[At the Library of Congress Luncheon I gave this short talk to explain why Peace Corps writers are important to America. I have been asked to republish it by many people (well, actually only two) who attended the luncheon that was held in the members room at the Library. Those of you who follow this site may have read various versions of this talk that I have published in blogs over the years. Anyway, here it is in full!]

Writers From The Peace Corps 

One of the most important books of the late 1950 was The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The book’s hero was a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, building bridges. He was called the “ugly American” only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lived and worked with the local people and, by the end of the novel, was beloved and admired by them.

The bitter message of the novel, however, was that Americans diplomats were, by and large, neither competent nor effective, and the implication was that the more the United States relied on them, the more its influence would wane. The book was published in July 1958. It was a Book-of-the-Month selection in October; by November it had gone through twenty printings. It was so influential that the cover of later paperback editions proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”

And that is true enough.

But for Peace Corps writers the connection to books and literature goes further back in time. It goes back to the 1920s; it goes back to Paris, France; it goes back to the Lost Generation.

After The Lost Generation

In the 1920s Ernest Hemingway took the phrase “the lost generation,” coined by his friend Gertrude Stein, and used it in The Sun Also Rises, his novel of Paris that described the novelists, poets, artists, and intellectuals who rejected the values of post World War I America and moved to Europe.

These Americans relocated to France where living was inexpensive and where they quickly adopted a bohemian lifestyle of excessive living and messy love affairs, all the while creating some of the finest literature ever written. You might have seen lately how Woody Allen used those years and those characters in his romantic comedy Midnight in Paris.

Subsequent generations — from the Beats of the 1950s to Generation Xers in the 1990s — have produced artists who have in some way had the same reputation for hedonism and headiness as did those expatriates in Paris.

Well, for the last fifty years, Peace Corps writers have built an equally important and impressive literary movement–perhaps without the messy love affairs.

These modern expatriates with true grit, Peace Corps writers, have produced novels, poetry, travel books and memoirs that today can rightfully claim their own space on America’s literary book shelf.

A Literary Bridge

As readers we envision places and events in the world through the eyes of the artists and writers who depict them - a striking sunset on canvas; a moving musical movement; a page of colorful prose. So it is with Ernest Hemingway’s bittersweet perspective on Paris in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, two books published decades apart that caught a moment in time and captured it forever in words.

For nearly ­­­100 years, countless travelers, students, and aspiring writers who have yearned to experience their own version of the City of Light have relied on Hemingway’s descriptions to give them a sense of what life was like in Paris in the Twenties.

Other literary giants were part of that Lost Generation: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, John Peale Bishop, Kay Boyle, e.e.cummings,  Paul Bowles and many, many more.

So, how do I make a connection - a literary bridge - between the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s and over one thousand Peace Corps writers who have written about life in more than 140 Peace Corps countries over the past fifty years?

I do it this way.

Peace Corps writers are like their predecessors in two important ways.

Both groups wrote about a country in which they lived as expatriates, and explained the place to an American audience. Hemingway wrote of Paris and Spain; Mark Brazaitis writes of Guatemala; Hemingway wrote of big game hunting in East Africa and Norm Rush writes of white racists in Southern Africa; Fitzgerald wrote of wealthy, bored Americans on the French Riviera; and Simone Zelitch writes of survivors of the Holocaust leaving Hungary for Haifa.

Paul Theroux writes of Indians in Kenya in his first novel set in Africa; Richard Wiley of Korea and Koreans; P. F. Kluge writes of islands in the sun in the Pacific; and Mark Jacobs, who was a Volunteer in Paraguay and a foreign service officer in his Peace Corps country as well as in Turkey and Spain, has written about these places, and more.

Both groups are award-winning writers. A partial list of Peace Corps awardees includes Bob Schacochis, who was a PCV in the Eastern Caribbean and won the National Book Award in 1985; Kathleen Coskran was a PCV in Ethiopia, and won the Minnesota Voices Prize in 1985 for her collection of fiction; Shay Youngblood won both the Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award; Melanie Sumner and Marnie Mueller both won the Whiting Award from their fiction about service in the Peace Corps. Norm Rush won the National Book Award for his stories set in Botswana. Ann Neelon won the 1995 Anhinga Prize for poems written about West Africa. And add to that list such wonderful writers as our guest speaker, Sarah Erdman; Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong; Peter Hessler and George Packer for these books on China and Mali and their reporting in The New Yorker. The list goes on and on.

Let me mention a few authors who are in the room today. Mike Tidwell, who wrote a book about Zaire, The Ponds of Kalambayi. Sargent Shriver told me that it was the best book he had ever read on the Peace Corps. Larry Leamer was in Nepal and told the story of his famous early Country Director, Willi Unsoeld. Tony D’Souza lived through a bloody coup in the Ivory Coast and turned that experience into his novel,Whiteman. In much the same way, Jan Worth-Nelson, out in Tonga, wrote Night Blind, about a real-life murder of a PCV.

