Writers from the Peace Corps
John Coyne | March 2015
Since 1961, Peace Corps writers have used their volunteer service as source material for their fiction and nonfiction. These writers have also found that the overseas experience has helped them find jobs once they returned home.
Approximately 250,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. Of these volunteers and staff, more than 1,500 have published memoirs, novels, and poetry inspired by their experience. Many former volunteers have gone on to careers as creative writing teachers, journalists, and editors, while others have discovered a variety of jobs outside of publishing where their Peace Corps years have contributed to successful employment. A Peace Corps tour has proven to be a valuable experience—in terms of one’s craft and one’s professional career—for more than one college graduate or MFA creative writer.
Why the Peace Corps?
Volunteers do not just pass through foreign countries as tourists or travelers. They unpack their belongings; they settle down; they set about to do a job; and they are profoundly influenced by life in developing countries. Having lived and worked at the edges of the earth, their service provides them with raw material waiting to be shaped into prose.
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.
Paul Theroux, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, recounts in his collection of travel pieces, Sunrise With Seamonsters, how he began to write while in the Peace Corps: "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,” Theroux wrote. “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.”
Theroux is not the only Peace Corps writer to experience such an epiphany moment.
Richard Wiley, the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Associate Director of the Black Mountain Institute, explains his time in Korea this way: “The experience taught me that there are many beautiful and varied worlds on our small planet, and infused my seven published novels with an integrity and depth that I would never have been able to supply them with had I stayed the American kid I was before the Peace Corps called me.”
Former volunteer in China and MacArthur award winner, Peter Hessler, joined the Peace Corps after his years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. “It was a difficult step,” he recalls now, sending me an email from Cairo, Egypt where he is living and writing for the New Yorker. “I’ll never forget sitting at my computer and describing Fuling, the city where I was teaching, and my life in that city, and realizing that my writing voice had changed dramatically. It suddenly felt so much more assured. I had also gained an enormous amount of knowledge about my city and its residents, as well as affection, and these things seemed to come out effortlessly in my writing.”
Peace Corps Service on Your Résumé
Leaving school and seeking a career in this current job market is difficult. But instead of making the rent by working in a job unrelated to your skills, a college graduate or MFA can add to his or her résumé with two years of employment as a teacher in the Peace Corps.
Ask any volunteer what they got out of the Peace Corps, and they will reply, “I learned more than I taught.” Former Senator from Pennsylvania and former Associate Peace Corps Director, Harris Wofford, calls the Peace Corps a “university in dispersion.”
Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) are often “tossed” into a new job with a minimum of preparation and the “on the job training” that occurs, whether it is to step up in front of the class or the ability to address the village elders, are skills that will last a lifetime.
PCVs learn very early that they have the ability. As volunteers in dramatically new situations, they learn how to solve problems, organize communities, and gather and impart knowledge. The Peace Corps demands much from their volunteers, but in the fifty-plus years of the agency, the Peace Corps has learned that volunteers, given new responsibilities, rise to the tasks.
All of these hard-earned skills learned overseas, whether it is a new language or an understanding of a new culture and country, transfer directly to one's future career. A Peace Corps tour jumps a person forward in the employment line, with skills that are hard to find in another candidate who has never left home.
While some might consider being a volunteer “time out” from the world of work, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is not for nothing that the slogan of the Peace Corps is “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Yes, it is tough. And yes, it is a job.
Teaching & Writing
Hundreds of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) have found a way to write their books and have a teaching career. Melanie Sumner finished her tour of service in Senegal and went on to publish three novels. She teaches today at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Tony D’Souza was a PCV in the Ivory Coast, wrote the novel Whiteman, based on his years in Africa, and most recently he published Mule, which has been optioned for the movies. D’Souza teaches in the University of Tampa low-residency MFA and online at Lindenwood University. Charles Larson was in Nigeria and then taught at American University in Washington, D.C. while also writing half-a-dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. P.F. Kluge, who was in Micronesia, teaches creative writing at Kenyon College. He was also a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, and today he writes travel articles for National Geographic Traveler.
Bonnie Black earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch in 2007 after returning home from West Africa. She teaches at the University of New Mexico in Taos. In 2010, she was named “Most Inspirational Instructor” at the university. Anne Panning teaches fiction and nonfiction at the State University of New York at Brockport and has won various awards for her teaching and writing, including the 2006 Chancellor’s Award for Teaching, and the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for her collection, Super America. Anne was a PCV in the Philippines. Joanna Luloff, an assistant professor of English and Communications at SUNY Potsdam, wrote her first collection of stories, The Beaches at Galle Road, based on her two years in Sri Lanka. The stories were published by Algonquin Books in 2012.
Mark Brazaitis, Professor in the MFA Creative Writing program at West Virginia University, wrote articles and reviews for The Washington Post before becoming a volunteer. Today, he says, “I learned to become a writer in the Peace Corps. I knew that I wanted to explain what I was seeing and doing in Guatemala to people who would never visit the country. I therefore had to be precise, vivid, and accurate in how I portrayed the town where I was living and the people in it.”
His first book, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1998.
“The Peace Corps gave me my writing life,” says Brazaitis. “As a former volunteer with an MFA, and a published author, I was in a position to secure a teaching job at the university level.”
Other Volunteer writers have followed similar career paths.
Mike Meyer, a PCV in China in the 1990s, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing and of the forthcoming In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He recently wrote to me: “My Peace Corps experience taught me to write for an audience. In particular, for a far-away audience who likely had never been to the places or met the people and culture I was describing. It made me shift my focus away from myself and to the person reading my words.”
Poet Ann Neelon, professor of English and director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State University, recalls how she got her first teaching job after Senegal. “I applied for a lucrative one-week stint to conduct poetry workshops in a transition house for the mentally ill. My students—who had themselves helped to vet the applicants—later informed me that my Peace Corps background had gotten me the job. ‘We thought that if you could handle the Peace Corps, you could handle us,’ they told me later. And they were right.”
Careers in Publishing & Beyond
Former Peace Corps Volunteers have also found their way successfully into other publishing positions. Beatrice Hogan, a PCV in Uzbekistan from 1992-94, is the research chief for the national women’s lifestyle magazine, MORE. She sums up the benefits of having been in the Peace Corps this way: “I have never had a job interview where I haven’t been asked about my Peace Corps service. The Peace Corps is such a huge grab bag. You can pull a story out to illustrate just about any job qualification, from working well with others, to flexibility, to finding innovative solutions. You name it!”
“I was an English major in college,” continues Hogan, “and I was always interested in publishing and writing, and the Peace Corps experience has made me a more culturally sensitive reader and editor. At editorial meetings now, I have brought up issues that might not occur to other editors.”
Barry Hillenbrand, a former volunteer in Ethiopia, and the former bureau chief in Tokyo for TIME, agrees. “The skills you learn help a person as a journalist especially when you are working as a foreign correspondent, as I did for twenty-five years. I learned from my Peace Corps work that it was important to understand local cultures, that people had different thought processes, that languages were critical, that eating and drinking local has its merits. So when a very proud and important Saudi asked if I had ever drunk camel's milk and would I like some from that camel over there, I replied, ‘of course, I'll give it a try.’ Once you've done two years in some Peace Corps country, you can live anywhere, adjust to anything, and drink anything. By the way, camel’s milk turns out to be delicious.”
Even the smallest event in the Peace Corps can bear future fruit. One example is Andy Martin who, in his long career, worked for Oxford Press, Scholastic, Cambridge University Press, and McGraw Hill. He can still recall how it all began in publishing for him.
“It happened at a small news kiosk in Khartoum, Sudan. I spotted a publication the likes of which I had never seen. It was a black and white photonovella in Spanish. A photonovella is designed and laid out just like a comic book, in panels. What struck me was how easy it was to follow the story by looking at the pictures, even though I didn’t know any Spanish.
“After the Peace Corps, working with a photographer, I wrote and published three such ESL photonovellas for Longman. It was my introduction to publishing which became my career. Had I not been trained as an ESL teacher by the Peace Corps, I never would have pursued an ESL teaching career and gotten my M.Ed. from Teachers College. It’s all one big connection, beginning with the Peace Corps.”
Deferring College Loans
The Peace Corps also creates a wonderful opportunity for ‘time out’ after college and graduate school for students carrying college debt. “The Peace Corps provided me loan deferrals,” says Beatrice Hogan, “and for me that was a huge selling point. It took the pressure off of finding a paying job immediately after school.”
More than one person has also found that time away from America, living and working in another country, allows a Peace Corps Volunteer an opportunity to read the books that they never got around to reading in college.
Mike Meyer, for one, remembers those days fondly, “I had a lot of downtime at my site, and in addition to learning Chinese, I read all of Shakespeare and shelves of classic literature.”
Future Government Service
Two years in the Peace Corps also counts as federal service and is a benefit if one continues in the federal government. It is two years added to government retirement pension. Also, many states add Peace Corps teaching experience in their elementary and high school certification.
Who Are Peace Corps Writers?
A partial list of Peace Corps writers includes Bob Schacochis, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Eastern Caribbean who won the National Book Award in 1985 for his collection of stories, Easy in the Island. Kathleen Coskran, a PCV in Ethiopia, received the Minnesota Voices Prize and the Minnesota Book Award in 1989 for her short story collection, The High Price of Everything. Richard Wiley, PCV in Korea, was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1986 for his first novel, Soldiers in Hiding. Shay Youngblood, who has won both the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the 1993 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Melanie Sumner and Marnie Mueller, were both winners of the Whiting Award for their novels based on serving in Senegal and Ecuador, and Mike Meyer received a Whiting Award for his nonfiction book on China. Peace Corps Country Director in Botswana, Norm Rush, winner of the National Book Award in 1991, set his first two books in Africa. Poet Ann Neelon, who served in Senegal won the 1995 Anhinga Prize for her poems about Senegal. New Yorker writers Peter Hessler and George Packer were volunteers in China and Togo. The list goes on and on.
Joining The Peace Corps
Today, fifty-three years after its creation, the Peace Corps continues to have over 7,000 volunteers serving in seventy plus countries in Africa, Asia, Latin American, and Eastern Europe. Peace Corps volunteers work in five basic areas: education, health, business, agriculture, and community development. Volunteers serve for twenty-seven months, three months of which is training in-country. Training focuses on language, cross-cultural topics, health and safety, and the assignment area. Any qualified American, age eighteen and over, is eligible to join. There is no upper age limit.
The Peace Corps application process today allows applicants to choose the programs and countries where they want to serve. Selection is based on the best fit for their personal and professional careers after service. The Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov) lists all open programs by country, work area, and departure date, so applicants can browse service opportunities. An application form is available on line and can be completed in less than one hour.
Besides the experience of living in a new culture, the Peace Corps comes with these tangible benefits:
- Combine service with graduate school for credit and/or financial assistance
- Deferment or partial cancellation of some student loans
- Paid living expenses; full health and dental coverage in service; forty-eight vacation days over two years
- A $7,425 readjustment allowance upon service completion
- Job placement support and federal employment advantage
- International work experience and cultural exchange; fluency in a foreign language and chances to travel
- Affordable health insurance after service; network of returned volunteers for career connections
Expatriates & Exiles
Bob Shacochis characterizes Peace Corps writers as "torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness.” He sees PCV writers as “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."
Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective on the world.
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 our writing once we have returned to America.”
Peace Corps writers have an understanding of other societies that very few Americans will ever know. In their writings, they are telling stories of cultures with understanding, compassion, and insight.
And in doing so, by telling tales of faraway lands, of cultures and societies, they are educating Americans about the world, back home in the workplace, in college classrooms, and on the printed page. After the initial culture shock, there is a richness of experience that the more talented turn into vivid prose.
John Coyne, novelist, edited two books on Peace Corps writers, Going Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994, and Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, published by Curbstone Press, 1999. His latest novel is Long Ago And Far Away. He is a former Dean of Students and Admissions at SUNY-College of Old Westbury as well as Manager of Recruitment for the Peace Corps Office in New York. More information at: www.johncoynebooks.com.