Peace Corps Writers September 2008
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Fellowships for writers at Black Mountain Institute
Richard Wiley (Korea 196769) emailed me from Las Vegas to say that applications for fellowships for the 200910 school year of the Black Mountain Institute are available from their website.
Founded in 2006, Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is an international center dedicated to advancing literary and cross-cultural dialogue. Richard is the Associate Director of the Institute. He is also the author of the novels Soldiers In Hiding (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for best American fiction and reissued in 2007 by Hawthorne Books), Fools’ Gold, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, Indigo, and Ahmed’s Revenge. His most recent novel, Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show, was published by the new Michener Series at the University of Texas Press in 2007. Wiley has been a member of the UNLV English Department faculty since 1989.
A current fellow at the Black Mountain Institute is Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 199496) author of This Is Not Civilization. Rosenberg is the Sonja and Michael Saltman Fellow. He is also the recipient of the 2005 Maria Thomas Fiction Award presented by Peace Corps Writers. He is currently at work on a novel set in Istanbul that explores the overlapping heritage of Jews and Armenians in the city, and he frequently contributes book reviews to The Miami Herald and The Moscow Times. After the Peace Corps Robert taught high school on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. A graduate of Columbia University, he received an MFA from the Iowa Writer’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Maytag Fellowship and a Teaching/Writing Fellowship. He is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Bucknell University. Robert heard about this Fellowship by reading www.peacecorpswriters.org.
The nine-month award gives the Fellows $50,000, an office, and time to write. Black Mountain awards three to five fellowships each year to outstanding writers who have published at least one critically acclaimed book before the time of application. Foreign nationals conversant in English are welcome to apply. There are no degree requirements.
If you qualify, (i.e. you have written a well received book) contact Black Mountain Institute. Good luck.
In this issue
Once again, I am amazed by the steady flow of books coming from the Peace Corps community. Overseas we were always accused of “reading too much” well, some of us were writing! In this issue we have a list of 17 new books, 7 reviews, and more news of publications and appearances by RPCVs across the country.
We also have a long and knowledge essay on self-publishing by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577). Larry is a city planner who publishes as a hobby, and so far has published six books and seven pamphlets since 1993. This essay is taken from a lecture he gave at the Fort Collins, Colorado Peace Corps reunion produced by Beet Street this past August. We also interviewed Larry about his writing and publishing. Check out “Talking With.”
We are also publishing from the Beet Street Peace Corps Reunion the talk that Carl Pope (India 196769) gave: “America’s Role in a Post-American World.” Since 1992 Carl has been the Executive Director of the Sierra Club and he was kind enough to let us reprint some of his talk with RPCVs about our world and our environment.
We have a wonderful travel essay by Kathleen Coskran, (Ethiopia 196567), a writer, teacher, grandmother and great friend of Peace Corps Writers. In May of 2008 she traveled to Nepal to work in a children’s home and develop curriculum for Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN) and came home with this moving piece of prose.
Do yourself a favor. Relax and read everything in the issue, all the reviews and the interview and essays. Then go to Amazon and buy a book by one of our writers. And in the meantime, we thank you for your past support of all Peace Corps writers and for your support of this website. Marian Beil and I are approaching 20 years of producing the Third Goal newsletter (Peace Corps Writers & Readers) and this website that is for and about Peace Corps writers who with their wonderful prose and poetry are teaching Americans everyday about the developing world which is increasingly touching and changing all our lives.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
Secrets on the Family Farm
by Dominic Cibrario (Nepal 196264)
by Jack Cole (PC staff: Afghanistan 196870, Swaziland 19701971, India 197173)
Last Chance for First
by Tom Hazuka (Chile 197880)
Brown Barn Books
Chai Budesh? Anyone for Tea?
A Peace Corps Memoir of Turkmenistan
by Joan Heron (Turkmenistan 199597)
by John Isles (Estonia 199294)
University of Iowa Press
Roller Skating in the Desert
(Peace Corps memoir)
by Leita Kaldi (Senegal 199396)
$18.00 includes shipping
(Buy from the author)
You Can Prevent Global Warming (and Save Money!)
51 Easy Ways
by Jeffrey Langholz (Sierra Leone 198688) and Kelly Turner
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Attack of the Claw
And Other Poems about Teaching
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
A Book Company
by Richard Stevenson
[aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)]
The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder
And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns
by Stew Magnuson (Mauritania 198788)
Texas Tech University Press
Days on the Family Farm
From the Golden Age Trough the Great Depression
by Carrie A. Meyer (Dominican Republic 198083)
University of Minnesota Press
Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya
Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications,
Daniel J. Miller (Nepal 197478)
The Fork Once Taken
From The British Crown Colony of North Borneo to the Federated State of Sabah, East Malaysia: 19631965:
A Creative Memoir!
by Charles W. Parton, MD (Malaysia 196365)
Out of Business and On Budget
The Challenge of Military Financing Indonesia
by Lex Rieffel (India 196567) and Jaleswari Pramodhawardani
United States-Indonesia Society and Brookings Institution Press
New Faces at the Crossroads
The World in Central Indiana
by John Sherman (Nigeria 196667, Malawi 196768) with Jeffrey A. Wolin, photographer
Indiana University Press
A Red Sox Mystery
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) and Jere Smith
Hall of Fame Press
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 198385)
Washington Writers’ Publishing House
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
Tom Hazuka (Chile 197880) has a new book, for young audiences, Last Chance for First, (Brown Barn Books, $8.95). Hazuka teaches creative writing at Central Connecticut State University, and this, his third novel, is his first young adult novel.
Tom’s previous novel, The Road to the Island (1998) was set in Connecticut and tells about a marathon runner who is killed. In the City of the Disappeared (2000) takes place in Chile and is his “Peace Corps novel.” Two years ago he co-authored the non-fiction book, A Method to March Madness: An Insider’s Look at the Final Four with the Central Connecticut College’s Athletic Director C.J. Jones.
Hazuka started writing in 1978 when he was in the Peace Corps and sold a poem for $15. In graduate school at UC-Davis he switched from writing poems to novels after reading Philip Roth and Tim O’Brien. Then at the Bread Loaf Writing Conference in Middlebury, Vermont in 1995 he got a breakthrough. He met novelist Tom Perrotta who recommended he send a manuscript to his publisher. Hazuka did and The Road to the Island was published.
The Fall 2008 issue of Ploughshares, (guest-edited by James Alan McPherson,) has a short story by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193), entitled “The Incurables” and as Mark writes, “it’s about a depressed ex-porn star’s relationship with a bipolar mother of two, set in the mental-health ward of a university hospital. It’s a little far afield from my stories about Guatemala but the world it portrays is, I hope, just as strange and wonderful.”
Mark Fabiano (Sri Lanka 198486) has a short story in the summer fiction issue of the Atlantic Monthly. This story, “We Are All Businessmen” is set in Matara, Sri Lanka. You can read it at TheAtlantic.com.
Mark, who teaches at Keiser University, has had fiction in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and German Village After Dark. He was awarded an Ohio Arts Council award in fiction for 2008.
Jack Cole (PC staff: Afghanistan 196870, Swaziland 19701971, India 197173) published his 3rd book just days before his death at the age of 93 in January, 2008. It is titled 4004 BC and is available from Infinity Publishing in Conshohocken Pa. His first two books are Wandering Voices and Richard and Sabina. After 50 years as a physician, 5 of them with Peace Corps, Jack began writing and published several articles and many poems in addition to the books. His last book is an epic poem based on the Book of Genesis.
An interview with Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) about his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Bob Minzesheimer was published in the September 5 issue of USAToday.
While tracking down the URL for this interview we discovered “Audio Interviews with Paul Theroux” by Don Swaim at WiredforBooks.org. There are six audio interviews with Paul conducted from 1983 through 1991 for your listening pleasure.
Kristen Hoggatt (Uzbekistan 200305) is teaming up with a colleague at Emerson College to write a multi-cultural cookbook, with a twist. Is there a certain dish that you remember from your country of service? Kristen is calling for traditional recipes, along with any pictures or narratives that can help her understand the dish’s significance. The co-authors may significantly alter the recipes, but will give credit where credit is due, unless you ask specifically not to be mentioned. Please send recipes to email@example.com or 60 Queensberry St. #1, Boston, MA 02215.
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962 64)
LARRY LIHOSIT HAS LIVED in Madera, California (which is about 20 miles north of Fresno) since 1995. It is a small farming community and county seat with a population of under 50,000. Married to a woman he met while studying Spanish in Mexico City just before joining the Peace Corps (Honduras 197577), Larry and his wife have two sons. The oldest is beginning his second year in college, the second boy is a senior in high school. Larry’s wife is a teacher; Larry is an urban planner. But what Larry does mostly is think about and publish his writing. He had been a successful self-publisher for fifteen years and this summer spoke about self-publishing at the Fort Collins Peace Corps reunion. (We have an edited version of his talk in this issue of Peace Corps Writers. I urge anyone who is interested in writing and publishing to take a look at this useful essay.) We emailed Larry recently about his Peace Corps career, his published works, and his views on writers and writing.
Larry, first of all, where are you from and where did you go to college?
I was born in the southern suburbs of Chicago, known as the Southside. At the age of twelve, my family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where I graduated from grade school, high school, and Arizona State University. Later, I completed master’s coursework in urban planning at La Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (U.N.A.M.) in Mexico City, studied art and creative writing at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, and most recently earned teaching credentials at California State University Fresno.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
My first travel book, South of the Frontera, describes the crazy travels that led me to the Peace Corps. It started with losing a job. When our boss opened the birdcage at our local city planning department, my buddies and I formed our own company. It didn’t pay that well nor did it take that much time, so we began to have adventures, most naturally. We went so far that the twang became a rolling rrrrrrr. Racing south, we rejoiced because we instinctively knew that premature middle age escaped us. Never having studied a foreign language, I was lost. My father had been a salesman and I had been taught to speak up, look ‘em in the eye, and shake their hands. Soon, I had a paperback Spanish/English dictionary, a used tape recorder, and some used tapes. Within weeks, I was travelin’ south of the frontera solo and learning Spanish. One of my buddies suggested the Peace Corps. I applied and within months, flew to Miami, Florida and on to Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1975. I already spoke about 100 words in Spanish when I arrived and could get around just fine.
What did you do as a PCV?
Luckily for me, I was an urban planner in the Community Development contingent, Honduras Group 35. Because there was no new job to learn, I was able to concentrate on language skills. The first year I was assigned to La Ceiba on the Atlantic coast. A national planning agency was responsible for preparing that city’s first general plan and I was assigned to the local city government as a liaison between the two. The best part of the Peace Corps is that you contribute as much as you want. This is also true in Bush Alaska. In places where technology is scarce and educated people rare, you become a resource. People actually care about your dreams and encourage you to follow them.
