Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
    

Read Mike's review of The After-Death Room

An interview by John Coyne

MICHAEL McCOLLY WAS A VOLUNTEER in Senegal in the early ’80s working in community development and public health. He was profoundly affected by the spirituality ofPrinter friendly version the people who lived in his village and nearby. Fifteen years later he became HIV positive. While trying to care for himself he experienced the growth of his own spirituality which eventually led to life as an AIDS activist. Michael’s book about this transition, The After Death Room: Journeys into Spiritual Activism, has just been published by Soft Skull Press.

Michael, tell us something about how you were raised, your motivation for joining Peace Corps, and how your experience as a Volunteer in Senegal affected the way you’ve come to look at life.

My childhood and the cultural environment of the ’60s and ’70s shaped who I am and the path I have chosen. My parents were educators, progressive people, Unitarian types. They liked to travel and they exposed my sisters and me to a less privileged America. So in a way the Peace Corps was in the cards. I joined though, like many other 22-year-olds, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life. I was also terrified of dealing with my bisexuality and I used Peace Corps to run away from that. The Peace Corps experience didn’t help me handle my sexuality, but it did shatter most of my intellectual, political and spiritual framework. I had never experienced the kind of religiosity that permeated Senegalese life, particularly among the rural Sufi sect of Mourides with whom I lived. The intensity of their faith and belief not only in Islam but in their traditional beliefs deeply impressed me.

How did your experiences during and after your time in Senegal help you cope with the reality of your HIV infection?

  

When I came back from Senegal, I entered divinity school at the University of Chicago. You talk about a reversal of landscapes, South Side Chicago and the Senegalese savannah. It was a kind of poetic irony to be sitting in Hyde Park in an ivory tower and looking out a window at housing projects and discussing liberation theology and philosophy. I suffered an acute case of cultural shock, and eventually dropped the idea of getting a PhD. Though I cursed Chicago for its intellectual coldness, it propelled me deeper into the issues that animate much of what I write about — the intersection of spirituality with activism and ethics. Both Senegal and Chicago were fertile grounds for an empty minded, small town, Midwestern white kid. They turned me into a writer. They demanded that I ask more questions of myself and the world. So when I became infected in the mid ’90s, I’d already felt in some ways prepared for the existential and spiritual crisis that accompanied my diagnosis. When you face HIV and AIDS, you learn that you have to immediately face three psycho-spiritual challenges: your body no longer can be ignored and needs to be embraced with your full self; that your ego is no longer (and never was) in control of your life; and that you now represent the deepest fears in most people who are around you — death, illness, sexual rebellion. Here is where my Peace Corps experience resurfaced and offered a surprising lifeline. I remembered how the people of my village dealt with economic marginality, suffering, illness, and death with such dignity and power. I began to identify more and more with those outside the mainstream world I’d been groomed and educated to work in and defend. HIV connected me to the larger world, both metaphorically and literally, as this virus had passed through so many people to land inside me.

What happened to take you from an individual trying to live with and survive HIV toward becoming an activist for people around the world living with the same affliction?
It all started with the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000. Again, Africa had come to wake me up. I’d kept my distance about AIDS in Chicago; no walks, no runs, no benefits. When I heard something on TV or saw an article in a magazine, I turned away. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had it; that was enough. By this time, I was practicing and teaching yoga and one day I found myself doing a workshop for people with HIV in Chicago. From there, I was doing yoga workshops in Durban for AIDS activists and advocates from all over the world. People came up to me and wanted more workshops. Teenage girls from Soweto wanted me to come to their churches. Women from Kenya wanted me to come to their women’s group in Nairobi. I was stunned and unprepared for this outpouring. It was the Peace Corps guilt all over again: “You said you wanted to help, so why can’t you stay and help us?”
After the AIDS Conference you started traveling to parts of the developing world where HIV was rapidly spreading. Where did your journeys take you?
This was the beginning of the book. I came back to Chicago haunted by the work of the activists I met in South Africa and their pleas for me to stay and help. So I sold my belongings, took a leave of absence from my teaching position, and headed to Asia and back to Africa to chronicle the remarkable work of AIDS activists and their work, focusing primarily on HIV positive activists. In the course of my travels through India, Thailand, Vietnam, and back to Senegal, and at home in Chicago, I interviewed well over a hundred activists, social workers, doctors, healers, government officials, clergy, and people living with HIV. I decided to go to India first, as the pandemic seemed to be exploding there.
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