Writers From The Peace Corps Workshop
On Wednesday, September 21, 2016, Marian Haley Beil and I spoke to RPCVs attending the opening Workshops of the National Peace Corps Association Conference in Washington, D.C. Publisher Marian Beil’s Workshop was on the mechanics of self-publishing a book and I spoke about writing a Peace Corps memoir, novel, or collection of stories. Here are my comments to approximately 100 RPCVs who attend our sessions. I focused first on the history of Peace Corps books and their importance to American literature and then I had suggestions on how one might write their book. John Coyne, Editor
Writers From The Peace Corps
One of the most important books of the late 1950 was The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The book’s hero was a skilled technician committed to helping in developing countries 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 sweet message of the novel, however, was that Americans 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. It was so influential that in later paperback editions its cover proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”
And that is true enough.
But for Peace Corps writers the connection to books and literature and expatriate lives goes further back in time. It goes back to the 1920s; it goes back to Paris, France; it goes back to the Lost Generation.
After The Lost Generation
In the 1920s Ernest Hemingway took the phrase “the lost generation,” said 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 and moved to Europe.
These Americans relocated to France where living was inexpensive and 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. You can read all about it in the recently published Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises written by Lesley Blume.
Subsequent generations — from the Beats of the 1950s to the Counterculture of the 1960s– have produced artists who have in some ways had the same reputation for hedonism and headiness at did those expatriates in Paris.
Well, for the last fifty-five years, Peace Corps writers have built an equally important and impressive literary movement–perhaps without the messy love affairs….well, I’m not so sure about that.
These modern expatriates with true grit, Peace Corps writers, have produced novels, poetry, travel books and memoirs that today can rightfully claim their own space on America’s literary book shelf.
A Literary Bridge
As readers we envision places and events in the world through the eyes of the artists and writers who depict them – a striking sunset on canvas; a moving musical movement; or colorful prose. So it is with Ernest Hemingway’s bittersweet perspectives on Paris in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, two books published decades apart that caught a moment in time and captured it forever in prose.
For nearly 100 years, countless travelers, students, and aspiring writers, who have yearned to experience their own version of the City of Light, have relied on Hemingway descriptions to gain a sense of what life was like in Paris in the Twenties.
Other literary giants were part of that Lost Generation: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, John Peale Bishop, Kay Boyle, e.e.cummings, Paul Bowles and many, many more.
So, how do I make a connection – a literary bridge – between the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s and the hundreds of Peace Corps writers who have written about life in more than 140 Peace Corps countries over the past fifty-five years?
I do it this way.
Peace Corps writers are like their predecessors, in two important ways.
Both groups wrote about, and explained to an American audience, another country as expatriates. Hemingway wrote of Paris and Spain; Mark Brazaitis writes of Guatemala; Hemingway wrote of big game hunting in East Africa and Lenore Myka writes of gypsies in Romania; 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 writes 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 Eleanor Stanford writes of life in Cape Verde where she served as a Volunteer.
Both groups are award-winning writers. 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 from their fiction about service in the Peace Corps. 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 Sarah Erhman, the late Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong; Peter Hessler and George Packer for these books on China and Mali and their reporting in The New Yorker. Mark Jacobs served in Paraguay and has written novels and short stories set in Latin America, Turkey and Spain where he was a Foreign Service Office. That list goes on and on.
Let me mention a few more authors. Mike Tidwell, and his book on Zaire, The Ponds of Kalambayi. Sargeant Shriver told me that it was the best book he had ever read on the Peace Corps. Larry Leamer was in Nepal and told the story of his famous early Country Director, Willi Unsoeld. Tony D’Souza lived through a bloody coup in the Ivory Coast and turned that experience into his novel, Whiteman. In much the same way, Jan Worth-Nelson wrote Night Blind, about a real-life murder in the early 70s of a PCV in Tonga. That murder was the subject of a documentary that aired last month on the Discovery Channel.
