After his Peace Corps service in Liberia, Phillip Margolin became a lawyer, and then a successful novelist!+ He now writes full time and is the author of 15 bestselling mystery novels, the most recent being Supreme Justice. He has been nominated for an Edgar. In the current issue of The Writer Magazine (September 2010) there is a reprint of an article Phillip wrote in 1977 for the publication entitled, “Essentials of Good Suspense Novels.” If you are interested in writing mysteries, you might want to read it. We interviewed Phillip years ago in our newsletter Peace Corps Writers & Readers, and you can read more about him at www.phillipmargolin.com
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She has written a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti.
A Peace Corps Memoir: Answering JFK’s Call
by Terry Sack (Bolivia 1963–65; PC/Washington 1968–69)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
WHEN I FIRST SAW the title, A Peace Corps Memoir: Answering JFK’s Call, I expected a dry narrative of a typical Peace Corps experience, but the author’s unique stories and clear writing style surprised and delighted me. And how could I forget that there is no “typical” Peace Corps story.
Author Terry Sack heeded John F. Kennedy’s call to join the Peace Corps after he heard him speak at the University of Michigan in 1960. Sack’s training took place in a hotel, a university, and Puerto Rico, quite different from the three-month in-country training of later Volunteers like me. While Sack complains about the lack of even one Bolivian language teacher, and his mystification surrounding the subject of culture shock, he understands that Peace Corps was still in its infancy, trying to “. . . sort out what worked and what didn’t.” Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, he longed to get the training period over with and get to Bolivia.
Once at his site in the village of Trinidad, his counterpart, a prestigious local doctor, introduced the 23-year old Sack to the villagers and spoke to them about working together to build a better future. “This was clearly a novel idea,” writes Sack, for himself as well, as he wondered what his role in that future could possibly be.
His descriptions of local food (tough beef and chicken necks, alongside delicious bananas and grains), and his health (physically in shape, but acquiring parasites and pinworms), and his constant conversations with other PCVs about bowels, all reminded me of Africa or, for that matter, any developing country where Americans can be so vulnerable and indigenous people so stoic. Culture shock, from the honeymoon to the hostile stages, made him wish he’d paid more attention to the discussion of the syndrome during training.
Sack’s book is more than a personal memoir; it is an historical document of Peace Corps in the 1960s, replete with letters from Sargent Shriver and President Lyndon Johnson. Many engaging photos are sprinkled throughout, recalling, for example, that in those days PCV women wore dresses, not blue jeans. Sometimes the wealth of details becomes tedious, such as the itinerary he lists for a trip to Machu Picchu, complete with travel schedules, modes of transport, altitudes, miles, etc., which reads like a Lonely Planet excerpt. That’s OK, if the reader is interested in such minutiae, but I preferred reading about his emotions and interactions with the colorful people in his life.
Most poignant was his love affair with Dorys, a quiet, virtuous village girl. Passion took many months to unfold, but when it did it gripped them both in its irresistible, powerful throes. Inevitably, one evening long kisses led to lovemaking as Dorys fumbled with their clothes and pleaded in a “. . . strange and husky voice.” “Her head was thrown back, her eyes were closed, and the soft skin of her throat glowed in the dim light.” And he responded, “Yes, oh, yes, mi amor!” One consumation, a love that could go nowhere, tore their hearts. He would be leaving in a few weeks. “Nothing, not hugs, kisses, nor words of endearment or protestations of undying love, was sufficient to keep the powerful feelings of loss, grief and separation at bay.”
By the end of his service, Sack had helped villagers build a school and a bridge, taught English and worked on health and agriculture projects, though the accomplishments were arduous and somehow not as glorious as he had initially expected. “I struggled on,” he says, “firm in the belief that I was not Don Quixote in search of the impossible while merely tilting against windmills. Surely one person could make a difference even in the face of imposing obstacles.”
When it was time to go home, Sack went through the agonizing quandaries that most PCVs endure, asking himself: “How successful would I be in integrating my Peace Corps experiences into my future life? The answers to these questions would take time. Little did I realize then that it would take a lifetime.”
