Peace Corps Writers
In its December 2015 issue National Geographic carries a cover story by Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964-66) that calls the Virgin Mary, ”the most powerful woman in the world”. Award-winning journalist Orth, also a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, has been wandering the world and telling unexpected stories since her days as a PCV.
In this article, she has taken a journey through some of the most famous Marian apparitions (including the alleged apparitions of Medjugorje) while mixing the stories of those who benefit from such intercession of the Virgin Mary as well as the process followed by the Church to recognize the supernatural occurrences or not. At one point in the article, Orth also includes a brief reference to the role of Mary in Islam because, although it is little known in the Muslim world, there is also a reverence for whom they also considered the holiest woman: Mary.
You can read the whole story here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/virgin-mary-text
A Writer Writes
The Lesson of the Machi
By David C. Edmonds (Chile (1963-65)
Mapuche village near Chol Chol, Arauca, Chile
Friday-The drums wake me again. Now what? Another funeral for some poor child? A wedding? No, the village Machi, who performs all healing and religious rituals, is going to offer another lesson for the young girls. I don’t know the details because things that happen here don’t always make sense. So when I see the Machi’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Ñashay, passing by my little dirt-floor ruca with a pale of milk, I ask her what is going on.
“It is called the Lesson of Two Loves,” she tells me in her broken way of speaking Spanish, standing there on the mud walkway in her head dress and shawl, all four feet, ten inches of her.
“What is the Lesson of Two Loves?”
“Yes, the Lesson of Two Loves. Dos novios.” She holds up two fingers.”
I shake my head. Ñashay’s Spanish is only slightly better than my Mapuche, but it’s the only way I have of communicating until I learn the language better. I try again. “Does that mean a girl or woman can have two husbands? Dos maridos?”
“No, no, no. A girl like me have love like you but love another. Much confusion.”
Yes, mucho confusion. Our conversation goes on until I think I understand. If a young woman is torn between two loves, how does she resolve the issue? The subject interests me because I also have two loves in my life. I ask Ñashay if I can attend the lesson. It’s not as though I have other things to do. Like a candlelight dinner or TV to watch.
“No, no, no,” she answers. “Lesson for girls. No boys.”
“But what if it’s dark? What if I hide under a table or beneath a blanket?”
I ask the question in two or three different ways before she understands. I expect another of her “no, no, no,” reaction. Instead, she smiles that naughty little smile I’ve seen before, like when she sneaks into my ruca and asks for a cigarette. Or the first time she planted a kiss on my lips.
“Clandestino,” she said.
“We go you and me clandestino.”
“Yes, we go together. When? Is it tonight?
“Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe many days from now.”
“If it is many days from now, then why the excitement today?”
“Yes, much excitement.”
* * *
Monday. Three days have passed and I hear nothing more about the Lesson of Two Loves. Maybe I dreamed it. The only thing for certain is I can never get warm in this dismal little village. Except when I’m tucked into my sleeping bag. Stomach is acting up again. Imagine I’ll have to go to Santiago before long for a check-up. Last week it was head lice and treatment with kerosene. This week a stomach ailment. Leg is healing nicely. Been more than a month since my last abdominal injection and I’m not frothing yet at the mouth.
The Machi should teach a lesson about rabid dogs.
Good news. Ñashay just came by for her cigarette and told me the Machi is preparing her Lesson of Two Loves. It could be any day now. As for her kisses, I need to do a better job of controlling the situation. These people would scalp me if I… Or worse, they could force me into a shotgun wedding. Get hold of yourself Edmonds. Think of that beautiful Peruvian girl waiting for you back in Santiago. Oh, that long dark hair and moist lips…
* * *
Wednesday- Spring has arrived. The Chileans call it Primavera, meaning “First Green,” but my Mapuche friends call it “Season of the Flowers.” Everywhere are crocus and bluebells, and the prettiest little blue and pink flowers that grow along fence rows. Green is bursting out all over. But it’s still cold. There’s also talk of politics. Presidential candidate Salvador Allende himself is coming next week to nearby Lautaro. Never seen so much excitement. Almost every barn and tree and fence post and cabin is adorned with a large “X.” The upper part of the X stands for vota (vote) and the lower part is an “A” for Allende.
A rumor is going around that he speaks the tongue of The People.
I know better because I’ve met him, talked to him once at in Los Lagos. He travels with a Mapuche interpreter. Good man, though. And what a name! Salvador, Salvador, savior of The People. I don’t blame the Mapuches. I’d vote for him, too. The current president, Jorge Alessandri and his elitist friends side with the landowners and the priests. Never brought these people anything but misery. Do you hear that, my good friends at the US Embassy? When are you people going to learn that the rotos of Chile want justice and dignity, and that a vote for Dr. Allende isn’t necessarily a vote against the US?
* * *
Monday-Still no Lesson of Two Loves, nothing but cold and rainy weather. Miserable. Ñashay helped me with my Mapuche all weekend. Such a tough language. I’ll never learn it as well as I did Íslenzkur (Icelandic). I’m just not as inspired. Maybe because I don’t have a princess like Elska Erna Armandsdóttir to teach me. It’s been several years and even with my Peruvian love in the interim, I still dream of those Icelandic blue eyes. Especially when it’s raining or snowing and the wind is howling and I crawl into my smelly sleeping bag wishing I was back in Reykjavik, sleeping under a goose down cover.
Like last night. In the wind I imagined I could hear her voice whispering, “Elska lita Davy min,” and when I awoke there seemed to be a lingering scent of Chanel in the air. Times like these I wish I could take Armandsdóttir by the hand and pile into one of those long-hulled Viking ships and paddle off with her toward Valhalla. Wonder what she’d think about Ñashay?
* * *
Wednesday, I think-The Machi must have canceled her Lesson of Two Loves. Ñashay shrugs when I ask her. The only interesting thing today was a peddler from Los Lagos who stopped by the village with his goods. He argued that LBJ was behind the shooting of JFK. I hear it all the time. The logic: Who gains the most by his death? LBJ, of course. It’s still hard for me to believe that a sleazy little misfit like Lee Harvey Oswald could wind up in the history books. Lincoln was shot by a famous actor; Caesar done in by prominent men of the Senate. But LHO? I can still see him propped up on a kitchen cabinet at a party in the New Orleans garden center, trying to convince me and a couple of drunk Cubans that he spoke Russian. Incredible the reaction I get when I mention that we ran in the same circles in N.O. Like I should have been able to see his intentions.
Maybe the Machi could, but I’m just a mortal.
The man from Los Lagos also wanted to know why Americans “hate” Negroes. The suggestion got my blood up, and we had a spirited conversation with me telling him that, yes, there are bigots and haters everywhere, even in Chile. He didn’t like it when I told him that Negroes in the States have it a lot better than the Mapuches of Chile. I catch enough grief from my fellow PCV’s about Civil Rights just because I’m from Louisiana and Mississippi.
* * *
Friday already and I’m wondering why the Peace Corps sent me to such a remote place? Not a damn thing to do. Was it to show the Mapuches that Americans aren’t the demons the Communists depict us to be? Or to keep me from running my mouth about my association with LHO? They may be right. What a headline it would make for El Siglo. FRIEND OF MAN WHO SHOT JFK IS PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER. Not so. I hardly knew the little bastard. Every meeting with him and every conversation would fill no more than a half dozen pages. Double-spaced.
Every day I sit down with pencil and paper and sketch out a plan of something productive to do. Like form an agricultural cooperative. But it’s almost impossible to interest the village leaders or even make friends with anyone except the young girls. Today I went out to talk to a little boy with a slingshot. His mom yelled at him. Yesterday I tried to help a man fix the wheel on his oxcart. His wife yelled at him. Like I was the devil. The only smile I ever got was the day I borrowed Puenkel’s horse and rode it through the village. It wasn’t a John Wayne moment, but at least it showed them that I can ride one of their horses. Hell, I grew up with horses.
