When I finished my second novel, The Book of Phoebe (the first was really bad), I could not get an agent because I hadn’t been published, and of course, I couldn’t get published because I didn’t have an agent. Catch-22. Then I read an interview in my local paper with a writer who mentioned that her editor was Kate Medina at Doubleday. I wrote a letter as compelling as I could make it to Medina saying I’d written a novel but couldn’t find an agent and mentioned the interview I’d read and asked if she’d read my novel. I heard back from her assistant, Anne Hukill, who asked me to send it to her. I did. She loved it. She asked her colleague Adrian Zackheim to read it and he loved it, too. (Adrian went on to edit Equator, a great travel book written by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968). Anne was then instructed by Medina to get all 12 senior editors at Doubleday to read my manuscript. One of the twelve was Jackie O. When I was offered the contract nine month laters, with impramaturs from all 12, I told Anne how I’d fantasized that Jackie had my manuscript on her bedside table. She said to me, “I’ll never forget when Mrs. Onassis came into my office with your manuscript. She plopped it down on my desk and said, ‘This writer make me laugh until I cried. Let’s buy it.’ And that’s how I first got published. I made Jackie O. laugh and cry!
Peace Corps Writers
Review of The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de VacaTranslated with notes by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968-69)
The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545
by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Translated with notes by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968-69)
University of New Mexico Press
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them./The good is oft interred in their bones.” Thus my guess is that if you can name a Spanish conquistador at all, it’s most likely Hernan Cortés, who succeeded in subjugating all of Mexico between 1519 and 1526. Cortés famously sank his own ships in Veracruz, on the east coast of Mexico, after hanging two of his men for getting cold feet about schlepping with him across three mountain ranges to scope out Aztec gold in Tenochtitlán. As Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 gives evidence, though, not every conqueror is a study in ruthlessness. Translated with notes by Baker H. Morrow, the volume is a testament to a kindler, gentler conquistador.
The human panorama of the Spanish Conquest was vast. Like that of our recent and current military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have involved multitudinous journalists from CNN, contractors from Blackwater, delegations of U.S. senators, etc.), it was not limited in scope to professional soldiers. It featured notaries in abundance, who were hired to proclaim the Requerimiento (essentially a declaration that the Spanish should hold sovereignty of the Americas because God was on their side); Catholic priests and brothers with very different, even opposing, theological axes to grind (the Franciscans baptized the Indians en masse, much to the horror of the Dominicans); warring native tribes (as Cortés well knew, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which is how he convinced the Tlaxaltecs to take up his cause against the Aztecs); and black slaves brought in to stem the tide of Indians dying as a result of smallpox and other calamities related to European conquest. Out of this teeming new cross-cultural reality, a question slowly began to make itself heard: if Indians had souls, didn’t they also possess certain God-given human rights? Although the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas perhaps articulated this question most vociferously, he was not alone. He was joined by numerous others, including Cabeza de Vaca.
The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 details Cabeza de Vaca’s years in the Río de la Plata region of South America, which encompasses parts of contemporary Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The account appears to have been a collaboration between Cabeza de Vaca and his secretary, the notary Pedro Hernandez. As Morrow’s “Translator’s Notes” inform us, this adventure, as harrowing as it proved at times, was preceded by an infinitely more harrowing one in North America, which Cabeza de Vaca recounted in La Relación, first published in 1542. When Panfilo Narváez’s 1527 expedition to Florida ended in disaster due to shipwreck and hostile Indians, Cabeza de Vaca rafted with the other castaways from the coast of Florida to Galveston Island in what is now Texas. He then trekked for eight years along the Río Grande and across the Sierra Madre. Enslavement by various Indian tribes impeded progress many times along the way, and by 1536, when the survivors finally reached a Spanish settlement in Culiacán (Sinaloa), only four remained. It was through this extraordinary trial by fire-which he survived in part due to skills as a faith healer he developed along the way-that Cabeza de Vaca came to appreciate the Indians as human beings.