There is John Ashford’s book on the Bushmen of Botswana where he was a PCV. Also in Southern Africa there is Greg Alder’s book on his tour as a secondary school teacher in Lesotho entitled, The Mountain School. From Latin America, among many other Peace Corps books, we have the novel Baker Boy by Barry Kitterman who served in Belize.
I would be remiss if I did not add to this list four books of stories, collected and edited by Jane Albritton and her talented group of RPCV editors. These books are 50 years of Peace Corps stories and an amazing addition to Peace Corps literature.
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 itch 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 among these Volunteers go into the Third World also because they want something ‘new’ to write about.
Once overseas they are–as all of us were–overwhelmed by the experience of these new cultures that awaited them. No one can prepare a typical American for the life in developing countries.
But after the initial culture shock there is a richness of experience that the more talented turn into vivid prose. It is raw material waiting to be shaped into books.
Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material for his novels and travel books from being a PCV in Southern Africa.
“I remember a particular day in Mozambique,” he writes, “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,’ Paul wrote. “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.”
Writing From Experience
By writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, Paul Theroux and all Peace Corps writers have broadened the landscape of American readers, introducing new countries and new ideas about those cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of the world for Americans back home.
Poetry in the Peace Corps
This intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way also into poetry. Poet Ann Neelon sums 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. In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition of West African, 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.”
The ranks of the Peace Corps are full of poets. Besides Ann Neelon, (Senegal) there is Mark Brazaiitis (Guatemala ), Matt Hamilton (Armenia), Edward Mycue (Ghana); Phil Dacey (Nigeria), Mary Ellen Branan (Poland), John Michael Flynn (Moldova). And that’s is only a handful of many PCVs who have written about their experiences through poetry.
As Others See The Peace Corps
In September 2001, on the 40th anniversary of the agency, The Washington Post reported that the Peace Corps community is “churning out enough works – thousands of memoirs, novels, and books of poetry – to warrant a whole new genre: Peace Corps Literature.”
In November of that same year in an issue of Journal of Adult Literacy a reviewer from Penn State University wrote about a collection of stories I edited, Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, saying:
“None of the contributors are protagonists in their chapters, but each chapter is based on some event that the writer witnessed, experienced, or heard about. By telling the stories, the contributors seem to reconsider their experiences overseas and enable readers to consider (or perhaps reconsider) U.S. actions in the developing world. Those actions can serve as a metaphor for readers’ experiences with human and cultural differences. In this way, the book offers a triple treat. Readers learn a little about parts of the world they may never see for themselves, they are entertained by a good yarn, and they can learn about themselves as well.”
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, however, most Volunteers can identify with today from their own overseas experiences. But come to think about it, there were no chickens or goats on Hemingway’s bus back in Spain in the Twenties.
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 Mike Tidwell, Thurston Clarke, Geraldine Kennedy, Jeffrey Tayler, Karen Muller, and certainly not least Josh Berman who this year won our Peace Corps Writers Travel Award for his book Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon.
The Peace Corps Memoir
However, the most notable literary benefits are the memoirs that have come out of the Peace Corps. The list is long and worthy, beginning with such early accounts of life overseas as To The Peace Corps With Love, by Arnold Zeitlin; An African Season by Leonard Levitt; The Barrios of Manta written by Rhoda & Earle Brooks, and Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen. They are wonderful books. And wonderful books continue to be written today by PCVs, most recently Marrying Santiago by Suzanne Adam that just won the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Writers Experience Award.
It is the Peace Corps Memoir that I believe will have the most lasting value. Perhaps not for their literary value but because what PCVs remember and write about will capture in prose not only the experience, but the way it was for them, and that time in the history of their host country.
We have already seen this happen. Five years ago, on the 50th year of the agency, Volunteers in Korea self-published a book of remembrances and photos of their time in South Korea that spanned the years 1966-1981.
