Last month American Diplomacy included my review of Ambassador James R. Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled. The book recounts a career that began with the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador, and Niger, where he served from 2001-2006 as Country Director for the Peace Corps. Or, as he likes to call it, ‘Hard core Peace Corps.’
Also tucked away in American Diplomacy’s collection of Foreign Service despatches and reports on U.S. foreign policy was an excerpt from Two Pumps for the Body Man (New Pulp Press 2016). Set in Saudi Arabia, the satire does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic:
The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us if our institutions kill us first.
In the excerpt, lead diplomat Vanna Lavinia contemplates the various threats to her career, including ineptitude, obsequiousness, and direct challenges to her authority. Given these impediments to her sanity, Vanna seems to miss the biggest danger of all as she represents the United States on the front line of the War on Terror.
It’s here, if you’d like to read it and let me know what you think. Review copies of the novel are available through my contact page.
The otherwise respectable American Diplomacy, which publishes ‘Foreign Service Despatches and Periodic Reports on U.S. Foreign Policy,’ included my review of of Ambassador James R. Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled, in the latest lineup.
The memoir recounts a career that started in expeditionary diplomacy for the State Department during the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and some of the fiercest early battles of that war, and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador.
‘…The trim black passport issued to American diplomats has a hefty corollary in James Bullington’s big black memoir. The passport confers access and status on the bearer in a foreign land. The memoir demonstrates why such access and status are vital to promoting U.S. values and interests. More important, the narrative reveals such access and status to be privileges earned rather than rights granted.’
As a corollary to this, I’m including a lightly annotated excerpt of Ambassador Bullington’s oral history for the American Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history project. The excerpt focuses on Bullington’s service as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger (2000-2006) and some trouble he had during the 80’s getting diplomatic pouches into Burundi thanks to—shall we call them large?—seed packages requested by the Peace Corps. Read here.
American Diplomacy is published in cooperation with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense and with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.
Paul Theroux’s voice in black and white, on the page, captivated me from the start: natural, authoritative, transferring all kinds of observation from the most minute cultural idiosyncrasy to the cruelest cut at character—fictional or real. I started reading him 20 years ago with My Secret History. Until today, I’d known Theroux only through text and tale.
Now an interview with The New Yorker Radio Hour has banished 20 years of presumption about what I thought Paul Theroux might sound like.
His spoken voice is less certain, more affected, a cross of British-sounding intonations and patrician New England syllables. ‘Writer’ is ‘Writa’; ‘Awarded” is ‘Awaurded’; ‘Father’ is ‘Fawtha’; ‘Mocking’ is ‘Mawking’. I hear Bernie Sanders in it; Theroux can be piping, short of reedy, other times gravelly, but never sonorous.
Credit him for giving the world the best of his voice in books and writing. In person he maintains the same honesty, which borders on cruelty, that can be found in his writing. I detect no apology, for example, no sorrow, no bitterness, only hard truth in what he says of being cast into the world by a family situation that made him unhappy. Asked ‘Was it his mother that made him a writer?’ Theroux responds:
My mother drove me away from home. I wasn’t happy in this big family. And I fantasized about going away. So I think going away made me a writer. My mother really wanted me to go away. When I told my parents that I was going to Africa their faces were wreathed in smiles.
Theroux escaped a family of seven siblings to join the Peace Corps and teach English in Nyasaland (now Malawi). And there’s plenty of self-deprecation and laughter in the banter that follows the revelation above. But its a telling honesty about how Theroux perceives family, and maybe explains his tendency to go it alone. In the broader world, Theroux found his voice and, better still, made it heard.
Writers should appreciate the gem at minute 8:23. In her supremely radio-friendly voice The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman reads from Theroux’s latest book, Motherland, encapsulating the man and his work in a few short lines.
It must have seemed that I was writing stories, book reviews, novels, travel books, magazine articles, essays, newspaper columns, more novels, more stories, another travel book. But it was not an unsorted stack of vagrant scribbles; it was in words a sort of edifice. What I was doing was giving form to a continuous account of my existence, my disappointments and obsessions, my reading, my secrets, writing every day. All these books and pieces could be laid end to end as a long linking account of who I was, bringing order to my living and publishing it, in thousands of pages of print, bound on three shelves of a bookcase, which represented my attempt to make sense of my life.
