Peace Corps Writers May 2008
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Page One: May 2008
WE MISSED THE MARCH 2008 issue due to a medical problem I had. I’m fine now, and we are back with an issue that is full of new reviews and new books and new gossip about RPCVs who are winning awards and scholarships, and publishing with major publishers.
But first, it times to think of what books by Peace Corps writers published in 2007 impressed you the most.
Nominations are due for our awards
Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books published during 2007 and written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Do you have a favorite to nominate? Or did you write a book that you would like to have considered? Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Children’s Book
- And for the best short piece that best describes the Peace Corps experience, the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
Send in your nominations to: email@example.com
Peace Corps Writers at Colorado RPCV Reunion
Peace Corps Writers will hold two hours of panel discussions focusing on publishing your Peace Corps story, as well as writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry on the opening day of the August 2224 RPCV reunion in Ft. Collins, Colorado. For details on the conference, check out: beetstreet.org/peace-corps-register
Peace Corps writers who have self-published their books will be able to sell them at the conference. The organizers (beetstreet.org) have arranged for a book store to handle the sales of the books. Those writers interested in selling their books should contact Elizabeth Hare [firstname.lastname@example.org] for details.
In this Issue
I had a very interesting talk with Jason Boog (Guatemala 200002) about his publishing blog and the future of writing on (and off) the Web. There are 5 reviews of new books, a list of 21 books that have recently been published, two wonderful essays that remember John Kennedy and the 60s, and a half a dozen items in Literary Types . . . all within these Internet pages. Take a look.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers: May 2008
Strolling in Macau: A Visitor's Guide to Macau, Taipa, and Coloane
by Steven K. Bailey (Poland 199395); with photographs by Jill C. Witt
Things Asian Press
(Moon Handbooks; 7th edition)
by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000)
Avalon Travel Publishing
by S. A. Bodeen [Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198990)]
Feiwel and Friends
A Novella and Stories
by Peter Chilson (Niger 198587)
Houghton Mifflin Co., Mariner Original
Midnight on Mourn Street
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
The Caddie Who Played with Hickory
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Thomas Dunne Books
by Ronaldo Dizon (Afghanistan 197173)
Irish Walled Towns
by John Givens (Korea 196769)
The Liffey Press
A Guide to Dublin Bays
Mirror to the City
by John Givens (Korea 196769)
The Liffey Press
The Impenetrable Forest
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 199395)
(revised second edition)
West of Last Chance
(photos and text)
by Peter Brown and Kent Haruf (196567)
W.W. Norton & Company
Open Windows III
edited by Matthew Davis
Christopher Huh (Niger 199497), contributor
Ghost Road Press
How to Be Safe, Savvy and Secure Abroad
by Ray Leki (Nepal 1979-81; staff: 1988-90, Pakistan 1990)
Land of Smiles
by A. A. Maytree
pseudonym of Michael Schmicker (Thailand 1969-72)
Caldron of Fire
by Laren Metzer (Korea 197678)
Hanging by a Thread
Cotton, Globalization, and Poverty in Africa
edited by William G. Moseley (Mali 198789) and Leslie C. Gray
Ohio University Press
Clashing Views on African Issues
by William G. Moseley (Mali 198789)
Life and Death in the African Bush
by Mark C. Ross (Kenya 1977 ) and David Reesor
Harry N. Abrams
Two Years In Poland
And Other Stories
by Lawrence Brane Siddall (Poland 199799)
Pelham Springs Press
The Book of Sleep
by Eeanor Stanford (Cape Verde 19982000)
Carnegie Mellon Press,
Death Will Get You Sober
by Elizabeth Zelvin (Cote d'Ivoire 196466)
St. Martin's Minotaur
Literary Type: May 2008
> Two RPCVs were finalists for the 43rd annual National Magazine Awards the magazine industry’s highest honor.
Named after the Alexander Calder Stabile “Elephant,” the 2008 “Ellies” had a record-setting 1,964 entries from 333 print and online magazines. Twenty-five winners were announced at a gala event on May 1, at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Frederick P. Rose Hall.
In Public Interest category that “recognizes journalism that sheds new light on an issue of public importance and has the potential to affect national or local debate policy, George Packer (Togo 198283) was nominated for his article that appeared on March 26, 2007, “Betrayed” in The New Yorker.
In the Reporting category that “recognizes excellence in reporting the enterprise, exclusive reporting and intelligent analysis that a magazine exhibits in covering an event, a situation or a problem of contemporary interest and significance,” among the nominees was “China’s Instant Cities” written by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) published in National Geographic in June, 2007.
. . .
We’re happy to report that Peter Hessler did win for his piece on China. Well, one out of two ain’t bad!
> Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93) who wrote An American Affairs, a collection of stories that won the 2004 George Garret Fiction Prize has a new story, “The Boy Behind The Tree” in the April 2008 issue of The Sun. Mark lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches creative writing at West Virginia University. Mark is also the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala that won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1998. He is also winner of the 2001 Maria Thomas Fiction Award presented by Peace Corps Writes.
> Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198991) was a recent author-in-residence at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she gave presentations and conducted workshops.
Writing as S.A. Bodeen, Stephanie’s young adult novel The Compound has been nominated for the 2009 Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list. Kirkus in an early review writes that the novel is “suspenseful and riveting . . . and raises serious issues about what it means to survive.”
> John Evans ( Bangladesh 199901), who was a Fulbright Hays Fellow in India and a teacher in Romania, is one of five poets (and five fiction writers) awarded the prestigious Stanford Creative Writing Program’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He was selected from 1,438 applicants from the United States and 15 foreign countries. Many of John’s poems reflect his extensive travel. He has a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and an MFA in poetry from Florida International University.
The two-year fellowship program, named after novelist and Creative Writing Program founder Wallace Stegner, covers tuition and health insurance and provides each of the fellows with a $26,000-per-year stipend. This year’s crop of fellows will start at Stanford in the autumn.
> Christopher Chan Huh (Niger 1994-97) has an essay from his forthcoming memoir on his time in Niger published in an anthology Open Windows III published by Ghost Road Press, an independent literary press based in Colorado. Check out GhostRoadPress.com. This is a first class publishing press.
> Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex that is being published in June has a short short story by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Camaroon 1965-67).
And speaking of dirt (if not dirty), in July, Mary-Ann’s next novel, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery will be coming out. This is the first of a new series that she is writing with her son Jere, who is first, last, and always a Boston fan.
> West of Last Chance by Peter Brown and Kent Haruf (Turkey 196567) was recently published by W.W. Norton & Company. As Kent writes in his new collaboration with photographer Peter Brown, “You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It isn’t pretty, but it’s beautiful.”
Haruf, who has made the West his literary landscape, has not published anything (to my knowledge) about Turkey where he served as a PCV. His teaching career was spent mostly in southern Illinois where he was on the English faculty of Southern Illinois University. Today he lives in Colorado where he has set his novels in the fictional high plains town of Holt, Colorado. Kent won the 1990 RPCV Writers & Readers’ Maria Thomas Fiction Award for his novel Where You Once Belonged.
> On June 5, Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 200002; Madagascar 200203) will give a talk at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. The talk which is open to the public is from noon to 1 p.m. in the Old Office Pavillion, 1st Floor 1100 Pennsylvania Ave NW between 11th and 12th.
Tony will be talking about writing and his two novels, Whiteman and The Konkans. His new novel, The Konkans, is a love story set against the little known and real Goan (Konkan) Inquisition in India instituted by St. Francis Xavier, which lasted 252 years and burned hundreds of thousands of Hindus at the Catholic stake and is drawn from Tony’s family history. Tony’s mother was a PCV (India 196668) and met Tony’s father while serving overseas.
Talking with . . .
. . . Jason Boog
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
JASON BOOG (Guatemala 200002) joined the Peace Corps after graduating from college. Following his tour, he went to graduate school and lives now in New York City where he has contributed book reviews and essays to our site. In 2006 he won the Peace Corps Writers Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award for his essay, “The Rainy Season in Guatemala.” Besides writing for us, and working full time, he has a wonderful blog for writers that we wanted you to know about, so we interviewed Jason recently about his writing and his unique and valuable blog.
Jason, some background. Where are you from in the States?
I'm from Ionia, Michigan, a little town 30-miles outside of Lansing. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.
What got you into the Peace Corps?
Well, I joined Peace Corps as a poor college graduate. I knew plenty of things about literary theory and great writers, but I didn’t really know anything about how the real world worked. I wanted to help people, learn Spanish, and travel, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I joined up, and those two years broke me out of my comfortable, limited bubble. I went in dreaming about being a literature professor, I came out wanting to be a traveling journalist.
What did you do as a Volunteer?
I worked in a pilot program (sadly now suspended) called Rural Youth at Risk. I lived in the dusty eastern side of Guatemala, working in a mountain village called Miramundo to build economic opportunities for teenagers. We created a small bakery and flower nursery business, hosted community talent shows, and worked to bring a high school to the village. Until very recently, school ended at sixth grade for most of my kids.
And then you came back to do graduate work?
Right. I studied magazine writing at New York University’s graduate journalism school.
Have you published much?
So far not much. I’ve been published in magazines and newspapers. I have a few favorite places where I’ve published before: I wrote about Latino immigrants for Newsday, analyzed radio dramas for website The Believer in a piece called “Skinning the Americans” and wrote about my Peace Corps experience for Abroad View Magazine. And, of course, I have published on your site, Peace Corps Writers
Oh, also I just finished my first novel, a faux-memoir about a journalist named “Jason Boog” who uncovers a vast conspiracy behind the toy soldier industry a strange adventure story that ends in Guatemala. I’m just beginning the tricky search for agents and publishers now.
What about your blog? Tell us about that.
