Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97)
(Peace Corps novel)
by Bernard F. Blanche (Brazil 1965–67)
where returned Volunteers share their expertise and experiences
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97)
(Peace Corps novel)
by Bernard F. Blanche (Brazil 1965–67)
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that The Mind Dancing by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66) has won the 2010 Award for the Outstanding Poetry Book published by a Peace Corps writer during 2009. Zurlo will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
After many years of teaching history and writing in public schools in Long Island, and in colleges (Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Ohio, Oklahoma), Tony taught literature and writing at a teachers’ university in the Peoples Republic of China. The year in China was the second life-changing experience for Tony. Studying, discovering, and appreciating Chinese culture and the people is the subject of The Mind Dancing.
Not just a collection of poems, The Mind Dancing traces his journey of self-discovery from his experiences in China. Part One, “Roots,” establishes the foundations of Chinese culture indispensable for personal growth. Part Two, “Discovery,” reveals spiritual development from experiencing the environment and people of China. Part Three, “Separation,” depicts the sadness of separation, but joyfulness of preserving bonds with Chinese friends and culture. 2008 Texas Poet Laureate Larry D. Thomas writes: “These poems, beautifully illustrated with Chinese characters by Vivian Lu, capture the very essence of China.”
As a PCV Tony taught Nigerian history and English in secondary schools in Zaria and Yola, Nigeria. The experience was very much an initiation into adulthood for him as there was great hostility in the country between the North and South, and riots and other conflicts led to the Biafran War. Those were quite tumultuous times for Tony, and were suspenseful and emotionally exhausting. His first chapbook of poems, Naked Against the Sky, was based on his Peace Corps experiences.
After the Peace Corps, Tony served in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1970. The following is an excerpt from “Becoming a Man in the Sixties: The Peace Corps and the Army” that he wrote for a series of articles for PeaceCorpsWriters.org (January 2005 issue) entitled “War and the Peace Corps.” (The piece was also published in Writers Against War, Winter 2005):
On a dry, sunny day in October 1966, I stepped out of Barclay’s Bank and ran abruptly into a rag-tag mob of young men and teenage boys screaming with hate and chasing a middle-aged Igbo man . . ..
I ran over to the Igbo man and found him unconscious; I could see only the whites of his eyes. When I tried to lift him, I noticed fresh blood oozing from the crown of his head. The leader of the mob shouted out to me, “Batuuree [White man], what you want? This man be your brother?”
I shouted something I’ve long forgotten, and the mob’s leader answered, “Go away, Batuuree. This is our business.”
While I was trying to get help from onlookers to get the man to the hospital, the mob edged closer. Some held rocks and clubs; others swung machetes. I realized that they were not as disorganized as they looked. I also matured a hundred years in those five or ten minutes. I knew I could not save the man. What I could do, I realized, was to look for some Igbo friends in other parts of the town and drive them to safety.
For about three hours, I raced around on my Honda 50 looking for friends. I only managed to transport three people to the airport so they could escape by plane to the northern capital of Kano. One of those I took to the airport was Israel, the young Igbo who worked for me at my house. Unfortunately, the newspaper headlines the following day read that Northern army troops had mounted planes at the Kano airport and killed all Igbo passengers.
My own three years in the Army [serving in Germany], after my experience in Nigeria, seemed almost a mockery of the suffering and agony I saw in Nigeria while teaching with the Peace Corps. Although I know that my experience does not rival the heroism and tragedy of Vietnam, the life lessons are similar. The Nigerian tragedy taught me that I couldn’t change the world. For the first time in my life I began to understand that I am only accountable to my own conscience. And becoming an adult means living with the anguish of our personal limitations and failures.
(A short story based on this event, “Faces of Fear,” appeared in Network Africa (June 1985) and in Okike 25 (1985).
Tony lives in Arlington, TX and teaches writing, American literature, and non-Western literature and culture at Tarrant County College Southeast. He is currently working on a book of poems about the “sweet and sour” emotional journey of growing old tentatively titled Water, Heart, and Sun, the Chinese characters for Eternity.
To order The Mind Dancing from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that Stronghold by Terri McIntyre (Pakistan 1963–65) has won the 2010 Award for the Outstanding Children’s Book published by a Peace Corps writer during 2009. McIntyre will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
Stronghold, recommended for readers from 9 to 12 years of age, is a story that combines a boy’s grief, archaeology and the magic of imagination, was inspired by the author’s children when they built forts in the trees near their home, and by the discovery of Anasazi ruins under their home town. Stronghold’s hero, thirteen-year-old Joe Aberdeen finds himself in the middle of a dangerous adventure when he discovers looters in the act of pillaging.
Terri McIntyre’s Peace Corps assignment was to start an office skills program in a girls’ high school in Hyderabad, Sind, Pakistan. The only problem during her first month of service, however, was that she had neither students nor typewriters. But she hunkered down and did some serious problem-solving — a skill that would come in handy when she started and taught a program for gifted children years later in a Navajo school.
Her first task as a Volunteer was to build a curriculum, but none of the local girls’ colleges had one to use as a reference in 1964. However, the staff at a men’s college, with amused interest, provided her with a syllabus, and Terri took it from there. Soon she had a curriculum and an empty classroom. In the meantime, as her coworkers looked on and questioned her endlessly about life in the Hollywood versions of America, she was given two duties: start the day leading all 700 girls with exercises in a lot inside the school compound, and assist the Pakistani English teacher, who soon left her in charge.
Terri could have learned much from her this woman who was a cool and modern lady who did not wear a burkah, but Terri was soon too busy drinking 300 cups of tea at the dozens of homes she visited as she tried to convince parents to allow their daughters to join her business office program. Her argument: women, not men, should work in girls’ schools and women’s hospitals. It worked. By spring, she had six students and new typewriters tagged “Ford Foundation” culled from various school district offices, and actually began teaching.
When Terri left Pakistan, a local teacher, whom she had trained, was put in charge of the business office skills program in the Government Girls High School. She also left a two-foot wide sombrero and a Navajo rug as gifts to the head teacher and program co-worker. What Terri brought home though was a world view that has kept her pondering and fascinated with life ever since.
She continued college in Arizona (BA in creative writing and literature, graduate studies in secondary education: English, special education, gifted education), married a man from Bangladesh, gave birth to a son of whom she is extremely proud, divorced, taught school for six years with the Juvenile Division of the Department of Corrections, remarried, and had a daughter she is also extremely proud of, and taught school on the border of the Navajo Reservation.
One of the most direct influences the Peace Corps experience had on Terri’s post-Peace Corps life was in her work with Navajo students through the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program she was asked to organize and teach. The first gifted program in her district was taught after school. Some considered it an elite club and there was much opposition from both teachers and administrators. Once more she found herself battling prejudice. The key breakthrough was a clause in the Gifted Education “Mandate” that encouraged program coordinators to create a talent pool of potentially gifted children, a list of children to be observed and tested. To overcome the elitist aura surrounding the identification of gifted kids (and, by definition, the exclusion of everyone else), her strategy was to create a living talent pool. The small groups of identified gifted were expanded to include the possibly gifted because someone, anyone, including the student, could refer a child who exhibited some special talent. Her justification was that if a child believes she’s gifted, she is gifted. No longer did she hear complaints. Parents formed a support group to address the effects of this approach — after school math club, drama club, and teacher/class workshops in which she could share gifted education strategies and techniques with everyone.
To this day, kids, now adults, come up to her in a store or at the post office and proudly say, “Remember me? I was in your GATE program.” Unfortunately when Terri retired, the program was retired, despite all the manuals she had written and materials and equipment she had obtained with grants over the years. Budgets became tight and the Mandate went downhill with art and music.
Recently she began to wonder what had happened to the office skills program in Hyderabad, so, although she did not physically walk in, she visited Government Girls High School, aka Miira School, via Google Earth. There was the front gate where tongas and rickshaws left off students, her first tiny classroom atop the school building, the kitchen room behind the administration office where she pissed everyone off when she insisted on washing every leaf of lettuce, the wall of roses the girls would pick and chew on the blossoms, the dorm in which she lived for nearly two years next to another teacher’s room, the two rooms sandwiching a brand-spanking new toilet, a little chamber that in 1964 received many visitors, not for use, but for viewing.
