THE BOOK: SIT AND CRY: Two Years In the Land of Smiles.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Burgess Needle
THE EDITOR: My manuscript has been read and critiqued by so many friends and colleagues, it would be impossible to list them all.
THE PUBLISHER: Wren Song Press. This is a small press located in Middlebury, Vermont. It is owned and operated by Win Colwell who did a thoughtful , creative and intelligent job of formatting the text, placement of photographs and designing the front and back cover of my book.
SUMMARY: SIT AND CRY is a day-by-day account of the author’s life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in the late 1960s. The narrative offers the reader insights into rural Thai life and culture, the impact of the Vietnam War, the angst of living in a completely strange environment, the struggles of trying to communicate in an alien language, loneliness and the desire for love or at least physical contact. We join the author as he eats fried morning glory leaves, enormous duck eggs with gigantic orange yolks and some of the tastiest, and hottest, food on the planet. Needle tries to sleep beneath an all-too-short mosquito net and wonders if the giant Dookeh lizard above his head will ever loose its grasp of the ceiling. The narrative paints a picture of an area surrounded by red clay dust, unfamiliar smells, constant humid heat, buzzing insects, and the lack of America’s creature comforts. Yet all of this is overshadowed by the affection, the curiosity, and the countless small kindnesses of his fellow teachers. The kind people of Nang Rong Village, each of whom is laboring for their own survival, reach out to welcome him We are also with him as he experiences intestinal distress and as he struggles to make a home for himself home in The Land of Smiles. Just as we develop an affection for his Thai room mate, we find our casual preconceptions dropping away as we sense our own affection for these village folk and get a tiny peek at how others see us. This memoir also documents a critical point in time, the late 1960s, for Americans in southeast Asia. Whether or not one lived through the turbulent Sixties, this volume offers a singularly unique perspective on that era.
THE BACK STORY: This book is based on journal entries and letters back home to family and friends in the States during the two years I lived in NE Thailand. The first few drafts of this book included fairly sparse, chronological descriptions of day-to-day activities. As time passed, I gathered more letters and discussed my experiences with other volunteers. I re-read the narrative and began to fill in some entries with memories that came back to me over time and that were shaken loose after poring over a collection of photographs I’d taken with my tiny, Canon camera. As a member of the Southern Arizona Writing Project I learned the importance of specific details, local color and the need for a story’s forward momentum. There was never any doubt in my mind I was working on a book, but with passing decades I began to wonder if all my experiences would ever see the light of day on published pages. Then: I retired from public education; my wife died; I reconnected with a girlfriend from half a century ago and moved from Arizona to be with her in Vermont. Marcia comes from a family of writers and within the happy milieu of Vermont’s climate and her constant reassurance that my manuscript was worth finishing, I managed to end up with a finished product. A local publisher, Win Colwell, took it from there and helped with formatting and art work until that wonderful moment when everything went to the printer and I soon had the joy of seeing the shiny cover and over three hundred pages of text to reflect to the world my experiences so long ago in a place so very far away.
WHY THIS TITLE? The name of my Thai village, Nang Rong, literally translates as Sit and Cry. Those who read the book will get the back story of how the village received that name. Thailand is also known as The Land of Smiles. Thus: SIT AND CRY: Two Years in the Land of Smiles.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? This book is a carefully crafted memoir, in a traditional format, of a place and time that no longer exists. The author’s experiences are recalled in precise detail and recorded for the purpose of preservation more than entertainment. The narrative will be appealing to a large cross-section of readers because of the way Needle summons back experiences in deep, sensory detail. As his old self gradually changes in new surroundings, Needle’s cultural evolution will appeal to even a casual reader. Anyone who has lived overseas for an extended period of time, especially other Peace Corps Volunteers, will be attracted to reading about rural Thailand’s sense of being almost half a century ago and what it felt like to be in a village that suffered its first traffic fatality, suddenly had 24 hour a day electricity and began replacing banana leaves for plastic baggies – all within a two year time frame.