It is called The Publishing Spot. I help fledgling writers find the resources they need to work in a writing world being turned upside-down by the shift from paper to web publications. I conduct practical interviews with professional authors about how they use the Internet to build community, find readers, and survive in this tough new economy for writers.
There are a tremendous number of blogs on the Internet. Is anyone reading them?
The beauty of blogs is that they are specialized, almost surgical about finding the right audience. I love reading the comics pages in the newspaper and reading about Peace Corps news, so I discovered wonderful blogs like Comics Curmudgeon and Peace Corps Writers where I can find other people who like similar things.
My friend Steve, on the other hand, finds both of these topics a little tiresome, so he spends his time reading blogs about web video reelpopblog.com. While no blog will ever rival the audience share of a big network television show, there are a tremendous number of blogs that have dedicated niche audiences to sustain them.
What other blogs do you read?
I dabble in a few different fields when I read. For journalism news, I read Journerdism.com. For literary edification I visit Edward Champion at EdRants.com. For writing advice, I visit LitPark. For my artistic side, I read 52 Projects. For international journalism, I like to visit my friend Adam’s site AdamBellick.com
I keep track of all these blogs using Google Reader. It’s a program that collects all your favorite blogs on a single page so you don’t have to visit all your favorite blogs every day. It helps!
What are some good blogs for Peace Corps writers?
For writing resources and advice, I have a few favorites: the Creative Writing MFA Blog explores the best (and worst) programs around the country.
Practicing Writers has an excellent newsletter about writing markets Practicing-Writing.blogspot.com
Finally, I like reading the different posts at Metaxucafe a site that collects the best literary blog posts every day.
If you want even more resources, visit my writing website, The Publishing Spot. In the lower right-hand corner I keep a collection of my top ten writing sites. They are all very useful. Every time I find a blog that I enjoy, I check the list of links of websites that the writer enjoys. I usually find more reading material that way. Once again, I recommend Google Reader to keep track of the blogs.
You have a blog . . . how would someone go about creating one?
The most important thing is finding something to write about. Everybody scoffs at blogs because they think they are the diaries of people in pajamas. Not true! The best blogs are written by writers who are enthusiastic about something your Peace Corps site, pulp fiction novels, knitting, or scuba diving.
As long as you are enthusiastic about your topic, you can find readers. Do a Google Blog Search about your topic, see what other bloggers are writing about your topic. Read these blogs carefully.
Then go to a free blog site like Blogger. Sign up for a free account and design your blog. They allow you to completely customize every aspect of your blog, from web-page colors to headline fonts. The site contains plenty of tutorials on their Help page that will guide the most inexperienced blogger through the process.
Then, start writing about your topic. I recommend reading Copyblogger or Problogger . Both of those websites will teach you how to write gripping, exciting blog posts.
Finally, go visit the blogs that write about your topic. Leave thoughtful comments in the comments section, and engage people in debates about your topic. Before long, people will be checking out your blog to see what you are writing. As long as you stay enthusiastic about your topic, you should keep writing.
Are blogs where we will fine the great writing of the future? Will anyone ever again read a book?
I don’t think blogs will ever replace books. Blogs just make it easier for writers to connect with their readers. A Peace Corps memoirist, for instance, can build a website that includes photos from their service, web videos of their host country, and hyperlinks that can connect readers to other sources of information about the county.
Someday, I hope digital books will be able to incorporate this kind of functionality into the actual text. If and when I publish my novel, I will create some short web videos that let readers explore settings from my book a trip to my Peace Corps site in Guatemala, a visit to my hometown in Michigan, and a tour of my favorite pub in New York City. I don’t think people will stop reading books I think they will eventually expect more playful ways to interact with a novel.
Let’s go back to Peace Corps writers for a moment. What books and Peace Corps writers have impressed you?
Of all the Peace Corps writers, I’ve been influenced by Tony D’Souza’s playful, literary style. I read a couple books by Paul Theroux during my time in Peace Corps, he set the bar pretty high for all of us. Tom Bissell has been another big influence, I read his travel pieces immediately after I left Peace Corps his journalism gave me hope for the kind of stories I wanted to write.
Do you think that there is something we might call a genre of writing that we might call “Peace Corps Literature”?
I wouldn’t call it a genre, the writing is too varied and diverse to classify that way. I would call it a community. I showed up in New York City without knowing a single writer out here. Through the networking and support of the Peace Corps community, I was able to survive the early lean years in this city. In particular, I really benefited from the support of RPCV writers like Nita Noveno and yourself. Both of you helped me find other writers in the city and helped me publish my work as well. Without the returned Peace Corps bond established at Peace Corps Writers and Nita’s Sunday Salon, I think most literary Volunteers would feel a little stranded in New York.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write about their Peace Corps experience? Give us 5 points to think about or consider.
- Mine your journals. I refer to my six Peace Corps notebooks at least once a month my writing was messy, unfettered, and more creative than most journal entries I’ve kept in the United States.