The RPCVs who had served in Korea were invited back by the Korean government for the anniversary and at a reception at the American Embassy, hosted by our Ambassador, who, by the way, was a former Korean PCVs, the RPCVs were surprised by how fascinated and intrigued young Koreans were in the book, especially the old black-and-white photos of what once was their country, a country have had never known.
In the future, I know, historians and cultural anthropologists, as well as host country nationals, will find in these memoirs a wealth of information of the way their homes once were, told in the stories written by former Volunteers.
Expatriates And Exiles
For six decades now Peace Corps writers have been going back, at least on paper, to their host countries. In their novels, short stories, poetry and essays, RPCVs are writing about their time as Volunteers. Their Peace Corps tours has been a source of material, a creative impulse. For many of these writers it has become their literary territory.
Unlike writers who choose the expatriate life, Volunteers don’t go to the ends of the earth to escape American civilization or, for that matter, to make money from the labor of others. They go to jobs that take them away from embassies, first-class hotels, and the privilege of being rich foreigners in poor countries.
They unpack their belongings, they settle down, they set about to do a job while they begin learning about their new home — its language, geography and culture. And they are profoundly influenced by life in developing countries. Having lived and worked at the edges of the earth, they are rewarded with raw material waiting to be shaped into prose.
They begin to write in letter written home, as Paul Theroux did from Malawi where he taught secondary school. “My schoolroom is on the Great Rift,” Theroux wrote, “and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved like prisoners, muscles showing through their rags. These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”
Those ‘letters home’ quickly became books based on their time in the developing world.
Novelist Mary-Ann Tirone Smith tells of taking a writing course in 1980 from New Yorker staff writer, Paul Brodeur, and upon learning that she had been a Peace Corps Volunteer, he remarked, “Writers need real estate to create great fiction. Two years in Cameroon with the Peace Corps? You’ve got that covered.” Mary-Ann went on to write Lament For A Silver-Eyed Woman, the first Peace Corps novel written by a former volunteer. It was published in 1987.
However, the majority of books about the Peace Corps experience have been memoirs. I have already mentioned several of the first memoirs from RPCVs.
Another significant book that came out in 1967, was Where to, Black Man? Written by the African-American RPCV Ed Smith. However, it wasn’t until the final year of the decade that the finest memoir of the Peace Corps’ first decade was published, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, by Moritz Thomsen another Volunteer from Ecuador.
The first year of the 1970s saw the publication of Paul Cowan The Making of An Un-American, and then in 1977, Lillian Carter’s Away From Home: Letters To My Family. These ‘letters’ were written by the mother of our future president. In 2002, her grandson, Jason Carter published his own memoir, Power Lines, about being in South Africa as a PCV.
In those early years of the Peace Corps, the New York publishing world was flooded with manuscripts by RPCVs. It seemed every former Volunteer had a memoir tucked under his or her arm and was seeking a publisher.
Peace Corps books, in truth, had become a nonsense and a burden to New York Book editors.
So much so, that in 1972, when I was a Dean at SUNY Old Westbury College and had written a book on higher education, I went to see an editor in New York about it and after our meeting was over I asked this charming and attractive editor if she would like to go out for dinner.
She paused a moment, as if startled by the invitation, and I thought, oh, oh…is this a ‘publishing no-no’ like a college professor hitting on a student?
Then slowly she replied, “All right, John, I’ll have dinner with you, but I won’t read your Peace Corps manuscript.”
Well, we have been married now for thirty plus years, and I want to tell you, she has yet to read my (unpublished) Peace Corps memoir!
In the 1980s, however, the publishing gates swung wide open for Peace Corps writers. Today, thanks to self-publishing and e-books, there is a long list of memoirs by RPCVs.
Let me talk about these books. I will give you a few suggestions on how you might write your book, based on all of the memoirs Marian Beil and I have seen over these 30 some years that we have been featuring and promoting Peace Corps writers in our newsletter and on our website.