Days are so depressing. Feeling unwanted. Unloved. Hated. Despised. This must be how black people feel in the US. No wonder they march for justice. Just like the Mapuches. The only way I keep my sanity is by reading books, thanks to a trunk load of books provided by the Peace Corps. I read three books this past month-a book about Stalingrad by an old Nazi, Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, and a romance that inspired me to write a few more pages of Lily of Peru, my attempt at a romance about a fling with that gorgeous Peruvian exchange student.
Was she really that gorgeous? And witty and intelligent and oh, so tempting with that long black hair and the way she moistens her lips before I kiss her. Or is it that after a few months in this place that any young woman with European looks get me huffing and puffing?
I pick up one of her letters and read a few lines: I can’t stop thinking about you. I think of you when I go to bed and wish you were here beside me. I dream of you. I think of you when I wake in the morning. Do you feel the same? Please write me every day. Please come back to me. Please sit down with me and let’s work it out. All my love with a kiss.
Oh, man, what a novel I could get out of this. A poem, a song, a love dance. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. They whisper in the moonlight and make love on a blanket beneath the Southern Cross. But things come between them-like me having to return to this dismal place. And her boyfriend back in Lima. A rock throwing radical who wants to fight for justice with Hugo Blanco in the mountains. And maybe come after me for, ahem, spending time with his betrothed.
She invades my dreams the same way my Icelandic love used to do. But unlike Miss Iceland, Miss Lily of Peru is available. I have so little to do here because of the bad weather and the uncooperative villagers that it would almost be worth it to fall ill again just to have a chance to go back to Santiago and spend time with her. Oh, Lord, forgive me for thinking such things.
* * *
Monday-Back from the political rally in Lautaro. Road a mess. Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive on my Jeep. Almost ran over a drunk Mapuche sleeping in the road. Picked up some canned goods in market and went back to Jeep to discover a string of dead rats hanging from rear-view mirror. The lesson is clear-we don’t like you. Go home.
In Lautaro I ran into other PCV’s attending the rally-John Shelly, Kirk Breed, Don Loomis, Dick Kramer. How good to sit down over a beer and speak my native language and catch up on the gossip. Unlike me, most of them are affiliated with some organization or other and are doing productive work. When they ask what I’m doing, my first thought is to say “Not a damn thing.” But that’s not true, so I tell them about my research to form a cooperative and how I’ve applied to CARE for help in starting a carpenter workshops at the local school.
_______tells me he’s voting absentee for Goldwater. He also told me that (another PCV) has been goteando fuego (dripping fire) as a result of a tumble in the moonlight with some little chiquilla he picked up hitching a ride to Antofagasta.
Another lesson we should hear from the Machi: use a rubber or keep it in your pants.
As for the rally, I’m still impressed with Salvador Allende. What an inspiration for these people. The alcalde of Lautaro fired up the crowd in his introduction by saying Don Salvador would confiscate the big landowner’s property (the hated fundistas) and give it back to the people of Arauca. Then he would nationalize all the American and European banks. And create a nation for the poor that stretched from the Rio Maule to Isla Chilloe.
When Allende took the stage, the first words out of his mouth were, “This land is your land!”
The crowd roared. He said it again and again, louder each time. The crowd responded with “Allen-de! Allen-de!” and the ground shook.
One of the landowners’ daughters, a cute little thing named Sofía, who was there with her chubby mother, heckled the speakers with words like “ignorant” and “stupid Indians” and “dirty Communists.” Amazing how they tolerated her. Turns out that she’s the girlfriend of the PCV who plans to vote for Goldwater. When I first saw her and how cute she is, I was envious. No longer. Hell, no. These poor people only want a better life for themselves. Sorry, Sofía, but I’d never kick Ñashay out of my sack for you. Character is more important than looks.
* * *
Friday-It could happen soon. The weather is nice and I’m conspiring with Ñashay on how to sneak me into the Machi’s class. Either her Spanish is improving or my Mapuche is getting better, and now we’re conversing easily in a garble of both languages.
Today I saw a jet trail across the sky. What a strange feeling. Here I am in the Fifteenth Century and see a jet trail. Maybe this is all a dream. Like Mark Twain’s CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT.
I wish Ñashay wouldn’t look at me with those sad puppy dog eyes. I feel guilty as it is. Why can’t she get it through her head that I’m not going to stay here forever? Or get involved with her. How could I break her heart by telling her she doesn’t fit into my world?
I can imagine me introducing her to friends at a soiree in the N.O. Garden Center: “This is my friend, Ñashay Huechaquecho, Water-of-the-Earth, daughter of the Machi of Arauca. Doesn’t speak English, and precious little Castellano either, but I’ll be happy to translate into Mapuche. And what’s the significance of the eagle breastplate and the head-dress, you ask?
“Well, it’s a long story…”
* * *
Nightfall–Drums are beating. I hear the roar of the Chol-Chol, swollen by melting snows. I’m writing in candle light. Ñashay should be here any minute. “Must be careful,” she told me earlier. “Can’t let them see you. Boys not allowed.”
They’re going to sacrifice a goat, she tells me. But the word for goat in Mapuche also means a young man. Should I worry? Only four years ago, after a big earthquake, they did in fact sacrifice a boy. Cut of his hands and arms and let the tide take him away. Horror of horrors!
Dogs are barking. If they were howling I’d really be worried. It’s cold out. I’m going to dress warm. My Icelandic girlfriend would tell me to “vera gaetinn” (be careful). Haven’t been this nervous since the first day I came to this village. Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. Heart racing.
Get a grip, Edmonds! Final entry: Mom, I love you.
* * *
Sunday-Raining today. Cold. Miserable. Overnight snow in higher elevations. I’m still among the living. Night before last was enchanting but also disgusting. Both Ñashay and Micaela are with me this morning to help me recount the events for my notes. Problem is they argue a lot (sisters) and cannot always agree on sequence of events or exact words.
But we’re going to regress to the Lesson of the Machi and pick it up in present tense.
* * *
I don’t like the idea of slaughtering a goat and catching its blood. Like the first day I came here and had to drink a sip from a gourd. The thought disgusts me. They spice the drink with aji and cebollas (Christ! I can’t even speak English). Anyhow, it’s a beautiful evening. Stars bright. The Southern Cross looks so close I feel I can reach up and touch it.
Can also hear the creaking wheels of oxcarts, cows lowing in the distance, the smell of flowers and freshly turned earth. And the drumbeat, slowly at first, muted. It grows louder, more intense. The tempo picks up, (Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum) and out from the rucas come the young girls for their lesson with the Machi of Arauca, pulling their alpaca ponchos over their heads.
I know most of these girls, but the only one I can pick out in the poor light is Puenkel’s little moon-faced daughter, she who brings me fresh milk from the family cows.
Milk I have to first pick out the flies and then boil before drinking.
Ñashay leads me to a little depression near the campfire, about thirty paces from the gathering. We’re hidden here, I think. But what will they do if they discover me?
Through my binoculars I clearly see the Machi Herself, seated before the fire like a sacred buddha, her eagle breastplate reflecting the light. The girls gather round and spread their blankets. It gives me comfort to see a few boys hiding behind a haystack, their heads popping up from time to time. Another sits high on a tree limb.
Am I the first outsider to witness such a ceremony?
Cold. A sweater and jacket isn’t enough. Ñashay runs to her ruca and comes trotting back with alpaca blankets. She leans into me on the ground as if we were lovers, but straightens up when the Machi calls her audience to attention.
From the darkness comes a young girl leading a tethered goat. A drum beats. Horns blow. The Machi prays to the spirits of the forest and the mountains in her Indian tongue. She begs forgiveness of the poor creature they’re about to sacrifice. I can’t understand her words. Can barely hear them from this distance, but Ñashay whispers them into my ear as if she’s practicing to be the Machi herself-which she probably is. The goat is placed on the flat rock and held down by three older women. It kicks and cries as if it knows what they are about to do.
