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 make us writers either, though it might help when it comes to telling stories late at night in some bar. Being an English major doesn’t make one a writer, and it can even hurt a PCV writer, having read (and then trying to write like) one of those great writers from lit classes.
Then there is the problem of too many books being published. In 2008, there were 45,000 novels published, up 17% from 2007. Altogether, there were 311,000 new titles and editions published in 2007. Add that number to all those POD books (print-on-demand) books that anyone can get published for a few hundred dollars and who has dreams of being an “author.”
What I see at Peace Corps Writers 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.
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 be of interest to anyone beyond your immediate family. They do have value as historical documents, and might someday be extremely useful to someone researching the Peace Corps, but seldom are they worth reading for language or literature.
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, new ideas, and vivid descriptions. I need to sense that the writer is in control of his or her language and in control of the story being told.
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 was a journal kept by a young Peace Corps doctor, Milt Kogan, in Ouagadougou, Upper Volta,(Burkina Faso) back in the early ’70s called Diary of Ouagadougou Doc. 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 with the title Three Years in Gemu Gofa 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 Super Vols in Southern Ethiopia. (A copy of the book is selling on Amazon for $450.)
Both books came to me by chance and, I know, that out there in attics and basements, forgotten in back rooms of local libraries and small museums, are more tales by Peace Corps Volunteers or staff, all of them small treasures that someday, I hope, will find an audience. But if not, if they are read just by the sons and daughters and grandchildren, well then, we’ll teaching our own about the Peace Corps years before these children were only dreams in their mothers’ eyes.