In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca accepted a charge from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to assist the colony at Buenos Aires. The situation of the Spanish in the Río de la Plata region appeared to be tenuous, with the fate of Juan de Ayolas, the appointed governor, in doubt. Cabeza de Vaca was authorized to assume the role of governor himself if de Ayolas proved to be dead. As it turned out, de Ayolas had been killed by the Indians, and Domingo de Irala had already stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum, ordering the settlers to move from Buenos Aires to Asunción, which he perceived to be more defensible. In many ways, The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 is the account of the crossfire between these two men, one of whom took the mistreatment of the Indians for granted and the other of whom did not.
Morrow’s translation gives the reader a lively sense of Cabeza de Vaca as a proto anthropologist. The Governor, as Cabeza de Vaca is called in the narrative, refuses to paint all the Indians with the same brush. He is careful to distinguish the Xarayes from the Guaraní, the Guaraní from the Payaguaes. He informs us, for example, that the Indians of Puerto Reyes raise ducks to keep the cricket population in check, and that when a chief of the Payaguaes spits, the man standing next to him must cup his hands to catch the phlegm. He tells us that some tribes are warring, some not.
If the Relación reads like a narrative of Cabeza de Vaca’s captivity among the Indians, The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 reads in part like a narrative of his captivity among the Spaniards. In 1543, De Irala and numerous conspirators imprisoned Cabeza de Vaca to keep him from interfering any further with their interests. One cosmic irony was that the man assigned to guard him in prison was the same one he punished for slapping an Indian and beating him with sticks. Shipped back to Spain in chains, Cabeza de Vaca was fated to spend the rest of his life trying to exonerate himself.
De Vaca’s targeted audience for The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 was the Spanish crown, and it is a credit to Morrow that he captures the hint of trepidation behind Cabeza de Vaca’s every word. I highly recommend this new translation not just to those who are looking for fresh takes on Spanish Conquest documents but also to those for whom Cabeza de Vaca’s name is unfamiliar. As we sort out our own post 9/11 colonial legacy-and Abu Ghraib is part of it-the testimony of Cabeza de Vaca should serve as a beacon. The excesses of the Spanish Conquest led to Europe’s demonization of the conquistadors in the form of la leyenda negra (the black legend). Yet, the Spanish Conquest also marked the point in human evolution when the theory that all human beings had inalienable rights began to be taken seriously. Thanks in part to Cabeza de Vaca, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in the offing.
Ann Neelon’s interest in Latin America is longstanding. She has lived for a sabbatical year in Costa Rica; taught in Mexico with the Kentucky Institute for International Studies; traveled to Honduras and Nicaragua as a Witness for Peace Volunteer; won a grant to research Bartolomé de las Casas at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin; and compiled and edited a journal issue devoted to the theme of “Mexico in the Heartland.” She has also published translations of poems by Jorge Debravo, Oscar Acosta, and José Roberto Cea. She is Director of the Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University and Editor of New Madrid.
Review of Thomas and Peter Weck’s The Lima Bear Stories: The Labyrinth
The Lima Bear Stories: The Labyrinth
Thomas and Peter Weck (Thomas Weck (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Illustrated by Len DiSalvo
Lima Bear Press, $15.95
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
The Lima Bears are back in the fourth installment of the engaging series by father and son team Thomas and Peter Weck, along with illustrator Len DiSalvo. In The Labyrinth, the Weck’s lively, happy kingdom of Limalot, inhabited by the ever-friendly and teeny-tiny Lima Bears, is under-going regime change, a very timely story to tell in our election year! Good King Limalot Bear has grown too old for the throne, and having no son, he naturally decides to pass his scepter to his fair daughter, the lovely and kind Princess Belinda Bean. But not so fast, says the scheming Mean ol’Bean, a militaristic tiny bear who plans a junta to install his tyrannical rule. Who will save the kingdom from this awful fate? None other than the series’ plucky hero, the wisest-and tiniest-bear of them all, my kids’ favorite underdog, L. Joe Bean.
