Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This Agent Extracts Really Complete Answers

Night Thoughts about Books and Publishing
By Andy Ross

Mary Jo McConahay Talks About Maya Roads and the People of the Central American Rainforest

     Today I am going to interview Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest. The book was published this month by Chicago Review Press and has been receiving rave reviews.  Don George of National Geographic Traveler said in his review: “Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it’s an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life.”
Mary Jo has led an extraordinary life. She was a correspondent in Latin America during the Eighties and covered the insurgent wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. All of her work, but particularly Maya Roads, is imbued with her love of the region and its people and a fierce and courageous commitment to social justice.
Andy: Mary Jo, will you describe for us in your own words Maya Roads?
Mary Jo: Maya Roads is my story of falling in love with the rainforest and things Maya as a young woman, then returning to them after a career as a war correspondent, seeing the world of ancient and modern Maya in Central America through my own new lens of experience, investigating their recent history of violence, but never losing my wonder at their world view, customs and resilience as a people, and new discoveries about their beginnings.
Andy: What led you to write this book?
Mary Jo:  I had been “saving string” on the Maya for years, reading and writing, listening, travelling to their places, much as anyone might do with the object of an obsession. But as a freelance journalist I felt I never had the time to put it all together in a book. One day I woke up and said, “When exactly do you think you will start this book?” Hemingway said if you answer the phone you can stay in journalism forever.  I stopped answering the phone.  Fortunately, it worked out.
Andy: What strikes me most about this book and what differentiates it from so many other “travel books” is that it really has a political bite to it.  Tell us a little about this.
Mary Jo: I am a journalist by profession, and where others may see politics I see history.  The reader can’t be expected to understand the context of the violence in some chapters without knowing about key events, such as the 1954 C.I.A.-organized coup that overthrew a democratically elected president in Guatemala and began a 30-year nightmare reign of the military.  The reader won’t truly understand the significance of the revolt of thousands of Maya peasant farmers in 1994 — Zapatistas — without some account of decades of official Mexican corruption.  We can’t speak honestly about the current drug networks operating in Maya geography without saying they exist to serve the United States market. I don’t consider writing about such facts politics, but as providing the whole picture.
Andy: But what is even more remarkable is that the book is never preachy and and your observations about the   exploitation of the Maya is always told along with your amazement at the beauty of the land and your love and fascination with the sadly disappearing indigenous culture.
Mary Jo: Should the indigenous culture truly disappear it would be a tragedy, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. Now that certain dangers of the civil war are over, some Maya in Guatemala are more open about their identity. In Mexico, there is pride among many indigenous, Maya and not, in the Zapatista uprising and the way some communities are progressing independently of the government. When I interviewed Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche Maya, on the day she won the prize in 1992, she told me there was no reason why Maya could not enjoy the good things of modern life, even participate in scientific and technological advancement, and still maintain their ancestral culture. “Look at the Jewish people,” she said.
Andy: Do you think there is a possibility of a “happy ending” to your story?
ary Jo:The Maya view of time is cyclical, not a straight line as we might think of it.  Thus there is no “ending,” happy or not, to the greater Maya story, but moments of transition and change.  What is clear is that the Maya have survived not only the decimation of the European conquerors, but centuries of racism and violence, and in Guatemala, recent incidents of genocide perpetrated by their government, which was supported by ours.  Today the Maya have recovered their pre-conquest numbers. They participate in political life and go to university. In southern Mexico, indigenous Zapatista revolutionary communities are raising a generation of literate young for the first time in history.  This is all “happy” stuff, but an ending it is not.
Andy: Are there any works of travel journalism that have particularly influenced you? Any that have as much focus on social issues the way Maya Roads does?
Mary Jo: I think it was a certain era of travel writing, rather than any particular book, that put me on the track.  In college I studied English Literature with a focus on the Eighteenth Century, which among other things was the period of trade and empire expansion. Readers were fascinated by descriptions of new lands and cross-cultural encounters, and in the best work, led to examine who they were in relation to other people and landscapes. Think Johnson and Boswell, Captain Cook, educated women on the Grand Tour.  So from the beginning, I never considered travel writing a secondary genre. I believe in what I call deep travel, knowing as much as possible about the people I’ll be among, especially their recent history.  To me it makes for a richer experience, a way to make connections with other ways of life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

From A Cool New Expat Site: What's Up El Salvador?

Most people would tell you that the Maya civilization ended more than a thousand years ago.

Mary Jo McConahay can tell you from first hand experience that is not true. The Maya people live on and in some places thrive.

Living in Central America we can tell from first hand experience that there is a large population of indigenous peoples of Maya, Nahuatl and other groups. Sometimes they are easily recognized by their colorful traditional dress. Other times they look and speak exactly like all the other Central Americans.

Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest is a brand new book by journalist, Central American expat and Bay Area native Mary Jo McConahay.

In Maya Roads, Mary Jo McConahay draws upon her three decades of traveling and living in Central America’s remote landscapes to create a unique and mesmerizing chronicle of the people, politics, archaeology, and species of the Central American rainforest, the cradle of Maya civilization. Captivated by the magnificence and mystery of the jungle, Mary brings to life the intense beauty, the fantastic locales, the ancient ruins, and the horrific violence. She witnesses archaeological discoveries, the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista indigenous uprising in Mexico, increased drug trafficking, and assists in the uncovering of a war crime. Over the decades, McConahay has witnessed great changes in the region, and this is a unique tale of a woman’s adventure and the adaptation and resolve of a people.
What’s Up El Salvador was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of Mary Jo’s valuable time to provide an interview with her about her new book which just became available on August 1st. The Maya Roads book is interesting to us as we are former Bay Area natives and now we are living as Central American expats. It tells the true stories of a great and amazing people while highlighting the problems and solutions of foreign and local policy in the region.

Below is the interview:

Whats Up El Salvador (WUES) asks: Your book seems to be a unique intersection of hard journalism, personal journey, and love of the Mayan people. What were the three most intriguing things you learned about the Mayan people in this journey?
Mary Jo McConahay: Far from being a people who disappeared when their great city-states fell by the year 900, the Maya live and thrive today. They have regained their pre-conquest numbers. The natural respect and deep love that exists for Mother Earth in the Maya cosmology may be the key worldview for a moment when we face irreversible destruction of the natural world, and thus, ourselves.
(WUES) asks: If you could only get one key message of this book, across to your readers what would it be?
Mary Jo McConahay: Instead of thinking in terms of message, I prefer wanting the reader to feel the experience of a world of a struggling, resistant people living in a stunning and precious corner of the earth, which must survive.
Maya Roads book
Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads
(WUES) asks: Who was the person you met in writing this book who had the single greatest impact on you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I remember each person in this book vividly, and each for a different reason. The person I know best is the Maya priest I call Ramona, because I’ve known her longest, and she has always opened doors on Maya life to me, as a friend.
(WUES) asks: Your book has some political overtones in a sense in dealing with the affects of US “influence” throughout Central America. How do you see the US’s involvement changing in the region over the next decade?
Mary Jo McConahay: My writing about U.S. involvement in Central America and Mexico is not political but historical. You cannot understand the last thirty years in the region without an awareness of events that have shaped its politics and development. Che Guevara lived in Guatemala during the Guatemalan Spring (1944-1954) with its flowering of culture and literacy, and saw the democratically elected administration of Pres. Jacobo Arbenz overthrown by a C.I.A.-orchestrated coup. The lesson he learned is that a government or movement truly intolerable to Washington will come under attack from the United States in one way or another. The most recent example is the Honduran coup only two years ago. Nothing has changed in the big picture to alter this relationship between the United States and the countries to its south.
(WUES) asks: What do you hope that this book brings about? (political change in Central America, the US, economic changes?)
Mary Jo McConahay: As a journalist I do not think in terms of promoting change, but reporting the story. My job is to provide information, and readers decide how they will use it.
Personal Questions:
(WUES) asks: How do you feel that your unique combination of living both in the Bay Area and in Central America has helped to shape you?
Mary Jo McConahay: The Bay Area historically has been one of the most connected and alert U.S. populations with regard to Central America, so I have been able to go beyond the basics in my reporting and know there is an audience for it. I know journalists who feel they are shouting in a desert because they get no feedback or reaction when they write about Mexico or Central America. I never had to worry about that when writing for Bay Area readers.
(WUES) asks: How did both living this story and then writing it improve you personally?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t believe living this story and writing it made me a better or worse person. However, as with any such intense travel experience, what I have seen has given me a degree of understanding about the lives of some fellow human beings I would not have otherwise known. And I think that’s always a good thing.
(WUES) asks: What are the challenges of living as an expat women in Central America for you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’ve lived as an expat in Saudi Arabia and Europe, too, and it’s not much different from living as an expat anywhere. Life improves to the degree you know the local language, have local friends, and throw yourself into a place’s history and culture. Otherwise, why are you there?
(WUES) asks: You brought your daughter to live in Central America at a young age. Many of our readers (and us!) are living or are considering living in Central America with our young children. What are the three key pieces of wisdom you would offer us?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t know about wisdom, but here are a few things I’d tell a friend moving to Central America:
  1. Relax about school. Don’t give in to constant comparing “where she is” with kids of the same age in the States. It comes out the same in the end, or the child who went to school abroad may even get a better education.
  2. Don’t speak Spanish to your child unless you’re a native speaker. She will be immersed in Spanish everywhere, especially at a local school, but probably nowhere else will she learn to use proper native English except at home. It’s eventually a real gift to the child to be truly bilingual, and bicultural.
  3. In Latin America gender expectations — and what you want in regard to them for your boy or girl — can be really different from those in the United States. Ojo
WUES asks: The book takes place mostly in Guatemala and Mexico, what are your thoughts on the indigenous of El Salvador?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’d really like some day to write about the indigenous of El Salvador. They do not wear the traje or openly express their culture in the way Guatemalan indigenous do — the Salvadoran Matanza of 1932 took care of that. But the glimpse of ceremony and other events I experienced in corners near Izalco during the war intrigued me, although there was no opportunity then to follow up. The intrigue remains.
Support Mary (and What’s Up El Salvador!) and buy this book right now. This is a great book that will open your eyes and your heart. Send one to a friend who you know would benefit from learning about this amazing region and these brilliant people. It also makes an inspired gift- And Christmas is right around the corner!