In my case, I wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of a city; infrastructure. Within days of arrival in La Ceiba, I was mapping land use, water lines, sewer lines, and electric lines. I was interested in housing and was able to convince the mayor to lend me two city assessors for a day or two a week. I created a random sample of homes, and with the help of the assessors, we surveyed housing conditions. This became a report which I wrote in Spanish and we presented it, along with the general plan, to the city. Later, I made recommendations about changing the city’s method of garbage disposal from an open land dump to a cellular land fill as well as changing the location. After a major flood, I brought the national planning agency employees back for a tour and suggested an earthen dike reinforced with broken concrete and/or rocks near the city’s high school to avert future flooding problems. I understand that this was eventually built with an A.I.D. loan. What the hey.
Once the plan was prepared and formally presented to the city at a meeting, I was reassigned to the Ministry of Government and Justice in the capital. This was the equivalent of our state department. They invited me to be a member of an elite Honduran team to begin a pilot program of plans for smaller communities. Our first project was Cedros, a mining town located about 25 or 30 miles from the capital city. My contribution was infrastructure analysis and economic recommendations. Unlike the bustling port of La Ceiba, the third most populated city in the country, Cedros was a tiny hamlet of less than 1,000 people. The government had only recently bulldozed a one-lane dirt road from the capital to Cedros and the town’s mayor had donated a diesel generator and a few miles of wire only months before, introducing electricity for the first time. All of the children in town had swollen stomachs and flaxen colored hair, signs of malnutrition. This was quite a challenge. Everyone on my team lost weight. I came back to the capital city so skinny after the first three-week tour that the Minister of Government and Justice actually stopped me in the hallway to ask if I had been sick. I explained that I had been in Cedros. He asked what he might do to help me. I told him I needed a drafting table. Within two days he not only supplied a drafting table, but a fully equipped professional draftsman and a fancy German machine to copy our maps. If only the Minister could have followed me for the rest of my life.
Did you travel much as a Volunteer?
I was a very fortunate Volunteer. La Ceiba’s mayor was an understanding man. When my Mexican girlfriend showed up with her mother in tow, for example, he thought it correct for me to accompany them around the nation. He promised that if the Peace Corps office should call, he would explain to them that I was incommunicado in the field, por supuesto.
During their first visit, we traveled to the Bay Islands to snorkel, to Copan to explore Mayan ruins, and to San Pedro Sula to eat fancy. The second trip was trickier. I no longer worked in La Ceiba. My Mexican flame and her mother wanted to go to a beach in El Salvador and I couldn’t get a visa! So I stormed up to the Minister of Government and Justice’s office for the first time. He asked me to sit down and ordered in a silver tray with hot coffee and cookies before asking how he could help me. Once he heard that my sweetheart was a Mexicana, his face lit right up. He got on the black telephone and told the visa clerk to have my papers ready within the hour.
I also made two trips overland from Honduras to Mexico City where Margarita lived. Each time I took a different route and was able to see parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, and southern Mexico.
Okay, your two years are over and you’re headed home next, right?
First of all, I left early after eighteen months in-country. Between the U.S. Army reserves and the Peace Corps, I served our country for six years but was not ready to go directly home. I flew to Mexico City, reunited with my Mexican cutie and enrolled in an urban planning graduate program at the national university. I worked as an English teacher and also as an urban planner for two engineering firms. At one firm that no longer exists, I had a short four-month contract to write a socio-economic impact statement for the expansion of the subway system. Later, I worked for a second firm (Urbamex) as a residential site planner. They flew me all over the place! This company still exists and has a web site which lists some of the projects I worked on; a new town called Tabasco 2000 outside of Villa Hermosa and a huge residential mountainside development on the outskirts of Guadalajara called Bugambilias. There were several smaller projects too.
During my stay, I also volunteered to be a technical consultant for a citizen’s action group which protested the expansion of the subway and the related construction of new boulevards. City-wide the government had targeted poor neighborhoods for demolition and planned to bulldoze twenty thousand homes within eighteen months. That was home to 100,000 people. Many neighborhoods organized and protests began. Over the next two and one half years, I helped 27 people to create a group, elect officers, collect dues, increase membership five times over, and hire a Mexican lawyer and engineer with the money they had set aside. I also taught a cadre of members how to give public presentations, led neighborhood improvement projects, guided decision-making about protests, and with the president of the group, counseled members during very difficult times.
Our lawyer actually succeeded in acquiring a cease and desist order before the government resorted to hardball; removing judges and replacing them with cronies who immediately reviewed past judicial decisions, water and electric cut-offs, phone taps, surveillance, and death threats. A mile away in another protesting neighborhood the president’s four-year-old daughter was kidnapped and only returned after the group disbanded and sold all of their homes to the government. Two miles north in yet another protesting neighborhood a government tractor leveled a home at two in the morning while its owners and their families slept inside. One of the children was maimed when her leg was horribly crushed. A government spokesman was quoted in the newspaper as commenting, “They will all come out, even if it’s feet first.” In Santa Anita where I helped, plainclothes police tried to kidnap one of our members. He was only saved by a network of children who had been trained to act as our security alarms. They immediately spread out and a mob formed. The police left empty handed. A woman in our group suffered a nervous breakdown after a government crane destroyed her bedroom wall as she lay in bed one morning. A man wearing a government construction hardhat attempted to set outside propane bottles afire one Saturday afternoon while one of my friends was inside with his wife and five children. Again, disaster was only averted by the watchful eyes of neighbors.
I became known. After narrowly escaping two beatings, a senator began a dragnet for me. Within a twenty-four hour period, plainclothes agents with pistols descended upon every work place I had ever served. The owners were threatened with closure if they did not reveal my whereabouts. They visited and threatened my new Mexican wife at her dental office, my sister-in-laws at their offices, and even my mother-in-law at her home. I went underground for three weeks before escaping to the United States. My wife followed a few weeks later in November, 1980. Between the two of us we had three suitcases and very few dollars. I wrote two pieces about this experience. The first is a straightforward personal experience essay about Santa Anita (American Papers #4) and the second is a nuanced travel narrative about returning to Mexico City seven years later and reuniting with my good friends (Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City and Missed the Wedding). It was difficult for me to write these things down.
Why did you start writing?
When I came home, broke and defeated, I was burning to write a novel. Within nine months I typed 225 pages. It was so horrible that I enrolled in a creative writing course at a local junior college. I wrote and self-published a tome of short stories and a full length novel within 24 months. They rode smoother but still had the training wheels. I kept writing like a madman and audited a course at San Francisco State University. It finally clicked in 1992, a decade later. Since then, I have written and self-published a handful of artsy-fartsy chapbooks.
Do you see yourself as an urban planner or a writer?
Both. Part of my job as an urban planner is to write extremely meticulous letters, memorandums, and reports. This is work for hire. At night, at home, I am liberated and can write whatever and however I please. So, I write literature for us folks, most naturally. According to my editors who are both professionals, I am a great writer. According to the Internal Revenue Service, I am a poor businessman.
Why do you write? What do you try to do with your prose?
I write to share. Each project has a different reason to be born. Like siblings, they each have different personalities. The travel books are universally humorous like a fast paced folk tune because my travels have been fortunate. I have never suffered a serious accident or illness. I was never beaten-up or robbed. The poetry is different with structured tones like chamber music. The personal experience essays are like pleasant American ballads while the short stories to be released next year are a bit tragic like Mexican corridos. Once in an art class, a white haired woman asked the instructor why her drawings all had a certain look, no matter what she did. Jim, the teacher, nodded and said, “You can experiment with paper, pencils, strokes, but your personality will always shine because we are all different.” My literary writing is like that.
Many years ago my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Virginia Eades, noticed that we did not read or write as well as her generation. She blamed it on the television and all the time we wasted watching moving pictures instead of reading. Today reading and writing must compete with television, computers, Ipods, and cell phones. The idea of universal literacy is a cornerstone of our government and society yet we are sliding towards semi-literacy. This bothered me so much that I actually went back to school at night and earned grade school teaching credentials. For two and one half years, I taught, then set down my whistle and picked up my laser pointer, returning to urban planning. I have given this some thought and have become convinced that what we Joe and Joan Citizens can do is to set an example by writing. Write anything and publish it because that is what sustains us, curiosity. What the hey.
Why haven’t you attempted to get published by a commercial publisher?
I have. Commercial publishers are not interested in my eccentricities.
What are you writing now?
I try to have two projects going on simultaneously. Right now I am typing my collected personal correspondence for my sons. I am also working on an outline for a two- hundred-page technical book for urban planners. It will explain in simple English basic engineering concepts involved in the construction of infrastructure (sewer, water, storm drainage, roads, power grid). There is no such book on the market. If you wanted to understand this, you would be forced to wade through a stack of boring, jargon-filled engineering textbooks. I know. I have.
Tell us a bit about each of your books.
My travel writing includes:
- South of the Frontera about travels in Mexico and Central America before and during my Peace Corps service.
- Americruise recounts a bus trip across the United States and Canada in 1984.
- Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City and Missed the Wedding is a narrative about a trip to Mexico City in 1987.
- Travels in South America tells of a journey around South America in 1988.
My other works include:
- Salt of the Earth which is an oral history of the Saint Vincent De Paul Society in San Mateo, California.
- Travelin' Doodles contains black & white drawings from Mexico and South America
- American Papers: Volumes 15 are personal experience essays about books, learning, and travel.
- Attack of the Claw has poems about teaching.
- And planned for publication in 2009, Whispering Campaign, a collection of short stories set in Mesoamerica circa 1980.
What do you hope to leave behind with your writing?
I leave the example itself I wrote. William Burroughs once said that there are two kinds of writers; those who write and those who talk about writing. The writers, he said, are like bullfighters while the talkers are more bullshitters. Bullfighting is more my line.
Larry, thanks for your time on all of this and for your books.
The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder
And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns
by Stew Magnuson (Mauritania 198788)
Texas Tech University Press
Reviewed by Scott Zesch (Kenya 1982-84)
ON A COLD WINTER EVENING in 1972, four young, restless white men and one woman were drinking beer and cruising the streets of Gordon, Nebraska, when they came upon an intoxicated Oglala Lakota ranch hand named Raymond Yellow Thunder. They grabbed him by the hair, punched him in the face, stripped him from the waist down, and forced him into the trunk of their car. They thought it would be a great joke to shove him half-naked into the American Legion Hall, where a benefit dance was underway. The townspeople stared in shock as the bruised Indian cowboy in the doorway pulled his shirttail down to cover himself and hid his face in shame. Then he quickly retreated into the freezing night. No one thought it was necessary to call the police or an ambulance.
Eight days later, Raymond Yellow Thunder was found dead, quite possibly from the head injuries he had received at the hands of his tormentors.
This tragic incident serves as the springboard for Stew Magnuson’s compelling and evenhanded book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Part journalism and part history, this fine work of narrative nonfiction reads like a collection of related short stories, skillfully weaving together threads from the distant past, the recent past, and the present. Magnuson, a former foreign correspondent and a native of Omaha, employs both a reporter’s detachment and a novelist’s empathy as he recounts decades of festering anger and mistrust between the white settlers of Sheridan County, Nebraska, and their native neighbors, the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation. He draws his tales from personal interviews and archival sources.