My kids and I spent a warm half-hour cuddled together on the couch, enthralled in this rather tense tale of Mean ol’ Bean’s plan to lure Princess Belinda Bean into Limalot’s magical and immense Labyrinth, where she will be lost forever. As everyone in Beandom knows, deep inside the Labyrinth is a beautiful flower garden, and just like my kids, Princess Belinda Bean has a soft spot for anything that blooms. Mean ol’ Bean hatches his plan and lures Princess Belinda into the Labyrinth’s center to see the garden. But just as he is about to leave her there, L. Joe Bean appears to save the day. What ensues is a high-speed chariot chase, including some swordplay, and the lucky arrival of helpful giant bees.
What I like best about the Wecks’ series, including The Labyrinth, is that the stories are in tune with my children. The illustrations, especially of the magical garden, are a riot of sharp, consistent images and intense colors. It’s hard to look away from DiSalvo’s lush depictions of Limalot, and of course the cute bears. Mean ol’ Bean is mean without being too frightening, and the kids identify with the diminutive Princess Belinda and L. Joe Bean. I really liked that this book offers a positive and strong female character for my daughter to follow in the Princess, and of course my son enjoys the sword-fighting and heroics. Ultimately, the Wecks’ tackle one of the most important issues for any parent: forgiveness. Mean ol’ Bean really hasn’t been very nice to anyone, and yet when he needs help himself, L. Joe Bean shows him the kind of mercy we all want our kids to understand.
We took a little time after the story to do some of the activities the Wecks’ include at the end of the book, like talking about mazes, and going through vocabulary they haven’t encountered until this story. Being the writer I am, I of course used this book to tell my kids the tale of Midas and the Minotaur. They didn’t like that scary one half as much as they did this one about the friendly beans. The Lima Bear Stories are among my children’s favorite books, and therefore mine. My daughter said excitedly, “A new bear book!” when I took it out of the mailing envelope, and knew what to expect from this wholly realized fictional world. I’m grateful to the Wecks for their series, which entertain my kids, and make me feel like a great Dad. I’m also glad there’s a new one, since we’ve already read the other three sooo many times!
Thomas Weck is a nationally award-winning author of children’s books who served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1965-1967. Along with his son, Peter Weck, and illustrator Len DiSalvo, Weck has created a series of children’s books, The Lima Bear Stories, about a kingdom of bears the size of beans who metaphorically confront and overcome many of the issues that small children do. The stories are based on the ones Weck told his own children. Lima Bear Press, Weck’s imprint, publishes “children’s stories that are engaging, imaginative, and humorous while each carries an important life message such as tolerance, honesty, and courage.”
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-03) third novel, Mule, has been optioned by Warner Bros. He has two children, a daughter, Gwen, 4, and son, Rohan, 3, who read (or rather, have read to them) as many books as their dad can handle.
[ Tony D'Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03) talks about "Eyes Wide Shut," his piece on the Nadel Ponzi scheme in the September issue of the Sarasota Magazine. You can read his article on Nadel's Ponzi scheme in Longform.org alongside articles in The New Yorker, New York Times, and New York Review of Books. Longform.org was picked as one of the best websites of 2012 by Time.] http://longform.org/
An interview by Megan McDonald on the Sarasota Magazine blog:
When we first met Tony D’Souza, 38, back in 2005, he was waiting tables at the old Metro Café on Osprey Avenue and about to publish his first novel, Whiteman, based on his experience with the Peace Corps in Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire.
Fast forward a few years and D’Souza has gone on to publish two more novels and written for the New Yorker, Playboy, Outside and Esquire, among others; he’s also been featured on The Today Show and Dateline, and his most recent novel, Mule, has been optioned for film by Warner Bros. And D’Souza really loves investigative journalism-which is why he jumped right into writing Eyes Wide Shut, the revealing piece in our September issue about Peg Nadel, wife of Ponzi schemer Art Nadel, who was convicted in 2009 for his involvement in a scam that stole $168 million from almost 400 investors and rocked Sarasota to its core.
