And the winner of the Best Memoir from Asia and The South Pacific Is . . .

The handful of Peace Corps countries on the ‘eastern rim’ has generated a number of books that rate at the top of any list of ‘good’ Peace Corps novels and memoirs. Right up there are books that deserve to be read again, including Roland Merullo’s (Micronesia 1979-81) novel, Leaving Losapas, and P.F. Kluge’s (Micronesia 1967-69) memoir The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia.

Many of you have read, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) and another member of the “China Gang,” Mike Meyer’s (China  1995-97) author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.

The Peace Corps goes back a long way in this region. The Philippines and Thailand were among the very first Peace Corps countries. From this region, Peace Corps writers have produced many historical books (maybe this is where all the smart PCVs were sent?) but these nations have not given us many novelists. (It could be the water.)

A few of the first class writers who served in Asia and the South Pacific are Jim Oliver (Philippines 1963-64); Ann Panning (Philippines 1988-90); Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967-69); poet Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73); Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69); John Givens (Korea 1967-69); Eric Lax (Micronesia 1966-68); David Richards (Micronesia 1971-73); Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971-73); Charlie Smith (Micronesia 1968-70); Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976-78).

There are more RPCV writers, I know, than the ones I have just listed.  A good number of travel writers have come out of this region. Mo Tejani (Thailand 1979-81) A Chameleon’s Tale, and Joe Cummings (Thailand 1977-79), who has written a number of Lonely Planet books. Also Ron Krannich and his wife Caryl Rae, RPCVs who ETed out of Thailand back in 1967, and who now have a small self-publishing business, printing everything from travel books to business/careers guides.

So, when everything is said and doneand you have stacked all of the RPCV books up on a crowded shelf, ask yourself: what is the best memoir of Asia?

What would you say?

rivertown-100The answer — as least as far as I am concerned — is: Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River.

Here is a memoir that reads like a novel, is full of information about the experience, and reading it , you come away knowing about the Peace Corps, the town on the Yangtze River, and best of all, knowing and coming to like, appreciate, and respect, Peter Hessler, as a writer and as a man.

What more could we ask from a Peace Corps Memoir?


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  • Unfortunately, other than Merullo and Kluge, I haven’t read any of these you list for Asia and Pacific. Kluge had a very atypical Peace Corps experience. I believe he spent most of his time on Capitol Hill in Saipan, working with the leaders of the then Trust Territory government. In the Edge of Paradise, he comes off a bit disdainful of outer island volunteers like myself for the way we lived with the people and often even adopted their clothing styles. He would have lived a very comfortable existence on Saipan. Still, I found the Edge of Paradise a very worth while read explaining much of what was going on in the upper echelon of Micronesian governing circles. But not very useful for understanding a more typical Peace Corps experience in Micronesia.

  • “Maybe this is where all the smart PCVs were sent”? What a ridiculous question! It has been proven with historical research of the most demanding kind that all the smart ones went to what used to be called ‘the far east.’ There is no question about it. Now, maybe having been NANEAP regional director colors my view but the facts speak for themselves!

  • John, thanks for mentioning my name. I just returned at the end of October from a Peace Corps reunion in Korea. The government of Korea is the first country to honor its Peace Corps Volunteers by asking them to come back for a six day visit. We paid our own way there and back, but Korea Foundation and the Korean government picked up the rest of the tab. I went early and spent three weeks in Korea and Japan, with my taking over three thousand pictures and writing several poems. Our group was the third to go over, and there should be more in the future. A new book was published just as we arrived called “Through our Eyes: the Peace Corps in Korea 1966-81.” One of my poems is in the book, and I believe that President Obama received a copy when he visited Korea and the American Ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, who had been a Volunteer in Korea and who is represented in the book. I believe poets can write a kind of memoir, too, but it probably won’t be a linear one. Our panel of Peace Corps poets at the South Atlanta Modern Language Association” annual Conference in November proved that with our presentations.

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