Raymond Yellow Thunder’s death galvanized the nascent American Indian Movement (AIM) and briefly thrust the small prairie town of Gordon into the national spotlight. A rumor circulated that the victim, on the night of his beating and humiliation, had been forced to dance “Indian style.” Some claimed that his skull had been crushed. AIM led a march through Gordon that prompted white residents to lock their doors and hide. Activist Russell Means told TV reporters that AIM would “take Gordon off the map” if their demands for justice were not met. Reva Evans, publisher of the Gordon Journal, tried to defend the hometown she loved: “Indians are treated just like everyone else in this town.” But the Oglalas told a different story at a heated town meeting that Evans declined to attend. An elderly white lawyer who did show up at the gathering considered himself a “friend of the Indian” and couldn’t understand why the Oglalas shouted him off the stage and applauded when he was thrown out of the auditorium. Prosecutor Michael Smith managed to obtain convictions against the perpetrators in a highly publicized trial, although he harbored doubts about the exact cause of Yellow Thunder’s death. A year later, energized AIM members occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days.
Magnuson relates how people from two very different cultures wanted “to believe the worst of each other” and missed numerous opportunities to try to understand the other side’s experiences: “The white citizens of Gordon could have come down to the auditorium to learn how their neighbors lived. And AIM could have welcomed them.” Former AIM leader Bill Cross, reflecting on the group’s activities of the 1970s, recalls with pride that “Indian people regained their identity.” At the same time, he makes it clear that AIM was not intended to be a “bridge builder” but a “polarizer” and a vehicle for Native Americans to assert their rights. “We’ll never live together,” he concludes. “Physically, we will, but we’ll never share.”
Interspersed in this story of AIM and the FBI’s “dirty war” of the 1970s are historical chapters illuminating the origins of the problems that still plague the towns bordering the reservation. Magnuson brings to life a cast of long-gone Nebraska characters: gold-seeker John Gordon, who invaded the Sioux Black Hills in 1875; Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, skilled negotiators who knew they could not defeat the U.S. Army and were denounced by their angry young men as “treaty chiefs”; Jules Sandoz, a “stubborn and mean-spirited” Swiss immigrant who was hated by his white neighbors but somehow managed to befriend the Oglalas.
Most importantly, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder helps readers understand why, for many Native Americans, the Indian wars have never ended and the scars have never healed. The Wounded Knee massacre may have passed from living memory, but in some quarters it remains as raw and painful as if it had happened last week rather than 118 years ago.
Scott Zesch is the author of the novel Alamo Heights and the narrative history The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, which won the TCU Texas Book Award and was a selection of Book of the Month Club. He is currently working on a book about the Los Angeles race riot and Chinese massacre of 1871.
by Richard Stevenson
[aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264)]
Reviewed by Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1991-93)
LET’S START WITH the disclosure of a guilty little secret. Death Vows, the 9th in the series of Donald Strachey mysteries by Richard Stevenson (nee Richard Lipez, Ethiopia 196264), was a rollicking romp of a read.
Thing is, I meant not to like it. Initially, I did something worse than judge a book by its cover: I judged it by its publisher, mlrpress, a company so obscure as to require Googling. Anticipating the titular, instead I wound up unexpectedly titillated by a home page plastered with covers of mostly naked men in the throes of . . . well, you know . . . throes. As it turns out, mlrpress stands for “ManLoveRomance Press: Gay, Erotic Fiction at its Best.” Now, I like to think I’m as open-minded as every other ultra-liberal RPCV gal, but I must confess to harboring a somewhat conventional preference for keeping the man love in my bed, and the gay erotic fiction off my nightstand. Besides, the reader in me considers Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral to be a light summery break from more complicated fare, and the author in me considers Tony D’Sousa and Paul Theroux and Mark Brazaitis to be contemporaries. So I wanted to think of myself as a bit more literary, rather more refined, than to easily succumb to the temptation of ManLoveRomance fare.
What Stevenson has proved here is that I am a snob, and he can craft a page-turning caper.
Plot-driven, in the tradition of most whodunits, Death Vows follows the case of gay private investigator Donald Strachey of Albany, NY, who is hired by a retired gay couple to investigate the mysterious fiancé of their mutual “friend.” In the ripped-from-the-headlines style for which Stevenson is known, the partners-to-be are also both men, thereby featuring Massachusetts’ recent law allowing gay couples to marry as a secondary character in the novel. Though all the primary characters have long since come out of the closet, the skeletons they left behind reanimate with every turn of the page; everyone has a concealed past and a secret identity, and it is Strachey’s job to weave through the confusion while solving his client’s murder and preventing his own.
Part of the fun for Peace Corps types will be the regular references to the RPCV status of Strachey’s partner, Timothy, and the ways in which his characterization is marked by his service. Take, for instance, this repartee:
“Timothy, you have all these Kennedy stories, and I have none. I want to meet this Radziwill guy, and then I’ll have a Kennedy story too. I hope you won’t mind. JFK was your president, you Peace Corps types. I know you’re proprietary about him.”
“But, Don, you had your president too LBJ. And you’ve got plenty of Johnson stories. Or johnson with a small J.” He chuckled.
This was an uncharacteristically crude remark from Timmy, and snider than I was used to. I said, “The Vietnamese word for penis is eunice. Did you know this?”
Don’t misjudge the book by this hint of provocative joshing; it never gets raunchier than that. Instead, Stevenson’s self-deprecating humor parades notably throughout the entire work. He never shies from poking fun at himself through his characters, whether via salty references to the Peace Corps or issues of sexual orientation; this tongue-in-cheek irreverence keeps a book about murder and socio-political transitions from devolving into a bleak and cumbersome preacher’s platform. To wit, this stereotypically ‘gay’ attack scene:
“So apparently [your clients, less-than-affectionately referred to as ‘the toads’] were in [the grocery] yesterday around two doing their shopping when they ran into Barry Fields, a local gay guy who is about as fond of them as most people are, and they got into an argument about something. Anyway, Fields ended up screaming at the toads, and he hit [one] with a wheel of cheese.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Not badly, according to the paper. Not hospitalized, at any rate.”
“Perhaps it was a fine, aromatic, soft cheese.”
“The report didn’t say. The Eagle is not what it once was, Donald. It’s owned by a cheap chain now, and you’re lucky if they don’t spell cheese with a z. The old Eagle would have described the area in western France where the cheese originated and included a sidebar about the editor’s mother’s visit there in 1958.”
Cheeky though it is, this isn’t great literature by any stretch. At the end of this century, Stevenson’s not going to be snapping at the heels of any of the competitors for the “100 Greatest Books of the Last 100 Years” list. Though The New York Times Book Review praised his second novel in this series, On the Other Hand, Death, for its “thoroughly realized characters,” those featured here, seven books hence, seem profoundly one-dimensional right down to the ultimate culprit, the oft-maligned mob, uncovered as the banal bad-guy simply because someone, in B-movie fashion, used that most-clichéd of mafia catch-phrases: “I’ll break your legs!”
The language is also, at times, unbearably stilted: “It was possible, I said, that there was some legitimate reason for their identities being of apparent recent manufacture.” Even worse, the verbiage sometimes ranges so far beyond stilted as to be absurd: “Now they both rolled their eyes. I was beginning to fear for the integrity of their optic nerves.” And “but I shoved these thoughts back down into their seamy cerebral storage bins.” It would also benefit from some finer editing, as there is an entire passage of dialogue about halfway through in which the victim’s and perpetrator’s names are inverted.
Clearly, Death Vows won’t be overtaxing anyone’s cerebral storage bins. But still, flaws and all, it entertained me; something much more highbrow literature has not infrequently failed to do. Moreover, Stevenson made me laugh sometimes with him, sometimes at him, sometimes at my own aspirations to the intelligentsia and in the end tally, I unashamedly admit: This is one gay detective I didn’t object to cozying up with.
Ellen Urbani is the author of the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable Selection in ’06. It is the story of the women she befriended during her Peace Corps service in Guatemala. Her short stories have been published in various pop-culture anthologies. Her novel-in-progress is set in the Deep South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ellen lives in Portland, OR, with her two toddlers. Her website is www.ellenurbani.com
A Red Sox Mystery
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) and Jere Smith
Hall of Fame Press
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 197678)
EVEN THOUGH MANNY Ramirez has departed the Boston Red Sox for LA and trimmed off six inches of his hair, his presence remains one of many enjoyable authentic touches in Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and Jere Smith’s new mystery. The action in Dirty Water takes place during the team’s 2007 championship season, and the mix of “real” and mythical details is tantalizing.
And while the plot like many a good mystery revolves around a (made-up) murder, I’d like to think that the story reflects Tirone Smith’s Peace Corps leanings in the way that she touchingly humanizing many of its characters.
Here’s the start in that direction: one Sunday morning before a game, a cloaked stranger secretly drops off a baby in the Red Sox locker room. A baby in that bastion of smelly, raucous masculinity? With that, Dirty Water’s two authors, a mother-son duo, guarantee that even the reader most resistant to sports themes will be intrigued.
With its squeaks the little bundle is first mistaken in believable locker room banter for a somebody farting, then a cat meowing. This situation opens up lovely character-building possibilities that Tirone Smith and Smith don’t squander.
Team captain Jason Varitek finds the infant, and in the scenes that follow taking off a filthy blanket, discovering that “it’s” a boy and wet, adjusting the air conditioning the players respond with instant concern and tenderness. Later David “Big Papi” Ortiz takes over, protecting the powerless and helping investigators figure out the truth.
The child, quickly named Baby Ted Williams, leads to a murdered woman and complications that leap back and forth from Fenway Park to the “fens,” source of the dirty water, and as the complications pile up, to LA and Havana and back.
Early on, a mysterious Red Sox fan blogger (Jere Smith actually runs a Red Sox fan site) seems to know more than everybody. The straightforward narrative is interspersed with blog exchanges, in which enticing clues are dropped in like bobbers amidst the Bosox fan chatter.
And the trail eventually comes to my favorite part of the book, Boston Homicide Detective Rocky Patel, an Indian-American who “has Jesus in his heart but Shiva in his blood.” This tranquil and wily Hindu knows nothing about baseball. But that’s okay: human nature is his expertise. And he has an Irish-Italian Boston wife. She’s still breastfeeding their six-month-old kid and while her family feeds her Guinness Stout and gnocchi to keep up her energy, Patel slips her peach slices in yogurt. His favorite beer is Kingfisher, because, he sighs, “it’s perfumed with jasmine.”
I loved this savvy and self-deprecating nonconformist and how he quietly solves the case. I’m delighted to learn that he appears in another of Tirone Smith’s books I have yet to read, She Smiled Sweetly. I hope she keeps Patel going in future novels; he could rival the ineffable Morse.
