Naming the best memoir by an RPCV who served in Africa has stirred some interest. A number of first rate books have been cited, from Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87) The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn published in 1991, to Kris Holloway’s Monique and the Mango Rains that came out in 2006. What we are seeking is a memoir of the Peace Corps experience, not fiction.
Readers seem not to remember a few other good books published by RPCVs. Jason Carter’s account, for example, of being a PCV in South Africa entitled Power Lines published by National Geographic Books in 2002, or Jeanne D’Haem’s (Somalia 1968-70) charming The Last Camel: True Stories About Somalia published by Red Sea Press in 1997, or even Mango Elephants in the Sun by Susana Herrera (Cameroon 1992-94) put out by Shambhala Publications in 1999.
Selecting the best book is not easy. Very few readers remember the late Tim McLaurin (Tunisia 1978-80) The Keeper of the Moon: A Memoir published by W.W. Norton in ‘91 or George Packer (Togo 1982-83) story of his one year in the Peace Corps entitled The Village of Waiting that Vintage/Random House issued in 1988. Susan Lowerre’s Under the Neem Tree (1991) gets a mention, but not Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by the beautiful Sarah Erdman who was in Cote d’Ivoire from 1998-2000.
Another overlooked great piece of non-fiction prose is Geraldine Kennedy’s (Liberia 1962-64) Harmattan that came out in 1994. This book was Geraldine’s account of five women who decided to cross overland the Sahara Desert when they had nothing better to do between their first and second years in the Peace Corps. Okay, it is not quite what I mean by a “Peace Corps book” though it is a page-turning adventure.
There is one one person who lives on in many of our memories and that is Maria Thomas, the pen name of Roberta Maria Thomas Worrick (Ethiopia 1971-73). Maria did not write a memoir of her years in Ethiopia, but all of her books were filled with tales (her tales) of East Africa. She died too young and ever since we had missed the stories she might have told us, the books she would have written.
With that all said, and giving a nod to the many other self-published accounts and other recollections of their tours in Africa, I have to join the choir who believes–and rightly so–that Mike Tidwell’s account of living through his rough years in Zaire, and coming home again, is the best memoir by a PCV who served in Africa. Mike fills every page of his book with his strong personality, but also has the wisdom to include the stories of the HCNs he meets along the way, and to add his sins and successes in his tour. Like many of us, this kid from Georgia and just out of college, was having the great adventure of his life. But unlike us, he also had the talent to brilliantly tell his story.
So , what is the best Peace Corps memoir of Africa? Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalmabayi: An African Sojourn published in 1990 by Lyons & Burford.
This book was turned down by at least 9 other publishers before a small press in New Jersey accepted the manuscript because they published books on fishing and they thought Mike’s adventures might be of interest to their readers, even thought it was about this guy in Africa who built fish ponds for the Peace Corps in Zaire.
The book is still in print.
I am very impressed that so many ( actually only two) RPCVs had anything to say about the “Great Peace Corps novel” so let’s see what we can generate regarding ‘other’ books about the Peace Corps Experience: Peace Corps Memoirs.
God knows we have more than a few academic and commercial books, as well as, self published books of what the Peace Corps was like going back to the first days of the agency.
The very first Peace Corps memoir (written by an RPCV) is Arnold Zeitlin’s To the Peace Corps with Love published by Doubleday in 1965. Zeitlin was a PCV with the first group of Volunteers to Ghana, in 1961. Zeitlin had been a young reporter before going into the Peace Corps, and after his tour he was a journalist all his life, living around the world until his recent retirement.
Another journalist, after his Peace Corps years, is Leonard Levitt. He wrote a terrific book, An African Season, published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster. Levitt served in (then) Tanganyika from 1963-66). He wrote a piece for my first collection of writings by RPCV called Going Up Country. That book was published by Schribners in 1994. Levitt’s piece is about his return to his Peace Corps school in upcounty Tanzania.
In 1968 Alan Weiss (Nigeria 1963-64) published High Risk/High Gain, his account of Peace Corps Training in the U.S. at Columbia University in New York. Weiss was a troubled soul who had as many enemies as he had friends and he lasted about a year in Nigeria, then ETed so that he could marry the girl he left behind. He never published another book besides his tale of Peace Corps Training, though he tried to be a writer and published a few short piece. He also started work on a book about Nigeria.