- Think about your experience in terms of physical events. Describe how a chicken bus ride felt; write how silly you looked shoving your way through a crowded market. This way you will be writing physical specifics, rather than fluffy, nebulous feelings. Readers respond to vivid, physical prose.
- Shuffle through your pictures and spend a couple days writing descriptions of the people and places in your pictures. It will help you remember crucial details, vocabulary, and feelings. Stumbling across the right picture can spawn a whole page of text.
- Go back to your site. I returned to Miramundo, Guatemala after five years, and it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I was amazed how many details and feelings came crashing back to the surface the minute I touched down in my dusty village. I’ve been thinking and writing about that experience for an entire year.
- Read, read, read! Find every single Peace Corps memoir and travel book you can get your grubby hands on and read them! These books will help you find new writing tricks for your own story, inspire you to write your own story, and most importantly, they will help you understand what kinds of books have already been written. Read, read, read; that way you can write something new.
Finally, what do you do for a living. I presume that the blog does not support you at the moment, right?
You presume correctly. However, I am lucky enough to write for a living. I am a staff writer at Judicial Reports, doing investigative reporting about the New York judiciary.
Thanks for the chance to write, John. I have really valued your support over the years, and thank you and Marian Beil for this website for Peace Corps writers.
Across the Yucatan
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
A Book Company
Reviewed by Blaine Comeaux (Thailand 1997-99)
AS WITH ANY DECENT travel narrative, in Across the Yucatan by Lawrence F. Lihosit, the reader ultimately learns more about the author than the region visited. This is surely to be expected, as the author is, in essence, an intermediary between reader and place traveled. Nevertheless any reader of this compact narrative will be struck as to what degree this holds true. Mr. Lihosit’s writing is terse, his humor pointed and occasionally flagrantly schmaltzy. But the book is genuine, and obviously genuinely written from the heart.
Mr. Lihosit’s adventures begin when he receives an unexpected “windfall” (tax-return) and decides to take some of his family to the Yucatan, in Mexico, on the advice of his Mexican-born wife. Mr. Lihosit had spent time in this part of the world as a younger man. He speaks fluent Spanish. This is all to the reader’s benefit. Work circumstances don’t allow him to travel with his wife, so he decides to take his two teenaged sons, Zeke and Anson. Although neither boy is overly confident in his Spanish, Anson the younger one is less so. The reader soon discovers that one of the main motivations for taking this trip is to get them speaking Español. Lihosit’s efforts at trying to persuade the boys do so successfully towards the end provide for some of the sharpest wordplay in the book.
The three Lihosits travels take them from Cancun to Tulum to Merida and the ruins of Chichen Itza, and points nearby. They swim in the ocean, buy gewgaws, visit with locals and ride on innumerable buses. Throughout, Mr. Lihosit offers commentary on the history of the ruins, the people or the region being visited. These, too, are some of the best parts of the book. However as with any book there are positives and negatives. Here are a few of both, in brief.
The bad news. Mr. Lihosit’s writing alternates from the Tom Sawyerishly hokey to clear, elegant prose sometimes in the same paragraph. For example, a cave is described as being “just down the road a spell.” Such a description is highly colloquial. However, in the same paragraph, a bird “takes wing” instead of just flying off. This incongruent mix of slang and literary formality can be difficult to reconcile. And here are some examples of what I mean by hokey: Anson is described at one point as being “as busy as a one-armed wallpaper hanger”; a group event is portrayed as “trying to trim whiskers off the man in the moon”; and someone’s face was “beet red and blowing like a bull snake at a barking dog.”
The good news. None of the aforementioned matters. It’s still a good book, and fun to read. Mr. Lihosit is at his best when writing about the history of Mayan civilization, the current political situation in Yucatan cities, pre-Colombian games and the fortunes of the indigenous people who still struggle to eke out a living in the region. His knowledge of the language gives him a decided advantage over other “travelers” to the area. During their travels, he and his boys meet topless European sunbathers, native speakers of Mayab, fellow Americans displaced by choice, opportunity or circumstance, and of course, ordinary Yucatan Mexicans themselves. In fact, it’s just precisely these encounters that lend the book the majority of its appeal. In short, Mr. Lihosit’s love for life is obvious, and comes through on the first page. It’s a fun book, and recommended to anyone with plans to visit this region.
Blaine Comeaux works in the field of elections for the City of Mesa, Arizona. His own book is entitled Two Years in the Kingdom, The Adventures of an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Northeast Thailand, available on Amazon.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
A Novella and Stories
by Peter Chilson (Niger 198587)
Houghton Mifflin Co., Mariner Original
Reviewed by Karl Luntta (Botswana 197780)
I DON’T KNOW PRECISELY what a novella is I think it’s more or less a short story with a longer story to tell but Peter Chilson’s opening salvo in his collection Disturbance-Loving Species, the novella “Tea With Soldiers,” is a story I’m convinced could not have been told in fewer words. And it’s the words that drive his excursion into the worlds so well plumbed by the likes of Greene, Shacochis, Mueller, Brazaitis, Hemingway the machinations, the expatriate pathos, the futility of trying to fit an Africa into a Western world view.