Someone produces a knife the size of a Roman short sword.
A woman holds a gourd for catching the blood.
The knife comes down. I look away. I’m going to be sick. When I look back the goat is kicking. Then it lies still. The woman who slit its throat leans down and sucks out the last of the blood. She looks up and smiles a toothless grin, blood dripping from her chin like one of our Louisiana vampiras. My stomach revolts. Even now, two days later, I feel like throwing up.
Dogs start their evening barking and howling in the distance. Don’t know what sets them off unless it’s the spirit of the goat. More dogs join in. The sound moves toward us and sets off still more barking. The barks roll over the village, go up the hill, down the other side and die away. I call it rolling thunder, good title for a book if I ever write one about my experiences in this place. ROLLING THUNDER by David Edmonds. I used to enjoy the rolling barks, even when it woke me at night. But when I think of that miserable little canine that charged out from a haystack and ripped a hole in my leg I want to take a shotgun to every dog I see.
A gourd is passed around. Each of the girls take a sip.
The Machi, sitting on a cushion in front of a drum, begins her lesson:
“Listen to my voice, girls. Are you listening?”
“Yes, Mother Machi.”
“Listen to me and I will speak of days to come. Are you listening?”
“Yes, Mother Machi.”
“Imagine you are a spider in your web. You are there, contented, and then comes another spider. A man spider that you know well. A spider that has danced for you. A spider you knew as a child. A spider who was once the way children are. But now he has changed. He is now a man. He wants what all men want. Do you understand what he wants, my girls?”
“Yes, Mother Machi.”"
The dogs start up again. She waits for it to die and continues.
“But he is unfaithful to you. He dances with the other female spiders when you are sleeping. When you complain, he tells you it was a mistake, that it is you he wants and only you. These are the things you want to hear. But he has been unfaithful to you. Should you punish him?”
“Yes, Mother Machi.”
“But how should you punish him? Suppose you have three choices. You can keep him as your mate. You can send him away from your life. Or you can have him for dinner. ”
The girls giggle. The Machi cuts them off with a single beat of the drum.
“At first you cannot decide. Maybe it is the time of the woman’s curse. Maybe it is the effects of the moon or the changing of the flowers, but then one day you realize he is not going to change. He is only showing you the spider he really is, the spider you would have known if you had taken the time to know him. He is not what you hoped for. So what to do?”
In the silence that follows, a little girl in a bright red shawl raises her hand.
“So what should we do, Mother Machi?”
“Eat him!” shouts Puenkel’s daughter.
The Machi kicks her drum and stares so hard at Puenkel’s daughter that the poor girl lowers her head. It grows so quiet I can hear the crackling of the flames.
The Machi speaks again.
“Suppose in your time of sorrow and confusion that another spider comes into your web. He looks better than the first. He is all the things your first spider is not. You like what you have caught. So what do you do with him? Again you have the three choices: you can mate with him, you can let him go or you can eat him for dinner. What would you do?”
“I would set him free,” says the girl in the red shawl.
“And why would you set him free?”
“Because you should be loyal to the first spider.”
“But the first spider has betrayed you,” says another voice.
A discussion ensues. Voices rise and fall. Dogs bark. The gourd is passed around for another sip. After a while, the Machi asks for a show of hands. “Who among you would set him free?”
Hands shoot into the air.
“Who among you would mate with him?”
Other hands are raised.
“Who among you would have him for dinner?”
Puenkel’s daughter is the only one who raises her hand. She also smacks her lips.
The Machi doesn’t seem to like any of the answers. She comes to her feet, brushes herself off and heads to her hut, shaking her head.
“But what is the answer?” the girls cry out.
At the door to her ruca, which is also where Ñashay lives, the Machi turns and stares.
“The answer,” she says, frowning, “is to learn from your mistakes. If you had examined your first choice more carefully, you might have agreed with Puenkel’s daughter and had him for lunch. So the Lesson of Two Loves is to take the time to learn.”
“What does that mean?” says a girl’s voice from the shadows.
“It means you should not hasten to select your first spider.”
She goes in and closes the door. The girls meander slowly away, some of them forming into little groups and continuing their discussion. I head back toward my ruca with Ñashay beside me, and as we trod slowly through the village, passing in and out of dim patches of light from doorway lanterns, she takes my hand.
“What are your thoughts about the lesson?” she asks. “What if you had two loves?”
It’s impossible for me to answer. How can I tell her I have two loves and the Machi’s lesson did nothing to help me resolve it? How can I tell her that my thoughts are with my Icelandic love and Miss Lily of Peru and what a tough choice I’d have if they were both in my life? I can’t. Ñashay is such a darling, such an innocent child of this place, and I’m not going to hurt her.
At the doorway, she wants to come in. I tell her no, that it’s late and I don’t feel well. As she turns to go, a shooting star streaks across the heavens and passes over a volcano that glows in the distance. Ñashay says it’s a sign, but doesn’t say for what.
Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve been too long in this village.
That I should head to Santiago and fight for the hand of my Peruvian love.
Or just go home.
I am so confused.
- Dave with Mapuches
I remained in the village until the end of 1964 and managed to establish a carpenter class with a donation of tools from CARE. My stomach ailment took me back to Santiago, where I shared an apartment with my good friends, Bill Callahan and Mike Middleton. My Peruvian love had gone home to Lima by then, back to her family and boyfriend.
The novel I started in 1964 (Lily of Peru) was published in January of this year by Peace Corps Writers. It’s the story of a RPCV who returns to Peru many years later to take home the woman he’s loved since his Peace Corps days, only to be told she’s thrown in with a bizarre terrorist organization called the Shining Path.
David C. Edmonds is a former US Marine who was a PCV in Chile (1963-65). After the Peace Corps, Edmonds did graduate work at Louisiana State University, Georgetown and George Washington University and earned a PhD in international economics at American University. He subsequently served as a senior Fulbright Professor of Economics (Mexico), university professor and dean (Louisiana, Alabama and Florida), and federal government official in Washington DC, Peru, Nicaragua and Brazil.
He is an author, editor or ghostwriter of eight books and numerous academic publications. His first book, Yankee Autumn in Acadiana received the Literary Award of the Louisiana Library Association and was made into a small theatre production called Les Attakapas. A portion of his second book, Vigilante Committees of the Attakapas, was made into the movie, Belizaire the Cajun, starring Armand Assante. Other non-fiction books include The Guns of Port Hudson (two volumes) and The Conduct of Federal Troops in Louisiana.
His thriller, Lily of Peru, set during the dark days of the Shining Path insurrection, is the recipient of an International Latino Book Award for fiction, the Royal Palm Literary Award (Florida Writers’ Association) and the Silver Award of Readers Favorite. Lily is also a finalist for a Latino-Books-Into-Movies award sponsored by Latino Literacy Now. His second thriller, The Girl in the Glyphs, about a young archaeologist’s search for a “glyph” cave in Nicaragua, also won a Royal Palm Literary Award in the unpublished category.
He currently resides in Florida with his wife Maria.
Michael Varga’s short story, “Chad Erupts in Strife,” which won the Fiction Open in 2014 from Glimmer Train Magazine, is published in November (Issue #96) of Glimmer Train). The story centers on how a Peace Corps Volunteer’s family reacts when word arrives in a cryptic newspaper article that war has broken out in Chad.
Michael is a Foreign Service Officer, playwright and actor, as well as a writer of fiction. Three of his plays have been produced, and one published (Payable Upon Return). His Peace Corps novel, Under Chad’s Spell, is available at Amazon.com. For other works by Michael Varga, visit his website at www.michaelvarga.com.
