Today I’m welcoming Susan Corbett, author of In the Belly of the Elephant, to Readsalot. She’s talking about her experiences in Africa and what it was like to write about her years in the Peace Corps.
What inspired you to write your memoir?
When I came home from Africa in 1982, people would ask me, “How was it?” How do you explain five years of an experience that changed your life in one brief conversation? I had also kept detailed journals the entire time I was in Africa. In 1991, after I had married and had my 2 boys, I quit working full time to be with my small children. I started reading my journals again and realized I wanted to share my story with the world.
What’s your favorite part about the writing process?
I love structuring stories. I had flip charts up all over the walls with story structure, charts tracking characters, events, myths, etc. I also love the actual writing of the story. I love language and tried to describe Africa and my experiences in words that put the reader in the scene with all 5 senses. I love writing about place. I loved reliving so many of the things that happened to me and remembering the people who had such an impact on me. I love the act of sharing what I learned through story.
If readers could only learn only one thing from your life story, what would you want that lesson to be?
Go out and discover the world!! It is so important to experience and try to understand other people, other cultures, other perspectives. It is the only way there will ever be peace in our world.
Are you planning to publish more of your life story? If so, when can we expect it?
Writing In the Belly of the Elephant was a gut-wrenching, ego smashing, act of sending my naked soul out for the whole world to see. I don’t plan on writing another memoir. HOWEVER, I am currently writing a mystery series about a group of women (based on my old high school buddies) my age (50’s) who go traveling and get embroiled in local unsolved mysteries. These books will be full of my life experiences, my perspective, my love of place and travel, and the lessons I want to share with the world. I have chosen this path because more people read fiction. Fiction is easier on the body and soul to write and more fun.
Is there anecdote from your time in Africa that didn’t make it into your memoir which can share with us?
Hmmm. A funny one. I was traveling through West Africa with some Peace Corps friends. We were taking local transport which entails a lot of waiting and sitting. Consequently, I had become very constipated. A friend we had visited had given me a baggie of loose tea to help with the constipation. When we came to the border check point to enter Ghana, one of the soldiers went through my back pack and found the bag of tea. Thinking it was marijuana (illegal throughout Africa) they put me in a back room for questioning. Usually at this point, one is expected to bribe one’s way out of a situation. Instead, I spent a lot of time explaining in a very animated way, that I had a bad case of constipation and that the baggy was tea to help me poop. The soldiers found this so funny, they let me go without a bribe. Africans love humor. Using my sense of humor got me out of a lot of touchy situations.
What’s the most amusing thing that happened to you while writing In The Belly of the Elephant?
Reading through my journals and reliving the many, many times I spent laughing with Peace Corps and African friends was a lot of fun. Living in Africa, I often found myself in situations (like the one above) that could have been real downers and even dangerous, had I not chosen to find and/or insert humor into the mix. It seems to be a universal truth that people respond positively to humor as long as they are included in the humor and not the brunt of it.
~ About the Book ~
Title: In The Belly of the Elephant
Author: Susan Corbett
Genre: Non Fiction/Memoir
Date Published: December 18, 2013
~ Synopsis ~
Everybody needs to run away from home at least once. Susan Corbett told people she was out to save the world, but really she was running — running from her home as much as to anywhere. Like many women, she was searching for meaning to her life or for a good man to share it with. In Africa, she hoped to find both.
Compelling and compassionate, In the Belly of the Elephant is Susan’s transformative story of what happens when you decide to try to achieve world peace while searching for a good man. More than a fish-out-of-water story, it’s a surprising and heart-rending account of her time in Africa trying to change the world as she battles heat, sandstorms, drought, riots, intestinal bugs, burnout, love affairs and more than one meeting with death. Against a backdrop of vivid beauty and culture, in a narrative interwoven with a rich tapestry of African myths and fables, Susan learns the true simplicity of life, and discovers people full of kindness, wisdom and resilience, and shares with us lessons we, too, can learn from her experiences.
~ About The Author ~
A writer, community organizer, and consultant in program management, micro-enterprise development, family planning, and HIV/AIDS education, Susan Corbett began her community development career in 1976 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in a health clinic in Liberia, West Africa. In 1979, she joined Save the Children Federation as a program coordinator for cooperative and small business projects in Burkina Faso. In 1982, Susan returned to the States where she has worked with local non-profits in drug and alcohol prevention for runaway youth, family planning, homelessness prevention, and immigrant issues.
Susan has traveled to over 40 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean, and Central and North America and has lived and worked in ten African countries over the past thirty years (Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, The Gambia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Liberia). She lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, her sons, Mitch & Sam, and her dog, Molly.