There is a certain similarity to the Peace Corps memoirs. They are mostly organized chronologically, which of course makes sense. They begin with getting the application, as did Moritz Thomson’s book began, or with Training and arriving in country.
But I would suggest, writing your book today, you might want to do something different. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Take a look at Sarah Erdman’s Ivory Coast memoir Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village
She begins her memoir with this paragraph:
A single lantern filled the room with flickering light, throwing Fanta’s shadow toward the door. The glow bronzed her tight cheekbone, her deflated breast, her moving stomach. There was not a cushion in sight, not a sheet, not a bar of soap, not a bucket of water. There was just the hard mud floor to support this woman struggling through labor. I could only think of the blinding fluorescence of the American delivery ward: the blankets, pink or blue, the menu of painkillers, doctors in white coats, white gloves, the hard white hospital light. How much different it was here in the hushed, dark tension of the hut.
I asked Sarah about this opening of her memoir…how she decided to begin to tell her story in such a dramatic way and she said she didn’t decide to do it that way, her editor at Henry Holt, George Hodgman, pulled that scene from deep in her memoir and moved it to the opening chapter.
George was smart enough to know, and Sarah was smart enough to agree, that Nine Hills to Nambonkaha needed a dramatic opening.
So, together, in this book, they reached out and grabbed the reader by the throat, to shake up the reader and with this open paragraph, say to the reader from the very first sentence: pay attention, read what I have written. There is more of this to come.
So, you need dramatic prose and dramatic scenes, but you also need, like a novel, characters. And you have characters. God knows in the Peace Corps you have characters.
Just remember that you, as the protagonist of your own life story, are one of those characters. And you know others, PCVs, HCNs, Staff, strangers you meet in passing. They can all be characters in your book.
And you have the advantage of watching, listening, learning about these characters for two years. You can see them grow and change as you grow and change. These characters can be big or small, they can be passing figures in the pages of your memoir, but they will tell your story for you.
You also have other ‘characters’ for your book who are not human.
The village, the town, the city where you lived as a PCV. It, too, changed over two years, and it is the backdrop to the story you are telling—your story.
When I wrote my recently published novel on Ethiopia, Long Ago and Far Away, an editor at Amazon told me that for her the most fascinating character in my novel wasn’t the people, but the land, Ethiopia itself.
That is an advantage you have. You know your host country. And you can write about it.
But how you write it is important.
You need humor. You need drama. You need information. You need context.
The secret is balancing all of these elements in a given chapter. Balance your humor, for example, against something that is serious or depressing.
Hired Help For Your Book
Let me talk a little bit about your manuscript and preparing it for publication. As I have spelled out in a book I published recently, How To Write A Novel In 100 Days once you have finished it, set it aside, leave it alone in a desk for a few weeks or months, then come back to it with a fresh view of the book and the world and do your rewrites. All good writing is in the rewriting. Once you are happy with the book get it edited.
Now there are three kinds of editors.
Content Editors—they look at the book at a whole, as did George Hodgman with Sarah’s book, and make suggestions for changes.
Line editors—they look at the individual sentences and paragraph and edit them.
And finally Copy Editors—these are really anal types. The curse in book publishing is, “may your daughter marry a Copy Editor.”
But these people are very, very important.
The Rules For Writing A Peace Corps Book
There are no rules. And that is what is so great about writing a book.
West African RPCV Bonnie Black, a successful writer/editor/creative writing professor, has been reading my blogs on “Peace Corps books” and she sent me these wise words on how Peace Corps writers should go about the task of writing a book. Her list:
- Peace Corps writers should take writing courses from reputable instructors to learn the basics and to have the opportunity to workshop their writing among peers.
- They should also read lots of good How-To books on the craft. There are a gazzillion of them out there.
- They should avoid at all costs: exclamation points, stereotyping, cliches, and all other proofs of lazy writing.
- They should plan on revising each chapter or piece at least ten times. Quality writing is all about revision.
- A writer of worthwhile prose must work harder and dig deeper to achieve emotional intimacy with his/her reader.