Years after the Peace Corps, years after he was married, he was a writer-in-residence at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. While there he read a piece he had written about attending a lecture by Malcolm X while he was in Nigeria. He wrote later, ”about 100 people listened to my reading and it got an electrified response. Rocking response.”
Late one night while at Breadloaf he drove into town and had an accident. He smashed his van into a bridge abutment. The van was totaled and he went into a coma. He recovered, seemed normal, but after a few months he became manic. He then became depressed. Nine months later on March 10, 1971 he shot a bullet through his heart. He was 33.
Other Peace Corps memoirs came fast and furious in those early years of the Peace Corps. One of the best was The Making Of An Un-American: A Dialogue With Experience by Paul Cowan who was in Ecuador from 1966-67. This book was published by Viking in 1970. And, of course, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) that set the standard for Peace Corps memoirs. Moritz published his book in 1969.
It wasn’t, however, to the eighties that a flood of Peace Corps memories began and we had had some wonderful books by RPCVs. Over the next few weeks, I will give you what I consider the best books by PCVs, doing it by regions. I hope you have time and the inclination to respond with your favorite memoirs. I will start with Africa which has produced the largest number of accounts of Peace Corps tours and where it will be very difficult to pick a favorite. Stay tuned.
Will Siegel is a technical writer who also writes fiction and who also served in Ethiopia with Marian Haley Beil and myself back in the day (1962–64). Will went to San Francisco State for his masters degree in creative writing and lived there during the summer of love (and lots more) before moving to New York City, and next to Boston where he has lived for the last twenty plus years. Then and now, he is a fine writer and one of the sweetest guys we know and here he reviews Larry Wonderling’s (PC Staff: COR Puerto Rico 1968–70; Afghanistan 1970-73; early ’80s Central and Latin America; late ’80s Africa) book on a tender and tough spot in San Francisco.
San Francisco Tenderloin: True Stories of Heroes, Demons, Angels, Outcasts & a Psychotherapist
Expanded Second Edition
By Larry Wonderling, Ph.D.
Cape Foundation Publications
Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Larry Wonderling’s penetrating portraits of people who came to a full stop in the San Francisco Tenderloin district are colorful, interesting and insightful. These are mostly patients that he treated over the course of 20 years - from his naïve beginnings as a therapist to his experienced self as a seasoned professional. It seems he arrived at being a pro, because of his own dogged intuition rather than any philosophy of psychotherapy. He is practical to the core, because that is what works on the edge of the social psychotic Tenderloin where the world is really flat and it takes a mere nudge or a dark wind to cause a fall to the death. These are clients who came to him not to reveal their own traumas and get some relief from neurotic tendencies, but rather to keep their SSI benefits flowing.
My own sojourn in the San Francisco Tenderloin came as a result of the need to hide from my peers as well as myself. Leaving the confines of the Haight Ashbury during the darker days of the 60’s slide into the diaspora of real life, I fled to an SRO hotel in the district - probably not too different from those described as home to many of Larry Wonderling’s clients. My own roost there had to do, like many of his clients, with feeling comfortable. Having run out of friends’ couches and my own good wits, I headed to the Tenderloin, about which I had been duly warned, where no one would take much notice and I could spend the days brooding in my room alone. I don’t remember the area being as dangerous as Wonderling describes, but that may have been due to my own dangerous state of mind. I think at times I heard voices from street corners. They might have been merely the ghosts of one or two of Wonderling’s Tenderloin outcast patients.
There are not many happy endings to these stories, but the workings of each one reveal intimate relationships of the inner self and also perhaps a bit about our own selves. Dr. Wonderling tells it like it is - no sugar coating, no sitcom endings. These are sad and sometimes dreadful stories about people who, because of aberrant tendencies, usually coming from abusive upbringings, have not learned society’s game on society’s terms and need a whole other skewed society - just to function minimally.
Dr. Wonderling knows and describes his patients without jargon in this unsentimental, free-form, yet focused look at people he holds dear but also with objective discernment. He describes the reality of those who feel most comfortable with others who suffer from the same feelings of frustration, doubt, and lack of confidence which we associate with society’s losers. We also get a good insight into the therapeutic process as developed by Dr. Wonderling - special to the people he deals with - which evolves into a simple yet sophisticated method for helping the disenfranchised find a semblance of their own voice. He doesn’t always succeed in bringing his patients to a satisfactory resolution. He does succeed in allowing a lot of room for listening to his clients - a method that builds trust and adds clarity to his client’s self knowledge.
As someone who has spent a fair number of years in one type of therapy or another, as well as being married to a therapist, I understand that some might think his methods involve too much license. Some might call for a stricter therapy to treat the extreme clients Wonderling finds among his Tenderloin population. These are individuals who are willing to navigate extreme danger just to stay out of their own spotlight or run away from their tortured self - often preferring the oblivion of drugs and death to nursing along a more normal psychological neurosis.
After a somewhat rambling attempt to describe the San Francisco Tenderloin district — its history and how the name Tenderloin came about, we get a quick look at Dr. Wonderling’s early knowledge of the area. A San Francisco native, he mentions that he moved to the district for a short period in high school due to trouble at home. He relates how he came to feel comfortable in that forbidden district despite his early reservations. However, the doctor was able to get himself through a Ph.D. Program and set up shop as a psychotherapist in the area, where most, if not all of his clients, were obliged to see him or someone like him if they wanted to keep their checks coming.
The essence of Dr. Wondering’s book, his descriptions and treatment of his patients and how the stories reveal themselves in his patient’s behavior become more and more fascinating as the book progresses. We learn about how his clients present themselves, their background, and their ins and outs through the Tenderloin district, and how these reluctant patients help the therapist in determining their plan of therapy. In each case we are led into the story by the thoughts and details of patient and therapist-story teller. Of the 26 stories related in these pages, some six of them are new, and nearly all of them are updated with further outcomes and insights in this expanded second edition.
“I was one of those therapists willing to endure low fees and excruciating paperwork,” Dr. Wonderling tells us. The patients range from con men, junkies and ex-convicts, to alcoholics, prostitutes, lost souls and petty crooks - many with difficult behavioral problems. One tough customer was cured by an earthquake, another liked to dine for free at San Fran hotel functions.
Many of the portraits illustrate some life lesson for the author. He returns to the Tenderloin at the invitation of an old friend, Bert, who turns out to be one of Dr. Wonderling’s heroes. “My heroes are generally mavericks of some sort who ignore destiny by getting up every time they’re knocked flat into life’s muck,” he tells us and we believe him. Bert, the head of a drug abuse treatment agency hired Wonderling to treat some of the most untreatable. He developed plans for the most forlorn and dysfunctional, and listened to the misfortunes of people who ended up there. The listening part was perhaps his greatest therapy tool, and it always worked to some extent - not always wonders, but usually to alleviate the heavy burdens on people who were more often than not stuck on the yo-yo, ping-pong axis of society’s rewards and slights - misfits is hardly the word for most of the people Wonderling describes.
I bypass here for the most part the specifics of the 26 remarkable stories of patients that Wonderling describes in terms of his practical treatment. In my view most important are the patient’s universal needs, and the doctor’s varied responses to these needs - psychological and practical. I mention only a few of - all colorful and interesting cases showing patients’ character, assessment and practical treatment with fleeting and sometimes grim outcomes.
Andrew, quiet as a mouse, eventually had his treatment out of the office in order to free him from of his self-imposed shell. This went very well for a time, until Andrew humiliated himself in public. Later, after Andrew died from AIDS, Dr. Wonderling discovered his patient was sending nearly a quarter of his meager monthly IIS check to an orphanage in Africa.
Ody, full of rage, traded an 8 x 10 prison cell for a 10 x 10 SRO hotel room from time to time. In and out of prison, Ody was a fearsome and feared fighter wherever he landed. Therapy in the Tenderloin is often about keeping patients out of trouble. With Wonderling’s help Ody learns to do the simple task of returning a quart of sour milk without violence.
And then there is the annual Christmas party described near the end of the book. This party is like no other you’re likely to attend.
