Wednesday, January 28, 2009

February Mission to Honduras

In February, I’ll be back in Honduras again for my fourth visit there since leaving Peace Corps five years ago. I plan to check on kids I took for surgery last time, also to visit my old haunts. However, my main task will be to help out with a medical brigade sent yearly by International Health Service of Minneapolis to villages outside La Esperanza. Their brigade is mentioned in the epilogue of my book under the subheading Las Hortensias. We’ll be sleeping in tents and using a solar-heated shower. I will report back on these pages.

Obama’s Inauguration

The big event on January 20 was the presidential inauguration. Though we didn't have tickets, we started out walking fairly early from Capitol Hill, but streets kept being blocked off as we walked along, deviating us always further south. We got to the Wash. Monument just as the swearing-in was starting, standing behind a Jumbotron, so we couldn't see, only hear. Folks were perched up in trees and on top of port-a-potties. Still, it was fun to be part of that enthusiastic crowd, undaunted by cold and wall-to-wall people. Next to us were a man who had come from Nigeria for the occasion and several shivering girls from Hawaii. In 1983, when I heard MLK give his "Dream" speech, seeing him as just a tiny figure in the far distance, I didn’t realize at the time that it would be considered such an historic occasion. Obama's inauguration will be remembered as equally or more historic, but many more people were involved. Although the view from our vantage point was completely blocked, at least we can all say we were there, at Obama's first swearing-in, part of those 1.8 million or so happy souls.

Book Party

On Sunday, Jan. 18, we held a book party at my house, which ended up competing with Obama outdoor concert-goers. My daughter Stephanie, who came out from Hawaii for the inauguration, attended the party, as did my daughter Melanie from SC, granddaughter Natasha and baby son from northern Va., and many friends. However, some got caught in concert traffic and had to turn around. One attendee said he spent six hours en route! Besides celebrating the launching of my book, the party welcomed a Honduran family new to this country. The husband/father is Gilberto Flores, a Honduran environmental activist, whom I had helped obtain political asylum in this country. Gilberto, father of nine (two still in Honduras for being over age 21), had recently been laid off his construction job. Party-goers contributed $300 to his family and I’m happy to report that now he is working again, on a job at the Pentagon, where only legal residents, such as himself, are hired. He was a subsistence farmer in Honduras, so living here has meant a huge change. Since he left Honduras, he told us, as many as ten members of his environmental movement, mostly opposed to the clear-cutting of forests, especially mahogany, have been mysteriously murdered. Thanks to any readers who contributed to the family.

Fake Cover

Meanwhile, if you wondered about the fake cover posted, with its fake quote from President Carter, that’s the handiwork of my younger daughter Stephanie, who dug up a photo of me grimacing and added the lightening bolt, referring to an episode in the book when I was almost hit by lightning. Who knows, that cover might attract more sales than the actual one!

Regarding Carter’s Statement

Readers have asked about the significance of the terse one-sentence quote from former President Jimmy Carter on the upper back cover of my book, “Barbara: Best wishes with your book.” There is a story behind that simple sentence. I first met President Carter when my late former husband worked for him, hence the photo in the book of my family with Carter in 1979. After that, I met Mrs. Carter at several mental health venues I covered as a writer/editor for an occupational therapy publication. I also ran into former President Carter occasionally when we intersected on election monitoring missions (he’s mentioned in the book regarding his presence at the 1990 Nicaraguan elections). He greeted me warmly each time and when my older son died, he sent me a handwritten condolence note.

Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian, a nurse, joined the Peace Corps in her sixties and went to India. A collection of her letters written during that period was published and later President Carter wrote a book about her, including a recap of her Peace Corps service. I sent him a letter about his book, telling him that I was writing a Peace Corps book myself. He sent back the first page of my letter with a hand-written note, wishing me well for my book, the sentence quoted above and on the back cover. Encouraged by his note, I replied, asking whether one of his staff members would be able to review a draft of my book to see whether he would be willing to write an endorsement. I enclosed a print-out of the prologue and some other excerpts. However, that letter was intercepted by a staff member who told me politely, but firmly, that Pres. Carter had no time for such foolishness. So, I had to content myself with his original handwritten note. Perhaps his staffer was acting on his instructions, perhaps not. In person, Carter is very approachable and, quite understandably, his staff must protect him from unnecessary encroachments on his time and goodwill. So that’s why that sentence is so brief. If I should meet President Carter sometime in the future and personally give him a copy of the book, he might then be kind enough to write me a longer endorsement. That would make it worth coming out with a second edition. It also has been suggested that my book be submitted to Oprah, something I’m not actively pursuing myself. That’s the dream of any new author, but would be a real long shot.

Always Room for Improvement

Like any author, especially in the digital age when making changes is not impossible, at the point that I finally saw my book in a print proof, there were certain things I considered changing. In fact, there is always a temptation to keep on making refinements and improvements ad infinitum. But changing a pdf file, which is how the book was submitted, is not actually all that easy and my going back and forth with Amazon publishing staff would have meant additional delays.
What were some potential changes? TJ, my resident design consultant and I would have preferred a less glossy cover and one a slightly paler shade of blue, closer to the actual color of the Honduran flag. In fact, we printed out such a cover ourselves at Kinko’s, but duplicating it was hard to convey to the Amazon folks. I also realized that I had not taken sufficient care with the photo captions. The caption for the photo of my dad assembling the maize god statue in 1941 starts “Father Leonard,” which might seem to identify him as a priest, hardly the case. Likewise, the photo of me with that same statue could have used the explanatory phrase “more than 60 years later.” However, the text does give a fuller explanation. So it wasn’t worth going through the machinations of changing those captions. I also debated whether to include a photo of a latrine (not one in use), but thought that might have been too crude.

Finally, there are items I edited out of the current version, originally twice as long. Agents told me to “cut,” and I did so with a vengeance, perhaps too aggressively. I would never restore the book to that excessive length, but I have had second thoughts about eliminating a conversation I had with one of my late foster son’s sisters, a physician in Cuba whom I had imagined to be somewhat sophisticated. When she asked me how her brother could possibly have gotten AIDS, I said, “Well, of course, he was gay.” She took immediate offense, “He was never gay here—if he became gay, that was the fault of the decadent USA.” At that point, obviously, I shut up and said no more. And there was the sad coincidence that my older son died on my daughter Melanie’s birthday, always making that a bittersweet occasion. If I should ever decide on a second edition, some of these changes and additions could be made. For now, they are not crucial and I’m quite satisfied with the book as-is.

While popular authors like Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris admit that their so-called non-fiction is only about 90 or 95% true (what are the untrue parts?), I can vouchsafe that my book is all true. Maybe I didn’t include every detail and caveat, but neither did I exaggerate or add items to enhance it.

Self-Publishing Decision

My book, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, based on monthly letters posted on a website over the 40-month period that I was in the Peace Corps, was written off-and-on between stints with my failing elderly mother, working as a Spanish interpreter, and volunteering for an array of causes, as well as making several return trips to Honduras and elsewhere, including to Mexico, Sudan, and Germany for humanitarian activities . I’d leave the book for a while, then pick it up again and send out queries to agents. All first-time authors I knew had managed to obtain a personal referral to an agent or publisher, something I lacked, but I continued to doggedly pursue mainstream publishing options. The author of several best sellers recommended self-publishing since, she said, author payments were shrinking and authors had to do all the promotion themselves anyway. A number of successful self-published authors also recommend I try it, but, for a while, I stubbornly held out.

I did get responses from a few agents (some of whom moved around agencies or left the business) and also comments from editors and other critics. All said “Shorten your manuscript,” which I did. But other advice was not so easy to follow: “Don’t discuss the deaths of your son and foster son—too morbid; it sets the wrong tone for people expecting more of a travelogue and detracts from the main story.” Well, I didn’t see how I could eliminate that most impactful and searing experience of my life and be in any way honest. So, I ignored that recommendation, but tried to warn readers in advance in promotional materials and the preface and introduction.

Likewise, some critics opined that Triumph & Hope was a clichéd title, notwithstanding that the title pays tribute to the two towns where I was stationed. (Try telling Barak Obama that “Hope” is too clichéd to be included in his book’s title or campaign literature.) “Write in the present tense,” “write only in the past tense,” “include more dialogue,” “forget about photos, a complication for publishers,” “create more of a narrative arc,” these and other comments had my head spinning. Finally, I brushed everything aside, writing in both past and present tenses, including photos, and keeping the contents pretty much the same. After all, this was a narrative of a segment of my life as I had lived it. I had to stick to the facts.

As mainstream publishers began laying off staff and the recession deepened, I knew that continuing to seek an outside publisher would be an exercise in futility. Besides, my book was aimed largely at baby boomers who are retiring now. At this point, quite fortuitously, TJ, a young graphic designer moved into my house, referred byan acquaintance, as with all my housemates. Together, we laid out the book and sent the pdf file to Amazon’s printing arm and the result is the book you have before you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book signing party--big success

Despite competition from Barak Obama and company on the mall, my book signing party held January 18 was a big success, with over 70 participants who braved terrible traffic to arrive. My author's order of 100 books is now almost gone. My daughters Melanie (from NC) and Stephanie (Hawaii) were there, as well as granddaughter Natasha and her baby, DeAndre. The party also collected $300 for the family of Honduran environmentalist Gilberto Flores, who attended with his numerous family. Gilberto, who works in construction, has been out of work for some time. I thank one and all who attended and braved traffic to be there. I plan to return to Honduras to work with a Minnesota group conducting a medical brigade--the same one mentioned in the Epilogue of my book under the subtitle Hortensias Brigade. We'll be camping out in tents and using a solar-heated shower. Will report here after my return, Barbara

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Correction Chapter 13

At the end of the chapter on religion, Chapter 13, there is a photo identified to me at the time as a statue of San Martin de Porras. But now a scholar familiar with that saint says that's a sometimes used, but rare spelling, the most common being Porres. Found the following excerpt after folks had insisted that his name was spelled Porres, not Porras, but no, it turns out that Porras is an equally acceptable spelling, endorsed by none other than UNESCO. After all, we are talking about someone who lived in the 1600s when spelling rules were probably not so exact UNESCO's programme aiming at preservation and dissemination of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide.
"Letter by Brother Martín de Porras concerning the retrocession of a power of attorney assigned to Joan de Porras. Lima, 28 January 1636. f. 135 - 135v. Protocol N° 2000. Diego Jaramillo (1635-1636). Photo related to the Nomination Peru - Notarial Protocolos of the sixteenth to twentieth Centuries Martín de Porras, a saint who performed miracles and displayed humility, charity and discipline. The Church honoured him by Papal Bull of 29 October 1837 which provided for his beatification and by the Bull of 6 May 1962 which cannonized him."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's here, folks, everything you wanted to know about Peace Corps service but were afraid to ask, available now through, Triumph & Hope

Search for Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras by Barbara E. Joe, search either by title or author's name on

When the author announced plans to join the Peace Corps in her 60s, a male friend was skeptical, predicting her prompt return home, "by Christmas at the latest." But thanks to the welcoming folks of two towns El Triunfo, 'The Triumph', and La Esperanza, 'The Hope' acknowledged in her book's title, she extended her stay beyond the usual term and finally made peace with the tragedy of her son's untimely death. A powerful, inspiring personal story that offers an intimate look inside Peace Corps service, showing that no matter what your age and circumstances, you can always forge a new direction. Readers will experience, step-by-step, what Peace Corps service is really like, its ups and downs, adventures and challenges. Ample illustrations enhance the text. Baby boomers considering their next life passage will be especially interested in this frank and moving recital.

Barbara E. Joe, a native of Boston, is a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator living on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. She is the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles and several technical books. This is her first book for a general audience. Readers are invited to sign onto her blog, post comments and questions, and get updates on her periodic return visits to Honduras,

If readers care to post favorable comments on Amazon and/or my blog, that would be appreciated.