Read with the right voice, this paragraph represents a monument to aspiration.
B.A. East taught English Lit and Composition in Malawi as a Peace Corps Volunteer, at Brooklyn College Academy in New York, and at the American School of Asuncion in Paraguay. Later he joined the State Department’s Foreign Service, taking assignments in Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Ghana, Mexico, and Washington DC. New Pulp Press released his debut novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, in March 2016.
Views expressed on this blog are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer
Memoir’s a tough genre. For memoir to appeal to a broad audience its got to succeed in one of two ways.
Either the voice asserts some irresistible quality: rich, engaging, dynamic, inspiring, insightful without being pedantic. Or the narrative relates circumstances of an extraordinary nature: the subject is a half-Kenyan young lawyer who rises to become the U.S. President; a soccer team survives a plane crash in the Andes by feeding on fellow passengers; a scientist’s submarine catches fire at the exact moment she discovers a new species capable of saving the planet.
So much the better if the voice and the sublime work in cahoots.
But in memoir where these traits are lacking altogether, we wind up with a book like Devon James Hoffman’s Wild Enough to Get to You. The narrative voice tends toward the abstruse, and the undertaking is a well-traveled road.
As a memoirist Hoffman’s first order of business is to bring clarity and coherence to his experience. He explains his efforts this way: “You may be disappointed to find that this book isn’t about my service but is, instead, about what my service was about.” The stories, he tells us, “may seem disconnected and eclectic, but they are my memoir. This book achieves its unity by following the journey of my changing paradigm, instead of my physical body.”
While the Pols and Poobahs dress in UNGA-wear and head for New York, the Peace Corps Community runs amok in the Nation’s Capitol. Join Peace Corps Writers tomorrow at a workshop for writers in the DC area. The event, part of the annual Peace Corps Connect gathering (celebrating 55 years this year), will take place at the George Washington University from 1-5:50.
Spoken Word Storytelling, with Meleia Egger (1:00 – 2:30 pm).
Workshop on finding, crafting, and sharing your stories led by John Coyne, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).
Panel discussion with published Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) authors led by Marian Haley Beil, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).
Today’s the day 20 years ago that two score optimistic & good-willed Americans gathered at the 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to begin the most excellent adventure I know, a blend of humanitarian endeavor, mutual group support, and self-reliance in the face of a great unknown.
We were to spend the next 27 months as Peace Corps Volunteers in Malawi, contributing to that country’s education objectives as teachers of English, Math, Science, History, Music, The Bible… Whatever came our way. At the same time, equally, we were contributing to our personal growth, our burgeoning confidence, our ideals and goals we held as emerging citizens of the world.
For me the adventure was a quest to put something exotic into my writing, an admission that the years of scribbling I’d already spent on journals and stories and half-baked novels lacked the insights of worldliness. It was the first time I’d acknowledged to a group of strangers that I considered myself “a writer”. I’m still grateful nobody laughed.
I don’t pretend to have achieved worldliness in the intervening years. But the Peace Corps experience has defined my growth as a writer. From Paul Theroux attending our swearing in, to meeting the trusted writing confidantes I’ve maintained since (these include notorious crime writer Preston Lang), to the broader network of Peace Corps Writers who now review, share, and promote our mutual literary efforts—Peace Corps, more than anything else, has enabled me to push my limits as a novelist.
The adventure stays with me, twenty years later, through the friendships forged and maintained, the stories written (shelved or published), and the outlook I bring to almost everything I do—whether guiding public engagement for the State Department or raising my sons with global empathy.
Peace Corps at 20. Thank you, friends. What has the experience meant to you?
A few notable works recognized with various Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016. Next week the Peace Corps community will gather in Washington, DC for Peace Corps Connect to celebrate the agency’s 55 years. Activities will include panels and workshops featuring Peace Corps Writers. More.
