In May Franklin D. Rothman (Brazil 1967–69) published his memoir Brooklyn, NY to Bocaiúva, Brazil: A Peace Corps Love Story with the Peace Corps Writers imprint. Here Frank talks about his Peace Corps days, life after Peace Corps and the writing of his memoir.
What was your Peace Corps project assignment in Brazil?
Clubes Agricolas/Rural Community Action in Minas Gerais State (MG). The statewide project in selected municipalities in the interior of the state was conducted in coordination with State Secretaries of Agriculture and Education. Following a pre-assignment drop-off in the municipality of Carandaí, I expressed my desire to be assigned there, to join Lavonne Birdsall, who would be extending for her third year.
Tell us about where you lived and worked.
In the town of Carandai, I lived in a rented room known locally as the Palácio do Urubu (Vulture’s Palace). The property owner and his family lived on the ground floor. Although none of the second-floor rooms were available for rent when I arrived in Carandaí, the owner said that the building had one additional room built on the concrete slab which covered the second floor. With nothing else available, I took a quick look and told him I´d take it.
The building had an external cement staircase to the second floor and an additional metallic spiral staircase to reach my room above. The locals called it the Vulture’s Palace because it perched on top of the building like a vulture would and, in fact, sometimes a vulture or other large bird would settle for a while on its roof. Not only did it not have a bathroom or sink, but the access to the toilet, sink and shower was on the second floor, which meant that every time I needed to use bathroom or sink, I had to go out my door and down the spiral staircase and into the second floor foyer to use the bathroom, which also served the guys whose rooms were on that floor. To complicate matters further, late October was the start of the rainy season in the region, often with heavy rains typical through February. When it rained, I´d grab my umbrella and make my way carefully down the outside spiral staircase to the second floor. After going to sleep, I´d try my best not to need to use the bathroom, but there certainly were times when I´d have to quickly put on my robe, grab the umbrella, turn on the outside light and make my way down to the second-floor toilet and back. Getting back to sleep after that was a real challenge.
The town of Carandaí had a population of about 5,000 people. The population of the municipality was about 20,000. The main productive activity in Carandaí was subsistence agriculture, although several farmers of Italian and Japanese descent produced horticultural crops and marketed them in larger cities. The “office” that I shared, in my first year, with Lavonne and our Brazilian partner, Maria José, was a room adjoining the house of Sr. Paulo Afonso, the junior high school English teacher, who was our best friend. On most weekdays I’d travel on foot, by bus, by bicycle or, occasionally, hitch a ride with the mayor, in his station wagon, to visit the clube agrícola or a health or education project in rural communities.
What kind of work did you do?
Initially, I worked mostly on our institutional project, which was to organize new, or strengthen existing, clubes agrícolas, which were agricultural youth clubs. Two of these were at schools in town, but the priority was to organize the projects in rural schools. I would provide technical assistance to the school children in planting and maintaining school vegetable gardens.
However, I had greater motivation and satisfaction working in two other projects. Together with my PCV partner Lavonne, I worked on the School-to-School project, applying for funding and planning, mobilizing the rural community, monitoring and evaluating the construction of a three-room school in the rural community of Sao Bento/Bom Jardim. We corresponded with the principal sponsor in the United States — the Thomas Jefferson School, an elementary school in Binghamton, New York.
Within the broader community action strategy, I identified widespread prevalence of internal parasites in rural areas as a major public health problem; planned, organized, mobilized resources and coordinated a pilot project in a favela (slum) on the outskirts of town; trained a local teacher to work with me; and persuaded town authorities to create and fund a new position to ensure project continuity.
What is your educational background?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where I attended public schools, including Brooklyn College, where I majored, and graduated in 1965 with honors in Spanish. In 1965, I entered the University of California, Berkeley graduate program in Latin American Studies and obtained an MA in Latin American History, in December of 1966. During the period 1989 to 1993, while on leave from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa of Brazil, I obtained MS and PhD degrees in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the period September 1999 to September 2000, I pursued post-doctoral studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Did your college education help you as a PCV?
Definitely. Spanish language facilitated access and sensitivity to the culture of Mexican and Brazilian people; my acquired fluency in Spanish facilitated learning the Portuguese language. Area studies and history of Latin America, particularly Brazil, provided important contextual knowledge. The Spanish course’s junior year summer program in Mexico, particularly living with a Mexican family stay, was important in preparing me for life in a Brazilian community.
What have you done since the Peace Corps?
