RPCVs are amazing people, and some are more amazing than others. Especially those who also write (sorry, I’m bias.)
Thanks to Greg Engle (Ethiopia CD 2012-14) for the ‘heads up’ about Patricia McArdle an RPCV who has had an amazing life and is an amazing writer. I found Patricia’s email address (thanks to the NPCA 2016 Peace Corps Community Directory) and contacted her in California. Patricia wrote back to tell me about her long career in the foreign service and how she came to be first published.
Patricia, right out of school, was a PCV health educator in Acahay, Paraguay (1972-74). She came home to join the U.S. Navy as an officer and went to Morocco from ’74 to ’77 where she was one of the first two female Naval Officers at a remote U.S. communications base.
Next she attended the Thunderbird School of Global Management, receiving her MBA, and then joined the Foreign Service in 1979. She retired twenty-seven years later after tours in South Africa, Barbados, France and Afghanistan. Since retirement, she has been promoting the use of solar cookers in the developing world and writing about her experiences in the developing world.
In 2010, Patricia entered her manuscript Farishta in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest.(Amazon no longer hosts this contest). It was a novel inspired by events that occurred during the year she spent in northern Afghanistan with a British Army unit.
Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest accepted 5,000 manuscripts in the General Fiction category and Patricia’s book won. She received a $15,000 advance and a publishing contract with Penguin/Riverhead. In June 2011, Farishta was released in hard cover and as an ebook. In 2012 the paperback version was released. Today an audio book is also available.
I asked Patricia about the book and how it came about. “I wrote Farishta, after returning from a year (2005) in northern Afghanistan as U.S. diplomatic/political advisor to a British Army infantry unit. With some of the young soldiers I went on a patrol and several soldiers were killed during attacks on our convoys.From that experience, I developed a mild case of PTSD. Writing the book helped me cope with that and with my ‘survivor’s guilt’. I had planned to self-publish Farishta and give copies to family and friends until an editor I know urged me to enter it in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Much to my surprise I won. In 2011, Farishta also won the San Diego Book award.”
The novel is set in 1983 and is about a junior diplomat and brilliant linguist Angela Morgan who witnessed the death of her young husband during the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut. Devastated by her loss, she fled back to Washington, DC, and hid in the backwaters of the US State Department. With the exception of a two-year tour of duty in the former Soviet Union in the late ’80s, she managed for almost two decades to avoid high-profile postings that would advance her career.
Now, with that career about to dead end and no true connections at home, she must take the one assignment available – at a remote British army outpost in Northern Afghanistan.
Unwelcome among the soldiers and unaccepted by the local government and warlords, Angela has to fight to earn the respect of her colleagues, especially the enigmatic Mark Davies, a British major who is by turns her staunchest ally and her fiercest critic.
Frustrated at her inability to contribute to the nation’s reconstruction, Angela slips out of camp disguised in a burka to provide aid to the refugees in the war-torn region. She becomes their farishta (“angel” in the local Dari language), discovers a new purpose for her life, and finds a way to finally put her grief behind her.
Drawing on the author’s own experiences as a diplomat in Northern Afghanistan, Farishta is a deeply moving and fast-paced story of a woman struggling to move beyond a past trauma who finds a new community, a new love, and a new sense of self in the process.
As one reviewer wrote, “Completely engrossing tale of a State Department linguist/diplomat assignment to war-torn Afghanistan. Based on a real-world experience, and filled with riveting, authentic detail, it is an unflinching look at the complex political and military aspects of civil war, as well as an intimate view into the personal lives of Afghans, soldiers and diplomats caught in its grip.”
Patricia has also published other fiction and non-fiction pieces about her various overseas experiences. When living in Acahay, Paraguay (a village with no electricity, no running water, one phone and no cars), she was asked by the PC/CD to host a young writer from New York. The woman was traveling around South America interviewing PCVs. She asked Patricia if she could read her journal and Patricia said yes. The young woman then copied (by hand) a character sketch Patricia had written of a young servant girl who lived with her host family. When the Ms reporter returned to New York, she shared it with the editors of Ms. Magazine. Six month’s later Patricia was asked by Ms. to write an article about the plight of women in Paraguay.
In 2008, she wrote a short story “The Roads Are Closing” which won the 2009 Foreign Service Journal’s Fiction award. This story is based on an event that occurred during her first year in the Peace Corps.
As Patricia explained to me, ‘After watching young Afghan children haul brush back to their villages to fuel their mothers’ cooking fires, she built and demonstrated solar cookers during her one year tour of duty in northern Afghanistan when she was diplomatic advisor to a British army infantry unit.
Returning to the U.S. she began to writing about and promote the use of solar cookers. She has also demonstrated these zero emission cooking devices in Nepal, India, Chad, Morocco, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, and Washington, D.C. and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She has also served on the boards of directors of two solar cooking organizations and was the editor of the Solar Cooker Review from 2012-14. She also wrote the solar cooking section of the Peace Corps Improved Cookstoves Handbook. Her You Tube channel Solarwindmama includes more than twenty videos on the use of solar cooking technology around the world.