Peace Corps Writers July 2007
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Peace Corps Writers 7/2007
The 2007 Award Winners
Publisher Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 196264) and I are pleased to announce the winners of the 2007 Peace Corps Writers Awards for books published during 2006. The winning books and authors are:
Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Monique and the Mango Rains
by Kris Holloway
Maria Thomas Fiction Award
by Tony D’Souza
(Cote D’Ivorie 200-02,
Award for Best Poetry Book
Wild Women with Tender Hearts
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten
Award for Best Travel Writing
Ginseng, the Divine Root
by David A. Taylor
Award for Best Children’s Writing
The Roaring Twenty
The First Cross-Country Air Race for Women
by Margaret Blair
Peace Corps Experience Award
“Maid in Morocco”
by Orin Hargraves
Winners receive a special citation and cash awards from Peace Corps Writers, an Associate Member of the National Peace Corps Association. Our congratulations to all the winners and all the RPCVs who published books in 2006.
Then Sarge Said to Me!
Denis Nolan (Ethiopia 196567) is a former engineer who was a teacher at the secondary school level in Ethiopia. After working in Washington for CBS and VISTA, he became a teacher and has worked with learning disabled children for the past thirty years. He is on the Advisory Board of Parents’ Education Network, an organization to help the parents of children with learning problems and does some writing on the side. He lives in California.
WHEN I CAME BACK from Ethiopia, Don Wilson, the former Director in Ethiopia, introduced me to some people at Creative Playthings, which was a subsidiary of CBS. They hired me as their Washington, D.C. representative to keep tabs on the money that the Government was putting into Headstart and other programs around the country. As a result, I worked in the CBS building in Washington and I soon had met a number of the CBS News people, including Bob Vitelli who was director of Face the Nation.
Bob knew that I had been in the Peace Corps, and one day he grabbed me in the hallway and asked if I had ever met Sargent Shriver. When I said that I hadn’t, he told me Sarge was going to be on Face the Nation that Sunday and to be there about 7 am if I wanted to meet him. Sunday was a relatively quiet time in the building, and when I arrived, Bob was waiting for Shriver in the reception area. He told me to sit down and wait with him. About ten minutes later, the doors flew open and in walked Shriver. Bob greeted him, explained a few of the things that had to be done before the show, and then turned and introduced me as a former PCV. Sarge broke into a big smile, immediately making me feel as though I was the greatest thing that could have happened at that moment, and asked where I had been. As soon as I said Ethiopia, he started asking about Don Wilson and others, showing remarkable knowledge about that one program.
As we walked down the corridor toward the broadcast area, Sarge asked me to show him where the restroom was before he went on air. We were still talking as we came to the men’s room, so I followed him in, and he continued talking as he entered one of the back stalls, asking questions over the walls. I stayed near the entrance, leaning against the wall as we talked. As I was answering one question, the door opened and two techs from Face the Nation walked in. They stopped dead, looking at me leaning against the wall and talking into space in an apparently vacant restroom. (This was long before cell phones!) I watched their expressions go from surprise to alarm as they stood in the doorway not moving. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t crazy or dangerous, knowing how stupid I must have looked, but at the same time I was finishing my sentence to Shriver.
Fortunately, the toilet suddenly flushed and Sarge came walking out, greeting the two men with that wonderful smile and making them feel that nothing mattered more than them at that moment. The two men went from doubt to effusion as they pumped his hand, both wearing smiles as big as Sarge’s. That was the remarkable thing about Shriver, he could make anyone feel that they were important to him. Possibly the only smile bigger than any of theirs was my own as I felt a rush of relief at not having to explain that I wasn’t really the man who talked to restroom walls.
In this issue
We have reviews of four new books, a list of 16 new books that have recently been published, news about recent accomplishments of RPCV writers in Literary Type, and an interview with John Bidwell, a water resource manager in the Peace Corps. John started his branding firm, Bidwell ID, in 1999 and now employs five employees. He works with clients nationwide, many of them being cause-driven organizations. Recently John helped his wife, Kris Holloway, brand her Peace Corps book, Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali that just won the Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award. John has a lot to of good suggestions for Peace Corps writers and how they should approach writing their books, and then, publishing and marketing them.
Finally we publish a beautifully written essay by Joseph Monninger, who was in Upper Volta as a Volunteer in 1977-79. Paris 1977 recounts his journey home from Africa when he landed in Paris at twenty-two hopelessly in love with literature.
Marian and I know there is much to value in this on-line newsletter and we hope you have time this summer to read more about writers from the Peace Corps. Thank you.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
From and To
Friends, Loves and Peace Corps
by Dolores Beasley (The Gambia 198385)
From the Mundane to the Sublime
by Gene Bellm (Colombia 196668)
by Peter Chilson (Niger 198587)
Houghton Mifflin Company: Mariner Books
by James A. Ciullo (Venezuela 1969-71)
Five Star Publisher
Requiem for Mrs. Surratt
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
The Word Works Capital Collection
A Celebration of Florida Cuisine and Culture
by Eric R. Jacobs (Ukraine 200507) and Sandra M. Jacobs (Ukraine 200507)
Greetings From Planet Earth
Barbara Kerley (Nepal 198183)
All The Stars Came Out That Night
by Kevin King (Senegal 196870)
The Introductory Reader in Human Geography
Contemporary Debates and Classic Writings
edited by William G. Moseley (Mali 198789), with David A. Lanegran and Kavita Pandit
Blackwell Publishing Limited
A Hausa-English Dictionary
by Paul Newman (Nigeria 196163)
Yale University Press
Brevity and Echo
An Anthology of Short Short Stories
Robert Repino (Grenada 200002), contributor
Boston: Rose Metal Press
Igniting Student Potential
Teaching with the Brain's Natural Learning Process
by Angus M. Gunn, Robert W. Richburg (Nigeria 196365), and Rita Smilkstein
The Adventurous Journeys of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
by Floyd R. Sandford (Nigeria 196466)
by William V. Timmons (Niger 196567)
85 Days in Cuba
A True Story about Friendship and Struggle
by Brandon L. Valentine (Jamaica 200003)
Among the winners honored by the North American Travel Journalists Association for the best travel writing of 2006 was an article about plant travel. At its annual conference in May, NATJA announced that David Taylor’s (Mauritania 198385) article “Fearsome Roots in a Quiet Forest,” won for Best Historical Travel Writing. The article, published in Tricycle magazine (Summer 2006), was excerpted from his book Ginseng, the Divine Root (Algonquin). It relates the natural and social history that connects two cultures a world apart, combining elements of true crime, international trade and folklore.
Currently Taylor is making a documentary film about a group of young people who escaped joblessness during the Great Depression and discovered their creativity in the Federal Writers’ Project. A handful went on to become some of the century’s greatest voices, including John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. The project is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) had an article in the May 21, 2007, of The New Yorker entitled “Walking the Walk” which is a section from his next book on China. Peter’s last book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China has just come out in paperback.
Tony D’Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 2000-02; Madagascar 2002-03) was the only foreign journalist to cover the complete Doris Jimenez murder investigation and trial, which saw American Eric Volz convicted and sentenced to 30 years in Nicaraguan prison for a crime he did not commit. Tony happened onto the case during an unrelated assignment for Outside Magazine that saw him drive his Ford Ranger from Florida to Nicaragua. He has since appeared on The Today Show, Dateline, the BBC, and NPR talking about the case, and many other news outlets have picked up the story, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Tony’s 10,000 word feature article appeared in the June issue of Outside Magazine.
Tony was also recently in New York on a media junket, and to receive the Sue Kaufman Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On May 26th, he left for a six month stay in Japan on the NEA US-Japan Friendship Fellowship. He’ll be studying Ainu oral-storytelling on Hokkaido. Novelist Richard Wiley (Korea 196769) was also a recipient of this prestigious fellowship in the ’90s.
Christopher Huh (Niger 1994-97) won First Place/Nonfiction category in the 2006 Tiferet writing competition for his narrative essay “Allah Brings the Rains.” He will receive a $750 prize and publication in the upcoming issue of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, (www.tiferetjournal.com) a multi-faith literary magazine dedicated to revealing and celebrating Spirit through the written word. Published twice a year, Tiferet is an internationally distributed journal that features poetry, fiction, essays, and commentary from some of today’s best writers, poets, thinkers and philosophers.
Chris served as an Environmental Protection Volunteer in Birni N’Kazawé, eastern Niger, and was a participant of the 2005 Peace Corps Writers writing workshop. He and his wife Sherry (also a Niger RPCV) live in Downeast Maine. Chris is currently writing a memoir reflecting on his time in Niger.
Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992-96) has an article entitled, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Taxidermy” in the Spring, 2007 #86 issue of Backstreets: The Boss Magazine. Roderick reports that “even though this isn’t a Peace Corps piece, it evolved out of the online class I took with you a few years ago.” All writing counts, Roderick, wherever it is published.
Writing an Op-ed for the Boston Globe [July 23, 2007] from Mezzegra, Italy, Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980) reflects on Benito Mussolini. It turns out that the summer place where Roland and his family were staying is within a short walk to Villa Belmonte, the spot where Mussolini and his mistress were executed by communist partisans on April 28, 1945. As an Italian-American, Roland reflects in this article on his own roots, the arc of Mussolini’s career, and what harm one man can do to a country.
Roland has a warning for the U.S.: “Attenta! as the Italians say, when they see a friend crossing a street. Careful! Even in a great nation, given a few bad decisions, a few loud and convincing voices counseling hatred, so much can change so fast.”
Josh Swiller’s (Zambia 199496) memoir of his service, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, due out in early September, is garnering many positive reviews and praise.
Swiller also keeps a blog that details, among other things, Josh’s recovery from Cochlear Implant surgery to regain his hearing. Read it at www.cochbla.blogspot.com
His website www.JoshSwiller.com is just up and has an excerpt from his book, photos from his tour, and links to the NGOs he’s working with to bring attention and aid to the plight of deaf and blind children in Africa.
Ron Singer’s (Nigeria 196467) essay-review, O Ti Lo Wa Ju (“You Have Gone Past All") appears in the summer 2007 issue of The Georgia Review. The subject is the Caine Prize for African Writing, an Anglophone short-story prize awarded under the same auspices as the Booker. Singer introduces the seven winning stories to date, and places them in their historical, political and literary contexts. (To read the article, go to the Review website, click “Current Issue” on the top left of the homepage, the scroll down to find a link to a .pdf version of the article.)
Ron is currently looking for a publisher for his collection of published writings about Africa. The Armchair Africanist comprises twenty-six articles, interviews, and reviews on politics and the arts. His Peace Corps stint in Nigeria was the initial source of his interest in Africa, and it was rekindled by a lecture at a reunion in 1998. All of his pieces have appeared in/on magazines and e-zines, ranging from a Peace Corps publication (Friends of Nigeria newsletter) and a pro-democracy website (opendemocracy.net), to better-known venues (The Wall Street Journal, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Poets & Writers online, and The Georgia Review).
Looking for a low-residency writing program? Bennington College in beautiful Vermont has a two-year, low-residency program that awards MFA in Writing and Literature, and features on its core faculty Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697), and as a writer-in-residence, Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576). Check out www.bennington.edu/acad_grad_writ.asp.
The new issue of StorySouth, a magazine edited by Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) is now online at www.StorySouth.com.
A new science fiction story of Jason’s has just been published on Orson Scott Card’s site InterGalactic Medicine Show. The story, “Rumspringa,” is a look at Amish life in the far future. You can check the story online in Issue 5. And you can read more of Jason’s writings at www.JasonSanford.com.
In 2008, Hall of Fame Press will publish a Red Sox mystery written by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) and her son Jere. This is Mary-Ann’s 10th book and will feature the return of Rocky Patel, the Boston homicide detective who first appeared in her novel She Smiled Sweetly. Son Jere [not an RPCV] is a fourth-generation Red Sox fan. This book is the first in a planned series of baseball mysteries to be written by the Smiths and published by Hall of Fame Press.
Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 198889) has hit the jackpot with her Peace Corps book, Take Me Home. She just signed a six-figure contract with Broadway Books, a division of Random House for her memoir that will be published in the spring of ’09. The book sold at auction, [five publishing houses were bidding for it] while Eve and her husband, John Waite (Burkina Faso 198386), waited out the day of tension at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, taking calls from her agent, and turning down offers. At one point, Eva turned down a two-book contract from Harper-Collins. “Here I was turning down book offers when I had rejection letters from magazines, agents, and publishers filling up my desk drawer back home.”
Eve, who was recruited out of the New York Recruitment office [then located at Times Square] by the same John Waite. “I fell in love with him during the interview. I wasn’t sure about the Peace Corps, but I was sure about him.” Eva did go off to Ecuador only to be sent home early for medical reasons. “I didn’t think he’d marry me then since I wasn’t a Super Vol.”
So, she went and earned a master’s degree in public health from Hunter College and he got his master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. They married and John took a job with CARE in northern Uganda. It was in Arua, Uganda that she began to write down her stories, beginning with her work with street kids in Ecuador, her life in Uganda, and later their tour from 199396 in Uzbekistan.
She has plenty of stories to tell. The full title of her memoir is: Take Me Home: My Search for Meaning and a Decent Restroom in the Third World. My guess is that this Peace Corps memoir won’t be politically correct.
Their tour in Uzbekistan was during a time of guerrilla warfare and tense days both were held hostage in their home at one point but Eve also adds, “Most of the time it was beautiful and peaceful. We had a lovely time, and the people for the most part were tremendously friendly and helpful.”
Her memoir begins and ends in Uzbekistan, but it is really about “following John a Peace Corps poster boy through the Third World.”
It has taken Eve 12-years to write her story [and now she is busy re-writing] while she raised a family and worked full time. Today, she is a nutrition director for a community action/ childhood development center and John is the executive director of a community development corporation in the same county in western Massachusetts.
When not working or rewriting, she daydreams about who will play “them” in the movie. [Yes, there is already movie interest.] Eve is thinking of Sarah Jessica Parker, “who’s also curly-haired and short and Jewish.” And for John, she’d like, Matthew McConaughey. “He’s a real Peace Corps ‘poster boy’ type.”
Eve’s real dream, however, is to have her movie shot in Arua, Uganda, “because it will bring attention and economic development there,” she says, and it will also be a chance for John and her to go back to where they began their married life.
Peter Chilson (Niger 198587), an associate professor of English at Washington State University, has just had a new awarding-winning collection of short stories published. Disturbance-Loving Species won the 2006 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for fiction. This collected of stories received a Starred Review in Publishers Weekly and the book description reads: “In the tradition of Paul Theroux, Peter Chilson’s fiction debut delivers a fascinating, heart-wrenching view of modern African culture, filtered through the lens of the West.”
Peter is also the author of a memoir, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa.
In July, Nancie McDermott (Thailand 197578) had her prime-time television debut on the Food Network’s Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.” Nancie was The Cake Detective, serving up a little culinary history in the season premier of this Peabody Award-winning program.
Nancie currently has a recipe on the Food Network web site for Cha Yen.
John Woods (Ethiopia 196568) talks politics, books, philosophy, cars, travel, etc. on his new blog op-edmadison.blogspot.com Check it out. Leave a comment.
