Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Kris Holloway (page 2)
 Talking with
Kris Holloway
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Kris and Monique


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.
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