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Letters from Afghanistan by RPCV Eloise Hanner
Letters from Afghanistan by RPCV Eloise Hanner
Before the Title
A Nonfiction Column
By Jeff Shelby
Mystery authorJeff Shelby brings his own brand of humor to the nonficiton column as he writes about various nonfiction books and subjects.
I earned a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of California, Irvine. My first mystery, Dead Week, was released in December 2001. I live with my wife in Castle Rock, CO. My Website - Email
An Interview with Eloise Hanner
Eloise Hanner’s fantastic new book, Letters from Afghanistan, details her time spent in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps thirty years ago. The book is a compilation of the letters that she wrote to her mother during her time there, a format that is movingly effective and entertaining. Ms. Hanner was kind enough to share a little of her time and answer a few questions about her book and her writing.
JS: What compelled you to share such a personal part of your life with anyone choosing to pick up the book?
EH: I didn't feel the story was too personal-nothing I wouldn't be comfortable telling anyone at a cocktail party. And I wanted to share the experiences. I think it's more important than ever to understand other cultures and I think everyone should live abroad for a while. I'm also a big supporter of the Peace Corps and thought the book might inspire someone to join. Plus, I thought it would be fun to write it.
JS: Why did you choose to use the format of the actual letters as opposed to taking the text of the letters and putting them into a narrative format?
EH: Just to do something different. My first book was written in narrative format so I thought it would be interesting to take another angle. I also wasn't sure I could trust my memory enough to "fill in" spaces that might not be covered by the letters.
JS: How did you go about taking the letters and putting them into book format?
EH: First I read them all again, then I very slowly started at the beginning, trying to make each letter about the same length, editing out boring details and mixing around what I felt were interesting anecdotes, so each letter would have a compelling tale and a strong beginning. This wasn't always the case with the original letters, especially those of the second year. I also tried to put in some information about Afghanistan or Afghan history in every letter. It was a time-consuming task (and at times, downright tedious)-would have been much easier to write from scratch as I did with my first book.
JS: Did taking a second look at the letters after thirty years make you think any differently about your experiences?
EH: Not really. Being there for two years made a tremendous impact on my life and that has never changed. In a few of the letters, however, I thought I sounded or acted immature and would find my self thinking "Did I really say that?"
JS: At a time where the prevailing American attitude about Afghanistan is less than favorable, why put your story out there now?
EH: At least now, people have heard of it and have a little curiosity. I wouldn't have been able to sell a single copy in 1973. And if the attitude is less than favorable, all the more reason to get some information out there. Most people know nothing of the culture, the people, the history or the geography and have based their attitudes on two- minute television sound bites.
JS: How was the letter writing helpful to you while you were in Afghanistan?
EH: As I mention in the prologue, it was the ONLY communication home, so it was a vital link to family and the rest of the world. I have always enjoyed writing, so it was a pleasurable task and in many respects, an entertainment. There was very little to do in the evenings and dedicating an evening a week to letter writing filled the time and helped me sort out my own feelings about my experiences.
JS: What's the biggest misconception that most Americans probably have about Afghanistan?
EH: Americans don't view Afghans as normal people who have the same dreams and ambitions as they do. They only think of crazy, turban-wearing extremists and beaten down women. They have no idea of the kindness of the people, what their daily lives are like or how they live. They are often amazed when I tell them that northern Afghanistan is a four-season climate with snow.
JS: You also served with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. Was writing an integral part of your experience there?
EH: Yes. Although, this time I was able to write letters on a laptop, put them on a disk, then take the disk to a cyber café when we were in a town big enough to have one.
JS: Can you tell us a little about your first book, The First Big Ride?
EH: This was the story of our bicycling journey across the United States as part of the American Lung Association's 1998 Big Ride-700 cyclists going from Seattle to Washington DC. It was especially challenging for us, since neither one of us had ridden a bicycle more than five miles in the past twenty years. We knew NOTHING about modern road cycling. I kept a daily journal on the ride and somewhere around South Dakota I decided that it was too incredible an experience not to save, so promised myself to write a book on it.
JS: How did the experience of writing each book differ?
EH: It was easier and more fun to write The First Big Ride, since it was fresh in my memory and covered a shorter length of time. As I mentioned earlier, it's harder to re-work material than to create it. Each book took about the same length of time to write, roughly nine months. I had no expectations with the first book and had a ho-hum attitude about it being published. But after its success, I had definite expectations for Letters from Afghanistan and pushed myself harder than I did with the The First Big Ride.
JS: What are your writing plans for the near future?
EH: Good question. I want to concentrate on marketing efforts for Letters for the next two months, then start something new. There is definitely a book worth of material on Paraguay and also from our years in Kuwait. I'm thinking of going to fiction this next time. I want to see if I can do it and it would be fun to combine and embellish the stories.
JS: Many thanks to Eloise for her time and for sharing her thoughts about her writing and her new book Letters From Afghanistan.
Letters from Afghanistan
Non-Fiction / Personal Memoirs
Buy a copy at Amazon
Reviewed by: Jeff Shelby, MyShelf.com
In the age of technology’s immediate response and email, Eloise Hanner reminds us of the power in a written letter.
Hanner’s Letters from Afghanistan recounts her time spent in Afghanistan as a member of the Peace Corps in the early 1970’s. Hanner tells her story by way of the letters that she wrote to her mother during her time away and, as a result has written a book that is both entertaining and involving.
Hanner takes us to a city in Afghanistan that most Americans have become familiar with for all the wrong reasons over the last two years. She is stationed in Kabul as an English teacher. Her vivid description of the capital city is strikingly different from what we now see on the evening news. Her early letters home are predictable for anyone who has ventured into a land that differs from the American landscape – frustration, confusion, exhaustion and self-doubt are evident in her first days in Afghanistan.
However, as her determination to succeed in her difficult task keeps pushing her forward, the tone of her letters begins to change and the hope, excitement and satisfaction she is experiencing are almost tangible on the pages. The people she encounters, the places she visits and the struggles she faces down become more compelling in each weekly letter she sends home.
While her story may be one that has been told before – stranger in a strange land – it is her chosen format of the letters that makes this book work. The letters are personal, simple and detail her experiences in a way that make it seem as if each letter was written to the reader rather than her mother. The letters share the range of emotions she goes through, yet manage to avoid being overly sentimental. Her final letter, written on her final night in the small house that became her home in Kabul, eloquently displays her conflicted emotions, as she is happy to be returning to the United States, yet saddened to leave a place that became her adopted home. In a traditional narrative format, Hanner would have been hard pressed to convey her feelings so succinctly to readers. In the letter, it is there for us to see.
Hanner admits in the epilogue that, given the chance today, she would probably not return to Afghanistan because of the violence and instability. A wise choice. Fortunately, though, Eloise Hanner did travel to Afghanistan thirty years ago and brought back a tremendous story that should be required reading for anyone looking to travel abroad and for anyone who just enjoys getting a good letter from a friend.