There is also something to be said about Dr. Wonderling’s therapeutic time in the tenderloin and his work as a psychological consultant to the Peace Corps. Those of us who served in developing countries are familiar with basic lack and the overwhelming needs for health, nutrition, and education. What we sometimes forget is the similarity of many parts of our own country that manifest the same fundamental deficiencies - though these needs at home are played out in a more subtle and psychological manner. Many, if not most of the San Francisco Tenderloin district patients revealed by Dr. Wonderling are missing the social skills, emotional maturity, and inner stability that the majority of us learn - skills that allow us to participate in the fuller scope of life as part of a social community - family, job, friends and even dreams. Dr. Wonderling reveals how time and again psychological realities are denied to his patients just as the basic physical needs of many individuals and landscapes that we returning PCV’s encountered in our years working abroad. The similarities are provided in the pages of his book.
I recommend Dr. Wonderling’s book without reservation if you are at all interested in psychology, human behavior and even perhaps meeting the mirror image of your years working and toiling with our many friends in the developing world. For my own Tenderloin memories, let me acknowledge a certain miracle rescue from the swirling confusion that landed me there in the first place. In lieu of that, I certainly would have been fortunate to find Dr. Wonderling and his patient’s chair for a hand up and out of that confusion - a hand which he extended for many years to those who were also fortunate enough to stumble upon miracles - for the good doctor provided a few of his own.
Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64) is a technical writer living in Boston where he also works at writing fiction.
In the first days and years of the Peace Corps there were many books written by people who had never been PCVs, never worked for the agency, never worked overseas, and never volunteer for anything, but were academics or free lance writers who saw a great new subject areas that they could write about, especially since no one knew anything about who, what, where, when and how the Peace Corps might develop or what would happen to all those bright young people joining up and going off to live in the middle of nowhere.
A small cottage industry of ‘Peace Corps books’ began in the publishing world at a time when there were no Volunteers.
Over the years I have haunted yard sales and bookstores and now the Internet and have collected enough of those books to cause my wife to roll her eyes whenever I come home clutching another history or anthropological study of the first Peace Corps years. The best books, of course, are those coffee table size ones full of photos of hard-working PCVs with happy faced HCNs. It is enough to make you want to barf.
Here, in no particularly order, are a few ‘classic’ titles of those early book treasures.
The very first book on ‘us’ was New Frontiers For American Youth by Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birkey published in 1961 by the Public Affairs Press of Washington, D.C. This book is based on the work they had done at the Colorado State University Research Foundation funded by a grant from the the U.S. Congress. While it is full of information about ‘what the Peace Corps is all about” there were no Volunteers interviewed or were they consulted (at the time there weren’t any PCVs).
However, this book has reprinted some great early newspaper and magazine cartoons featuring PCVs. The Peace Corps was a new subject for cartoonists, too, and they cut us to the bone. These cartoons are almost worth the price of the book, which by the way in 1961 was $4.50. And it was a hardback.
That all said, Maurice Albertson of Colorado State was a great believer in the Peace Corps, an early and strong supporter of the agency, and an important voice in outlining what the Peace Corps would become over time. We owe him a great deal.
Co-author Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, by the way, would go onto write her own book on this early study entitled Peace Corps Pioneer or “The Perils of Pauline“. Pauline would do several training sessions of early Volunteers. Her book was self-published in 2003 when she was living in a retirement community in Arizona.
Also published in 1961 was Charles E. Wingenbach’s paperback: The Peace Corps Who, How, And Where with a Foreword by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and a quote from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on the jacket. This paperback adds little to what is known about the agency in those early years, but it does gives a quick summary of the first weeks and months in 1961 when the agency was being constructed.
One of my favorite books from this period is a novel by Wiliam Sayres entitled Do Good. Sayres was another anthropologist who had gone to Harvard (where else?) and was one of the Peace Corps Trainers of the first PCVs to Colombia.
Sayres’ novel is about a new PCV who goes to a Latin American village. The flap copy reads, “a Harvard anthropologist laconically unfolds the story of a Peace Corps reject coming of age in the bush….Peter is a twenty-two-year-old American, a seeker of Basic Truth, a pussy-cat Quixote. Peter has come to help.”
It has been my experience that many anthropologists disliked those first PCVs. They saw us coming into their private domain and playing around with their toys, i.e., HCNs. I’ve never met an anthropologist back then who had kind words to say about the work of the Peace Corps. I am sure, of course, that friendly anthropologists are there, and also quite a few RPCVs came home again and became anthropologists.
Meanwhile, we have more books about the Peace Corps written by non-volunteers. U.S. Peace Corps: The Challenge of Good Will by Susan Whittlesey and published in 1963 by Coward-McCann. This is an ‘inside-out’ book as Susan was on the staff of the old (very old) Peace Corps publication called The Volunteer. It was a monthly magazine and she hustled this book ‘on her free time’ it says (well, she won’t get away with that today, given our Peace Corps lawyers!). She uses in her book the Peace Corps photos of early great Peace Corps photographers: Paul Conklin, Phil Hardberger, and my favorite photographer, Rowland Scherman.
Susan didn’t go to Harvard. She went to Smith College, and before going to the Peace Corps she worked for the Berkshire Eagle, once a great newspaper in Pittsfield, Mass, and did a number of international tours, but never was a PCV. Her account (with plenty of photographs) is really a YA book for high school students, as were many of those first publications about the Peace Corps. These books were aimed at the ‘youth market.’ Remember the first name for the Peace Corps was “Youth Peace Corps” until Kennedy took ’youth’ out of the title when he made his famous speech at the Cow Palace outlining his new agency in the last days of his campaign for the presidency.
Another early book was a collection of letters called, of course, Letters from the Peace Corps, selected and edited by Iris Luce and published in 1964. Luce was working then for the Division of Volunteer Support and reading early letters by PCVs sent back to Peace Corps Headquarters. She self-published that book. I am particulary fond of Luce’s book as it has one of my letters in it (page 49). Also published in ‘64 was Sargent Shriver’s Point of The Lance, a collection of his speeches and commencement addresses that gives a positive Shriver view of the Peace Corps. This is a useful book to understand the thinking and vision that Shriver (and his writers) had about the new agency.
There are other early books that I will detail in my next blog, but these are a few of the very first in the long hisotry of the Peace Corps.
What these writers were trying to do was tell our stories even before we had a chance it tell it ourselves. Next time, I’ll talk about the books written by early PCVs, and how we began to write our own history in poetry and prose and now on the Internet with blogs from all over the Third World. Who would have imagined that the Peace Corps story would begin with letter home written on thin aerogrammes that would take days to reach American and now is immediately told and available in cyberspace?
Jack Allison served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi where he was a public health Volunteer in the bush. Here he reviews Thomas Howell’s book Allah’s Gardenon Morocco based on Hollowell’s brief tour as a PCV, and now his extended connection with the country.
by Thomas Hollowell (Morocco 2002)
Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69)
Thomas Hollowell’s novel is actually a multi-layered reportage of his fascination with Morocco which resulted in a very brief stint as a Volunteer with the US Peace Corps there in 2002, including an historical denouement of the war in the Western Sahara, and a focused account of the capture, torture, and epic struggle of a Moroccan physician, Azeddine Benmansour, who spent 24 years as a prisoner of the terrorist group, the Polisario. Azeddine is one of the longest-held POWs ever.
The novel is well written, with inviting, brief descriptions of the cities, towns, mountains and desert of Morocco, said to have similar topography to that of California. Hollowell apparently wrote the book to expose to the world the atrocities committed by the Polisario deep within the Western Sahara, formerly known as the Spanish Sahara: kidnapping, torture, forced starvation, isolation, death.
The title, Allah’s Garden, alludes to Muslim’s reverent epithet for the Sahara Desert. Hollowell also cleverly uses snippets of language — Arabic, French, Spanish — to convey added, colorful meaning to conversations throughout.
Howell met Azeddine through a student at Al Akhawayn, an English-speaking university where Hollowell worked after his “Field Termination” from the Peace Corps. The majority of the book is based upon a series of interviews Hollowell held with Azeddine. The result is a captivating, at times tedious account of the horrendous travails to which Azeddine was subjected during nearly a quarter-century of captivity in the desert.
Perhaps the most disheartening thread of the book is the success of the Polisario in misleading a host of NGOs into believing that the Polisario was taking excellent, humane care of their thousands of prisoners, including the delivery of food, medicines, mail, and other provisions to their charges. Unfortunately, it literally took years for their massive deception to be uncovered.
Two issues warrant comment: As an emergency physician, I winced at the hyperbole in Hollowell’s description of repeated accounts of torture, for medically, many did not make sense. Additionally, as an RPCV myself, I was dismayed at Hollowell’s disregard for Muslim culture by kissing a young Moroccan woman (who was one of his official Peace Corps language instructors) at a park in Marrakesh. Both were retained, and reading between the lines, most likely resulted in his leaving the Peace Corps after only a few months of service. Personally, this is a major detraction of an otherwise admirable effort to shed international light on a recent dark segment of Moroccan history.
Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69) served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Central Africa, where he was a public health volunteer in the bush. He is best known as a singer/songwriter there, having recorded arguably the most popular song with a message in Malawi, Ufa wa Mtedza (“Peanut Flour in Your Child’s Corn Mush”). After Peace Corps, Jack went to medical school, and recently retired after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine. He has done 3 public health stints in Africa — a USAID mission in Tanzania in 1982, a Project Hope Mission in Malawi in 1994, and US State Department mission in Malawi in 2005 — the latter 2 involved helping to eradicate AIDS in that central African country. For more information, please log onto afriendofmalawi.com.
Award winning writer and Guatemala RPCV Mark Brazaitis reviews In an Uncharted Country by Korea RPCV Clifford Garstang, published this September by Press 53.
In an Uncharted Country
by Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976–78)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
If Clifford Garstang’s stories were a city, they wouldn’t be a place you would have heard much about. But if you happened to settle there, you wouldn’t want to leave.
In “White Swans,” one of the stories in his excellent debut collection, Garstang tackles the same subject matter that National Book Award-finalist Mary Gaitskill does in the title story to her third collection, Don’t Cry. In Gaitskill’s story, a woman, recently widowed, is helping a friend adopt a child from Ethiopia; in Garstang’s, a married couple is in China to adopt a daughter.
In both stories, bureaucracy is only part of what the characters must overcome. In the Gaitskill story, the protagonist wrestles with her guilt over an affair she had with one of her students prior to her husband’s death. In Garstang’s story, the protagonist must decide whether to remain with his wife and daughter in China until the adoption is official or return home to his dying father, with whom he has a complicated relationship.
The Gaitskill story approaches the melodramatic: “Much closer than the gunshots was the machine of my body, buzzing inside me. It came from inside me and also enclosed me like the darkness and the warmth of the night. It said, It doesn’t matter if you die here. It might be better if you die here.”
Garstang’s story heads in the opposite direction, toward understatement: “Elton couldn’t sleep. A vision of his father, frightened and pale, attached to tubes and wires, wouldn’t leave him. He slipped out of bed. In the green glow of streetlights he packed a suitcase. Megan stirred in her crib and he went to her, stroked her feather hair with his finger.”
Whether one prefers Gaitskill’s dramatic-bordering-on-melodramatic story or Garstang’s less flashy piece is a matter of taste. It’s the difference between Los Angeles and Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s the difference between the authors’ profiles. Gaitskill has been a finalist for the National Book Award and her stories appear regularly in The New Yorker. Garstang has been quietly compiling an impressive résumé, including publishing work in small but prestigious literary journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and the North Dakota Quarterly.
In an Uncharted Country features stories with recurring characters and settings. The strongest connection between them all, however, may be theme. The collection is about characters searching to find their place in their communities and within their families. In a daring exposition of this theme, “Saving Melissa,” a mother steals her daughter from her ex-husband and they move from place to place to avoid detection. But is this moveable home the best home for Melissa?
Garstang writes the story in the first person, from the mother’s point of view. It’s a risky choice-and it pays off beautifully: “Always it was my fault, to hear Max tell it, even before the divorce and the lopsided custody mess. Still makes my face hot to think about it, all these years later, Max standing there is his shiny brown suit and skinny tie, talking about me like I wasn’t even there.”
Garstang does equally well whether he’s writing an adventure story (”Flood, 1978″), a love story (”William & Frederick”), or a whodunit-or, better put, an is-he-going-to-get-away-with-it. In the latter story, “Stonewall,” readers might resist sympathizing with a dog-killer. Or, given the dog-killer’s wife-abusing antagonist, perhaps they won’t.
