Kentucky RPCVs tell their tales

Over the last several years, authors Angene Wilson & Jack Wilson (Liberia 1962–64) interviewed Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Kentucky,  and this coming March, 2011, the University of Kentucky Press will publishvoices-p-c: Voices From The Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteerswith a Foreword by Senator Christopher Dodd (Dominican Republic 1966–68).

Recently I emailed Angene and Jack and asked them about their book and how it all came about. This is what they had to say.

Angene and Jack — why did you decide to do the book?

Actually we decided to do the interviews first.  In spring 2004 I — Angene — was retiring after 29 years as a professor at the University of Kentucky, and looking for a new project. Jack was already retired. Both Jack and I were Liberia I volunteers and he was staff in Sierra Leone and Washington and then Director in Fiji and both of us have been active RPCVs —

Jack & Angene Wilson

Jack & Angene Wilson

I on NPCA board for six years and writer for NPCA Global Ed newsletter for 12, and he, president of Kentucky RPCVs. I knew the head of the Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky — I’d been on his doctoral committee, knew they had interviewed Vietnam veterans, black ministers — so why not Peace Corps Volunteers? He said yes, gave us tape recorders, promised student workers would transcribe, and off-handedly suggested a book in their Oral History Series with University Press of Kentucky. So we began the Peace Corps Oral History Project and interviewed 86 returned Volunteers with Kentucky connections over the next four years — almost 200 hours of tapes. In 2007 we became serious about writing. We gave the original manuscript to the three editors of the series in February 2009 and they gave it to the Press about a year ago.

So why did we decide to do the book?  Quoting from the Preface: “As returned Peace Corps Volunteers ourselves, we wanted to add to readers’ knowledge not only of the Peace Corps’ beginning, but also of the fifty-year history of Peace Corps Volunteers and their enduring practical idealism and concern for people in other parts of the world. We wanted future researchers and the twenty-first century public, especially young people, to hear from returned Peace Corps Volunteers not only what it was like to be in Afghanistan or Armenia or Mali or Micronesia but also why young and older Americans decided to serve, what training was like, and what difference the experience made in their host countries and in their own lives when they returned home — in this case, to Kentucky.”

How did you get the university press interested?

The series editors were interested. It’s oral history! The new head of the Center thinks this Peace Corps Oral History Project should be a model for other states. He has gotten all these interviews, both transcripts and voice, online so they are available for researchers in the future. It’s fun to listen to the actual voices.

What was the hardest part of the project?

Selecting what to include, how to balance the decades, then ultimately having to cut 75 pages after the acquisition editor saw the heft of the manuscript. There was so much good stuff!  One reviewer wanted to cut the chapter Telling Stories. We said, “We can’t. That’s what Peace Corps Volunteers do!”

However, we didn’t want the book to be a series of individual memoirs as oral histories sometimes are. We organized the chapters with many voices as examples through the Peace Corps life cycle: Why We Went, Getting In, Training, Living, The Toughest. . ., Job You’ll Ever Love, Telling Stories, Friends Can Become Family, Coming Home, Making a Difference, Citizens of the World for the Rest of Our Lives. After early reviewers (sister and brother-in-law who were PCVs in Afghanistan) said you need some continuity of people, we did develop Six Volunteers in Five Decades at the beginning of each chapter to follow them through the whole cycle.  We also tried to deal with context and change over the five decades.

What surprised you the most in interviewing the RPCVs and collecting their stories?

Similarities and differences in Volunteer experiences over time. Example of similarity: personal impact of the experience. We ’60s folks sometimes think we had the “real” Peace Corps experience. In African countries 1990s and 2000s Volunteers lived much more simply than most ’60s Volunteers. Examples of differences: security concerns now and ease of communication now, though we knew this was the case. In the interviews some people were willing to reveal a lot about their experience, some weren’t. One older volunteer told his whole life history in four and a half hours. Some self-censored their personal experiences, with sex, for instance. Two younger people did interviews, but did not want them to go online.

What would you suggest to other RPCVs who might want to do a similar book?

Find an Oral History Center at a university who will work with you and be the repository. University of Kentucky folks have been absolutely wonderful, from Doug Boyd, now director, to the folks, including students, who work with him. We think Doug sees this collection as a model for other states.

Think through questions carefully. We looked at the Peace Corps experience as a whole life cycle. We used 12 interviews that another RPCV had done and they did not do that, they were focused on just the Peace Corps experience itself in the ’60s so they don’t include experiences before and after Peace Corps, and the impact, and the other 40 years. Interviewing is the easy, fun part. It is a lot of work to analyze, choose illustrative examples, make the writing flow — unless you just want to have one autobiography after another.

And there was a lot of transcribing, some done by student workers and some paid for by us, and then editing — by us — checking, for example, the spelling of village names in remote Morocco and beer brands in Cameroon and words in another language! And we not only read the transcripts, but listened to all the interviews, many while on a four-week trip west in Summer 2009, visiting friends, some of whom were RPCV friends. It’s been a great retirement project for the two of us, but it has taken almost seven years!

Our interviewsare online, both transcripts (which we edited) and voice — up through the ’80s now, and all will be up by the end of January — at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky.

Thank you Angene and Jack for this interview, but most of all, thank you for your years of hard work and for this wonderful book.

Well, we thank you for letting the Peace Corps world know about its publication.

To pre-order Voices From The Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.


Leave a comment
  • Congratulations any many, many thanks to the Wilsons and the University of Kentucky and all the RPCVs who participated! What a wonderful project and how much hard work it represents. It is precisely the voices of the Volunteers that are missing from the public records which have been perserved.

    The other voices which are missing from the public records are the voices of the people whom Peace Corps served. I feel obligated to note that.
    However, “Voices from the Peace Corps” should be an historic contribution and I can’t wait to read it.

  • One of our students has recently published his autobiography titled The Journey from the Village: A Liberian Life. His name is Alfred Boymah Zinnah Kennedy. It is on Amazon.

    You are right we do need to hear more voices from host countries.

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