Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
There are as many different Peace Corps memoirs as there are returned volunteers who choose to write them, each unique to the author and his or her experience, each generously sharing a hard won world view with the reader. We all have our favorites, mine are Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi, Geraldine Kennedy’s Harmattan, Kristin Holloway’s Monique and the Mango Rains, Peter Hessler’s River Town, and Moritz Thomsen’s masterwork, Living Poor. These are the books I recommend to other writers, book groups, travelers, and friends who just want a good, original read. I will now add Eleanor Stanford’s História, História to the list. In fact, as I read her book for review, I found myself already telling anyone who would listen, that it was a must read.
It’s a physically beautiful, tiny book, four by five inches, one hundred and twenty eight pages, wonderful in the hand and convenient in the purse where I carried it this past weekend, reading on the subway, at the grocery checkout, and waiting for a friend outside a museum, disappointed when I had to return to everyday life.
“This is how it begins:” Stanford writes, “História, história, a mother calls, drawing the children into the lasso of lamplight.” And we are led into the world of her narrative, by the incantation of the word história, signifying both history and story in Cape Verde’s Creole and Portuguese. It’s the perfect title for this perfect book.
Stanford begins as her plane descends to Sal, one of the ten islands of the archipelago, a sere, stark place. What could be a cliché of travel writing becomes a metaphoric moment in her hands.
We had been flying over unbroken ocean for hours, and suddenly we were descending, despite the fact that there was no land in view. …As some miracle of radar lowered us down on this bald patch of desert in the middle of the Atlantic, I could hear the small gasps and murmurs of disappointment among the other Peace Corps volunteers…”This is Cape Verde? Doesn’t verde mean green?” Even those of us who had done their research and read up on the islands were unprepared for such absolute bleakness.”
In the course of 16 short chapters, in sentence after sentence of startling prose, that at times feels biblical: “História, história: once there were ten islands scattered in the sea. No one lived there: no stone houses leaned into the volcanic cliffs. No goats browsed the rocky hillsides. Only the call of the tchinchirote echoed in the dry ravines.” Drawing upon Darwin’s observation of the tchinchirote warbler, on poets and anthropologists of the first world, and on the inhabitants themselves, Stanford creates the world of Cape Verde both past and present, its culture, its strengths and failings, its people and their food. Theirs is a history of famines and droughts, of service as a portal for slave trade to the New World, of colonial rule and independence where Portuguese is the official language but Creole (Kriolu) the verbal currency, of dust that “coats everything with a fine film,” of sorrowful haunting music called Morna, its lyrics as poetic and allusive as Stanford’s own sentences. She interweaves the story of her time on the islands with theirs, alluding to parallels of identity or lack thereof, of starvation and self-starvation, of poverty and poverty of self. I don’t think I’ve read another Peace Corps memoir that so captures the ambivalence of being there, the love/hate relationship on both sides, the desire for connection and the desperate need for solitude, the wish to fit in and the resistance to going over completely into the other culture, the imperative to contribute and the constant feeling of failure, the need to save others and yet find a way to hold on and save whatever is left of oneself in the cross fire of cultural confusion.
She has come to Cape Verde with her husband of just one year; they’re in their early twenties but have known each other since they were twelve. She sketches both herself and him with a light touch. All we know for a long time is that his name is Dan, that his mother tongue was Portuguese, that he has thick dark hair, is full-lipped and with his “… ability to blend in anywhere,” is often thought to be Cape Verdean. He is robust and open to all foods which he eats with gusto. He tinkers with a guitar, playing the same Paul Simon song over and over in his spare time. She is a long time vegetarian who has decided to eat fish while in Cape Verde. In the morning when not teaching English she writes in her journal and one suspects composes poetry as, according to her bio, she is a well published poet. Writing and the few hours of stolen solitude are what sustain her. One surprising piece of information, given our sense of her fragility, is that she runs six miles each day, up and down mountains over harsh terrain in a culture where women would never conceive of running.
It was her idea to join the Peace Corps. In fact every change in their lives in their next two years is initiated by her. Enervated by town life she lobbies for them to move to a small nearby village where they’ll have a “real Cape Verde experience“ living without running water and electricity. Half a year later, exhausted by the effort of the venture-”…the lack of privacy, the dust, the wind. How difficult the smallest task was: taking a bath, feeling my way out to the outhouse at night, cupping the candle flame in one hand.”-she pushes to move back down into town. He is resistant initially to each change, but always comes around, becoming the one who whole heartedly embraces the new experience, while she is thrown around by competing emotions, growing envious of his success and fortitude.
But the real issue, I believe, and one that Stanford barely foreshadows but eventually weaves into the narrative, is the story of a marriage floundering under the corrosive power of living in a culture imbued with gender inequality, primarily sexual, where the majority of women are attached to men who have other women on the side and where Dan can drink with the men and dance with young girls who press tightly against him.
What was a revelation to me in reading this memoir was that though, as female Peace Corps volunteers, many of us had to deal with destabilizing sexual indignities, I’d always assumed it was easier in this regard for the married women among us; it never occurred to me how much more damaging it could be if the cultural mores entered that most intimate place, the marital home. But as Stanford writes, “Perhaps we were both more affected by the culture around us than we chose to admit. In Cape Verde, only a fool holds her husband accountable.”
Things only get worse when they return to São Filipe, the original town assignment. In a chapter entitled “Postcard from the Volcano”-which contains reverberations of Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano with its alcoholic counsul-Stanford’s addiction to starving herself, an incipient problem for some time, becomes full blown.
“I stripped myself to bone and sinew, stored the flesh in the lined pages of my notebooks:
I woke at 5, starving. At six I ate a yogurt. Apple, coffee, some leftover rice. Milk and sugar. Loneliness. Mid-morning snack: 2 squares of chocolate. A handful of raisons.
Deeply invested in willpower as salvation, she continues to run her six miles a day. Still not able to overcome her depression and paranoia, she secretly purges her food until Dan catches her in the act and alerts the Peace Corps nurse.
This story has a happy ending which I won’t spoil for the reader, but in the course of attaining it, once she is home with her extended family, we learn an astounding prior omission of fact, at least for me, that both Dan and she had been fairly observant Jews. She relates a story told by her grandmother, “…how she and my zaydee had been married at twenty, then left for Switzerland two weeks later….How could she know that no one would rent to them because they were Jews….”
As a Jew myself, I have to believe that this piece of information was pertinent to the path of self-starvation she found herself on as she tried to get control over her life in a foreign country where she could never fully fit in. Admiring as I am of the subtle, allusive qualities of the book, one that reads more like a novel than a memoir, I wish she’d let us in on this important piece of her identity much earlier in the book.
For those among us who may condemn her for not being hardier, or able to put aside her difficulties and just attend to her work, let them know that through all of her personal struggles, Stanford continued to fulfill her duties as a teacher even when it meant traveling on the back of a flatbed truck each day from the village to the larger town where the school was located. She palpably loved her students and they her, as supported by word after she left that the children wept for her, wished for her return, and said she was their best and favorite teacher. Courage and commitment come in many forms; to be able to carry on despite internal turmoil and then write a superb, brutally honest, cautionary book, proves the truth of what it really takes to give over your life for two or more years in the hope of making the world a better place.
Eleanor Stanford is a marvelous writer; she’s earned her place among the very best in the canon of Peace Corps writers, indeed a high honor.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of 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 BookSense76 selection and is currently under option for a feature film. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.