Sunday, March 16, 2014

St. Patricks -- Celebrate with Words!

I'll be reading on St. Patrick's Day in San Francisco, from the feminist journalist Nuala O'Faolain-- There will be Jameson's, Baileys, home-made soda bread. Other Irish (roots) authors will be reading Yeats, Toibin, and more. Folio Books, 3957 24th, 7-9 p.m.  Come, and enjoy!

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Writers' Workshop -- November


Nov. 9-16, 2014


  
Writers’ Workshop
on magical Lake Atitlan

The gift of time to write.  Inspiration, and experienced support.

                                                        

With Mary Jo McConahay, Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year
Author of Maya Roads,
One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (www.mayaroads.com) 



This will be a small group -- ideal for a spirit of retreat, and individual attention to each writer. We will work on structure, and voice. Feedback and thoughtful critique are central to developing the craft -- these will be key elements in our days at the beautiful Posada Santiago on the Lake.

*Independent Publishers' Award, Best travel essay book; Northern California Book Award, best creative nonfiction; USA BookNews International Book Awards: Best travel essay book, best autobiography/memoir, best new nonfiction; A National Geographic Traveler Honored Book.
   Mary Jo’s travel stories have won four Solas Best Travel Writing awards in the last two years, appeared in Best Travel Writing and Best Women’s Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), and on Gadling.com. Her story on GoNomad.com, was judged one of the site’s top five of the last year. Her award-winning reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and more than two dozen other publications. Photo of the dock at Posada Santiago by Jeff Speigner.





Saturday, December 7, 2013

Adoptions in Wartime?


This is my latest in the current edition of ReVista, the magazine of Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, edited by veteran Latin America journalist June Erlick.  If the subject is controversial, let the discussion unfold.

UNEARTHING THE PAST







Discovering Dominga
 Adoptions and Tangled Truths

BY MARY JO MCCONAHAY    

     In the open central market one morning in Rabinal, Guatemala, 28-year-old Denese Becker picked up a bolt of corte cloth, woven fabric used by Achi Maya women to make their skirts, and brought it to her face. She closed her eyes. “My mother,” she said. “This smells like my mother.” I knew which one she was talking about.
     That was more than a decade ago; we were in Rabinal to shoot the PBS documentary Discovering Dominga, the story of an Iowa housewife—Denese—a survivor of the 1982 Rio Negro massacre in which both her parents died. Denese, the former Dominga Sic, was returning to look for the bones of her father and to untangle the truth of a lifetime of nightmares. On that journey she also discovered a world of memory that might have remained hidden in small-town Iowa, where she arrived at age eleven, adopted by an evangelical pastor and his wife. Her adoptive parents were loving and attentive to her, their only daughter. However, as I watched Denese Becker in the Guatemala highlands, among trees and flowers once familiar to her, I couldn’t help thinking how much this young woman had lost by being taken from her roots to live in a strange land.
     “What is this tree called?” she would ask. “I know you can eat its leaves.” Or, “I think I recognize that flower. It’s bad. Don’t touch it.”
     Like Denese, thousands of children during the Central American conflict were adopted by foreigners, mostly from the United States and Europe. When my husband and I arrived in Tegucigalpa from San Francisco with our 8-month old in 1987, the hotel clerk glanced at the infant slung across my chest and said, “I assume you want the adopting parents’ rate.” During the week it took us to find a rental house, we learned that a dozen U.S. couples at the hotel, and several single individuals, had come to Honduras not to live, but to adopt.
     When conflict, displacement and extreme poverty were national conditions in the 1980s and 1990s in Central America, “orphans” was a term used indiscriminately for youngsters separated from their families, whether they had a living parent or close relatives or not. Reasons were myriad: both parents might indeed be dead, killed in the violence, as in Denese’s case, although close relatives said later they had searched for her fruitlessly in Guatemala; soldiers and other armed authorities took children after families were killed; in many cases desperately poor single mothers, pregnant again, gave away newborns or sold them to enganchadores, front men for corrupt lawyers connected to ostensibly legitimate operations that can only be called “the baby trade.” In Honduras, and sometimes in Guatemala, newspapers periodically ran stories about the latest discovery of a casa cuna, houses where multiple infants were fattened up from low birth weights before presentation to prospective adoptive parents.
     We will never know the true answer to the endless question, “Weren’t those children better off raised elsewhere?” We simply won’t know. What we can suggest in the wake of those terrible spasms of violence in Central America, at least, is that those of us who were meant to be watching events so closely did not track the region’s youngest and most vulnerable inhabitants to the degree they deserved.
     Their stories are many. In 1980s El Salvador, for instance, a six-year old being adopted by a blind Italian man and his wife at our hotel approached me to say her mother sold grilled meat near the Parque Libertad. She wanted to return to her mother. Engaged with my own toddler, covering post-earthquake events daily, I never investigated, and the moment slipped away. At a holding camp for civilians “rescued” by the army from Guazapa, a rebel stronghold, an elderly woman said her grandson had been taken by an officer; she feared he would raise him as his own. In mountainous Las Vueltas, known as territory sympathetic to rebels, a man showed me where he had lain in tall grass as his seven-year old was taken away in a helicopter during an army sweep, while she cried out, “Papi!” He wept to recall he could not reach out to her without endangering others who hid around him.
     “Do you think they will know that she is not an orphan?” he asked. “That I am her father and I am alive? Will she know that wherever she is?”
     There are reasons why journalists, academic researchers and others do not investigate such stories at the time, including the urgency of other coverage and the general confusion of war. Some feel that any child removed from the risk of war or life of poverty is indeed better off, and questions ought to stop there for the good of all.
     During the weeks we filmed Discovering Dominga in 2001 and 2002, Denese could not bring herself to accept invitations to sleep in the dirt-floor houses of her relatives; their lives and living conditions were too foreign to her. One day, we met an ajq’ij, a spiritual guide charged with giving thanks to the Creator lords, keeping the Maya calendar and performing ceremony. “What does his red kerchief mean?” she asked me later. “My grandfather wore one.” Now an evangelical Christian, she seemed to struggle with the knowledge that her grandfather had been a guardian of Maya spirituality, so inimical to the beliefs of her extended adoptive family. In the film Denese says that as a child in Iowa she never “fit in”; but off camera in Rabinal, it seemed clear that neither did Denese Becker/Dominga Sic “fit in” any longer among the people to whom she was born.
     An advantage of peace is the gift of space and time to ask questions about what has come before. How much of the memory of the homelands is carried in the minds of children, now adults, as they live far from where they were born? Should adoptions during time of war be forbidden, or truncated in any way? They are questions we might consider before we are forced, should the occasion arise, to answer them again.

