Peace Corps service in Botswana.
I was an English teacher and Head of the English Department at a new Community Junior Secondary School, Boswelakgosi CJSS, in Manyana, Botswana.
Were you able to travel much when you were overseas?
A few countries. I went to South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi and Kenya.
Lets talk about today. You have just completed editing an anthology of poems. The book is entitled Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad. How did that book come about?
I’ve been very interested in poetry that comes out of international, cross-cultural experiences ever since I was in the Peace Corps. About three and a half years ago I decided that, since I thought there really should be an anthology of this work, I would compile it; the experience gave me the opportunity to go even deeper in this reading, and to put together some of this very powerful poetry. It was a three-year process of reading, selecting.
You have 34 poets in the anthology. How many individual poems are there? Roughly how many poems did you read to get to that number? How do you pick one poem over another? For example, do you need to read the whole poem?
There are three poems from each of thirty-four poets. I read many, many poems to get to that number.
I researched widely to get as comprehensive of a list as possible of living American poets who had traveled or lived abroad, and who had written from their experience. I then went through all of these poets’ books, reading closely all poems with an international connection.
From those I selected the authors. Then I picked three poems for each, and contacted them and their publisher(s) to request permission to include their work in the anthology; it was important to have the author’s support from the beginning because I asked each author to write a short prose piece on what international travel has meant to his or her life and work. These prose pieces, which range from a paragraph to several pages each, appear along with the poet’s brief biography as an introduction to the poet’s work.
I was simply looking for the best poetry which evidenced the qualities of what I name and discuss in the introduction to the collection as “the poetry of deep travel”; that is, poetry that doesn’t merely skate the surface of the “other” culture or nature, poetry that instead approaches both self and other not from a space of authority and mastery, but rather from uncertainty, from a humble and generative openness to discovery.
Who are the RPCV writers in this collection?
Derick Burleson (Rwanda 199193), John Isles (Estonia 199294), Susan Rich (Niger 198486) and Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475).
At what age did you decide that you wanted to be a poet?
Well, I began writing “seriously,” in my estimation at the time, in junior high.
Do you think of yourself as a poet or a professor?
Both, really. But you have the order right.
What gives you more joy . . . to finish a poem? to give a lecture?
Finishing a poem, definitely, or rather, writing when it feels like something’s happening. And when it’s not happening, pulling weeds to avoid thinking of how it’s not happening.
Would you take one of your poems and describe how you developed it do you begin with an image, an idea, or feeling, and how does one line lead to another?
A single vibration breaks the story
to the crystal remnants
of perfect pitch. A wheel-
flung pebble, and sun
pierces the windshield’s tint.
The next days
spider the glass. The heart
is damage, a small pit: for wheel-
flung pebble, substitute
bullet, and the tire still
rotating mid-air catches
the last rayed light: the camera’s
pinhole a magnet
for angels, a needle’s eye clustered
with crushed wings. Flight
didn’t survive the breakage.
What was filmed was landing.
Published in American Letters & Commentary; reprinted on Poetry Daily
Every poem brings its own process. Most often, I suppose, for me a poem begins with a phrase, with writing from that, around that, following the possibilities. I tell my students when you are beginning a poem, you have to be willing to write crap, and I write plenty of it. Then, hopefully, I find in that what seems to me interesting phrases, connections, juxtapositions, and the poem has begun.
For this poem, I remember thinking about the simple visual of a pit in a windshield (having, I believe, been hit by gravel), and how multiple stories could be behind that small pit. Looking back now in my journals, I see that actually what began this poem was material for another poem, a much longer poem that was grappling with what was for me a very difficult subject; I had traveled to Suriname with a colleague, and had sat in on interviews he conducted with the primary figures of the political turmoil there in the 1980s the former military dictator (or “revolutionary,” which he prefered) who overthrew the government; the head of the “Jungle Commando” in the civil war; journalists and relatives of those tortured and killed under the military government. From that interview with the dictator and his “ambassadors,” one thing particularly haunted me: he saw that my colleague had a certain book among his papers, one published just after the coup celebrating “the revolution,” which contained pictures of all the primary figures in the coup, including the men in that room; they started going through it as you might a high school yearbook, laughing at how they looked twenty years ago. The thing was, though, that the man who took the pictures and wrote the book was one of the men who “turned” and was tortured and killed to “send the people a message” by the men in that very room. In my notes I see a phrase from the very rough writing that led to that long poem becoming the opening to this short one; it began “A single bullet hole.” That became “A single vibration broke the story,” as my thinking about this photographer and the men laughing in that interview somehow blended with the “road scatter” image.
When do you know when a poem is finished?
This is always a hard question. I suppose truth is, when I don’t know what more I can do for it. Certainly there is a feeling that the work is complete, but it is difficult to say exactly what gives that feeling. I often revise a poem even after it’s been published, making changes that then appear in the version published in book form. Following a reading by poet Li-Young Lee, he asked me if he could make a change to one of the poems in the book he was signing for me, and he proceeded to make an edit not correcting errata, but making a change in the poem, indicating his revision of the poem even after the book had been published. That felt very honest to me; there is a lot of truth in that well-known quote that poems are never finished, but are simply abandoned.
What do you think the future is for poetry?
I think poetry will do just fine. Poetry has so many different incarnations, so many levels and genres, so many places in our lives. People who wouldn’t call themselves “literary” often say they don’t “understand” poetry, and yet they will turn to poetry at significant moments in their lives weddings, graduations, funerals; after 9/11, poetry was everywhere. While the poems that tend to show up at these events aren’t necessarily my favorites, who cares: there are audiences for all types of poetry, including the “literary.”
Would you tell us your favorite poet, and your favorite poem?
This is really difficult! If I had to choose, if my life depended on answering this question, I would say Charles Wright. To choose one poem by him would be just as difficult. “Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn” or “Spider Crystal Ascension” it would be hard to throw one of those out.
What Peace Corps writers have you read and what books (or poems) have meant the most to you?
I won’t think of all their names, but I have read quite a few Melanie Sumner and Mark Brazaitis come immediately to mind, as well as of course the poets in Deep Travel. Norman Rush, of course, since he writes about Botswana.
If someone “out there” in the Peace Corps world wants to write and publish poems and fashion some sort of career as a poet, how do they go about it?
Just write, and don’t think of writing as a career! As well as you can, make a life that will include the time and space to write, and don’t expect any external rewards. The reward is, as I think every writer knows, the writing itself.
Good advice. Thank you, Sandy, for your time and your poems.
A Tropical Place Like That
Stories of Mexico
by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 196869)
University of New Mexico Press
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
WHILE READING A Tropical Place Like That: Stories of Mexico by Baker H. Morrow, Studs Terkel celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday with a radio interview. He talked about counting: we all count. Morrow must prescribe to the same school of thought because his collection of short stories reminds us that the simplest pleasures are worth remembering. We are treated to whittled essences of another country, another age.
Each story takes place in Michoacan, Mexico. The first impression is the almost total absence of electronic contraptions. There is no mention of fax machines, computers, I-pods, televisions, radio, and almost no mention of telephones. When describing travel, the characters drive extinct models of pickup trucks, coal fueled trains, and diesel fueled miniature buses. Morrow describes places in Mexico from nearly one half century ago and the absence of distractions combined with the formality of Mexico’s poor is a wonderful mirror. Just as Mexico has changed, so we have. Yesterday’s curious gabachos and gabachas like Morrow’s wandering Lou Becton and Annabelle Scott, who travel long and hard to simply learn another language and meet our neighbors, have been replaced by a new generation of American youngsters who jet to Mexico’s beaches for segregated drunken orgies. The only Spanish spoken are the words, “¡Más margaritas!” shouted at uniformed, English speaking Mexican servants.
