If the Peace Corps did anything, it turned us into readers and we are better for it. But being a reader doesn’t make us writers. That’s the rub. Having a great (or not so great) Peace Corps experience doesn’t turn us into writers, either, though it might help when it comes to the story told. Being an English major doesn’t make one a writer, and it can even hurt an RPCV writer, having read (and then trying to write like) one of those great writers from lit classes.
What I’ve seen editing PeaceCorpsWriters are a lot of self-published books that have very limited value and aren’t well written. For example, some RPCVs think that they can collect all those letters home, slap them together, add a few grainy black-and-white-photos, and have a book. Rarely, are those Letters Home worth reading by anyone outside of the family.
The other Peace Corps genre, if you want to call it that, are journals kept and published as memoirs. You know, you really have to be a pretty good writer to make a book like that interesting. They have value as historical documents, and might someday be extremely useful to someone researching the Peace Corps, but seldom are they worth reading for enjoyment or information.
I can pick up a ‘Peace Corps book’ and know within two or three pages if the book is worth reading. It has to be, first of all, stylistically interesting. It needs interesting sentences, a new idea, and vivid descriptions. I need to sense that the writer is in control of his or her language and the story that they are telling.
For example here is an example of a good opening, written with vivid language: “It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when the train reached Awash station in the fierce African heat. The plain was white with dust. In the distance a few antelope and gazelle grazed on the dun-colored grass growing along the volcanic rock that littered the ballast bed. The steel rails shone like knives in the sunlight and bisected the plain as straight and true as a plumb line.”
This writing is something that cannot be taught. If you don’t have that gift, you can’t learn it.
That said, I have come across examples of self-published books about the Peace Corps that are fascinating in their simple narrative power. They prove the exception to the rule. One is a journal kept by a young Peace Corps doctor, Milt Kogan, in Ouagadougou, Upper Volta,(Burkina Faso) back in the early 70s. The other book is a collection of letters written home from Gemu Gofa, Ethiopia, by a young couple–Sue and Brad Coady–who spent the first three years of their married life in the remote southern region of the Empire. These letters were collected, edited, and self published by Irma Grigg, the woman’s mother, as a labor of love, as a gesture of pride in what her daughter and new son-in-law had achieved as PCVs in Southern Ethiopia.
I do know that there are letters home and journals kept that are tucked away in attics and basements and they need not to be published as much as they need to be saved for the next generation.
I urge anyone who has a collection of Peace Corps material to send it to the Kennedy Library where all the original documents from PCVs is being collected for future scholars. Make this your final Third Goal contribution to the agency; donate your letters and photos and papers to the library. Be part of the Peace Corps history.