Christine Herbert is a part-time writer, part-time bodyworker, and full-time space cadet currently living in the Pacific Northwest. A dyed-in-the-wool introvert, she occasionally surprises everyone—especially herself—by chucking it all and living an adventurous life of service overseas, once as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and later as a manager for a non-profit organization in Nepal.
In her new memoir The Color of the Elephant, Christine takes the reader on a “time-machine tour” of her Peace Corps volunteer service as a health worker and educator from 2004–2006 in Zambia. Rather than a retrospective, this narrative unfolds in the present tense, propelling the reader alongside the memoirist through a fascinating exploration of a life lived “off the grid.”
Christine is also a longtime member of my Writers Community and a very dear friend.
The memoir genre seems to live somewhere between autobiographies and novels. How did you handle the balance between historical accuracy and crafting a narrative?
I think we tend to craft stories about our experiences naturally. We create little anecdotes from our lives—little bite-size yarns ready to spin—that help summarize our experience in a way that others can learn from. We’ve all got them. Any married couple surely knows how to spin the story of their “meet cute” because they’ve been asked time and again to tell the story of how they met. Every journey out of our safe day-to-day homelife has the potential to be an anecdote: the camping trip rainstorm, the blind date from hell, the stick shift rental car debacle—we’ve all got our tales. They get trotted out at every family gathering, neighborhood barbeque, and reunion. The stories are true, but may become polished or embellished over time. That’s how I feel about the tales I’ve written in The Color of the Elephant. Every tale is absolutely true, and yet, is it historically accurate? Not even I can say for sure. In the aim of crafting a compelling narrative, some tales have inevitably been spun—timelines and characters woven together—in order to highlight the entertaining thread of the story.
I suspect that everyone knows somebody (or is that somebody) that has a life story that they are convinced would make a great book. What’s the tipping point between daydreaming and deciding that a book must be written?
I tell you what … I never thought my life experiences would make a great book! It’s not something I had ever thought I’d do in my life. I began writing because of the encouragement from other people that were convinced I had a great story to tell. If someone thinks their life story is worthy of a memoir, they’ve got a leg up on me and they should absolutely follow their heart! The truth is everyone—no matter how extraordinary or mundane they think their life to be—has an important story to tell. What makes memoirs so powerful is being able to peek inside someone else’s heart and mind, and glean lessons they’ve learned about life. This can be done informally, by writing in a diary or a blog which can be either private or public, if you are not ready to tackle a book-length manuscript. The writing of a publishable memoir is an enormous endeavor. You will know whether or not you’ve got what it takes by attempting to do it. My advice is to have support at every step of the journey. Engage a writing coach, a critique group, and an editor. The more support you have the more likely you are to reach your goal.
What’s something you’ve seen in other memoirs that you wanted to try to avoid in your own book?
So many “tell all” memoirs dive into the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters—family members, romantic partners, workmates, etc.—that populate the pages of the author’s tales. Is it entertaining? Sure. Is it kind to do to your friends and family? Absolutely not. The only person I feel comfortable eviscerating on the written page is myself.
Let’s talk about changing the names of real people to include them in your book. The introduction to The Color of the Elephant mentions that you changed the names of everyone who appears in your story, excluding yourself of course. Were you tempted to include the names of people who you felt should get some recognition for the positive role that they played in your experiences? Also, how did you come up with the alternate names?
It felt right to give people a measure of privacy, whether they played a negative or positive role in my memoir. I am a very private person, and wanted to offer a bit of anonymity to other folks featured in my story as a courtesy; a bit of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For those that served with me in the Peace Corps, they’ll certainly recognize themselves or others based on the details of the stories I share. As I mention in the preface, some characters or situations may be a composite, mostly for the sake of brevity, but also because when you try to write about something years after it happened, it’s difficult to remember who exactly was “in the room” at the time or if certain events and conversations happened concurrently or on different days. As far as picking alternate names, I tried to choose names that were very similar to the characters’ actual names, a name that “felt” like them, or a name very typical from the region they hail from.