Morrow remembers something different: American children of the Greatest Generation who, like Atlanteans, set out to rediscover the smoldering post Second World War earth. Morrow is, after all, of the Kesey generation and like Kesey, was most definitely on the bus.
The eleven short stories are summarized accurately on the back cover which describes “the ghost of a church and its residents (who) create an eerie home that never should have been, spectral white tracks of a burro train, and a humble tire repairman and his wife (who) want children too much . . ..” What it omits is comment upon Morrow’s style. He has avoided the concept of good and evil and in so doing, dares the reader to join this rediscovery. It is the little boy sleeping in many a grown man you might call sensible. His stories become even more poignant for the art of remembrance spawns reflection while melodrama is barren.
Although a work of fiction (artfully told lies) the stories reminded me of Zen in the Art of Archery, written by a German philosophy professor who lived in Japan during the 1930s. Morrow’s stories (possibly by coincidence) emphasize the sights, sounds, and feel of tiny villages, springs, leaky rowboats, and more. The treatment of man as a part of nature is, of course, a common tenant in Zen literature, as are the absence of the rational (good/bad), and the enjoyment of pleasant thoughts. These stories are pleasant moments which serve as epiphanies to larger truths. Morrow has created Literature for us folks.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. He has self-published four travel books, five pamphlets of essays, a small oral history, and a pamphlet of sketches based upon his travels.
Impressions of Arvo Laurila
by Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 196567)
North Star Press
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 197678)
IN LAURI ANDERSON’S darkly persuasive autobiographical novel Impressions of Arvo Laurila, an immigrant Finnish community of the remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan, once proud and vigorous, is collapsing. And when his main character flees in the face of personal disaster to Hawaii, then bizarrely to Nigeria, and finally to the remote Micronesian community of Truk, where everything also is collapsing, Anderson offers a depressingly powerful, sometimes confusing and consistently vivid portrayal of individual and societal breakdown.
As such, Anderson’s narrative is both intensely local and rich with suggestion of universal loneliness and dislocation. Pulsing at its heart are questions every Peace Corps Volunteer confronts head on, and because of this, Arvo Laurila is an important addition to the Peace Corps canon.
The farmhouses Laurila’s immigrant grandparents built live only in memory, he writes in an early chapter: “The outbuildings are also gone. The fields that they cleared have been taken over by ash and poplar forest. The area where their buildings once stood is now a town cemetery . . . the town itself is nearly gone. It became a kind of ghost of itself when the mines closed long before . . . lately he feels utterly alone and abandoned in the middle of America. He feels dislocated, fractured. Maybe it’s America. It’s a continent wide. And where are the loves we have had and have lost? Where? Arvo wants to know.”
This is not an easy book to read. It is not easy to read partly because its protagonist is denied redemption at every turn. It also is not easy to read because its organization and narrative strategies keep changing his characters shape-shifting from section to section.
At first the book seems true to its title offering a series of short, anecdotal profile chapters such as “Arvo’s Daughter’s Teacher,” “Arvo’s Friend Sulo,” and “Arvo’s Grandmother.” But then, on page 71, the writer declares, “Arvo, is, of course, the author,” and the book turns more directly to his personal tragedies: “I fabulize, I consume and mask. I add and subtract. I fictionalize. And yet the essential truth is still there. The pain is still there the emptiness.”
I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On one hand, many writers acknowledge that their novels are rooted in autobiography. I realize we’re all struggling with issues of the “I” and the fading and arguable credibility of an individual voice these days. But Anderson’s self-conscious slipping in and out of confession is unnerving and distracting. Why announce to the reader that the book is “true”? Why not just let the reader find his or her own essential truths? Anderson’s struggle with this issue seems disingenuous and unnecessarily self-tortured.
Nonetheless, eventually Anderson gets his bearings, in a way. Forty pages on, Arvo, “disguised as Eddie Maki, a young and single parent . . . flees to the Romantic South Sea and into the Eye of God.”
Here, in the chaotic and violent islands, the book settles down into a coherent, if tragi-comic, story. In the middle of Eddie Maki’s first night as a Dean of Students at a small church school, he’s awakened by another teacher desperately calling him to break up a knife fight among “drunks from the village who had come to rape girls” at the dormitory. In the ensuing melee, “the thought that he’d just plunged directly out of his idea of paradise into a garbage pit was not a pleasant thought,” the author wryly understates.
In this ruined paradise, as in Maki’s Upper Peninsula, tradition has succumbed to entropy and dissipation. Eddie visits a “canoe house,” now in disarray, where “little boys barely out of the toddling stage would come to listen to the older men talk about sailing . . . gradually they would grow more and more intimate with the sea until they finally blended into it, thought like it and instinctively acted with it. Now the young ones get drunk nearly every day and control of the sea is slipping away.”
Ultimately, Eddie has to confront legal trouble: a fight for custody of his small son Leif, the one innocent and anchoring love of his life. He begins to run with the boy to an even more remote island where Ann, his love interest, promises the real paradise can be claimed. But “he did not like the thought that he was being irretrievably separated from his self from the land and the people that defined him.” And so, he goes back to Michigan. The book ends with a glimmer of hope. Arvo Laurila’s fight for his beloved son, in the ancient land he knows, suggests the possibility of reclamation of the self.
Jan Worth-Nelson contends that her autobiographical 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind, departed far from “the truth.” She teaches writing at the University of Michigan / Flint, and loves the Upper Peninsula. Lake Superior, the backdrop for some of the action in Impressions of Arvo Laurila, is by far her favorite Great Lake. Like the former mining towns in the UP, Worth-Nelson's longtime home town of Flint has been largely abandoned by industry and, like the UP, has paid a steep price.
A Man of Peace in A World of War
by Stanley Meisler (PC/W Staff 196467)
John Wiley & Sons
Reviewed by Jon Ebeling (Ethiopia 196264)
I MET STANLEY MEISLER, an early Peace Corps evaluator in Addis Ababa in the fall of 1968; he was reporting for the Los Angeles Times. I never thought, of course, that I would be reading about another person working in Ethiopia during that period in the African Economic Commission, Kofi Annan. The conjunction of persons and time is interesting and so is this biography by Meisler. I wish I’d met Annan. He is a unique person as shown by Meisler. It is unfortunate there aren’t more in the world like him. He is described as a person with less intellectual power than his predecessor Boutrous-Ghali, “But he was much more polite, much kinder.” (p.148) Meisler comments “He believed that the U.N. worked best when its activities were transparent and the rationale for its actions communicated clearly.” (p. 148). It seems that these personal characteristics were often in conflict with two U.S. presidencies over how to run the U.N. Madeline Albright, who pushed for his ascension to the job of Secretary General, later became upset that his views on world issues were in conflict with her views.