 

Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest(Chicago Review Press). She wrote the original story for the PBS documentary Discovering Dominga and co-produced it with producer Pat Flynn.  Here is the link to the ReVista story, in an issue on Memory: In Search of History and Democracy: http://www.drclas.harvard.edu/publications/revistaonline/fall-2013/discovering-dominga


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year


By the light of a hotel room window in Oxford, moving back on line after time off the grid in northern England, I read the astonishing news that I had been named the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year.  I could not have been more surprised, and grateful. As a writer I believe in “deep travel,” which means I report upon and otherwise describe people in places with regard to their history, and political, social and spiritual surroundings.  I am humbled and thrilled that the judges who looked at my work and deemed it worthy of this recognition appreciated, and by their award, esteemed this perspective.  Maya Roads, for instance, includes not only the beauty of the Mesoamerican rainforest, but also contains accounts of the violence of its recent past.  The essay, “Gore Vidal’s Old House” suggests the late writer, one of the keenest observers of U.S. foreign policy in the last sixty years, began to form his critique of imperialism while living in Guatemala as a young novelist (elsewhere on this site are links to these and other stories in the portfolio given the Grand Award).  I am grateful to my agent, Andy Ross, the editors with whom I worked, and most of all to individuals in several countries who allowed me to share their stories.



Here is the YouTube video of the awards presentation (my bit is at the end, Grand Award) http://youtu.be/PcYyqWIE_2s and here are the SATW press release and judges’ comments:
Mary Jo McConahay, author, freelance writer, blogger and documentary filmmaker, earned the title of Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year for a portfolio of her work that included exceptional storytelling in “Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.” Afar magazine, Travel + Leisure and the Los Angeles Times were the top winners, earning the most awards.
The annual competition is sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. Winners of the awards, the most prestigious in the field of travel journalism, were announced Oct. 21 at the SATW convention, held this year in Biloxi, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This is the 29th Lowell Thomas competition and drew 1,257 entries. Judges were members of the faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It is the premier competition in North America in the field of travel journalism.

Grand Award — Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year 


Gold: Mary Jo McConahay, freelance writer, author, blogger and documentary filmmakerThe best travel writing entices readers to be adventurous anywhere — from the remoteness of the tropical rain forest to the density of sprawling Sao Paulo. Mary Jo McConahay does just that in “Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest” and “Navigating a Hypercity: Sao Paulo” and in other wonderful articles such as “Gore Vidal’s Old House.” In the latter, McConahay walks us in the footsteps of novelist, journalist and playwright Gore Vidal, who was a World War II veteran and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy in his later years. Vidal’s life is center stage in “Old House,” which McConahay informs us is not your typical residence: “In 1946, the author (Vidal), then just twenty-one, took $3,000 from the payment for his first novel, ‘Williwaw,’ and bought a crumbling 16th-century convent next to the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen.”
In “Navigating a Hypercity,” McConahay introduces Brazil’s largest city, which requires serious travel planning before visiting:
“Despite having traveled in more than eighty countries, I froze last year when planning a trip to Sao Paulo, Pop: 20 million. It wasn’t the number itself that stopped me — who can count to twenty million anyway? But descriptions called the largest urban conglomeration in South America a hypercity, a term new to me, evoking image of chaos, attention disorder and suffocating density. I got nervous.”
McConahay’s writing is anything but chaos as she calmly advises would-be visitors on how to best tour the city. From walking to eating, and of course shopping, she steels our nerves to the point that we are ready to book a flight right now. With outstanding writing and advice Mary Jo McConahay proves that she is both the quintessential travel writer and exceptional storyteller. For that she earns the gold in the Grand Award category.