Sack has revisited Bolivia eighteen times since 1988, and has visited old friends at his site, including Dorys, who is a happily married wife and mother.
I wondered how Sack could remember so many details from his experience, whether he had kept a minute journal of those days, then at the end of the book he clears up the mystery by acknowledging his mother, ” . . . who lovingly, and unbeknownst to me, saved the letters I wrote home.” We should all have such mothers!
Sack later worked in the Office of Volunteer Support for Peace Corps in Washington DC, and is now a retired Professor Emeritus of Counselor Education at Applachian State University. His self-published book has an attractive cover and easy-to-read text. The reader will appreciate the fact that it is impeccably edited, an important feature missing from many publications, even from the most prestigious publishing houses.
To order A Peace Corps Memoir: Answering JFK’s Call 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 our awards.
Peace Corps Writers Award for Photography book published in 2009 Won by Martha Cooper (Thailand 1963-65)
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that Subway Art: 25th Anniversary Edition by Martha Cooper (Thailand 1963–65) has won the 2010 Award for the Outstanding Photography Book published by a Peace Corps photographer during 2009. Cooper will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
The book has a long history. In the mid-seventies Martha began to specialize in shooting urban vernacular art and architecture and went to work as a staff photographer on the New York Post. At the time, the city was in the throes of bankruptcy and there were neighborhoods with empty apartment buildings, litter-filled vacant lots, a city that appeared more like a war zone than a place to live.
She started to shoot street life, particularly kids playing creatively with toys they had made themselves from trash. A young boy showed her his notebook of drawings and explained that he was practicing to spray paint his name on walls, and Martha became hooked on graffiti. The resulting photos of large graffiti murals painted illegally on the subway eventually led to the publication of Subway Art, a collaboration with Henry Chalfant, another photographer who had also been photographing graffiti.
Their original book proposal was rejected by dozens of publishers in the United States so the two took their work to the Frankfurt book fair in Germany where Thames and Hudson of London agreed to publish it. That slim, 96-page paperback, became a underground sensation, eventually selling over half a million copies, and starting a worldwide youth art movement. Kids from South Africa to China have told the authors that Subway Art was a major influence in their lives.
Last year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book, Thames and Hudson published Subway Art: 25th Anniversay Edition with 70 additional photographs, and a fresh introduction and afterword. An over-sized, hardcover edition with excellent layout and reproduction, the new book displays the photos and graffiti art as Martha and Henry had envisioned so many years ago.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer Martha Cooper taught English in middle schools in Udorn, a large city in the northeast of Thailand, and in Chieng Kham, a small town in the north. While living in Chieng Kham, she became interested in the Hmong, Yao and Akha hill tribes living in the surrounding mountains. After meeting tribes people at the local market she hiked to their remote villages where she photographed extensively. These excursions led her to apply to Oxford to obtain a graduate degree in ethnology with an emphasis on material culture and museum work.
Returning home, Martha worked at the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum at Yale, but decided that she would rather be in the field than confined to a building. With that she began to concentrate on photography, and in 1975 moved to New York City where she discovered her love of street art.
Her other books are R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art which looks at memorial murals; Hip Hop Files 1980-1984 contains hundreds of rare, early Hip Hop photos; and We B*Girlz, an intensive look at girls who break dance worldwide. Street Play and New York State of Mind are collections of her NYC photos from the late ’70s. Tag Town shows the evolution of graffiti style from early tags to complicated pieces, while Going Postal and Name Tagging contain hundreds of images of graffiti and street art on stickers.
Martha’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and published in numerous magazines from National Geographic to Vibe.
She still lives and works in New York City, but 4 1/2 years ago she began a documentary photo project in her home town of Baltimore. She is also the Director of Photography at both City Lore: the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture, and TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York).
To order Martha’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.
PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester (Yemen 1988–90) has won the 2010 Award for the Outstanding Travel Book published by a Peace Corps writer during 2009. Lester will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
Picked as one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post, American Heritage, the Seattle News Tribune, and the Kansas City Star, The Fourth Part of the World also was selected as a Wall Street Journal History Bestseller, received a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and was selected by Indie Booksellers for its November 2009 Indie Next List.
In his review for our site David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85) summed up,
Lester’s book is a celebration of the rare instances where curiosity and persistence triumph, and monument to the more frequent tragic cases in which people force their experience of the world into the smaller vessels of their own prejudices. In containing both, The Fourth Part of the World does justice to the double-edged sword of knowledge and discovery.
For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. They drew the three continents in countless shapes and sizes on their maps, but occasionally they hinted at the existence of a “fourth part of the world,” a mysterious, inaccessible place, separated from the rest by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of myth — until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann, two obscure scholars working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with what is now known as the Waldseemüller map. Lester, who is a former editor for The Atlantic, tells the improbable story of how the Waldseemüller map forever changed the way we see the world.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer Toby Lester taught English in the mountain town of Manakhah, about three hours from Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and about 7,500 feet above sea level. He taught both boys and girls (the latter dressed in black from head to toe, and surrounded by a buffer zone of empty desks) from first grade through high school, in conditions, he says, that were less than ideal.
The first class I taught had 128 students in it (but only about 30 desks). None of the students had ever studied English before. Pandemonium reigned, and I was quickly reduced to yelling “Shut up!” helplessly at the room — only to have the entire class yell those very words back at me in perfect, ear-splitting unison. Rote learning at its finest!
He learned Arabic during his service which allowed him to go on to work for the United Nations in Jerusalem and the West Bank after the Peace Corps, and later he did a stint at Peace Corps HQ in Washington as a country desk assistant and then country desk officer from 1990 to 1992. During that time he set up the Peace Corps programs in eastern and central Europe, and the former Soviet Union.
Today Toby lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. He is an invited research scholar at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library, and is currently at work on his next book, Leonardo’s Ghost, which will be published by Free Press in November 2011.
To read more about Toby and his writings visit his website at www.TobyLester.com
To order The Fourth Part of the World 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.
Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000-2002) is the editor of MediaBistro Publishing, which includes GalleyCat and eBookNewser. The lively, eclectic, and widely read GalleyCat specifically focuses on the publishing industry, and offers job listings, insider industry happenings, the scoop on upcoming titles, and occasionally, great literary gossip. What better person to ask to get a sense of what’s going on in NY in the midst of this protracted recession?
Talking with . . .
. . . Jason Boog
An interview by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) author of the novels Whiteman and The Konkans. His new novel The Mule is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
JASON BOOG (Guatemala 2000-02) joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. Following his tour, he studied magazine writing at NYU’s graduate journalism school, then stayed on in the city to begin his editing and writing career. In 2006, he won the Peace Corps Writers Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award for his essay, “The Rainy Season in Guatemala.” Before mediabistro.com, Jason was an investigative reporter at Judicial Reports and a publishing blogger for Know More Media. His work has appeared in Granta, Salon.com, and The Believer. You can follow his daily posts at GalleyCat, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn or write him at jasonboog [at] gmail [dot] com.
Tony D’Souza: Jason, it’s been really great to see you at GalleyCat the past of couple years, to follow everything you’ve been doing there for writers and publishing. To me it seems like you must inhabit the eye of the publishing world storm, privy to all the insider info…can you give us a little background about GalleyCat and how you landed there?
Jason Boog: Back in 2005, I was hired to blog about books and publishing for a website called The Publishing Spot. While working there, I interviewed you, John Coyne (the editor of Peace Corps Writers), and a number of other authors. I didn’t make much money–but it was a freelance project. I learned how to blog, build short interviews, create web videos, and met lots of people working in the publishing industry. In September 2008, an editorial spot opened up at GalleyCat and I applied. They knew my work, and hired me as a freelancer.
TD: I really admire how active you have been in the publishing world, really enjoyed the interviews you did while with the Publishing Spot. I know that you wrote for Judicial Reports, that your journalism covers a wide range of topics. Yet all the while you’ve been pursuing your literary dreams…before we get into discussing the publishing landscape, I’d love to hear about your experience ‘making it’ as a young writer, the things you’ve had to do to keep afloat.
JB: Sadly, Judicial Reports closed their doors at the end of 2008. I worked there for three years as a web editor and staff writer, composing long-form investigative pieces about judges in Manhattan. It was the perfect day-job for a writer: 9-5 work schedule, and my boss was comfortable with me writing freelance pieces on the side–for The Believer, The Publishing Spot, and Peace Corps Writers. In November 2005, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, putting together a 50,000-word draft of a novel. For the next two years I edited the manuscript in my free time. It was a slow process because I also juggled a few magazine articles and taught an undergraduate journalism class at NYU. I finished the novel last year, and I’m starting to pitch agents now. It hasn’t been easy. Ever since Judicial Reports closed, I’ve been working as a freelance writer. GalleyCat has been a lifesaver, a solid paycheck every month. The folks at MediaBistro have given me as much work as they can, really helping hold my freelance work together. It’s hard to make it as a freelancer without a steady gig you can depend on during the slow months.
TD: Let’s talk NY publishing. In the past two years, I’ve seen more editors, publicists, copy editors, magazine staff-from the top of the pecking order to the bottom-lose their jobs than I can keep count of. Magazines seem to be keeping much more of their sidebar work in house, opportunities and money for writers seems scarce. Is that a fair assessment? What have you seen?
JB: Things are very rough right now for writers. We see it at MediaBistro, keeping track of all the magazine closing and layoffs in media. It’s very sad and demoralizing to watch. Along with these restructurings, magazine budgets are shrinking. That means less freelance work too. At the same time, pay scales are changing. Writers used to get paid dollar a word for a story, but with the blogging economy, writers are earning less. The value is placed on more content and shorter stories.
TD: The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt merger did not go off without pain, for a time the new house even publicly announced that it would not be acquiring new literary titles…the shocking thing for writers at the time was the precedent; ‘A publishing house that doesn’t publish books?’ What are the houses doing today? Are they healthy? Which ones?
JB: Everybody is feeling the pinch right now. I think conglomerate publishers have felt the recession the most. Most houses are acquiring less books. HarperCollins and Random House have both endured extensive restructurings–those would probably be the two most dramatic examples. Oddly enough, some smaller houses were able to survive since they were used to functioning on lean budgets.
I wrote more eloquently about this for Salon.com after the first round of restructurings: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2008/12/23/publishing/index.html
TD: How about advances? Were people getting advanced too much in the last days before the economic crisis? What do you see as far as the future of advances? Not too long ago a certain Peace Corps memoir brought a six figure advance and caused a stir among RPCV writers…was that a one-time fluke?
JB: Advances are shifty. Recently, the only people getting impressive advances were celebrities: Sarah Palin, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, and other people in the public eye all initiated bidding wars between publishing houses. These people are sure-bets, they will most likely sell books and during a recession, publishing houses will pay a premium for that.
TD: In the past years, new hardcover literary titles did well to sell a couple thousand copies. There was that year not too long ago when none of the five finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction had sold more than a few hundred copies…Is that model of publishing still viable, or is something taking its place? From my own experience, when I saw that my second novel cost over thirty dollars after taxes new in hardcover in 2008, I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on my own book. What sorts of changes to book publishing and marketing is the recession bringing on?
JB: The most dramatic change has come with the Amazon Kindle. Most new digital books on Amazon are priced at $9.99. That’s a reasonable, perhaps even dangerous, price. Many publishing types are worried that this new model could wreck the industry, selling books at a loss. I think it’s directly related to the recession, however. People still want to read, but they are looking for less expensive options. That will have a massive effect on the industry in coming years.
TD: Let’s talk about the people who lost their jobs…I can tell stories of folks who have been out of work for over a year, of plenty who are no longer in publishing at all. What have you seen in NY? Have people landed on their feet?
JB: Some of them have landed on their feet. Every few weeks I report on an editor cut from layoffs at one house moving to a new house. A few people have started their own digital book initiatives as well. Overall though, I think there is a much larger segment of the job market–full of flustered writers, publishing types, and other creative people trying to figure out what to do next. I’m lucky to have steady freelance work, but I’m still just a freelancer. I know scores of other writers in the same boat. It’s hard to land a solid, 9-5 job in the publishing and media right now.
