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 experience is also intensely educational. 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.”
For all these writers, their Peace Corps years were a time to learn the rules of another culture, as well as a time to learn about themselves in relation to the world, as well as in relation to the United States.
John Givens, a Volunteer in Korea and author of three novels published in the 1980s, says that the Peace Corps “suggested that experience was not limited to the mores and expectations of central California where I grew up. The ‘wideness’ of the world came home to me vividly in Korea, and I’ve been exploring the world ever since.” And 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 the modern generation of writers as followers. “We are 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, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the ‘exotic’ as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.”