Studio Hyperset did a 82-minute film of the RPCV writers’ panel discussion organized earlier this year by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69) Associate Director of the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas that included Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65), Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67), Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) and Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65).
Marnie was the monitor. She is the author of Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest that won the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense 76 selection and is currently under option for a feature film. An essay of Marnies is in the forthcoming anthology, That Mad Game: Growing up in a War Zone. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl. Marnie set the stage for the discussion in Las Vegas with this introduction.
Good evening. I thank the Black Mountain Institute for the pleasure and honor of being here this evening. And special thanks to Richard Wiley for being such a gracious host. And to Maritza White and Amber Whythecomb for making my first visit to Las Vegas memorable.
Walking around town yesterday I was struck by how ironically appropriate it is to hold tonight’s discussion, Writers Writing the World, in Las Vegas, a place famous for re-creating the world’s capitals on American soil.
Vegas is terrific, but it’s also the symbol of the downside of being a superpower. Superpowers are condemned to a certain provincialism. There’s no need to fumble in a foreign language when your country stretches from sea to shining sea. No one within earshot challenges your sense of exceptionalism. There’s no one peeking over your shoulder to call you on the historical failings within your own borders.
But tonight’s esteemed writers ventured out into the greater world, struggled to be understood in new languages and brought back stories about places we barely knew existed, as well as new and challenging perspectives on America.
I confess that I’ve long questioned the efficacy of the Peace Corps experiment, but reading the work of Mary-Ann, Paul, and Peter over the past month has forced me to reconsider my views. If the Peace Corps’s only accomplishment was to create writers of their depth, reach, and world view, it was well worth the effort and a great boon to America and more specifically, to American letters.
Peace Corps writers have been called the heirs to the expatriate authors of the 1920s, but I rather think of them as a unique species of American writer, more akin to Franz Boas’s notion of “participant observers,” as applied to anthropologists in the field. They were deeply embedded in the daily life of a third world culture at an impressionable stage in their development. It necessitated merging with that culture while at the same time holding onto a clear sense of self, an observing self, in order to do their work and remain sane. I believe this had a lasting effect on them, and though these three people, upon entering the Peace Corps, were either already putting pen to paper or at least had dreams of doing so, this life-changing experience had a great deal to do with determining what kind of writers they were to become.
As Richard Wiley has written, “…those years had turned me from a complacent college boy, as stuck in American culture as a fat chimney sweep in a narrow chimney, into someone who saw the world through a wide-angle lens, saw it in terms of its myriad languages and the realities housed within them.”
As a way of beginning, I’ve asked each of our panelists to take a few minutes to describe his or her personal transformation. Who were they entering the Peace Corps? And can they remember the moment or moments when they began to see the world through the eyes of the people they were working and living with. What impact did these shifts in cultural perception have on them as fledgling writers? So let’s start with Peter, and then Mary-Ann and then Paul.
[This panel discussion is part of a package of ‘Peace Corps films' available from Media Projects filmed by Allen Mondell (Sierra Leone 1963–65). A special RPCV price for a home DVD is $25 plus shipping and handling. Contact Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org.]