by Jane Albritton (India 1967-69)
Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988-90) has died. His life had many chapters in it, including owner of the bookstore/café Shakespeare’s Sister; Fulbright Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; cultural studies scholar and professor of English at New York City College of Technology; and Peace Corps Volunteer.
There will be others who will memorialize Aaron’s life as a mentor, writer, and professor. What I want to recount here is how Aaron Barlow saved my bacon as I tried to navigate the narrows of publishing the four books in the Peace Corps at 50 Story Project.
Begun in 2007 for the 2011 50th Anniversary, the story project seemed to me a slam dunk for publication. What house would not want a ready audience of 200,000 RPCVs? Zero, as it turned out, until Traveler’s Tales agreed to publish the work. By that time, I had 4 editors in place and a final surge of stories arriving at the website daily. Then my Africa editor decamped, leaving me with a box of manuscripts and correspondence. OK. Now what? I didn’t know what made a revealing/wonderful/heartbreaking/hilarious Africa story. That was the point of having editors with insider knowledge shepherd the stories from their respective regions. Damn (or words to that effect).
Enter Arron. I knew his name because I had read his splendid story about a near-death encounter with an elephant in Togo. His email popped up on the Africa book email I now juggled with the rest of the project details. It said in part: “Just checking in. Is there some way I can help?” Aaron had just finished up the manuscript for his book on Quentin Tarantino and had some time in his teaching schedule.
To this day, I can only imagine that some robust burst of positive energy from the African continent blew Aaron my way. Not only was he an RPCV, he was an accomplished editor whose sensibilities matched my own. It was all about the stories, with a goal to capture the heart of the Peace Corps experience as fully as possible. When my publishing guru advised us to cut the length of the Africa collection by 100 pages for the very practical reason that fat books cost more to ship, Aaron argued that there was not a single story he could think of to cut. I agreed. Hang the expense. Gulp. In the end, the print version of the Africa Volume (One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo) sold out. The only one of the set to do so.
In 2011, Aaron’s volume won the Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal in the Travel Essay category. With the other books in the series, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo received a Commendation on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps from United States House of Representatives, 2011. And with all the editors, he shared the Peace Corps Collection Award (2011).
After the Africa book went to press, Aaron continued to help me finish up my own volume, the last in the series. The one that arrived in my hotel in DC the day before the luncheon in September 2011 at the Library of Congress (compliments of the wizarding ways of John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil). That I had the full set of Peace Corps at 50 books to put on the celebratory exhibit table featuring Peace Corps books remains part of my debt to Aaron Barlow for his generous help.
Here is a bit of what Aaron has to say in the introduction to One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (a proverb from sub-Saharan Africa regarding the necessity for cooperation):
For the better part of a year, I’ve lived with the essays, going through them, sorting them, cutting them down so they could all fit in this volume. They’ve provided me with recognition, with joy, sadness, hope, disillusionment, and memory. They’ve taught me. They’ve re-opened a world I long ago left behind and helped me understand the nature of the Peace Corps beyond my own small experience. Ultimately, they have convinced me that, whatever its legacy in development, the Peace Corps will always be known worldwide as one of the United States’ most significant contributions to humankind.
For the better part of a year, Aaron freely gave the story project his care and attention. Such a gift, and not from him alone I know. So I shouldn’t end this tribute without thanking Aaron’s wife Jan Stern for co-signing the loan of her husband’s time to the Peace Corps at 50 story project. Thank you.
Shabash, Aaron. Well done.
Jane Albritton (India 1967-69), an award-winning journalist, is president of Tiger Enterprises Writing Consultants. She is the creator editor of four books of Peace Corps stories published in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.