Talking with . . .
interviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I HEARD ABOUT John Bidwell (Mali 19891991) from his wife, Peace Corps writer Kris Holloway (Mali 19891991). Kris and John met in the Peace Corps and later married. All these years later she wrote a wonderful book about her work with an African woman who was her mentor in Mali entitled Monique and the Mango Rains. When I interviewed Kris for these pages about the memoir, I came to know John, and the work he has done to market and promote the book. In email exchanges with him, I realized he had a lot of smart things to say about how to market one’s own book, or “brand” one’s name, and I asked him if I could interview him for Peace Corps Writers. John said, “sure” and this is what he had to say.
Where are you from and where did you go to school, John?
Like generations of my family, I was born in Hartford, Connecticut but my parents needed a kin break, so we moved to New Hampshire when I was eight. I consider Wilmot Flat, New Hampshire my hometown. By the age of 18 I wanted a bigger world, so I went to Montreal for university, majoring in Religious Studies at McGill. I edited their arts and sciences magazine my senior year.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
My aunt and uncle served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia in the ’70s. They planted the seed. Montreal whetted my appetite to see more of the world, and I calculated the most economical way to do that was to have somebody else pay for it. And I do have a strong sense of duty. Many in my father’s family served in the military, but an astute recruiter steered me away. He said it was more than my studies in religion; it was that fact that I had registered with Selective Service under protest, and didn’t score well at taking direction.
What was your assignment?
I was a water resource manager in Mali from 1989 to 1991, an assignment that grew out of some summer construction work. This involved some latrine building and health education, but mostly I trained men to repair wells. It was a plumb assignment. I loved it. Everybody appreciates clean drinking water so it was easy to harness the village motivation. The guys I worked with were fantastic and we had a good time. So I’m going to take advantage of this forum and share a story.
Donkeys can be loud, especially the lonely males looking for . . . love. Such a braying beast was interrupting our work, so my friend Madou took the standard approach of finding a small stone to lob at it. The stone took flight and like a guided missile found its way right into the ass’s well ass. For a second, the world froze: all of us around the hole in the ground, the donkey, and by-passers. Then the world exploded in laughter while the donkey danced about, looking back at its rump. The unwanted gift dislodged and with a snort the animal wandered off.
That story was repeated daily, and may still be since Madou went on to start his own well repair business.
The hardest part of the work was discovering that I truly fear tight, dark, deep, hot places. My first time into a well deeper than 15 meters required intense concentration, keeping my eyes on the dirt in front of me and repeating my girlfriend’s name. I crawled out twice before finding the wherewithal to descend all the way. I was also driven by fear of humiliation: if Malians do this, I can. Only afterwards was I told that the locals avoid wells at all costs. You can fall. There may be venomous snakes. Heavy gases displace oxygen. You can die. Only the crazy and desperate go in. It was then that I realized half of bravery is ignorance.
I also worked on a maternity repair project with my then girlfriend, Kris Holloway (author of Monique and the Mango Rains), and now wife. That was a wonderfully fulfilling project, involving the whole village, donations from home, and USAID funds.
When you finished your tour, what did you decide to do next . . . go to school? Start your career?
I had worked for several years between university and Peace Corps as a graphic designer. My mother’s side of the family is artistically inclined. My grandfather had me working with wood at a young age, and my great-aunt Betsy is married to Andrew Wyeth, giving me an intimate and unique exposure to art.
After Peace Corps I considered public health because of how much I had enjoyed my work in Mali. I became a state certified HIV/AIDS counselor, working nights for two years at a local clinic. I took my GREs in preparation for a master’s degree, but in the end I returned to communications, working as a senior designer for a marketing firm and a national magazine.
I love creative problem solving, and don’t thrive in bureaucracies. That is what I loved best about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sure, I had to jump through hoops to get in, but once in the field I was on my own. My foray into public health didn’t seem to allow for that.
I started my own firm, Bidwell ID, in 1999, which is now at five employees and works with clients nationwide, many of them being cause-driven organizations: Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, World Learning, the National Yiddish Book Center, hospitals, and colleges. My firm’s emphasis is on branding.
Okay, what’s branding?
Branding is the process of consciously creating in others’ minds an authentic and relevant image of your identity. Everybody and every organization has a default brand. It is your character, and how that character comes across to others. Thus, the question is never whether you need a brand, because you have one. The question is how you foster the part of your character that works best for you, that communicates what your mission and values are.
Good branding is not just a logo. It requires knowing thyself, and finding communications that capture the best you have to offer, and using them in consistent innovative ways.
That’s what I love about this work. It is authentic and gets to the heart of an organization, and can have a profound and positive effect.
Give us an example of what you do to brand an organization.
We worked to rebrand the Greater Lynn Mental Health and Retardation Association. Market research confirmed that the name was a liability: too long, hard to recall, and not in vogue. Their logo a flying dove didn’t help since it had religious and end of life connotations. The communications (brochures, promotions, website, etc) were ad hoc and inconsistent.
We collaborated on name development, creating the name Bridgewell, which is short, easy to remember, easy to spell, and easy to locate in the telephone book. Most importantly, it communicates the mission of the organization, to help the disabled bridge a path to optimal wellness and independence and instead of focusing on geographic or diagnostic limitations, it expresses a promise of growth and empowerment. In the new logo, we took that optimism a step further, with brush-stroke figures that are human in imperfection and exuberance, and upper and lower-case type that is friendly and accessible. To ensure that the new image communicated the requisite professionalism in all media, we established visual guidelines for the organization that included templates for the Web site, stationery, and collateral pieces.
The organization now has a consistent identity that is uplifting, easy to identify with, and rally behind. Its positive impact has been felt in many aspects of the organization, from recruitment to outreach to development.
How did you get into the branding business?
I have always been interested in symbolism and meaning, especially since my religious studies. My senior thesis was on why we portray Jesus the way we do. It’s not like we have photos, or even a single reliable portrait. So, why does Jesus look like Jesus? What does that mean? Why does Jesus sometimes look different? I believe that symbols visual and words are packed with more than we realize, so it helps to have a better understanding of these symbols and how they relate to your organization. I like digging into the heart of an organization, the place of meaning, and creating the tools to communicate that passion. On a symbolic level, branding is a lot like well work. You need to dig down to find your wellspring, and create a safe and efficient way to bring that life force into the light.
I also want our work to be a real asset for organizations, and that means transcending mere aesthetics. Communications must be well organized and relevant to the client and project, or it is just a waste. Pretty, but a waste nonetheless.
Mostly, branding requires collaboration. This is a value I learned in Peace Corps. I may be the outside expert, but a project’s success requires that I partner with the client (or village), and not impose my solutions. Avoid the white elephant at all costs.
How would you go about branding a Peace Corps writer?
Branding asks that the writer differentiate himself and present himself in a clear and consistent way. Many RPCV writers focus on similar themes, such as “They helped me more than I helped them” and personal growth. While these themes may be personally significant, they are not unique. Most writers want to assume that good writing is all you need to do. I don’t believe that. Assuming you are a good writer and you are interested in public recognition, you need to be uniquely purposeful. What is the purpose of your writing? To borrow from the branding world, what are your vision, mission, and values? And how do you convey those in a new way?
This became apparent to me when my wife Kris and I were working on Monique and the Mango Rains. Fortunately, Kris was not interested in simply retelling her Peace Corps experience, which helped brand the book in a unique way. The goal was then to keep the story on track:
- Focus on the cross-cultural friendship. Every scene needed to support that. The Peace Corps volunteer and her growth was important, but it was not the primary focus.
- Tell the story. This was not merely a string of isolated incidents. We studied fiction to get a better understanding of building narrative flow.
These two things are not ground breaking on their own, but they are pretty different for a Peace Corps book.
Having an honest, differentiated book was the first step. Next, we looked at audience, asking ourselves who would be most interested in the book. Thus, finding readings at schools made sense, especially in women’s studies or public health.