Mother Martha Driscoll, O.C.S. O., (Ethiopia 1965-67) graduated from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (at that time, women were not allowed in the undergraduate A&S College) and joined the Peace Corps. After Training at the University of Utah, she went to Ethiopia as a secondary school teacher in Addis Ababa, where, as a wonderful singer and actress, she also “starred” in several play productions staged by British Ex-pats in the city.
After her tour, she returned to New York City and Staten Island where she had grown up, and worked for awhile in New York before going to Boston and earning an MFA in Theater from Brandeis University. It was during this period, she told me, that she began to question what she wanted to do with her life, and on a trip to Europe she visited and then entered a monastery in Italy where she took her religious vows.
In the summer of ‘87 she returned to the States and we met in New York. She was on her way to Indonesia, being sent there by the monastery to become the superior of a new foundation of Cistercians. She is still there, now serving as Abbess. In her expanding role she also gives retreats for nuns and monks in Asia, Africa, and the U.S., besides giving conferences for Indonesian religious about the spirituality of communion and consecrated celibacy. While we know there are pastors and priests and rabbis and ministers as well as nuns who began their careers as PCVs, it is quite possible that Martha (as we knew her in Addis Ababa) is our only RPCV Trappistine, a cloistered nun.
The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae) is a Roman Catholic religious order of cloistered contemplative monastics who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. A branch of the Order of Cistercians, they have communities of both monks and nuns, commonly referred to as Trappists and Trappistines, respectively.)
In her life as a religious, Mother Martha has been a Superior from 1987 to 1994, Titular Prioress from 1994 to 2000, and since 2000, an Abbess .
She two published books two books, both focus on religious subjects.
In Reading Between the Lines: The Hidden Wisdom of Women in the Gospels [Liguori 2066] Sister Martha retells selected stories from Scripture. Each chapter focuses on a single character, usually a minor one and always a woman, relating the story from her perspective. A written reflection and prayer are provided after each story.
A Silent Herald of Unity: The Life of Maria Gabriella Sagheddu [Cistercian Publications 1990] is a short biography of the life of Maria Gabriella Sagheddu. She was a peasant girl from Sardinia who was not very religious as a child. When she became a teenager, she chooses to live a simple monastic life within a Trappistine abbey. Her observance of the conventional life within the abbey was not exceptional. She did as many others have done in her day-to-day life of worship and work. But she was willing to make a sacrifice that shows us the hidden depth of grace she had.
In an article that was forwarded to me by Janet Lee (Ethiopia 1974-76) that appeared (I think) in an Indonesia paper, Mother Martha’s role is defined in her abbey this way. A rough translation has this to say:
There are 30 nuns in the Gedono Hermitage in central Java located on the slopes of Mount Merbabu. According to Mother Martha daily life is filled with prayer and work. “Everyday we pray seven times, starting at the third quarter in the morning until seven at night.
As a community they must provide for themselves. They work in the garden, make hosts, bread and kefir, “It is a simple life,” says Mother Martha, “with a simple life and isolation from the bustle of the world, the nuns know more about themselves. Here, they learn about love and brotherhood . We learn love from day to day and never graduated.“
Reading Between the Lines: The Hidden Wisdom of Women in the Gospels
Mother Martha Driscoll, OCSO (Ethiopia 1965–67)
±>$.87 (paperback), $7.99 (Kindle)
A Silent Herald of Unity: The Life of Maria Gabriella Sagheddu
Mother Martha Driscoll, OCSO (Ethiopia 1965–67)
Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications
To purchase either of these books from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title or the publishing format you would like — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support this site and its annual writers awards.
Reviewed by Tino Calabia (Peru1963–65)
“I never looked at the Peace Corps as a two- or three-year excursion into the Valley of Riotous Romance,” writes Gerry Christmas, a Volunteer in the late 1970s. And from Christmas’ epistolary memoir Breathing the Same Air: A Peace Corps Romance, his three-year tour in Thailand followed by two years in Samoa proved neither riotous nor a steamy, bodice-ripping romance.
In 330 pages, 68 letters (49 to his mother and father) trace the on-again, off-again travails of Volunteer Christmas’s love sparked by a woman named Aied in Thailand. Later, 6,200 miles away in Samoa, his heart still pines for her. Through it all, his mounting success teaching English would match his success as a writer, one especially adept in coining metaphors and similes to enliven his memoir.
Like Christmas and thousands of other Volunteers, I, too, was officially sent abroad by the Peace Corps to teach English (Peru, 1963-65). Would that I had achieved even half the success that he did as a Peace Corps teacher — and afterwards — for almost three years, as a Thai government-paid instructor in a teachers’ college. Charming accounts of his students in class, and an inter-school competition that pits his underdog school against more affluent universities warmed the heart of this twice-degreed English major whose ESL efforts were by comparison underwhelming.
The classroom dimension and the dimension of unsullied love are rounded out by the multicultural dimension framed by Christmas’s views. He freely opines about how non-affluent Thais and Samoans manage their lives in sharply contrasting cultures. Indeed, even before the first letter/chapter opens, Christmas inserts his 13-page “Peace Corps Termination Report” covering his initial three years in Thailand. Those years made him a “cultural realist” who “believes that cultures have various strengths and weaknesses . . . best shown in what each culture has contributed to the human race,” concluding further that one culture is no better than another.
More specifically he notes that “ . . . most Thais are extremely unhappy. The oppressive poverty, the sweltering heat, and the linear social scene ultimately drain the body and snap the soul. Youth and beauty are the only treasures here. Once beauty and youth fade, most Thais accept their miserable existence with a fatalism that approaches masochism.”
Christmas closes his “Termination Report” mentioning a woman he would forever remember who led him to “experience true beauty . . .. It was then that I knew that no man could ever hate a country that had given him one of its women to love.”
Though remaining faithfully in love with Aied of Thailand, Christmas tellingly describes Samaria, an intelligent Samoan who was “the most gorgeous woman I’d ever met.” Three months into his service in Samoa, he writes: [the country] “is not a place for a person who has been indoctrinated with time management and the Asian work ethic. This is not to say that Samoans are wrong . . .. All I’m saying is that some personalities demand structure and order, two traits not particularly valued in the South Pacific.”
Interested in cultural differences? Peace Corps teaching? The bittersweet frustrations of seemingly unrequited love? HERE is a memoir for you.
Reviewer Tino Calabia is the author of the novel Roman Proud, Wayward Widower. He works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in Washington
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To purchase Hobgoblin from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title or the publishing format you would like — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support this site and its annual writers awards.
(This is a short essay I wrote years ago about Theroux and his ‘Peace Corps Experience’ and I am reposting it now to continue the discussion of his latest book.)
Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux
He went — in the way the Peace Corps rolls the dice of our lives - to Africa as a teacher. “My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved liked prisoners, muscles showing through their rags,” he wrote home in 1964. “These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”
How many of us stood in front of similar classrooms and saw those young faces arriving with the dawn? How many of us could have written the same sentiments — though not the same sentences — home? And how many of us wanted to be the writer that he became, the free spirit roaming the world, jotting down notes and writing novels, travel books, short stories and essays?
In thirty-plus years of writing, that RPCV, Paul Theroux, has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written.
He began by writing about the life he knew in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
His first three novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. And two of his later novels, My Secret History and My Other Life , recast his Peace Corps tour as fiction. In 1996 his first three novels were reissued by Penguin as On the Edge of the Great Rift, a 644-paperback. Also reissued was Sunrise with Seamonsters, his 1985 collection of essays, as well as his novel My Other Life. And in 1997 from Viking came The Collected Stories, more than 60 of his short stories in a massive 660-page hardcover collection.
A number of thematic patterns emerge from Theroux’s work. One that runs through many of his books clearly relates to his experience as a Volunteer in Africa, and these books, I think are his most ambitious and creative. Africa is where Theroux found his literary landscape, his point of view, and even his voice.
A Crack in the Earth
In 1964 Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyasaland (as Malawi was called before independence), living on the edge of “a crack in the earth,” as he wrote in a letter to The Christian Science Monitor. That same year I was a PCV farther north, up in the highlands of Ethiopia, a few hours east of the Great Rift.
Though our years in Africa overlapped, I didn’t know Theroux then. But I heard of him. By the time he was 23, his outspokenness had already made him notorious within the Peace Corps.
In the fall of 1965, when I returned to Ethiopia as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD), he appeared as a central character in a story that swept through Peace Corps/Africa. The country director in Malawi had been sent home by the U.S. Ambassador, Sam P. Gilstrap.
It seems that the Malawi PCVs had started a Volunteer newspaper called The Migraine, and its editor had written a piece opposing the American presence in Vietnam. When the Ambassador, an old and dear friend of President Lyndon Johnson, saw the newspaper, he expelled the country director, Michael McCone (Staff: Sierra Leone, Malawi, Malaysia 1962-66), for allowing publication of the editorial - which had been written by Paul Theroux.
Will Lotter, Deputy Director of the Malawi Peace Corps project (1965-67), said it was Theroux’s article that first made him aware of the anti-war movement among young Americans. “I came off the Davis campus in California. I had been an athletic coach and Paul opened my eyes to our folly in Vietnam.”
And if they read his editorial, most Volunteers overseas would have agreed with Theroux, though many Volunteers did support U.S. military activities in Asia, at least in 1964. (It wasn’t until 1965-66 that male PCVs began to join the Peace Corps to avoid the draft.)
But what was Ambassador Gilstrap thinking? Didn’t every ambassador know PCVs always mouthed off against U.S. foreign policy, even while eating all the hors d’oeuvres at every embassy reception? If anyone lacked good judgment, it was Sam P. Gilstrap.
I remember reading cable traffic about the incident. Country Director Mike McCone was back in Washington being interviewed by Sargent Shriver and waiting for a decision on his Peace Corps future.
About that same time, it was learned that a Volunteer in Malawi had been declared persona non grata by Dr. Hastings Banda, the Prime Minister, not for protesting the Vietnam war but for supporting Yatuta Chisiza, a Malawian whom Banda suspected of trying to overthrow his government. Again, the PCV in question was Paul Theroux.
Tarzan & Me
I forgot about Theroux until two years later, in my last months as an APCD. One day, in a crammed Greek-owned bookstore near the piazza in Addis Ababa, I picked up a copy of Transition, a new Ugandan literary magazine. In it was an essay, “Tarzan is an Expatriate,,” written by Paul Theroux, who was identified as a lecturer in English at Makerere University in Kampala. There was no mention of his Peace Corps days.
In the essay, Theroux confessed that he spent his pre-adolescent years reading comic books inspired by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Theroux would later tell Harris Wofford (Staff: D.C, Ethiopia 1962-66) — early architect of the Peace Corps, former Pennsylvania senator, and currently Chief Executive Office of the Corporation for National Service — that when he read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness he put his finger on the title page and said, “When I join the Peace Corps I shall go there.”)
But Theroux had gone far beyond Burroughs and understood what Tarzan — the “white man in Africa,” — really meant to expatriates, missionaries and PCVs. (”The expatriate has all of these rewards together with a distinct conviction that no one will bother him; he will be helped by the Africans and overrated by his friends who stayed in England or the United States. He is Tarzan, the King of the Jungle.”) Reading the essay shook my beliefs about Peace Corps Volunteers in developing countries. I clipped the article and saved it. (Years later, when I returned to visit Ethiopia, I found that the Peace Corps staff had mimeographed the essay and was using it for in-country training.)
Outsiders in Africa
In mid-winter, 1968, I wandered into Discount Books & Records off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and spotted a thin novel entitled Fong and the Indians. The author was Paul Theroux. The setting was Africa.
Theroux would write later of this novel, “I began writing about the Chinese man who ran the grocery store around the corner from where I lived in Wandegeya [in Kampala, Uganda] . . . The Chinese man, his grocery store, his Indian competitors, his African customers - these were my characters . . . I had written two novels before this, but Fong was the first piece of fiction that satisfied me.” Theroux would come back to this Chinese immigrant. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece about Hong Kong (June 10, 1997), he mentioned again this lone Chinese family in Africa.
What Theroux was writing about was not Africa and Africans, but about the outsiders in Africa. The Chinese man in Uganda. The British ex-pat in Malawi. The colonialist in Mozambique. And yes, Peace Corps Volunteers.
He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, “Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.” And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.” It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.
These “displaced people” in Africa fired both his curiosity and his prose. They were the source of his famous scorn, off the written page as well as on it.
The Radical PCV
Paul Theroux lived, not only on the edge of the Rift, but also on the edge of the Peace Corps. He was the Volunteer who lived in the African village without servants. He drank in the shanty bars instead of with the Brits at their gymkhanas. He went home with African women and did not date the pale daughters of British settlers when they came home on holidays from their all-white Rhodesian boarding schools. He hated the PCVs who ran with the ex-pats, the “wog bashers,” as they called themselves. But though he held himself apart from his fellow PCVs, Theroux was, according to his country director, Michael McCone, “an outstanding teacher who lived up to the Peace Corps standard of involvement in his school.” And it was this very involvement with his fellow teachers and African friends that finally got him into big trouble.
Persona non grata
“Two months before I was supposed to leave,” Theroux recalled in a 1971 essay published in Esquire and reprinted in Sunrise with Seamonsters:
I was charged with conspiring against the government. All I did was help several Africans: help one’s mother, help another with his car, maybe write a few mild anti-[U.S.] government articles. But I was linked to a plot to assassinate Hastings Banda. Well, people I knew were actually trying to shoot Banda. So it was more guilt by association.
Theroux came home to be interrogated by the State Department and the Peace Corps.
Writing about this in Esquire, under the title “The Killing of Hastings Banda,” Theroux explained how he had innocently gotten mixed up with the German equivalent of the CIA. He was writing “background” pieces for what he understood was a German magazine, but what was actually their intelligence service. This, of course, was - and still is - against Peace Corps regulations.
The “background pieces” eventually went to The Christian Science Monitor and were his first published writings on Africa. These essays saved him, as he writes in the introduction to Sunrise with Seamonsters, ”from dropping back into the schoolroom, or into the even more dire profession of writing applications for grants and fellowships.”
Theroux wasn’t kicked out of the Peace Corps for writing articles about Malawi, but toward the end of his second year as a Volunteer he made the mistake of helping a Malawian friend, David Rubadiri, a former headmaster of Theroux’s school and later a delegate to the United Nations. Rubadiri had recently been denounced by Hastings Banda, had left the U.N. in New York, and was living in political exile in Uganda.
Rubadiri wrote to Paul from Uganda, “asking me if I could find it in my heart to help his mother flee the country, and also would I mind driving his car to Uganda with his set of best china, a dinner service for twelve.”
Theroux, as a favor to his friend, did transport the car, the mother and the china to Kampala. On his way back to Malawi by plane, and at Rubadiri’s request, he flew via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to deliver an envelope to Yatuuta Chisiza, a revolutionary who had organized an army that was attacking Malawi border posts in hopes of eventually overthrowing Banda.
As Theroux wrote in Esquire, “My readiness to say yes to favors may suggest a simplicity of mind, a fatal gullibility; but I was bored.” Next he carried a coded message from Yatuuta Chisiza to a “Greek fellow” in Malawi’s capital, Blantyre, When Theroux delivered him the message - that on October 16 the Greek baker was to deliver his bread to Ncheu, a town thirty miles from Blantyre - the baker “trembled and went pale.”