This is a biography of a man who believes in using proper diplomacy in dealing with those who seek to obtain national self interests through the manipulation of the U.N. or through outright armed aggression. The main problem for Annan at the U.N. was the war brought on by the U.S. in Iraq. Meisler writes, “The war in Iraq would define his ten years as Secretary General,” and it pushed him out of office. Annan went up against the Vulcans surrounding Bush using his “. . . understated mannerisms, to stop the American Juggernaut.” (p. 235). During a press interview following after a string of disappointing events in regard to the U.S. and Iraq, he concluded “[the war in Iraq] . . . was not in conformity with the Security Council with the U.N. Charter.” A reporter asked “It was illegal?” and Annan’s response “yes, if you like.” (pp. 274-275). This is a good illustration of the conflicts and transparency of his thinking on international problems. Meisler brings this forward very well.
With Kofi Annan Meisler has written an excellent, informative book serving not only as a biography, but also as a well written review of contemporary international relations surrounding the U.N. He is also the author of the United Nations: The First Fifty Years. Being a readable journalist with significant background information, Meisler has made reading these books a treat for those who study international relations. In that regard it is superior to the academic treatment of international relations.
The book is made up of sixteen chapters with an emphasis on Annan’s work in various bureaucratic roles, such as Under Secretary for Peace Keeping and especially his role as Secretary General of the U.N. What the reader will find is a clear understanding and clarification of the role of head of that organization in a period of violent conflict. Some of the chapter titles include “The Stain of Rwanda,” “Intervention: Kosovo and East Timor” and of course there is a detailed chapter on the problems created by the Bushies in regard to the U.N.’s role for supporting the intervention in Iraq. Annan’s peace keeping role began with the Somali conflict in the early 1990s and it continued from that time to his decision to leave the U.N. after two terms in 2007.
Meisler presents a complete listing of his sources for each chapter and a chronology of Annan’s life, along with his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. From that speech we find a cogent statement for today “Today’s real borders are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated. Today no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another.” (p.322)
Jon Ebeling served with the first PCVs to Ethiopia and returned to Ethiopia as APCD in 1967. He earned his Ph.D. in Economic and Social Development from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. He began teaching at California State University, Chico in 1971. He taught statistics and public finance there until his retirement three years ago. Today, Jon and his wife, Frederica Shockley, a professor of Economics at Chico State, run a small consulting business focusing on survey research and economic analysis for local governments.
Saving Our Youth One Kid at a Time
by Paul D. White with Ron Arias (Peru 196364)
Morgan Road Books
Reviewed by Jon Ebeling (Ethiopia 196264)
THE ONLY DIRECT CONNECTION that White’s Rules has with Peace Corps, this reviewer found, is with Ron Arias, who plays an unclear role in the preparation and presentation of the book. Arias is said to have assisted with “. . . format and tone. . ..” Nevertheless, it is clear from the substance of the book that the conditions confronted by the Paul White have some similarity to the types of problems sometimes faced by PCVs.
The author has been a construction worker, but mostly a teacher, mid-level school administrator and a principal always in schools that have a multitude of problem kids. The problems range from alcoholism, drug addiction, gang banging and general youthful disengagement with “normal” society. White is very concerned about these students and suggests that they need tough love, close controls, and those who break the rules are “dropped” from his attention.
Based on his experiences he has developed ten constructs to apply to these types of situations, and smiliarly has divided up White's Rules into ten chapters addressing: attendance, dressing and speaking properly, working, truthfulness, respectfulness for people and property, cleanliness and sobriety, courage, care for others, learning from life and making a difference. He presents these in an advisory manner for both parents and teachers as the solution to the problems we perceive facing the youth in the U.S. The ten rules for saving our kids represents a set of rules for teaching, but with little evidentiary back-up except for the descriptive incidents which he provides. These incidents are sometimes interesting, but from this reviewer’s view they are not capable of being generalized. He asserts:
“. . . [the] job of any teacher trying to save lost kids is to make the new way so attractive and enriching, they’re not even tempted to look back.” (p. 146)
This is a very tall order given the social and economic structures of our dual society. The barriers between the haves and the have-nots are so wide, it is hard to believe his recommendations will have much affect on changing the characteristics of these major social problems.
Some of the incidents are quite interesting, however, and heart warming. Typically he suggests that youth should behave in a specific way, and they can be changed in that way by his efforts at “tough love” and intense help. On a descriptive level he clearly has significant experiences in working amongst cross cultural and socio-economic barriers. His experiences and his attention are on those with lower socio-economic living arrangements. He argues that parents must take control and provide positive examples for their children, along with his recommendations for behavior in classroom settings among schools for drop outs.
White concludes his book of recommendations by suggesting that teaching is a holistic combination of academics and life experiences brought together in school environments. He states:
“Last night’s shift at McDonald’s, a fight with a younger sister, serving food at a homeless shelter, or helping pitch tents on a class camping trip is just as relevant as every lesson, every exercise, every essay, every math problem, and every reading assignment.” (p.176)
While these are important attributes of love and care amongst adults and youth, my view is quite different in that after teaching at a University for 32 years, I have seen the problems of youth trying to achieve clarity in writing and mathematics, and I find it difficult to understand his equations indicating that serving food is equivalent to solving a complex math problem. I would, however, recommend that those who intend to go into teaching read this book as it does provide important perspectives on one of the major social problems in our society.
After serving as a Volunteer in the first Peace Corps project in Ethiopia, Jon Ebling returned to Ethiopia as an Associate Peace Corps Director from 1967 to 1969. He earned his Ph.D. in Economic and Social Development from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. He began teaching statistics and public finance at California State University / Chico in 1971. Having retired from the university several years ago, Jon now runs a small consulting business that focuses on survey research and economic analysis for local governments.
A Writer Writes
A folktale retold by Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 197882)
As a community development field worker in Sierra Leone I developed extensive relations among the Mende people in scores of villages throughout the Eastern and Southern Provinces. Upon entering a village for the first time, I made a habit of inquiring as to the history of the place. I often asked the local people if they could explain to me how the village got its name.
Once, while responding to a request for assistance to build a grain store, I had occasion to travel to a village named Helebu. In response to my usual inquiry, the elders described the turn of events that resulted in the village’s strange moniker. M. O'N
MANY YEARS AGO an offshoot settlement of the chiefdom headquarters town, Futa Kpeje, had been established near the site of present-day Helebu by a clan of earnest farming families. The place quickly gained renown for the bountiful harvests of rice, vegetables and fruits produced from its farms and orchards. Each harvest season merchants from distant chiefdoms made their way to the village market to buy up the cornucopia of local produce. As the crops flourished, the people prospered. Then, one year when the rains had come with propitious timeliness and the sun coaxed nature’s capricious bounty, just as the golden rice grains swelled upon bowed panicles and plump vegetables ripened on the vine, disaster struck. A rampaging elephant appeared without warning romping through the village farms, uprooting trees and damaging crops. The villagers’ vain attempts to drive away the rogue beast fencing the area at great expense and backbreaking labor, setting up a constant din of drummers, or dispatching a battalion of young men with slings and stones utterly failed as the elephant returned again and again to wreak havoc in the farms and orchards that surrounded the village.
Unable to rid themselves of this monstrous pest and fearing that their entire harvest might be lost, the village elders determined to summon a famous hunter from the remote forests to the east. As was the custom of the time, they first sought permission from the Paramount Chief to engage a man possessing such awesome powers. This done, the elders sent forth word of their dilemma and the need for the great hunter’s services through the channels known to the shamans and herbalists, witch-finders and soothsayers. As they waited for a response, the elephant continued to roam unchecked devastating the carefully tended farms. Hope for a profitable harvest dimmed with each passing day.