[An aside about the author’s participation in promotion: As an author, if you want your book to be successful, you must get out and promote it. Nobody is going to do it for you. Kris deserves so much credit for taking her role as promoter seriously. She constantly works to improve her presentations, which are frankly fantastic. She pays close attention to her audiences, tailoring her delivery to make sure the connection between her story and her audience is clear. It is not the job of your audience to form the connection. It is up to you. I know that sounds preachy, but it is very important.]
Key to all this is networking. Figuring out your brand is good, but will not open doors. It does, though, help you know what to say once a door is opened. Opening the doors relies on spreading the word through personal connections, your website, and PR.
Like most books, we didn’t get an advance or have a huge budget. Thus, we knew that grassroots marketing would be essential. We hired Zach Marcus of Maverick Media Projects and Mary Bisbee-Beek of the University of Michigan Press to help us. Their expertise, especially with event planning, independent bookstores, and publicity, was crucial. We focused on reading book clubs. Kris made herself available to any clubs, a fact advertised on the home page of the book’s website (MoniqueMangoRains.com).
As testimony to the power of networking I must mention the Literary Ventures Fund (LiteraryVenturesFund.org), which has been indispensable. LVF believes that great literature can thrive in the marketplace, given the extra help that most publishers can’t afford. Founder Jim Bildner and Editorial Director Ande Zellman immediately showed an interest in Monique after Kris sent them a galley. In the end, the book has to carry its own, but LVF’s contacts and funding have given us opportunities we would not otherwise have.
Lastly, the brand focus needed to be carried though the promotional writing and imagery of the book. Wording and messages focused not on Kris, but on Monique and her friendship with Kris. The title of the book was a struggle, taking years to emerge. It had to speak to the individual (Monique), imply the foreign (mangos), and pique one’s interest (what the heck is a mango rain?).
The design of the book was critical. We asked Waveland Press if Bidwell ID could design the book (layout, typography, images). They said yes. Readers love the cover of the book, which shows a large photo of Monique (not Kris, not a village scene, not even Kris with Monique). It intentionally draws you in. I tested the look against other book covers at bookstores to make sure it jumped out. My company also gave a lot of thought to the page design, making sure the font was not too small and incorporating icons drawn by Monique’s uncle. It is all appealing and attention getting, but also speaks to the heart of the story. I’ve been careful to use that exact image over and over, in ads and flyers and posters to build familiarity.
All this is to say that good writing is only the beginning if you hope to have critical success, much less a chance at financial success. Writers must concentrate on branding their work. Don’t work in a vacuum. Remember to work collaboratively. Strong positioning not only sells your work to readers, but also to people who can greatly help you. It requires digging down to find your core message your wellspring and refining that message to be simple and clear. That is what people are going to remember.
I grew up in the age of Marshall McLuhan and The Mechanical Bride, among his other books. How would your relate your world of “branding” and the use of Internet and electronic information to what McLuhan was writing about back in the ’60s?
I think that McLuhan predicted branding, though he didn’t coin the term. According to McLuhan, mass communication homogenizes experiences, thus promoting specialization. Branding is the consistent presentation of a unique position, or specialization. So according to McLuhan branding was inevitable, but I note some mitigating factors.
Television introduced a wider number of people to similar experiences, like the Super Bowl. So, you could say that this diminishes individualism. But now the Internet allows people to experience a wide range of sports, which, it could be argued, diminishes homogenization. After all, McLuhan instructed us to be aware of technology’s moral implications. Technology is not passive. It is not simply a vehicle of getting information from point A to point B. It touches points A and B. The implications of TV may have been to homogenize, but can we say the same of the Internet? Is not technology including the Web, cell phones, and video games more interactive than the technology of a generation ago? Does it not demand a more conscious participation, and promote individualism by default?
I don’t fear a homogenized world, because I think that individualization can be overrated. Speaking of Canadians, I love Margaret Atwood’s poem Siren Song, which shows how we are all susceptible to the irresistible song that says we are unique.
I think there is much to be gained from seeing we are more similar than we are bred to think. It requires great creativity to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Now that is a powerful conscious exercise.
A discussion of McLuhan vis-à-vis branding is fodder for a book consider his cautionary concept of the “global village” and certainly more than I can cover here.
Is it now possible for all of us to have Andy Warhol’s famous 15 minutes of fame?
Wow, another book topic! I think that specialization offers the greatest chance we’ve ever had for 15 minutes of fame, but in a more limited sense than I think Warhol intended. Branding yourself within a specialized market improves your chances of fame . . . within that specialized community.
Big-time fame the kind that Warhol is talking about is a different matter. Your chances may be better due to more communications in general, but then the idea of fame reorients itself. 15 hours of fame is the new 15 minutes, because 15 minutes isn’t worth anything. Big-time fame will remain as elusive as always.
Since most RPCVs don’t have the money to hire someone like you, what basic things should they do to promote their book?
- Differentiate your book. Figure out what makes it unique, and promote that in a consistent and concise way. This will make it easier for you to talk about it, easier of others to remember it.
- Make it newsworthy so that it is more likely to get picked up as a news piece (free) rather than you marketing it (costly). This means linking in with one or more of the following: timeliness, trends, controversy, strong opinions, fresh angles, and/or proven expertise.
- Ask for lots of help and opinions all the time. Toss out the random subjective opinions, but pay attention to repeated comment. Be prepared to “kill your baby,” and toss out a lot of work. Don’t be a prima donna.
- Marry somebody like me. It worked for my wife Kris.
Would you be available (for hire) to help an RPCV writer branding their book?
Sure, I’m always free to chat on the phone, though most writers find it more affordable to simply follow good advice on their own.
What Peace Corps books have you read and liked [or disliked!]?
These are just a few that stand out:
The Village of Waiting by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Good, but I found it somewhat negative. George had a different experience than I did in West Africa.
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 196567)
Old school classic.
Fishing in the Sky: The Education of Namory Keita by Donald Lawder (Mali 198385) It’s about Mali and I knew Donald.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
New school classic.
Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Mali 198991)
Hey, I’m biased, but I’m not alone in my accolades.
The Peace Corps agency is continually reinventing itself. For a long while they used the line “toughest job you’ll ever love,” more recently they talked about “not your father’s Peace Corps” (which seemed to be a veiled dig at early Volunteers). Now they are pushing for retirees to volunteer. Looking at their website and promotional materials, what do you think they are doing right, or wrong to sell themselves to this generation of new Volunteers?
The Peace Corps might be continually reinventing itself internally, but that is not visible to outsiders. In fact, most people know too little about Peace Corps. I run into people who are surprised Peace Corps still exists. That’s a shame since I believe the Peace Corps is a miracle. There is not a single government agency that does so much with so little.
In terms of messaging, I prefer when the Peace Corps presents itself as a challenge because it is true but it is a challenge with unparalleled rewards. That is why “The toughest job you’ll ever love” works so well. It is also why I like the new “Life is Calling. How far will you go?” campaign. There have been messaging flops, such as the unoriginal and ambiguous “Not your father’s Peace Corp” campaign, but that seems the exception.
More and more, the Peace Corps must consider competition. The Peace Corps’ biggest advantage, though, is that it is the original. The fact that a lot of competition bills itself as the “Peace Corps alternative” underscores Peace Corps strong position.
Most of their messaging is successful because there is so much to work with: they are first in their field, they offer an incredible growth experience, they help others, and they polish our country’s reputation.
Again, it is increasing awareness of Peace Corps that is most important. Peace Corps has no shortage of interesting stories; they just have to get them circulating. I want to see more of a Peace Corps presence on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and in blogs. I want to see bigger events at schools. I don’t just mean events geared towards students, but taking advantage of programs geared towards alums, such as the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth (ILIAD). Peace Corps needs advertising to remind people they are still around, but it is the personal stories that will bring in candidates.