Later, in a Chinese restaurant in Salisbury, Rhodesia, Theroux was told by Wes Leach, the Peace Corps Associate Director (Staff: Malawi 1964-66), that Banda told the American ambassador that Banda had proof Theroux was plotting to kill him. Banda demanded the Volunteer be sent home.
Theroux guessed the Greek baker had been caught, interrogated by the Malawi Criminal Investigation Department about the “bread van” and, frightened for his own life, set up the American messenger. Using Theroux’s name, government agents established correspondence with Chisiza in Dar es Salaam. Later, instead of finding “bread” waiting in a van, Chisiza found Malawi soldiers, who ambushed and killed the revolutionary gunmen from Tanzania.
For a while, Theroux thought he might also have been expelled from Malawi because of an English textbook he was writing. With no resources but some inappropriate grammar books from Kansas and a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels donated by the English Speaking Union in London, Theroux and a Malawian linguist had begun writing a textbook that concentrated on verb patterns and sentence structure, rather than the usual grammar punctuation of subordinating conjunctions, adjectival phrases, and dependent clauses. At some point, the textbook was shown to Hastings Banda, and in a speech before Parliament he attacked certain teachers of English, and Paul’s textbook in particular, because it contained no grammar lessons. Banda was furious, calling the book a “nonsensical linguistic approach.”
Although Banda used the textbook to attack him, it was not Theroux’s sentence structure but his association with various Malawians trying to overthrow the government that finally got him kicked out of the country and the Peace Corps.
(In 1971 Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda declared himself Malawi’s President for Life after an attempted revolt within his cabinet. He ruled Malawi until 1994 when he was finally lost power. On November 25, 1997, he died of respiratory failure in Johannesburg, South Africa, having been transferred there from a Malawian hospital suffering from pneumonia and fever. The Garden City Clinic, where he died, said he was 99, but government documents during his rule would have made him about 90. He was given a state funeral on December 3, 1997, with a 19-gun salute and military honors.)
In, Up, and Out
Sent home from Africa, Theroux stayed at the Claridge Hotel in Washington, D.C., around the corner from the Peace Corps Headquarters. He was in and out of the Claridge Hotel in less than a week. Because he had been terminated early, the Peace Corps added to his misery by deducting his airfare from Africa to Washington from his readjustment allowance, leaving him with only $200 - not much, even in 1965.
African friends, however, came to his rescue and got him a job at Makerere University in Uganda, where he was appointed director of the university center for adult studies in Kampala.
By October, 1967, he was in trouble again, this time with the Ugandan government. He published an essay in Transition entitled, “Hating the Asians,” a report on the mounting prejudice directed at East Africa’s Indian population. The Uganda government protested and letters were written saying that there was no bigotry in Africa and that the Indians could have anything they wanted. Five years later, Idi Amin deported all of Uganda’s Asian population and confiscated their property. But by then Theroux had left Africa for the second time.
That four-year contract at Makerere University, one of the best universities in Africa, was important to Theroux for two reasons. There he met and became friends with V.S. Naipaul, whose “close attention to my writing (often he would go over something I had written word by word) had a profound influence on me.” Also at Makerere he met Anne Castle, his future wife, who was a teacher at an upcountry secondary school in Kenya. The school, his wife, and several Peace Corps types are all characters in his second novel, Girls at Play.
Of Peace Corps Personalities and Others
Girls At Play was the second novel that Theroux based on his experiences in Africa. In this book B. J. Lebow, the first of Theroux’s Peace Corps characters, appears. “It’s sort of Jewish,” Lebow says of her name. “It used to be Lebowitz, I guess. You probably knew that, everybody does. But I’m no Jew. I went to Israel one summer. That cured me. What a bunch of boy scouts.”
Theroux would use this Peace Corps experience in a short story he has said is one of his favorites, “White Lies.” It was published in May, 1979 in Playboy and was included in a 40-year retrospective of Playboy fiction. Recalling the source of the story, Theroux writes in Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers [Curbstone Books 1999]:
In Malawi, in 1964, as a Peace Corps teacher, I took a trip to the shore of Lake Malawi with some other volunteers. We were all fending for ourselves, cooking, washing, and so forth. One day I developed a strange skin condition — red bumps, pimple-like; and soon they were large and painful, erupting all over my back and shoulders. Each one held a maggot, which began as an egg laid on my shirt by a putzi fly. Using matches and tweezers my Peace Corps buddy, Bob Maccani, dug them out — Zikomo kwambiri, Bambo Bob. For years I wondered how I could use this unexpected malady, and then I came up with this story, which is still one of my favorites, and full of detail from my experience in Africa.
The short story involved a PCV (whom Theroux refers to only as a teacher) who brings home from the local bar every Saturday night, an African girl, Ameena, who does his ironing before heading back into town.
When the PCV takes up with the English headmaster’s daughter, home for the holidays from her Rhodesian secondary school, Ameena delivers a “present,” a shirt that, when he wears it, causes masses of tiny reddened patches, like fly bites, all over his body.
The PCV thinks he has been cursed by Ameena because he abandoned her for the pretty English girl. The fly bites turn into maggots, “their ugly heads stuck out like beads,” Theroux writes. As the narrator holds a cigarette lighter near the bites to ease the maggots out of his roommate’s skin, Theroux sums up, “The danger lay in their breaking: if I pulled too hard some would be left in the boil to decay, and that, I said, would kill him.”
The PCV leaves Africa at once, scarred by the experience, and the story’s narrator comments that the “life cycle [of the maggots] was the same as many others of their kind: they laid their eggs on laundry and these larvae hatched at body heat and burrowed into the skin to mature. Of course, laundry was always ironed - even drip-dry shirts - to kill them. Everyone who knew Africa knew that.” But not this PCV.
Theroux also disliked the Washington Peace Corps staff. In the essay, “Reminiscence: Malawi,” which appeared in Making A Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-Five edited by Milton Viorst [NY: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986], Theroux recalls:
I remembered all the official freeloaders who came out from Washington on so-called inspection tours, and how they tried to ingratiate themselves. ‘You’re doing wonderful work here. . . . It’s a great little country,’ they said; but for most of them it was merely an African safari. They hadn’t the slightest idea of what we were doing, and our revenge was to take them on long, bumpy rides through the bush.
Theroux especially disliked the embassy personnel, “all those whispering middle-aged aunties who couldn’t speak the language.” He had good reason in light of how he was treated by the U.S. Embassy.
Reading his fiction and nonfiction, it is easy to see that Theroux responded best to individuals, not groups. While he might make a crudely provocative comment to a group of English settlers in a Malawi bar, (a comment like, “The Queen’s a whore,” as he passed her portrait hanging above the bottles of gin), he could also befriend an English neighbor, Sir Martin Roseveare, the principal of a teachers’ college. (Roseveare died in Malawi in 1985 at the age of 86; he had been knighted in 1946 for designing the fraud-proof ration book in wartime Britain.)
During his own life in Africa, Theroux always aimed at becoming an insider, not an outsider. “After I lived awhile in a cozy bungalow with two servants,” He writes about his Peace Corps tour, “I moved into an African township, where I lived in a semi-slum, in a two-room hut - cold water, cracks in the walls, tin roof, music blasting all day from the other huts, shrieks, dogs, chickens. It was just the thing. The experience greatly shaped my life.” In another essay, he recalls, “In Malawi I saw my first hyena, smoked my first hashish, witnessed my first murder, caught my first case of gonorrhea.”
All Writers Lie
In 1979, Theroux turned his life into My Secret History, a novel that fictionalized his teenage years in Medford, Massachusetts; his Peace Corps years in Malawi; teaching in Uganda; his marriage to Anne; his friendship with V.S. Naipaul; life in Burma; and his journeys as a best-selling travel writer. And, from Medford to India, he lists the women he had relations with, and lived with, from the whores of Malawi to British shop girls to the woman he courted and married.