And there was that big yard where she stood on the wall leading 700 girls wearing white shalwaar-kamiizes and red sweaters in exercises she made up because, in her words, “I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
To order Stronghold from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1965-67) has won the 2010 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award for the outstanding non-fiction book published by a Peace Corps writer during 2009. Leamer will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
Laurence Leamer has had a lifelong career as a freelance writer following a one-year stint as an associate editor at Newsweek. His first book, The Paper Revolutionaries: The Rise of the Underground Press [Simon & Schuster 1972], was written with a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund. Upon publication, Leamer left New York City to live in a trailer park in Lanark, West Virginia where he worked in a coal mine and wrote an article for Harper’s about his experience. That led to other assignments for the magazine including covering the war in Bangladesh that resulted in an article that won an award from the Overseas Press Club in the category of best magazine article of the year.
Leamer’s second book, Playing for Keeps in Washington [Dial Press 1977], was on the New York Times list as a notable book of the year. After its publication, Leamer moved to Peru where he wrote his first and only novel, Assignment [Dial Press 1981], about the cocaine traffic. Upon returning to the States, he wrote Ascent: The Life of Willi Unsoeld [Simon & Schuster 1982, Harper Perennial 1999], about the Everest climber and philosophy professor who had been director of Peace Corps Nepal. Leamer next wrote Make-Believe;The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan [Harper & Row 1983], the first book to deal with the Hollywoodization of Ronald Reagan and how that affected his presidency. Leamer followed that book with As Time Goes By: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, [Harper & Row 1986], and King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson [Morrow 1989], a controversial bestseller about Johnny Carson.
The Carson biography led to his most famous book, The Kennedy Women [Random House 1994], a multigenerational study that took five years to write and fifteen years after publication it is still widely available. He followed that by pursuing his love of country music in Three Chords and the Truth: Behind the Scenes with Those Who Make and Shape Country Music [Harper Collins 1997] before returning to the Kennedy family with The Kennedy Men: 1901–1963 [William Morrow & Co 2001] and Sons of Camelot: The Fate of An American Dynasty [William Morrow & Co. 2004], completing the trilogy. He then moved to California to write his next book — about a Kennedy son-in-law, Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger [St. Martins Press 2005].
In the Early ’90s Leamer went to Palm Beach for the first time when he was researching The Kennedy Women. He found the city to be the strangest place he had ever been, and he decided to buy a place there and learn enough to write a book. That took a decade and a half before he wrote Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach [Hyperion 2009] and it became his fifth New York Times bestseller. The book was so controversial that the police chief suggested to him that he should have security, and while he was driving in the area his car was run off the road. Celebrated in some quarters and condemned in others, it is a revealing, intimate look at the wages of wealth.
After the book’s publication, Leamer took a few months off to work full-time pushing the White House and Congress to fulfill President Obama’s pledge to double the size of the Peace Corps. He also is a longtime volunteer at the Lord’s Place, a nonprofit dealing with the homeless in Palm Beach County.
Leamer lives with his wife Vesna in Washington, D.C. and Palm Beach. He has a daughter Daniela and two grandchildren, Alejandro and Emilia. Leamer is in Serbia and Montenegro for most of the summer. When he gets back, he will be return to working on a new book project.
As a PCV Laurence Leamer taught English, health and science in a remote Nepalese mountain village two days from a road. Last summer after four and a half decades, Leamer returned there and was reunited with twenty of his former students. What the students remembered best was the Christmas party Leamer give in December 1965 for all the villagers including the untouchables.
When Leamer left the village at the end of his two-day visit, he met on the trail a young man returning to Kathmandu to study for a bachelor’s degree. The young man said he was an untouchable and his father had attended the Christmas party.
In 1966 Leamer won a Ford Fellowship in International Development which he used at the University of Oregon to study for a master’s degree in International Affairs. While there he wrote his first published article for the university alumni magazine about what it was like being a former Volunteer opposed to the war in Vietnam.
