For those of you living in the DC area, Stan Meisler will be talking about his new book, When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, at Politics and Prose — 5015 Conn. Ave. NW, Washington — on Sunday, February 27, at 5 p.m.
Peace Corps Writers
Laurence Leamer’s (Nepal 1965-67) next book will be The Price of Justice, a nonfiction legal thriller telling the story of a coal giant CEO who sets out to destroy a small mine owner in West Virginia.
Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps
by Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63)
Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)
GHANA I — Peace Corps groups were Roman-numeraled in the early years — began with 58 trainees at the University of California at Berkeley. It was July 1961, four months after President John F. Kennedy asked R. Sargent Shriver to establish the Peace Corps. The 58 guinea pigs and their trainers were all too aware that the experiment could rise or fall on the basis of their performance.
“That challenge,” Robert Klein writes in Being First, “created a sense of uniqueness which has lasted through the years.” Fifty years, of course, and counting.
Klein was a 32-year-old teacher in Harlem when he volunteered. Kennedy’s summons “added a moral dimension” to Klein’s “restless romanticized adventurism.” The group supposedly had been sifted through a fine mesh of selection criteria. Klein et al had their doubts. “Although we were constantly told how select a group of trainees we were, the haste with which we had been gathered led us to believe that, in fact, we were probably the first 58 people who had applied to the Peace Corps.”
This tongue-in-cheek wit infuses Klein’s breezy and well-written account of Ghana I, its exemplary service and its enduring cohesion. Over the years, Klein has interviewed Ghana I veterans, former trainers and staff to reconstruct what he calls an “informal history” of the Peace Corps’ formative period.
Klein and his Ghana I comrades make no claim to being anything other than the first PCVs on foreign soil. What is remarkable, in Klein’s telling, is how closely their frustrations and fragile achievements foretold what was to come for the 200,000-plus Volunteers who have followed. He captures the tension which arose, almost immediately, between early Peace Corps staff who emphasized “doing a job” and those who believed that making friends across cultural barriers was the litmus test for Volunteers’ effectiveness.
When he visited his pioneers in Ghana, Shriver — according to one Volunteer’s recollection — was explicit: The job was paramount. But Franklin Williams and Richard Goodwin, headquarters heavies who accompanied Shriver, flogged a very different message: The primary objective was to counter the image of foreign aid workers’ cultural insensitivity, searingly portrayed in the The Ugly American, a novel published just three years earlier.
Shriver was well aware of the jousting he was encouraging between pragmatic, program-oriented staff such as Warren Wiggins and John Alexander, who had come over from the forerunner of USAID; and, in Klein’s words, “more idealistic global thinkers,” such as Harris Wofford and Bill Moyers.
George Carter, the first country director in Ghana, referred to these contending camps as the “hard heads” and the “soft heads.” Wiggins, a hard head who had helped to crystallize the Peace Corps’ mission in “The Towering Task,” believed that Volunteers should focus on achieving concrete development objectives. The soft heads were more enamored by the prospect of Volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and demonstrating Americans’ supposedly innate egalitarianism.
Both groups, Klein writes, “were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was people like me, less ideological and more activist, who would actually decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by being one.”
Carter, whom Klein interviewed a few years before his death in 2001, confessed that he thought Kennedy’s proposed Peace Corps was a “piece of nonsense.” An experienced Africa hand, Carter was hoping for an ambassadorship in West Africa and believed that sending naïve, mostly white “kids” to Africa was asking for trouble. Shriver, of course, convinced him otherwise. So did Ghana I.
The group, who met with President Kennedy in the White House rose garden shortly before departing, were hardly representative of the American demographic. Just two were African-American. A white Virginian was the only Southerner. Nor did they meet the qualifications set by Ghana’s skeptical Ministry of Education. Ghana wanted only teachers with master’s degrees, preferably in math and science. The ministry expressly asked that Volunteers be graduates from leading Ivy League universities. Late in the day, two academics involved in the training had to presume upon their friendship with Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to persuade him to accept the motlier crew assembled by the Peace Corps.
Shriver, Nkrumah and the members of Ghana I in fact shared a common vision of the Peace Corps’ raison d’etre: To do jobs that needed doing and for which there were no qualified Ghanaians. The Ghana government underscored this by insisting that it pay the Volunteers’ salaries.
