NEW ROCHELLE – When Peace Corps volunteers return from teaching English, fighting disease or designing irrigation systems, they have one more job to do: tell the story.
Volunteers are expected to share what they learned about the people and cultures they came to know during their two years abroad. Pelham resident John Coyne, an author, blogger and former volunteer in Ethiopia, has made it his mission to help them do so.
Coyne edits a busy website called Peace Corps Worldwide, where volunteers share their experiences through a network of blogs. The site grew out of a newsletter Coyne created with Marian Haley Beil in 1987 and a smaller website that launched in 1999. Peace Corps Worldwide launched four years ago, with Coyne as editor and Haley Beil as publisher.
There are more than 200,000 former Peace Corps volunteers, and they’ve produced a kind of subgenre of the travelogue. By living and working with people over the course of two years, volunteers come back with rich material.
“It’s a window onto these worlds that the majority of Americans would never have an opportunity to see,” said Coyne, who works as communications manager at the College of New Rochelle. He has written or edited more than 25 novels and non-fiction books. As a Peace Corps staff member in 1995, he edited three books of essays about volunteers’ experiences.
Among the writers who have served in the Peace Corps are novelists Paul Theroux and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, and magazine writers George Packer, Maureen Orth and Peter Hessler.
The problem is, not everyone knows how to put their experience into words. Some accounts might work as an oral history, Coyne said, but not as literature.
“You grab the reader by the throat,” he advised in a recent post. He doesn’t hold back in his online critiques, saying he wants to encourage high standards.
The website is independent of the Peace Corps itself,and invites discussion about controversies and politics involving the organization. It taps into a talkative community of ex-volunteers who have formed their own groups in places like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Coyne was among the first team of volunteers to serve in Ethiopia, in 1962. Though the corps’ mission hasn’t changed since then, its image has.
“It was a real gamble,” he said of the old perceptions. “We were stepping off the edge of the world, in a sense. Now, kids go to Europe in high school, by themselves.”
Former volunteers will be especially visible next year, when the Peace Corps marks its 50th anniversary. Events are being scheduled by groups across the country. Coyne is organizing a series of readings by former volunteers, and launching a new series of books in the coming weeks.
The first, by Gabon volunteer Bonnie Lee Black, is titled How to Cook a Crocodile.
from the Journal News written by Leah Rae