In the gloaming of bleak twilight, as the elders reclined in low-slung hammocks passing a calabash of palm wine from hand to hand and bemoaning their great misfortune, a silent figure mysteriously appeared in the village. He was an altogether fearsome figure decked out in a kola-dyed, knee-length, country-cloth ronko robe, dangling cowry shells and leather fetishes and other paraphernalia of the hunters’ trade. He cradled an antiquated shotgun in the crook of one arm. With his free hand, he flicked an elephant tail whisk at unseen gnats. The hunter strode to the center of the village, crouched on his haunches and surveyed every corner and shadow with wary predator’s eyes. The elders bestirred themselves to welcome the renowned stranger. He stood erect, oblivious to the chatter of interested onlookers who had begun to gather at a safe distance, as if responding to a secret clarion, to ogle at his ominous regalia and assure themselves that this great man would surely rid them of the accursed beast. The elders and the hunter repaired to the chief’s compound where the customary greetings were exchanged, terms negotiated and retainer paid. The hunter prepared at once to seek his quarry.
The hunter rose before dawn, performed the private ceremonies demanded by his fetish, then moved unseen through the village hidden by a shroud of wafting kitchen smoke commingled with the lingering morning mist. He strode to the edge of the village and disappeared like a specter into the nearly impenetrable forest. Beginning at the site of the elephant’s destructive frolic he surveyed the area with an expert eye. Before him lay a maze of trampled, matted rice stalks that zigzagged through the farms across which the great beast had plodded before re-entering the forest. Tree trunks as thick as the hunter’s waist had been snapped in two under the elephant’s weight where it had paused to scratch an infernal itch. Gurgling guinea fowl searching for grubs scavenged among the splintered bark and broken branches that littered the ground along the crooked path. Their indignant, shrill chortles broke the silence as they scurried into the underbrush at the hunter’s approach. Squatting low with head bowed, the hunter followed the trail of havoc and mounds of fresh scat that marked the elephant’s passage. All day he tracked the beast, stopping from time to time to examine the feces more carefully, or sniff the air and listen with eyes closed and his head tilted back. As the blue-gray twilight settled and quickly waned, he realized that though he had hiked many, many circuitous miles that day he had not wandered very far from the village. He could sense all about him the elephant’s presence. He felt confident that he was close upon his prey.
But night and fatigue dictated that he make camp and complete his task in the morning. He ate without cooking, performed his simple evening ablutions, and then strung up his hammock between two stout tree trunks in the pitch-dark forest. He feared nothing in the bush for his fetish was very powerful. He nestled in the hammock’s embrace as the day’s exertion brought him immediate slumber. While he slept, the elephant he sought appeared to him in a dream. There it stood a dark, humungous presence astride a wasted landscape under an ashen sky. In his dream the hunter was inexplicably stricken with paralysis - not out of fear, no never that but as if he had been bound with invisible restraints. As he struggled against his confinement, the hunter hurled futile invective at his nemesis that landed as harmlessly as pebbles bouncing off its thick, gray-brown hide. The behemoth laughed at the hunter’s foolish pride and warned him that to continue his pursuit was dangerous folly. The hunter bristled at the elephant’s conceit, yet grew wary of a beast that could so easily invade his dreams. Surely this was no ordinary creature. The hunter, no stranger to the realm of witches and shape-shifters, had many times confronted their evil manifestations and had overcome their mystical powers. But never before had his dreams been so trespassed. The elephant’s musky redolence permeated the very air he breathed. The night’s rhythm seemed to rise and fall with its exhalations. Finally, the hunter, calling upon the courage of his fetish, challenged the elephant to reveal its true self (for surely the elephant-form hid the nature of a powerful entity).
“Reveal yourself!” the hunter demanded.
“Sina gende. Sina gende.” whispered the elephant as its visage faded. Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning.
As the rosy rays of dawn splintered through the darkened forest, the hunter awakened from his fitful slumber. The elephant’s essence completely suffused every aspect of the moment. The memory of the strange dream weighed heavily upon the man an unfamiliar anxiety. As he swung himself down from his hammock, the realization struck him like a blow. In the dark, he had strung his hammock not between two stout trees as he had supposed, but to the thick legs of the very elephant he sought. Fearing for his life, the hunter fled the scene and stumbled back to the village. An aged village matriarch, upon hearing the hunter’s tale, urged the people to quit the settlement, make sacrifices of rice, palm wine, goats and fowl, and re-establish their village at the place where the hunter had encountered the powerful spirit while he had slept “beneath the elephant.” They called their new settlement Helebu that has since prospered and never again did the elephant return.
Michael O’Neill has held the position of Security Director for Save the Children since September 2002. Prior to taking up this position, he served as the Coordinator of Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security at the Peace Corps (19952002). Currently Michael is also co-chair of the Security Advisory Group of InterAction, a consortium of American-based NGOs, developing security resources and standards for humanitarian workers posted to insecure environments.
Michael served as a community health Volunteer in Sierra Leone. While working for GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) in Sierra Leone from 1982 to 1988, he supported hundreds of community development initiatives in Bo and Pujehun Districts. As Regional Relief Administrator with the Sierra Leone Red Cross (199192), he frequently traveled throughout the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone to assess the level of security and make recommendations for the safe delivery of relief supplies. In a later assignment with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 1993, he was posted on the Ethiopia/Somalia border, where he negotiated with Somali clan leaders on a daily basis for to secure guarantees for Red Cross relief workers and programs.
Michael earned a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from St. Louis University (1976) and a Master of Science in International Rural Development Planning from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada (1991).
Michael and his wife, Millicent, met and married in Sierra Leone twenty-four years ago. They have two children, Owen, 23, and Sheila, 18.
To Preserve and to Learn
Remembering Warren Wiggins
by Dick Irish (Philippines 196264;
Staff: PC/Washington 196466)
Warren Wiggins was one of the architects of the Peace Corps and became the agency’s first associate director of program development. Later he was appointed deputy director.
Following stints as a PCV and on Peace Corps staff in Washington Dick Irish co-founded TransCentury with Warren Wiggins and worked with Warren until 1990. Dick wrote this reminiscence of Warren Wiggins which he is kind enough to let me publish. jc
MY FIRST MEMORY 0f Warren Willard Wiggins was in San Francisco in late 1961. At the time, I was married, long-listed for the Foreign Service, comfortably employed with a Dictaphone and a company car . . . and bored stiff. I was one of America’s “Angry Young Men.” Prone on the living room couch one Saturday afternoon, I was watching on black-and-white TV complete with rabbit ears a Dodger/Giants baseball game. At the same time, I was scanning the San Francisco Chronicle for news about the JFK Administration, hoping to find some rays of hope.
I was angry because Americans seemed insufferably self-complacent; an aura of national self-congratulation pervaded the land. My eye caught a small item in the “National News” section of the paper; a certain Warren Wiggins announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would work overseas and be paid no more than their counterparts, eat and live with the people, and acquire a foreign language or dialect not just French or Spanish.
I gave a whoop, heard by my wife Sally in the next room AND shouted, “Someone is finally thinking in Washington!”
The next day Sally found more information about the Peace Corps at San Francisco State University where she was a student and announced that we were joining. And like a lot of Volunteers of that era and maybe all eras joining the Peace Corps changed our lives.