How did you get into writing? I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer, but I did want to lead a life of adventure. After high school, I went to Alaska and rode my bicycle 1,200 miles by myself. That trip gave me something to say-or the idea that I had something to say. I started writing seriously around that time.
How did you wind up living part-time in Sarasota? I came here because I needed a place to stay-I followed a tradition of artist types who’ve lived out of their backpacks or suitcases and who tended to end up on their mothers’ couches. But since then I’ve discovered all the city’s many delights.
What interested you about this particular story? I’m very interested in crime, and I’ve covered a lot of it. But financial crime really fascinates me because of its complexity, its nuances, and also its injustice. All crime is atrocious, but if a man walks [into a building] with a gun and shoots another man, the crime is easy to identify and the pain of the crime is easy to identify: The victim is killed, the people who loved the victim are hurt, and the people who loved the shooter are hurt.
Financial crime is more devastating than that, in a lot of ways, because it’s not as easy to understand as one man shooting another-and I would say the [effects] of financial crime are more powerful than many other crimes. When you talk about an elderly couple being fleeced of their life savings, that ripples through generations. Their children’s lives are going to change; their children’s children’s lives will change. It’s like casting a stone into a still pond.
What’s most challenging is trying to write in a simple, understandable and engaging way about a subject that is, at its core, designed to deceive.
You mention your writing process in the piece-can you talk a little more about what it was like to write this story?
I would compare this to looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the needle under the last straw of hay. I’ve long since learned that, as a journalist, you haven’t done your job until every little question is crossed off your list. You’re not done until you’re done. This story was like fighting a hydra-every time I went to answer one question, five more would appear. It was all numbers, dates, times, places-such a many-headed beast. I like to think I’m a smart guy and knew what I was getting into, but I wasn’t ready for what was waiting.
I probably put about six weeks of 14- to 20-hour days into this. But I think the amount of time I put in pales in comparison to the amount of time put in [to this case] by the people who have been ripped off.
At what point did you know your research was worth it? I knew I wanted to do the story, but I couldn’t have told you exactly why [at first]. But then I read the 96 victim impact statements that were collected in preparation for the Nadel sentencing-a novel’s length of pain and misery.
There was one victim statement in particular that I found so moving: A couple had lost all of their money in this Ponzi scheme, and because the husband had invested everything, his wife of 50 years lost respect for him and divorced him. And I read that and thought, You’ve been married for 50 years, and now you’ve reached the end of your life and you’re divorcing. It felt almost like a personal blow. [Financial crime] takes away our most basic dreams; it attacks our sense of safety, our sense of self-worth, and it takes away our life’s work. That was when [it all] clicked for me. I was so excited to get involved with this; it lived up to all my hopes and dreams of being a journalist, and it was one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever written.
What do you hope readers will take away from the piece? I’d love for a reader to come away with a better understanding of what happened and how it happened. But I also hope it’s an entertaining read. The last thing I want to do is write about financial crime and turn it into math class. I hope all the characters come across as human beings, especially Peg. Whatever you may or may not feel about her, Peg is a real person, and I hope I’ve rendered her humanely. I’ve talked to her a couple of times [since finishing the piece], and I am concerned about how she’ll be affected by it or feel about it-but at the same time, I feel like I did my job.
What’s next for you? I gotta write a new novel, but right now I’m in transition. I’m always writing something, but I’m doing easy work now.
The Measure of a Dream; A Peace Corps Story
by Lora Parisien Begin (Tunisia 1988–91)
A Peace Corps Book
Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977-79)
When I sat down to read Lora Parisien Begin’s charming Peace Corps/Tunisia memoir, The Measure of a Dream, it was all about the misadventures of Bridget Jones in the Casbah — she who tripped her way through the labyrinthian back alleys of Islam — fueled by mint tea and self-deprecating naivite. The soundtrack, of course, was the crackling call to prayer — deafeningly delivered by loudspeaker at 4 a.m.
Yet two days into my read, I was shocked to hear the news that all hell had broken loose in her beloved host country. That Tunisia — famous for igniting the flame of the Arab Spring, yes — was now aflame with a darker anti-American purpose, as evidenced by the carcasses of torched cars littering the US Embassy parking lot and the trashing of the American school — places well familiar to the author.
I can only imagine the sorrow that Lora Begin feels as she weathers the latest news from Tunisia and worries about her Tunisian family, of which she is a proud daughter.
Indeed, that mixed cocktail of emotions reminds me of my own Peace Corps country of Mali, as I — along with generations of Mali Volunteers — mourn the takeover of the entire north by various mysterious Islamic factions.
But back to our Lora. You have to admire her for sweeping aside her yoga mat, kids, and other duties and sitting down to write her memoir about events that took place more than 20 years ago. What she’s done is divide her story into 62 short chapters — each a vibrant vignette that could be a scene in a play, or from a movie.
Lora boasts that when she first went to Tunisia in 1989, “I did not know a lick of Arabic or one iota about Arabs or Islam.” Much less how to teach. You’d think she’d be the first one on the plane home. Au contraire! Begin rose to become a stellar Volunteer, a leader, one who then signed on to serve as a Volunteer in Papua New Guinea, worked for Peace Corps in the U.S. for 10 years, and visited her beloved Tunisia six times over the last 20 years.
And during this journey, the Detroit native gently learns — and then teaches through her writing — about Arabs, and Islam, about prejudice and stereotypes, using herself as an example of our collective ignorance as a country.
In an interview with John Coyne in August 2012, she says: “The story takes place over 20 years ago, at a time when the United States first went to war with Iraq. It asks the question: Why, after 20 years, do we still know so little about Arabs and their culture?”
Lora’s own education was forged in the home of her adopted family, the Smadhis, in the town of Beja, where she became daughter number six. “If Islam has a tranquil voice,” she notes, “then Omee (the mother) is it, gently weaving the protective web of faith around her family and me at all times. Islam sustains her, and is the very lifeblood of the family she sustains. In a world gone crazy, where the only Muslim voices that get airtime are the nut-jobs, the overwhelming majority of them pray thusly, in whispers, move thusly, in humility, act thusly, with grace.”
With humor, and raw honesty — Lora Begin weaves stories about daily life in Peace Corps/Tunisia, stories about which many of us can relate: the heartbreak of falling in love with a fellow Volunteer who ignores you in a group and jumps your bones when you’re alone, the joy of visiting friends in the far north, only accessible by a 12 hour bone-crushing bus ride, the agony of learning why your best friend Molly didn’t show up in your town — she was killed instantly by a bus right outside the casbah where you used to live . . . the rollercoaster ride of immersing yourself in your new culture, while trying to maintain the threads of your life back home.
One of my favorite chapters takes place during the holy month of Ramadan, when Lora challenges herself to fast along with her students, an act that opens up their hearts and their homes to her. Why do you fast, she asks? Here are their answers: because it purifies the body and mind, allowing one to draw closer to God, it teaches self control, it promotes kinship with other believers, by experiencing lack, as the poor do, fasting teaches empathy. It is good for the health of the body.
Reading The Measure of a Dream is good for the health of the body, too. Why? Because it turns out that Lora Parisian Begin — who didn’t know a lick about Arabs or teaching — has a pretty good knowledge of both.
Kitty Thuermer served in Mali where her back yard was the Mauritanian moonscape. She grew up in India, Ghana, and Germany, worked in Madagascar, Tanzania, and Mali and never met a plane ticket she didn’t like. She is now Director of Publications at the National Association of Independent Schools and lives in Washington, D.C.
Bruce Trimble (Gambia 1979-81) did this YouTube book trailer for his wife’s new book Tubob.
Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps
by Mary E. Trimble (Gambia 1979-81)
Talking to Eric Kiefer
by Larry Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)
Lihosit: Why write a novel about the Peace Corps instead of a memoir?
Kiefer: Memoir often tends to force a reader into certain prejudgments about what the book needs to be. Memoirs happened. The difference between a memoir and a novel is plot development and this book is about as far as I could push the line. There were experiences/settings/characters I wanted to portray that quite simply, didn’t happen. There’s something to be said about that holy connection between the real and the imagined. That’s the power and beauty of a novel, after all.
Lihosit: You have written non-fiction. Did you find fiction more difficult? Why?
Kiefer: I’ve always found that writing nonfiction is much more confining and claustrophobic, but I tend to sweat more when I write fiction. When I was working as a newspaper reporter, the stories were always laid out for me: story arc, characters, motivation, everything. In fiction, I need to create all of that stuff myself. For that reason, fiction will always be harder for me to write than nonfiction.
Lihosit: Before and even after starting this novel, did you search for any help? What kind and where?
Kiefer: One of my goals was to write a novel that anyone could understand, with themes that aimed at the souls of the people around me, not just the brains of intellectuals and fellow writers. So throughout the writing process for The Soft Exile, I got my best feedback from the family and friends around me. If they couldn’t understand the themes and feelings that I was trying to get across, I went back for another edit.
Lihosit: Do you have plans for another book? If not, why? If so, what kind?
Kiefer: I’m currently halfway through a creative nonfiction book that is sure to turn some heads. I’m also working on a fantasy/sci-fi piece that involves an adult-focused, R-rated retooling of some familiar mythological figures (unicorns, wizards, dragons and even El Chupacabra.
Lihosit: Anything you would like add?
Kiefer: People can keep up with my new projects, as well as see some cool videos and pictures about The Soft Exile, by following along on my social media pages (Facebook and Twitter), or on my website, www.thekiefer.com.
Lihosit: Thank you for your time, Eric.
The Soft Exile
By Eric Kiefer (Mongolia 2005-06)
Gentleman Tree Publishing. $12.94
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
Fans of a young Richard Brautigan (Confederate General in Big Sur) and J.D. Salinger (Catcher In the Rye) will appreciate this debut novel told in first-person. Like the former, there are mini-chapters and understated gallows humor. As is true with the latter, the book also includes cynicism by the privileged. It is also a very different fictional Peace Corps portrait than those written by pioneer volunteers years ago which leads to the question: how and why have we changed? For other aspiring Peace Corps volunteer novelists, take note. This is a commercially published book. Mr. Kiefer is among the elite ten percent of former volunteers who found a commercial publisher and I salute him. Hopefully, this is the first of many books that he will write.
In this confessional genre, a young man obsessed with signs of the apocalypse joins the Peace Corps based upon a suicide prevention worker’s telephone dare. The protagonist successfully completes training and is sent to a tiny village of 2,350 on the edge of the Gobi Desert to live in a tent, bathe in a river and burn dung for heat while trying to teach English to herders who might never travel more than one hundred miles in their entire life.
“The village looked like the set of an old Hollywood western…all meager and dilapidated. There was no cell phone reception and the closest internet connection was thirty-one miles east. There were three telephones: one in the post office, another in the bank and a third in a government building.” Electric power was prone to unexpected blackouts. The three main wells provided brackish water and “the ground surrounding the wells was perpetually littered with animal dung.”
The locals treat the protagonist well. “It was a weird and sad thing to be waited upon like I was some sort of foreign prince.” His tent (ger) had the luxury of a private outhouse and fairly stable electricity since it was connected directly to the post office. He is special, equipped with a sleeping bag, expensive guitar, emergency chlorine purification tablets, a carbon monoxide detector and a rape whistle.
Only one person in the village speaks halting English, his Mongolian female counterpart, Tsetseg. A middle-aged, married woman, she is one of the few who has left for an education and returned.
As time passes, the protagonist has changed in subtle ways. He begins “to notice the sound of sand particles grinding against each other in the wind.” He has begun to acclimatize. One day, he finds a transistor radio, buys it and spends hours walking alone, searching for airborne messages from the outside world. Atop a rise, he is surprised to receive a signal from China and an idea hatches: why not prepare a small radio station? He meets a strange Russian who is willing to sell a transmitter, antenna and microphone. During the discussion, the young volunteer admits that he does not yet have the money.
“You call again please, American friend…” says the Russian as he begins his retreat.
“How did you know that I’m American?”
“What other people shop with no money?”
Undeterred, he speaks with Tsetseg. Excited, she proposes that it be housed in the post office attic. However, they must first ask the local chieftain for permission. Well, the chieftain “chuckles to himself giddily” and agrees. The young American fills out forms and receives an international grant to purchase the equipment. He and Tsetseg paint the old attic and begin to equip the village’s first radio station. Once accomplished, the local chieftain steps in as the station manager which leads to the American’s mental breakdown.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of several books about and/or inspired by Peace Corps service including Whispering Campaign; Stories from Mesoamerica (fiction). Years On and Other Travel Essays recently garnered the 2011 Peace Corps Writers Travel Book Award.
Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962-64) takes on the French in his New Novel!
If you love to hate the French and/or hate to love show business, this just may be the book for you: Five Americans on the loose at the Cannes Film Festival. Merde happens. Big time. The French Ministry of Culture tried unsuccessfully to get a restraining order against the publication of this book. Now finally available for your Kindle or iPad is Le Jet Lag!
What the book is about: As I wrote, five Americans on the loose at the Cannes Film Festival: the ambitious intern resolved to sleep her way to the bottom; the actor who winds up spending seven nights in different beds; the publicist whose job is to make sure the studio’s film does not win an award; the gay head of publicity involuntarily channeling Golda Meir; and, back for an encore (after The Deal and The Manhattan Beach Project), the peripatetic Charlie Berns, peddling the rights to a film he doesn’t own to people with no money. Meanwhile, everyone in France – from the hookers to the Perrier drivers – decides to go on strike. The merde hits the fan. Big time.
Only $3.99 — less than a latte grande at Starbucks. Check it out!
Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps
by Mary E. Trimble (Gambia 1979-81)
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
Just what does “Tubob” in this book’s title mean? Author Mary Trimble and her husband Bruce, Volunteers sent to The Gambia in 1979, discovered it means stranger or white person. But they didn’t remain strangers for long, though pregnant women shielded their eyes from them to prevent the birth of albino babies. The two were soon given Gambian names; Mary’s was Mariama. They quickly became valued members of their community, she working in health, he in digging wells. By planting a garden and raising chickens themselves, they showed local people how to augment their diet, also debunking a belief that eating eggs causes stupidity.
Reportedly newlyweds, I first envisioned them as a young couple, only later learning they were already in their forties, while Mary had raised four children, putting her at ease with pregnant and nursing mothers. AIDS was not yet a health concern, although the routine reuse of injection needles in local health facilities probably contributed to its spread. Recent volunteers will notice other differences, such as Bruce’s cultivation of a flowing beard, in contrast to today’s clean-shaven men, and his preference for wearing shorts. Their training sessions included British and Canadian trainees and volunteers freely drove official Land Rovers, something I wasn’t allowed until my third year. Motorcycles, now largely forbidden, were actually assigned to volunteers. Some fellow volunteers hired servants, but not the author and her husband. Bruce suffered through a lengthy bout of giardia while a stool sample was being mailed back to the States. Surprisingly, the author attended college only after her service.
The book is rich with vivid details of the ups and downs of daily life, including specifics about food, clothing, furnishings, visitors, and community members, with all their virtues and warts on full display, making for a satisfying and intriguing narrative. Bruce’s informative photos open every chapter. If the couple had serious disagreements during service, these are not shared. I noticed only two misspelled words, fewer than in some other Peace Corps memoirs.