I would add that a good Peace Corps book is a journey. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and the reader is on the same journey as the narrator. If the reader doesn’t care about the narrator, he or she will stop reading.
How do you get a reader to be interested in your journey?
You do it with language. Here’s how. This is a Paul Theroux again writing about the arrival of students to his school in Malawi. Listen to how Paul shaped the information:
“My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved liked prisoners, muscle showing through their rags. These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”
What Paul does first is set a scene. With a few words we know where we are in Africa with school children, and then like a panoramic shot, he draws back, pulls the camera of his description away from the “line of children” and we feel the cold dawn of Africa, the immenseness of the landscape: “the earth is a platform, the sky is everything else.” Theroux uses wonderfully telling words to make the scene real: “drifting hoops of fog-wisp.”
Now he has achieved this powerful image by carefully selecting the right descriptive adjectives, and by building the sentence [the effect] slowly. He doesn’t say, for example, “….earth under their feet…” Theroux uses the word “patch” to modify earth; “bare” to go with feet and show the poverty.
So select wisely, slowly, and rewrite.
Be another Paul Theroux.
There is more to say. There is always more to say. But I need to give you time to ask questions about the book you’re writing.
I just want to end with one other point, and that is, I want you to step back a moment and think about all the books that have been written, are being written, and will be written by RPCVs, and to take a moment to realize that many of these novels and memoirs and books of poetry are not only winning major book awards, they are also claiming space on library bookshelves.
Peace Corps Volunteers—all of you in this room–have come of age as literary persons. You are telling the stories of the Peace Corps, and more importantly, you are telling the stories of life in the developing world. A world that Americans know so little about, or care to consider.
Perhaps this is a small claim in the world of literature, but it is yours alone to make. It is your books that will create a place for this experience in the minds of Americans. Your memoirs will also make it possible for future generations to understand and appreciate why Peace Corps Volunteers at this time in history asked not what the country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.
It is in your memoirs and novels and poetry that are fulfilling the Third Goal of the agency. You are educating America, and the rest of the Western World, to what life is like in the developing world.
Marian Beil has already cataloged over 387 books written by RPCVs that focus on their Peace Corps experience. And with the help of Congressman John Garamendi, who was a PCV in Ethiopia, she has gotten the Library of Congress to establish a special listing for these books.
Finally we come back to Gertrude Stein’s famous comment to Hemingway. “You are all a lost generation,” she told him. The story is that Stein had heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics and their poor repair skills, telling Stein that they were a lost generation.
All Gertrude Stein wanted was competent mechanics to repair her car but Hemingway seizing the expression, as any good writer might, and identified a literary movement. He captured with the phrase, the mood of his generation.
See what a writer can do with one good line?
Fortunately for Peace Corps Writers you have many good lines. For fifty-five years you have been living on the edge of the world and experiencing new lands, new languages and new ways to tell your tales. You have–all of you have–an understanding of other societies that very few Americans will ever know. In poetry and prose Peace Corps Writers are telling stories of cultures with understanding, compassion, and insight.
And in doing so, by telling tales of faraway lands, sharing stories with family and friends and strangers you are educating America.
Because of–Peace Corps Writers–we are no longer the ugly Americans to the rest of the world.
4 CommentsLeave a comment
Once again, John, you have given us a history, framework, and invitation to contribute our viewpoints to the world. Thanks.
Thank you John & Marian for institutionalizing our niche in the woods of literature. You started from scratch and now we are a LOC Category. Cool. Hopefully PEN/Faulkner will recognized your diligence. If every known PC Writer submitted a letter to PEN/Faulkner about the origins of PC Writers, John & Marian might get their just desserts while still here on Earth. Writing a letter is a lot easier than writing a book…
Instructive, interesting, and reads so lightly I didn’t notice until after awhile it “was” written. Has Marian got at transcription of her talk? Ed
Great to hear your talk and then chat with you at the conference.