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?
Mary 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.

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