My next encounter with Warren was late 1964; by then I had served two years as a Volunteer and worked as a lowly staff member in the DC headquarters literally running the mail room dignified as, “The Production and Distribution Department.” After nine months, I was promoted and told it was my job to recruit former Peace Corps Volunteers for staff jobs in Washington and overseas. I was successful because Warren Wiggins, then Deputy Director, gave priority to any staff nomination so long as he or she was a former Vol.
During my nearly three year tenure on Peace Corps staff, Warren was always the go-to guy, the fellow who solved problems; a brilliant bureaucrat, he found ways to make the “system” work. After shaking his hand when I was leaving the Peace Corps, he said, “I like your work; I hope to be in touch.” A year later I heard from him: He told me he was a victim of his own policy the Five Year Flush and would soon leave the Peace Corps. Would I join him helping build a new kind of company, a sort of Peace Corpsby-other means?
OUR COMPANY WAS called “TransCentury,” inspired by a James Reston column in The New York Times, January 1, 1967, which talked about the necessity in the last third of the 20th Century of focusing not on the problems of the industrial North but the impoverishment of the South, of speaking to the dreams of the young rather than succoring the memories of the old.
TranCentury’s first headquarters was on 7th Street in the ghetto of Washington, D.C., housed in an abandoned used-furniture store. The idea was for us to work in a poor community and catch something of the flavor of poverty and at the same time project a picture far different than the royal edifices that today house the World Bank and other so-called anti-poverty agencies.
Wiggins had clear ideas of how he wanted his company to run; some of them were:
- Open office space. We had no cubicles: Staff worked at long tables. Enthusiasm was epidemic and morale soared off the charts. Those doing analytical work were encouraged to work at home. Our shop looked and sounded much like a storefront political campaign headquarters.
- Furniture was old and decrepit. Fancy chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and poor abstract art hanging on the walls was eschewed.
- Personnel standards did not exist. In the strictest sense, age, education, previous experience, and the rest of the “Human Resource” folderol were trashed. What we looked for in staff was drive, accomplishment, and ability. TransCentury was for people who cared and sought to help.
- No such thing as a permanent job existed at TransCentury except maybe Warren’s. We brought in business and/or worked it . . . or left. Indeed, everyone was encouraged to do his own thing and then leave and take what they learned with them. In 1968, for example, a third of the staff left to work for Gene McCarthy we all came back and another third left to work for Bobby Kennedy they came back, too.
- Scheduled meetings were unheard of. If something needed to be discussed, spontaneous interchanges would break out around the office.
- WWW was front and center. He sat in the middle of the traffic, usually next to the Xerox machine. He could be approached at anytime by anyone, including job seekers and the homeless off the street . . . and often was.
- Extracurricular behavior was encouraged. During slow periods, for example, I often played darts.
- TransCentury welcomed babies, children, and dogs B.J. Warren, RPCV Peru, even brought her St. Bernard to work; the beast routinely chased the mail carrier from the office.
- Warren imposed no sales “quotas” on us. People worked hard, because they wanted to, while having fun doing it.
- Youth was no impediment to employment. I once talked about a prospective job seeker to Warren; I described him as “awfully young.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he shot back.
- The Black, Brown, Peace, Sexual and Feminist revolutions we missed the “Green” thing took place at TransCentury six months to one year ahead of becoming national news.
- Nothing was sacrosanct. When we reasoned together during those spontaneous sessions around someone’s workspace, the only rule was never to laugh at someone’s suggestion.
Warren’s kind of brainstorming.
- All the same, laughter was omnipresent, especially laughing with, at, or because of the Boss. My part-time job was giving Warren the needle; he gave it right break I have the scars.
WARREN WAS A FATHER arren was a father (six kids), an airman (he flew the hump in WW II), a Harvard-trained economist (he was bored to death in Cambridge), one of the youngest GS-15’s in the history of the government, a Marshall Plan administrator (Bolivia, Norway, the Philippines), author of “The Towering Task,” the seminal paper for the invention of the Peace Corps, a pretty good poet, a cunning cartoonist, a master gardener, and an entrepreneur extraordinary.
His greatest legacy was managing, nay, leading people as if they mattered. He unleashed me and dozens of others to be the people we and they were meant to be.
With Warren Wiggins, the glass was never half-filled or half empty: it was always overflowing.
To Preserve and to Learn
Tequila and Temblors
by John Krauskopf (Iran 196567)
PEACE CORPS TRAINING was intensive and stressful. Superficially, it seemed a lot like the college culture most of us had recently left. Walking around the University of Texas campus in Austin had a familiar feel since we lived in a dorm and attended classes much like any other students. However, the regimentation of fourteen-hour days was an unwelcome novelty. Back at the University of Michigan, when I put in a fourteen-hour day or pulled an all-nighter, I had arranged that torture for myself. In the Peace Corps training program, we surrendered complete control of our waking hours. Classes started at 7:00 am, and every minute was programmed until at least 9:00 pm. In the third week, there was a mini-revolt over the lack of time to go to the store or take care of personal business. The staff seemed to be taken by complete surprise that any of us would have needs that they hadn’t included in the rigorous schedule, and they responded by giving us “free time” on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 4:00 to 5:00 pm. I remember “tuning out” during a teaching methodology lecture and using my stolen moment to compile a list of what I needed at Walgreen’s so I could use my precious sixty minutes efficiently.
Beyond the intensity, the sense of always being watched was stress inducing. The director, various staff members, the language teachers and even the secretaries were continually observing us and almost impossible to elude. On top of this crew, we had two shrinks (psychologists) and a super-shrink (psychiatrist) involved in everything we did. Unlike college, our “grade” (being judged qualified to go in-country) didn’t depend on a final exam or a term paper but on a consensus decision by the training staff. We found ourselves second-guessing how our ordinary behavior would be perceived by the omnipresent watchers. There was no way to let one’s hair down because the shrinks and other staff members would always be around checking.
An attractive woman in the training group and I began to eat together and sit together at lectures. Each of us was pleased to have the other’s moral support and an empathetic partner to deconstruct the day’s happenings. However, a little more than halfway through the summer, I began to sense some unspoken concern on the part of the staff about us being a couple. To avoid the perception that we might have become too dependent on each other, I decided to spend more of the group’s communal time and what little personal free time I had trying to develop my relations with a wider circle of fellow trainees. My erstwhile companion was somewhat less paranoid than I and quite annoyed with me about the lessening of our earlier close rapport. We both were selected for assignment to Iran, but I’ll never really know whether the deliberate cooling of our sociable relationship played any significant part in giving the watchers confidence in our emotional independence and readiness for a two-year cross-cultural plunge.
Several in the group were not intimidated by the scrutiny. Six or seven devil-may-care trainees used to wolf down their food and dash out to the sidewalk just in front of the cafeteria’s picture window. There they exuberantly engaged in the “oldest established, permanent, floating, hopscotch game” in Austin until it was time for the daily culture studies lecture. The childhood game was both an outlet for pent-up energy and a rebellious statement to the watchers: “Shrink this!”
Although the Peace Corps seems to have a comfortable respectability today, certain powerful politicians were suspicious of the concept in the early days. Senator Barry Goldwater and some other conservatives were worried that naive American youth would be swayed by Communists or other political radicals whom they might encounter in third-world countries. The skeptics projected that we would be defenseless in such confrontations because of our general ignorance of American values, institutions and history. In return for his influential support for the Peace Corps legislation, Goldwater insisted on a clause requiring 10% of the training time to be devoted to American Studies, World Affairs, and Communism (ASWAC). The trainees, however, rearranged the words in the title of the mandated 80-hour program of lectures and discussions and pronounced the revised acronym “whack-ass.”