In a note to John Coyne tucked into the review copy I received, I couldn’t help seeing that Tirone Smith wrote, “whatever you do, don’t let a Yankees fan review this book.” Tirone Smith got a Red Sox reviewer only by marriage, so I asked my husband, an RPCV who grew up in Boston, to read it too. He thoroughly enjoyed the authentic mix of Boston lore, Red Sox truth, and fiction. He prefers fast-moving action along with good writing; it spoke well of the Smiths’ well-rounded skills that while I slowed down to note the novel’s literary aspects, he kept turning the pages right to the end.
The only part we agreed sometimes didn’t work was the blog entries, which somewhat interfered with the flow but then, we’re both old-timers used to more conventional narrative. And, as a blogger myself, I admit to savoring the blogger’s role in the story, beating out both the mainstream media and police for several key breaks in the case.
Boston fans will love the many allusions and jokes in Dirty Water. But I predict that even for non-Red Sox fans, especially those who’ve followed Tirone Smith’s career through ten other books, Dirty Water comes as a happy addition. It’s infused with fondness not just for Boston and baseball but also for the richness of cross-cultural urban life. Dirty Water delivers its base hits with warmth, wit and intrigue.
Jan Worth-Nelson, a writing teacher at the University of Michigan Flint and author of the Peace Corps novel Night Blind, is not a Yankee fan.
Last Chance for First
by Tom Hazuka (Chile 197880)
Brown Barn Books
Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 199698)
TOM HAZUKA’S NOVEL for young adults, Last Chance for First, proves that inside every grown man lurks the kid he once was, and I mean this as a compliment. Sometimes the kid is buried so deep, his spirit is all but crushed. But the kid in Hazuka is alive and well, and has the starring role in his story.
The wonder is that Hazuka has managed not only to tap into that turbulent adolescent psyche, he has pretty well transplanted it into a character who talks the way kids do today and who deals with today’s complicated realities.
Robby wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to win maybe not at all costs, but pretty close to it. He’s a junior in high school, co-captain of the soccer team, and the younger brother of a superstar football player.
He likes a girl who bleaches her hair white and wears a gold ring in her nose. This girl, Pet, says and does things that make it seem like she doesn’t care what people think. Robby finds this intriguing but, at the same time, potentially embarrassing.
Almost everything in Robby’s life is either potentially embarrassing, morally ambiguous, or frustratingly complex. Sometimes there isn’t any right answer. Or maybe there is a right answer, but it interferes with the all-important battle of winning or losing.
What do you do if your sadistic soccer coach goes too far in punishing one of your teammates? If you object, you might lose your chance for a soccer scholarship. Worse than that, you might be considered a whiner or a wimp. Or a rat.
What do you do if your best friend crashes his car, and everyone asks you if he was driving drunk, and you figure he probably was?
What if your girlfriend tells you a secret about her past that you don’t know how to deal with?
The plot twists around a lot of issues recognizable to kids in high school, and it does the all-important job of keeping those pages turning. You never know what’s going to happen next; the story is told chronologically, in the first person.
Robby’s voice is sometimes so true to his developing maturity that it’s really touching (“I wanted to help him, but what could I do? This was private pain, nothing some kid could fix.”), and other times so ripe with trash talk it made me wince (“Dude, what did that asswipe say to get you so pissed off?”).
There is one character in the book that has to be the author’s alter ego Mr. McLaughlin, the guitar-playing, wisdom-dispensing teacher of creative writing: “In life the winner isn’t always the one with the best score.” Mr. Mac has his own problems, but that’s another story.
Robby’s a likeable character and the conflicts he faces make for interesting reading. His relationship with Pet is sensitively described. His thoughts about his parents sound fairly typical.
His love of soccer shines through the several well-developed scenes played out on the soccer field are full of excitement and struggle. It is probably not an overstatement to say that this is the arena where the boy’s passion finds its most vigorous expression.
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World. She has placed one novel with a literary agent and is working on a second.
by James A. Ciullo (Venezuela 1969-71)
Five Star Publisher
Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 196567)
THREE HARD-DRINKING, macho Peace Corps Volunteers nearing completion of their service in Venezuela conspire to steal and sell Nazi treasures stashed at a warehouse in a city on the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The conspiracy includes some Venezuelan friends and an incidental female PCV to facilitate the adventure . . . and add a touch of sex interest.
To legitimize the heist, the proceeds at least a few of them are intended to provide a continuous and reliable resource to sustain a project of one of the PCVs.
Years later, the primary character becomes a candidate for Senate and the Nazi treasure escapade comes home to roost or does it? The candidate’s policy positions are adverse to some powerful interests which will do whatever necessary to take him out of the race. The plot . . . thickens?
Dedicated “To All those who have served in the Peace Corps”, Orinoco is, of course, by no means a Peace Corps story. Peace Corps is used as a point of interest, essentially irrelevant to the story.
A contemporary mystery / adventure / spy story wannabe, Orinoco pulls the reader through a labyrinth of adventures, subplots, twists and turns a few interesting, fewer exciting, but mostly plodding. The book struggles for a plot to successfully carry the reader through 374 pages (64 chapters plus the Epilogue). The last fourth of the book generates some mystery and interest, but almost too late to justify the few hours required to read that far.
For me, the recipe for interesting and exciting fiction worth reading includes not only time juxtaposition in the story but lots of plot and character development. Descriptive writing free of the “trash” effect and some level of believability are requisites to good adventure fiction.
Orinoco, suffers from hackneyed phrases and contrived, predictable situations. It does generate sufficient interest to give hope that Mr. Cuillo’s next effort may get there. I may read Mr. Cuillo’s next book, just to see if it rises above Orinoco. But you can bet I won’t pay the jacket price!
After his Peace Corps service in Turkey, Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue personal business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 196668) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he became Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe and Asia and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Now retired, Ken is engaged in numerous volunteer and political activities. He is active in local and Virginia politics, on the Boards of the Bulgarian-American Society and the Friends of Turkey and chairs the Alexandria, Virginia Sister Cities Committee with Gyumri, Armenia. He is a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 198385)
Washington Writers’ Publishing House
Reviewed by Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
THE STRENGTH OF David Taylor's interesting and exotic stories springs from his strong narrative voice and his precise yet casual use of details. The stories take place in many locales Sri Lanka, Nepal, Scotland, Africa and a U.S. trailer park. They deal with difficult relationships between lovers, fathers and sons, siblings and people who work together. Each story rests on its own, with interesting true-to-life characters; strong details arise from the background amid story lines that are not always what they seem. Many of the tales have twists and turns and yet the total effect is almost always achieved by the emotional punch, rather than the conclusion of a story line.
In the opening story, “Strikers,” a group of experienced volunteers for a medical experiment carry on like freshmen pledging a fraternity. This is a unique tale of potential losers doing a dangerous medical trial for money. The tensions and uncomfortable relationships are portrayed in an almost causal way, but what is left unsaid by the narrator is strangely more satisfying than the consequences or behavior.
This holds true in many of the stories in this collection. While the narrative is usually strong and apparent, the story line often comes to an indistinct ending before the emotional impact. This is done with great effect in, “Bottle,” which describes a chance encounter between the disgruntled narrator on the way to a hospital to see his newborn child and his alienated wife. He tries to shake an intrusive alcoholic character who insists that the new father be his friend. Although this meeting is of the unlikely sort, through a twist or two we find out what these two share.
“Strange Cabbages,” is set in one of the exotic locations Sri Lanka, where a dreamy interwoven story of government officials in the third world is set against the real life of those who are living their life in the daily fight against threatening poverty. The story features the sentiments of government officials and their casual, almost random doling out of government largess. The many good details bring the characters to face the reader on the page with their frustrations, longing and everyday violence.
The title story, “Success,” is a tale about a brother egging on his younger sibling and sister-in-law in a kind of warped strike at using them. The emotional ride as the younger brother trys to impress his older brother stops like a rider pulling up short on a horse which propels the full emotional impact past the ending to an unexpected appreciation of all the characters and their situation.
“Pelagro,” a story of a father and son’s weekly outing to the racetrack portrays a son beginning to see his father and his family with a growing maturity. The day at the races turns out to be more about the decline and alienation of a family than bringing father and son together when an incident at the track mirrors the details in the family’s separateness.
In “Coral, from the Sea” which is about half way through the collection, the reader begins to feel more acquainted with the author and to trust his take on his fictional surroundings. This story involves a deaf female locksmith and a trailer park family. Taylor does not spare the romantic isolation of the characters; in fact he manages to make them all appealing in their seeming random and awkward relations to each other. As in other stories, the complexity of the impact of the characters on each other rests on the emotional undercurrents of the story and overcomes the routine avenues of the narration.
“May Day,” a coming of age story in a college in Scotland begins with the opening of a letter that “. . . slices like a paper cut opening up a seam of memory.” In the typical din of the college life of friends and drinking and wondering is the growing pain of a boy-girl story with a painful revelation which, when it comes, reverberates through the inner lives of the characters and perhaps into the readers’ own experience and understanding.
In “Child Thief,” an African village displays a mob mentality in accusing a stranger. We see the story from the viewpoint of a child. The exotic ordinariness of the story tends to show how alike we all are no matter where we live. “Electrolysis” is a strange tale, as creepy as the office in a 4th floor electrolysis lair run by a loose waif and the gentleman caller who needs his ears and ego trimmed back.
Success: Stories is an imaginative collection, diverse and satisfying, filled with the unspoken realization that life is full of stories and yet underneath, life goes on in spite of and because of the stories. Several are perhaps too short and need more substance, but even here the details and voice make them compelling. The writing throughout is excellent, with convincing details that enhance the narrative and dialogue that is crisp, real and direct.
Will Siegel holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He is working on a book of short stories and a novel that encompasses the homecoming and re-education of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
How to Be Safe, Savvy and Secure Abroad
by Ray Leki (Nepal 197981; staff: Nepal 198890, Pakistan 1990)
Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567)
EARLY IN Travel Wise, Ray Leki’s astute guide to navigating the increasing complexities of international travel, he quotes advice he received from the American Embassy when he was a Volunteer in Nepal, counsel that would rank high on any list of the worst advice ever offered to a PCV. It was 1980, Russia had just invaded Afghanistan, fifty diplomats were being held hostage in Iran, and political instability in Nepal inspired our embassy to send Leki, a PCV in the far northeastern corner of Nepal, “a helpful note” that should things get rough he “should consider ‘walking due north into China (Tibet) and requesting political protection from the nearest border security personnel.’” Even at 23 Leki knew that trying to cross Himalayan passes above 17,000 feet on foot “and then stumbling into some . . . Chinese border guards and asking for help in his non-existent Mandarin” was not reasonable or safe. However, the memo did motivate him take stock of his situation and he realized that his biggest resource was “the loyalty and affection of [the] remarkable group of people living” in his village. They would protect him.
That “helpful note” and his experience with Peace Corps training ignited an interest and career in cross-cultural training and preparation and ultimately in this highly practical book subtitled “How to Be Save, Savvy, and Secure Abroad.”
Taking stock is key to Levi’s method. In Chapter 2 he provides a helpful inventory that guides the traveler in asking the right questions, focusing both on one’s own personal characteristics and comfort level with risk and also evaluating the destination in terms of potential hazards. This risk assessment process is the heart of the book. Subsequent chapters deconstruct each aspect of the assessment: personal and interpersonal skills, cross-cultural skills, crisis management, site-specific assessment, even motivation. The penultimate chapter “Organizational Security” is particularly valuable for the international business traveler. Levi provides an excellent model for analyzing the organization’s goals and mission abroad as well as highlighting potential threats or impediments. The final chapter presents two real-life situations and four case studies which amplify the effectiveness of his method.
The Travel Wise Personal Inventory is useful to anybody traveling abroad and the book as a whole would be especially effective in a corporate training program to prepare employees with a diverse range of travel experiences to work and travel abroad. Through years of experience as a trainer himself Levy has developed a functional system for evaluating risk, potential problems and increasing the comfort and effectiveness of the international traveler. No organization informed by Travel Wise would advise employees to scale the Himalayas should things get dicey at their work site!
Reading as an RPCV who has frequently traveled in remote areas including returning to my country of service, I felt that his explication of the inventory and potential hazards a bit too obvious. He is correct that things have changed in the intervening years, but one of the gifts of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that you develop good instincts about your own comfort level and know to expect the unexpected. The best application for this very practical book is for the first-time traveler and the traveler or organization doing business abroad. Levi’s Travel Wise Model is clear, systematic, and hits all the right notes.
Kathleen Coskran is a writer and teacher. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including an NEA Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Since her retirement as head of Lake Country School, a large, nationally known Montessori school that serves children through age 15, she and her husband Chuck, (Ethiopia 1965-67, Kenya staff, 1968-70) walked the thousand-mile pilgrimage from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago, Spain and the following year taught at Zhejiang College of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. In May of 2008 she traveled to Nepal to work in a children’s home and develop curriculum for Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN).
A Writer Writes
America’s Role in a Post-American World
by Carl Pope (India 196769)
In August there was a gathering of RPCVs in Fort Collins, Colorado, organized by the non-profit Beet Street which is a collaborative learning community in Fort Collins. One of the speakers was Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club since 1992 and a veteran leader in the environmental movement having been with the Sierra Club for nearly thirty years. Carl was kind enough to share his notes from his talk entitled, “America’s Role in a Post-American World” with us.
LAST WINTER’S UN CONFERENCE in Bali, Indonesia, on global warming stood out less for its outcome a modest global agreement to keep talking than for its dramaturgy. The conference was stage managed not by the US or Europe, the historic protagonists on climate, but by China, India, Indonesia and South Africa emerging economies that for the first time moved, sometimes cautiously, sometimes boldly, out of their “you in the industrial world caused the problem of global warming you fix it” trenches.
The climactic line in Bali belonged to Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who confronted US delegate Paula Dobriansky, as she attempted to block the agreement. “If you cannot lead, leave it to the rest of us. Get out of the way,” Conrad chided the world’s hyper-power. Dobriansky and the US delegation promptly blinked.
Travelling in Vietnam after the conference, my wife, who was borne in Bombay, raised an intriguing issue. Everywhere we went the gradual ebbing of the “American century” was palpable. Korean tourists are the shiny new object at the temples of Angkor Wat, Singapore’s Ching Mai airport puts Kennedy or LAX to shame in the efficiency with which it loads passengers into taxis. On a hundred mile boat trip in the Mekong Delta we passed under not one but three new cable-stressed mega-bridges under construction each one larger than the planned replacement for the San Francisco Bay Bridge that has taken California since 1989 to get underway.
It’s no longer just that Asian populations are bigger, younger and in some cases better educated, or that their economies are growing faster. Asian countries are also following Japan’s path by developing capacities in an increasing number of fields that put America to shame. Sometime in the not too distant future the US will no longer have the world’s largest economy. Sometime this century it will fall to number three or four.
“It’s going to be a new world,” my wife observed, in the context of the next presidential election. “I’m not sure if Americans are ready for that reality.”
I’m pretty sure they are not. At Bali the most reviled US statement came from the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton, who declared, “We will lead, we will continue to lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.” Connaughton’s line did not suggest that he has internalized a new global reality.
But it’s not just the Bush Administration that’s not ready. Most of the discussion of the foreign policy contrast between this year’s presidential candidates focused on their emphasis on soft power vs. hard power almost none asked which had a vision of how America should transition to being a competitive, not a hegemonic, power.
Losing your place as the undisputed number one is never easy. No one has ever done it well. Perhaps America, an open society built by successive waves of immigrants, has a better shot at a graceful evolution into a nation that leads a multi-polar world by its values, once it loses its sheer heft, than Rome or Britain, our two imperial ancestors.
But for even a nation with America’s advantages to accept the rise of a genuinely multi-polar world will take skilled leadership and probably luck.
There is a lot at stake here and not just for Americans. One of the other realities at Bali was that in confronting global warming, the US is not only a “major emitter,” but therefore an essential party to any solution. However, without American leadership, it was clear that Europe and the developing world cannot resolve their own internal conflicts and embrace bold change American engagement is still essential.
Even as my wife and I were tracing the ebbing of American hegemony in the spider webbed cables of new bridges, writers and publishers were getting ready to make this narrative one of the 2008’s hot stories. Whether it is in books by the Indian Diaspora like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Kishore Mahbubani's The New Asian Hemisphere or in “Who Shrank the Superpower?: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” in the New York Times magazine [by Parag Khanna 1/27/08], no serious reader on foreign policy has not heard the argument the American era is over.
But while the phenomenon has become big news, the debate seems to be remarkably half-hearted. Some reviewers critique whether American power really is as diminished as the new wave of writings claims, or are these merely yet another series in the “decline and fall of the American empire” vein. Others take refuge in arguing about whether Mahbubani is correct in claiming that India is a good bet to assume America’s role as a global honest broker, or offering their own policy prescriptions for how America’s leadership.
There is none of the serious anguish that signaled previous “we must change courses moments” in recent history say the launching of Sputnik. Thomas Friedman’s argument for a new “global green” economy is almost the only big new idea out there.
Almost none of the analysis asks the question, “What are the American people going to make of this transition?” And very few seem to explore whether or not America’s leadership is asking that question. Indeed, no one wonders whether our establishment has been primarily motivated by finding ways for America to continue as a global leader, or whether the loss of American credibility and effectiveness is the understandable result of an elite pursuing domestic, rather than global goals, albeit on a globalized stage.
I am going to suggest that America’s leaders have been making it as hard as possible for the average American to cope with the 21st century reality that America is no longer the hyper-power. As globalization has matured, American policy has become less and less suited to maintain public consent for American leadership in a globalized world. By leaders I am NOT referring solely or even primarily to the Bush Administration. In this context Bush appears to me as a malignant extreme but only the extreme of a bi-partisan leadership policy approach that began as a trickle and has swollen to a flood over the last thirty-five years.
The heart of this approach was to take America’s supremacy, and America’s engagement, for granted. These were givens, realities to be exploited and taken advantage of for other domestic political, cultural and economic purposes not hard won and fragile assets to be stewarded and preserved. The primary domestic purpose for which the changing rules of the globalized economy were to be deployed was to reduce the income equality, social solidarity and relative homogeneity that emerged from World War II. Globalization was an opportunity to make the rules of the game inside America better for the winners, and harsher for the less successful. The American government approaches the world with a set of strategies whose impact makes America less fair, less inclusive, and less balanced and as a result less competitive in the new multi-polar world, and less willing and able to assume the burdens of global leadership.
This didn’t have to be the consequence of globalization but it was the result of the way the US government approached it. And by reducing the sense that all Americans are facing the challenge of globalization together, we have made it much harder for the average American to accept the new global realities.
It’s not accidental that the nations that have caught up with the US economically and socially since WWII first those in Europe, then Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and now China all emerged from devastating experiences which created a strong sense of internal solidarity. All invested heavily in trying to bring their entire populations into the modern world. They were about competing with other nations internationally, not internally.
If a country wants to be able to respond quickly to the demands of a changing global economy, it’s important that everyone pull in the same direction. This capacity to cooperate for the common good is what America has been gradually losing.
The sense of a common American destiny in the world which emerged from the Depression and WWII has been hollowed out by a set of policy strategies adopted by America’s national elites. Whether the issue was trade, education, the structure of our military, or the impact of immigration on wages, America’s leaders took care of themselves and the knowledge class from which they emerged America’s most comfortable and correspondingly left the middle and lower rungs of the social hierarchy naked to the storms of change.
Instead of getting ready to compete with the world, our leaders have been focused on psyching us up to compete with each other, with rules of the game that ratchet up the odds that the results are winner take all.
How an average American might view globalization
An average voter in Cleveland sees his manufacturing job outsourced to Asia. When his kids are ready for college he finds that decent education has become a prerogative of affluence. He reads that American kids are falling behind the rest of the world. He shares the struggles of his neighbor’s family unable to get health care while she serves in a silent draft in Iraq. He suspects that by relying on a steady flow of low wage immigrant workers employers keep the remaining job base jobs that can’t be outsourced such as those in the construction and service sectors poorly paid.
Meanwhile, the US government makes sure that American investors and knowledge workers the top of the social pyramid get what they need from trade treaties, have access to elite educations, avoid military service and have access to cheap agricultural, service and construction labor.
This is not, I would suggest, a formula that makes it easy for that voter to embrace a multi-polar world, to accept America’s leadership responsibilities, or to cope with the need to rethink our relationship with the global community.
It is not surprising that a late winter poll showed that Americans had turned resoundingly sour on globalization.
If global engagement offers this kind of outcomes for most Americans, they will take refuge in various forms of isolationism and withdrawal, and no amount of editorial hectoring from the Washington Post will change this.
In the last thirty years American trade negotiators have pursued a strategy that prioritized economic advantages for American investors, financial service companies, drug manufacturers, agribusiness giants; and Hollywood “Free trade” agreements are actually complex “trade compromises” in which each nation pursues its own interests. There is nothing wrong with this. But the American trade negotiating posture has consistently presumed no future for high-wage manufacturing jobs as if America’s only interest lay in “knowledge” workers, and corporate profits. This strategy was the fundamental priority for Bush’s father in launching NAFTA. It was often and explicitly articulated by Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. It continues today under W.
The conventional response to this concern is that we simply can’t expect to preserve manufacturing jobs here our wages are too high. High wages are, indeed, one factor in the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US. But the underlying economics are not nearly as simple as Americans are told, or our trade negotiators seem to assume. Take Korean steel, for example. Back in 1999, with a strong dollar, Korean steel on the average cost $130 a ton less than US steel but labor costs amounted to less than 25% of that differential. But the conventional media wisdom was that the loss of American steel was simply the result of high wages.