Klein, who later directed the Peace Corps program in Ghana and innovated in-country training, abstains from editorializing about the Peace Corps in its longer-term or contemporary contexts. He is content to recall how the Peace Corps came to be, his experience as a Volunteer in remote western Ghana and the memories of several of his compatriots. He dedicates Being First to the Ghanaians “who had the grace and charm to put up with us. . . .”
Sarge would have loved that.
Kevin G. Lowther taught secondary school history as a member of Sierra Leone IV (1963–65). He subsequently served in several headquarters positions, principally in the Africa regional office. In 1970, he assisted C. Payne Lucas in establishing Africare and later managed its Southern Africa programs for 29 years before retiring in 2007. In 1978, he and Lucas published Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critical analysis of the Peace Corps during its first decade. More recently, Lowther has written a biography of a Sierra Leonean who survived slavery in America and returned to his homeland to fight the slave trade. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, to be released May 15 by the University of South Carolina Press, is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
To order Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Here are the details, if you are attending the conference:
R167. Broadening the Poet’s Vision Through the Peace Corps Experience. (Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73); Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91); John Isles (Estonia 1992-94); Ann Neelon (Senagal 1978-79); Derick Burleson (Rwanda 1991-93).
“How does a stint in the Peace Corps influence a writing life? This panel investigates the question of how living in a developing country as a volunteer contributes to the growth of a poetic voice. Five award-winning poets who served in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe discuss and illustrate through their writing how representing America abroad contributed to their understanding of what it means to be a poet in the world.”
If you are going you can take advantage of the pre-registration rates, and also avoid long registration lines at the Conference. After December 31st, pre-registration will close.
Online registration site is:
Exploring Hong Kong: A Visitor’s Guide to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories
by Steven K. Bailey (Poland 1993–95)
The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go
(2nd edition of So, You Want to Join the Peace Corps)
by Dillon Banerjee (Cameroon 1994–96)
Ten Speed Press
One World:A Global Anthology of Short Stories
Skye Brannon (Samoa 2004–06), contributor
The Man Who Caught No Birds
by Thomas Burns (Marshall Island 1976–78)
Roman Proud, Wayward Widower
by Tino Calabia (Peru 1963–65)
A Year on the Bus
by Dan Close (Ethiopia 1964–66)
The Tamarac Press
Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie
by Harvey Flad (Nigeria 1963–65) and Clyde Griffen
State University of New York Press
Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Greetings From Jungleland: A Memoir
(Peace Corps experience)
by Michael Fortner (Togo 1994–97)
by Susan Powell Miller (Thailand 1961–1964)
Cactus Wren Publishing
Angels of Mercy: White Women and the History of New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum
by William Seraile (Ethiopia 1963–65)
Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Art and Inspiration
edited by Abby Wasserman, with essays by Abby Wasserman, Maria Porges and Aram Fischer
Cameron + Company, Inc.
I’m a big fan of Roger Rosenblatt. I love his essays on PBS News Hour. I love his soft voice, quiet demeanor, the gentleness of this gentleman. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.
I love the way he writes, the smooth elegance of his prose. He is like that polished English butler of English movies who has everything under control and quietly, unobtrusively, brings the dinner party to the dining room table and serves them roast duck under candle light.
Besides everything else that Roger Rosenblatt does, he writes books. Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, just published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, is his latest. He is also professor of English and writing at SUNY Stony Brook. He teaches students how to write. Though, as he says in his essay, “Can I teach them to become professional writers? No. Can I teach them to write better than they do? Yes.’
Tonight, waiting for the ice storm that is about to encase the east coast, I read an excerpted from his now book. It is entitled, “And Then What Happened?” and is in the current issue of The Chronicle Review.
In this essay, Rosenblatt talks about the wide range of backgrounds of his current students. He talks about teaching writing, and talks about why people write. All of this is fascinating. I wish I could take his course, but Stony Brook is out at the end of Long Island, and I have a job, and this blog, which amazingly takes an amazingly lot of work, and also I am writing a novel, and that, too, is labor, if not of love.
What does Roger have to say?
He said so much in this short essay that I am going to order the book from Amazon right after I tell you a few things, then maybe you, too, will buy his book.
His writing course at Stony Brook is focused on short stories, essays, and poetry, and he starts with the short story. He tells his students, “stories are central to life.” Next is the essays, because an essay is the story of an idea or of a true event. And the poem is the story of a feeling.
