March 12, 2013

An Interview with Eleanor Stanford

Author Eleanor Stanford

It's Eleanor Stanford Week here at CCLaP! And in celebration of her new book with the center, the Peace Corps memoir Historia, Historia, I recently got a chance to "sit down" with Eleanor over Google Talk, where we text-chatted for about 45 minutes about how this book came about, her time in the Cape Verde Islands, and why she chose to include so much personal information in what's otherwise a book of academic essays. The transcript is long, so if you're viewing this via RSS or on the front page of our website, you'll want to click through to read the entire thing. Many thanks again to Eleanor for taking the time to talk with all of us like this; and I hope you'll come by again tomorrow for yet more supplemental information about this remarkable book.

CCLaP: Hi, everyone. It's early March 2013, and I'm being joined by Eleanor Stanford from...I think near Philadelphia? Is that right, Eleanor? Thanks for joining us!

Eleanor Stanford: Yes, just outside the city. Thanks for having me, Jason.

C: But that's not always been your base of operations, right? Obviously you spent several years in the Cape Verde Islands, which we'll be getting to, but I think you've also spent some time in Brazil? How often do you travel from place to place?

ES: Yes, I served in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde from 1998-2000, and lived with my family in Salvador, Brazil from 2009-2010. With three little kids, though, I don't get to travel as often as I might like.

C: So let's start at the beginning of all this and discuss how you ended up at Cape Verde in the first place. Does one specifically tell the Peace Corps where they'd like to go, or do you get assigned a random location?

ES: You can state a preference in terms of area. I said I'd go anywhere, but listed Africa as my first choice.

C: And how did the adjustment go when you first got there? You were in your early twenties at that point, if I have that correct, and I don't think you had done any international living before then, right?

ES: Yes, I had just graduated from college, and had never lived abroad before. The initial adjustment wasn't too bad. We had three months of training in the capital with all the other volunteers. I made some close friends in that group. It wasn't until we were sent to our site on a different island that it began to get more difficult.

C: Let's talk a little bit about the locals there on the islands, which I think is one of the more interesting things about the book. You ended up living for a while in an actual rural village there, and ended up getting a really deep look at the "national character," so to speak, a lot of which involved behavior that we Americans would find confusing or counter-intuitive to how we think of life.

ES: Yes, I think many Peace Corps volunteers, whether in a city or a more rural area, end up getting a something of an inside view of the culture. Part of that has to do with having an open, curious mind, and part of it has to do with being integrated into the local culture for a full two years. In any case, certain aspects of Cape Verdean culture were confusing or difficult for me to deal with-the machismo, for example--but overall, I found the Cape Verdeans I knew were extremely generous and warmhearted people. They tend to be very accepting of difference--physical, personality, whatever. I write about this in the book. They will not shy away from pointing out that someone is fat or skinny or lazy or light or dark-skinned. But at the same time it does not affect how that person is treated.

C: And this complexity applies to the local language as well, which is essentially a creole version of Portuguese, the nation with whom the islands used to be a colony. And not only only creole, but a different form of dialect depending on which of the islands you visit. You write about all this in such a nuanced, poetic way in the book, and I'm curious if you had this natural interest in language even before arriving, or whether the intricacies of learning essentially an oral-only language is what inspired you to write about it to such an extent.

ES: Thanks, Jason. I have a longstanding interest in languages. I taught myself Spanish when I was 12, and went on to study Spanish and French literature in college. I picked up Portuguese by hanging around my husband's family, who are Brazilian. But there was something uniquely fascinating to me about the Creole language. I think part of that is because I am a person who is so tied to the written word that learning an oral language was new and somewhat unsettling. It made me think more about the relationship between speech, writing, and music, the fluidity of language, the relationship between language and identity, and all sorts of other things.

C: Yes, certainly it seems, at least in the way you put it in the book, that the language there can so many times be a direct offshoot of the subtle moods and emotions that people are going through -- not a formal system imposed on a chaotic society, like a traditional Romance language, but more an organic outgrowth of how people actually interact with each other, if that makes sense.

ES: Yes. I think that must be the way language always arises, initially, but Creole is by its nature, always being created and recreated (the roots of the words "creole" and "create" are the same). You can't have a prescriptive grammar for such a language, the way you do for English or Spanish.

C: And then the other major event in your book is that you developed an eating disorder while there, even though you had no history of such behavior when younger. People can read the book itself for a lot more on that; but my question is whether it was difficult after the fact to decide that you were going to write about it as part of your memoir? There's not only the confessional angle but the fact that it would make your book of essays a much more complicated thing, when the easier and safer thing would be to just write a traditional Peace Corps memoir like everyone else does.

ES: Well, it wasn't much of a question for me. I knew that for the book to be honest, I had to include these experiences. I also feel that my eating disorder was so integrally related to my experience of Cape Verde and its culture that I didn't think I could leave it out. For me, both the eating disorder and the struggles I went through in my marriage provide a lot of the narrative arc of my experience in Cape Verde--and hence, the narrative arc of my book.

C: If I have this correct, this is your first book of prose, after mostly concentrating on poetry up to now in your literary career. What led you to take on your first narrative project, and how much do you feel your poetry background influenced how you wrote this?

ES: This is my first book of prose. I actually wrote the first draft of it years ago, though, soon after returning from the Peace Corps. I would consider myself primarily a poet, though. But whenever I went to write about Cape Verde, I felt I needed to explain more--it needed more context than poetry allowed. But I do feel my style is influence by my poetry background. I pay a great deal of attention to language, to how the words sound, and to image and metaphor.

C: How has the manuscript changed in the ten or so years between the first draft and now?

ES: The first draft wasn't chronological and had no narrative arc whatsoever. It also included some post-college academic posturing and its share overwrought, overly "poetic" writing.

C: Well, we're unfortunately out of time -- you're literally getting on a plane tomorrow and heading to AWP -- but I appreciate you gabbing with us for a bit. It's a great book and I'm glad it's finally coming out for others to see. Please come visit us in Chicago sometime soon!

ES: Thank you so much, Jason! It was great chatting with you.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:38 PM, March 12, 2013. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles |