30 January 2013

A Former Peace Corps Volunteer Explores Identity

A former Peace Corps volunteer has set out to write a memoir of her experiences while in Cote d'Ivoire a decade ago. For translator and travel writer Raven Moore, the experience altered her perception of identity. The basis for the writing represented both old and new motivations for memoirs about living in Africa. So, I asked Raven a few questions about her project to learn more about why she wants to share her experiences with a larger audience.

AVFTC: How did serving in the Peace Corps in Cote d'Ivoire influence you?
Raven: Peace Corps makes you strong in exactly the way you want to be strong. . . . . because you will have to learn to pick and choose your battles. Nonsense happens on an everyday basis in life and when you're living in another country it becomes an everyday minute. Some things you used to think were so important just can't be important anymore if you are going to survive abroad. Straight up.
Speak a bit about this idea of identity and how your understanding of it was altered while living in RCI (Côte d'Ivoire)?
Let's just say that my idea of identity was one way before Côte d'Ivoire and now it's very different. When you find out what "Padre" means, you will know how I feel about identity. I'm not making a reference to Spanish. The "Padre" I speak of comes from a language in Côte d'Ivoire.
It has been a decade since your PCV experience in RCI. Why write this book now? What has happened in the time since that led to the writing of this book?
It takes a very long time to write a book, even when you are working on it 8 hours a day. After the Peace Corps, I went back to Japan (lived there during university also) through the JET Program for two years to teach English and freshen up my Japanese. I went to grad school for linguistics and hated it. I've worked at big, corporate companies as a multilingual translator and interpreter. Going from grass roots to teaching to corporate is hard to do but, I finally relapsed back into Raven reality and realized that there is no me without writing. Some years, my book just sat on my computer all but forgotten and a tension headache every time I thought about the fact I wasn't working on it. You get a good job making a little money and you are temporarily content.
I would say, consolidated, that I've spent a total of 3 years, 65 hours, 45 minutes, and 2 seconds on writing this book. It was originally a bunch of scraps of paper that I would tear off in a moment's inspiration - an ice cream wrapper, a tiny brown piece of paper formerly filled with spices that came with the eggs I bought off the street during transport. I don't do diaries well. One day, I bunched up all my bits of paper together of sentences that reminded me of events or other impressive happenings and typed all of them up. Then, I began to see that it made more sense to put the jog-your-memory sentences into an outline. That outline turned into 15 or more pages. I slowly fleshed out each part of the outline over the years and to my amazement it ballooned, without much effort other than time and memory, into 500 pages on its own. I moved chapters around, paragraphs around, deleted entire sections that I originally thought were amazing, and got the number down. It's definitely not that big anymore and I'm glad I took as long as I did because Peace Corps is not the type of experience that you can understand overnight. Maybe even ever.
There is no shortage of memoirs of travelers in Africa or aid workers. What makes yours different?
There is no middle-classed, female, African-American version of the Peace Corps volunteer experience but, even still, the main point is that the focus is not going to be on me. It's a memoir but, it's written as an experience that anyone who loves adventure, identity exploration, and finding new ways to love and laugh, can relate to.
I have seen you say that the book 'must be heard.' Why?
This book 'must be heard' because it's the lives of people that are seldom heard - regular people like you and me who happen to have a very different life experience and so it gives them a unique point of view that we can all use to better navigate our own lives. Who am I? What am I? Why do I think this way? Why does she think that way? These are all things that people ask themselves everyday so why not continue the conversation with some different input?
Humor appears to be one of the important tools you will utilize in telling the story. What influenced this decision?
I'm a humorous person but, I forget that sometimes. When something weighs down on you, it's pretty hard to suddenly laugh about it but, if you don't, you can't move on. I want to tell this story and move on. What I experienced in the Peace Corps was very shocking, at times very painful, and revealing about who I am just as a personality. But, you can always look back at something and laugh at it and that's what I've managed to do with "Padre." In the end, I was there to help other people, not focus on my own difficulties.
Rather than work through traditional publishing means, you are raising money through Kickstarter and self-publishing. Why go in this direction?
I think self-publishing is reality. You can see what you're made of and see what you can learn. If the meter for success in this effort is millionaire success then it's not realistic on a first go round to self-publish but, if your focus is becoming a prolific author then self-publishing works just fine. I would love to be a "successful" writer but, who knows what other people will think of my writing. It's great to have a guide in a new realm, in this case publishing but, it shouldn't feel like parenting where you can't sign off on your own field trip. You should feel like the bird getting pushed out of the nest.
You choose a jazz song for your Kickstarter video. In what ways does jazz influence or represent your writing?
Jazz to me is happy. Even through the jazz music that seems to be screaming in sorrow, you can hear a fight and will to survive. I want people to take in the Peace Corps experience, or any other volunteer experience, for what it really is and then still celebrate the characters that play in it. Find a connection with Ivoirians and decide to work with them or get to know them the same way you get to know England or Japan or Brazil on a holiday trip. Regardless of their current, post-colonial, discombobulated state, there is as much order in who Ivoirians have always been originally as there is in any other country. That 'must' be highlighted and preserved.
Raven explains her project further in a video she made for her Kickstarter campaign (click through if you are having trouble opening the video):