What he tries to achieve in his classroom is a place where “students feel safe with one another and will trust the group with personal information they use in their writing.”
They will in his class read one another’s work and comment on it. He tells them, “You will never have a situation like this again. Here, in these classes, you have colleagues, people who share everything with you and wish you well. Writing anywhere else is a lonely enterprise.”
Students who feel safe with one another, and who trust each other, will learn from each other. They will, if only for a brief moment of time, become closer than family.
Roger Rosenblatt then tells a story of how this happens.
In one class, a women read a section of her novel aloud, another woman asked, “May I be your friend?” The first woman answered, “You already are.”
Over the weekend I read this interesting article in The New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein. He was reviewing a book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson.
Epstein is a famous figure in U.S. publishing. In 1952 he launched the trade paperback format. In 1963 he was a founder of The New York Review and in 1979. In 2007 he cofounded On Demand Books.
In his review he was talking about the whole industry. As he writes, “Far more than any other mediu, books contain civilizations, the ongoing conversation betwen present and past. Without this conversation we are lost. But books are also a business….”
So, the article really is about books and the digital revolution, and he makes this point, however, (in a footnote) that is interesting:
“Self-publishing has an illustrious history. Milton published Areopagitica himself and Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. When he could not find a publisher for his first novel, Maggie, a Girl of the Street, Stephen Crane published it himself. James Joyce in similar circumstances published Ulysses with the help of Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company bookshop. The Joy of Cooking was first published by its author and so were such recent best sellers as Richard Evan’s Christmas Box and Tom Peters’s In Search of Excellence.
So, when in doubt: Self Publish!
George Wallace (Korea 1975–77), writer-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, will present a program of readings and conversation entitled “Whitman And Beyond, Fanfares for the Common Man” at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos NM, on Friday Feb 4, 2011 at 7 pm. In his presentation, Wallace will trace the thread of 19th century Romantic/Transcendental ideas about ‘the common man’ through early and mid-20th century American writing, and into the contemporary era.
According to Laurel Johnson, Review Editor of New Works Review, “Wallace’s poetry is neither conventional nor even ‘conventionally’ atypical… Anyone who ever loved or needed love should read these poems.”
Some of Wallace’s recent work:
Three Rooms Press
Who’s Handling Your Aubergines
Green Panda Press
Sunnyside Up: The Dream Cloud Egg
Good Japan 2008
Summer of Love Summer of Love
Shivastan Woodstock NY 2008
A Year on the Bus
by Dan Close (Ethiopia 1966-68)
Warren, VT: Tamarac Press
Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65)
THIS IS A SMALL BOOK THAT DESERVES a short, but positive review. In the space of 131 small pages, with a slightly larger than usual font, the author convinced me that this is a good book for a lot of folks. Have you ever been “caught” behind a school bus when you have to get somewhere fast? he asks. Are you, or have you ever been, a school bus driver? Are you the parent of a kid on a school bus? Were you ever a kid on a bus? If any of these questions are you, then, this book is for you. And, I’ll add, if you know a school bus driver, give him or her a copy. If only for laughs, because this is a funny, fast and wise little read.
It’s serious, too, at informing us how school bus drivers are chosen and trained, how their buses are driven, maintained and kept safe, and how the driver deals with mechanical and kid (passenger) problems. He also describes what he sees from the bus, the common and uncommon happenings in the small mountain towns of northern Vermont . . . and, what he does (or doesn’t) do with the bus. Like the time he (didn’t) hit the mail box. The home owner said he did, and wanted it paid for. But the bus driver was innocent, though it took some doing to prove it.
Dan writes about driving a bus during the school year of 2008–2009, month by month. He expresses great respect for the students he carried to and from school. “I like the kids,” he says. It’s a good start, for if he didn’t like kids his bus driving days would have been miserable. “I like seeing them every morning,” he goes on. “I like seeing them change and grow. I like their silliness and their grand funks and their interactions. I like watching them form bonds, form society. Society is being forged on this bus every day. The afternoon run home is like a decompression chamber for them. They get to interact in a way that they cannot during the school day or when they get home. And since spring is in the air [it was March], they do interact. Oh, yes . . .” and a lot more.
He also expresses great respect for the team in the school district that supports school bus operations and keeps the schools functioning overall. He calls them Bedrock. “Over the year,” he writes, “I met extraordinary people: drivers, mechanics, cafeteria workers, custodians, road crews, firemen, police, teachers aides — all of them the bedrock upon which this nation operates. They do their jobs quietly for the most part, out of the limelight. They do those jobs well . . .”
“And the bus rolled on.” It’s a fast read, and when you’re done, pass it on to a bus driver near you to enjoy.
Don Messerschmidt, PhD, is an anthropologist, rural development consultant, writer and editor, with several books (non-fiction) to his credit. He is past editor of ECS Nepal magazine (Kathmandu), and now serves as contributing editor and part-time mentor to young Nepalese writers. He makes his home near Portland, Oregon when he’s not off leading treks in the Himalayas.
To order A Year on the Bus from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Runes of Iona
by Robert Balmanno (Benin 1973-75)
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98)
THE SECOND BOOK in the Blessings of Gaia series by Robert Balmanno, Runes of Iona, is in print, and, like the first, it’s far-ranging and ambitious. The series began with September Snow which followed the protagonist Tom Novak, an author, philosopher, freedom fighter, as he worked with September Snow to disable the climate controlling wind machines of the Gaia-domes. In Runes of Iona, the machines are down and nature is slowly returning to something like normal, but little has changed in terms of the power of the Gaia-domes and their domination of the world. The second book follows Iona Snow and Kull, a freed slave, as they build a guerrilla army for the expressed purposes of dismantling the current power structure and toppling the dictatorship of the Gaia-dome government.
The novel starts strongly. The opening pages chronicling Iona’s journey through the Forbidden Zone are some of the most engaging parts of the book. Balmanno’s pacing of the story, as Iona crosses the desert and grapples with the unavailability of food and water, is spot on. The scope of the novel in other places works against constructing that kind of concrete familiarity that Balmanno achieves with Iona during her initial journey. I mean that because the novel covers the span of a generation (like the first book in the series), some time has to be condensed, and just as we can lose touch with our closest friends over the space of a couple of years, it can jar engagement when characters we’ve been sympathizing with grow up and become different outside the scope of the relationship we’ve developed with them through particular events.
While the book opens where the first left off, with Iona traveling across the desert, Kull, a freed slave, is the protagonist for much of the book. Kull is a slave plucked from certain death as a worker on a nuclear powered, sea-based, wind machine by a sub-magister, Clive. Clive raises and educates Kull secretly and in a way that is subversive to the totalitarian state — through books. It’s notable that Balmanno, “a library specialist in a Silicon Valley library for 23 years” develops in his dystopia a totalitarian government counter-intuitively claiming a pro-environment stance while simultaneously being bent on destroying it and using that twisted environment as part of its means for controlling the masses. Further, the main roles that books, philosophy, and literature play are those of subversive activities that propel the characters forward and, by extension, their revolutionary potential. It’s easy to imagine how Balmanno’s experiences with literature and Silicon Valley have infiltrated his fiction.
The Blessings of Gaia series may be hard for some diehard sci-fi fans to swallow in that their tastes and expectations may have been formed by formulaic genre-based literature. I had misgivings about the nature of the first book as well, when I came at it from a sci-fi fan perspective. What I’ve realized over the course of the two books, though, is that Balmanno’s intended audience is potentially more inclusive and diverse than those of a particular subset of a genre (say, sci-fi dystopia). Laura Miller, in her New Yorker article “Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers?” cites the work of Kay Sambell that argues that one identifying factor of typical adult dystopias is the need for an unhappy, even soul crushing, ending. And while Balmanno continually stacks the odds against those who resist the Gaia-dome government, each book chronicles the rebels’ ultimate, although partial, successes, offering hope rather than despair. I feel like Balmanno’s series breaks new ground in adult dystopia in that offering of hope and may appeal to readers who believe they aren’t interested in sci-fi.
While there were points in the book that worked against my suspension of disbelief, Balmanno’s characters do have their compelling moments. At the conclusion of Runes of Iona, much like the first novel, a reader feels as if she or he has truly accompanied the characters on a long journey. The focus on character at the beginning and end (usually by means of isolating central characters, for example Iona and Kull’s final years together in the desert retreat) is engaging. The revolution in the books incrementally crawls towards full realization and after the first two one can’t help but be interested in what happens next.
Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research interests focus on writing instruction that integrates technology, writing instruction for basic writers, and critical analyses of the work of Robert E. Howard.
Photo of Robert Balmanno by Organicjar.
To order Runes of Iona from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
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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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