Warner Bros has optioned Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03) latest novel Mule for a big budget flick to be produced/directed by Todd Phillips. Phillips is best known for movies such as Old School starring Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell, and The Hangover franchise. The Hangovers 1 and 2 are the highest grossing R rated films of all time. The studio is in the process of finding writers for the adaptation.
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[Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) has been kind enough to send me a short history of the hows-and-whys of Creative Non- Fiction (CNF). That is: how did it come to be; where did it come from, and why?
The reason is that some of us have been discussing the topic, off this site, for a few days. What Bonnie Lee has to say is useful and informative and for those of you who are writing your Peace Corps stories, and not quite sure what to call what you are writing, you might want to read this.
Bonnie Lee has a MFA and teaches Creative Nonfiction Writing
as well as Healthy Cooking at UNM-Taos. She is the author of Somewhere Child (Viking Press) and How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes (Peace Corps Writers). See her blog, "Cooking Crocodiles and Other Food Musings" on this site.
Meanwhile, here's Bonnie Lee's take on CNF.]
A Short History of CNF in the USA
Creative nonfiction (CNF) writing is neither new nor American in origin. Gifted writers have been telling their truths colorfully, dramatically, and enduringly for centuries. Egyptian funerary texts have been cited as one example. Or, closer to home, take the writer Seneca (the Younger), born in Cordoba, Spain, about the same time as Christ: four of Seneca’s essays - which certainly qualify as creative nonfiction — introduce the “Forerunners” section of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (Anchor Books, NY, 1995).
And then there is Michel de Montaigne of France (1533-1592), who many, including Lopate, claim may have been the greatest essayist who ever lived. After the successful publication of his first book, Essais (French for “attempts” or “trials”), Montaigne’s writing “grew longer and more confiding,” Lopate says, until he announced that his mission was to “put before the public a full verbal portrait” of himself. He said he was the first to do this.
Published about the same period as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays and roughly a decade before Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Montaigne’s essays were not the narcissistic products one might suspect. He believed “Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate” and that the personal essay could, in Lopate’s words, “strike a chord of grateful recognition in readers everywhere.”
So why the relatively recent talk of “literary revolution” among the leading lights of creative nonfiction in this country? And, conversely, why all the controversy regarding CNF’s meaning and purpose? In a genre that claims to be made of both substance and style, is there any substance to the suggestion that it’s just “a huge fad” - destined soon to go out of style?
The discussion can get heated. Frank Tempone, then Literary Nonfiction Editor of Del Sol Review, called it “a huge fad” in an editorial in his journal. He didn’t pull punches:
“While [Lee] Gutkind claims his magazine [Creative Nonfiction] is defining the ethics and parameters of the field, I wonder if he has examined the ethics of staking claim to a genre that has been written for hundreds if not thousands of years. Sure he’s got the domain name, the nice conference in Maryland, the t-shirts on his website, and his mediocre disciples, but he’s also got Maintaigne, Proust, Whitman, and Kerouac turning in their graves.”
In a widely discussed 1997 essay in Vanity Fairmagazine entitled “Me, Myself, and I,” critic James Wolcott called creative nonfiction “a sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.” He condemned confessional memoirs as tending toward self-indulgence and slammed Lee Gutkind, whom he dubbed “godfather” of the genre, for driving the confessional bandwagon.
Other publications in the late 1990’s, including The New York Times and the New Yorker, expressed opinions that the popular form (especially memoir) would be little more than a passing fancy.
Although the origin of the name “creative nonfiction” is debated, when the National Endowment for the Arts adopted this label in the 1970’s, it achieved some legitimacy. The agency needed a word to categorize grant submissions of nonfiction that appropriated fictional elements, such a dramatic tension, dialogue, shift in points of view, and attention to detail. The NEA felt that “creative nonfiction” accurately described “factual prose that is also literary.”
“But,” said Caroline Abels in a December 16, 1999, article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “the NEA was simply referring to a type of nonfiction that writers had been penning for years.
“Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, and John Steinbeck wrote Travels With Charley. Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe all wrote creative nonfiction at some point in their careers,” Abels said. “Creative nonfiction, then, is nothing new, but it got more attention from the literati after a slew of memoirs came on the market in the mid-1990’s.”
Lee Gutkind, who started teaching creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, says he was the first - or one of the first - to teach CNF at the university level anywhere. “My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a ‘creative’ nonfiction course,” says Gutkind in his CNF anthology, In Fact (p.xxvii), “while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general - forget the use of the word ‘creative’ - was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing.”
Twenty years later, in 1993, Gutkind launched the groundbreaking journal Creative Nonfiction, as “a literary outlet for those journalists who aspired to experiment with fact and narrative.” Today, Gutkind’s journal has a circulation well over 10,000.
When Gutkind began, creative nonfiction was just starting to establish a foothold in academia. Since then, creative nonfiction courses in college creative writing programs have grown steadily. Today, dozens of colleges and universities offer graduate degrees in creative nonfiction and hundreds offer undergraduate courses.
Creative nonfiction, then - this hybrid genre that employs fictive techniques to create scenes and character and dialogue to tell true stories – despite its long history, continues to grow and evolve.
I heard from Larry Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) that an article he wrote for this site and which we posted on December 6, 2011, was recently pirated and posted on an advertising site in re-edited format. The most interesting change was the substitution of “Serenity Corps” for “Peace Corps.” Give me a break!
“My younger son told me that I must be improving as a writer if my stuff is now being jacked,” said Lihosit, “but my legal team was more than annoyed since it’s illegal.”
The author of Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010 Larry has filed a complaint with Google before continuing his search for the guilty party. Lihosit’s article is a chapter in his new book Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir to be released in April.
Stanley Meisler was a Peace Corps Evaluator in the early days of the agency and last year Beacon Press published his definitive study of the agency: When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. The book is out this month in paperback. Stan stayed in touch with the Peace Corps in all his years as a foreign correspondent for the LA TIMES in Africa and Latin America. He is an authority on the agency. The book is available on Amazon and any good bookstore. The list price is $19; and Amazon is selling it for six dollars less.
Stan also recently published an expanded edition of his history of the United Nation. More than 100 pages have been added by Grove Press to this book entitled, United Nations: A History. The new chapters are on Rwanda, Iraq, Kofi Annan, Ban ki-Moon and the Arab Spring. The book in paperback sells on Amazon for $12.47.
Paul Geren resigned his duties effective August 1, 1969. He said on leaving the university, ”My family and I thank the many people of Florida who have given us their friendship and support. I hope to continue to work in higher education, probably in teaching economics at another university.”
Leaving Florida, and just days before his resignation would take effect, Geren went with his wife Elizabeth and their youngest daughter, 17-year-old Nancy to Kentucky. He thought that he could get a job teaching economics at the University of Kentucky, though he had no firm commitment.
They decided to drive to Lexington and find out if there was a job for him. On Sunday morning near London, Kentucky, they encountered bad weather and severe driving condition. Elizabeth took over the driving so her husband could move into the back seat and rest.
It was while Elizabeth was driving that she hit a deep hole in the road and lost control of the car. They swerved across the narrow highway and hit oncoming traffic. Elizabeth and Nancy were taken to the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington where they recovered from their injuries. Paul Francis Geren, however, was killed instantly in the accident. He was only 55.
Scores of telegrams and letters of condolence poured into Mrs. Geren during the following weeks. She received more than 100 letters and 68 telegrams. These notes came from diplomatic and political officials in the United States and from overseas where Geren had work in the foreign service. They came from pastors, professors, the Florida Supreme Court, university students, and from the Gerens’ household help in Libya. Paul Geren was a man many people remembered, loved and respected.
One final note about who Paul Geren really was. Like most of us, he was misunderstood, made mistakes, and didn’t always fit in with the crowd. But his diary notes from Burma, I think, tell us who he really was:
This note was written in Ramgarh, Bihar, on July 30, 1942. It is one of the last entries of his famous Burma Diary:
To live is to be liable to sorry. All of us in the world are like a group moving over mountains together. The same peril stalks us all. When it touches any one of us it stirs a quality in him which lies deep, which is almost beyond knowing intellectually, which is assuredly beyond definition.
In whomever it is stirred, that one is akin to all other sufferers, with a kinship that cannot be sundered. In so far as people ever understand one another, this is the means of understanding. In tears our souls mingle.
Paul Geren arrived at the Baptist college as a veteran foreign service officer with a wide-ranging successful career in government. He had been deputy director at the Peace Corps in its first year. He had been a diplomat for more than a decade. And he had been a college faculty member and a vice president of Baylor University. He was 54 when he was appointed just the fifth president of Stetson University.
Geren’s first success at Stetson was setting up a foreign exchange program and building a swimming pool for the students! But the wheels soon came off his presidency.
What happened? Why was Geren such a quick failure at Stetson University when he had such a successful career earlier in his life. Or had he been so successful? He had lasted less than a year at the Peace Corps; he never jelled with the Mad Men and Women in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue.
He was, everyone soon learned, not qualified for the job as president of a university, even a small one like Stetson University. The Dean of Baylor’s Law School replied, when asked why Geren had not become president of Baylor a decade before, “It’s a long story,” the Dean said, “but you’ll regret it if you let him become president at Stetson.”
What was not found out by the presidential search committee, according to a book by Gilbert L. Lycan, professor of history and chairman of that department at Stetson University and author of Stetson University: The First 100 Years, was that Geren had been fired by Baylor. That is why he left the academic world and returned to the State Department.
Paul Geren started out okay at Stetson, but from the beginning, it seems, he was too ambitious for himself and the school, and too isolated in his decision making for this conservative academic community. In his first year in office, for example, he caused the university to have its largest deficit in years.
He did built a swimming pool for $85,000 that students welcomed; he created a sabbatical leave system that the faculty liked. He wanted to be seen as a bold planner, but he didn’t seek advise from others, particularly the faculty, and he didn’t raise the money to support his dreams for Stetson. He made hasty and bad appointments to friends that further distanced him from the entire community.
Soon he was ‘on the outs’ with the faculty. Added to that was the fact that the important Baptist leaders in Florida lost confidence in him. By December 1, 1969 the faculty were taking votes, for and against, Paul F. Geran.
Geren ’said’ he was willing to ‘change his ways’ of how he did his job at Stetson, but he never did, and finally he resigned his job in July, 1969. It was to go into effect August 1, 1969 unless the trustee of the college disagreed. Geren was giving them a window to save his job.
The trustees, however, decided not to save Geren and they did not take any action on the resignation Geren had submitted–on May 30– when the faculty had voted unanimously “no confidence” in his administrative leadership. The Stetson students also voiced their support of the faculty. Geren had to go.
It was a nasty time at Stetson University. On the week-end following the trustee and faculty action, the graduating seniors boycotted and picketed a reception given in Geren’s honor. The students carried signs saying “GROG” meaning “Get rid of Geren.” Other signs read: “944 students Can’t Be Wrong.” and “We Love Our School, We Love Our Faculty.” Only 30 of the 300 graduating seniors attended the reception for Paul Geren. Earlier, 944 students had signed a petition requesting the board of trustees to accept Geren’s resignation.
Contacted by telephone by a reporter for the Baptist Press, Geren said he would have an official statement to release later, but that he planned to leave Stetson at the end of the summer. He added that in the light of the faculty and student body reactions, any significant degree of usefulness he could serve as president has ended.