Seven years later came My Other Life, which he claims is “the story of a life I could have lived had things been different — an imaginary memoir.” Of the two, Theroux says, “Anyone reading that book [My Secret History] and this one [My Other Life]would become totally confused about my life. Which is fine with me.”
All writers lie. Fiction writers lie the most. And what writers write about is not really their own lives, even if that seems to be their subject. Most novels are much more interesting than any one person’s life.
The reason we believe Theroux really did this, and did that, is because his life - in fiction and nonfiction - seems so alive on paper. This is his real writer’s gift. His ability to make his prose vivid, however, doesn’t make the stories true.
What pulses through Theroux’s writing is an urgency: the language, the setting, the description, the narrative. One reads fast to keep up with his string of metaphors, deft descriptions, telling lines. It is as if he wants to get it all down, and get it down fast. Readers keep coming back to him because they know they’ll be surprised by his prose.
Theroux, Slightly Foxed
Still, people get confused. Even his own wife and family.
After an excerpt from My Other Life was published in the August, 1995 The New Yorker, Anne Castle Theroux (now Paul’s ex) wrote the magazine that “a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.” She was upset by the section called, “A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed,” in which the character Anne says of the late Anthony Burgess. “I must confess that I am not a fan.” Anne Castle Theroux summed up, “I would have been delighted to have Burgess to dinner at my house, but, alas, it didn’t happen.”
Of course it didn’t, and Anne, of all people, should have been more understanding, if not of Paul the husband, then of Paul the writer. Writers can’t be trusted.
Theroux’s brother Alexander, also a novelist, suffered a similar lapse of understanding, attacking the book as Paul’s attempt “to seek absolution for 30 years of wayward, unfair bitchery and to come out -— even if only for the space of a story — into the sunlight from cruel, carious shadows which, like a crab, he has so long chosen to inhabit.”
A Wonderful Young Man
It is certainly true that Paul can get under people’s skin - perhaps just as the ex-pats and others got under his skin. But he wasn’t always so disagreeable. Jane Campbell Beaven, (Staff: D.C., Ethiopia 1961-66) one of the great women of the early Peace Corps staff, accompanied Paul’s group out to Malawi and remembers him as “charming, thoughtful and engaging. A wonderful young man.”
My own encounters with him support the latter impression. In the late 1980s, when I was putting together a collection of Peace Corps short fiction for an anthology, I wrote Paul asking permission to reprint a story (”White Lies”), and also requesting a letter of support for the book, something that I might show publishers.
He wrote back immediately with the permission. Later he called and told me in detail how I should develop the book, what stories to choose, and how to focus the collection. He did stop at one point to say, “Well, I guess this is your book and you should do what you want.” Then he went back to giving me advice - all of it good.
The book, alas, never did find a publisher. (However, Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers [Curbstone Press, 1999] which I edited includes the same story by Theroux.)
I’ll Always be a PCV
In 1989, Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1964-66), the executive director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, (the alumni group of RPCVs renamed the National Peace Corps Association), organized the first of a short series of Founder’s Day Dinners. It was held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., on May 29th, JFK’s birth date, as a way of celebrating the Peace Corps and returned Volunteers.
While a number of Washington’s glitterati were to attend, including Caroline Kennedy and the Shrivers (Maria Shriver served as MC), Tim Carroll wanted an RPCV speaker who was, as Carroll put it, “both famous and controversial, notable for achievement yet seared by the experience we would recognize as our own.”
He decided on Theroux, who was then living in London, but agreed to participate.
Before the dinner, I found Theroux in the lobby of the Willard and introduced myself. He remembered me, asked about the book project, and we talked for a few minutes about what he was writing. At the time, I found his British accent and hauteur a bit off-putting, but writers are unconscious mimics and Theroux had spent most of his adult life among the British in Africa, Singapore, and England. His first wife was British. His kids were British. Of course, he would sound British. (He seems, however, not to love England. When asked several years ago by an interviewer what was the worst place he had ever been, Theroux replied, “South London on a rainy winter afternoon, preferably on a Saturday or Sunday. Everything, literally everything, is wet, gray and dismal. Your heart is in your boots. That’s definitely the pits. You simply want to shoot yourself.”)
I kept popping questions at him, hoping that one or another might stir him into conversation, a little give-and-take. But he was monosyllabic, at best.
Paul is well aware of his social failing. In the introduction to his collection of stories, he writes, “People who have no idea who they are talking to have told me that they love Paul Theroux’s stories; yet I can see they aren’t impressed with me.” After a few minutes of struggling to reach common ground, we were summoned to dinner.
Theroux gave that night’s address. It was long and rambling and disorganized and made no reference to Malawi or the Peace Corps. He spoke with a pronounced British accent and mumbled a great deal. He lost the audience half way through his talk.
But I remember clearly his closing comment, when his voice softened a little and he talked about hearing the novelist Leon Uris, in a reminiscent mood, say that whatever else had happened to him, he always thought of himself as a young man, a Marine. Theroux summed up by saying that whatever else he was, he would always think of himself as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
It was a nice touch. A generous touch, considering that the Peace Corps had thrown him out and taken away all his readjustment money years before.
Peace Corps Connection
In 1994 RPCV Ron Arias (Peru 1963-64) went to Hawaii to interview Theroux for People magazine. Theroux had just published a novel, Millroy the Magician, and that was how Ron was able to convince People that Theroux was a suitable subject for the magazine. Ron, however, who had recently spent time in Australia and had taken up sea kayaking, really wanted to talk to Theroux about his travel book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux’s account of traveling through the South Pacific in a sea kayak. These kayaks are sleek folding boats that can be put into the water anywhere, in the waters of Hawaii, where Theroux lives half the year, or back near his second home in Barnstable, Massachusetts.
“When I began to travel with my kayak, my life changed,” Theroux told Arias. “I learned what all kayakers find out - you head for the offshore island, and often when you get there you see another, more distant island, invisible from the mainland shore. And so you are led onward, self-contained and self-reliant and utterly uplifted.”
The two men went searching for a humpback whale, a half-mile off shore, in the ink-blue Kauai’s coastal waters. What impressed Ron was Theroux’s complete lack of fear, how he would approach a blowhole when other kayakers backed off.
“I want to know things,” he explained, “especially if people say they’re dangerous or off-limits. How else do you discover what’s new and interesting?”
Afterwards, Theroux invited Ron back to his house, saying that this was something that he couldn’t do with other reporters, but Ron, after all, was an RPCV.
The End of Leprosy
In many ways, Paul keeps going back to his Peace Corps connection. In September, 1989, he wrote a piece for National Geographic about Malawi entitled, “Faces of a Quiet Land.” He traveled twice to the country to do his research.
The experience was moving for him, as it usually is for RPCVs who revisit their sites and see what happened to their students. In the National Geographic piece, he recalls his Peace Corps tour. “My classes were made up of skinny barefoot children who wanted to be doctors or lawyers,” he wrote. “They had impressive audacity and ambition — they seemed to come from nowhere, like waifs through the mist on cold Malawi mornings, and they were claiming their place in the world.”
He went to Soche Hill Secondary School outside Limbe, where he had spent his Peace Corps years.
“I had first met them in the rainy season of 1964, when they were barefoot children in their mid-teens,” he wrote of his former students. “What a pleasure it was for me 23 years later to see that they were still alive, still well and happy, and that they had families and jobs.”
It was on this journey back to Africa that he revisited the leper mission at Ntakataka, but it was closed. His remembrance of this Peace Corps experience at the Catholic mission appeared in Granta 48 (a quarterly magazine published in England), in the summer of 1994. This essay, “The Lepers of Moyo,” later became Chapter Two of My Other Life (an earlier piece on Ntakataka appeared as “Leper Colony: A Diary Entry” in the Evergreen Review in 1966.)
