In April, Mary Dana Marks published Walled In, Walled Out: A Young American Woman in Iran with Peace Corps Writers. She describes her book this way: “A young American woman comes of age in Iran, threading her way through the venerable history and culture of this ancient, proud Muslim land to find her own unique role.”
Here she talks of her Peace Corps experience, her career, and how she came to write Walled In, Walled Out.
Where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps?
I was a Volunteer in Iran from 1964 to 1966.
What was your Peace Corp project assignment?
I was part of a large TEFL group, Iran 4, which trained at the University of Michigan during the summer of 1964. We studied Farsi, of course, and Iranian history and culture.
Working with U of M’s summer English Language Institute students, we trained to be teachers of the English language. Peace Corps envisioned that members of our group would not have classes of their own in the public schools. Rather, we would train their teachers, encouraging them to employ the aural-oral method of teaching English.
Tell us about living in Iran.
I was assigned with two other Iran 4 Volunteers, to Kerman, a provincial capital in south central Iran, nineteen hours by bus from the center of everything, Tehran. There, we were to teach English in the public high schools where the students were required to study English from grade seven through grade twelve.
My roommate and I were housed in a single room at Kerman’s daneshsera, the teachers’ training school for women. The school was on a large piece of property that included offices, a dormitory for the girls who lived outside the city, classrooms, a lunchroom, a pistachio grove where a donkey was tethered, a basketball court, and a large bath/toilet building (a sixty-yard dash from our room).
The plan was for us to take our meals with the students, but somehow that never worked out. My roommate and I, with no culinary skills, attempted to prepare meals on a two-burner stove, buying potable water from a man with a horse-drawn tank who delivered all over Kerman. We had no key to this gated community; rather, we rang the doorbell and waited for the caretaker’s wife to let us in. This was inconvenient for everyone. My second year in Kerman, I had a new roommate (sixty-six-year-old Alice Phinney), an apartment, and a refrigerator, making things a lot simpler.
The Peace Corps Volunteers in Kerman had a wonderful mentor, Ahmad Sayeed-Nejad, an Office of Education employee assigned to shepherd us through the maze of Kerman’s educational system. He was the one who took my roommate and me to each of Kerman’s four public high schools for girls, introducing us to their principals and the English teachers with whom we would work. But he was concerned with more than our classroom activities. He introduced us to the people he thought we should know, monitored our activities outside of the classroom, and worked hard to insure we didn’t step outside of Kerman’s norms for unmarried woman — a very narrow path. Mr. Sayeed-Nejad was the intermediary between the Volunteers and the Kermanis. He made my life in Kerman possible — and, occasionally, very frustrating.
What kind of work did you do?
My work was centered in Kerman’s four high schools for girls, although I also taught at the nursing school, and had classes for adults. In the public high schools, I observed classes, practiced pronunciation with the students, and tried to inveigle my Iranian colleagues to use the aural-oral methodology of teaching. The classes were large, often with more than sixty students each.
When called upon to substitute for an absent teacher, I found keeping any semblance of order to be very challenging. Most of my classroom hours were spent listening to an Iranian colleague talk about the English language — in Farsi. The aural-oral method was absent until I rose towards the end of class to “do a little something with the students.”
Volunteers in Peace Corps/Iran’s TEFL program were encouraged to start English clubs. My roommate and I began several, teaching club members arts and crafts, games, and songs in English.
We also had a summer “camp” at one of the high schools, where we added an exercise program to the schedule, not the most popular part of camp. Kerman’s heat was so intense it felt like the pavement in the school’s courtyard was on fire.
That summer cholera broke out in Iran. Roads in and out of Kerman province were closed for almost a week while the government rushed to vaccinate its citizens. Movie theaters were shuttered, and our campers were told to stay home. Being in quarantined city was very disconcerting. I didn’t need to leave, but I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t. Fortunately, things settled down and we reopened for the rest of the session. By the time my second year of service began I felt like an old Iran hand, ready to breeze my way around any obstacles. English clubs, cooking lessons, observing classes, friends, and my own adult students filled my hours.
What is your educational background?
I was born in West Virginia, moved to New Jersey when I was ten, and to a Chicago suburb at age fourteen. By the time I graduated from high school, I was a true Midwesterner. I attended Beloit College in Wisconsin for two years, majoring in international relations. The summer after my sophomore year, I was part of a Beloit program where a group of students studied international organizations at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Transferring to the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana for my junior and senior years, I discovered that the university lacked an international relations major. I switched to political science, minoring in history and economics. As I finished my undergraduate studies a semester early, I enrolled for a semester at Illinois as a graduate student in history before joining the Peace Corps in the summer of 1964.