Mary must have kept a journal of day-to-day happenings enabling her to reconstruct sights, sounds, and smells more than 30 years later. She doesn’t gloss over hardships, frustrations, and challenges, mentioning unsupportive staff and young fellow volunteers hanging out aimlessly at headquarters, something not allowed in Honduras where I served. As happens everywhere, several left early.
I couldn’t help comparing further my own experiences three decades later. Quite familiar were the Aralen dreams that plagued Mary, although her fellow volunteer’s death from an apparent Aralen overdose begs for more explanation. Unreliable mail delivery-that hasn’t changed. She and I were both subjected to sexual gropings. I recognized pit latrines with reed privacy fencing from a humanitarian trip to South Sudan in 2006. Sudanese women are still subjected to clitorectomy, something Gambian women also routinely endured. Gambian men usually had at least two wives. In Honduras, decades later, many men supported two households. A highlight for Mary was attendance at a seminar given by Dr. David Werner, author of Where There Is No Doctor, whose book, in Spanish, was my bible in Honduras. She and I both used pictures and demonstrations to convey basic health concepts.
The couple lived on only one $120 monthly allowance, converting the second into dollars, burying a total of $2,500 for safekeeping in their chicken coup. Still, they managed to fashion an abundant and wholesome life, so comfortable that other volunteers and staff visited frequently, sometimes to excess. The gentle rhythm of their days was interrupted by a short-lived military coup, from which they sought refuge from the bombs and bullets in a house along with 116 others. Bruce operated a short-wave radio during the uprising, later earning a Peace Corps commendation.
A map of this little known country, displaying its location and main cities, would have been helpful. Wikipedia shows The Gambia as a slender finger of land penetrating into Senegal with a population of only 1.7 million today.
No one has enough lifetimes to experience all the adventures open to Peace Corps volunteers, so it’s a delight to participate vicariously in another time and place with such a reliable and engaging writer as Mary Trimble, author also of three ranch-themed fiction books.
Check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FO2qFXiPyTQ&feature=youtu.be
Barbara E. Joe, a native of Boston and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. From her century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. She joined the Peace Corps at age 62,serving as a health volunteer in Honduras from 2000 to 2003 and wrote Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras (amazon.com, Kindle & Nook), declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009″ by Peace Corps Writers. She is now working on a memoir of her Cuba and other Latin America experiences. In April 2011 she was featured in Woman’s Day and in August 2011 appeared in a video distributed worldwide on Voice of America News. On her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com, she reports on her humanitarian return trips to Honduras (eight so far) and other topics.
About Peace Corps Writers
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)
- Uncategorized (49)
- Literary Type (319)
- A Writer Writes (146)
- Stories from the Peace Corps (142)
- Romania (2)
- Ethiopia (15)
- Kenya (5)
- Thailand (3)
- Cameroon (4)
- Papua New Guinea (1)
- Botswana (5)
- Kazakhstan (2)
- Senegal (2)
- Ukraine (1)
- Mali (3)
- India (1)
- Sierra Leone (2)
- Ecuador (1)
- Turkey (3)
- Nigeria (7)
- Colombia (1)
- Niger (2)
- Costa Rica (1)
- Peru (3)
- Guatemala (6)
- Afghanistan (1)
- Malawi (3)
- Micronesia (2)
- Gabon (3)
- Africa (3)
- Ghana (1)
- China (4)
- Mauritania (1)
- Belize (1)
- Cote d'Ivoire (1)
- Tanzania (2)
- Chad (4)
- Paraquay (1)
- Paraguay (4)
- Eastern Caribbean (1)
- Cape Verde Islands (1)
- Uzbekistan (1)
- About PC writers (370)
- Interviews (79)
- Book Reviews (407)
- New books (557)
- Russia (1)
- Poetry (1)
- Chile (1)
- Nepal (3)
- Published by Peace Corps Writers (44)
- Other Awards (24)
- For PC writers (31)
- PCWriters Awards (72)
- Paul Theroux (5)
- Moldova (1)
- Hungary (1)
- George Packer (1)