The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Thomas Dunne Books
$23.95 (hardback); $13.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 1967-69)
AT FIRST BLUSH, golf doesn’t appear to be a nuanced sport; in fact, walking after a small white ball surrounded by acres of grass and trees, swinging at it with a club wood or iron and counting the stokes needed to get from tee to green, seems fairly straightforward. Even a bit tedious.
But wait. The magic of John Coyne’s work of fiction, The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, is that it reveals the game to be not only subtle, but wonderfully challenging and not one you can muscle your way through. His compelling story is about a young 14-year-old caddie, Jack Handley, who works at a country club just outside of Chicago, and is a well-versed student of the game. For Jack, life is golf and golf is life. The year is 1946, a time when the Chicago Open soon will be played on the links where Jack caddies.
By chance, one late afternoon, Jack spots Ben Hogan and his wife arriving at the club Hogan wanting to play a round and get a feel for the course. Jack volunteers to carry his bag. And so begins a marvelous story about a boy who has just lost his father in World War II, and this iconic figure who was already a legend when they met.
But what is remarkable about this novel is how Coyne manages to balance the development of interesting characters and long, descriptive passages about the game. One of the most challenging aspects of writing is to write well about a sport, bringing to life the endlessly intricate aspects of the game. No matter whether the reader has even a glimmer of how the game works, Coyne’s superbly parsed language and his intimate knowledge of the game carry the narrative forward at a pace that allows reflection while generating genuine excitement. He even interjects into the plot a nice love story between the assistant pro at the club, Matt, and the daughter of the club president. Socially, they are miles apart, she upper crust, Matt from far more humble roots. How this is all sorted out as the club anticipates the arrival of professional golfers from all over the country adds a nice tension to what is already a fine read.
You don’t have to love the game of golf to thoroughly enjoy reading The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan. In fact, if golf is a game on the periphery of your vision, all to the good, for then this book will be a revelation. And how better to enjoy a novel than to have your perspective shifted, and a new and interesting world revealed.
Clearly, this is not a game of simply swinging away at a small, pitted, white ball as you walk across beautifully manicured acreage. It’s far more interesting and complex. Endlessly so. No lie is ever the same, no day like the one before.
Of course, as Hogan eventually points out to Jack, golf is a metaphor for life. But then what great sport isn’t? All of the structure is there in golf: you play the ball as you find it; sometimes it means hitting out of the rough; those who persevere will prevail; never yield; practice, practice, practice; and on and on. It’s wonderful what can happen to individuals on the field of play, no matter the size or shape of the ball.
If you have never come across a Coyne book, then this novel will be a wonderful introduction. He is the author of some 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, and lives in Pelham Manor, New York, with his wife and son.
Chris Honore’ (Colombia 196769) works as a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon.
by Tom Tatum (Fiji 196871)
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 197678)
I ALMOST THREW away Tom Tatum’s exuberantly trashy Peace Corps novel Fiji 1970 after page 11. I’d just read this paragraph where Tatum’s protagonist Cooper drops in for a “checkup” by randy PC staffer Nurse Williams:
“She rubbed the cold stethoscope back and forth against my nipples until I was aroused . . . my hardening dick was up in the air. She climbed onto the table with knees against the side of my chest. Her white full nurse’s skirt made a tent. Her hand-free entry . . . ” leads, as a reader might expect, to energetic, kegel-induced mutual joy.
Okay. I was in the Peace Corps in the Seventies myself. Like Tatum, I was even in the libido-exaggerating South Pacific. And my own novel includes many scenes of Peace Corps hijinks. But puh-leeze, I found myself muttering, does it have to sound like Hustler?
Then I ran across a New York Times column in which writer Joe Queenan calls out people “who make a fetish out of quality.” Oh no, I groaned, I’m guilty.
“Such prissy attitudes are neurotic and self-defeating,” he chastises. “Bad books are an essential part of life.”
He adds, “As with bad movies, a book that is merely bad but not exquisitely bad is a waste of time, while a genuinely terrible book is a sheer delight.” So, I picked up Tatum’s book and gave it another go.
Before I declare Tatum’s novel a sheer delight, I should say that he’s working with an interesting story: a renegade, if idealistic, Volunteer trying to save the island potato crop from an attempted economic coup finds three of his friends murdered. In keeping with Tatum’s lurid tastes, the corpses’ pubic hair has been burned off.
In trying to solve the murders, Cooper beds many women (lots more aroused nipples and sulus sliding up to reveal dark triangles). The women are lustily aggressive, trained in Kundalini and Tantric yoga. One even seduces him with the “spinner,” that swinging basket maneuver of porn movie fame. There are Land Rover chases and a killer hurricane. He daringly rescues two injured kids, rides a giant wave, trains as a firewalker and, with the help of a witch doctor, a powerful potion and the mysterious Woman of Fire, who has many tiny gold rings pierced onto her yoni, he finally psychedelically visits the Land of the Dead Chiefs.
While in that hallucinatory state, he not only realizes who killed his friends but also who offed JFK. (Spoiler alert: it was Sam Rayburn, Allen Dulles and Earl Warren).
If this novel, self-published through XLibris, were better written, it surely could qualify as a classic, sulu-ripping page-turner. Parts of it are, Queenan-style, great fun. But Tatum badly needed an editor, to clean out annoying ticks that easily could have been resolved.
He continually front-loads adjectives before nouns (“my droopy, dusty, sweat-stained white cotton short sleeved shirt,” “the black, brittle, ancient plastic British phone,” “the thin-walled, village handmade fired red clay pot”) that made me want to scream.
And his similes are often long and laughable: Nurse Williams, he writes, “would strike terror simultaneously like Jeb Stuart’s cavalry did when they started their now-famous rebel yells at the Battle of Bull Run.” Or, “the tropical sky was blue accented with white, blustery clouds that passed through like bands of Plains Indians chasing a buffalo herd that had thundered through the day before trampling the high plans wheat grass.” Whew.
In short, Tatum has a rip-snorting story to tell, but apparently needed help in telling it. And I was left feeling philosophical about Peace Corps novels. Our burgeoning literary genre must be coming of age: we’re finally cranking out trashy novels about our experiences just like all the other kids.
Jan Worth-Nelson’s 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind is set in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. One of her bosses, a former chancellor, once said her novel was “close to porn.” She teaches writing at the University of Michigan Flint.
Head, Heart, and Body in West African Development Work
by Laurie L. Charlés (Togo 199901)
Left Coast Press
$52.00; tradepaper $23.96
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 197678)
IN HER FRANK AND UNFLINCHING new memoir, Laurie Charlés writes that, having read a number of Peace Corps narratives, “what struck me most about them was the tendency of the authors to paint rosy pictures about their lives.” She adds, “most of them did not seem to fit the experience I was having, nor that of my volunteer friends.”
Her earthy narrative may help bridge that gap. Intimate Colonialism: Head, Heart and Body in West African Development Work explores Charlés’s plunge into village life in Togo at the turn of the century. The experiences she details are strikingly recognizable to me, and I suspect will be to other returned Volunteers, especially women, regardless of their host country or era of service.
There’s the initial, naïve “gee whiz” about a Third World culture, then the acute physical discomfort, the embarrassing social gaffes. Then the tough transition as reality sets in, along with sleeplessness and diarrhea, the moments of exhilaration as things start to make sense, and then the struggle to face hard truths about herself and about what she can actually do for her village.
Charlés, a Texas native, came to Peace Corps with more life experience than the average newbie: she was 35, single and sexually experienced, and had just completed a Ph.D. in family therapy. But that didn’t protect her from the turmoils of isolation and dislocation.
Now a professor, Charlés identifies her book as “auto ethnography”; it is the second in a series of “ethnographic narratives” from her small, California-based publisher. While her academic training is evident throughout, even when the experiences she describes are messy and her personal vulnerability wince inducing, the book is never dry or pedantic.
It describes her painful secret affair with a married Togolese man, her confrontation with sexual harassment by a village priest, her alliance with a smart and wise shopkeeper, her development of a program to inform and empower young girls, her run-in with parasites, her love of dancing, her reliance on drinking and Valium, and her discovery of her body smells. She even celebrates that watershed Volunteer achievement, solid bowel movements, when they miraculously return.
What most distinguishes Charlés’s memoir is its 25-page last chapter, “Constructing an Intimate Text” in which, drawing from her academic training, she closely describes deliberating over how to tell her story. In this conscious and conscientious chapter, Charlés offers an invaluable role model to other Peace Corps memoirists. And it is this chapter that most clearly earns Charlés’s book a place in the Peace Corps canon.
“I wanted the complexity of the stories to elicit a cacophony of reactions,” she writes. “To me, this is the very nature of the Peace Corps experience it’s entirely unique, individual, and surprising in the effect it has on the volunteer.”
She describes her decisions about changing characters’ names, leaving out identifying photos (the book has none, except a murky cover shot) and consulting with a valued Togolese colleague throughout her process. She wrestles with the potential effect of her story on all those involved. She considers her accountability to the reader.
Further, in a section titled “Bringing Heart and Body Out of the Closet,” she notes, “I . . . out myself as a certain type of researcher she who appreciates lived experience as a worthy academic endeavor, values personal vulnerability over self-certainty in scholarly writing, and strives for qualitative rigor alongside but not at the expense of qualitative imagination. That’s my broad daylight.”
The tendency of some Peace Corps writers that pops up from time to time to sugarcoat the Peace Corps experience is irritating, to say the least, and neglects and trivializes the wrenching personal and spiritual transformations many of us experienced. In Intimate Colonialism, the reader who wants more meaningful and authentic reflection on our powerful overseas years may find welcome daylight.
Jan Worth-Nelson’s recent novel Night Blind also focuses on the life of a sexually experienced single woman in Peace Corps. Thought Worth-Nelson’s story is set more than 20 years before Laurie Charlés’ service, she is struck by the similarities of their concerns. Night Blind was a top-ten finalist in literary fiction in the 2006 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards, She teaches writing at the University of Michigan Flint.
Only the Eyes are Mine
by Usha Alexander (Vanuatu 1996-97)
Reviewed by Monique Maria Schmidt (Benin 19982000)
ONLY THE EYES ARE MINE by Usha Alexander introduces us to two generations of Indians living both in India and America. Her main character, Sita, straddles numerous stories as well as the two continents. Alexander’s lush writing envelopes the reader in the dusky, earthen tension which underlies Sita’s story in India and also wraps the reader into the somewhat “sanitized” toils of Sita’s offspring in America. Alexander provides the reader diverse settings with similar catastrophes.
Only the Eyes are Mine, a book of secrets, gives away the secret of its title early as Sita reflects that her image in the mirror displays her old age masking all of her beauty except that which remains in her eyes. Eyes are of importance for more than Sita. Meera, her granddaughter also understands the pull of eyes as she struggles to decide whether or not to marry the “perfect” Indian suitor, “Meera’s heart missed a beat. She caught her breath and looked steadily into the empty, crystalline depths of the impressive diamond, because she could not look into his eyes. She opened her mouth and heard her mother’s voice answer, ‘Yes’.”
Sita’s personal revelation in the mirror happens early, but the secret of Meera’s heart and the secrets of Sita’s past life do not reveal themselves as quickly. It takes nearly three-fourths of the book for the reader to learn of the unthinkable, hidden life of Sita, the grandma, including her travesty against her daughter and her multiple lovers. In the beginning of the book, Alexander deftly presents Sita as a wise, angelic old woman. Therefore, the reader becomes shocked upon learning of the mayhem under which she flourished on a different continent.
However, Alexander does not portray Sita’s catastrophes as happenstance. With intricate language she crafts Sita’s world of strife, “Many months passed thus, worldless attachments and silent tensions gathering and mingling in the air, rising up against the corrugated roof, settling heavily onto the skin and tongues of those who lived beneath it.”
With her intriguing characters, Alexander tackles many complex subjects, weaving a story which on one level wrestles with the question of what is “Indian”: “It so shocked and horrified them, he surmised, because it upset the appearance of their stable and successful family. Indians supposedly figured out three thousand years ago that life is illusion, he mused, and yet they are so completely hung up on appearances today. They only care about projecting the image that all is well, when they aren’t really even paying attention to what’s going on within.”
On another level, Alexander succinctly writes characters dueling with acceptance of change, “It occurred to Ravi that perhaps the reason his aunt and father liked Rajan so much was precisely because he had no passion, much like themselves. None of them seemed to have much of an inner life, an appreciation for art, an understanding of joy, anger, grief, or any kind of searching. This was starkly in contrast to himself and Meera.”
Throughout, Alexander employs beautiful language to describe the cacophony: “She spoke of how Sita must be more grown up, must attend to what was asked of her, must put her energies back into looking after her family. Sita stared blankly on the textures of the stone floor impinged on her, falling with the force of monsoon showers, shattering against her skin and, very slowly, soaking in.
“In Only the Eyes are Mine, Alexander crafts a book of contrasts. Once Sita leaves behind her lust and cravings in India, she becomes seen as demure and somewhat silent. However, as her grandchildren struggle to meld traditional Indian culture with current American life, they run into her same complications: incorporating the twists of relationships and duty, the struggle to avoid marriages without love but with appropriateness. With attention to detail and writing grounded in sensations, Alexander leads the reader on a completely surprising journey, one which satisfies and fulfills.
Monique Maria Schmidt, author of Last Moon Dancing [Clover Park Press, 2005] has her MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University and teaches poetry and composition. In September, she will travel on a Fulbright scholarship to live and work in Togo, West Africa. During her year there she will conduct creative writing workshops for adolescent girls and teach at the university.
A Writer Writes
by Joseph Monninger
(Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] 1975-77)
I AM FIFTY THREE years old. It is December in northern New Hampshire, not a cold one, but outside the day settled dark and quiet and largely unnoticed. Earlier I built a wood fire in our stove and now I can hear the logs and flames ticking occasionally, the warmth spills into the air. My son and his friend are downstairs watching a movie and my wife, Wendy, has gone to Massachusetts to see her sister. Tomorrow my son and I will join her in a family celebration, all of us convening around the 80th birthday of an uncle. And though I know I will wake tomorrow and go about my regular obligations, tonight I am haunted by memories, memories of a time before my son and wife, before this house and land, before my career, such as it is, had grown firm and bounded by obligation. I am haunted a dramatic word, but fair nonetheless by the young man who returned from two years in Africa and landed in Paris, at twenty-two years old, in hopeless love with literature.
I CANNOT PRETEND to know everything about that young man. He was thin, I know. He had lost weight, a great deal, in Africa. His eyes, my eyes, in the few photos I have of that period stare at the camera with something like hunger or mistrust. A picture exists, though I am not sure where it is any longer, of my young self smoking a cigarette in a former slave castle in Dix Cove, Ghana. The young man in that picture looks thin to the point of worry, his eyes hollow and nervous. I know, at a glance, that the young man had lived a life of peculiar isolation in the African bush, had gone into a dangerous intimacy with himself, had emerged to find himself among friends and drink and food on a beach in Ghana. And on that beach a friend had drowned. An accident. He had been caught by a riptide, dragged out to sea, washed up, three or four days later with his eyebrows plucked by small fish, his body a white glimmer in the rolling waves as it returned to shore. The photograph if memory serves came later, after the parents had been notified, after the officials had been reassured, the body taken for cleaning. Someone had taken my picture as I smoked a cigarette. I wore a gray sweatshirt and had a rawhide band around my wrist. 1976, maybe. I was a year away from Paris then, but I didn’t know it.
I SPOKE FRENCH in Paris. I fell in love with the Jardin du Luxembourg. I brought my coffee each morning to drink beneath the statue of Pan. Why Pan? What was this juvenile attachment I felt to Pan? Did I believe myself freer, more natural, in some sense, than those around me? It is embarrassing to confess it, but Pan symbolized the ineluctable urge I felt in every molecule. Embrace, devour, live, fuck, eat, taste, write. Yes, of course, writing was the great secret urge, the greatest, and Pan, I felt, understood what I would become. The bravado, the sheer cock-sure-edness, the sense that I must be someone or die how did that boy become this man I am today?
I ARRIVE IN Paris by train, eight hundred dollars in my pocket. My return ticket to the United States remained open ended. I could return when I liked. It is possible I have been freer in my life, but I can’t remember when. I had been gone for two solid years, leaving immediately after college to travel to West Africa in the Peace Corps. I had endured a lonely posting. I lived in a shack by lantern light, lizards on the wall, snakes now and then in the latrine. I had malaria five or six times. Each malarial event approached the same way: a tremor in my spine just below the base of my skull. I immediately loaded myself with anti-malarial medicine, then went to bed and woke a day, two days, three days later, my bed soiled, my thirst enormous, the mosquito net tucked around my mattress sagging with vomit. Twice during these events I woke at night, my bed outside, and I returned to life as if from heaven, soaring down through the stars and light until I gained the sense of crawling back behind my eyes.
A GRIS-GRIS MAN tried to kill me in Africa. Tried to fish my soul. That was behind me when I arrived in Paris.
THE TRAIN TO PARIS traveled from Barcelona where I left Gail. I had traveled with her through Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco. In Mauritania half track trucks from the Spanish Sahara rode across the desert and shelled the capital, Nouakchott, shortly after Gail and I arrived. A land dispute. Algeria had something to do with it. Gail and I slept in doorways, hoping the reinforced mud around the doorway arches would provide shelter and protection. She knew someone who worked for the U.S. government. We met him. He had the government send over his elaborate model train set. He set it up throughout the bottom floor of a building. In the heat of the afternoon he sent the B&O, the Rock Island Line, nonsensical Lionel trains careening around the large tile floor, and at night the trucks came again and launched feeble missiles at the city, the arc of their explosions like eyebrows of light on the gray desert night.
WHAT HOPES AND DREAMS I had, what passion I had for books, what feeling I had for life and the sense of what it could be, are a distant memory. But for three weeks in Paris, when I was twenty-two years old, I lived in a state of rapture. At some point in Africa I had learned to read. I remember books as a scalding experience. Nights I spent leaning toward a kerosene lamp, the print dull and quiet, the entrance to a second world, the world of Joyce, Eliot, Dickens, Turgenev, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, like so many doors. In the darkest nights, where no light interrupted, where the dry season coated us with dust and heat day after day, I lay at night in a bed outside, stars hanging above, the sagging mosquito net tucked in around my mattress, the moon sliding always westward, the books’ pages leaving the taste of old basements on my fingers. Stories. Events. Chapters. Coupled with the narratives of so many novels, the leaked rumors about Peace Corps Volunteers reached me when officials passed on their way to other posts. A young man had gone bien cuis, well cooked, and had taken off his western clothes in an attempt to become a Tuareg. He escaped to Lake Chad, where the Peace Corps officials found him living beside a band of horsemen, a severed horse tail in his dirty hands as a riding crop, the famous canonical Tuareg hat on his head held on by a knotted string under his chin; a Volunteer who had gone to sleep only to have a cobra creep up and curl in the sagging mosquito net above him, a pouch of netting, the snake, like an ancient dragon, stuttering to life each time the Volunteer tried to move beneath him. The volunteer lay for two days in quiet before the snake left of its own accord, slithering out a window like the visitation of a demon. Books in this. Pages, stories, tastes. A Volunteer who had posed for a picture on the back of the sacred crocodiles of Sabu. The crocodiles came to shore when the local boys beat fledgling chickens on the water. The crocodiles, said to be spirits of the dead, oozed onto the a muddy bank, and there my friend, Don, posed while sitting on the animal’s back, his white legs peculiar next to the black brackets of the croc’s forelimbs, the croc’s teeth snaggled and protruding, a yellow chicken feather cinched into one lip.
I BOOKED A ROOM in the Hotel Trianon. The room had a wide, comfortable bed, and it opened to a small balcony, where I sat in the afternoons and looked down on the street. During the days, I walked. I walked to museums, the Jeu de Pomme, the Louvre, and sat in the shade of the great trees of Tuilierres to watch the men play boule, walked to feel my legs move, walked to feel the cobblestones, walked to be in motion among western people, to hear pleasant sounds, to see dark window panes reflect the evening sun. I had lived close to the equator, where the days had passed like split melons, twelve hours of light, twelve of darkness, but now, in Paris in the summer, at a latitude as northern as Detroit, the sun resisted pause. I walked until late evening, nine and ten o’clock, then I took a meal near the Sourbone, drinking large flasks of Stella Artois, finishing with a coffee, smoking delicious cigarettes, my tongue coated with smoke and food and café au lait, while around me people passed and went on with their lives, and I enjoyed my distance, my motion, and my reading.
At night, fatigued, I read in my bed. Electric light now instead of lantern light. I rested in bed, the pillows lumped behind me, the white lace curtain covering the balcony puffing out and sucking in to evening breezes, and rain storms. I smoked in bed, one cigarette after another, the book and smoke and tastes inseparable. Naturally I read Hemingway; I could not resist. Hemingway, of course, possessed my secret dream. I read A Moveable Feast, savoring the pages not merely for the prose, but because he was the prow of a ship breaking the same waves I wished to break. A writer, a man. A person open to the world, but contained in his prose, a man of some strange honor code, a small town boy who had gone to war and stayed in Europe. A friend of Fitzgerald’s; an admirer of Ring Lardner; a disciple of Max Perkins; a violent man, an egomaniacal man. But I inhaled the romance, the sense of his young wife, of Bumpy, his boy, of the perambulator he walked to the Jardin de Luxemborg, where he strangled pigeons and stuffed them under his baby’s blanket, where he returned home at night and wrote his Michigan stories.
It’s embarrassing, I suppose, to admit such love of Hemingway. But how could a young man, a man with hollow eyes, who had lived in a hut in the searing heat of West Africa, seek a more likely literary model? Of course, I was not alone. One day I ran into an American outside of the United State Embassy and we realized we were both Americans and both spoke French, and both felt alive and happy and self-satisfied that we had made it to Paris, that we were young, that we understood something many of our countrymen did not and we sat and talked about literature. We both wanted to write; I am not sure we said as much, but it was obvious. Eventually, as if we had been hiding it, we turned the conversation to Hemingway. The Hemingway shadow. The light and darkness he spread over young writers, young livers, the wine, the drink, the push to real sensation. What was that young man’s name? And what did I project to him? And how can I not admire, at least to some degree, my young self yearning so desperately for meaning and sensation and life?