” I am not a memoir reader, but having read Burgess‘ poems, I knew his book would keep my interest. Sit and Cry is so much more than a memoir; it’s a history lesson, it’s an authentic glimpse into Thai culture, as well as a time capsule of what it was like for those early Peace Corps volunteers. My parents were also Peace Corps volunteers in the sixties, and Burgess‘ book provided me with insight into their experience in a personal way I was unable to receive from them first hand. I taught English to students in a very poor community in Tampico, Mexico in 1999, and his descriptions of the challenges associated with being the only teacher who did not inflict corporal punishment – and the feeling of “this could take years” – rang so true for me.
“”I marked a passage every other page that I wanted to reread – such as the description of his joint birthday party with his lovable roommate, Wisut: “Strangely enough, the one song everyone knew and joined in to sing together was Hava Nagila. We surely live on a united planet.
“Sit and Cry is a testament to our capacity as human beings to grow and adapt, to find the “familiar” in what was once foreign. I have already recommended the book to friends and family!” — Amy Rusk, Tucson-Pima Public Library
“One of the best Peace Corps memoirs. Starts out as a fish out of water narrative and ends with Needle becoming a mensch on the Mekong, comfortable in Thai culture. The book is organized as a day to day account so the reader gets a sense of the kinds of encounters experienced by an English teacher in a remote Thai village in the 1960’s and the development of the author’s strategies to succeed and survive. Needle has as a keen observant eye for people, Thai culture. and what Malinowski called the imponderabilia of daily life. Very well written.” — Roger Neustadter , Professor in the Social Science department, Northwest Missouri State University. Peace Corps Volunteer [Thailand XVIII)
“I read these stories and I can smell Thailand. Burgess Needle has the gift of bringing the reader into his world, letting us taste his food, making his friends ours. The attention to detail is extraordinary, and the author’s sensitivity does him credit. None of us can go back and live someone else’s adventure, so I’m grateful for this generous glimpse into a great exotic journey.” — Bonnie Marson, author [Sleeping With Schubert]
AUTHOR PROFILE: I was born in Boston, but grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. My B.A. in English is from the University of Massachusetts in 1967. After graduation I joined the Peace Corps and taught English as a Second Language in the village of Nang Rong, Thailand from 1967 to 1969. Following Peace Corps, I worked at a variety of jobs including: a factory that produced cans and a factory that produced rolls of plastic. Common sense eventually prevailed and I moved to Tucson, Arizona where I attended the University of Arizona and earned an M.Ed with a minor in School Library Science. For the next thirty years I happily worked as a school librarian at various sites within the Tucson Unified School District. My students remember me for my scary first person presentations on the life and times of Edgar Allan Poe. The ceiling of my school’s library glowed with constellations, so I presented book talks that dealt with the mythologies of the stars. During the 1980s I co-edited a poetry journal (with Michael Rattee) titled Prickly Pear/Tucson and for a few years was a co-facilitator with the Southern Arizona Writing Project. My first collection of poems, Every Crow in the Blue Sky, was published by Diminuendo Press in 2009. My second collection. THAI COMIC BOOKS, was published by Big Table Publishing, 2013. I am currently working on a novel. After my wife died, I reconnected with a hazel-eyed woman of great wit, charm and beauty, named Marcia. We’d been together half a century before in Vermont. Thus it was, in the great loop of life, I sold my Tucson home and moved back with her to the Green Mountain State where we happily abide with woods all around and the sound of rushing water coming through the bedroom window. My poetry and fiction has appeared in Connotation Press, Blackbox Manifold (UK), Concho River Review, Raving Dove, Boston Literary Magazine, Centrifugal Eye, Iodine, Blue Lake Review, Nutshell (UK), Liquid Imagination and DeComp among others.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: After I retired, my bucket list included publishing: a collection of poems; my Thailand memoir; a novel; a collection of short stories and a play. The poems are out [see: EVERY CROW IN THE BLUE SKY]; my Thailand memoir has been published [see: SIT AND CRY: TWO YEARS IN THER LAND OF SMILES]; I have a published collection of short stories being considered for publication and I’m fine-tuning a novel that’s already received a positive review from KIRKUS. Somewhere in a dusty, hard-drive there is an almost forgotten, three-act play, I need to resurrect and bring back to life. Along with my new life and love in Vermont, these accomplishments have made me a very happy man. Consequently, I hope Vishnu does not wake up any time soon and make me disappear along with everything else.
Journal Entry — May 14, 1967
I woke up to the sound of roosters crowing. Boston was 12,000 miles and a few hundred years away. Intense sunlight poured into my room. For some reason hundreds of scraps of magazines and newspapers were scattered around my house, so I worked my way out of my morning’s daze by stumbling around picking them up. My stomach felt queasy. I drank quite a bit of water from the rain barrel (they did say rain barrel, didn’t they?). At noon, someone from the school came by and asked if I would like to walk with him to the market. He seemed to be so familiar with me I was too embarrassed to ask his name. I threw some water on my face, slicked back my hair and walked with him through my new green world to the shops. I bought an iron, a radio, a shirt and a very solid bicycle. Even after forking over the equivalent of $35 worth of baht I still felt rich. The shopkeepers seemed undecided about what degree of deference I deserved, but they were certainly friendly and laughing with my fellow teacher. In all the conversations I heard that morning, I identified no more than a few nouns.
Even though there were dogs barking, children laughing and the wheels of buffalo carts squeaking around me, there was also a strange stillness I didn’t recognize at first: no traffic, no horns, no planes. As I pushed my new bicycle back home I came face to face with a small crowd of officials, including: the Buriram Police Chief, the commander of the border patrol, the Nang Rong Police Chief, his lieutenant and a few other local officials who all seemed eager to shake my hand. With the exception of the lieutenant, everyone spoke to me in a mixture of Bangkok Thai, local slang and what I took to be Cambodian. I just kept nodding my head and saying thank you. Eventually, most of them took off and I was left with the lieutenant who said, “They are all very happy you will go to the party at the Police Chief ’s house.”
I was not at all happy with this turn of events because I didn’t want the townspeople to associate me with either police or military.
“Yes,” he said. “You told them you would be happy to go and you thanked them very politely. They think you are very smart.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t really understand everything they said,” I admitted.
“Don’t worry. Mai pen rai. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, it means ‘never mind.’”
“Yes, and it’s true. Don’t worry about anything. Everybody likes you.”
A policeman came by later that evening and escorted me to the chief ’s house. About a dozen or so officials were already there, along with the headmaster and many from the police force, and they all insisted I have a drink. From the back of the room, my headmaster seemed to stare right through me. I tried to keep the whiskey as diluted as possible with soda water and ice. The chief shouted for everyone to be quiet through a microphone connected to a pair of huge loudspeakers. He pointed to me and I think he said a few nice things about Peace Corps and how smart I was. Everyone applauded.
“The party is for his birthday,” the lieutenant whispered in my ear. “Hold up your glass and say something and I will translate.”
I held up my glass, the lieutenant got everyone’s attention and I toasted the chief his good health and happy birthday. The translation took much longer. Much, much longer! Big applause. The chief walked over and gave me a great, big hug. We all retreated to another room where tables were already loaded with food. I sat with the lieutenant, the chief and a group of civilians, which might have included the nai amphur or mayor. There was fried chicken (okay), bamboo shoot soup (edible), something that looked like chicken livers, something that looked like cabbage, but burned off the outer layer of my palate. Then, I remembered it was called som tam.
The headmaster looked at the others then back at me as if explaining it all to me for the first time.
“This is made from green papaya crushed with a handful of palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, peanuts and chilies.” He said that this is different from the Bangkok type because people in the northeast add pla ra (pickled fish sauce). I chugged a glass of water with lots of ice, then went back to more Mekhong whiskey which began to taste pretty good.