About Moyo, Theroux writes, “During the African school holiday, we Peace Corps teachers were told to get jobs or do something useful . . . one of my students mentioned that he was from the Central Province, near the lake. He told me the name of his village and said it was on the way to the mission hospital, Moyo.”
Theroux went there to teach English and live with the white-cassock missionary priests. He would fail at teaching English to the lepers, fail at playing cards with the priests, but he would succeed in meeting two very interesting women, an American nurse from Indiana who dressed like a Sister of the Sacred Heart, and the beautiful but leprous young Anina who brought her blind granny to Theroux’s English classes in the bandaging room.
But how much of it is true? Did he really sleep with Birdie, the American nurse who dressed in a nun’s white, and went naked beneath it?
And did he sleep with Amina, the girl who, lying with him on her straw mat, only inches away from her blind granny, whispered, Ndiri ndi mphere kwabasi. ”I have a serious itch.” That line, Theroux said in Granta, was one of the sexiest things he had ever heard. But did she say it?
I Am Paul Theroux
Those who write, Theroux has declared, “are disturbed, dysfunctional, cranky, incomplete, not housebroken. Why else would I write the kinds of things I write if I were a nice normal person?”
At times, however, he can be nice and normal. He is working with travel writer Tom Miller to publish a book of remembrances of RPCV Moritz Thomsen. And lately he has even been saying nice things about RPCV books, just to help out fellow Peace Corps writers. When I write to him, I know I’ll get a postcard, quickly scribbled and virtually unreadable. I need to enlarge it in the photocopier to decipher the few sentences of support, encouragement, and occasionally praise.
When I last saw him in New York, it was after the publication of The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean and he was doing a reading at a small upper East Side bookstore. It was a hot night, hot as one of those Mediterranean islands he had just written about, and when I arrived he was backed against a pillar by a very thin, very nervous female publicist from Putnam, his publisher. He was surprisingly relaxed and chatty in his presentation, and read only a short section, took questions from the crowd of 50 or so, and told some travel stories. He linked his many journeys together, making it seem that all this travel formed an orderly career and was not just done for random assignments that carried him away to far-off places.
Theroux finished talking about travel and the Mediterranean and his book, and accepted the polite East Side applause. Then there were copies of the book to be signed. Before he left, I introduced myself to him again and we talked briefly, but he was anxious to leave.
When he was gone, I wished I had made more of the exchange, or had asked him to lunch. I recalled Ron Arias’s account of being with Theroux in Hawaii and meeting a middle-aged hitchhiker who said he had just beaten up his best friend. Theroux, says Ron, immediately began to interrogate the man, hungry always for anything dangerous, off-limits, at the edge. I should have spoke up.
But the moment was gone. I’d write him, I told myself, and get yet another illegible postcard from Hawaii. Or somewhere.
Africa Shaped Him
Few of us, RPCVs or otherwise, would have his talent for language. Or his stamina. It is easier, of course, not to try. It’s always easier to stay behind at the gymkhana and not go native. It’s always easier not to write at all.
But those early years in Africa shaped him. There, as he said, he discovered what to write, and why.
John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
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This is one of my favorite short pieces written by an RPCV….a wonderful writer, Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76)! He wrote this piece years ago for an NPR “All Things Considered” segment I managed to arrange to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps.
I was assigned to the Island of Saint Kit in the West Indies.
Once on an inter-island plane I sat across the aisle from one of my new colleagues, an unfriendly, over-serious young woman. She was twenty-four, twenty-five . . . we were all twenty-four, twenty-five. I didn’t know her much or like her. As the plane banked over the island, she pressed against the window, staring down at the landscape. I couldn’t see much of her face, just enough really to recognize an expression of pain.
Below us spread an endless manicured lawn, bright green and lush of sugarcane, the island’s main source of income. Each field planted carefully to control erosion. Until that year, Saint Kit’s precious volcanic soil had been bleeding into the sea; someone had resolved the problem. The crop was now being tilled in harmony with the roll and tuck of the land and the island had taken a step to reclaiming its future.
The woman peered out her window until the island was lost on the blue horizon. And then she turned forward in her seat and wept until she had soaked the front of her blouse. “Good Lord,” I thought, “what’s with her?” I found out later from another Volunteer: Two years ago, having just arrived on the island, she had been assaulted as she walked to her home. Not content to rape her, a pair of men had beaten her so severely she was sent back to the States to be hospitalized. Recovering, she had made the choice to return. She believed she could be of use on Saint Kit so she went back to coordinate the team responsible for improving the way sugarcane was cultivated. The day I flew with her was the first time she had taken a look at her handiwork from the illuminating vantage of the air. The cane fields were beautiful, perfect: they were a triumph, they were courage, and they were love.
Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) first collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, won the National Book Award for First Fiction, and his second collection, The Next New World, was awarded the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also the author of the novel Swimming in the Volcano, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Immaculate Invasion, a work of literary reportage. His most recent book is The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (2013).
To purchase any of the books mentioned here from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title, or the publishing format you would like, and Peace Corps Worldwide — an Amazon Associate — will receive a small remittance that will help support the site and the annual Peace Corps Writers awards.
This lovely piece is by a very fine writer, Rachel Schneller (Mali 1996-98). She recreates a scene many of us have marveled at during our Peace Corps years.
When a woman carries water on her head, you see her neck bend outward behind her like a crossbow. Ten liters of water weights twenty-two pounds, a fifth of a woman’s body weight, and I’ve seen women carry at least twenty liters in aluminum pots large enough to hold a television set.
To get the water from the cement floor surrounding the outdoor hand pump to the top of your head, you need help from the other women. You and another woman grab the pot’s edges and lift it straight up between you. When you get it to the head height, you duck underneath the pot and place it on the wad of rolled-up cloth you always wear there when fetching water. This is the cushion between your skull and the metal pot full of water. Then your friend lets go. You spend a few seconds finding your balance. Then with one hand steadying the load, turn around and start you way home. It might be a twenty-minute walk through mud huts and donkey manure. All of this is done without words.
It is an action repeated so many times during the day that even though I have never carried water on my head, I know exactly how it is done.
Do not worry that no one will be at the pump to help you. The pump is the only source of clean drinking water for the village of three thousand people. You family, your husband and children rely on the water on your head; maybe ten people will drink the water you carry. Pump water, everyone knows, is clean.
Drinking well water will make you sick. Every month, people here die from diarrhea and dehydration. The pump is also where you hear gossip from the women who live on the other side of the village. Your trip to the pump may be your only excuse for going outside of your family’s Muslim home alone.
When a woman finds her balance under forty pounds of water, I see her eyes roll to the corners in concentration. Her head makes the small movements of the hands of someone driving a car: constant correction. The biggest challenge is to turn all the way around from the pump to go home again. It is a small portion of the ocean, and it swirls and lurches on her head with long movements.
It looks painful and complicated and horrible for the posture and unhealthy for the vertebrae, but I wish I could do it. I have lived in this West African village for two years, but cannot even balance something solid, like a mango, on my head, let alone a pot filled with liquid. When I lug my ten liter plastic jug of water to my house by hand, it is only a hundred meters, but the container is heavy and unwieldy. Changing the jug from one hand to the other helps, but it is a change necessary every twenty meters. Handles do not balance. On your head, the water is symmetrical like the star on top of a Christmas tree. Because my life has never depended on it, I have never learned to balance.
After her Peace Corps tour, Rachel earned her MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She then became a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. She began her service in 2001 and has served at U.S. embassies in Macedonia and Guinea, as well as in the StateDepartment’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. From 2005-2006, she served at the U.S. regional Embassy Office in Basra, Iraq, where she reported on sectarian violence and internal displacement following the Samarra mosque bombing. She was also a former international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations and as an International Affairs Fellows she researched the implications for Iraq and U.S. foreign policy of the displacement of 4 million Iraqis from their original homes to locations outside and inside Iraq.
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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)
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