One morning at breakfast, the director asked anyone with a political science, economics or American history major to report to a seminar room in the student center after the second hour of language class. Eager to escape the endless grind of Farsi lessons, twelve of us arrived and were introduced to Jim Wright, an influential Democratic congressman from Fort Worth and the House Majority Whip. Our group spent the rest of the day with him talking politics except for the hour right after lunch, when we rejoined the other trainees to hear Congressman Wright deliver the daily “whack-ass” lecture. Wright had specifically asked the training program officials to have this extended session with the prospective Peace Corps Volunteers, so it seemed that even more-liberal politicians were also trying to get a handle on the value of the Peace Corps program.
The start of our training program in the summer of 1965 coincided with the peak of academic enthusiasm for the audio-lingual method of language teaching. The framework for this method was developed on an ad-hoc basis at the Defense Language Institute during World War II. After the war, scholars such as Lado and Fries at the University of Michigan did considerable research on language acquisition based on the Army’s wartime experience and began to popularize their findings. One of their disciples, Mohammad Ali Jazayery, was in charge of the Peace Corps language instruction at the University of Texas. Professors in the “publish or perish” world of modern academia find it hard to resist the temptation to turn everything they do into a research project. Instead of designing a pragmatic program to teach Farsi, giving us maximum benefit from every minute of precious language learning opportunity, Dr. Jazayery treated our group as a set of free government-supplied guinea pigs enabling him to explore the outcome of the most extreme form of audio-lingual teaching.
Language experts today, while keeping some elements of this methodology, make fun of the rigid form of it we were subjected to. John Dennis, a wryly observant English professor at San Francisco State University, called what we did the “drill your ass off” school of language teaching. We had five or more hours of Farsi per day in an ideal-sized class of eight or fewer. However, neither students nor teachers were allowed to bring pencils or paper to class; Jazayery even removed all chalk from the classrooms. We had no books. Teachers were not supposed to speak even a word of English, nor translate any of the new vocabulary, nor answer any questions, in class or outside. The endless repetition and manipulation of model sentences or memorization and performance of dialogues allowed for no spontaneity or consideration of adult understanding of language structure. Unable to break down the utterances we practiced, we desperately grasped at the vocabulary of concrete nouns, clear in meaning because the teacher could point to an object and say the word. The frustration of having only the vaguest idea of the meaning of the babble we could fluently produce was intense, especially for the visual learners among us. This state of affairs went on for 220 hours (the equivalent of twelve to sixteen semester-units of normal class time) before we had any kind of explanation.
The language teachers, all Iranian graduate students glad for a summer job, mitigated some of our frustration precisely because they were Iranian and college students close to our age. Being from a culture with a long tradition of finding ways around artificially imposed barriers, and not being linguists who bought into the experiment, they cheated. Sadeq, an engineering student and former Iranian Air Force officer, surreptitiously used small scraps of paper to write vocabulary words in his own improvised phonetic script, and Khodayar, my suite-mate, would answer questions late at night in our dorm room when no watchers were around. Sadeq got so frustrated one morning that he threw away the carefully scripted lesson plan and taught my group a Farsi saying which he felt fit our mutual situation: Showd, showd, na showd, na showd, velesh kon. We repeated this mantra in unison. After hearing Sadeq’s loose translation, we marched across the University of Texas campus and into the cafeteria enthusiastically chanting, “Try once, try again, but if then you don’t succeed, to hell with it!”
Our shrinks, Thea and Ben, had us all take the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). The results of this test were used to help decide whether we had strong and stable enough personalities to perform our jobs in Iran and to withstand the anticipated culture shock. Even as far back as 1965, the MMPI was a venerable instrument, and testing psychologists were confident in the validity of its results. However, each of the 500+ questions was presented without context and often appeared to be a one-line joke. Imagine a lecture hall full of 75 bright twenty-something trainees, a little stressed to begin with, obediently undertaking this task for their beloved shrinks and coming across a true/false item such as: “I frequently have black tarry stools,” or “Strange people follow me home.”
When I was only midway down the first column of questions, a hearty guffaw rang out somewhere behind me. A minute or so later, a woman in the front row cracked up. More laughter followed from my left and right. Being a slow reader, I hadn’t figured out what was triggering these reactions until I came upon one of the more ludicrous items and couldn’t keep from giggling. The laughter fed on itself throughout the two-hour test as each of us understood that the others also thought many of the questions were hilarious. By the end, many of the trainees were treating the whole exercise as a lark and making sotto-voce comments, which broke up those sitting nearby. (“Strange people follow me home . . . Do they want me to count my boyfriend?”)
The two shrinks proctoring in the front of the hall appeared increasingly uncomfortable. After collecting the answer sheets, they were challenged more directly. One outspoken male test subject stood up and inquired pointedly, “What do you expect to learn from this test?” Thea tried to explain the purpose and a little of the methodology, but her explanation was greeted skeptically. Her interrogator asserted, “These questions won’t reveal a true psychological profile. About every fifth item is transparently checking paranoia, but test takers can easily see this and provide the non-paranoid response.” Thea’s reply that paranoiacs would assume the paranoid response to be normal did not carry any weight. “They may be paranoid,” declared the questioner, “but they’re not necessarily stupid.”
A small group of trainees crowded around the shrinks to register their skepticism and extend the discussion while the rest of us drifted outside and attempted smart-ass remarks about “black tarry stools” and other incongruous nuggets from our shared test experience. The thrust of the trainees’ unscientific criticism of the MMPI was that the instrument was invalid; it could not possibly give meaningful insights to our or anyone’s psychological stability.
Ironically, the federal government is now forbidden by law from forcing any employee (presumably Peace Corps Volunteers included) to take the MMPI, but the prohibition is not on the grounds that the test can’t measure psychosis. This kind of testing was successfully challenged on the grounds that asking people to answer true/false items such as “God frequently talks to me and tells me what to do” intrudes on an employee’s right to privacy.
All of us in this training group were going to be English Teachers when we got to Iran, and being highly motivated, we immersed ourselves enthusiastically in our studies. We were well educated and academically accomplished, but few of us had any teaching experience. The Peace Corps classified us as “BAGs” (BA generalists) and felt that we could be made into effective teachers after participation in the twelve-week technical studies component of our training. The principal weakness of this condensed teacher preparation program was the lack of practice teaching, especially in some approximation of the difficult language, cross-cultural and school conditions we expected to find in Iran.
The University of Texas decided to remedy the problem by sending us all to Mexico City for two weeks. The education office of the Federal District in Mexico agreed to assign each of us to a junior high school English teacher for this period. After a couple of days observing classes, the Mexican teacher was to watch and critique us as we taught his or her full schedule. It was an imaginative plan, but it involved some tricky political issues. Most notably, Mexico considered itself at a higher level of development than the countries where the United States was sending Peace Corps Volunteers. Unlike Honduras, Peru or Chile, Mexico had not asked for Peace Corps help and was sensitive to any implication that it should have. Our staff warned us repeatedly not to mention the words “Peace Corps” while we were in Mexico. If asked, we were to conceal our true status by saying to government officials and everyone else that we were “graduate students in education at the University of Texas.” The teacher training coordinator implied that any break in the charade could jeopardize the whole operation.
