Review: The Peace Corps Latrine Reader
Americans Do Their Business Abroad
The Peace Corps Latrine Reader
(A collection of essays by RPCVs)
edited by Jake Fawson (Gabon 2000–02) and Steve McNutt (Gabon 2000–02)
Other Places Publishing
Reviewed by Travis Leger (East Timor (2005–06) reviews the our site.
I submitted to this book when Fawson and McNutt put out their request for stories. I had just returned from East Timor, though prematurely. We were the last group there before they evacuated the entire program. I submitted a story about our adopted dog when she was in heat and one of her lovers, Stubby. And since the editors didn’t choose it I am going to use this opportunity to publish it here:
We called the dog Stubby. I don’t even remember its real name. It was our neighbor’s and it barked at us incessantly. We had just moved into the house, a small, two-bedroom with palm-frond walls and a tin roof. We called it “The Perfect Peace Corps House.” It was simple. Something you imagine living in when you think about the Peace Corps.
Just kidding. But I did think it was funny that I was going to review this book after my piece didn’t make the cut.
Fawson and McNutt have done a good job. The two, who served together in Gabon from 2000 to 2002, explained their motives this way on the back cover:
“Americans Do Their Business Abroad is a collection of stories a little too goofy, a little too personal (and maybe a little too gross) to belong anywhere else.”
And according to the bios in the back this was Fawson’s idea and somehow he talked McNutt into helping him.
But because of their toil, their dream-come-true is a worthwhile collection of stories we all love to tell each other. RPCVs don’t hold back any details because they might be embarrassing. We all went through it so we are not afraid to be judged. Though I know not a one of these writers I have heard all of their stories – though in different settings and with changed names.
I’ll pick just a few to give you an idea. First, there’s a story by a Danial Adkinson who wrote about his adventures going to the loo in Gabon. He tends to drop things in it, important things that need retrieving. That’s on par with a fellow Volunteer of mine who never seemed to able to make it to the loo in time, so he had to make other clever arrangements.
Another story, this one by Tom Weller, goes through the very painful language classes we all go through. I, like Weller, was also one of the slow learners. Thank you, Tom, for putting me through it all again.
Richard Stitler writes about going walk-about in Jamaica with two fellow Volunteers. He goes looking for adventure and of course he finds it though not in the way he imagined. Haven’t we all wandered off and then realized it was a very, very bad idea?
The editors also contribute two of the better written stories, which I’ll leave the reader to discover.
Just as there are some of us who tell stories better than others, so it is here. While they are all worth reading you know when you’re in the presence of a good storyteller. This book is a mixed bag — and perhaps that’s one of its strengths. It’s just like the groups we served with, random collections of people from all different places who in the end share the same thing — they are crazy enough to give two years to the Peace Corps.
I read it over a few weeks, a few stories at a time, and I think it works best that way, in little chunks. Some made me go, “Hmm,” while others made me go, “Yup.” The good ones made me go, “Hey, that was pretty good.”
What I am trying to say is this is a decent little collection. As a returned Volunteer I’m stoked to see it. I’m glad they did this and I want to be clear that I think this is a great addition to the literature of the Corps. Where it lags is where we all lag. We’re not all word jockeys and renowned storytellers — we’re human. And as returned Volunteers I think we’re more likely to admit it.
Travis Leger served with his wife Rebekah in the last group in East Timor from 2005–06. They are now raising a beautiful daughter in New Orleans.
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As one of the book’s editor’s thanks for the review, Tim. Also, thanks for submitting your story. I’m sorry we couldn’t find room for it; such is the life of a writer.
Given my role, I can’t be expected to offer an objective review but think the project merits some additional comment so I encourage interested readers to read the reviews posted on Amazon where we’re selling the book. You’ll get a good mix of perspectives on what to expect– what one called “the other side of Peace Corps” and another (see below) calling it “actual literature.” I’m not sure about that, but who am I to argue?
Obviously, this book wasn’t possible without the talents and stories of our twenty writers who put tremendous effort into the book over an eighteen month period. For some, this was a first publication, for others it was another in a list, for one (“Finger Food”) it was a first publication, posthumously, for a writer who’d told this story for years around the kitchen table but never had a way to get it out into the wider world. (Submitted by his wife, she also sent a photograph of him astride a camel; you’ll see it on the back of the book.)
Despite the title, as the following reviewer notes (Tom Cooke, via Amazon) this book isn’t designed to be read in the water closet, so to speak —
“When I ordered this book, I was anticipating a compilation of amusing anecdotes from returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), and even considering some of my own to submit for Volume II. I figured that most would be a couple of paragraphs long – short enough for even an in-and-out bathroom break. I was surprised, then, to find actual short stories. And when I began to read the stories, I was even more surprised to find them to be actual literature. These were not jottings on flattened toilet paper tubes, or hasty transcriptions of funny stories told after a few beers with friends. These were stories by twenty authors who really could write. Already I was intrigued!
But with the longest of the stories running to fifteen pages, some of them were destined to leave rings impressed into my butt. I am not a fast reader. I truly enjoy the mechanics of writing, the choice of words, and their placement in order; and when I read, I do so conscious of the writer’s labors. So I read slowly, savoring the melody in the words in addition to the story they tell. Moreover, several of these stories include adventures with international sanitary facilities, typically outhouses. So I felt that reading in bed, comfortable, about latrines was warranted, and less likely to leave marks. These are actually accounts of twenty Peace Corps adventures.
But Americans Do Their Business Abroad has a much broader audience than RPCVs. Almost anyone will enjoy reading these stories. Many of them will make you laugh. (The newly-arrived American trapped in a collapsing outhouse with his pants around his ankles while his host family waits outside is just too funny to read about without taking a laugh break.) But not all of the stories involve bathrooms. They’re just all amusing stories to read, in a latrine or in bed. This would even be an ideal travel book, perfect for reading during odd intervals of time. The stories may be read in any order, fitting their varying lengths to the varying wait times encountered during travel. And don’t forget to read the short author biographies at the back, too – they enhance the delightful stories.”
Cooke fairly chastises us for a misspelling or two — apropos as self-published labors of love, like two years in some farflung locale, tend to get rough around the edges at times.