March 30, 2000 - Teachers Net: Interview with John Coyne of Peace Corps Writers

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Interview with John Coyne of Peace Corps Writers

Read and comment on this interview from the Teachers Net with John Coyne of Peace Corps Writers at:

Living on the Edge : Fiction by Peace Corps Writers*

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Living on the Edge : Fiction by Peace Corps Writers


John Coyne

Living on the Edge : Fiction by Peace Corps Writers


John Coyne (Editor)

buy this book

Kathleen - Teachers.Net welcomes author John Coyne, editor of Living On the Edge-Fiction By Peace Corps Writers. John served the Peace Corps in Ethiopia 1962-1964 as a teacher of English in Addis Ababa. Later he served as an Associte Peace Corps Director in Ethiopia and the Regional Manager of the New York Peach Corps Offic. He has published eight novels and edited, among other books, Goding Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers. In 1989 he founded RPCV Writers & Reader, A newsletter for and about Peace Corps writers.

Kathleen - John, did you teach in the U.S. before joining the Peace Corps?

John - Yes, for one year as a high school English teacher.

Kathleen - One year caused you to decide to go overseas with the Peace Corps? What inpsired you?

John - Oh, JFK. I was in college when he was elected president. We all wanted to do something for our country. I joined the Peace Corps in 1962. I went to Ethiopia as a secondary school teacher. It was a great adventure.

Kathleen - How true-to-life are the situations and relationships portrayed in the fiction of Living on the Edge? Does reading the book give one a true picture of attitudes on both sides (Peace Corps volunteers and "locals"')? Is it "the toughest job you'll ever love" as the official slogan claims?

John - Yes, it is STILL the toughest job you'll ever love. I attempted in the book to show lots of experiences. The Peace Corps is almost 40 years old. There have been over 160,000 Volunteers. Each one of them has his or her own story, and all of our stories are true. I just squeezed a few into my book.

Kathleen - A bit of history from the Peace Corps site at : After a day of campaigning for the presidency, John F. Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960, at 2:00 a.m., to get some sleep, not to propose the establishment of an international volunteer organization. Members of the press had retired for the night, believing that nothing interesting would happen. But 10,000 students at the University were waiting to hear the presidential candidate speak, and it was there on the steps of the Michigan Union that a bold new experiment in public service was launched. The assembled students heard the future President issue a challenge: how many of them, he asked, would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world? The reaction was both swift and enthusiastic, and over the last 37 years, more than 150,000 Americans have responded to this enduring challenge.

Rich - How many stories were submitted for your book? You had more stories from Africa; were most of the best writers from there?

John - I received over 100 short stories.

John - A lot of the Volunteers are teachers in Africa and they tend to be the literary type.

John - Most of the writers from the Peace Corps, however, come from Micronesia.

Kathleen - Is (classroom) education the main focus of the Peace Corps effort? Do educators outnumber other professions in the Peace Corps?

John - About 40% of all Volunteers teach, either in the classroom or out of the normal setting. We teach all grades, right into college and university.

Rich - Was there any particular theme that you chose in selecting these stories?

John - I wanted the stories to have an international setting. I wanted a cross cultural experience.

Kathleen - FAQ: Do I need to speak another language to get into the Peace Corps? The Peace Corps teaches more than 180 languages and dialects. During your pre-service training, you will receive intensive language instruction to prepare you for living and working in your overseas community. While some countries where Volunteers serve prefer people who have studied French or Spanish, it is not always a requirement.

Kathleen - 17 authors contributed as many stories to Living on the Edge

Joe - John, do you think that a lot of Volunteers are also writers because there's a curiosity that makes them want to discover other countries AND also discover themselves through writing?

John - I think you are right, Joe. A lot of Volunteers go overseas dreaming of writing the great Peace Corps novel. And we have had several great books. You can get a list of them by going onto

Kathleen - FAQ: What sort of educational background do I need to be a Volunteer? Most Volunteer assignments require a four-year college degree. Applicants without a college degree may qualify by having three to five years of work experience in an area such as managing a business or working in a skilled trade.

Kathleen - John, do Peace Corps volunteers generally feel they have made a difference by serving, or do they come away feeling they've just maintained a status quo?