And, to the extent that wage competition makes it hard to keep manufacturing jobs in the US, then higher manufacturing wages in places like Mexico and China should be a very high priority for US negotiators. Instead, America’s trade negotiators have fought bitterly to keep labor and wage issues out of trade agreements as irrelevant “side” issues while insisting that American foreign investors garner unprecedented rights to challenge any and all government regulations limiting their operations overseas, making it even more attractive for them to move their factories somewhere else.
This trade policy has been enabled by the media’s willingness to parrot a series of demonstrable untruths. One of the standard defenses of American trade policy in the press has been to admit that trade agreements were hurting manufacturing, but nonetheless were creating far more jobs than they destroyed overall. But in 2006 the New York Times quietly reported that 2005 was the first year in a decade in which trade actually contributed positively to American economic growth. But even this did not cause the Times to reflect this reality in its frequent editorials decrying declining public and political support for trade.
So what do trade liberalization advocates suggest we should do to cope with what US trade policy is doing to blue-collar workers? Simple we need for Americans to be better educated to compete in a globalized world. This is undoubtedly and unquestionably true. Even if we changed our trade negotiating priorities, only better educated Americans can continue to realize the American dream.
But education for whom? Over the same period of time that US trade policy has hollowed out the middle class manufacturing job base, US education policy has also make it harder and harder for the children of middle class families to get good education.
When I went to college in the 1960s, America’s new suburbs were investing phenomenally in public schools. State universities even the best like California and Michigan were broadly affordable. Private schools in most communities outside New England were for those who thought social snobbery was more important than learning. Parents did not hire tutors to enable their children to do better on the College Boards. Kids didn’t come out of college with crippling levels of student debt. Yes, rural schools were often quite poor. And the stain of segregated, sub-par education for African-Americans was shameful. But American public education remained a strongly democratizing force. With a little federal assistance and intervention, we were confident in1965 that the remaining underserved students could be brought into the mainstream.
That educational world today seems hopelessly far away and utopian. Education has now become a powerful tool for affluent parents to give their kids an edge over the children of the less affluent. Even state university tuitions often require kids to assume horrendous student loan obligations while many colleges colluded with lenders to steer students to expensive equivalents of “subprime” mortgages predatory lending on campus.
In California what was once the nation’s leading public educational system has been so devastated that my own organization, the Sierra Club, cannot recruit mid-career employees from out of state because they conclude they would have to put their kids in private schools. Education in the inner cities, where most minority children go to school, is worse than it was in 1960.
The whole “school choice” movement is premised on the notion that it is parents not the community who need to see that their own kids get a good education. And while Congress and the President agreed that “no child should be left behind” it is obvious that neither party meant it since none of the underlying social and financial pressures that leave children behind were addressed in the bill of that name.
If Robert Reich is correct, and a competitive America must have educational results that look more like Korea’s than those in Watts, it’s clear that America’s leaders over the past 20 years have not been getting us ready to compete as a nation, against the world. They have been restructuring education to foster more cutthroat, winner take all competition among Americans and to make certain that the children of America’s elite got a solid head start in that competition.
That won’t help us in a world in which we are no longer undisputed top dog.
Another critical, and problematic, ingredient in America’s world role is our largely unchallenged global military supremacy. Has defense policy in the last decades helped or hindered the task of bringing us together as one people?
Internally, America’s armed services are one of our tremendous solidarity success stories. They are unquestionably the most effectively racially integrated institutions in the nation, and military leaders regularly advocate policies like affirmative action designed to help the rest of America catch up.
But in late 20th century America, no good deed went unpunished. After Vietnam, there was no GI Bill of Rights. Can we blame this failure on the strongly anti-military feelings of much of America during the war, and on the Democratic party’s ambivalence about military power? Perhaps.
Fast forward to Iraq. Surely we should have expected the Bush Administration and its neoconservative foreign policy elite in particular, to understand the importance of taking care of the troops?
Unfortunately, a whole series of scandals has laid bare the reality that the social safety net for America’s military families has been further shredded by the pressures of a poorly planned war strategy, and a willingness to privatized as much of the war as possible. While National Guard and Reserve troops on second and third tours of duty effectively draftees struggle to find basic health care for their families stranded behind, VA hospitals turned into a national scandal.
And when Congress proposed to restore a genuine GI Bill of Rights by increasing the sizes of college grants for veterans, both the Bush Administration and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain opposed the bill because it would encourage veterans not to reenlist if they had an economic future outside the service. (This is a voluntary army?)
It’s difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion. Everyone’s kids fought World War II. Only a few graduates of elite universities went to Vietnam. No one is forced into Iraq. An all volunteer, largely working class and minority, armed services may have been the best military choice for high tech warfare. But once we made that decision, America’s elites no longer had to suffer the consequences of their own foreign policy and military funding priorities someone else’s kids died, someone else’s kids couldn’t get health care, someone else had their families destroyed.
And when the kids of America’s elite were no longer part of the problem, finding solutions just didn’t seem as important as other things. So America’s military, through no fault of its own, has become another ingredient in the collapse of social consensus and common purpose.
Finally, I come to the hot button issue in this year’s Republican Presidential primaries immigration. Immigration deeply divides Americans. We are handling it in a way that ensures that it will continue to divide us and I’m going to argue that we could do much better if we thought about it differently.
We can’t ignore that some Americans are uncomfortable when the ethnic, linguistic or racial composition of their community changes. Most research suggests that this discomfort goes up dramatically when people are economically insecure but still, diversity is a challenge, even for a country with a long history of assimilating immigration.
But why is immigration suddenly such a huge issue? Quite simply because current economic policy ensures lots of immigration AND low wages and rightly or wrongly, people make the connection. The wage problem is particularly acute in the unorganized construction and service sectors, where outsourcing and trade are not the big problem. If our trade strategies have destroyed the manufacturing middle class, our approach to wages is undermining the ability of construction and service workers to improve their lives and we have positioned immigrants to take the fall.
The US generates more new jobs than its own citizens can fill US labor markets need some level of immigration. The US labor market does not generate enough jobs for all of the desperate people in China, Mexico, India and Africa who, if we had truly open borders, could make their way here and would choose to do so. We cannot be the world’s employer of last resort. Finally, the current mix and level of legal and illegal immigration appears to many observers to be higher than US labor markets can absorb without putting downward pressure on wages. We don’t really know how much, because lots of other things put downward pressure on wages.
So under today’s economic policy immigration may be driving down some wages. But immigrants get blamed disproportionately for the failure of the American economy to sustain the middle class dream.
So what should we do?
One faction in the current debate insists that we should, somehow, find and deport ten million illegal immigrants and seal our border against future illegal immigration.
The other camp, more thoughtfully, says we ought to give the existing illegal population a pathway to citizenship, try to decrease the flow of future illegals, and hope that the problem becomes manageable.
Economic columnist Robert Samuelson summed up this second approach in a column in which he argued that the first step should be to “build a real fence or a wall along every foot of the 1,989 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border.” Then, he suggested, employers would have to raise wages to fill the jobs left vacant by the decline in illegal immigration.
Samuelson is right, our present policies are creating an underclass. But if we think about this as a problem of economic policy, not immigration policy, Samuelson’s suggestion is bizarre. He argues that we want higher wages. To get those higher wages his first step is to spend billions of dollars building a wall on the Mexican border to slow down the flow of excessive immigration, shrink the labor force, and thereby, indirectly, put upward pressure on wages.
But why not just raise wages?
After all, immigration policy is only one influence on wages. Tax policy, minimum-, prevailing- and living-wage rules, labor relations law, and health care policy are just a few of the other governmental decisions that also shape wage levels. Why build a wall when we could make it easier for workers to unionize? Why not establish living wage laws for all workers, and enforce them on all employers?
If employers knew that we would allow as much legal immigration as our labor markets needed to fill good jobs, but that they had to pay, and treat, all workers well regardless of immigration status, they would have no particular incentive to hire undocumented workers.
If workers knew that the flow of immigration would be the result of wage policy, not a driver of it, then they would be reassured that they would benefit from an adequate, but not excessive, rate of immigration. And if migrants knew that there was no pool of jobs waiting in the US if they snuck across the border, we wouldn’t need a fence.
So my quick survey suggests that in none of the four areas that shape our engagement with the world is the national debate heading us towards the restoration of a sense of common destiny.
During the peak of the Japanese boom, Jim Fallow wrote an article in the Atlantic in which he hinted at our dilemma. Japan, he said, was trying to win the global race by ensuring that the bottom half of its society was the best prepared. America was competing with the best top half. Since he wrote, it seems to me that we are increasingly focusing on a smaller and smaller segment of our society. This is the truly big story of the past thirty years of globalization our leaders, not impersonal global forces, made choices that drove a wedge between America’s investors and most fortunate knowledge workers and everyone else.
At the beginning of this talk I was tempted to assert that the last generation of Americans leaders took advantage of globalization to make American society less inclusive and to undermine “e pluribus unum” that notion that we are all in this together. But I am already making a large claim. And I have to confess that while for some actors on the American political stage a winner takes all, every man for himself society was a desirable and intended goal, for many others the corrosion of social solidarity was the result of unexamined assumptions and muddied thinking.
Which is hopeful. If America’s leaders as a group simply don’t care much about whether globalization hurts most Americans while profiting themselves, nothing anyone points out is likely to change our national strategy. We are then truly Rome in decline, and will suffer a similar, if more spectacular, fate. But if we are suffering from unintended consequences, we have a better shot at pulling ourselves together.
Which brings me back to Bali, and global warming: I said that America negotiates its internal relationship with the world in four major arenas but it may be time as Friedman suggests, to add climate and environmental policy as a fifth. Certainly UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has taken the issue as one of his signatures. And rarely has there been an issue on which the US isolated itself in the world so early and consistently.
But here again the pattern holds. There is no doubt that an American commitment a decade ago or today to a less carbon intensive, more innovative energy economy would be good for most Americans. Leave global warming and the environment aside. Every tanker that comes from the Persian Gulf raises the risk of military engagement. We are importing oil, and exporting jobs. Clean energy technologies will be one of the job growth engines of the 21st century. America has pioneered most of the basic technologies for wind and solar, the real manufacturing pay off has almost all been accrued in Europe and Asia.
We didn’t change energy course, even though most of us would have benefited, and most of us have said for a decade that we wanted a new energy future because a powerful segment of the governing elite, Big Carbon, ensured that we negotiated not for America, but for America’s insiders.
The other big factor in America’s reluctance to join the world in Kyoto or any other solution to global warming is, symbolically, critical. For many conservatives, admitting that global warming is a problem worthy of solving runs onto the rock that any likely approaches will be governmental, global, and communitarian values that modern American conservatism despises.