TD: People ask me all the time, ‘Tell me how to get my book published at a NY house.’ In the past, I’d tell them to put the work first and the rest would come. But the recession has made me wonder about that advice. Is it still plausible that a very good literary novel without an easily identifiable market will get picked up by a major house? What’s the publishing trend right now?
JB: Things are so scattered right now, I would have a hard time giving advice. I know agents are still reading manuscripts, but it is harder to sell a book. I would advise people to keep writing, and when they are finished, try and locate an agent the traditional way. If you don’t have success, you might have to wait a few years or try some new digital outlets instead. The publishing market will correct itself, but it will take years to fix itself, I think.
TD: Do you have a sense of how writers and editors are feeling out there at the moment? Is anyone hopeful about the future of the ‘great book’? Has the writing life as we know it gone the way of the dodo? Did it go that way a long time ago and we just didn’t know it? Are we still a contributing part of the greater culture?
JB: The people working in publishing are just as creative and driven as they ever were. You don’t meet anybody in this business who doesn’t believe in books and reading and the next great book. The resources have diminished, but the people in publishing are working very, very hard to bring reading into the 21st Century. We are still very much a part of the greater culture, and I meet excellent, smart, and innovative people every day on GalleyCat.
TD: How about some insider anecdotes? Have you seen any ’sure-hits’ flop while at GalleyCat? How about dark horse books that have turned into commercial successes? How about bloodsport? Seen any reviewers tear any writers apart recently?
JB: I have two stories of unexpected success. I wrote about “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, and the story got picked up by Gawker and a number of other outlets. The book became a bestseller:
Secondly, I wrote about a Twitter short short story writer named Arjun Basu. His readership has grown by leaps and bounds, and a Canadian filmmaker has adapted one of his stories into a short film: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/trends/the_first_twitter_lit_adaptation_130155.asp
Both these books are examples of smart, innovative people, the kind of writers who can bring reading into the 21st Century.
TD: What should writers do to survive and thrive in this publishing downturn?
JB: Keep writing! Build yourself a blog or website where you can collect your work. Then, try and find your community. Join writers’ clubs, book clubs, or anything else where you can enjoy and share work with other readers and writers. This recession will last for awhile, and the most important thing is this: Don’t give up. Most people write because they love it. Just because you can’t score a major book deal right now, that doesn’t change the fact that you love writing.
TD: What does the near future hold for you?
JB: I’m still freelancing and teaching journalism at NYU. I will continue writing long form essays and publish my novel eventually. GalleyCat has been a really enjoyable experience, and I’ll keep writing there–it’s such an amazing opportunity to report on this evolving publishing industry.
TD: Last but not least, you left Guatemala roughly the same time that I left Ivory Coast. Somehow seven years have gone by already. How does Guatemala continue to influence you?
JB: Guatemala is still in my thoughts every day. Someday soon I hope to get a short-term fellowship and go back to Guatemala to work with my friend at http://www.longwayhomeinc.org. I want to set up a small citizen journalism website there–letting the teenagers in his program share local news with Guatemalan immigrants in the United States. I’d like to be able to share some of this new media knowledge I have with the communities I used to share.
TD: Thanks a lot, and get back to work!
Forget about Paul Theroux, Peter Hessler, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Tony D’Souza and all the other noted Peace Corps writers! If you want to know where publishing is headed, read what Jason Boog has to say.
Jason is an RPCV who is ahead of the “publishing game” in New York City. I have been aware of Boog for a few years and watched him from a distance as he has successfully circumnavigated the deep, shark-infested waters of traditional Manhattan literary life.
But who is this smart guy with the weird name, anyway?
After spending two years on top of a mountain in Peace Corps Guatemala, Jason writes that he ”chased the dream of every skinny Midwestern writer boy with glasses: to starve to death in New York City.”
Today in New York, he is an editor of Mediabistro Publishing, where he “curates publishing events and helps with the digital publishing curriculum at mediabistro.com. He also edits Mediabistro blogs GalleyCat and eBookNewser.
Before mediabistro.com, Jason was an investigative reporter at Judicial Reports and a publishing blogger for Know More Media. His work has appeared in Granta, Salon.com, and The Believer. You can follow his daily posts at GalleyCat, mediabistro.com’s publishing website, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn or write him at jasonboog [at] gmail [dot] com
Years ago, when he wasn’t yet famous, I interviewed Jason for our site, PeaceCorpsWriters. Here’s that interview:
Talking with . . .
. . . Jason Boog
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
JASON BOOG (Guatemala 2000-02) joined the Peace Corps after graduating from college. Following his tour, he went to graduate school and lives now in New York City where he has contributed book reviews and essays to our site. In 2006 he won the Peace Corps Writers Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award for his essay, “The Rainy Season in Guatemala.” Besides writing for us, and working full time, he has a wonderful blog for writers that we wanted you to know about, so we interviewed Jason recently about his writing and his unique and valuable blog.
Jason, some background. Where are you from in the States?
I’m from Ionia, Michigan, a little town 30-miles outside of Lansing. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.
What got you into the Peace Corps?
Well, I joined Peace Corps as a poor college graduate. I knew plenty of things about literary theory and great writers, but I didn’t really know anything about how the real world worked. I wanted to help people, learn Spanish, and travel, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I joined up, and those two years broke me out of my comfortable, limited bubble. I went in dreaming about being a literature professor, I came out wanting to be a traveling journalist.
What did you do as a Volunteer?
I worked in a pilot program (sadly now suspended) called Rural Youth at Risk. I lived in the dusty eastern side of Guatemala, working in a mountain village called Miramundo to build economic opportunities for teenagers. We created a small bakery and flower nursery business, hosted community talent shows, and worked to bring a high school to the village. Until very recently, school ended at sixth grade for most of my kids.
And then you came back to do graduate work?
Right. I studied magazine writing at New York University’s graduate journalism school.
Have you published much?
So far not much. I’ve been published in magazines and newspapers. I have a few favorite places where I’ve published before: I wrote about Latino immigrants for Newsday, analyzed radio dramas for website The Believer in a piece called “Skinning the Americans” and wrote about my Peace Corps experience for Abroad View Magazine. And, of course, I have published on your site, Peace Corps Writers
Oh, also I just finished my first novel, a faux-memoir about a journalist named “Jason Boog” who uncovers a vast conspiracy behind the toy soldier industry - a strange adventure story that ends in Guatemala. I’m just beginning the tricky search for agents and publishers now.
What about your blog? Tell us about that.
It is called The Publishing Spot. I help fledgling writers find the resources they need to work in a writing world being turned upside-down by the shift from paper to web publications. I conduct practical interviews with professional authors about how they use the Internet to build community, find readers, and survive in this tough new economy for writers.
There are a tremendous number of blogs on the Internet. Is anyone reading them?
The beauty of blogs is that they are specialized, almost surgical about finding the right audience. I love reading the comics pages in the newspaper and reading about Peace Corps news, so I discovered wonderful blogs like Comics Curmudgeon and Peace Corps Writers where I can find other people who like similar things.
My friend Steve, on the other hand, finds both of these topics a little tiresome, so he spends his time reading blogs about web video reelpopblog.com. While no blog will ever rival the audience share of a big network television show, there are a tremendous number of blogs that have dedicated niche audiences to sustain them.
What other blogs do you read?
I dabble in a few different fields when I read. For journalism news, I read Journerdism.com. For literary edification I visit Edward Champion at EdRants.com. For writing advice, I visit LitPark. For my artistic side, I read 52 Projects. For international journalism, I like to visit my friend Adam’s site AdamBellick.com
I keep track of all these blogs using Google Reader. It’s a program that collects all your favorite blogs on a single page so you don’t have to visit all your favorite blogs every day. It helps!
What are some good blogs for Peace Corps writers?
For writing resources and advice, I have a few favorites: the Creative Writing MFA Blog explores the best (and worst) programs around the country.
Practicing Writers has an excellent newsletter about writing markets Practicing-Writing.blogspot.com. Finally, I like reading the different posts at Metaxucafe -a site that collects the best literary blog posts every day.
