The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and while celebration events will occur all year long, March 1 is the official anniversary party. It got me to thinking about all the stories that have come out of what the Peace Corps calls RPCVs (Returning Peace Corps Volunteers).
Some RPCVs have become quite famous as writers – think Paul Theroux, Norman Rush, Roland Merullo, and Kinky Friedman for fiction, or the New Yorker’s George Packer and Peter Hessler for nonfiction. But there are many, many more published Peace Corps authors worth considering. There’s even a Web site, Peace Corps Writers, devoted to news of their work. In checking out the site, I’m astonished at the depth of talent.
Here are the categories for the Peace Corps Book Awards for a single year, 2010, with the number of finalists in each category: Nonfiction (4), Fiction (8), Peace Corps Memoir (2), Poetry (3), Travel (2), Children’s Book (2), and Photography (2). John Coyne, the RPCV writer who created and maintains the site, told this story in a recent blog post:
Years ago when I had returned from Ethiopia and was writing full time, I asked a New York book editor out on a date and she replied, “I’ll go to dinner with you, John, but I won’t read your Peace Corps novel!” Such was the dread of Peace Corps books. Now, this book editor and I have been married for over twenty-five years and she has yet to read my Peace Corps novel.
RPCVs are full of stories, whether set in print or spun out in long wine-filled evenings with friends. Here’s one I heard recently from an RPCV friend. Well, maybe it’s more of a game than story. The game is called Gecko Bingo. The rules are simple: Draw a giant Bingo square on the wall of your housing in country. Begin drinking. Flick off the light. Wait briefly. Flick on the light and determine which square or squares the gecko or geckos occupy on your wall Bingo board. Mark your Bingo card. Have another drink. Turn out the light. And so on. Come to think, I’m not sure whether this is an actual game, a tall tale, or a rural legend.
In the pre-Peace Corps and pre-MFA writing program days, up to about 1960, wannabe writers were frequently advised to travel out into wide world and take a job, any job, the humbler the better. The motive? Soak up some of that invaluable real-life experience while young so that you could spin this existential fodder into fine fiction once your writing chops were in order. Young writers plunged into gold rushes (Mark Twain, Jack London), long sea voyages (Joseph Conrad), ambulance driving (if available and it was during World War I) (Ernest Hemingway, ee cummings), New York (Willa Cather), Paris (Gerude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald), and hitchhiking through the heart of America (Jack Kerouac.)
I enjoy unforeseen consequences, and clearly there have been at least two fine ones for the Peace Corps. First, several generations of writers have been able to acquire their jarring, real-world experience pretty efficiently. Second, modern American literature has been enriched with works exploring the strong cross-cultural currents that flow from RPCV stints abroad. (Coyne cites the Peace Corps’ third mission -”Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”)
What’s the connection between the Peace Corps experience and writing? There are many answers, but I like the one my friend Mark Jacobs, a novelist, once came up with in an essay. Jacobs spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in an isolated South American village of cotton farmers.
Beginning with two years in Potrero Yapepo, in Itapua, Paraguay, I lived a series of useful cultural dislocations. They were useful because they unsettled my sense of identity, which in my case seems to have been a good way to jump-start the imagination. In Paraguay, I bought a small portable typewriter and began writing stories set in that country almost before I could speak the language(s). Imagining the lives and circumstances of people whose experience was so remote from my own was an almost unbearably arrogant thing to attempt, and I knew it. I failed much more often than I succeeded. But I thought when I began and think more fervently now that imagining other lives, distinct realities, experience foreign to one’s own, is not only possible, it can be the obsession of a life.
So here’s my own Peace Corps story, admittedly an anti-climactic one. As a college senior, I didn’t quite know what I would do after graduation. All I knew was that I had a powerful yen for something utterly different from anything else I’d ever done, so I signed up for the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, I met a woman who had signed up for the Peace Corps as well. Over the course of that senior year we decided to get married, and we both sent an addendum to our Peace Corps application asking to be assigned to the same village – something the Peace Corps was willing to do. I got my my first choice on the big day when our assignment packets arrived – Africa, Ghana to be exact – and my wife-to-be? Well, she was headed for the Philippines. We never got an explanation for that little flub, but it made all the difference. We did wind up together in the exotic orange groves of Claremont, CA, just east of LA, but that’s another story.