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.