It seems like humorous anecdotes in memoirs are usually written at the expense of the author. Why do you think that is? What advice might you give to memoir writers that want to be funny but are struggling with making fun of themselves?
I think that memoir writers are experts in examining themselves, their motives, and their (inevitable) faults. When you spend months—or years—writing about your life experiences, you become very practiced in how to recognize and highlight your inadequacies. The more you do this, the more laughable you can find your behavior to be. In fact, it may be the best part about writing a memoir. I found that the more I wrote about the things I was embarrassed about, the more shame I could release over it. In doing so, I’ve been able to extend myself grace. It has been a healing journey. I think that those who try to not take themselves so seriously will be rewarded for their efforts. I mean, what is there to lose? I doubt anyone has ever lain on their deathbed and thought, “I wish I’d never learned to laugh at myself. That was a waste of time.”
What’s one story or event that you wish you could have included in the final draft of your memoir?
There was one event of consequence that did not make it in the book. About a year into my service, the First Lady of Zambia—Maureen Mwanawasa, wife of then President Levy Mwanawasa—came to visit my village. It was a very surreal time. I couldn’t believe the cavalcade of limos and SUVs that came to the village down that long, dusty dirt road that rarely saw more than an ox cart or two! The whole countryside mobilized to provide food and skits and music. We made a whole day of it. As part of the visit, gifts had been provided for distribution: bundles of used clothing, sacks of mealie meal, money, and (drum roll, please) bicycles. Each of the different healthcare committees and various co-ops were allotted time to make their case as to why they should be given part of the bounty. I was part of the committee for the Anti-AIDS Youth Club who were ready to present skits, songs, and our own appeal for resources (namely the coveted bicycles, as our group traveled from village to village to give presentations about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention). Unfortunately, the First Lady’s advisors nixed our group’s presentation in the interest of time, prioritizing the presentation as they would a feast in their culture: men get first cut, women second, and youth get whatever scraps are left. The kids took it well, but I was very disappointed. They had worked so hard, rehearsing for weeks on their skits and their speech to the First Lady. I was devastated to see them brushed aside in favor of the adults. I wrote an article about it after it happened, which I think got placed directly in the “round file” at Peace Corps Zambia headquarters, as I never saw it go to print. Having written about it once (and been rebuffed) I was not on fire to write about it again.
What’s the best memoir you can recommend to people who have finished your book and are eager for something similar?
There are so many excellent memoirs, it’s hard to pick only one! I would say that for the folks who really enjoyed the experience of delving into African culture with me, give Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller a try. She has written several excellent memoirs, all shaped by her experiences of growing up in Africa.
As a longtime member of my Writers Community, what would you say to anyone considering joining our online group?
Do it! Writing can be a lonely endeavor. It is simply the nature of the beast. Finding a way to stay connected with other writers is so important to stay motivated and keep those feelings of isolation at bay. Accountability is key. If left to my own devices, I might come up with excuses to not write. But if I know people are counting on me to show up and write with them, you bet I’ll be there! There is also something a bit magical that happens when writers get together. I don’t know if it is “peer pressure” or what, but even if I am stuck on a scene, sitting with other writers who are silently working away on their own projects will always “shake something loose” for me and the words will come.
You’ve got 100 words to shamelessly self-promote. Go!
My memoir is an invitation to explore a country and culture very unlike that of the USA. Whether you are a jetsetter or a humble armchair adventurer, I welcome you to journey with me—in fact, as me—to the heart of Africa. I’m excited to connect with the readers who choose The Color of the Elephant for their book clubs. I’d love to zoom in for an author Q&A for your group, so please reach out via my contact info found on my website at christineherbertauthor.com. Thank you!
A big shout-out to the wonderful members of my Writers Community:
Christine Herbert, Michele Cacano, Chelsea Mancilla, Jessica Mormann, Naltath, and Jo Sal.
If you’d like to learn more about my Writers Community, check out the following link: