The Eclectic Mae Claire: “Taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper.”

Author Mae Claire is as multi-faceted as the island of Hispaniola itself. A Haitian orphan, Mae was adopted by Christian missionaries and raised on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. After attending college in the United States, she returned to the Dominican Republic to teach history and English at an international school. Mae has also become a mother to three adopted children, and, in 2012, she met her partner, Mary. So, is Mae Haitian? Dominican? American? Black? Polyglot? Mother? Lesbian? Christian? Atheist? One thing is certain – Mae Claire is not easily categorized.

Mae Clair has written several novels and memoirs, including Jogging to HellWhat Part of Me Is Saved?, and Larimar. Her books are available through her shop on lulu.com. In this exclusive interview, Mae discusses her 2010 young adult novel P.S. I’m Eleven: Surviving Haiti’s Quake.

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

P.S. I’m Eleven is written in English, yet the narrative is certainly not an American style. Would you say the book is set up as a diary or does it follow a narrative pattern particular to the Caribbean?

This book is written in the form of a diary as I traveled to the border of Haiti and jotted down my observations. At some point in the book, when [the narrator] Antoinette is in school, she says that she is writing down everything that happens to her, and that one day she hopes to get it published.

Antoinette’s narration assumes that the reader is quite privileged for being in possession of a book. How do you see reading as a privilege? Do you think reading is a right? 

It is miles and miles to get to a source of education for Antoinette and her best friend. The assumption is that if you have a book, you have the means to get it whether it being via car, bicycle, or horse. In Haiti, checking out books is not a familiar concept. People read the books in the building. I went to visit my oldest daughter in college in August, and I noticed that the facilities are wonderful. I stepped into the library, and it was huge, all air-conditioned and fancy with wireless internet, desks, and everything the kids could ever want. But books? They were behind the circulation desk and were rarely permitted out of the building. Books are sacred, and only privileged people get to read them.

So for [Antoinette], having a book means you are either privileged, or, the concept of book-keeping is quite different. I currently teach 4 year old underprivileged children. Every morning, my routine includes reading a book. My [students] are fascinated by them. [One of the students] does not have any books in her house. When she comes to [my tutoring center] though, she is surrounded by books. Books are also super expensive, and there is usually only one copy of each, so to lose them would be a tragedy. One book would cost about 800 pesos ($23.50 in U.S. Dollars). I sell P.S.I’m Eleven for about 450 pesos ($13.25 US)  and people don’t even dish out the money.

P.S. I'm Eleven  - in Spanish and in English

P.S. I’m Eleven – in Spanish and in English

The book is full of religious imagery – mostly Christian. However, when the Haitian women are burying dead from the earthquake, a polytheistic chanting ritual is performed. I have read that Catholicism is the more official religion of Hispaniola, but what other religious practices exist on the island? Are non-Catholic or Christian practices considered taboo? How do missionaries influence the religious practices of Hispaniola’s residents? 

I think I have infused a lot of my personality and vision into Antoinette’s character, and this is where Christianity has become part of the imagery. I imagine myself in Antoinette’s position. If I had not been adopted at such a young age, I could see myself being her, being all of her.

Religious taboos are not really part of Haiti; if anything, the religions are a mix of everything and anything. They contact the gods, wherever the gods are, at any time, and in any situation. If the Christian God shows himself, then they talk to Him or Her. If the Buddhist God shows up, then that is who they work with. There seems to be little to no discrimination when it comes to their gods.

Missionaries have really created a discriminative perspective on spirituality as they claim that only Jesus can give you life to the fullest. But we know this not to be the truth, as there are many people groups and religious groups experiencing life to its fullest in a much larger spectrum. Missionaries have taught the people of the Hispanola to hate, judge, and discriminate against their own people. Christianity has not taught them to love one another unconditionally, but only to accept one another under certain conditions. Missionaries are the ivory of the ages. They offer food, drink, clothing, and health, and then open up their agenda book. They provide the physiological needs to later say “I told you so”.

What is your writing process like from the start of to the completion of a book? How do you plan your books? Do you have a writing routine? 