Did you college education help you as a PCV?
Did my college education help me as a PCV? Well, it didn’t help me be a good English teacher, but my interest in other parts of the world determined what I studied in college and led me to the Peace Corps.
Since the Peace Corps, what have you done?
After leaving the Peace Corps I married a fellow Volunteer, and returned to the University of Michigan so my new husband could begin his studies in Persian literature. There I worked in the university library, studied Persian, earned my master of arts degree in library science, and became a mother.
I returned to Iran with my husband and daughter in 1970. While living in Tehran, I taught English (for a year I had a program on Iranian TV), and worked as librarian and editor for the International Institute for Adult Literacy Methods (a UNESCO-affiliated organization). When my family left Tehran in 1974 to return to Ann Arbor, we had added a son. Back in Ann Arbor, I worked as the resource center librarian and editor for the Program for Educational Opportunity, which dealt with integration and Title IX programs in Michigan’s public schools. The family moved to New York City in 1977.
New York City has been my home for almost forty years. It was here that my first husband and I divorced; it was here that I raised our two children; and it was here that I met and eventually married Richard Marks.
I spent most of my library career as the library director for the Huntington Free Library, a small private library in the Bronx that served as the library for New York’s Museum of the American Indian. Preserving the museum’s outstanding book and manuscript collection on the native peoples of the Americas was a primary focus. I was also determined that patrons visiting the library and those in its Bronx community learn about contemporary Native Americans. To this end, the library subscribed to more than 100 tribal newspapers and presented programs featuring Native Americans residing in the New York City area. I also edited Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, which won the 1995 Denali Press Award.
After leaving the world of specialized libraries, I curated an exhibition, “Vanished Worlds, Enduring People,” for Cornell University Libraries. It can be viewed online.
I needed something creative and different to fill my time and Iran and the Peace Corps regained my attention.
Iran, relatively unknown when I’d lived there, was splashed across the news cycles on a regular basis. Prisons, hangings, stonings — what had happened? I didn’t have the answers, but I knew my experience in Kerman was a small counterweight to all this negativity. With all the upsetting news emanating from revolutionary Iran, I was determined to write about my own experiences there. While I could write an impressive grant proposal, my creative skills were rusty.
I took a memoir course, “Memories from the Middle,” taught by the poet Veronica Golos that helped me begin Walled In, Walled Out. My first efforts debuted in 2011 when I participated in a writers group at the first reunion of Peace Corps/Iran Volunteers in Portland, Oregon. That led to my early involvement with Peace Corps Iran Association. I was one of PCIA’s original board members, and the first editor of its newsletter, KhabarNameh, roles I filled until 2016.
During the process of writing your memoir did you belong to a writers group and share reading and critiquing, or have any other way of bouncing off you writing and thinking?
A group of women from Veronica’s classes decided to hire her, and the Thursday morning writing group was born. That was more than ten years ago, Veronica now lives in Taos, and the group still meets. It’s been a very productive group. The first of our members published her book of short stories a year ago; my book is now out and about; the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish a third member’s work later this year.
We read to each other during our meetings, and provide copies for members to make notes. The suggestions are usually very helpful. I found that while I didn’t always accept the proposed alteration, knowing that a change was necessary was important. There was lots of rewriting. The writing group read this memoir from cover to cover twice, and reviewed parts of it even more frequently.
Tell us about your writing process.
I’ve been working on Walls for a long time; my writing process evolved, depending on the stage where I was. I tried to reserve the bulk of Mondays and Tuesdays to write — at my desk, staring at a wall, wearing whatever, a cup of tea nearby. I wrote on the computer. When I couldn’t get something right, I switched to pen and paper until it gelled. I kept notes in a notebook, and even, occasionally, remembered to look at them. Next to my desk are two thesauruses and Webster’s dictionary.
What are you doing to promote your book?
Promoting the book is my current challenge. I haven’t gone far beyond answering these questions, but I have good intentions: emails to colleagues, either a website or a blog, expanding my Amazon author page (though I’m really not sure that will help), a couple of book parties are planned. I have activated Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I’m attempting to get professional reviews in library journals, and hope that Library Journal (I was a frequent reviewer of books on Native Americans for them) will publish one. Others will not, as book jobbers, for reasons I don’t understand, do not carry titles with PCW ISBNs. My book will be reviewed in KhabarNameh, the newsletter of Peace Corps Iran Association. I own John Coyne’s book.
Recently I listened to a webinar presented by Frances Caballo and Howard VanEs on how to launch one’s book. I should have started this process years ago, according to them. I’ll continue to plug along with Peace Corps Writer’s suggestions and those of others.