I BEGAN TO HEAR ABOUT Kris Holloway (Mali 198991) several months before her book appeared. I had heard that Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 196365) and former Peace Corps Director had given a great quote for the jacket. It also had a wonderful title Monique and the Mango Rains that suggested that the author had a sense of what sells a book. Kris also had an aggressive publicist marketing her book. My wife, an editor at a major women’s magazine, came home with a pre-publication copy that had been sent by Kris’ PR person. While the book was unsuitable for my wife’s magazine she knew I was always on the look out for new Peace Corps writers. Then Kris sent me an email and we began our correspondence via the Internet. Here’s what Kris has to say about her Peace Corps years, and wonderful new book.
Where are you from, Kris?
I grew up in Granville, a small town in corn-central Ohio.
What colleges did you attend?
Allegheny College (BA), University of Michigan (MPH).
Okay, why did you join the Peace Corps?
I wanted to make a difference, of course. I was fresh out of undergrad, with a degree in environmental science and French and wanted to use the combination of the two to help halt the spread of the Sahara, and stop global poverty. A small goal! Also, Peace Corps felt familiar to me in the ’60s my uncle was headed to Sierra Leone (but then was drafted for Vietnam), my mom’s best friend is an RPCV, and my family is just riddled with folks in the service field. It was social work with an exciting twist.
What was your assignment?
I was assigned to work in community forestry which mostly involved training teams of young men in anti-erosion techniques. But then I quickly found that I was much more effective (and had a lot more fun) working with the local women in health-related matters. I fell in with the local midwife, Monique Dembele, and worked with her, completely ignoring my official duties as a forester. And to Peace Corps Mali’s credit, they didn’t balk.
Let’s talk about your book. Why did you take the approach you did in writeing about your Peace Corps experience?
I always thought I’d write a story about Monique. She was such an amazing African woman, midwife, and mother really the first “feminist” in her tiny, rural region of West Africa and her effect on me during the years I lived with her was profound. My life here in the U.S. was filled with work and kids way overprogrammed as all parents can relate to and writing about her remained a dream, something others would remind me about saying “you really should write a book about that . . ..” But when Monique died in the throes of her own labor with her fifth child I knew that this book had to be written. I had to go back, had to tell the story of her life, her death, and her remarkable legacy. This book grew out of our trip back and took on a life of its own.
How do you think your book is difference from other Peace Corps books?
This book is primarily about friendship the power of friendship to transform us. When we met, Monique and I were both young women in our twenties. She was a rural African midwife seeking relief from her life of toil; I was a middle-class Peace Corps Volunteer, eager to make personal connections in my foreign assignment. We lived together in the remote village of Nampossela in Mali, and became as close as sisters, “same mother, same father,” as Monique once said to me. We worked together, shared our innermost secrets, challenged each other's assumptions about work, life, and love, and stood by one another through sickness, birth, and tragedy. It’s this intimacy that makes Monique and the Mango Rains different from the other books out there, though many of them are wonderful! This book is the personal story of a remarkable African woman, told by a friend.
Where you worried about writing about an African woman in such detail?
I never thought about it that way. I never thought of Monique as my “black” friend. Skin color was the least of our differences. We didn’t speak the same language, didn’t come from the same socioeconomic class, didn’t have the same schooling, and came from completely different cultures. I was more worried that I would not do her story justice due to my own biased cultural lens. But then I realized that if I didn’t write a book about her, who would?
When you were a PCV did you concern yourself with changing the culture’s values and ideas? How did you deal with the question of cultural imperialism?
First, this sharing of ideas is going to happen, whether we want it to or not. Our world is getting smaller. But the question gets at an issue that anthropologists call “cultural relativism” meaning that people act in accordance with their own culture and belief system and their actions should only be judged from within the context of this belief system. This means that if we’re coming from another culture, we cannot and should not judge their actions. I agree with this in general being careful about assessing others when we don’t know them but not in the specifics. I believe that there are certain inalienable human rights that transcend culture. For example, I believe women should not suffer violence at the hands of others; I believe women have the right to have all their body parts intact. These are universal human rights, even if they may not be accepted as such in every culture.
Would you talk a bit about how you went about preparing to write this book about Monique and yourself?
The research was on three levels. The first was gathering journals, letters, cassette tapes, anything I, or my husband had written or recorded about our Peace Corps experience.
The second was during a return trip my husband and I made to Mali following her death when we gathered Monique’s clinic records and her own prenatal records, as well as taped conversations and interviews with Monique’s family, friends, and colleagues. The interviews were conducted in French and Bambara, but had to be translated into English. Thus I had to portray each person’s distinctive voice and personality in a language that she or he had never spoken!
The third level of research was more academic: “Does this story illuminate a larger truth about women’s lives?” I have a master’s in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health, so I had a pretty good idea that it did. I spent a year reading articles, books, and dissertations/research on women in Mali. I think this background brings a depth to the book, while using the words and stories of Monique and the people who knew her renders the characters and their struggles unforgettable. My first-person viewpoint keeps it all personal and offers a needed cross-cultural perspective.
What was the hardest aspect of the book to write?
Putting myself so much in the center of the story was hard for me I wanted the story to be about Monique, not about me. But the women in my writing group, my agent, and others kept telling me that they identified with me and my perspective and reactions as a Western woman. Having me as a guide allowed them to relax and absorb this foreign world. But it meant that I had to admit my frailties and faults, my doubts and insecurities, and show aspects of myself that I’m less proud of. I also had to write about the things that I knew Monique wouldn’t be proud of her affair with Pascal, for example. I had to write about it because it was real, but it wasn’t easy.
In the beginning, it was emotionally hard to write about Monique because it constantly reminded me that she was no longer here. I had to bring Mali and Monique alive again I would smell mudcloth, play music, listen to her voice on cassette tapes and on videotapes. Then I would write for six hours, totally and completely back in Mali, but of course, then I’d “awake” to the reality of typing on my computer at my dining room table, and realize that she was indeed gone.
What has the reaction been to the book?
I’m thrilled when readers love it, of course! One woman said it made her think of following her heart; it made her believe that ordinary people can make a difference. Another said she would never think about African women the same again. I thought, “wow if this book affects one more person in such a way my work is done!” I knew Monique’s story touched me deeply (hence the reason I spent five years writing it), but didn’t know if it would touch others in the same way. I’m also surprised by how people relate to the female issues in the book the stories of lack of control over childbearing or birth control, of rape, and of domestic violence. Women have said “ I,” or “my sister,” or “my friend” “have suffered the same, and yet go on just like Monique did.” That has been remarkable.
Are you in touch with her family?
I’m thrilled to report that all three of Monique’s children her two daughters, and her son, are enrolled in school. I can’t tell you what an achievement this is, considering their mother is dead and their father was initially against their schooling. It’s all due to the support of Monique’s siblings in Mali, and the generous funding from people here in the States.
Monique’s sister Angele has kept her vow to become a midwife and continue Monique’s work. She received her degree last year and will soon be practicing on her own. Monique’s brother will be installed as a priest in 2007, and we’re invited back for the big ceremony John and I plan to return to Mali and bring our children for the first time.
Monique’s cousin Maxim has started a rural birthing house and health clinic in Monique’s honor called Cabinet de soins Monique or “Clinique Monique.” Currently, he is able to perform minor surgeries and conduct prenatal visits, but his dream is to provide obstetrical care as well. For this, he will need to construct a new building. Another birthing house in an area with the fewest doctors and nurses of anywhere in the world! Monique would have been thrilled. Proceeds from the book will go for capital improvements and program development at this clinic.
You met your spouse in the Peace Corps?
Yes. In fact, this book tells the story of our meeting. I was from small town Ohio, and he was from even smaller town New Hampshire. We were both members of the 30% Club a joke, really, but based on the fact that our Peace Corps trainers told us that 70% of all Peace Corps Volunteers eventually marry other Volunteers lots of us wanted to buck that trend. Guess we didn’t succeed. John and I lived apart for a year in Mali an 8-hour motorcycle ride through hell apart then together for a year. We got engaged in Egypt traveling home, and married in Ohio. He has been a huge part of the writing and research for this book.
Where do you live now?
Northampton, Massachusetts. “Where the coffee is strong, and so are the women.”
Do you work outside of raising your children?
Yes. I’ve used my background in writing, and public health and development in several non-profit organizations and institutions, including Planned Parenthood, the University of Michigan, Springfield College, and the Green Belt Movement. When I’m not writing, you can find me fundraising at the National Priorities Project, a national research and education organization that shows the impact of federal spending policies on local communities.
Would you talk a little about how you wrote the book at what time of the day on a computer? That sort of thing.
Our boys were 3 and 1 when I returned to Mali and began writing the book, so I didn’t have much time alone. I was doing part-time consulting work, and spending the rest of the day with them. The early morning hours were the only available writing time that and weekends/holidays when John or other family members gave me precious hours to write.
Even though the kids are older now, I still find that the morning hours are my most productive time. I think it’s because I’m the ultimate extrovert, and the early hours offer limited social opportunities so I’m forced to focus. I wrote all of the book on my laptop, as I’ve got lightning fast fingers, though I did keep a small tablet and pen with me, in case I needed to jot something down when I was up and about.
Are you writing anything more about Mali?
I’d love to do more work in Mali and write about other aspects of the people and of life there. I’d also like to write about other great women who are too humble to write their own stories. I have some ideas. Another idea has more to do with stories from mothering and parenting. That would certain require the least amount of research (I’m living it!).
What suggestions might you have for someone like yourself who wants to write a Peace Corps book?
If I can do it, anyone can do it! I never set out to write a book based on my experience in the Peace Corps. When Monique died, I simply knew that I must write about her life, so that others could meet her, and potentially be as affected by her as I was. My advice to would-be writers:
First: Peace Corps offers a never-ending stream of interesting tales. You must separate grain from chaff and find the kernels worth telling, Who are people that changed you? What are the experiences that you can’t get out of your head?
Second: When you know this “essential story,” then learn craft. I took fiction-writing workshops because, ironically, I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. Belonging to a writing group where every one of us is working on a manuscript has also been vital. I’ve learned so much through critiquing others’ work.
Third: Keep writing. Force yourself to write every day. All writers will tell you this and it is true. Be okay with putting crap on a page, because now at least it’s on the page, and not in your head. And besides, there WILL be something not smelly in there.
Fourth: Get something published in a local paper or a magazine, or a Peace Corps-related publication so that you’ll have something to show an agent when you need one. And don’t forget the Peace Corps Writers’ friendly agents on this website.
I give this advice because it’s the advice that I followed. I contacted an agent on this website, and she wanted to represent the book! I didn’t end up using her, but the point is that there are more resources than ever before to help writers at each stage of the journey to bookdom. Best of luck.
And the best of luck to you, Kris, and your lovely book.