If you want even more resources, visit my writing website, The Publishing Spot. In the lower right-hand corner I keep a collection of my top ten writing sites. They are all very useful. Every time I find a blog that I enjoy, I check the list of links of websites that the writer enjoys. I usually find more reading material that way. Once again, I recommend Google Reader to keep track of the blogs.
You have a blog . . . how would someone go about creating one?
The most important thing is finding something to write about. Everybody scoffs at blogs because they think they are the diaries of people in pajamas. Not true! The best blogs are written by writers who are enthusiastic about something - your Peace Corps site, pulp fiction novels, knitting, or scuba diving.
As long as you are enthusiastic about your topic, you can find readers. Do a Google Blog Search about your topic, see what other bloggers are writing about your topic. Read these blogs carefully.
Then go to a free blog site like Blogger. Sign up for a free account and design your blog. They allow you to completely customize every aspect of your blog, from web-page colors to headline fonts. The site contains plenty of tutorials on their Help page that will guide the most inexperienced blogger through the process.
Then, start writing about your topic. I recommend reading Copyblogger or Problogger . Both of those websites will teach you how to write gripping, exciting blog posts.
Finally, go visit the blogs that write about your topic. Leave thoughtful comments in the comments section, and engage people in debates about your topic. Before long, people will be checking out your blog to see what you are writing. As long as you stay enthusiastic about your topic, you should keep writing.
Are blogs where we will fine the great writing of the future? Will anyone ever again read a book?
I don’t think blogs will ever replace books. Blogs just make it easier for writers to connect with their readers. A Peace Corps memoirist, for instance, can build a website that includes photos from their service, web videos of their host country, and hyperlinks that can connect readers to other sources of information about the county.
Someday, I hope digital books will be able to incorporate this kind of functionality into the actual text. If and when I publish my novel, I will create some short web videos that let readers explore settings from my book - a trip to my Peace Corps site in Guatemala, a visit to my hometown in Michigan, and a tour of my favorite pub in New York City. I don’t think people will stop reading books - I think they will eventually expect more playful ways to interact with a novel.
Let’s go back to Peace Corps writers for a moment. What books and Peace Corps writers have impressed you?
Of all the Peace Corps writers, I’ve been influenced by Tony D’Souza’s playful, literary style. I read a couple books by Paul Theroux during my time in Peace Corps, he set the bar pretty high for all of us. Tom Bissell has been another big influence, I read his travel pieces immediately after I left Peace Corps - his journalism gave me hope for the kind of stories I wanted to write.
Do you think that there is something we might call a genre of writing that we might call “Peace Corps Literature”?
I wouldn’t call it a genre, the writing is too varied and diverse to classify that way. I would call it a community. I showed up in New York City without knowing a single writer out here. Through the networking and support of the Peace Corps community, I was able to survive the early lean years in this city. In particular, I really benefited from the support of RPCV writers like Nita Noveno and yourself. Both of you helped me find other writers in the city and helped me publish my work as well. Without the returned Peace Corps bond established at Peace Corps Writers and Nita’s Sunday Salon, I think most literary Volunteers would feel a little stranded in New York.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write about their Peace Corps experience? Give us 5 points to think about or consider.
Finally, what do you do for a living. I presume that the blog does not support you at the moment, right?
You presume correctly. However, I am lucky enough to write for a living. I am a staff writer at Judicial Reports, doing investigative reporting about the New York judiciary.
Thanks for the chance to write, John. I have really valued your support over the years, and thank you and Marian Beil for this website for Peace Corps writers.
Reilly Ridgell is the author of the textbook Pacific Nations and Territories that has been in print continuously since 1983, and its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors. He has also written Bending to the Trade Winds: Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia, and has just released his first novel, Green Pearl Odyssey. He is currently a dean at Guam Community College. Here Reilly reviews Jeff Bronow’s Torn in the South Pacific.
Torn in the South Pacific
by Jeff Bronow (Fiji 1988–90)
Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971-73)
I’M A SUCKER for books set in the tropical Pacific. I’ve read most from Melville to Stevenson, to London, to Maugham, to Burdick, to Frisbie, to Nordhoff, to Hall, to Michener, to Becke, to Stoddard, to Osbourne, to Russell, to Grimble — all making their best effort to explain, through their European or American eyes, what it’s like on Pacific islands. Peace Corps has been the great facilitator here, depositing Volunteers in exotic (to us) locations that only fuel the writers’ fire most of us carry. So it is with Jeff Bronow, who had the fortune to find himself living in Fiji shortly after the Pacific’s first military coup d’etat, a bloodless 1987 event that was spawned by British colonial policies dating back more than a century. Bronow has used his experiences to give us his first novel, Torn in the South Pacific, that follows a recently arrived Peace Corps Volunteer John (we never learn his last name), as he struggles with his new environment, tries to comprehend the conflict between Indians and Fijians, and tries to find himself spiritually at the same time.
Bronow does a good job of explaining the conflict between Fiji’s two major ethnic groups: the indigenous Fijians, proud descendants of the original people who settled Fiji 3,000 years ago, and the Indians, descendants of indentured workers brought in by the British to work the cane fields. By 1987 the Indians outnumbered the Fijians and took control of the government, prompting the coup by the Fijian army which was comprised almost entirely of Fijians. John experiences this conflict at the grass roots level, a good mechanism for the writer to explore the issues involved. He’s a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching at a predominantly Indian high school. Like a Volunteers, he’s supposed to stay neutral on political issues, and he wants to experience both cultures, Indian and Fijian.
There is some good writing here. Bronow does a nice job describing John’s environment and the everyday life he experiences. As a reader, I want to be pulled in and placed in the setting, especially if it’s someplace like Fiji. Bronow does that. His story, slow at first, takes off about half way through with some excellent scenes in a Fijian village, and others featuring the crossing of rain swollen rivers. The final conflict scene is well done also, though Bronow could have mentioned that fire walking is also done by Fijians.
But there are some major concerns and drawbacks to this novel. As mentioned before, it starts slowly, and the opening two chapters are a bit cumbersome. They don’t really grab the reader and that can be the kiss of death for a book. Bronow insists on giving us detailed descriptions of mundane activities that don’t really contribute to the story. Such descriptions are interesting and help the reader appreciate the life style, but they are overdone. The author doesn’t need to recount every conversation had with the neighborhood children every time they bring him some food. The spiritual, religious, and philosophical discussions get a bit ponderous at times, and his psychedelic dreams seem contrived.
The main character has this overpowering spiritual hunger, but we never know why. All we know is that he is from LA — which may explain it. There is nothing about his family back home, nothing about any girlfriend left behind, no explanation of why he joined the Peace Corps, almost nothing about his training and nothing about his interaction with other Volunteers and Peace Corps officials. We don’t know if in training he studied Fijian or Hindi and though he knows simple phrases in each, he appears to be making no concerted effort to learn either language. John has long discussions with an expatriate friend who keeps talking about getting back to God, and he spends time reading the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, but we never really know what his religious beliefs are. Bronow ends the book with a long spiritual discourse and some Bible passages, but I missed whatever point he was trying to make.
Then there are other annoyances. The publisher, Publish America, prints a disclaimer right in the front of the book saying, essentially, that they did no editing. This is a major red flag and says a lot about the publisher and the author. All of us writers need editors, need fresh eyes to see things we can’t because we’ve looked at our manuscript a thousand times. Now I must say the typos aren’t too bad. I ran into only about ten or so. But there is some awkward and repetitive word usage, there’s the aforementioned excessive detail in some scenes, Fijian and Hindi words are not italicized and sometimes not explained, we sometimes don’t know if the person he’s talking to is Fijian or Indian, his new found girlfriend’s hair goes from black to brown to black again, and he drinks lots of yaqona (kava) but doesn’t really describe the effects. Many of these things would have been caught in a good edit. A good edit would have also trimmed the story down a bit and made it move much faster, especially in the first half of the novel. I also think it could use a better title and, good grief, what’s with the cover? This is the South Pacific! Put some palm trees and beaches or some breathtaking scenery from Fiji. Please.
That being said, if you want a good look at the Peace Corps experience in Fiji set against the backdrop of the conflict that, 20 plus years later, is still not resolved, then you will find Torn in the South Pacific a very interesting read.
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.
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