I would be remiss if I did not add to this list four books of stories, collected and edited by Jane Albritton and her talented group of RPCV editors. These books are 50 years of Peace Corps stories and an amazing addition to Peace Corps literature.

An Edge And An Itch

In my years of watching people join the Peace Corps, I have found that the most obvious PCV candidates are those who have an itch about them. They want more - whatever the “more” is - and are not satisfied with what America has to offer them here at home.

The writers among these Volunteers go into the Third World also because they want something ‘new’ to write about.

And they are, as all of us were, overwhelmed by the experience of these new cultures that awaited them. No one can prepare a typical middle class American for the life in developing countries.

But after the initial culture shock there is a richness of experience that the more talented turn into vivid prose. It is raw material waiting to be shaped into books.

Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material for his novels and travel books by being a PCV in Southern Africa.

“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. 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,’ Paul wrote. “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.”

By writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, Paul Theroux and all of you have broadened the landscape of American readers, introducing new countries and new ideas about those cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of the world for Americans back home.

Poetry in the Peace Corps

This intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way also into poetry. Poet Ann Neelon, who is here today, sums up her experience in Senegal with one word, “foreignness.”

“Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility,” she writes. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience. “In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition of West Africancaches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after losing myself could I find myself as a writer.”

As Others See The Peace Corps

In September 2001, on the 40th anniversary of the agency, The Washington Post  reported that the Peace Corps community is “churning out enough works - thousands of memoirs, novels, and books of poetry - to warrant a whole new genre: Peace Corps Literature.”

In November of that same year in an issue of Journal of Adult Literacy a reviewer from Penn State University wrote about a collection of stories, Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, saying:  

“None of the contributors are protagonists in their chapters, but each chapter is based on some event that the writer witnessed, experienced, or heard about. By telling the stories, the contributors seem to reconsider their experiences overseas and enable readers to consider (or perhaps reconsider) U.S. actions in the developing world. Those actions can serve as a metaphor for readers’ experiences with human and cultural differences. In this way, the book offers a triple treat. Readers learn a little about parts of the world they may never see for themselves, they are entertained by a good yarn, and they can learn about themselves as well.”

Travel Now, Write Later

Anyone who has read The Sun Also Rises knows that this novel is also a wonderful travel book. Hemingway’s description of a bus trip to Spain is classic travel prose: A trip in Spain in the 1920s by Hemingway is something most Volunteers can identify with today from their own overseas experiences.

Paul Theroux, it is generally agreed, reinvented the art of travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaarpublished in 1975. He returned the genre to the place it held when Mary Kingsley and Evelyn Waugh were crossing Africa and globe-trotting the world. Many Peace Corps writers have followed, most notably Mike Tidwell, Thurston Clarke, Geraldine Kennedy, P.F. Kluge, Jeffrey Tayler, Karen Muller, among many, many others.

The Peace Corps Memoir

However, the most notable literary benefits are the memoirs that have come out of the Peace Corps. The list is long and worthy, beginning with such early accounts of life overseas as To The Peace Corps With Love, by Arnold Zeitlin; An African Season by Leonard Levitt; The Barrios of Manta, written by Rhoda & Earle Brooks, and Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen. They are wonderful books. And wonderful books continue to be written today by PCVs, most recently Matthew Davis’ When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale that just won the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Writers Experience Award, and Peter Hessler–our recent MacArthur genius award winner–for his books on China. 

Expatriates And Exiles

Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective, even a new vocabulary, as Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. “As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, that’s what I learned.”

The late novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, “It was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.”

Novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience “bring the outsider’s perspective, which we’ve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, it’s something we can’t not do.”

Bob Shacochis characterizes Peace Corps writers as “torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature.”

Myth And Mythology

Finally we come back to Gertrude Stein’s famous comment to Hemingway. “You are all a lost generation,” she told him. The story is that Stein had heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics and their poor repair skills, telling Stein that they were a lost generation.

All Gertrude Stein wanted was competent mechanics to repair her car but Hemingway seized the expression, as any good writer might, and identified a literary movement. In one phrase he captured the mood of his generation.

See what a writer can do with one good line?

In fifty years of living on the edge, Peace Corps writers have found new experiences, new languages and new ways to tell their tales. They have–all of you have–an understanding of other societies that very few Americans will ever know. In your writing you are telling stories of cultures with understanding, compassion, and insight.

And in doing so, by sharing your stories of faraway lands with the people back home, you are educating America.

Because of you–Peace Corps Writers–we are no longer the ugly American to the rest of the world.