Press 53 and its founder, Kevin Watson, have made it their noble mission to bring short story collections (as well as collections of poetry) to the reading public. Thank goodness. These days, writers wishing to publish their short story collections either have to win one of, oh, a measly eight national contests, sponsored by small or university presses or write a best-selling novel whose success justifies the financial risk of publishing the author’s short stories.
Garstang’s book looks good and reads better. And there isn’t a literary author alive who wouldn’t want blurbs by the writers-Elizabeth Strout, Tim O’Brien, and Peter Ho Davies-featured on the back. Also, the book’s price is as reasonable as Garstang’s twelve short stories are memorable.
Here’s hoping that Press 53 prospers and brings us more authors like Clifford Garstang.
And here’s hoping we hear more from Garstang soon.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books and the winner of the Maria Thomas Fiction Prize. Mark’s most recent collection of stories is An American Affair, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. He is an associate professor of English and the director of the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
I’m going to try and settle an argument–and create one!–by looking at the shelf of books we have from Peace Corps writers and come up with a list of the ‘best Peace Corps novels.’ I hope with my nomination to engage the community and have you all respond with your “best books.” Later we’ll look at the non-fiction accounts by RPCVs and pick a list of those books.
First, why list of ‘great books’? Well, I guess it all started with John W. De Forest who introduced the notion of “the great American novel” in 1868 in Nation magazine. Novelist De Forest made the point that no American had produced a true painting of the American soul. What De Forest wanted was a book that “produced a true painting of the American soul, a picture of the ordinary emotions and manner of American existence.”
So, what Peace Corps novel has “produced a true painting of the Peace Corps soul?” What RPCV has put down on paper the real experience of being a PCV?
I understand we have more than one great novel but I’ll start the discussion by nominating my ‘best Peace Corps novel.’ It is Festival For Three Thousand Maidens written by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) and published in 1991 by E.P. Dutton. It is the story of Bobby Comstock who arrives in Korea to teach middle school and begins his tour with a compulsory invitation to attend the funeral of the school headmaster’s cousin. In the course of the novel, everything happens to Bobby from being accused of being a North Korean spy when he wanders alone onto the wrong part of a beach. He also has to participates in the reenactment of the bloody semi-historical, semi-mystical pageant that gives the book its title.
As Bobby comes to realize that English is of little use to students who probably won’t go farther than the ninth grade, he also learns, as most other Peace Corps Volunteers do, a lot about himself and life in the third world. Into this mix, Bobby deals with the shock of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, through love and love lost, through bad news about the war in Vietnam, through living with a Korean family, through a bout with tuberculosis and through all the funny and sad and crazy things that happened to all of us who have lived in a different culture.
This is a novel of information, of understanding, and of great language. It is the best novel that I have read by an RPCV about what it is like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Now, what is your favorite novel and why?
We have a new novelist on our Peace Corps bookshelf, Emily Arsenault of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Emily and her husband were PCVs in rural South Africa where she wrote the first draft of The Broken Teaglass. Emily writes: “After school, I spent many afternoons and evenings sitting outside reading, watching goats, and handing out biscuits and apple slices to the little kids who liked to come by and giggle at our poor Setswana skills. And scribbling out the first draft.”
Her mystery novel, published this September by Delacorte Press involves a mysterious quotation in a dictionary (Emily once worked for Merriam-Webster). In their review PW wrote, “”Arsenault’s quirky, arresting debut … [is] an absorbing, offbeat mystery-meets-coming-of-age novel that’s as sweet as it is suspenseful.”
I’m a great believer in ‘novels of information’ and on Emily’s website she writes about the factual information she was able to use in creating her novel, The Broken Teaglass.
“The citation system described in the novel is based on my experience. I skipped over some details that I thought were likely to confuse or bore readers, but tried at the same time to educate readers on how the basic process works.
“Also, when I worked at Merriam-Webster, I was fascinated by the company’s citation files-so many little notes, going back so many years, the older ones handwritten and yellowed around the edges. It seemed the perfect place to hide-or find-a secret. The days at the office tended to be long and quiet-and a little lonely- and I’d often have this fantasy that I’d find something mysterious in the cit files, and that it would lead me into a dark and dangerous lexicographical underworld. In reality, I never once found anything remotely suspicious in the files. Only years later, long after I’d left the company, did I think to turn this idle daydream into a book.
