This is the first of a series of four essays on writers from the Peace Corps that will appear in World View magazine.
WorldView ∙ Spring 2015 ∙ National Peace Corps Association
WRITERS FROM THE PEACE CORPS
An unheralded literary movement
By John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
One of the most important books of the late 1950s was The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The book’s hero was a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, building bridges. He was called the “ugly American” only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lived and worked with the local people and, by the end of the novel, was beloved and admired by them.
The bitter message of the novel, however, was that American diplomats were, by and large, neither competent nor effective; and the implication was that the more the United States relied on them, the more its influence would wane. The book was published in July 1958. It was a Book-of-the-Month selection in October; by November it had gone through twenty printings.
Attracted to the ideas expressed in the novel, by January 1959 Senator John F. Kennedy had sent The Ugly American to every member of the U.S. Senate. The ideas expressed in the book about our government’s inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech presidential candidate Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. In this final campaign speech Kennedy called for the establishment of a “Peace Corps” using the term for the first time.
The book and its message were so influential that in later paperback editions the cover proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”
And that is true enough. However, for Peace Corps writers the connection to books and literature goes further back in time. It goes back to the 1920s; it goes back to Paris, France; it goes back to the Lost Generation.
The Lost Generation
In the 1920s Ernest Hemingway took the phrase “the lost generation” coined by his friend Gertrude Stein and used it in The Sun Also Rises, his novel of Paris that described the novelists, poets, artists, and intellectuals who rejected the values of post-World War I America.
These American writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, John Peale Bishop, Kay Boyle, e.e.cummings, and Paul Bowles, among others, relocated to France where they quickly adopted a bohemian lifestyle of excessive living and messy love affairs, all the while creating some of the finest literature ever written.
For the last fifty-plus years Peace Corps writers serving in developing countries around the world have built an equally important and impressive literary movement.
A Literary Bridge
So, how do I make a connection-a literary bridge-between the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s and over 1,500 Peace Corps writers who have written about life in more than 140 Peace Corps countries?
I do it this way.
By writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, Peace Corps writers have broadened the landscape of American readers, introducing new countries and new ideas about those countries’ cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of Europe for Americans back home.
Hemingway wrote of Paris and Spain; Mark Brazaitis writes of Guatemala; Hemingway wrote of big game hunting in East Africa and Norm Rush writes of white racists in Southern Africa; Fitzgerald wrote of wealthy, bored Americans on the French Riviera and Simone Zelitch writes of survivors of the Holocaust leaving Hungary for Haifa.
Paul Theroux wrote of Indians in Kenya in his first novel set in Africa; Richard Wiley of Korea and Koreans; P. F. Kluge writes of islands in the sun in the Pacific; and Mark Jacobs, who was a Volunteer in Paraguay and a foreign service officer in his Peace Corps country as well as Turkey and Spain, has written about these places, and more.
Like the Paris author, Peace Corps writers are award-winners. A partial list of Peace Corps awardees includes Bob Schacochis, who was a PCV in the Eastern Caribbean and won the National Book Award in 1985; Kathleen Coskran, was a PCV in Ethiopia, and won the Minnesota Voices Prize in 1985 for her collection of fiction; Shay Youngblood won both the Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award; Melanie Sumner and Marnie Mueller both won the Whiting Award for their fiction about serving in the Peace Corps, and Mike Meyer received the Whiting Award for his nonfiction book on China. Norm Rush won the National Book Award for his stories set in Botswana. Ann Neelon won the 1995 Anhinga Prize for poems written about West Africa. And add to that list such wonderful writers as Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Dick Lipez, Sarah Erdman, Kent Haruf, Cynthia Phoel, Lenore Myka, Cliff Garstang, and Peter Hessler and George Packer for their books on China and Mali and their reporting in The New Yorker. The list goes on and on.
Poetry in the Peace Corps
This intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) a deep well of sentiment that has also found its way into poetry. Poet Ann Neelon summed up her experience in Senegal with one word, “foreignness.”
“Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility,” she writes. “Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience.”
She goes onto say: “In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition of West Africa, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after losing myself could I find myself as a writer.”
Travel Now, Write Later
Anyone who has read The Sun Also Rises knows that this novel is also a wonderful travel book. Hemingway’s description of a bus trip to Spain is classic travel prose: A trip in Spain in the 1920s by Hemingway is something most Volunteers can identify with today from their own overseas experiences.
Paul Theroux, it is generally agreed, reinvented the art of travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975. He returned the genre to the place it held when Mary Kingsley and Evelyn Waugh were crossing Africa and globe-trotting the world. Many Peace Corps writers have followed, most notably Karen Larsen, David Taylor, Josh Berman, Don Gayton, and Jeffrey Tayler.
Expatriates And Exiles
Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective, even a new vocabulary, as Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. “As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality around, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, that’s what I learned.
“The late novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, “it was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.
“Novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience “bring the outsider’s perspective, which we’ve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, it’s something we can’t not do.”
Bob Shacochis characterizes Peace Corps writers as “torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Gertrude Stein, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature.”
Myth And Mythology
Peace Corps Writers have had fifty plus years of living on the edge of the world, learning new languages, having new experiences, and telling stories in prose and poetry of other societies with understanding, compassion, and insight. In doing so, Peace Corps writers have educated Americans and helped to erase the image of all of us as “ugly Americans” in the developing world.
Novelist John Coyne is the editor of five collections of Peace Corps writings, and is the co-founder with Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-1964) of Peace Corps Writers. He was also an APCD in Ethiopia and manager of the New York Peace Corps Office. His website is www.johncoynebooks.com.