John - I think most of them know that they have made a contribution. However, most of them feel that they were the ones who were really blessed by the experience.

benny - Our daughter is in Zimbabwe. We are concerned for the health of PC volunteers in a country with such a high incidence of AIDS. It is appauling how Africans are kept uninformed of HIV and AIDS transmission.

John - Peace Corps Volunteers do AID education in Africa. It is one of our most important programs.

John - Volunteers in Training, benny, are taught how to deal with the issues of AIDS in country.

Joe - When you say volunteers feel blessed, then would you say Volunteer teachers also feel like students because they're learning about a new culture?

John - Joe, one of the three goals of the Peace Corps is to educate Americans about the world. Volunteers then come home and tell Americans what they have learned.

Kathleen - FAQ: Does the Peace Corps accept senior citizens? You're never too old to serve in the Peace Corps. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, but there is no upper age limit. The oldest Peace Corps Volunteer ever was 86 when he completed his service. The Peace Corps and the countries where Volunteers serve often welcome and value the wealth of experience that older Americans bring to their overseas assignments.

Kathleen - Contact information:

Kathleen - John, has the Peace Corps mission changed in substantial ways since it was created?

John - No it hasn't, Kathleen. The work we do today is just the same. We are, however, in lots of new countries, all the Eastern European countries, for example. That new.

penguin - John--who teaches the teachers? are they former Peace Corps volunteers, by and large?

John - Yes, RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) and Host Country Nationals.

Kathleen - How much tension or difficulty relating across cultures is there between Peace Corps volunteers and the people they serve? In your story, "Snow Man" Marc's cultural misunderstanding results in tragedy. In general, is that sort of misunderstanding common among youthful Peace Corps volunteers?

Kathleen - In your introduction to the short fiction (Snow Man) you contributed to Living on the Edge you write, "There is always plenty of opportunity for tragic comedy and plenty of cross-cultural misunderstandings whenever young Americans try to do good."

John - Well, there is always a lot of misunderstanding. That's one of the benefits of two years. We learn to get along. The character in my story, however, couldn't handle the isolation that was involved with living outside of his culture.

Kathleen - John, did you go through periods when you didn't know whether you could finish your assignment in Ethiopia?

John - No, I didn't, but many people do have a hard time. Usually it is after the third month of service. At the end of the tour, most of us felt as we didn't have enough time, that we were only now just learning what to do, and what would work. About one-third

Kathleen - FAQ: Can married couples join the Peace Corps? Can I serve with my boyfriend or girlfriend? Peace Corps service can be a rewarding, enriching experience for married couples. Today, about 10% of Peace Corps Volunteers are married. In all cases, both spouses must serve as Volunteers and live and work in the same community. The Peace Corps is unable to place couples with dependent children and cannot guarantee placement in the same country of couples or friends who are not legally married. Applicants can begin the Peace Corps application process while engaged, but must be married before departing for their overseas assignment.

Tom - John, what is a weakness in Peace Corps novels that might not be as prevalent in other novels?

John - Peace Corps novels tend to focus on small issues in terms of the world at large. They find it hard to get an audience. However, we have had some great ones.

Kathleen - I recommend Living on the Edge, published by Curbstone Press. Visit Curbstone Press at . Curbstone Press is a 501(c)(3) non-profit publishing house dedicated to literature that reflects a commitment to social change, with an emphasis on writing from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. Curbstone presents writers who give voice to the unheard in language that goes beyond denunciation to celebrate, honor and teach. Curbstone builds bridges between writers directly engaged in social struggle and the public, ranging from colleges to community centers, children to adults, a public increasingly eager to be educated about the cultures these writers represent. Curbstone seeks out the highest aesthetic expression of the dedication to human rights: poetry, stories, novels, testimonials, photography. Curbstone Press combines editorial integrity with painstaking craft in the creation of books, books of passion and purpose.

Kathleen - Is Living on the Edge being used in classrooms for the study of world cultures?

John - Yes, and as an example of good writing. Richard Wiley, at UNLV uses it in his creative writing classes.

Kathleen - Curbstone's Alexander "Sandy" Taylor was my high school English (American Studies) teacher. He would have used Living on the Edge in some of his classes. :-) And we would have enjoyed the experience.

John - I think so. Every month another RPCV publishes a good book, nonfiction or fiction base, at least in part, on the overseas experience.