“While the basic setting of Samuelson Company resembles Merriam-Webster in many ways, its characters are not based on my former coworkers. Billy isn’t based on anyone in particular. His father vaguely resembles the dentist who pulled out my wisdom teeth right before I left for South Africa. Mona is very loosely based on an old college friend. Mr. Phillips is based on the crotchety, grumbling old man who lives inside my head and encourages me to give the finger to inconsiderate motorists. And so on.”
So, take what you know in life and from your Peace Corps years and turn it into a novel. That is what Emily Arsenault has so successfully one. And in the meantime, check out her website EmilyArsenault.com.
Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) has published his share of PODs (print-on-demand) books over the years (and has a garage full of books to prove it!), and he was kind enough to send in this short piece about his path-to-publication. This is good advice for anyone looking to publish their Peace Corps (or other) stories. By the way, Larry has a new book coming out from iUniverse so all family and friends of Lihosit should be on the alert. However, if you don’t get the book in the mail, don’t worry. We’ll be reviewing it on this website.
Here’s what Larry writes about self-publishing.
Ninety percent of all Peace Corps memoirs are self-published. Most companies report authors’ average sales at one hundred copies or less, usually to friends and family. Heck, my friends and family have been begging me to quit writing for nearly thirty years. I can’t stop. Maybe you can’t either. Maybe you haven’t started yet but want to. Good!
Be aware that the times are a’changin’. While I’ve gotten fatter, slower and uglier during the past few decades, printing has become trim, fast and attractive. I’m so old that my first book printing efforts were in off-set which no longer exists. My wife and sons had badgered me for years about computers (as well as losing weight). Finally in 2007, I self-published a book with the new computer-to-print technology. I e-mailed a chapbook written in MS Word to my printer who converted the document to Adobe PageMaker. His computer set up metal plates for printing and viola! A book. We went on to print two more books within twelve months.
During this exact same period, I stumbled upon Marian and John’s web site. They have been kind enough to post some book reviews and articles I wrote. I also read thirty-five other Peace Corps books for fun. The majority of books were self-published and most were printed with Print-On-Demand technology which is a bit different than what I had used. My printer had produced an agreed upon number of copies. Print-On-Demand only prints books as they are ordered over the internet.
I was hesitant. Being a Leo, the idea of giving up complete control scared me. So aside from reading and reviewing books, I contacted authors. Every single one of them had wonderful tales of satisfaction with books that look as professional as any other on the bookstore shelf. One author warned me that interior book design was a template that they chose. I called the company that had printed the most impressive looking books. I’m glad I did. They immediately offered me a sale not mentioned on the web site! They also contradicted my author friend, telling me that any special book design instructions put into writing (with their form) and physically possible would be honored.
I followed all of their directions. As the author and publisher of six books and seven pamphlets previously (using three printers) and having worked in both chain and independent bookstores (long ago), I have ideas about covers and book design. Nobody’s eyes got big. Nobody’s voice rose. They invited me to direct them. They made a few minor suggestions to my cover design which were improvements! When we disagreed about interior book design, they followed my instructions just like they promised. They also met all of their deadlines and charged me exactly what we had agreed upon. This was a relief. In every other instance during the past sixteen years the printer had returned, hat in one hand and a list in the other of reasons why I should pay more.
The time elapsed between contracted agreement and a book in hand was fifty-four days. The costs vary depending upon the size you choose, paper, cover design, and whether you use their editors and marketing department. In my case, my total outlay (on a per book cost) was about what I would have spent with my own printer. However, this book is a better quality, took much less time to produce and will be offered for sale on Amazon.com which is always good. What an enjoyable printing adventure! Aside from entering the 21st century, I have also lost six pounds. My Peace Corps’ memoir, South of the Frontera (out of print since 1993) will definitely be my next project using Print-On-Demand. I can return it to print with a minimum investment for the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. One company representative confided that he personally handles six new titles per month, even during the worst economic times since the Great Depression! Record your Peace Corps’ experience and join the renaissance.
Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77) works as an urban planner. His most recent book, Whispering Campaign, includes short stories from Mexico and Central America. Published by iUniverse, it is available at Amazon.com. Some of his other literary work is available at www.abookcompany.net .
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