To get to the border at Nuevo Laredo, we traveled in two buses, and after a four-hour wait for the completion of customs formalities (which would have been a lot shorter if we had been culturally sensitive enough to provide a small bribe, or “mordida”), we entered Mexico. For many of us, it was the first time outside the United States. We experienced the excitement of foreign travel and the fascination of interacting in a new culture, but for us, it was the “wrong” country. 200 hours of language lessons and I couldn’t even say Buenos dias! Two months of lectures on the Achaemenid Empire and ancient Persian archeological sites and I knew nothing about Aztecs and the Temple of the Sun. However important the student teaching was going to be for us, the cultural context of Mexico was something of a distraction.
The buses let us off at the dated but still elegant Hotel Regis in the center of Mexico City, convenient since we would scatter every morning to schools in all areas of the sprawling metropolis. Summoned to the ballroom, we were welcomed by various Mexican education officials. Sra. Lopez, the energetic woman in charge of language education for the Federal District, got us quite excited about our upcoming assignments. During a break, she asked for volunteers who had political science, United States history or economics majors, and who perhaps had some debate experience, to meet with her at the side table. Several of us from the Jim Wright seminar responded.
“What do you know about U.S. foreign policy?” she wanted to know. “Can you hold your own in a discussion about the merits of Socialism and Capitalism?”
After listening to our answers and asking a few more probing questions, she chose four of us and briefed us on our assignment. Her colleague, Sr. Figueroa, the principal of Escuela Secundaria 22 in Ixtapalapa, a working-class district near the National University, was a Communist. A cheerful intellectual sort with a U.S. university education, he loved to talk about politics; in fact, one of the reasons he had asked to have some of the norteamericano teacher trainees sent to his school was to have fresh verbal sparring partners. Sra. Lopez wanted to be sure she sent Sr. Figueroa worthy adversaries, and apparently she felt that whomever she sent would need more than 80 hours of “whack-ass” lectures to be able to defend themselves. (Maybe Senator Goldwater didn’t go far enough; perhaps the Peace Corps should consist only of political scientists, economists and American Studies majors).
On Sunday, I went through a dry run of my commute out to Ixtapalapa. Monday morning, I passed my first cross-cultural test by negotiating public transportation by bus, tram and taxi and showing up at Secondary School #22 on time. In the office, I met Sr. Figueroa, a fiftyish man with salt-and-pepper gray hair, a thin mustache and a slight paunch. At first sight, he walked over to me and said, “You must be one of the North American Peace Corps Volunteers.” After welcoming me to Mexico and his school, we went into his office, and he wanted to know what the Peace Corps was like. So much for our diplomatic charade! It was hard to answer him because I was still trying to qualify to be in the Peace Corps, and I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. Then Figueroa asked me what Iran was like. I told him what we had studied in books and said that I would send him a postcard from Iran when I found out how accurate our information was. He seemed pleased at this answer. At the first break, he took me to meet Sr. Diaz, my critic teacher. After a brief greeting, Sr. Diaz said, “Tell me about the Peace Corps.”
Sr. Figueroa was most gracious to all four of us who were assigned to his school. The critic teachers were helpful and glad to have a break in their routine. Students too were excited to interact with the North American student teachers as very few foreigners ever wandered into Ixtapalapa. Warren George and I worked mornings in the double-shift schedule at Secondary School #22, and our students went home by 12:15pm. After that, I usually went back downtown to the Regis Hotel to prepare the next day’s lesson.
Are you feeling that?
However, one day toward the end of our two weeks, Sr. Figueroa offered to drive Warren and me downtown after class and invited us to accompany him for lunch at a Spanish restaurant. A survivor from the 1890s, the restaurant’s decor included black and white mosaic tile edged with well-worn marble on the floor, a high ceiling with slowly rotating wooden-bladed fans, scuffed, dark-stained wooden booths, and an enormous mirrored mahogany bar flanked with antique steel wire stools. Many of the colorful, proletariat-type men in cowboy boots lined up at the bar were regulars, and some appeared at least as antique as the furniture. Figueroa, obviously a regular himself, was greeted warmly from all sides when he walked in. In fact, he referred to this place as his “club.”
Figueroa indicated a booth by the window. Warren and I sat on one bench while our host slid onto the bench opposite us. We had some delicious soup and a variety of tapas to go with a lively discussion venturing into the political areas Figueroa favored. However, toward the end of lunch, our conversation gradually shifted to questions and observations about cultural differences. Listening with interest to his comments, even though for us we were talking about the “wrong” country, we were startled when Figueroa interrupted himself and asked, “Have you had a chance to try tequila since you have been here?”
Warren said apologetically, “No, we have been pretty busy with our preparations and classes.”
“It is very important that you taste tequila before you leave. Let me get some for you.”
After Sr. Figueroa signaled his friend at the bar, a bottle of tequila, a set of small glasses, a dish full of mini limes and a saucer of salt appeared. As recent successful college students, we understood the general principles of drinking alcoholic beverages, but Figueroa felt that the ritual of tequila was as important as the taste. We worked on getting the rhythm of the salt, the mini lime, and the small glass. The tequila tasted good, and learning the cultural ritual was fun. After a couple of rounds, Warren and I got the procedure down.
Suddenly our host exclaimed, “You have now tasted clear tequila. You must also try amber tequila. It is Mexico’s best!”
He ordered another bottle, and we poured the honey-colored liquid into our little glasses. Again, the salt, the lime, and the cactus-flavored tequila slid over our taste buds and encouraged a warm feeling in us toward all things Mexican. I would have stopped at that point, but Figueroa insisted on filling our glasses one more time. Warren and I downed the drink, and right away, I felt dizzy and a little queasy. I glanced at Warren, and he looked bilious.
“Are you feeling that last glass?” I asked Warren.
He nodded his head and started to say something, but Figueroa interrupted.
“Oh, Senores, do not worry. It is not the tequila. We are just having an earthquake!”
I looked at the ceiling, and the forged iron chandeliers were swaying in a wide arc. The little dish with the salt slid across the wooden table top and then back. Over at the bar, glasses were clinking on the shelves, but none of the men moved or put down their drink. We felt like we were on a boat as it rocked in the ocean swells. Although the swaying went on for at least a minute, Figueroa assured both of us, who were from seismically stable parts of the United States, that we would be OK. When the rocking stopped, Warren and I seemed to be the only ones in the restaurant who had been affected. Conversations around us continued nonchalantly. No one at the bar had even looked up, quakes of this type on the filled-in lake that is Mexico City being so frequent that the denizens of Figueroa’s “club” barely noticed.
When we left the restaurant, we saw signs that this temblor was a bit fiercer than usual. A huge neon-lit advertising sign had been shaken from the top of a twelve-story building across the park from the Palacio de Bellas Artes and had crashed onto the street, blocking traffic. Across from the Hotel Regis, there were two eight-story buildings. After the quake, the tops of these buildings had moved apart, creating a space between their previously adjacent walls that now looked like a narrow “V.” The quake made the evening news in the States, and it was a couple of days before the families of the Volunteers could get calls through the jammed phone lines to check on our welfare. After the excitement of that afternoon died down, we still had to finish up our practice teaching and couldn’t really begin to process the whole experience until the long bus trip back to Austin.