The termination conference of our project was in Rio de Janeiro in September 1969. I had just married Lena, who I had met in June in Belo Horizonte, while waiting on line to see a James Bond movie.
In October of that year, one week after we arrived in New York City, I was hired by the Federal anti-poverty program, the Office of Economic Opportunity, for the position of Field Representative in the Community Action Program, for assignment to the newly created New England Regional Office in Boston. After living in New York City, while working in the Northeast Regional Office of OEO until June 1970, Lena and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I worked in OEO for the rest of the decade of the 1970s, during which time Lena and I were raising three children: Lisa, Michelle and Bobby.
In February 1980, I obtained a one year Leave without Pay from OEO and we moved to Brazil, where I entered on a Brazilian permanent visa. During most of 1980, my income was from translation of social science articles from Portuguese to English.
In late 1980, I was hired by the Universidade Federal de Vicosa (UFV), where I had participated in Peace Corps in-service training in 1968. I was member of a team that monitored and evaluated World Bank-funded integrated rural development projects
When project funding ended, I took exams for a full-time position on the faculty. I passed the exams and signed a new contract with the UFV in 1989 as Assistant Professor, with the understanding that I would be given paid leave to conduct and complete doctoral studies. I applied, and was approved, for a four year fellowship from the Brazilian government.
From 1989 to 1993 our family lived in Madison, Wisconsin, while I undertook graduate studies in development sociology at the University of Wisconsin. I obtained an MS in 1991 and PhD, in 1993 in sociology.
During the period 1994 to 2010 I was a member of the faculty of the Departamento de Economia Rural of the UFV, carrying out teaching, research and extension activities. From September 1999 to September 2000, I did post-doctoral studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
A significant part of my research and extension activities, including publications, was devoted to the issue of social and environmental impacts of the construction of hydroelectric dams, such as displacement, on vulnerable populations in Brazil. In 2004, I was awarded the annual P.H. Rolfs Gold Medal in extension for my work on this issue. I retired from the UFV in 2010.
What did you do following your retirement?
After retiring, most of my time was dedicated to my family. In 2011, we moved to my wife’s hometown, Bocaiúva, MG, in the northern part of the state. We built a new home, which we moved into in December, 2012. In October 2011, we traveled to Spain and were present at the birth of our first grandchild, Gara, daughter of Lisa and Alejandro. In March, 2014, we traveled to Florida, where we helped our son and daughter-in-law care for their newly born twin babies. We also spent ten days in New York City, visiting family, friends and places which had left a special mark in our memories.
Since we moved to Bocaiúva, I’ve returned to taking violin classes after nearly 70 years, studying at the State government-funded conservatory. Also, I traveled to other cities to attend international tennis tournaments, as well as to do a course sponsored by the Brazilian tennis federation to teach beginning tennis. In 2013 I taught tennis for beginner’s, part time, in Bocaiúva. In my spare time, I did some work at home translating academic articles from Portuguese to English.
What are you doing now?
I’m in my last year at the conservatory. I’ve had to stop playing tennis due to an injury, but I’m able to spend many hours watching the top international tennis tournament on Brazilian TV. In Bocaiúva and Belo Horizonte, the state capital, we have a variety of social commitments with Lena’s large family. At this moment we are in Spain on a two-month “vacation,” enjoying extended quality time with our granddaughter and her mom and dad, as well as traveling in Spain and Morocco.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
Brooklyn, NY to Bocaiúva, Brazil, is the story of how my idealism, and socio-cultural attraction to Latin America led me to Peace Corps service in Brazil, where I met a young Brazilian woman with beautiful blue eyes at a James Bond movie, and how we’ve managed to bridge life in our two countries and raise four multi-cultural children during our marriage of 46 years.
What prompted you to write the book?
Planning and delivering a farewell lecture at the UFV, in 2010, provided an opportunity to answer questions frequently asked by family and friends about why and how I had come to Brazil and where and how Lena and I had met. In the one-hour presentation I was able to only scratch the surface of my story and I had the motivation to tell the story in greater detail. In 2011, I invited my former university editor (Vidas Alagadas [Flooded Lives], 2008) to have coffee and to obtain her opinion concerning my idea of writing a book in Portuguese to tell my story. She gave me her frank opinion that the story would be of great interest to my family and friends, but doubted that it would be attractive commercially to Brazilian publishers.
In late 2013 or early 2014 I felt nostalgia about my experience with the Peace Corps. In browsing the Internet, I discovered Peace Corps Worldwide and became convinced that Peace Corps Writers provided the incentive and resources to overcome the financial and competitive challenges of writing my book in English and publishing it in the United States.