The SATW award competition is formidable and prestigious in the field because:
* it does not promote any particular destination or travel product,
* it is open to all North American journalists, not just SATW members, and
* it is judged independently by the faculty at top U.S. schools of journalism.

The Foundation distributes nearly $20,000 in prize money to individual winners. Generous donations by this year’s Underwriters, the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels and Travel Guard, help make the prizes possible.
For more information about the awards, including a full list of winners and judges’ comments, and SATW, visit www.satwf.com and www.satw.org.
SATW FOUNDATION
LOWELL THOMAS TRAVEL JOURNALISM COMPETITION
 29 Years of Rewarding Journalists for Outstanding Work in the Field


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writers' Workshop Coming Up

Come November, I'll be offering a writers' workshop at beautiful Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.  This is the chance to jump start the writing you've long thought of doing, finish the novel you have been working on, or outline the memoir you have long promised to family, or yourself.  This is a photo of a dock at the lovely inn (rooms of volcanic stone) where we will stay, Posada Santiago, by Jeff Speigner.  And yes, it really looks like this.


Nov. 9-17, 2013

Writers’ Workshop
on magical Lake Atitlan

The gift of time to write.
Inspiration, and experienced support.

This will be a small group -- ideal for a spirit of retreat, and individual attention to each writer. We will work on structure, and voice. Feedback and thoughtful critique are central to developing the craft -- these will be key elements in our days at the beautiful Posada Santiago on the Lake.
With Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the RainforestIndependent Publishers' Award, Best travel essay book; Northern California Book Award, best creative nonfiction; USA BookNews International Book Awards: Best travel essay book, best autobiography/memoir, best new nonfiction; A National Geographic Traveler  Book of the Month. 
Mary Jo’s travel stories have won four Solas Best Travel Writing awards in the last two years, appeared in Best Travel Writing and Best Women’s Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), and on Gadling.com. Her story on GoNomad.com, was judged one of the site’s top five of the last year. Her award-winning reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and more than two dozen other publications. Workshop details at: http://www.eat-write-travel.com/guatemala.html

Saturday, May 11, 2013

GUATEMALA GENOCIDE VERDICT: GUILTY

MAY 10, 2013


THE WAIT.  SEVEN HOURS DELIBERATION.


 WOMEN LEADERS.  THE TIME FOR VERDICT DRAWS NEAR.

JUDGE JAZMÍN BARRIOS READS THE DECISION, ABOUT 45 MINUTES

                            TWO GENERATIONS LISTEN IN IXIL MAYA LANGUAGE

GUILTY: GENOCIDE  50 YEARS
GUILTY: CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY  30 YEARS

INSECURE SITUATION FOR ONE HOUR. RIOS MONTT HOLDS FORTH FOR PRESS, THE DEFENSE TABLE CRASHES TO THE FLOOR.  NO ONE SEEMS TO BE FOLLOWING ORDERS TO TAKE THE GENERAL INTO CUSTODY.

JUDGE CALLS FOR REINFORCEMENTS "TO PREVENT RISK OF ESCAPE"



SECURITY FORCES TAKE FORMER PRESIDENT GEN. EFRAÍN RÍOS MONTT TO PRISON.
MAY 11, 2013 IT'S A NEW DAY



Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I am Innocent" -- The General Speaks


  The General Speaks at the Genocide Trial

For the first time since the Guatemala genocide trial began on March 19, Gen. Efraín Rios Montt spoke, for nearly an hour. In a manner not unlike the Sunday sermons he broadcast on moral themes during his administration from 1982 to 1983. he explained that far from committing genocide, he saved the country which he said had been on the verge of falling into the hands of pro-Communist rebels.  Earlier, in documents presented during summation for the prosecution, army patrols said the guerrillas had left the Ixil Triangle area of the country's highlands, before the army scorched earth campaign.
                        
Rios Montt's daughter Zury, center in photo left, and Ixil Maya survivors, watch Rios Montt speak

"I was chief of state and I had a staff called a cabinet," the general said, insisting he had no direct command over the violence.  "I was a head of state, not a zone chief, " he said.  Local commanders possessed autonomy. "What did I do wrong?" he asked.  I fulfilled my responsibility."

Prosecutors gave final arguments.  They are asking for 75 years in jail for Rios Montt, 86

In his summation, Rios Montt's lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel questioned the capacity and education of most prosecution expert witnesses, including the Guatemalan  forensic anthropologists who have unearthed thousands of remains of the slain.  Rios Montt addressed his remarks to journalists who squatted before him or knelt or sat in a circle to get the best shot.  After 20 minutes, Judge Barrios directed the General to speak to the bench.  The court has only to hear a statement from Rodriguez,  beginning early morning May 10.