But we are obviously moving beyond the era of Kyoto denial. The Republican candidates this year who tried to cling to the Bush-Cheney approach to climate US exceptionalism and voluntarism did not do well. The two finalists John McCain and Mike Huckabee both accepted that America had to rejoin the world and act on global warming. And McCain iced his victory with support from the Republican party’s two most prominent global warming hawks Florida Governor Crist and California’s Schwarzenegger.
Their Democratic opponents, to a man and woman, took extremely strong stands, and as the campaign went on they talked more and more about the issue, even though political reporters continued to ignore it.
So the next Administration will have a mandate to act on global warming, and a chance to do so in a way that begins to engage America with the world in a way which unites, rather than dividing us.
Certainly the public mood, as expressed in both the Obama phenomenon and the rebirth of John McCain, suggests that people want to be brought back together, domestically and globally.
Environmentalism is, in my view, a key strand in any long-term tapestry to restore America’s sense of common vision. It captures an essential truth: there is only one ozone layer, only one global carbon cycle, only one biosphere. These commons that great collective inheritance of humanity are the strongest argument I know of for restoring America’s sense of solidarity and common destiny, not only with itself, but with the world.
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567)
“A PLACE DOESN’T TUG AT YOU the way a child does” the last words in the journal I kept during my month as a volunteer at Brighter Futures Children’s Home, in Bistechap, a village of 79 households southeast of Kathmandu, Nepal. The valley was beautiful; the village exquisite. The wheat was ready for harvest when I arrived, golden stalks swaying in the breeze across a vast valley and up terraced hills, nearly to the giant golden Shanti Ban Buddha who shed his universal light on us during the day and who glowed through the star-filled nights. I heard bells in the morning welcoming the spirits in every household, smelled incense burning, saw the mist lifting and the green day unfolding. In the distance women in bright red, yellow, and purple saris harvested the wheat, cutting it with a scythe, piling it on their backs, huge sheaves twice their size, walking the narrow paths home, where they spent the next several days beating the stalks on the ground, separating the wheat from the chaff. By the time I left the shorn wheat fields had been tilled with short-handled hoes by hand, and seeded with rice, the paddies now brilliant green rectangles up and down the valley. It was stunning.
So the place was beautiful, but it is the 14 children, ages 6 to 16 9 boys, 5 girls whom I think about every day, who taught me the power of human connection and the sweetness of simple things, a story, making music, picking wild berries along the path, skipping rope, talking, making a joke, laughing together. I knew about such pleasures of course, but living with these children who had lost their families and who had few material possessions, but who greeted each day with joy and curiosity reinforced my belief in basic human goodness and in the responsibility we all share for the health and wellbeing of each other.
They taught me concrete things too such as don’t waste food. We ate dal bhaat twice a day , a huge mound of rice bhaat on a wide metal plate, seasoned with a thin lentil dal soup, and garnished with a spoonful of curried vegetable potato, okra, cauliflower the vegetable being the only variation day to day prepared by Sita Didi (Didi means big sister; I was Kathleen Didi.). The boys sat in one row on the floor, the girls in a row perpendicular to them, I faced the boys and Sita Didi sat to my right surrounded by our 15 plates, doling out the dal bhaat. When the plates were ready, each person picked up his or her own, in order, handicapped children first, then the youngest to the oldest. The dal bhaat was delicious but sitting cross-legged on the floor hunched over my plate, eating hot rice and thin soup with the fingers of my right hand left an embarrassing halo of dal to mark my place on the floor. As the children finished eating, they took their cup and plate to the water spigot outside, washed each and set them on a rack to air dry. I watched them closely to know what to do, but the first time I washed up, I rinsed a bit of rice off my plate. “No, no!” seven-year-old Udai shouted. “You are wasting. Give it to the chickens.”
I was ashamed. At the next meal he demanded to see my plate before I cleaned it, then wouldn’t let me approach the spigot until I had pinched the last grain of rice from my plate and drunk the last drop of liquid. “You are the dal bhaat police,” I complained. He was delighted to be the dal bhaat police and from then on lay in wait for me after every meal.
Life there was simple. Days unfolded predictably with a rooster alert at 4:00 am, children stirring at 5:00, everybody up by 5:30 performing their morning ablutions at the cold water tap as the tinkle of bells rippled through the valley; by 6:30 the farmer’s boy had delivered the milk and Sita Didi was boiling it for the children. Then morning chores: everybody swept their area, polished their shoes, somebody got the newspaper from the tea shop and children crowded around to read it; others lined up to get their vitamins or ear drops or antiseptic on their nose piercing. We ate dal bhaat at 8:00, then there was a flurry of washing dishes, brushing teeth, getting dressed for school, primping in front of the mirror, filling their water bottles with boiled water, picking up the tin with their snack from Sita Didi, organizing their back packs, and by 9:00 we were all walking up the steep, muddy hill to wait for the school bus.
Tell us a story. Every morning the same request as we walked up the hill, the older children as insistent as the younger: tell us Sleeping Beauty, no, Robin Hood. We had Robin Hood yesterday, do Puss ‘n Boots, no, please Robin Hood. You promised. I told a lot of stories that month, over and over, their eyes round when the ogre or witch or the evil Sheriff of Nottingham appeared, eyes shining when the prince finally showed up and at the end, when I paused, everybody chorused “and they lived happily ever after.”
Which is my most fervent wish for those children, that they live happily ever after.
The founding of Volunteer Service in Nepal
Thanks to Emma Cahilog-Rahman, the Executive Director and Founder of Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN), the children have an excellent chance of doing just that. When Emma took a holiday from her position as a university professor of philosophy in the Philippines to trek in Nepal, she fell in love, not only with the beauty of that rugged country but with the man who became her husband. Soon after her marriage, she determined “to do something for Nepal.”
New Zealander Colin Salisbury was just then organizing Global Volunteer Network (GVN) and was looking for a local partner in Nepal. He met Emma at a time that she realized that helping children was the most pressing need. The on-going Maoist insurrection had left countless orphans in the remote villages and many other families, fearing for their children’s wellbeing, had sent them to one of the numerous children’s homes that were springing up in the relative safety of the Kathmandu Valley. When ten volunteers from New Zealand arrived in 2003, it was these children that they and Emma set out to help.
The challenges were enormous. Many, not all, of the orphanages those first volunteers worked in were run by owners who took advantage of the generosity of donors and the fears of poor parents, most of whom paid relatively large sums to place their children. Emma drew up many contracts with the owners, to specify how they would use the resources VSN provided and time after time the contract was broken. When they raised money to provide a water filter for a home, the owner moved it into his quarters and the children had no clean water. A facility was renovated by VSN so children who had been sleeping outside could sleep inside and the owner moved his family into the space and the children continued to sleep outside. Early on it was clear that VSN needed to operate their own children’s homes in order to ensure adequate care. Now, just five years later VSN is operating two children’s homes, serving 51 children, and in addition are providing volunteers to other children’s homes when feasible or to teach in government schools. Emma’s mantra is sustainability. VSN must have control over the homes so they can ensure consistent care for the children and the homes must function well even if there are few volunteers. As GVN has expanded their program they now send volunteers to 26 countries (including the United States) fewer volunteers come to Nepal. “Everything we do must be sustainable,” Emma says.
As part of our volunteer orientation we toured both of VSN’s homes plus another run by a private owner. The contrast was startling and disturbing. In the two VSN homes the children were happy, clean and well-fed, kind to each other, full of curiosity about us; the homes were bright, attractive, simple but clean, and the children have a future, a bright future. VSN sends them to a private school where the language of instruction is English, and is committed to supporting them through college. These children will be well prepared to do something for Nepal.
At the owner-run home, there were no adults present the day we showed up and the 50 children housed there were unkempt. Several seemed listless; others were obviously glad to see us and followed us about as we looked into their dim rooms; four little boys, six or seven years old, were asleep on the floor in one room; another boy, about seven, was sitting alone, tugging at his ear. When we looked closer, it was clear that he had a severe ear infection swollen and painful to the touch. One of our group had some Tylenol which the VSN staff person cut into thirds, gave the child, wrapped the other two in a scrap of paper and told him to take one at bedtime and one the next morning. She asked one of the older boys to keep an eye on him and then we left, uneasy and heartsick.
The focus now in such homes is on the health of the children; a health volunteer stops in regularly to do a health check-up including taking children who are ill to a clinic, but VSN is no longer willing to provide anything beyond basic medical care because they can’t guarantee that their efforts will help the children. While I was there, the manager of another poorly run-home said he no longer wanted to work with VSN. When the volunteer told the children she had to leave, they said, “Now we won’t have enough to eat again.”
The children at Brighter Futures always had enough to eat. At my last meal there Sita Didi added a fried egg and French fried potatoes (chips) to my dal bhaat an unimaginable treat. (I first heard about it from the children “Didi has made chips for you!” “Just for me?” “Yes.”) It sounds silly, but when I saw the chips and egg on my plate, only my plate, it brought tears to my eyes. The children got quiet, watching me, wondering what was going to happen as I sat cross-legged and choked up before my plate of dal bhaat and chips. I took a deep breath, picked up a chip, nodded my thanks to Sita Didi and we all began to eat.
When I came home, my grandchildren saw my pictures and listened to my stories. “Did you tell them about us?” one asked. VSN keeps meticulous records on their children, including family history: “parents killed by Maoists,” “no known family,” “living parents, no contact,” “father dead, mother unable to cope,” “parents killed,” “no parents.” So yes, I had told them about my grandchildren, but not too much. The contrast was too great. Still my granddaughter’s question lingers because she and those children are deeply connected and dependent on each other.
It is the volunteer who is the luckiest
There is a truism in teaching that says it is the teacher who learns the most; the corollary is true for volunteers. It is the one who volunteers, who tries to give, who receives the most. Those children were glad to know me, they loved my stories, they learned to knit and finger crochet because I was there, but right now there is another volunteer who is loving them, helping them, teaching them karate or singing songs with them, maybe even somebody who can tell a good Robin Hood story. I was part of their lives for one month, a tiny footnote as their story moves forward. They will forget me, but I won’t forget them because they showed me the beauty of the human spirit, they reminded me that joy and curiosity are fundamental human qualities; that it is never about what you have but who you are; and that all children are our children.
Emma is now looking for volunteer opportunities for the children. “They have so much,” she said. “Ample food, health care, a good education. We can’t make it too easy for them. They must give back too.” How lucky they are to have a chance to volunteer because it is the volunteer who benefits the most. I know.
Kathleen Coskran is a writer and teacher. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including an NEA Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Since her retirement as head of Lake Country School, a large, nationally known Montessori school that serves children through age 15, she and her husband Chuck, (Ethiopia 65-67, Kenya staff, 68-70) walked the thousand-mile pilgrimage from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago, Spain and the following year taught at Zhejiang College of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. In May of 2008 she traveled to Nepal to work in a children’s home and develop curriculum for Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN).