My writing process has evolved greatly. As an English teacher, I use writers’ workshop to teach my students how to create a good plan, complete the first draft, work on the second, revise, then edit with a teacher, and then, finally create the publishable draft. But the more I think of that process, the more I realize that not everyone thinks in such a sequence. It is a good idea in theory, but not in life. For me, i always start with an idea, and i build my writing around that one idea. The book I am currently writing, Gracias A Dios, is based on people’s opinions about a God who helps some and not others. I am using my experience and that of other people to formulate and finally create the book. I used to begin by starting at the beginning. But now, like in P.S. I’m Eleven, I at times start at the end. Sometimes you need to know what happens at the end to be able to create a wonderful beginning, middle and refined end.

You seem very in tune with the mind of an eleven-year-old. The book’s narration seems extremely authentic as Antoinette has many understandings of the world, but she still seeks guidance from adults. How did you find Antoinette’s voice? Did anyone in particular inspire you to develop her character? 

Before writing the book, I made a trip to Haiti’s border and spent time helping in a triage two days after the earthquake. I watched and listened and learned. I spoke with kids, around the age of 11. I then documented what i saw, felt, touched, and heard. I came home and then I worked with [cover model] Rocheyli in the summer. Rocheyli is part of the Mariposa Foundation. I spent time with her, at her house, with her family and got an idea of what she wanted in life. I found her character similar to my personality, and the character and voice I wanted for this narrative. I also considered this to be a book I wrote for my 6th grade students at the time. There was one student in particular who reminded me of Antoinette, and so I expounded on that. In short, three to five different kids influenced my writing and making of this character.

P.S. I’m Eleven addresses many topics that are normally taboo in young adult novels: perversion, menstruation, molestation, and lesbianism. Yet, these topics are extremely relevant to the lives of young people. Do you think it is an author’s responsibility to lift taboos? What prompted you to address these ideas through Antoinette’s character?

Taboo is a big word, especially when it comes to children and education. No one wants to step on people’s toes. But, I believe that taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper. If kids are reading it, parents can’t necessarily claim that a teacher has “said” this or “said” that. Alice Seabold’s Lovely Bones is a prime example of topics that are really poignant. My book was not openly welcome even in my school as the principal was afraid to answer questions if parents were to ask. But it is in their library, so kids can choose to pick it up if they please. These topics need to be discussed because children go through these things that are so relevant in their lives. In public schools, kids are dealing with all these topics and more. In private conservative homes, kids are dealing with these topics and more. So sometimes, if a child can read about it, and realize that the main character made it through, they may also acquire the hope that they too will survive. I wanted to address these ideas because i can’t leave them out. If I’m writing about Haiti and poor kids, then the need to include it –  it goes hand in hand. I want my book to encourage kids to ask questions. And hopefully, there is someone who can answer them.

How does the impact of the 2010 earthquake still affect Hispaniola today?
Kids are still homeless, parentless, motionless. No jobs, no money, more prostitution. More fear. Harder to adopt due to new rules, fewer buildings, but a new sense of hope, faith, love.
 

Change Agent: Paulina Perez, School Principal and Community Leader

The sun beats down upon tin roofs as motoconchos rev their engines, bachata music blasts from a nearby lavandería, and red dust clouds the sidewalks of unpaved streets. Most of the people in Cabarete, ex-patriates, Dominicans, and tourists alike, adorn short shorts, flip flops, and tank tops in a futile attempt to beat the heat. But not Paulina Perez, the principal of Puerto Cabarete School. Upon entering her office, tucked in a shaded pocket of trees inside the gated school yard, I find Paulina seated at her desk, wearing a green button-down shirt, gray suit jacket, long dress pants, and loafers. She greets me with her gorgeous and friendly smile, and, upon observing the sweat dripping off of my face, she quickly gets up and turns on the fan.

Paulina Perez flashes her famous smile in her office at Puerto Cabarete.

I first met Paulina in 2008, when I partnered with teachers from her previous school in a summer writing program. By 2010, during the Mariposa Girls Summer Leadership program, Paulina had moved to the Puerto Cabarete School and generously opened the facility – the schoolyard, classrooms, and library – to the Mariposa volunteers and the young ladies attending the camp, many of whom were students at Puerto Cabarete.

