When Eleanor Stanford boarded a plane to spend two years on the islands of Cape Verde, she had no idea what she was in for.
She didn't know the language.
She didn't know what the people ate.
She didn't even know where she was going to live.
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She couldn't know the crushing loneliness that would soon engulf her, causing a severe case of anorexia and straining her marriage in almost irreconcilable ways.
In her new essay collection, "História, História," Stanford chronicles the ups and downs of the two years (1998-2000) she and her husband, Dan Imaizumi, spent as English teachers in the Peace Corps on Cape Verde, an archipelago in the north Atlantic Ocean.
Stanford's essays alternate between academic texts on the islands' history, culture and language and personal accounts of her struggles with food, marriage and state of mind.
"This is a very important period in my life," said Stanford, 37, in a phone interview from her home just outside of Philadelphia. "There is something about this kind of internal turmoil that I have seen other people go through in different ways that I felt ... would resonate with readers."
Stanford, a poet and adjunct professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, was 22 when she joined the Peace Corps. She had been married for only a year, although she and Imaizumi had been dating since they were 16. She joined the Peace Corps hoping to see new parts of the world.
"I wanted to have an adventure and do something that would serve other people in some way," she said.
In the book, Stanford describes the islands' beauty and its people's friendliness. She writes about the hardships of teaching and her problems with the culture's "acceptance of male infidelity." She tells tales about the women she meets and the places where she and her husband live.
The title, "História, História," is the Creole word for both "story" and "history." "It is a way that Cape Verdeans will begin when they tell stories," Stanford said. "It kind of means, 'I am going to tell you a story.'"
One topic that runs throughout her stories is her studious examination of Cape Verdean Creole, a mix of Portuguese and West African languages.
"I felt like language was one of the ways that I was making sense of Cape Verde and its culture," she said. "The language is so particular to the geography … certain cultural things can only be described in Creole."
Language has long fascinated Stanford. She taught herself Spanish at 12 and studied French and Spanish literature as an undergraduate at Florida's New College.
The book's lyrical descriptions and melodic verse drew Jason Pettus, founder and publisher of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography to the book, which he read as an unsolicited submission in the fall. "Eleanor writes with the eye of a journalist but the soul of an artist," Pettus wrote in an email. "When applied to subjects here like international travel and the history of Creole languages, it makes for a mesmerizing read."
Like a mother masking celery with peanut butter, Stanford places heavily researched academic passages throughout her personal prose. She writes about the islands' discovery, its history of volcanic eruptions and the people's appreciation for a heftier body.
Stanford wrote the first draft of this collection more than a decade ago, in the year after she returned from the Peace Corps. But the book remained in the back of her mind. After seeing an article about Pettus' press, she decided to submit her manuscript. Pettus accepted the draft within weeks. The digital edition of "História, História" can be downloaded for free through cclapcenter.com. A handmade paper copy of the book can be ordered for $22.
A gripping subplot is the appearance of her eating disorder. She introduces it on Page 14, describing how "the occasional bout with dysentery had given (her) an agreeably flat belly, and a taste of the floating, pleasantly buzzing feeling that came with not eating enough." Throughout the next 70 pages, readers see how the inclination to eat less becomes an obsession not to eat at all and how that fixation pushes a wedge between Stanford and her husband.
The final pages bring short breaths of happiness as the couple repair their relationship and Stanford finally deals with her eating disorder. Today she has no symptoms, and she hopes her book can, in part, help those who may be dealing with a similar disorder.
"When you are dealing with (anorexia), it is hard to see beyond the disease," she said. "I hope that (the book) allows people suffering from (the disease) to see from the perspective of someone who has been through it and, for the most part, moved past it."
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
By Eleanor Stanford, CCLaP, 110 pages, digital edition freeCopyright © 2015, CT Now