Resource for writers
You Can Publish It
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
WITHIN THREE YEARS this nation will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception with parades, speeches, and book sales. It is very rare that a government program captivates the American imagination. In the first half of the twentieth century only two programs did, the WPA and the CCC. In the second half, it was NASA and the Peace Corps. As we near this anniversary, there will be incredible interest in the program and us, the foot soldiers. If you have a story to share, this is a great time to write it down.
Keep your dreams humble. After all, you write for your children and grandchildren. If you really cared so much about fame, glory, and riches, you never would have joined the Peace Corps. In fact, commercial publishers reject ninety-six percent of all submissions not because ninety-six percent of the writers are that bad, but because they are just not bad enough. How else could we explain the publication of a book about life in the White House supposedly written by George Bush, Sr.’s dog, Millie? Or the publication of a book of how to kick cloth sewn around beans (the hacky-sack)?
Once you have written your book, and assuming that you, like the majority of authors, are searching for an alternative to commercial publishers, consider self-publication. It is cheaper than you think. If you smoke, quit. In one year you will have enough to publish 300 copies of a 96-page chapbook. If your house needs painting, put it off for a year. That money will pay for 500 copies of the same size book. If you decide to self-publish you will join many other Americans including Zane Grey, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Upton Sinclair, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Virginia Wolfe. More recently, best selling self-published authors have included; Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy), and J. Michael Straczunski (Babylon 5). You will be the project king or queen. Servants will do your bidding.
Who is your audience?
That is easy, your friends, family, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who now number more than 180,000. Then, there are members of local unions, fraternal organizations, community service organizations, local writing groups, regional and national groups directly related to your topic, and even shoppers at local flea markets. One RPCV author I know sells an average of ten copies of his book each time he sells at his local flea market. Do you have any skills or talents that can be used in public presentations? If you play the accordion, schedule a gig and sell books afterwards.
How to have your book printed?
Be aware that the computer and the internet have spawned a new industry called Print-On-Demand. Most of the books reviewed by Peace Corps Writers are actually Print-On-Demand books. You pay a fee, submit your literary work electronically, and they create books for you. You receive a limited number of copies in exchange for the company having the right to publish and distribute your work for an agreed-upon time. They pay a set amount to you for each copy sold, called a royalty. Since everything is done electronically, these publishers no longer need warehouses because they can literally create your work one book at a time. They will have a web page about your book and it will also be listed on large chain bookstore computers and on on-line bookseller sites. As the orders come in, they print and sell. This arrangement has proved successful enough that Barnes and Noble now has its own Print-On-Demand company. If you never aspired to be a king or queen, this might be your choice.
However, this route can be costly. For instance, an RPCV I know paid $900 for a package deal. He received 40 copies of his paperback book. His cost was therefore $22.50 per book for a product that sold for $23.95. Another RPCV paid $600 and received five copies. His cost was therefore $125 per book for a product that was sold for $20.95. The top rated print-on-demand houses that I found listed online are: iUniverse, Wingspan, Press, Lulu, and Virtual Bookworm. They offer services that may include: editorial aid, book permit acquisition, book design, marketing via the Internet, and limited distribution via chain bookstores.
However, you can actually do this yourself at less cost by literally self-publishing. RPCV Craig Carrozzi chose self-publication for his five books because he likes creating his own product from start to finish. If this appeals to you, there is a bit of business housework to tackle.
- You must decide on a business name, fill out the paperwork and publish the required public notice in a newspaper of the formation of your new business.
- Visit your local planning department and apply for a Home Occupation Permit and a Business License.
- Rent a private mail box so that your address will not be “PO Box something,” but rather “Suite number something.” It just looks better.
- Then, set up a checking account.
You may wish to do a few other things like print up business cards, letterhead, and envelopes. Create a web page. Connect to an internet outlet for sales (Amazon.com, E-bay, or Pay Pal).
Of course, this will cost a bit of money. This is called the start-up cost. You are now a small business person. As such, you are entitled to file a Schedule C with your federal tax return to deduct business expenses related to this publishing. In fact, the I.R.S. generally permits a business to lose money while deducting expenses for three years. This can sometimes be extended if the business can demonstrate progress towards a profit. Keep receipts and be honest.
Avoid legal pitfalls
You are now ready to begin the pre-publication stage. Take your manuscript out of the desk drawer or that old trunk and reread it. Pay close attention to what you have written because as the author/publisher, you are the sole responsible party. If you have written fiction then the characters should not resemble anyone.
If you have written non-fiction and mention the names of real people be careful, any damage to their reputation might result in a libel lawsuit. If your book describes embarrassing, unprofessional, or even criminal behavior why include names or even physical descriptions at all? One question should be, “Is this description central to my book?” If not, it might be easier to delete it. If you feel that it is central, be aware that sometimes even sticking to the facts has been construed by the courts as libel. Likewise, when writing non-fiction about a person who is not in the news, not a government official, and does not comment publicly, it is not enough to interview them. You must have a written release, signed by them.
Do not use copyrighted images without permission. For printed material, you have the right of “Fair Use” which is usually construed as including up to ten lines so long as the source is noted.
Aside from legal tweaks to your book, you probably need some editorial help. This is no shame. All major literary figures in the twentieth century had editors. Some of the relationships are legendary because famous writers did not and do not know how to spell or punctuate. Even Nobel Prize winning William Faulkner had an editor who did more than massage manuscripts. He operated on them. Find well read, competent editors. You need someone (or more) to review your work for clarity and style (content editing) as well as spelling and punctuation (line editing). The editors should be a well-read persons, not necessarily writers themselves. Where do you find an editor? Try community college or university campuses first. Instructors might help you, as might other students. It could be a friend, a peer, or a professional. The Internet can help with the professionals. Of course, they charge. Do not be intimidated. Better to rewrite now than to be embarrassed later. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “The art of writing is rewriting.”
At some point, your manuscript must be typed into Microsoft Word because this is the program most accessible for e-mail ing to editors, and the program is generally used by printers. You no longer mail paper to your printer, but rather send an electronic version which he or she will adapt with a page layout program. This adaptation of the book will be electronically sent to a machine which will create plates for actual printing. Hopefully, you have been working on such an electronic version of your book with each of your editors, otherwise, you will have to line edit once more.
Appling for notices and designations
According to the new copyright law, you need not apply immediately for a copyright as long as the book is correctly labeled with the notice. If you wish to, use the Internet for this proces. The government will send you what is called a TX form to fill out.
You will also use the Internet to follow directions for application for a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number. This is a preassigned number. Last, you will apply for an International Standard Book Number which is used by bookstores for ordering.
Shopping for a printer
At this moment, you are ready to contact printers and begin negotiations about the materials, presentation, and cost of your book.
How much will this cost?
The largest expense is for paper. The cheapest paper is newsprint. However, be aware that newsprint is highly acidic and self-destructs. Within ten years, tiny brown splotches appear, then grow and multiply like a bad case of acne. Within a quarter of a century, the pages become brittle and crumble. Aside from coming in different materials, paper has different thicknesses (weight), colors, and even textures. You should discuss this with your printer and mutually agree on the paper that you like and can afford. The second largest expense involves how many colors of ink your book requires. Originally, Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury was typed with different colors of ink to denote generations. The publisher decided that this was too expensive to print and used black typeface only. Likewise, if you have included colored illustrations and/or colored photographs, your cost will increase exponentially. Black and white is the cheapest. The number of colors used on your cover is another cost. Usually, printers will have an assumed cost for two colors, anything more is at an additional expense because they must run the covers through the press one time for each color. The more colors used, the more work involved. Last, the printer will ask you if you want a glossy cover. This is a chemical applied to make the cover resistant to fingerprints and stains. It costs extra. Most intellectual journals and art chap books do not have this.
Aside from all of the factors mentioned, the cost per book decreases as the number of books printed increases. If it costs $8 per book to print 300 copies of a 96-page trade paperback, a run of 1,000 will probably only cost $6.75 per book. Larger runs cost even less. You should also ask if you qualify for any discounts.
Another important variable is the binding. Sometimes an adhesive Perfect binding as is used on paperback books is not perfect. For instance, if you have written a cookbook with recipes from the nation which hosted you, a spiral binding with wire is probably much better. We tend to set the cookbook off to one side as we cook. An adhesive binding means that the book will close. A spiral binding will stay open.
Other issues with the printing
You should know exactly what your book will look like, and you should receive a printing schedule before you make an agreement with a printer. The schedule will depend upon the printer. Normally, printers are very busy between October and November, February and March, and again between May and June because of elections.
At some point, the printer will e-mail you a mock-up. This is your galley proof to review. Since your printer is working from an electronic image (not setting type), no changes to your words are possible at this point in the process. However, the actual location of words on each page might not appear exactly as you typed. Because of incompatibilities with the various computer programs that are used in the process, word placement can change a bit. This is called “scrolling,” and this is the most important thing to look for as you review each page of the galley proof. Watch for unexpected line or page breaks, floating words, et cetera, and notify your printer about each of these so that he or she can fix all errors. Other problems to look for include: Are the illustrations printed where they should be? Are foreign words and/or mathematical symbols printed properly?
Receiving the finished product
Within weeks or months, you will pick up boxes of finished books. Sometimes the printer delivers a bit less than ordered because during the binding approximately ten percent of the books will be ruined. If this is the first book that the printer has ever printed, he or she might not have taken this into consideration. Feel free to open a box or two at random to look at the product before paying. Note that I have never paid for the printing of a book in advance. If printed as agreed upon, pay for the number of copies delivered.
It’s a BOOK! Now start promoting
This is definitely a special moment, holding a book that you wrote and published, but it is not time to celebrate yet. You still have to sell those books! This is the last stage of publication. Set an official publication date, usually six months after you have received your books. If you have not already done so, set up a Web site and an electronic purchasing mechanism like Amazon.com, Pay-Pal, or E-bay. Consider ads in newspapers and magazines.
Send review copies to Peace Corps Writers, local newspapers and magazines, specialty magazines related to your topic, local talk radio, maybe local television, and blog sites like “Red Room.”
Prepare and mail a pre-publication sale notice to friends, relatives, and peers. This includes your RPCV buddies. Offer them a discount if they purchase by mail within a specified period.
Contact independent bookstores who might sponsor a book signing. Contact other public places like restaurants and cafes who might sponsor an autograph party. Contact local television and radio stations, local groups including your regional RPCV group where you might be able to make a presentation and sell books afterwards. Do not forget flea markets and book fairs.
The average self-published author sells between 50 and 100 copies. RPCVs consistently sell more. I have corresponded with many authors who have sold hundreds and a few who have sold thousands. Not bad when one considers that Nobel Prize winning Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s publisher never printed more than 1,500 copies of his books before he became famous.
Lawrence F. Lihosit (aka Lorenzo) is a city planner who publishes as a hobby. He has self-published six books and seven pamphlets since 1993. Some of them are still in print and available on-line at http://abookcompany.net . He recently offered a workshop on self-publication at the Fort Collins, Colorado Peace Corps Reunion produced by Beet Street.