David Carter is a teacher in the Lycée Centrale in Niger in the early ’90s, a time when the military-backed government is warring with rebels. The Tuareg group is being systematically rounded up by soldier-tyros, just boys many of them, and the rest of the population is in a relentless and miserable state of flux. Soldiers and other officials harass people for identification at every corner, markets are razed, schoolchildren are murdered in their classrooms, and, most harrowing for Carter, people simply disappear. In particular, his colleague and friend Salif Moustapha, a philosopher-savant who regularly extols Carter over elaborate tea rituals to get out into the countryside, disappears periodically throughout the story, which takes place over the last several months of Carter’s two-year stint. Salif, taken by soldiers for infractions the young volunteer does not understand nor receive explanations for, is somehow resigned to his fate but stoically determined to keep his family and friends out of it. The tale, however is Carter’s, propelled by, as he comes to understand, his inability to comprehend the events unfolding around him. He worries over Salif and slowly becomes unhinged he asks too many questions, he’s impertinent, he baits soldiers, he drinks dangerously. At one point, alone in his room after an evening of drinking, he binds his wrists and forces himself to sit in a chair throughout the night, as he imagines Salif during an interrogation. It’s a bit of theater for Carter (and for Chilson), and while it brings him no closer to understanding what has happened to his friend, it somehow assuages his guilt, at least momentarily, over being white and free and unable to help. “This little event,” Chilson writes, “this little attempt at empathy, was like a memorial service.”
Chilson has a terrific ear for dialogue, managing to juggle the confluence of French, English, West African English, West African French, and a handful of the local languages that daub the quilt of West Africa. In the story “Disturbance-Loving Species,” an American botanist travels to Niger to deal with his sister’s death. He remembers a prior visit, when he and Kate, who was a volunteer, were stuck in a desert storm and a large bird crashed through their Land Rover’s windshield. Sitting in the sandstorm outside the vehicle, picking shards of glass from their faces, Kate shouts lines from “The Settler,” a favorite poem by Kipling, as a sort of ode to the bird.
“Kipling!” she shouted at me.
I stood up. “Kipling?” I shouted back at her. “He was a racist. What does Kipling have to do with it?”
She looked at me. “Maybe,” she shouted, “but I like that poem. It smells of regret.”
The wonderful and humorous “American Food” sees a Malian college professor in Oregon - another stranger in a strange land missing his home, fretting over the Americanization of his children, worried that his roots are rotting under the soil of his expatriation. But and here’s the universal what does anyone, anywhere, dwell on when they’re missing home? Mom’s cooking. So we open with a sheriff’s officer visiting Professor Traore as the lanky African boils up a goat head in his back yard, an act that has his neighbors believing the cult he’s apparently in will next direct him to invite them to a backyard barbecue for which they’re the main course. It’s a terrific story, using food as the vehicle for the inevitable cultural confusion what’s not to like?
The collection, which won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2006 Bakeless Prize for fiction, concentrates geographically on West Africa, a region rich in cultural and historical striations. Chilson renders an authentic depiction of the universe of the expatriated and misplaced, the world of near-familiarities smudged by misunderstanding, the Western sensibility upended by Africa in its misery and splendor. While it would be tempting to say that these stories are most likely to receive a nod and a wink from those who have lived overseas, in Africa in particular, that would be a disservice to the universal themes that emerge through Chilson’s superb writing. He’s made that world his own and ours, and we’re the better for it as wonderers, and wanderers.
Karl Luntta is a former newspaper and magazine columnist and has published fiction in International Quarterly, Baltimore Review, North Atlantic Review, Toronto Review, and others. His novel Know it by Heart won 2004’s Maria Thomas Fiction Award. He is the media relations director of the State University of New York at Albany.
The Impenetrable Forest
by Thor Hanson, Ph.D. (Uganda 199395)
(revised second edition)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 197577)
SCIENTIFIC BOOKS THAT capture our imagination are rarer than an Arizona jack-a-lope. Thor Hanson’s The Impenetrable Forest will appeal to anyone interested in travel and endangered species. Hanson chronicles his Peace Corps Volunteer experience in Uganda, helping to establish foreign tourism to a very new wildlife reserve. He joined the project only two years after the inception of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and during a crucial time: mountain gorillas native to this area and the neighboring Rwanda were being slaughtered
Like Peter Matthiessen (African Silences), Hanson records wonderful details about Ugandan life. Unlike Matthiessen the cool, distant observer, Hanson joins the celebration of life. He recounts attending a cultural event where “people gaped and laughed, or rushed forward to shake our hands . . . ‘What is your clan?’” they asked and once he answered with names given to him by his African host, locals cackled. He describes empazi (African ants) who overran his home one evening, covering walls, floors, ceiling, and even his bed as he slept. Madly pulling off biting ants, dressed only in boxers, and carrying a lantern, he retreated to the outhouse, the only ant-free place on the property.
Written in classic travel memoir style, the book includes healthy portions of humor, empathy and is liberally spiced with history, geography, and local flavor. Like a warm cup of sweet Mexican atole on a cold morning, the book fills your belly and makes you smile. Since a portion of the purchase price is donated to conservation efforts, readers help protect the few remaining giant primates.
Originally published in 2001, this is a second edition that includes new material, updates, and an epilogue about the author’s return pilgrimage made in 2006, eleven years after leaving. This is a success story for the number of mountain gorillas increased between 13 and 21 percent over that period while the human population increased 60 percent.
Some Volunteers’ memoirs are filled with regret and tinged with shame, like a bloody, bare-backed minor priest flogging himself for not being worthy. This book, though serious, is told by a man who believes that life is one man getting hugged for sneaking a kiss and another getting slapped.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. His latest book is titled Across the Yucatan (2007), a humorous travel narrative available through A Book Company at abookcompany.net as will be his July release of poetry about teaching titled Attack of the Claw. He can be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com .
by Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 200002; Madagascar 200203)
Reviewed by John Woods (Ethiopia 196568)
WHEN YOU HEAR Indian surnames like Demello, D’Silva, D’Souza (the author) and the D’Sais of this book all these identify people who are Konkans, an Indian minority group that most of us probably never heard of. I have encountered individuals with these names that in no way indicated to me they were from India. The Konkans explains this: They reflect the “heritage” of people from Western India who came through a long period of Portuguese colonization that began with the landing of Vasco da Gama in that part of the world in 1498 and lasted until 1812.
Many reviews of this book describe it as the story of an immigrant family making their way in Chicago, but that is only partly true. The book’s title captures its larger theme, which is the story of the Konkans, their culture and history. It does this through observing the lives and times of two brothers who have emigrated from India to Chicago. We also learn the story of the father of these brothers, who thrived under British rule, but, with independence, did not.
The story’s narrator is Francisco D’Sai, the son of the older brother and his wife, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who served in the Konkan region and who has nothing but fond memories of her time there. The book itself is a series of episodes that taken together help us understand this family and this people. Francisco’s father, Lawrence D’Sai, has always longed to be a Western man and by wooing and marrying Denise, the PCV, he comes to America to literally seek his version of the American dream. It’s not a particularly attractive version of this dream but perhaps one steeped more in the reality than in the myth this idea summons up.
Lawrence is a middle manager with an insurance company and is more or less the token foreigner within this organization. He is often given responsibilities that others shy away from, such as laying off people during a downsizing at the firm. All the while, he moves his family to what he believes are the right neighborhoods and tries to perfect his golf game with the hope of joining the local country club, something that never seems to come to pass, though Lawrence never loses hope that it will.
In the meantime, Denise has come to disdain Lawrence and his denial of his heritage, which she has so embraced. She has a brief affair with Lawrence’s brother, Sam, who has not turned his back on his culture. But that is less than fulfilling for both of them, and eventually Sam marries a Konkan woman in an arranged marriage that takes place back in India.
This family drifts through life with little drama, as is true for most of us, more driven by circumstances than conscious decision making. Throughout we are reminded by various characters of the special place held by the Konkan cultural heroes, Vasco da Gama and St. Francis Xavier, who brought Christianity to their part of India and gave them an identity to which they still cling.
By the end of the book, however, we learn the truth of these “heroes” and the Portuguese occupation and the 252-year “Goan inquisition”: Christianity was literally forced down their throats convert or die; take Portuguese names or die. But this is so much less interesting than the myth the Konkans have conjured up for themselves as a special minority with their own history separate from that of the Hindu majority.
I admire Tony D’Souza’s talent and his ability to get under the skin of his characters. These are flawed and ordinary people struggling to get it right as they perceive what that is, within the context of immigrants making their way in America.
In addition, it seems to me, the book is a special look at the life of Denise, and the joy she experienced during her two-year sojourn in the Konkan culture as a PCV. Yet when she gets home, despite her marriage to a Konkan, it’s clear that she can, sadly, never recapture the magic of those two years. The lesson may be that she and we shouldn’t try but rather just be pleased to have had that experience in the first place. It is to Tony D’Souza’s credit that he makes this lesson available to us in this memorable novel.
John Woods lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he has his own book packaging and production company, CWL Publishing Enterprises. He has developed more than 100 books for companies like McGraw-Hill, Adams Media, Alpha Books, Entrepreneur Press, and other publishers. He is also the father of Christopher Woods, who served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan from 1996 to1998.
Land of Smiles
by A. A. Maytree (Thailand 1969-72)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
A. A. MAYTREE IS THE PEN NAME of Michael Schmicker. He must believe that few things are harder to put up with than a good example, for he seems to have broken every Peace Corps rule that I ever heard of. His memoir, Land of Smiles, will make current and former Peace Corps staff wince as they read about how he traveled clandestinely on C.I.A.-operated Air America, hung out in brothels, befriended world traveling vagabonds so stingy that they’d skin a flea for hide and tallow, experimented with drugs, moonlit as a night club singer, bootlegged rock music, rode a Triumph motorcycle, and even published under several nom de plumes to avoid Peace Corps’ censorship. The irony is that the Peace Corps extended his service for a third year.
A seminary dropout, Schmicker had already forsaken the road to sainthood before applying. Heck, maybe the Peace Corps thought his education was a good Christian grounding. What they got instead was a young Keroauc, running as fast as he could to embrace life all of it, good and bad.
He was assigned to Thailand during a fever-pitch in the Vietnam War, the same year that Kerouac died, 1969. According to Schmicker, “the ‘War Corps’ dwarfed the Peace Corps” with “over 45,000 U.S. Air Force personnel and 500 aircraft and another 5,000 military advisors, spooks, information spinners, and rural development specialists.” This book is a collection of war dispatches from Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Like a slightly mad Kerouac, the author describes his travels and adventures as a war correspondent interspersed with anecdotes about his day job as a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher and later, film director. Thank God this book was not published when Schmicker first arrived home or I might not have had a program to serve in three years later!
Akin to Kerouac’s literary work, this book moves fast and holds the reader’s interest. Whether you lived this era or are a younger generation, Schmicker’s adventures will enthrall. For those who would like to read the author’s original articles from the front (in the complete format with photos), go to www.thai27.com/MikeSmickerArticles.htm.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. His latest book is titled Across the Yucatan (2007), a humorous travel narrative available through A Book Company at abookcompany.net as will be his July release of poetry about teaching titled Attack of the Claw. He can be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com.
A Writer Writes
Kennedy at Berkeley
by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 196769)
IT WAS LATE MARCH, 1962. I was on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, walking alone, on my way to a small cafe on the north side to meet friends. I had heard that President Kennedy was slated to speak that day at Memorial Stadium (was it Charter Day?), and I could hear, just a few blocks away, the hum of cars and voices. The street where I was walking was strangely empty, absent traffic or others passing by. Across the way was a magnificent stone and timber resident hall, with a stretching green soccer field in front, and I saw no one.
Then, unexpectedly, up ahead, several cars came around a soft bend in the road headed in my direction. A small motorcade of sorts. There were two police cars in front and one unmarked car in back, bracketing a gleaming black Lincoln convertible, the top down. I stopped and stood very still, for in the convertible was John Kennedy.
Looking back, thinking about all that has happened since, I cannot imagine that I was so completely ignored, standing there, one solitary individual. But then, that seismic day in Dallas was more than a year away, a day that would change everything.
Etched in my memory will always be the image of Kennedy, seated in the back, on the right, his elbow resting on the door. Seeing him, suddenly touched by the full import of the moment, I recall telling myself that I would not react; I’d remain cool, detached. I certainly wouldn’t wave. But as the motorcade drew parallel, I flung my arm into the air, and began waving wildly, excitedly, looking directly at the president.
And then and I will always remember this he glanced to his right and looked at me and our eyes ever so briefly locked and he nodded, and smiled that incandescent smile, and I raised up, as if I were about to levitate, both my arms in the air. It was an unrestrained wave, a come-from-behind, stadium wave, and I felt a cheer reaching my lips. Mr. President. Mr. President. But then he was gone, and I recall that the men in a black station wagon, just a few feet behind, coolly glanced in my direction with disinterest as they passed and then they were gone.
I heard later that President Kennedy gave a remarkable speech, one in which he said, “We must reject oversimplified theories of international life the theory that American power is unlimited, or that the American mission is to remake the world in the American image. We must seize the vision of a free and diverse world and shape our policies to speed progress toward a more flexible world order.”
OF LATE, I AM OFTEN REMINDED of that moment as I watch our current president shift uneasily beneath the mantle of his office. And I wonder, how long has it been since America has had a leader that was commensurate with our ideals and our stature? How long has it been since we have watched and listened to our president stand before the world, be it at the United Nations, or at a podium abroad, and felt a surge of pride at his words and his presence? How long has it been since we have wanted to raise up and wave our arms with unrestrained joy because we sense immediately that the promise of our great nation is being fulfilled, and we are all being called to once again do great things in a common cause? I can’t remember.
Watching the president over these last months and years, it has become all but impossible not to feel an abiding sadness at the opportunities that have been missed. And of course the tragedy that is Iraq. So much could have been achieved. What could this president possibly have told us in his recent State of the Union address that would absolve him of having failed to step forward?
It isn’t that President Bush has failed to acknowledge certain problems; rather, it has been a failure of imagination and resolve and a startling myopia. How often has he appeared, as he did in on a dark night in New Orleans, and promised a new direction, made a profound commitment, and then walked away, finding shelter in the shallow rhetoric of “the terrorists.” Darfur, Katrina, the long suffering Gulf Coast come to mind, as do No Child Left Behind, children’s health care, global warming, and the list goes on.
Truth be told, there is not much more to say about this administration, other than we are hearing foreign governments and our own Congressional leaders speak in terms of waiting for the next administration. Waiting for a president that will once again make us hopeful, and for some, perhaps, even levitate.
Chris Honore’ lives in Ashland, Oregon and works as a freelance journalist.
A Writer Writes
When Hope and History Rhyme
by Patrick Breslin (Colombia 196365)
I WAS 20 the year John Kennedy ran for president, too young to vote. I spent that summer in Donegal, where my parents were born. My Irish cousins were more interested in the American political race than I. My bland assurance that Nixon would win must have dampened their spirits, and made them wonder did Irish Catholics turn insipid across the Atlantic.
It came from my father, this blend of caution and contrary conservatism. He landed in New York in 1927, just in time to see his new country reject its first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith, with hatred and overwhelming numbers. Alone among our Democratic relatives, he gave Franklin Roosevelt no credit for leading the country through the Depression, and Harry Truman, was only, and always, the haberdasher from Missouri in his eyes.
In the 1950s, with our first television, we watched the Army-McCarthy hearings, and rooted for McCarthy. On Election Day, 1960, my mother came home from voting and whispered to me that Kennedy was going to win. Following her husband’s lead, she’d gone to cast her vote for Nixon, but something confused her in the booth and she pulled the lever for Kennedy. Divine intervention was the only possible explanation but even with God on her side she implored me not to tell my father she’d cancelled out his vote.
That night, I got hooked on politics, and on JFK. As the seesaw drama that would turn Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 into a best seller played out across the country, Kennedy’s victory suddenly became the most important thing in the world to me. I sat alone, past 11 when my father left for his night job in St. Vincent’s Hospital, past midnight when my mother and younger brother had long since given up the vigil, riveted by the poetry of the roll call of the states and the thunk of delegates falling to one side or the other, like the spinning roulette ball eventually dropping either red or black. By the following day, when Kennedy had definitely won, I was ready to march to the new frontier.
Over the next two years, Kennedy’s inaugural challenge ask what you can do for your country sang in my head as I finished college and found a newspaper job. Working nights, I had plenty of time to read the American history and literature I’d missed in college, to watch Kennedy crisp and witty spar with the press, to root the astronauts into space, to feel the somber shadow of the Cuban missile crisis dissipate in the spring air. Two movements of the young called to me: the freedom riders joining the intensifying civil rights struggle in the south, and the stream of volunteers heading abroad in Kennedy’s Peace Corps. I didn’t see what I could bring to civil rights except a head to be cracked by Alabama cops and I wasn’t brave enough for that. But I’d studied Spanish for seven years and so the Peace Corps invited me to join a group going to Colombia. While in training, I read about Martin Luther King’s great speech in Washington, and the week before flying to Colombia I stood on First Avenue and saw Kennedy smile and wave as he swept by in a motorcade headed for the United Nations. It was a shining moment to be a young American heading out into the world.
TWO MONTHS LATER news of another Kennedy motorcade reached the jungles of western Colombia where I worked as a community organizer with the descendents of African slaves. That night, my partner an ex-Marine from Ohio and I sat stunned in our darkened rooms over a warehouse. The electricity had failed, as it did almost every night. A murmur from the street drew us to the window. A candlelit procession was winding its way towards us. Maybe a hundred people crowded into our large bare room and lined the stairs to the street, the light flickering on their dark faces and the sympathy shining in their eyes. Eloquent speeches were made and an official proclamation of mourning delivered to us. I still have it.
In spring 1965, Lyndon Johnson sent troops into the Dominican Republic. A group of us were in Medellin for a conference about the approaching end of our service. The local Peace Corps staff director, a man I respected highly and whose occasional visits to my site were always accompanied by a bottle of rum and long conversations into the night about politics and justice, invited us to dinner at his comfortable home. That night I realized my country could lie to me, as I watched him peremptorily defend an invasion I knew in my bones was wrong.
By late July, I was back in the USA, having hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico to a California friend’s house not far from the border. When I came down for breakfast the next morning, Johnson was on the screen, announcing a big troop buildup in Vietnam. A couple of days later, I drove past Watts. The America of Martin Luther King’s optimistic oratory and John Kennedy’s summoning of idealism was gone.
“History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave,” wrote poet Seamus Heaney in The Cure at Troy, a position punctuated by the bullets of April and June 1968. Even large countries don’t have that many inspiring leaders and we lost the ones we had in half a decade. In the 40 years since, only on occasion would I have opted for the pollster’s positive alternative, that the country is on the right track.
Over that period, conservative Republican control of the political debate and largely uninterrupted control of the presidency, combined with the divide and rule politics that enabled it, has almost erased hope from our political vocabulary. It has also brought us to the current situation, a monumentally incompetent incumbent struggling for relevance atop the rubble of our economy and our foreign and military policy. The excitement in the Democratic primaries signals an era is ending and something new is in the offing. The poet continues:
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
Might I hear them rhyme twice in mine?
Novelist Patrick Breslin lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is working on two new books.