MY FATHER WAS alive then. He worked as a Vice President of a shipping line. We lived in New Jersey, in a suburb of New York, and we inhabited a middle class home. My father had graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and therefore understood a portion of my restlessness. I called him after a few days in Paris. We had communicated through letters for two years, and so his voice, when it reached me, seemed foreign and infinitely familiar. I spoke to him and heard him smoking in our old kitchen, the refrigerator not far from him, the back door open, the blotted stain under the table where the family beagle had lived and died surrounding his feet. He lived in his own isolation, I felt. My mother had died; my sisters and brothers had started their own lives, while he continued working, continued taking the cocktail lunches, the sleepy ride home on the old Central New Jersey Line, the rosary call of town names, Newark, Cranford, Westfield. Who was this son calling him from Paris? Did he yearn to see me, or was he merely relieved to have me out of Africa alive, living in western culture again, his responsibility to me met and answered by my continued health? We talked. Details, planes, schedules. I had been gone a long time, he reminded me. My brothers and sister wanted to gather when I returned home. Did I have a date?
I gave one, setting a limit to my time in Paris, gauging my freedom with the money in my pocket. He agreed, thought my plan sound, then hung up with a swirl of ice cubes. His evening bullshot, vodka and beef bullion, in hand. The warm New Jersey night, moths on the screens, grass ticking higher in the moonlight.
I READ Tender Is the Night in one bout, my knees pulled up under three pillows, my back flat on the mattress, the book suspended above me like a spider, like a paper-winged bat dodging and swooping to my fatigue, the pages glowing and extending from my hand. I smelled the Minnesota woods in Fitzgerald’s prose, the greasy pretense toward sophistication, the spoiled jolt of Zelda. Swimming in fountains, Champaign cocktails, white ties, white jackets, roadsters, jazz. What possible connection did I have with all that, a tired, exhausted young man escaping the burning heat of Africa? I should have read Paul Bowles, or even the woman revered by Hemingway, Baroness Blixen, her Out of Africa a book waiting for me though I didn’t know it at the time.
I finished the book at noon and left my room unshaven, empty, and devoured three crepes near the Jardin, carried them inside beside Pan, the soft flesh of the crepe giving way to the warm cheese. Like eating a vein. Then I walked to Notre Dame and spent the afternoon staring at the gargoyles on the façade, watching the tourists arrive and ohhhh and ahhhhhh, feeling superior to them, these bovine Americans, these pale English, the gray fart of Gauliois in my nostrils. Afterward, of course, the book stalls along the Seine, the ruddy spines of leather bound volumes, the knowing glance of seeing books I recognized as mine, my special comrades, waiting like tired cluster flies on the shoddy tables. Summer evenings and the river scent, the rotted flakes of a city dragged away by old water. Now and then a beautiful woman walked by and I wanted to run my hands under her skirt, raise it and put my head against her thighs, to kneel and feel the warmth of her lower belly on my cheek, then let her go, or pay her to come to my room in the Trianon, to lay beside me, stroking my back and legs, letting me read but staying beside me, smoking my cigarette in her own red mouth, her hand cupping my penis like a cod piece.
Afterward, because I needed it, I read Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, and I took its Americanism, its rude clatter crap, as an antidote, as a slice of Iowa soil, as the woolen sweat under my baseball uniform when I played summer American Legion games at Tamaques Park, New Jersey. The red soil of a baseball diamond, the sublime idiocy of sports, the glimmer on thigh and root when the wool uniform pants, bloused and tucked at the knee, trapped the heat of the summer afternoon against my legs. Reading as a cocktail. Reading as a source of mood and time and change. Freedom in books, freedom to pick up anything, to toss it aside, to read all night and day and live between the pages of a volume.
You Know Me Al, prompted me to travel to Longchamps, the famous racecourse, in the Bois de Bologne. I bought myself three beers before the races started. I walked near the track, making no sense of the tip sheets or handicap pages, though I had accompanied my father to Monmouth Race Track in New Jersey often enough to know the protocols. Monmouth had been a white oval, a beautiful old-fashioned track with soft dirt and a grandstand, and my father, with a straw bookie hat pushed back on his head, bet in clusters, trifectas, exactas, his perennial numbers 5 and 3. Longchamps, in contrast, appeared to be a meadow, a hectare or two of land stepping out of the surrounding woodland with difficulty. The course stood like a yellow light on a summer day, the stable colors vibrant and belligerent, and I bet on the 5 horse out of affection for my dad. The horses did not begin in a gate, but did a walk-up, with a team dropping a rope to start them. Allez, the loud speaker said and suddenly the horses charged like so many farm mules, the sound of their clumping hooves like a man hammering stones beneath the soil.
The 5 horse won easily. Start to finish. I drank the profit, bet more, lost and did not cash another ticket. I rode home in the early evening, the woods giving way to the city once more, Paris a cluster of lights and movement.
I WROTE in Paris. On the peculiar graph paper favored in Europe, I wrote letters and opening paragraphs to stories that went no where. Sitting in a café, or perched on a bench in the Jardin de Luxemberg, I wrote in a blocky print that I had adopted for clarity’s sake. Not a page of that writing remains, thankfully, but I recall the gladness of it, the giddy approach to the paper, the cafe table gritty with sugar, the pigeons walking by on thorny feet, the wet, muted flow of fountain water falling back on itself. I had been writing stories and sketches in Africa, typing on an old Olivetti, my pages, if left too long on a table or shelf, occasionally consumed by termites. I wrote freely. I had no sense of publication; I had never taken a writing course or, for that matter, finished in the top tier of any English class. The business of writing agents, presses, blurbs, reviews did not exist. Did not exist. I wrote to speak, to add a voice, and the pretentiousness of such an undertaking, the lack of humility on my part, still staggers me. I burned. It sounds absurd in the retelling, but I burned and pressed my pen so hard on the paper that I formed a kind of Braille, pops and points sticking through the backside of the graphed paper, my edits and deletions containing an inked fury at my incompetence, at my inability to get it right.
I wrote about rain and about Africa and about a man I met there named Ba. Ba lived in a leper colony, Lati, where I went to dig a water well. A long story. Heat and Guinea hens and village surrounded by millet stalks. An accident. In a village where appendages withered and dropped away people without cheeks, without fingers, without ears Ba possessed all his digits. He fabricated baskets, rope, plaited the girls’ hair, his dexterity his living. And in an accident at the well site, one I was responsible for, he pinched a finger free of his calloused palm, its bloody black weight dropping at me like a Roman candle spewing blood, and landed at my feet. I carried it up the rope, found Ba where he sat on a log, his hand hugged to his chest, and returned his finger to him. He gazed at it, then threw it to a nearby pig.
I LANDED AT JFK at two in the morning. The radio in the conveyance that ferried us to the terminal played Good Morning, America, How Are You? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son? I felt teary and exhausted. The custom’s agent passed me through the line quickly, but stopped me as I was about to reenter the country and asked me to lift my hat. I did. I was home.
My family surrounded me. Six siblings, my father, a few young nephews and nieces. We piled into a Buick 225 and roared down the highway, old Route 22, and took a jug handle exit that led us to my home. Humid. Mosquitoes and fire flies. I sat on the back porch, too hot inside, and my brothers and sisters asked gentle questions, while I choked down a sandwich, my heart fluttering, my wonder at being here, at home, rendering me dumb. One sister-in-law grew impatient with my faltering answers and demanded to know it was nearly dawn, for god’s sakes what it was like?
My father left me alone. I set up a desk in a back bedroom, a tiny school boy desk, and borrowed a typewriter. Manual. Over two weeks I typed out a story, A Slice of It, and read it in the mossy backyard a thousand times. Summer heat, water sprinklers, crickets asking Is it, Is it, Is it? One morning I put the story in an envelope and walked to the local post office. I remember the door being open, the hair on the postal clerk’s arms being red as ants. I handed him the envelope, paid the postage, walked out.
Joseph Monninger returned to West Africa (Mali) with U.S.A.I.D in 1978. His story, A Slice of It, won third prize in the Redbook Short Story Contest in 1978, and he was contacted by an agent as a result. He has been writing for thirty years.