Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .

An interview by John Coyne

JOSH SWILLER (Zambia 1994–96) HAS WRITTEN a wonderful new book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, published by Henry Holt. WriterPrinter friendly version Laurence Bergreen says in a blurb for the book that “Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers.”
     We know that it is tough enough to be a PCV, but how about being a deaf PCV? Josh Swiller went to Zambia, to a rural village, and spent two years digging wells and working with deaf children, and trying to understand himself and Africa, and discovering that his “deafness” actually helped him survive.
     Josh came to us in a roundabout way. While working as a housepainter in New York City, he met up with [I think on the sidewalk] Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000-02) who is editor of the website The Publishing Spot, and they started talking and comparing histories and the Peace Corps came up, writing came up, and Josh’s new book, and Jason said to him, “do you know about” So Josh emailed me. I had heard about Josh from the publicity people at Henry Holt as they are publishers of such Peace Corps writers as Maureen Orth (Colombia 1965–67), Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivoire 1998–2000) and Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968), and are quick to let us know about new RPCV writers that they are publishing. With all of that as background, here’s what Josh has to say about his new book.

Where are you from, Josh?

I was born in Philly, grew up in New York City and then moved to the Westchester suburbs. I went to college at Yale.

What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I was part of the first group to serve in Zambia, back in 1994. From an initial group of twelve, eight finished. Our assignment was water sanitation — specifically we were supposed to dig wells. But we were assigned to such remote villages that had no experience with community development and no infrastructure to get necessary materials, that none of us Volunteers actually finished a well.
     We had been sent way out to the boonies because President Chiluba of Zambia had requested that the initial Peace Corps group go to his home province. I think he had a mistaken idea of what Peace Corps was and what we could accomplish. But to be fair, so did we.
Explain what the Peace Corps has in the way of assignments for deaf PCVs. I know there is the Kenya project. I understand you were the first in your host country?
I don’t know much about the deaf PCV project, to be honest. I went to Zambia as a regular PCV, getting by with lip-reading and what little I got from my hearing aids. I did end up working a lot with a deaf children in the city of Kabwe — but for much of my time as a Volunteer I was far from any deaf community.
     In fact, much of the first half of this book is about learning about deafness through the experience of being in a place, a wild bush town, where deafness was as irrelevant as it could possibly be. I had always wondered while growing up on the margins of the hearing world, unable to follow all but the most basic conversations, what it would be like to find such a place. I imagined it would be something like happiness. But the bush had other ideas.
What do you mean but the bush had other ideas?
Well, first, I absolutely did find what I’d been seeking — that place past deafness. In the village, by nature and out of respect, people spoke slowly and clearly and repeated themselves without complaint or embarrassment. Nor did anyone automatically assume that I understood them — because of the language gap they took their time to make sure I got everything they said. And my hearing aids, the weird things hanging from my ears, were insignificant to the villagers next to the color of my skin.
     So the village was this place past I’d sought my whole life. And then almost immediately I learned how irrelevant that was, how irrelevant my self-absorbed searching was.
     First, the rainy season rolled in, bringing malaria, meningitis and cholera, and children started dropping like flies. Then, moments of explosive and brutal violence blasted away all thoughts of personal striving and quests. And on any ordinary day, a simple daily event like weighing babies on the porch of the clinic could make God seem, in the words of Denis Johnson, like “a senseless maniac.”
     What was important in the face of all that? To me, aside from trying to bring some attention to worlds that most people don’t ordinarily get to see — deafness and Africa — The Unheard is largely about answering that question.
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