Several persons, according to reporters from the Baptist Press who wished not to be quoted, said that Geren’s resignation had been announced primarily to stave off a faculty revolt and a vote of no confidence by the faculty. No one seemed willing, however, to identify publicly the issues involved in the faculty administration squabble.
The Florida Times Union in Jacksonville quoted several faculty members, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, as saying the main issue was the administrative ability of the president.
One faculty member said the central complaint was the president’s “inability to work effectively with his colleagues and the faculty.” Another person was quoted as citing the trend towards changing the philosophy of the university away from the traditions of a quality institution.
All of this had come to a head after a position paper was presented concerning plans for expansion of the “school’s Brevard County campus,” when Geren reportedly told the faculty, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Schultz, chairman of the history department, said that “the faculty-student erosion of confidence in the president in no way reflected criticism of Stetson’s relations with the Florida Baptist Convention.” To the contrary, the faculty commended Dr. Geren for his distinguished work in church university relations,” added Schultz. “The faculty only regrets that the president’s obvious talents in this one field are not matched by the necessary talents in other essential areas of presidential administration.
In a statement he gave to the press, Geren said, “Until May 30, 1969, the trustees held hope which I shared that it would be possible to accommodate faculty-presidential problems. The trustees devised a plan of action. It is clear from the subsequent faculty votes the plan could not succeed. The difficulties at Stetson, as in many area of our corporate life, are psychological.”
He then added, “My family and I thank the many people of Florida who have given us their friendship and support. I hope to continue to work in higher education, probably in teaching economics at another university.”
Paul Francis Geren who had walked out of Burma, then went back into war in the Far East, and later served our country in a dozen overseas assignments, would never teach economics or anything else at any other university.
End of Part Six
Geren’s diary ends with no happy ending. He finishes it on July 30, 1942 in Bamgarh, Bihar, writing:
Our group moving over the mountains is a replica of the world community of sufferers. We were many races and nations: Chinese, Burmese, Indians, British, and Americans. We were hungry together on one meal a day. We were wet together, body, bedding and bread when the elements changed their policy from scorching us to soaking us. We jumped together for joy to see biscuit falling to us from the bomb rack of an airplane. We were banded together for whatever should come.
Within a few months the tide of battle would turn to victory in every theater of the war-at Midway, Stalingrad, and El Alamein. Still Geren’s Diary ends with no guarantee of victory or a “happy ending” for in mid-1942 there was no assurance that the tide would turn, or that even the diarist would survive the war.
Still, Paul F. Geren did survive, one more time.
In Imphal after the retreat, he and the Seagrave unit went to work handling Indian evacuees. “It was pretty bad,” said Geren. “They died so fast they couldn’t bury them. The jackals would dig up the bodies at night.”
Next he moved with Seagrave to Ramgarh where Stilwell set up his Chinese training school. He was offered a commission in September 1942 but couldn’t take it as he was sick with a tropical fever and went to Forman College in Lahore when he taught for nine months until he recovered his health.
Cured and by the fall of 1943, he returned to Delhi and joined the army. He was sent immediately to North Burma and rejoined Seagrave unit. He served with the Chinese 38 and 22 Divisions in the opening of the campaign and then went on two missions with Merrill’s Marauders.
By August 1944, upon the fall of Myitkyina, he was back in Delhi with the rank of corporal, and assigned to the Historical Section. He received his commission on January 23, 1945.
Discharged, he returned home to the United States and became an economics professor at Berea College in Kentucky, and then to a career of nine years, from 1947–56, in the foreign service, before returning to the academic world and Baylor University as a vice president.
After his brief time as Shriver’s first deputy at the Peace Corps, and his final foreign service tour in Salisbury, he was elected the fifth president of Stetson University on August 21, 1967 while still in the foreign service in Libya and took up his new job on September 15, 1967. He was 54 years of age.
This would be his the job and a sad ending to a life and a career of a man who only tried to do good in the world.
