The first panel discussion I had for and about Peace Corps Writers was held in September 1986 under a huge tent on the Mall in Washington, D.C. at the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. That was twenty-eight years ago.
At the time we had several dozen RPCV writers who had established international reputations with their writings. Among them were Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) who by that summer of ’86 had already published 20 books, including Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975. This book “reinvented” travel writing. In 1986 Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) published Soldiers in Hiding, winner of that year’s PEN/Faulkner Award; Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) first collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, won the ’86 National Book Award for First Fiction. His second collection, The Next New World, was awarded the Prix de Rome from the Academy of Arts and Letters; Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67) won the Minnesota Book Award for her collection of stories, The High Price of Everything; P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69) who wrote the WSJ article that became the film, “Dog Day Afternoon” would go onto write Eddie and the Cruisers that was also turned into a film. He is as well the author of a number of novels set in the Pacific Islands where he was a PCV. Mildred D. Taylor (Ethiopia 1965-67) author of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, had already won the 1977 Newberry Award.
The list is long of early successful RPCV writers: Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1965-67) Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Willi Unsoeld; Peggy Anderson (Togo 1962-64) Nurse; Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 1971-73)Come To Africa And Save Your Marriage and Other Stories; Ron Arias (Peru 1963-65) The Road To Tamazunchale; Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67) The Book of Phoebe; Ed Smith (Ghana 1962-64) Where To, Black Man; George Packer (Togo 1982-83) The Village of Waiting; John Givens (Korea 1967-69) Sons of the Pioneers; Kent Haruf (Turkey 1965-67) The Tie That Binds; Philip Margolin (Liberia 1966-67) The Last Innocent Man; Paul Cowan (Ecuador 1966-67) The Making of an Un-American; Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) Death Trick; Leonard Levitt (Tanzania 1963-65) An African Season; Bill Barich (Nigeria 1964-66) Laughing in the Hills; Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 1961-63) The Vampire Tapestry; Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) The Last Caravan; Mark Dintenfass (Ethiopia 1964-66) Make Yourself an Earthquake; Eileen Drew (Zaire 1979-81) BlueTaxis: Stories About Africa; Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967-69) Greenwich Killing Time; Eric Lax (Micronesia 1966-68) On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy. Etc.
As for myself! Well, by the fall of 1986 and the NPCA Conference, I had only published seven novels and not won any prizes! So I decided that if I couldn’t beat out other RPCV writers, well, I’d write about them!
Through the creative design genius of Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) we established a quarterly newsletter RPCV Writers and Readers to track Peace Corps writers, review their books, and do a running commentary on successes and foibles of the Peace Corps. (Like all PCVs we had a lot to say.)
In July 1999 we morphed into a website, www.Peace Corps Writers.org and from there onto this ‘bigger’ site with other bloggers. We were hoping to create a “community of commentary” on books, international and Peace Corps issues, and how we were living our lives here and overseas.
To a limited degree we had some success.
As “self-publishing” became the new norm for publishing, as writers dismissed the gate-keeper editors and went out on their own to produce their own books, as well as, e-books, we decided to help “our” authors. Marian established our imprint: Peace Corps Books.
From the start, Marian and I have seen our efforts as a Third Goal Project. We finance the site and the awards for best books each year; we pay all the expenses. We do not make any money from the books that are produced under our imprint. All royalties go to the authors.
Occasionally Marian has received a “surprise” contribution from an RPCV, and we are thrilled and thankful to add that money to our small kitty.
We do all this because we believe that the books written by RPCVs are the best way to tell the Peace Corps story. In time, these books will be the only history of the movement in America called “The Peace Corps.” These books, and other writings, will capture a moment in time, not only for the PCVs, but also for nations where we served. Already, we have seen great changes and development in many places (i.e. Korea) but there is, thanks to the writings of RPCVs, some stories of how these countries once were on the way towards development, and where we made small contributions with our two years of volunteering.
Now it is time, to remember why we joined the Peace Corps in the first place, and to pass the torch to a new generation.
I have decided to quit writing about Peace Corps writers and their books. Marian, however, will continue to manage the Peace Corps Writers imprint. Thank you, Marian.
As for www.peacecorpsworldwide.org its future is in the hands of Marian.
I am happy to report that Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala 1988-91), President of the NPCA, has agreed to fold RPCV book reviews and book awards into the NPCA’s publications and website. More information will be coming from Glenn and Marian in the near future. Meanwhile, I’ll see that the awards for the best books published in 2013 are selected and announced this August.
As for myself. I have a novel coming out later this month, Long Ago And Far Away. It is my first one that focuses on the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. I am also several hundred pages into a novel that has absolutely nothing to do with the agency. And I’m leaving for my favorite island, Menorca, in the early fall to do some travel writing and I should add, (as most indicted politicians would say about this time)…..”I want to spend more time with my family.”
Thank you for your support over these last 28 years.