October 1, 2014
I’m very pleased that one of my short stories, “Eggs,” is included in an anthology released today by the independent publishing house, Press 53. Edited by Cliff Garstang, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet includes 20 stories set in 20 countries around the world.
“Eggs,” which is set in the Central African Republic, first appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review in 2007. It also became the starting point for the novel that I’ve been working on for the past several years. How wonderful to have new life breathed into the story, and finer still to see it in such good company, alongside stories about a soccer game in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mysterious disappearance in Argentina, a quarreling couple in Kazakhstan, a visit with Chairman Mao’s embalmed remains in China, and much more.
The book is available for purchase either directly from the publisher or through Amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Everywhere-Stories-Short-Fiction-Planet/dp/1941209114
April 1, 2013
For anyone with an interest in East Africa, the crossing of cultural divides, or issues of identity in a world that seems to keep getting smaller, I recommend M.G. Vassanji’s beautiful new novel, The Magic of Saida. The book follows Kamal Punja, the son of a Tanzanian woman and an absent Indian father, as he returns to Tanzania after 35 years in Canada to find out what happened to his childhood playmate and adolescent love, Saida.
But there is more to his mission than realizing a long-ago promise to return to Saida, or possibly rekindling an old flame. Kamal’s midlife crisis is one of identity: how can he reconcile his African, Indian and Canadian selves? For my full review, which appeared last week in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click the link below:
January 6, 2013
“In Sri Lanka you can actually see the heat. Steam rises off the ground and off the leaves when it rains; the air is choked with humidity.”
–The Beach at Galle Road
One way to defy the cold winter months is to sit indoors wrapped in a blanket, reading a book of fiction set in the heat of the tropics. With that prescription in mind, I’m recommending Joanna Luloff’s artfully written collection of stories set in Sri Lanka, The Beach at Galle Road, recently published by Algonquin Books.
With a diverse cast of linked characters—ranging from old and young, women and men, Sri Lankan and American—Luloff shows us a side of Sri Lanka unique to her experience and insight as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s. Despite the diversity of her characters, they are all impacted to one degree or another by the 26-year conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that finally ended in 2009 when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers.
The first half of the book focuses on a family in the south, distant from the worst effects of the civil war but hardly immune from it. Janaki and Mohan have two daughters and take in Peace Corps volunteers for extra cash. Their biggest run-in with the war comes when Janaki’s sister comes to stay with them after she has lost her husband to the hostilities. The second half of the book focuses on a family in the north, that of Kamala, Nilan, their three sons, and a daughter, Nilanthi, who was a student of one of the Peace Corps volunteers that lived in Janaki’s house. Even as their lives are irreversibly and tragically impacted by the conflict, Luloff’s beautiful prose and well-wrought characters remind us of the universal truth behind the adage, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
December 1, 2012
In honor of World AIDS Day, I’d like to share my essay, “A Face in a Village,” about a Central African nurse I met twenty years ago. It appeared earlier this year in the American Journal of Nursing.
To read it, click here.
October 7, 2012
As a fan of Sherman Alexie’s short stories, I was thrilled to get my hands on an early copy of Blasphemy, his just-released book of 15 new stories and 15 previously-collected classics, like “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” “The Toughest Indian in the World,” and “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” on which he based his screenplay for the movie Smoke Signals.
Whether you’re fan of Alexie or a newcomer, I highly recommend this collection. Both his new and re-published stories offer the wry, frank handling of Native American life that people have come to expect from him. Take, for example, the woman in “The Approximate Size of My favorite Tumor,” who leaves her man because he can’t stop joking about his malignant tumors. “[M]aking fry bread and helping people die,” she tells him, “are the last two things Indians are good at.”
At 53 pages, the longest story in the bunch is “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?,” the tale of a man grieving for his parents by playing basketball. Normally a description like that wouldn’t entice me one bit, but the story is so brilliant and touching, it brought me to tears. Much shorter are some of the two- to four-page short-shorts, like “Idolatry,” which ends with this perfect line: “In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.” I only wish I’d come up with that line myself!
August 28, 2012
I’m thrilled that The Civilized World has been awarded the 2012 Maria Thomas Fiction Award by Peace Corps Writers. Not only is it flattering to receive this recognition, I’m also pleased that the award carries the name of an author whom I greatly respect. Maria Thomas, whose real name was Roberta Worrick, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia from 1971 to 1973. She wrote three books of fiction set in Africa before tragically dying in 1989 in the same plane crash that killed Congressman Mickey Leland. Each year, Peace Corps Writers bestows an award named after her to a book of fiction written by a former volunteer and published in the previous year.
A few months after Maria Thomas died, I read her book, Antonia Saw the Oryx First, as I prepared to depart for my Peace Corps service in the Central African Republic. Although the book’s setting, Tanzania, turned out to be quite different from the Central African Republic, I was nonetheless caught up in the well-wrought story of Antonia, a white doctor who has lived most of her life in Africa, and Esther, the African prostitute who is one of her patients and has healing powers of her own.
It’s wonderful to see, more than two decades later, that Maria Thomas’ legacy lives on, not just through her books, but also through this award.
To check out the winners of this year’s Peace Corps Writers awards in all categories (nonfiction, poetry, travel writing, etc.) you can see their blog by clicking
August 2, 2012
Once upon a time, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, I overdosed on giardia medicine. That experience inspired me, 20 years later, to write an essay (published this month in Urbanite’s “Stories” issue) about why I love to read.
If you want to know what a nasty case of intestinal parasites has to do with an affinity for books, you can read the essay online by clicking
June 25, 2012
My recommendation this time around is a summer read for kids, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Jennifer Gennari. (Full disclosure: Jennifer and I were freshman roommates at Vassar College). Since the book is written for children years 9 and up, you wouldn’t expect it to inspire much controversy—until you learn that it deals with the issue of civil unions.
Twelve-year-old June Farrell lives in Vermont after civil unions were made legal. When her single mom plans to marry her girlfriend, Eva, their family gets caught in the “Take Back Vermont” backlash against civil unions. While many reviewers have applauded the book for its content as well as writing (School Library Journal wrote “This strong, vibrant novel looks at a complicated issue without didacticism or platitudes…staying true to the heart of the protagonist”), a few Amazon reviewers have given it low rankings based solely on their bias that the topic isn’t appropriate for children. This controversy brings to mind Kameron Slade, the New York City fifth-grader recently barred from making a speech on same-gender marriage to his school. As a result, he was asked by a local news station to give his speech on TV—a speech that promptly went viral, reaching more than 350,000 views on YouTube last I checked.
I can think of several wonderful books—To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Color Purple—that became all the more popular among school-age children (and adults) after they were banned. Maybe Jennifer will be lucky enough to get her book banned somewhere and see it go viral, too!
In the end, what I like most about My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer is the fact that June is just a regular kid whose mom happens to be a lesbian. Like it or not, in the coming years there are going to be more and more children’s stories with characters whose families—as in real life—don’t fit the traditional one-mom-one-dad mold.
To read more about Jennifer and her book, check out her website
May 14, 2012
Instead of recommending a book, CD, or film this month, I’m making a plug for an annual event near Washington, DC: the Gaithersburg Book Festival. If you live in the area and have already attended this event, you know it brings together outstanding local and national authors of fiction and nonfiction for all ages. If you haven’t gone before, then this weekend is your opportunity to check it out. The event, which is free, will take place from 10 to 6 on Saturday, May 19 at the Gaithersburg City Hall grounds. I had the pleasure of giving a book talk/reading there last year; this year, I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing other authors—including Steve Coll, Eric D. Goodman, Alma Katsu, and Richard Peabody—talk about their work. I hope to see you there!
For more information, or to download the schedule, click here.
April 16, 2012
Each month, I recommend a work of literature, music, or film that is too good not to share.
This month’s recommendation is for Zemelewa, an album of African music by Zieti, a band made up of two Ivoirian and two American musicians. Unlike most of the African sounds that get released in the U.S. (think Congolese soukous and Ivoirian coupé-décalé), Zieti’s music is a fusion of sounds that is almost impossible to categorize. In their review of the album, The Washington Post cited influences that range from funk and jazz to Highlife and Yoruba music, along with blues, rock, and Latin and Cajun music. And yet, it’s not just a reinvention and blending of these other forms of music—the musicians that make up Zieti have created a sound all their own, with vocals in Guéré (and a smattering of French) that don’t need to be understood to be appreciated.
With its members currently located on opposite ends of the earth, it took more than a decade (and a whole lot of perseverance) for the band to record and finish Zemelewa. Although I hope it won’t take as long for their next effort, this one was certainly worth the wait.
Copies of Zemelewa are available from CDBaby by clicking here.