Writers From the Peace Corps: The Lost Generation, Part Six

A New Frontier
Kennedy’s call to serve and his campaign theme of a “new frontier” appealed to the romantic impulse of many Volunteers. While social historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that our frontier was closed by the 1890s, America still responded to a hero, a lone hero against a corrupt world. This lone hero was dramatized during the 1950s in two classic western movies, “Shane” and “High Noon.” And like Alan Ladd in “Shane,” Peace Corps Volunteers still ride off into the sunset, saddlebags packed with idealism and a yearning for adventure, and the writers among them seek new experiences to write home about.

An edge and an itch
In my years of watching people join the Peace Corps, I have found that the most obvious PCV candidates are those who have an edge about them. They want more – whatever the more is – and are not satisfied with what America has to offer them here at home.

And the writers (and would-be writers) among these Volunteers go abroad because they want something to write about. The Peace Corps experience gives them that “something.”

We were all overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited us when we stepped off the plane. No one could have prepared a typical American for the ways of life in developing countries. But after the initial culture shock there was a richness of experience that the more talented writers could turn into vivid prose. It was raw material waiting to be shaped into books.

Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened to him. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material.

“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber . . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation – the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying – and the African kept translating – things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks – they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”

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