Q. What inspired you to write Monique and the Mango Rains?
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. I lived with her as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1989-1991 and her effect on me was profound. But my life here in the U.S. was full 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 her…” I was just happy that Monique and I stayed in touch, through long letters and cassette tapes. But in 1998, when she died in 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 that trip and took on a life of its own.
Q. There are lots of “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer” tales. Why is this one different?
This book is primarily about friendship — the power of friendship to transform us. When we met, Monique and I were both young women; I was 22 and she was 25. She was a rural African midwife seeking something new, something interesting in a life of routine and an unhappy marriage; I was a middle-class Peace Corps volunteer from Ohio, far away from home and eager to make personal connections in this foreign place. We became as close as sisters, “same mother, same father,” as Monique once said to me. We worked together, shared our desires and dreams, 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 Peace Corps books out there, though many of them are wonderful! This book is the personal story of a remarkable African woman, told by a friend.
Q. How did Monique’s friendship affect you?
Monique gave me a new perspective on what it means to be a woman. Before working with her I had never seen a birth (as I mention in the book, I had spent my life avoiding pregnancy and its consequences), didn’t know (or care to know) much about babies and kids, and had never really defined myself by my gender. Monique was only a few years my senior, but had married at 19, had given birth to three children, lost one to malnutrition, and was the sole midwife for a village of 1400 people. I had much to learn from her. I received a master’s in public health, inspired by her example of quality care and health education in practice; I had my two children at home with midwives because she had shown me their skill and grace, and had given me confidence in my body’s power. But most significantly, she expanded who I consider my sisters to be. On a day-to-day basis, this means that bad hair days have lost their power! Meaning that I know what’s important to me, and what I want for others. I have my clitoris. I married the person that I wanted to, have the number of kids that I wanted to. Odds are that my children will live healthy, long lives. I get paid for work that I enjoy and believe in. Would that every woman had such benefits and choices.
Q. You’ve said that Monique taught you that what joins us humanly is greater than what divides us. Explain.
Depending on each other to survive is a great way to find that common humanity! Living with Monique showed me that we all want the same things: enough to eat, a place to rest, the love of family and friends, the right to lead a life that holds meaning. Not that we brush our differences under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there, but that we talk openly about them, let them take up space, and work and live with each other anyway. As for prejudices (versus real differences), if we admit that we have them, they lose their shape and their power; they become two-dimensional and fall like paper to the ground. Seeing the “other” in ourselves is the essence of peace.
Q. You’re white. Monique was black. Were you nervous about capturing a black woman’s story as a white woman?
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?
Q. How do you feel about your influence on Monique and other village women’s lives?About changes that may go against her culture’s values and beliefs?
First, 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”—that people act in accordance with their own culture and belief system and their actions should only be judged from within this context. 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 not have parts of their genitalia removed; I believe all children should receive primary healthcare regardless of ability to pay. Monique couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had my genitals cut; she assumed all women around the world had this rite performed. But don’t misunderstand me. An idea may come from outside the culture, but to affect lasting change, it must take root, develop, and grow within the minds and actions of the people.
Q. You did extensive research for this book. Can you tell us more about it?
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 the return trip to Mali, where we gathered Monique’s clinic records and her own prenatal records, as well as taped conversations and interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues. The interviews were conducted in French and Bambara and translated into English. Thus I had the challenge of portraying 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?” Besides drawing on my public health studies, I spent a year reading articles, books, and dissertations/research on women in Mali. This background brings a depth to the book, while using the words and stories of Monique and others keeps the book conversational. I hope that the first-person viewpoint makes it personal and offers a cross-cultural perspective.
Q. 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 reactions as a Western woman. Having me as a guide allowed them to relax and absorb Monique’s 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. At first, it was emotionally hard to write anything at all because writing 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 once more that she was gone.
Q. Has anything surprised you about people’s reaction to this book?
I’m thrilled when they 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.
Q. You’re still connected with Monique’s family in Mali. What’s happening with them now?
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. It’s due to the support of Monique’s siblings and family in Mali, and the generous funding from people here in the States. Monique’s sister Angele has kept her vow of becoming a midwife and continuing Monique’s work. She received her degree in 2004 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 the kids 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”, as we’re calling it. 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.
Q. You and your husband met in the Peace Corps, right?
Yes. In fact, this book tells the story of our meeting. John, my husband, was a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and arrived in Mali in the same training group as I did. 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 hr. motorcycle ride apart — then together for a year. We got engaged in Egypt traveling after the Peace Corps, and married back in Ohio. He has been an integral part of the writing and research for this book.
Q. What’s your next project?
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 the land of parenting. That would certain require the least amount of research (I’m living it!).