In 1968, Leamer was named an International Fellow at Columbia University where he received a master’s degree in Journalism, graduating second in his class. His website is at www.Leamer.com
To order Laurence Leamer’s books from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel The Mule, will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next year. His other novels, Whiteman and The Konkans, won many prizes including the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Maria Thomas Prize from Peace Corps Writers, and Florida gold and silver medals for fiction. Tony has contributed to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta, McSweeney’s, the O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Fantasy, and has received an NEA, a Japan Friendship NEA, and a Guggenheim. He lives in Sarasota, FL, with his wife Jessyka and their two young children. Here he reviews Leita Kaldi’s memoir Roller Skating in the Desert.
Roller Skating in the Desert
Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993–96)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
WHAT’S MOST ENJOYABLE about Roller Skating in the Desert, Leita Kaldi’s unique memoir about her three years as a Volunteer in a Sérère village in Senegal is that which made Kaldi herself somewhat unique as a PCV; she went to Africa not in the first flush of mature youth as most do, but in middle age, and she had already accomplished quite a lot professionally before packing her bags. Reading her take on Africa opened my eyes to something I had long wondered about, what it was like for those few Volunteers in my own group who, unlike the majority of us, had a touch, or even more, of winter in their hair, and knew more about the world and how it operates than the rest of us did. What was it like for my good friend, Merle Rubine, for example, who had left a long and illustrious career as a Dateline producer in NYC and found herself in a Worodougou village as remote and primitive as mine was? Did we annoy her with our innocence and eagerness? What did she learn from Africa that we did not that the difference of her age allowed her?
“At fifty-five, my life was meaningless,” Kaldi tells us early on. “I had worked for many years in international development, notably for the United Nations, but, for lack of better options, had to resort to the hospitality industry when I moved to Miami Beach in the 1980’s. Fifteen years later, my two sons were grown, I was bored comatose and anguished by the absolute certainty that I could be doing something more meaningful.” An encounter with an RPCV in his late fifties sparks the idea of the Peace Corps in her, soon enough she finds herself riding on a bus in the middle of the night in Dakar. ‘They say that the way you react to the smells of Africa will determine whether you love or hate it,” she writes in a lovely little passage. “Among the odors that assailed me I detected peanuts, mucky earth, an elusive scent of the sea, the occasional waft of night-blooming jasmine, the not unpleasant body odor of the young apparanti sitting in front of me, and , from somewhere, cinnamon. I found it all delicious.”
One of the main things that Roller Skating in the Desert reveals is that older Volunteers both do and don’t have a vastly different Peace Corps experience, that Africa is just as difficult a place to immerse oneself at fifty-five as it is at twenty-five, that the small victories of development work when they in fact happen taste just as good, that the feeling of being “used” by HCNs on a petty and daily basis is just as bitter and disheartening. “WAWA,” Kaldi laments over and over in these pages — when a lazy neighbor spends the money she gives him not on his hungry family, but to go to a wrestling match, when a small loan processing fee is stolen by the government functionary, just as she knew it would be — WAWA, WAWA, WAWA: “West Africa Wins Again.” The villagers confer respect on her that a younger Volunteer wouldn’t get, she worries about her sons back home in ways childless Volunteers can’t relate to, villagers pluck strands of her gray hair to make gris-gris, she finds herself surprised that the younger Volunteers unfailingly include her when they head out to probe the nightlife in Dakar.
“The young volunteers had a talent for finding fun where they could . . . I was touched that they always invited me . . . [They] would be drunk and happy . . . the murky bar was also frequented by Senegalese men and tired prostitutes,” she begins in one of those passages that bluntly outline how she experienced familiar Peace Corps settings differently because of her stage in life. Then this happens:
The beer was cheap and the taped music was mostly American . . . [one night] a cassette tape blared out an old Beatles song “Don’t Let Me Down” . . . My older son, Marco, during his high school years, would play that song again and again. . .. Now I felt very far away . . . [I] continuously wrote letters to him about my adventures, which gradually turned into imprecations for a reply, to which he did not respond . . . listening to the song’s plea . . . [m]y son’s face filled my eyes . . . What had I done? Had I sacrificed my sons on the altar of my own fulfillment? . . . I mumbled something to the others, rushed out . . . as the jalopy pulled away from the bar, “Don’t Let me Down” echoed after us and down the dark road into the African night, and I felt myself drowning in a tidal wave of grief.
Roller Skating in the Desert is unflinching in its frankness; Kaldi is constantly willing to go where most Peace Corps memoirists won’t. While many RPCV books leave the reader with the feeling that the author would prefer to “let what happened in Africa stay in Africa,” Kaldi brings it all back home. By her own admission, she was single and unattached at the time, and what I’ve chosen to draw out at last from this wonderful book full of character sketches and poignant moments of success and failure in the field certainly says more about me than it does about her fine memoir, which is by no means focused on this topic: love and sexuality in the Peace Corps.
Kaldi went to Senegal with her heart open to the idea of not just getting to know Africans and perhaps improving their lives, but also with the idea that she could improve her own. What I mean to say is that Kaldi is one of those of us who went to Africa open to the idea that she could fall in love with a local. Because there were those of us who opened ourselves to that idea, and those who did not, and while it’s very true that in Africa we had to make that decision against the frightening backdrop of AIDS, I’ve still always felt that those of us who “did it,” to put it as crassly as it has occasionally been put to me, had the greater and more profound experience.
Kaldi often seems openly delighted that so many Senegalese men found her to be an object of sexual desire, something that surprised and confused her at first. Here, she recounts a day at the beach: “I found a deserted cove, where I splayed myself on a warm rock. A young man picked his way across the rocks toward me, nimble as a mountain goat . . . As he came closer, I saw his heart-shaped face and perfect white teeth . . . An electric charge shot through my solar plexus, a sexual jolt I thought I had forgotten . . . He asked me my name and I told him . . . His eyes penetrated mine as he announced, ‘Vous etes a moi.’ You are mine.”
That unrequited moment is just prelude to the casual offers, the night visitors, some welcome and some not, who arrive at Kaldi’s door in Africa as they arrived at all of our doors in Africa. And as it was for all of us, some of these visitors come to her in lust and some come holding their hearts in their hands. One poor guy, the village shopkeeper, I found myself rooting for throughout the book. Kaldi, after all, is the one who gives him an unsolicited haircut in his store, as though in Africa that wouldn’t be an invitation to romance! The hapless Coulibali is duped, he knocks on her door in the middle of the night and startles her:
“Coulibali! What are you doing here at this time of night? What’s wrong?”
“Adija Sagar,” he rasped, pushing his face close to mine, “I love you.” At the same time, he grabbed my hand and pushed it against his pants. He had an erection like the Eiffel Tower . . ..
Though my heart still thudded with fear and a flash of reckless desire, and though I felt embarrassed for Coulibali and myself, I was also touched by the tenderness that softened his face. I smiled at him and patted his shoulder. “You don’t want an old wife like me.”
He put his hand on his heart. “I’d love an old wife like you.”
Later Coulibali dies of a headache, as they do over there. The knee jerk suspicion for the reader is AIDS, as it always must be in West Africa. So maybe Kaldi was right in the end to turn the man away.
But then again maybe she wasn’t. Because what I always wanted to say to those PCVs in my group who ridiculed the idea of conjugality with a HCN as a “suicide mission” was the idea that if we allow AIDS to kill even the possibility of love, then AIDS has completed its miserable victory.
Fittingly, Kaldi goes on in the book to have her heart broken herself by a Senegalese man about as uninterested in her as she was in Coulibali.
I can’t praise Kaldi’s book enough. It certainly has its flaws; I often wished as I read that she would pace herself and fully develop the characters of folks she occasionally spends far too few pages on, but what she’s done here is more than successful.
Because what Kaldi knows in the end is that it’s not places, countries, even continents, that we left behind and long for, though the landscapes are vivid in us and always will be. What we think about in the nights when we think about it all these years later are people, people that we first met under those distant palm trees, in those dark and heated forests, people whom we had not known we were ever going to meet. And some of those people we loved and some of those people we did not. And some of those people loved us back and some of them hated us, too. And some of us even married some of them and brought them back here. And some very few of us stayed over there with them forever.
And if we are willing to think about it, then all of those things happened to us. And how some of us could go “over there” unwilling to let those things of the heart happen to us with “them” I will never understand. And neither will I ever respect it. Because the risk was never death. Because the risk was that we might get our hearts broken over there, that we might also break hearts. Because the risk was the idea that we could be fulfilled. What more important thing could ever happen to any of us?
To order Roller Skating in the Desert from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that In An Uncharted Country by Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976–78) has won the 2010 Maria Thomas Fiction Award for the outstanding fiction book published by a Peace Corps writer during 2009. Clifford will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
In An Uncharted Country showcases ordinary men and women in and around Rugglesville, Virginia, as they struggle to find places and identities in their families and the community. This collection of short stories is Garstang’s first published book, and it has also won the Independent Publisher’s IPPY Gold Medal this year for Best Fiction in the Mid Atlantic.
Clifford Garstang grew up in the Midwest and received a BA from Northwestern University. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with Sidley Austin, one of the largest law firms in the United States. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Garstang received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Cream City Review, The Baltimore Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize, and has had a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and scholarships to both Sewanee and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, as well as residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. This summer Clifford is attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Walter E. Dakin Fellow.
He is the editor of the new literary magazine Prime Number, and currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. His stories and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications. You can read more about Cliff and his book at CliffordGarstang.com.
Some of Cliff Garstang’s fondest memories of his time as a Volunteer in South Korea actually involved literature. In addition to his duties as an ESL teacher at the Education College of a provincial university, he also taught literature in the Arts and Sciences college — instead of having to stick to the repetitive nature of the conversation texts, he actually got to explore language in a completely different way. He was also able to direct a couple of plays, which he enjoyed thoroughly because it provided a structured opportunity to interact with students outside the classroom. They did “The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thornton Wilder one year and it was, he has to admit, a failure. It’s a beautiful play, but there’s very little action and depends a great deal on the dialogue, so it was tough for the audience. But during his second year as a PCV he directed his students an adaptation of The Man of Lamancha, focusing on the fight scenes, and that was a huge success.
Cliff also has one embarrassing admission that relates to literature during his time in Korea. He was thrilled to be able to get books from the Peace Corps office in Seoul and he picked up one that was very long and engrossing. He couldn’t put it down and one morning he “forgot” to go to school so he could stay home and finish it. He asked me not to tell anyone . . . sorry, Cliff. So what was the book?
To order In an Uncharted Country from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996-97) has just been published by Random House. Publishers Weekly ( in a starred review) called it “a scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games.” In his book, Tom looks at not just his own passion for video games but also the games themselves. What separates good games from bad? Where do video games fit on the sliding scale of art?
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men writes, “The last thing I ever thought I’d do in this life is read a book about video games. And yet Extra Lives is sharp, critical, very funny, and Tom Bissell’s description of killing zombies in the first iteration of Resident Evil is simply a tour de force.”
Tom, who has also written Chasing the Sea; God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories; and The Father of All Things is an obsessive gamer. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, and was a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. Today he teaches writing at Portland State University. His next book is Bones That Shine Like Fire, a travel narrative about his visits to the tombs of the Twelve Apostles. That book will come out in 2012.
For gamer: Tom is: Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962-64) won a finalist award in the Alaska International Film Festival (AIFF) competition for her screenplay Kennedy’s Children, based on her Peace Corps novel, The Mourning of Angels. The Festival received several hundred submissions from over two dozen countries. The AIFF is Alaska’s leading independent film and screenplay recognition platform and competition that awards innovative and diverse films that connect independent filmakers’ vision and the artistic process to the emerging global arts community. Awards are presented to less than fifteen percent of total applicants.
Darcy M. Meijer was a Peace Corps EFL teacher in Gabon, and has taught ESL for the past 25 years. She is also the editor of the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon. Currently she is working in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and spends cool summers in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Here she reviews RJ Huddy’s first novel, The Verse of the Sword.
The Verse of the Sword
R J Huddy (Morocco 1981–83)
Reviewed by Darcy M. Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
THE VERSE OF THE SWORD, RJ Huddy’s first novel, is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The book is funny, informative, and engaging on many levels. It’s time someone wrote a literary novel about the Middle East that faces religious extremism in a human, thoughtful way.
Verse opens in an Intensive Care Unit in Boston, where Harrison Bacon, doctoral candidate in ornithology from West Virginia, is recovering from a boating accident. Bacon falls in love with his nurse, but events lead him to take a temporary job in Algeria, where love strikes again. The plot thickens in ways I can’t reveal, and Huddy’s hero reappears, a convert to Islam, under a new name, in Morocco. There he becomes an unwitting suspect in religious warfare, and unspeakable events follow which threaten all that Bacon holds dear, including his life.
Although it’s basically a story of love and personal growth in a time of turmoil, Verse of the Sword has the attractive bounce of an action-suspense story. The plot gathers heat with every chapter as Bacon moves farther from his home and traditions.
Huddy periodically breaks the suspense with “Background” chapters. These are often gently humorous anecdotes about Bacon’s Missionary Baptist upbringing in West Virginia coal country. Huddy says that he was attracted to the idea of exploring in fiction the similarities between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. His taking an “apolitical and sort of closed-off character like Bacon” and putting him in a setting similar to, yet quite different from, his childhood home, sets up this juxtaposition of religious cultures.
Bacon is a very likeable fellow, but what you sense most in the beginning of the story are his doubts about himself. Huddy explains that he has developed “a defensive shell to protect him against the pain that he believes will follow every close relationship he develops. The main story line involves him wrestling with the wisdom or otherwise of having constructed, then allowing a breach in, that barrier.” It is this sensitivity and Bacon’s maturation that drive the plot of Verse.
The most pleasing aspects of Verse of the Sword are Bacon’s senses of irony and humor. I laughed out loud often. Bacon makes language jokes; he laughs at his romance problems; he questions his sanity; he doubts his usefulness. These are what make him such a likable and sympathetic character. Indeed, they enable him to jump the hurdles that Huddy puts in his path. Who but Bacon could summon Maria Callas singing Tosca while being tortured? What’s more, Bacon’s mental distance rubbed off on me — it helped me to get through the one gritty section of the book.
I have traveled to and lived in numerous countries, and I love reading about them. I asked Huddy how he is able to provide such vivid descriptions of his settings. First, of course, he served with the Peace Corps in Morocco from 1981 to 1983. Since then he has worked in France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and the UAE. Huddy keeps extensive journals wherever he is. When he is writing, he goes back and reads through them, sees details that suit a particular character or scene, and works at choosing the right words. I complimented Huddy on his realistic, meaty dialogues. He attributes his ability to write them to his “strongly aural learning profile” and says that dialogue is the sole part of the writing process that he doesn’t have to sweat over.
A major theme in Verse of the Sword is the political upheaval that results when Islamic fundamentalism meets non-religious government. Huddy airs perspectives on the conflict by voicing them through various characters. I asked him for his views.
“In many ways the European Enlightenment was, at its most basic level, a pragmatic response to all the horrible religious conflicts that accompanied and followed the Reformation. They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to stop slaughtering each other over religious differences, so let’s just agree that you can believe your way, I can believe my way, and we’ll leave it at that. We’ll separate religion from politics. We’ll contest the political arena, but leave religion out of it.’
Now, I think the essential, maybe unconscious, reason today that adherents of western democracy fear a politically motivated Islam is because Islam has never made that internal decision to live and let live. There are millions of tolerant Muslims, of course, and some tolerant regimes, but there has never been a dominant philosophy to separate religion from government. Since religious rules seem of overriding importance to their adherents, but entirely arbitrary to non-adherents, when extremists try to control a society there’s a likelihood of severe conflict.”
One character in Verse of the Sword yearns for a society based on Enlightenment values. He would like to overthrow the existing authority. Another is a scholar of the French Revolution and has personal memories of World War II. She fears that any movement fueled by revolutionary passion will run out of control. Two more characters are pawns in the revolution — one a top government minister and the other a prison guard.
Huddy explains, “The great thing about fiction is that you can explore a theme in all its complexity and contradictions, not just stake out a position and say, ‘This is the right answer.’”
Like many American women I know, I once said that I would never live in a country where women wore veils. I couldn’t imagine living in a place where women were second-class citizens, I thought. And this was where my information and imagination stopped. Living in the United Arab Emirates, I’ve learned a great deal about Bedouin culture, veils, Islam and the Quran, and Middle East history. Huddy is on the same path but far ahead of me. I can learn from him.
Huddy’s book is a wonderful addition to the increasing amount of literary fiction related to the Middle East since it is infused with his personal experience. He is neither apologetic nor dewy-eyed about the region.
Huddy says, “The books I enjoy most allow you to get lost in some strange place, then emerge feeling that you’ve lived there a while. I hope to be able to write books like that.”
Huddy has certainly accomplished his goal. I highly recommend that you read Verse of the Sword.
(Huddy’s second novel is due to come out in September. Entitled Learn Thai with Me, it is about “a fairly weird friendship between two ESL teachers in Saudi Arabia.”)
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Reviewer Bryant Wieneke’s (Niger 1974-76) is the Assistant Dean for Policy in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of a series of peace-oriented suspense novels that are available for $10 each through his own micro publishing company at Peace Rose Publishing.
Reviewed by Bryant Wieneke’s (Niger 1974–76)
IF YOU LIKE SUSPENSE NOVELS set in exotic places, this is a good one.
Scott Taylor, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Micronesia, witnesses the murder of his wife and brother by Page 10 of Green Pearl Odyssey. He exacts his revenge by Page 20. The remainder of the novel is devoted to the game of global hide-and-seek between Taylor and a crime kingpin obsessed with rubbing him out.
Taylor’s odyssey begins in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. Taylor is in hiding, but he’s also returning to the place where he met his Mortlockese wife. His odyssey is a journey of the soul as he attempts to reconcile his self-image with the reality that he could kill a man for revenge.
The crime-and-punishment theme might have been more compelling if the author had introduced it earlier. Taylor’s moral dilemma is not presented until after he kills, and it comes as somewhat of a surprise to him that he has pulled the trigger with such equanimity. Nonetheless, Taylor’s internal struggle reflects the outer turmoil as he tries to work his way through tragedy and violence to a new life.
After narrowly escaping hit men, Taylor is off to Pohnpei. Having been a PCV in the Marshalls, he knows the islands well. While Taylor doesn’t reveal how he has avenged his wife, the islanders seem to know and understand. They protect him even as the danger increases. Despite his best attempts to keep the islanders out of it, he discovers that he needs them to stay alive.
The island hopping is an exhilarating adventure, mixing alluring descriptions of Micronesia with a plot full of twists and turns. The most exciting of the confrontations is the last one, when the bad guys take their relentless pursuit of Scott Taylor to the remote Puluwat Atoll. Ironically, Taylor has already managed to escape with an impressive group of seafaring locals, and the usually pacifistic islanders are left to face four cold-blooded killers on their own.
Thinking quickly, the islanders lead the villians to a former Japanese base on the island of Alei. During World War II, the Japanese established bases like this one on islands in the Pacific Ocean. They had built a fortress on Alei and brought in vehicles, construction equipment, and a variety of weapons, all of which they had long ago left behind to rust in the island’s tropical climate and lush foliage. The islanders use these tools — and considerable ingenuity — to outwit the killers and give Taylor yet another push toward freedom.
The novel depicts the culture and economy of this purported paradise with the insight of someone who has lived there. While author Ridgell may have been better off letting his readers come to their own conclusions about some of Micronesia’s social issues — the economic influence of the U.S., the disruptive presence of missionaries, and the repressive nature of imported sexual mores, the description of the issues and the main character’s feelings about them are articulately presented. They will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has lived in a less developed country.
There may be a little too much talk in this long novel (456 pages), but Reilly Ridgell is a good writer and has created a real page-turner in Green Pearl Odyssey.
To order this book from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance.
All Peace Corps, all the time — book reviews, author interviews, essays, new books, scoops, resources for readers and writers. In other words — just what we’ve been doing with our newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers from 1989 to 1996, and our website Peace Corps Writers from 1997 to 2008! — John Coyne, editor; and Marian Haley Beil, publisher (both Ethiopia 1962–64)