“Som tam is a special plate because of what is in it,” the headmaster said. “The dish has the five main tastes of all Paak Isaan cooking: sour lime, hot chili, salty and savory fish sauce, and sweetness from palm sugar.”
“I did not understand all of that,” the chief said to the headmaster. “You are very smart with English.”
“That is why he is Adjan Yay,” the lieutenant said to his boss.
As if he suddenly realized he might have insulted him, the lieutenant gave a slight nod, quickly got to his feet and walked away.
I pointed to some gray and blue orbs that looked like eggs and asked the headmaster if these were the famous 100-year-old eggs I’d heard about in America. He translated and everyone laughed.
“What are they called in Thai?” I asked him.
“Ah, I think you do not have this in America. There are no words. If I told you the Thai words it would sound unusual.”
“These eggs are preserved in clay, ash, salt, lime and rice hulls for a long time, but not 100 years!”
“What are they preserved in?”
“The Thai words for this are khai yeo maa. It means egg urine horse. I think you must eat some more.”
He explained to the others and they watched as I carefully cut an egg into quarters, raised it to my mouth and gagged as a powerful smell of ammonia hit me. I put it in my mouth then grabbed a glass of whiskey and swallowed it like a pill: a big, greasy, foul smelling pill. They all applauded.
“Do you like ahan Isaan?” the headmaster asked. “The part of Thailand you are in now is called Paak Isaan, so the food on this table is called ahan (food) Isaan.”
“Yes,” I said in Thai. “It is delicious.”
Everyone applauded then suddenly quieted down and I realized the chief was holding out his microphone to me.
“You will please sing a song for us,” he said.
“Please sing a song. Do you know ‘500 Miles?’ Miss Charlotte used to sing it.”
So, that’s what the former volunteer sang at parties, but I had no singing talent. I coughed. The speakers boomed my cough around the room. Chairs moved so everyone now faced me directly.
“…if you miss the train I’m on you will know that I am gone…”
They applauded and asked for more. These were undoubtedly the most polite people in the world. I remembered a Thai song we practiced during training called “Nam San Dyyn.” I only knew a few lines, but they all quickly joined in when I began. Everyone beamed.
“You are very smart.”
I took another swallow of Mekhong and sighed. The party lasted until two, at which time a small group left for the local red light district and I bicycled home. Every pothole sucked me in and I was positive every shadow held a cobra ready to strike. There were no street lights or house lights except for a few dim kerosene lanterns. I skidded on a soft shoulder and fell. No damage, but I almost shrieked at the feel of vines on my face.
I scrambled back on my bike, made it home, ran into the bathroom where I threw water on my face and crashed on my little cot. Rolling over, I turned on my radio and picked up the U.S. Armed Forces station in Pleikou, Vietnam and fell asleep to the Rolling Stones singing “Ruby Tuesday.”
Within an hour I sat up and waved off a cloud of mosquitoes. Back in the bathroom I peered at my face in the cracked mirror and saw my cheeks were swollen and pocked with dozens of tiny red welts. I found some ragged and torn mosquito netting in a corner, wrapped it all around my head, sneezed several times and fell into a fitful sleep. Although it must have been at least 90 degrees in the room, I kept several loose blankets over most of my body for protection. Roosters yanked me back to consciousness at dawn’s first light. I began to have thoughts about my immediate future. School started in a few days. What will I do then? I have this horrible feeling that I’m perpetrating some terrible fraud on everyone here. What will I possibly be capable of doing in a room filled with Thai students who probably know as much English as I know Thai? What if they don’t know any English at all? What will I do then?
WHERE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble and directly from the author
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Burgess Needle may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
His Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/burgess.needle
KIRKUS REVIEW Site: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/burgess–needle/sit-and-cry/
Author Intervieew site: https://thisiswriting.com/tag/burgess–needle/
THAI COMIC BOOKS [Poetry collection site]: Burgessneedle.com