The Maria Thomas Fiction Award for 2016 (named after novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73)], author of a well-reviewed novel and two short story collection, all set in Africa. She lost her life in August, 1989, while working in Ethiopia for a relief agency, in a plane crash that also killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas)
Landfall by Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1991-92)
Two mothers and their teenage daughters, whose lives collide in a fatal car crash, take turns narrating Ellen Urbani’s breathtaking novel, Landfall, set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Eighteen-year-olds Rose and Rosebud have never met but they share a birth year, a name, and a bloody pair of sneakers. Rose’s quest to atone for the accident that kills Rosebud, a young woman so much like herself but for the color of her skin, unfolds alongside Rosebud’s battle to survive the devastating flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and to find help for her unstable mother. These unforgettable characters give voice to the dead of the storm and, in a stunning twist, demonstrate how what we think we know can make us blind to what matters most.
The Best Travel Book for 2016 (first presented in 2001.)
Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998-2000)
“We wanted to go to hot, intense places together, to cities where open markets breathed that sweaty, fish-gutty, trash-burning smell that clings to travelers’ memories forever. We had each whiffed it before, this odor of deep travel, but it was something else to embark as husband and wife to seek it together. We would pressure-cook our fragile new marriage, take it around the world, introduce it to new friends, and make it bubble and boil into everything we could be.” In Crocodile Love, travel writer Joshua Berman recounts the quests, encounters, and mishaps of the extended, round-the-world voluntourism honeymoon he took with his wife, Sutay. Both are returned Peace Corps Volunteers who decided on a long, epic trip before settling down in the suburbs. The book journeys through Pakistan, India, Ghana, The Gambia, and beyond.
The Award for Best Short Story Collection for 2016 (Given for the first time this year to recognize outstanding short stories written by RPCVs.)
King of the Gypsies: Stories by Lenore Myka (Romania 1994-96)
Fiction. Set against a wild and haunting landscape, the short fiction in this collection spotlights the struggles of everyday individuals to overcome the ghosts they have inherited from Romania’s communist past. The book won BkMk’s G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, selected by PEN/Faulkner finalist Lorraine M. López, who writes, “Myka’s characters release uncountable fibers, connecting them to one another in the linked narratives, binding them to the harshly beguiling Romania they inhabit and that inhabits them.”
The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience award for 2016 (In 1997, this award was renamed to honor Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67) whose Living Poor has been widely cited as an outstanding telling of the essence of the Peace Corps experience.)
Marrying Santiago by Suzanne Adam (Colombia 1964-66)
She hadn’t seen it coming. Her new Chilean husband changed his mind, or, rather, the military coup changed it. Instead of their relocating to her native California as planned, he now wanted to give his country a chance. That was over four decades ago. Raised surrounded by the lush landscape of Marin County, Suzanne Adam hadn’t expected to settle in Santiago, a city of over five million people, where she faced a series of daunting challenges: food shortages, a military dictatorship, heartbroken parents, maids and machismo. After a visit back home, she returned to Chile with a California redwood seedling in her pocket, and together they would push down their roots into that distant soil, where she discovered the truth in Wallace Stegner’s statement: “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world afterwards.”
The Editors Special Award for 2016 (given to a writer in our community who has published a significant book that does not fit into any of our other awards categories, but deserves recognition.)
Meeting the Mantis: Searching for a Man in the Desert and Finding the Kalahari Bushmen by John Ashford (Botswana 1990–92)
In the 1962, in a college anthropology class, John Ashford was introduced to the Kalahari Bushmen. Their peaceful way of life and John’s childhood memories of listening to field recordings of chants by indigenous cultures resulted in a life-long fascination with these people. Years later, in the 1990s, John and his wife, Gen, find themselves in Botswana as Peace Corps Volunteers and middle-aged adventures. Toward the end of their service in the Peace Corps and restless about returning to the States, John discovers he is eager to resolve his lingering questions about the mysterious Bushmen. An article in a Botswana newspaper about an elderly white man named Freddy Morris, who has lived with the Bushmen for over 70 years, has sparked John’s curiosity, and he persuades Gen to set out into the vast Kalahari to find Freddy. Encounters with locals and African wildlife weave in and out of their journey. A prominent activist working on behalf of the Bushmen speaks with them, and John soon finds himself receiving a whirlwind education about the life of the Kalahari Bushmen in the modern world.
Winner of the 2016 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award (First given in 1990 this Award was named to honor Paul Cowan, a PCV in Ecuador. Cowan wrote The Making of An Un-American about his experiences as a Volunteer in Latin America in the sixties. A longtime activist and political writer for The Village Voice, Cowan died of leukemia in 1988.)
The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83)
The untold story of the global poor today: A distinguished expert and advisor to developing nations reveals how we’ve reduced poverty, increased incomes, improved health, curbed violence, and spread democracy—and how to ensure the improvements continue.
Congrats to fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Chris Orlet (Poland, 1992-94), who’s debut novel In the Pines came out this month from New Pulp Press. New Pulp is home to many other fine noir and crime writers like Mark Richardson (see my review of Hunt for the Troll–2015). NPP released my neo-noir satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man, this past spring.
In a small southern Illinois town, Emily Ahrens, a rather plain, unexceptional 17-year-old girl, dies suddenly, horribly and inexplicably, at home. There appears to be no rational explanation for her death. Tests soon confirm that Emily died of kidney failure due to arsenic poisoning. Tests also confirm that she was not pregnant. A coroner’s inquest, called to decide whether her death was suicide, accident, homicide, natural or undetermined concludes the death is undetermined. With no evidence of foul play, local authorities are reluctant to investigate. The girl’s father, Walt Ahrens, a local car dealer, refuses to let the matter drop and begins obsessively seeking answers, even as his family begs him not to, even as the townspeople seek to put the tragedy behind them. Stonewalled, Walt hires a shady private investigator from the city to look into the circumstances of his daughter’s death, but he too fails to turn up any answers, only more questions, before dumping the case back into Walt’s lap. When the desperate father turns up the screws on one rather unsavory suspect, a fatal accident ensues, and circumstances begin to spiral out of control.
Chris Orlet was born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. He has worked a multitude of dead-end jobs, including bartender, sportswriter, gun seller, Peace Corps volunteer, tech writer, salesman for a trailer parts company, and other occupations too unsavory to mention. He lives in Saint Louis, Missouri with his wife, son, and dachshund.
It’s almost twenty years since I first shared my fiction beyond the confines of family or classroom. I found three trusted readers during the months of pre-service training as a Peace Corps Volunteer. What else to do on the dusty plains of Central Malawi beneath the boiling sun, the cloudless sky? I wrote my first novel.
I wrote by hand on copy-books, small blue rectangles, the sheets bound with staples. Grit, dust troubled the flow of ink from the cheap pens we had. The novel fit on six books and is nestled now in an old cigar box. Two decades ago, I troubled three companions to take an interest. They were kind to read my amateur rubbish, worse than boredom itself.
One reader became my wife. Another remains a friend we still see now and then–we owe a visit. A third, Rand Wise, recently reviewed my debut novel—a thoughtful and comprehensive look at Two Pumps.
“…layer after layer of wry humor and irony, much of it stemming from pressure from “the fourth branch” (a secretive entity high up in the U.S. government, clearly a nod to Dick Cheney) to produce intelligence to further the case for invading Iraq…”
Two Pumps for the Body Man (2016) by B.A. East… is the Catch-22 of the war on terror. Set in a U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia (post 9/11 but before the invasion of Iraq), the novel features a large cast of characters including an attractive and narcissistic Consul General, intelligence officers, visa-denying clerks, and logistics people.
The closest thing the novel has to a main character is Jeffrey Mutton, the chief of security for the consulate who has to reconcile his security concerns with the demands of the CG to host high profile parties (and she holds a moment of weakness involving the titular shoe fetish over him).
The story develops slowly, fleshing out the cast of characters while adding layer after layer of wry humor and irony, much of it stemming from pressure from “the fourth branch” (a secretive entity high up in the U.S. government, clearly a nod to Dick Cheney) to produce intelligence to further the case for invading Iraq. (More great fiction about the former Veep in “Dicked…“)
East deftly handles the comedies of errors that result from the miscommunications, manipulations and power plays between characters, with perhaps the funniest example being an investigation of one of the consulate officers who is suspected of having undue access to the POTUS, even though his intelligence reports are manufactured and mostly plagiarized from news magazines.
The novel takes a serious turn when the consulate is attacked, and the aftermath features the key insights of the novel and its most impassioned prose. Whether you are looking for a comic sendup of consular life or an insightfully cynical look at the war on terror (or maybe both), this book is for you.