Kathleen - John, Paul Theroux's "White Lies" (one of the selections in Living on the Edge) convinced me that I'm not Peace Corps material. Without spoiling the story for others, I'll just say that the afflication he experienced would have been enough to send me home and into therapy!

John - Oh, Theroux handled most situations than that. It is not the physical problems in the Peace Corps that are difficult. It is living outside one's culture and depending on oneself for everything. That's tough. But the toughest task is coming home again.

Kathleen - John, tell us how you maintain your association with the Peace Corps.

John - Kathleen, I am currently a recruiter in the New York Recruitment Office. I'm finding the next generation of Volunteers. And I am encouraging them to write home about it, tell Americans about the world.

Kathleen - On December 23, 1999, President Clinton named Mark L. Schneider as Director of the Peace Corps. Schneider is the agency's 15th Director and the second returned Peace Corps volunteer (El Salvador 1966-68) to head the Peace Corps.

Kathleen - John, tell us more about the difficulty of coming home again.

John - There's a great story of a returned Volunteer going into a store and trying to buy soap. She broke down into tears because there were so many bars of soap. She couldn't handle making such a decision. Life overseas makes all of us see America in a new way.

Rich - Kathleen, not a question - just a comment: The "inflictions" PCV's have seem incidental to the work that you are doing. Illnesses are just another thing that you have to overcome. I agree with John's last comment about the toughest things are living outside one's culture and depending on oneself. It does help to have a good support system, though.

Kathleen - This web site contains links to all kinds of information about the Peace Corps, and would be especially interesting to former members of the Peace Corps and those considering joining the Peace Corps:

Kathleen - John, we hosted (befriended) a man from Malawi. That changed many of our perceptions about our country and culture.

John - That's right, Kathleen. The genius of the Peace Corps was that the Volunteers live at the level of the people they are helping, therefore, they get to know them; they become friends. I am still friends with Ethiopians I met 35 years ago.

Kathleen - John, do you speak on college campuses to recruit?

John - Kathleen, we do recruit across the country at college campuses and in the community. Anyone can reach a local Peace Corps Office by calling 800.424.8580, Option 1. Or checking out our website:

Kathleen - A neat site is Peace Corps Kids World, which introduces kids to the Peace Corps and exposes them to geography and cultural information, as well as folk tales from countries around the world: Kids World, brought to you by the Peace Corps. Join our pal, Traveler, as she explores the globe and learns about making a difference. Come on in to the home of adventure and service -- Peace Corps Kids World!Explore a few of Peace Corps' 80 countries around the globe!

Kathleen - John, have you hosted them here?

John - I see or speak to my Ethiopians all the time, though that live now in the U.S.

Rich - John, what was the best thing you liked being head of a country's PC contingent. What was the worst?

Rich - I had thought that you returned to Ethiopia as a PC administrator.

John - Rich, I did returned to Ethiopia for two years on the staff in the mid-60s

Kathleen - I recommend Living on the Edge-Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, editor John Coyne, who also contributed a story.(Pub. Curbstone Press, 1999) .


Kathleen - John, what is the greatest misconception about the Peace Corps among Americans?

John - Oh, I think, Kathleen, that most people think that the Peace Corps ended when JFK was killed. Today we have almost 7,000 Volunteers in 76 countries.We are still going strong.

Kathleen - John, I'm very happy to hear that legacy of JFK endures.

Kathleen - John, any plans to return again?

John - Kathleen, I would love to go back to Africa. Once it gets in your blood, you never get over the experience.

penguin - John, do other countries have a volunteering tradition that's analogous--and do Peace Corps volunteers work alongside them? (I'm thinking of groups like Doctors without Borders. . .

John - penquin, yes, there are many other volunteers organizations. The British service actually started a few months before the Peace Corps began.

penguin - and have those groups generated a body of literature comparable to the Peace Corps writers' output?

John - penquin, not that I know.

John - penguin, you might look for a book entitled, Louisa, by Simone Zelitch. It is coming this fall from Putnam

Kathleen - Any other closing comments, questions? Just post them and we'll see what John can cover in a couple more minutes.

John - Thank you, Kathleen.

Kathleen - The hour is over already! John, thank you for participating in this interesting and informative chat session. Please consider returning someday with another topic of interest to educators. You're easy to chat with. :-) I urge readers to pick up a copy of Living on the Edge-Fiction by Peace Corps Writers. (Curbstone Press, 1999) .

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