To further fulfill its goals to encourage, recognize and promote Peace Corps writers, RPCV Writers & Readers, the newsletter that was the precursor of PeaceCorpsWriters.org and PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org, presented its first annual awards for outstanding writing in 1990. A total of 143 awards have been given since that time.
Winner of the 2017 Moritz Thomsen Award for Memoir
Walled In Walled Out
by Mary Dana Marks (Iran 1964–66)
Peace Corps Writers Books
Reviewed by John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67)
WALLED IN WALLED OUT IS A CAPTIVATING MEMOIR. The Kennedy-era idealism lured young Mary Beckett Marks into the Peace Corps to serve for two years in conservative Kerman, Iran. This sojourn forced the author to struggle to adjust to the Kermani culture and to mature many of the ideas that have guided her life since.
The memoir traces Mary’s emotional reaction to the culture, her feelings, frustrations and adjustments. During a low point at the end of her first year, Mary was so discouraged that she decided to request a transfer to another site. This opportunity passed without action because of a cholera quarantine. Reluctantly remaining in Kerman for her second year, the book outlines Mary’s increasing language skills and her greater comfort with the culture.
The author is clever with language and has some great stories to tell along with documenting her emotional journey. One story titled “My Elephant Thinks of India” lays out the limited remedies for homesickness in an era before modern telecommunications. There is another story about a cholera scare centered in Mary’s own apartment. In looking back, the situation seemed pretty comical and it’s told with her delightful wit.
Mary’s experience often centered around food. It was an everyday problem to obtain and prepare food. In the various solutions Mary continued to find humor. She tells of joining a cooking class since cooking was a main interest of her teaching colleagues and other middle-class Iranian women. Stretching her Farsi vocabulary, Mary wrote down the ingredients of the first dish until it dawned on her that the chef was not presenting a recipe for one of the delicious Persian dishes she had come to enjoy. The recipe was for Jello, from scratch, an exotic dessert for her Persian colleagues.
Among the more than twenty books about Iran written by returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Walled In Walled Out is not the first memoir, but it is the first by a woman. Mary refers to walls as symbols for both culture and the position of women. For the male PCVs in Iran, she provides insights that were blocked by those walls. I am most appreciative that she shared her delightful and perceptive story.
After her Peace Corps tour, Mary earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan. She then returned to Iran where she worked as librarian of the UNESCO-affiliated International Institute for Adult Literacy Methods in Tehran, and taught English as a second language. She and her family left Iran five years before its 1979 revolution. Mary has spent most of her career as library director for the Museum of the American Indian in New York. She is the editor of the award-winning Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Today she lives with her husband in New York City.
Reviewer John Krauskopf worked on the Peace Corps/Iran training staff from 1968 to 1969. He is the author of Iran – Stories from the Peace Corps