I wrote to a friend who I had met in Madison, Wisconsin during my Ph.D. studies, Marc Kornblatt, who had published books for children. I told him that I was now starting to write a book about my story for an audience that would be primarily returned Peace Corps Volunteers, in addition to family and friends. He responded that my story could be of real interest to a wider public, interested in international travel adventures. He encouraged me to be creative and suggested I read several books. I read William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past; and the memoir Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt; as well as several books about the experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers.
How long did it take for you to write your book?
On the basis of calendar time, approximately two years: the first full draft took about one year; revisions, following suggestions from friends, from Lena and from Peace Corps Writers and CreateSpace, about eight months; selection, restauration and improvement of photos, four months. Being retired enabled me to work at my leisure, when family commitments permitted. Actual time researching and writing at the computer was about one year.
Tell about your writing process.
Writing a book has been a great retirement project for me, since I had time to reflect, recall, research my Peace Corps diary, and so on. Although I’ve had to make major adjustments from government and academic careers writing evaluation reports and social science research articles, to writing a memoir, one similarity is that inspiration has been a key motivation for dedicating significant time to do the writing.
Many times I had an important recollection or idea for my story during the early morning hours in bed, while I was half-asleep and half-awake. I’d get out of bed, change from my pj’s to comfortable shorts or warmup slacks I wear around the house and go have breakfast. Since I’ve always been more productive working in the morning than after noon, I’d usually write at the computer for at least two hours after breakfast, but sometimes the time most available was at night between nine o’clock and midnight.
Almost always, I’d work in a block of at least two hours at a time. A number of times I had plenty of time available for several weeks and I took advantage of the time and motivation to write at the computer for many hours each day, making the most of continuity of recollections and of the chain of thoughts and ideas I was getting down on paper.
During the first several months of writing, a few times I found myself away from home or without access to my computer and I took advantage of spare moments to do hand-written sections of a chapter.
During the process, did you belong to a writers group to share reading and critiquing?
I did not belong to writers group. Even if I had still been living and working in Viçosa, a university town, I probably would have relied on the same people who, in fact, I did call on to bounce off my thinking and writing. My friend from Madison, Marc Kornblatt, of Madison, Wisconsin read and commented on the first draft of my introductory chapter. Longtime friends Mike Wilkins (RPCV-Brazil) and Gene Kupferman (friend during my student years at Brooklyn College and in Berkeley, as well as during homestay with Mexican family, in 1964) each read entire first draft and provided critiques and suggestions which enormously in emphasizing certain aspects, such as writing more about Lena and her family; and reducing or omitting other sections.
In writing the second half of the book, which covers the time since I met Lena, I often called on Lena to get her recollections, learn more about her life before we met, and bounce off ideas and emphases in my writing. Lena read and commented on a number of sections which focus on her life and activities, including political tensions in Brazilian society during years of the military dictatorship, between 1964 and 1969; and the importance of progressive sectors of the Catholic Church in Brazil during the 1960s.
Comments and suggestions by Marian Beil, based on her review of a sample chapter, were very helpful in getting me to omit much detail unrelated to my primary story line.
What are you doing to promote your book?
- I´ve sent to Marian, as editor/publisher of Peace Corps Writers imprint books, this interview, together with two digital photos, one of which was taken in 1968 in my project office in Carandaí by a Peace Corps photographer; a short promotional paragraph; an announcement of the publication of my book on Peace Corps Worldwide; two copies of the book, one to forward to the Library of Congress, the other to be forwarded to a reviewer;
- I took steps to create an Amazon Author´s Page and intend to set up the “Look Inside” feature;
- I purchased the production of a simple Kindle version of the book and will be in contact with Create Space regarding formatting;
- I´ve contacted alumni associations of Brooklyn College and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and intend to contact my high school alumni association, to ask that they announce publication of my book in their newsletter;
- I will notify the editor of NPCA´s Worldview magazine to inform that I have published a book;
- I´ve begun to increase my contacts on Facebook and Linked-In;
- If I am able to travel to the United States in September, with the aid of several relatives and friends I intend to meet with local groups in New York City (including a large RPCV group which has weekly meetings), Long Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to talk about my book and about current issues in Brazil, and then autograph a copy for those who purchase.
Brooklyn, NY to Bocaiúva, Brazil: A Peace Corps Love Story
Franklin D. Rothman (Brazil 1967–69)
(Peace Corps memoir)
Peace Corps Writers
Read the announcement of the publication of Brooklyn, NY to Bocagiúva, Brazil.