End of Part Five
The retreat from Burma started at Shwebo on May 1, 1942. Geren would write in his Diary on May 6, 1942, from near Homalin. “The trudge has begun. The way stretches ahead of us 250 miles, first across the hot plains, then across jungle and mountains, 7,000 feet high, named in a moment of miscalculations or irony the Chin “‘Hills.’ Our small company of 104 Indians, Burmese, Chinese, British, and Americans, has become part of a great and tragic flight: the flight of Indians-perhaps a quarter million of them-from their promised land.”
There party was headed by General Stilwell. For the first six days they drove trucks. They got as far as Mansa. Then they walked. They walked across the mountains and arrived at Imphal on May 20, 1942.
There are many moving accounts noted by Geren and recorded in his Burma Diary. Here is just one, written by Geren on July 25, 1942, after he had arrived safely in Ramgarh.
Today Tom, one of our ambulance drivers of whom I have spoken, went to China. [Paul described him earlier as: "a Welshman with a rich bass voice that often cheers us."] Tom wanted to go (to China), and yet he did not want to go. The reason he did not want to go was that he found India pleasant, and besides this, he was attached to us as we were to him.
The reason he wanted to go was this: When we were coming out of Burma, before we had to abandon our trucks and start walking, we came across a company of wounded Chinese soldiers near Katha. There must have been two hundred of them. My guess is that they had been evacuated from the battlefield to the south and had progressed to Katha. Here the railroad was hopelessly blocked with the tangle of fleeing traffic and the soldiers were thrown on their own to get away from the Japanese who were closing in on all of us. In the staggering heat of that day they saw our convoy of trucks rolling toward them on the dusty road. They must have said to themselves, “Here is perhaps a way of escape. We are desperate men.” When our trucks, which had to proceed haltingly for all the traffic, dust, and crowds of evacuees thronging the road, drew opposite them, they hobbled out and swarmed all over the trucks, stopping us.
I cannot find it in me to say a word of blame for what Tom did. I was spared this fearful problem by losing my truck in the muddy bottom of the last river we tried to cross by fording. We were under strict orders not to take on anybody else. To take anybody else would prejudice the hopes we held for getting our already large, weary, half-sick crowd through safely. We had been without enough to eat, without much sleep for forty-eight hours, and the dust was a distressing coat on our eyelids.
With all these things, elemental, physiological, and spiritual in the setting, Tom got out and pushed the wounded Chinese soldiers off his truck as the only means of being able to carry on-More than one night on the walk out and later in Assam he told me, “I owe the Chinese a debt.” When he left today he went to pay it.
End of Part Four
In the weeks and months that followed the bombing of Rangoon, Geren worked as a driver, and then as a field hospital attendant on the front lines which the Chinese were failing to hold against the advancing Japanese.
“Our supplies were cut off and the Japs were advancing all the time,” Paul recalled. “We were the only medical unit with Western standards. The few members of the Quaker Volunteer Ambulance Corps and myself, we carried the wounded back from the battlefield.”
All of this time his faith buffered him.
On Christmas Eve, 1941, he wrote in his Diary, “The Japanese are promising a ‘Christmas present for the white people’ over the Bangkok radio.”
They carried on in Rangoon. From Geren’s Diary, Christmas Eve, 1941:
Whatever came yesterday, and whatever will come tomorrow, tonight we sang Christmas carols. We were a motley choir, begotten of a day between air raids, so widely apart in size, in mind, in social status, and so variously gifted with song that one had to chuckle if ever he stood apart to make appraisal of us.
One of the carolers was an Austrian Jewess. It seems that this war always comes to its frightful worst when it confronts a Jew. She had escaped from Austria and had set up a little school in Rangoon. In yesterday’s raid a bomb exploded next to her house, burned it with all her things, and left her greatly shocked. All through the singing she was crying softly.
This was the place and the thing for her and for all of us. Christmas carols are excellent bits of defiance as we could have found to throw into the teeth of despair. And despair was pressing hard upon us.
If it seems farcical to singing about the Prince of Peace in a time like this, consider alternatives. A man could become cynical, could hopelessly despair, but, if he did, nothing would have been accomplished. If our choice is to be forlorn on rational grounds or hopeful on ground whose case is not conclusively logically, it ought not to be hard decision to make. It is the best part of rationality, even, to care more for hope than for the relentless logic with which war follows war.”
The first half of 1942 were months of retreat and defeat for the Allies everywhere. In Russia the critical battle of Stalingrad was being waged in hand-to-hand, block-to-block combat; in the desert sands of North Africa General Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” and his Afrika Korps forced back the British Eighth Army; while in the Pacific Japanese landing forces were snaking from island to island enroute to Australia, and General MacArthur could only talk bravely of returning. Burma, too, had fallen to the Japanese. Geren’s Diary notation for May reads, “The Japanese are to the south at Kaleywa, we think they are to the north at Myitkyina and we must try to go between before they close the circle.”
End of Part Three
Paul Francis Geren was deeply religious. And his religion, it appears to me, propelled him through his life, aiding him in his journey from Rangoon to Ramgarh, the legendary march out of Burma, and through dozens of other appointments, foreign and domestic, government and academic.
The pivotal point of this man’s life, however, was his escape from Burma that he details in Burma Diary, his short articulate memoir that was published by Harper & Brothers in 1943, and became an immediate best seller. It is a story told with quiet dignity, much like the man himself who is described often by others as “a quiet, studious looking individual.”
But first, a quick survey summary of WWII for all of us who missed the war, thanks to Harold J. Schultz, Chairman of the International Studies at Stetson University. Schultz wrote about Paul when Geren became the fifth president of that Florida college:
The Battle of Britain ended in the Fall of 1941. For more than a year the German Luftwaffe had crossed the Channel every evening at dusk to drop their incendiary bombs on London and other major cities. The Brits fought on alone.
Impatient for success and confident of victory, Hitler next unleashed 150 divisions against Soviet Russia in June, 1941. Now Great Britain had an ally in Russia. The Germany armies were successful at first in Eastern Europe as they had been on the western front a year earlier. But then the Germans failed to capture Moscow and Stalingrad.
The isolationism of the United States ended when the Axis forces third partner, Imperial Japan, struck Pearl Harbor. Our illusions that a World War could be anything less than global ended on December, 7, 1941.
The Japanese march of aggression, which had begun in Manchuria in 1931, picked up steam as Imperial Japan decided to carve out an empire in the East that could match her Axis partner in the West. In quick succession Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Bataan, and Corregidor all fell. Japan pushed into Burma in a lightning move that made the entire Indian subcontinent vulnerable to conquest.
This morning the first bombs fell on Rangoon. Before they fell, life thronged the streets of the city. (She is more an Indian than a Burmese city.) There were dock workers and rickshaw men, worn of hand by the shafts, worn of foot by the paying stones, messengers, coolies awaiting any work that might be offered. First an air-raid siren, a filling of the air with planes, attacking and defending, a rain of bombs, and fifteen hundred people, mostly these Indian workers, trapped in the street, are dead. Twenty minutes in the dimension of time have just encompassed a thousand years in the dimension of hope and fear. Twenty minutes have seen more people die than did the heaviest all-night raid on London.
Geren’s classroom at the college was turned into a field hospital and when Dr. Gordon Seagrave, the famed Burma surgeon, who had mobilized his Baptist Hospital in Namkham to provide care for the Chinese soldiers who had come to Burma to fight the Japanese, arrived from North Burma with six Lend-Lease trucks, he needed drivers and Geren volunteered.
General Joseph W. Stilwell, the senior American military officer in Southeast Asia, who took command of American forces, such as they were, in China, Burma, and India, commissioned Dr. Seagrave as a major. “I tried to join up in Rangoon,” Geren said later. “They said there was no one qualified to give a physical examination. So I remained a civilian.”
End of Part Two
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