The tall Texan in black
Because of Senor Figueroa’s Mexican culture lessons, I had purchased one bottle of clear tequila and one of amber to take home as souvenirs. A number of other trainees also brought back a fifth or two of distilled spirits because prices were very inexpensive in Mexico, and we had discovered before the Mexican adventure that Texas (at that time) did not allow the sale of liquor by the drink. Cocktail lounges and bars sold “set-ups” (ice, mixers, glasses and nachos) but expected the patrons to bring in a bottle purchased at a package store. Peggy, one of the trainees, had acquired a number of 1 & 1/2 oz. bottles of scotch, Irish whiskey and other types of hard liquor while in Mexico City. Her father collected these miniature bottles and displayed them in a case on the wall of his den. Since Mexico imported various kinds of European whiskey not distributed in the States, Peggy had found a dozen or more bottles her father couldn’t get at home in Illinois.
The immigration and customs formalities at Laredo for our two busloads proceeded more quickly and efficiently than when we had transited southward into Mexico. However, the U.S. has its own peculiar procedures, which can be just as frustrating as any alien culture. I dutifully declared my two fifths of tequila, which were within the Federal tax-free import allowance for returning tourists. I was about to re-pack the bottles when the customs agent indicated that I had to go to the next table to talk to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control officer. The tall man in the crisp black uniform and Smoky the Bear hat informed me that I had to buy two 44-cent Texas alcohol tax stamps. This state duty came as a surprise to me, but 88 cents for my souvenirs was within my means. I had started to walk back to the bus when I heard Peggy arguing loudly with the Texas liquor officer.
“These are legal in the United States. They are not even for consumption,” she protested. “They won’t remain in Texas. They’re a gift for my father in Illinois.”
“Ah’m sorry, ma’am,” the tall Texan drawled, “but in this state, bottles like these are considered drinks. and Ah’m going to have to confiscate them.”
Peggy fumed and sputtered, but her Irish-American indignation was unable to shake the resolve of the Texas officer. Several of her Peace Corps companions had drifted back to see what the fuss was about.
“What happens to the stuff you confiscate?” I interjected.
The officer gestured toward a battered 55-gallon barrel off to his right. He took one of the bottles, broke the seal, and unceremoniously poured its contents into the barrel. Peggy watched crestfallen as 12-year-old single-malt scotch became part of a mongrel alcoholic soup. While each precious bottle was drained, the assembled group of Peace Corps companions let out a theatrical groan. When the last one no longer contained the prohibited “drink,” Peggy asked the officer if she could at least keep the empty bottles.
“Of course, ma’am,” he replied in his maddeningly courteous Texas public-servant manner.
“If I had known what you were going to do, we could have enjoyed drinking this liquor on the bus coming up here!” Peggy declared resentfully in a parting shot delivered while she was glumly gathering up the shells of her intended filial gift.
I walked over to get a peek inside the barrel. The fumes were powerfully pungent when I got close. A little more than half full, that barrel contained the damnedest cocktail I had ever seen.
The last shot
After the return from Mexico, we finished a summer-long series of 28 immunizations. We were more or less accepting of the pain, indignity and occasional side effects of this weekly ritual, since we wanted to be protected against flu, cholera, polio, typhoid, smallpox and other diseases. However, the last shot, gamma globulin (to provide some protection against hepatitis) was a doozy. Given posteriorly, with the volume based on the trainee’s weight, this injection caused considerable anguish to a majority of the recipients.
Following the visit to the nurse, we all went to a theater-style hall for Dr. Jazayery’s comparative linguistics lecture. Normally, there was great interest in his analysis of Farsi grammar because we had been deprived of any clues to the language’s structure for nine weeks. However, this day there was considerable restlessness in the audience. As Jazayery droned on, Mike, the star language student in the group, slowly stood up. As straight as the needles the nurses used, Mike was the least likely among us to foment a rebellion, but from a seat down in front, another trainee rose, then another and another. Unable to ignore the seemingly disrespectful behavior, Professor Jazayery stopped his lecture and confronted the apparent leader. For the first time that summer, Mike was at a loss for something to say. He finally stammered out that sitting was very uncomfortable for him at that moment. Dr. J. looked around, and recognizing the collective agony, gave leave for anyone in pain to stand. More than half did.
Selected out? or in?
Our original group of 80 shrank to 60 over the course of the summer. Some resigned because the training program revealed enough about the job and the country to give them second thoughts about their original decision to volunteer. One woman who left early told me that she was not sorry she had made the effort and felt that she had learned a lot about herself from just the training experience. Others were “de-selected,” (an awkward bureaucratic term meaning cut from the program), at either the mid-point or end of the twelve weeks. A few of the “de-selectees” may have sensed the ax falling and been somewhat prepared for the blow, but several were devastated by the judgment that they were not qualified. We had little chance to gauge their true feelings, as the staff informed the de-selectees of the decision after breakfast and had shipped them out of Austin by the time the rest of us got back from language classes.
Learning I had been selected to go to Iran gave me about the same feeling as receiving a good grade in a difficult college course. However, being selected didn’t give me confidence that I was adequately equipped for the assignment because success in the selection process often worked at cross-purposes to the objectives of training and preparation. For example, the trainees’ doubts and weaknesses, which could otherwise have been addressed during the program, were often concealed because of concern that complete honesty in these areas might jeopardize selection.
Despite my misgivings, I took some comfort from the presence on the staff of two returned Volunteers who had apparently been successful. I calmed my nervousness with the faith that, if these two had been able to succeed (and neither of them seemed like a super-hero), I could, too. Boarding the plane for Tehran, we training-program survivors faced the two-year teaching assignment and cultural immersion in Iran with many lingering doubts but also with an underlying feeling of anticipation and optimism.
Twenty-three years later, another earthquake struck Mexico City. Somewhat stronger than the one which had shaken up the American teachers on their way to Iran, this one was destructive enough so that even the regulars at Figueroa’s “club” were probably affected. Watching the news reports, I was forced to reflect on the caprice of fate when the TV camera showed rescue dogs sniffing at a pile of pancaked masonry, and the voice-over of the reporter indicated that more than forty guests and staff had been killed in the collapse of the Hotel Regis.
John Krauskopf served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two year in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of the province of Khuzistan, part of the Mesopotamian Delta. He taught English in a boy’s high school, ran a language enrichment program, and organized English instruction for more than 400 teachers and staff of the provincial office of education. Later he worked as a Peace Corps Trainer for two Iran TEFL programs, in the U.S. and Iran.
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.
Rebuttal of John Bidwell’s review of A Chameleon’s Tale from the book’s author Mo Tejani:
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
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.
Opportunities for Writers
Ann Neelon (Senegal 197879) has sent word that New Madrid, the literary journal associated with Murray State University’s low-residency M.F.A. program [where Ann teaches], has announced its intention to dedicate its Winter 2008 issue to the theme of “Mexico in the Heartland.” They hope to acknowledge, investigate and celebrate the degree to which Mexico has influenced those living in the central United States, especially those in Kentucky and bordering states.
Submissions may include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, interviews, translations from Spanish, etc.. The main criterion for acceptance, aside from literary excellence, is how well the submission addresses the theme of the issue. Submissions for the issue wil be read between August 15, 2007 and November 15, 2007. Check www.newmadridjournal.org for submission guidelines.