Paulina has devoted her to life to serving her community as both an educator and a parishioner. Paulina received her bachelor degree from the Ponticicia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra, and moved to Caberete to begin her career in education. She began this career nearly 20 years ago, teaching in the Cabarete public schools. In 2004, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Colonial Nuevo, a K-8 public school in Callajon de la Loma. In 2008, upon receiving her Masters in Education from UAPA, La Universidad Abierta Para Adultos, she became the Director of Puerto Cabarete, the oldest public school in Cabarete. Within the her parish, she makes home visits to the elderly and sick to facilitate prayers and offer communion. Paulina and her husband, Mario Bonilla, have 4 children, all of whom attend the pubic schools.

Paulina’s office serves as make-shift counseling center for both adults and children alike. Children come in here when they are in trouble in the classroom. Teachers come by when they have a stressful day. Angry, frustrated, or depressed parents bring there problems here. Paulina listens carefully to them, helping them to work through problems by asking questions and offering advice. I myself have cried in Paulina’s office – once due to being completely exhausted by running a summer program and the other time over the murder of a mutual friend. Both times, Paulina’s words and gentle yet strong manner helped me to heal my feelings – indeed, just being in her presence lends itself to a sense of calm.

Over the past three years, the Puerto Cabarete schoolyard has transformed as a result of Paulina’s engagement with her community partner, The Mariposa DR Foundation. Where once stood a chain link fence, through which motoconcho drivers catcalled schoolgirls, now stands a multi-colored wall adorned in butterflies. Volunteers from Lawrence Academy have painted the wall’s interior in rainbow colors. The once-crumbling gate of the school now bears the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A planter that was once filled with litter now holds a well-manicured collection of plants. The children in the schoolyard on this day, dressed in their blue school uniforms, are smiling. Several of them volunteer to read to me from the bulletin board, where one of the signs reads: “Proteger tu escuela. Es tu segundo hogar.” Care for your school. It is your second home.”

Paulina and Candida, a teacher at Puerto Cabarete, pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation

Three students pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation.

The Rights of the Child are painted on the school’s gate.

Students pose in front of the planter at Puerto Cabarete.

All of these students were able to read the signs from the bulletin board.

Change Agent: Victoria Jones, International Volunteer

“Why is it just for girls? That’s what the boys in the neighborhood ask,” explains Victoria Jones, as she sits on the striped futon in the center of the Mariposa DR Foundation‘s office on Calle 9 in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. Victoria has served as a volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation since August of 2011, and she will continue to serve the organization until December of 2012 as she completes her practicum for her M.A. in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. “I was supposed to go to Tanzania to teach ESL, but Ria [Shroff, another Mariposa volunteer and former School for International Training student] convinced me to come here.”

Victoria Jones poses in front of the library in the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9, Callejón de la Loma, Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

Over the past year, this poised and thoughtful young woman has clearly made an impression on the families of Cabarete, as several of them have photographs of her in their home and mentioned her by name when asked about the Mariposa program. The teen girls who participate in the Mariposa DR programs are the sole focus of Victoria’s work in the foundation. “Our three overarching goals for all of our girls is that they feel safe, learn skills, and have fun,” she explains. In addition to providing the girls with an out-of-school-time community center, Victoria and the team of Mariposa staff and volunteers provide a wide range of trips and activities outside of the Mariposa office, including swimming, tennis, volleyball, soccer, and capoeira.

Victoria knows the needs of and individual goals for each and every young lady in the program:
“Maritza* used to lack listening skills, and she had difficulty with showing respect for adults and peers. She has developed a lot of maturity as a result of being a part of this program. Ana* is unable to read, and she used to make a lot of negative comments. Julia* devours books. She asks questions, and she shares knowledge. Paula* and Mariana* struggled with attendance, and then they were a part of a sewing program that we did. It helps them with motivation, and they started coming a lot more. They increased their alphabet knowledge. They didn’t know the Spanish alphabet, and they struggled to sound out words.”

Victoria’s extended stay in the Dominican Republic has forced her to spend a lot of time analyzing the difficulties for the young ladies who grow up in the Cabarete community. “These girls are developing as adolescents, and they are learning attitudes, communication skills, and social relations. Their parents may or may not have basic skills. They are very sexualized in this culture, and there is an industry of sex tourism.”

However, Victoria also feels the appreciation and respect of the community: “I was automatically a part of Cabarete when I came here because I was working with the Mariposa Foundation. My work is valued, and I feel very protected here.”

*Note: To protect student’s privacy, names have been changed.

Change Agent: Orquidea Garcia, Supermamá de Cabarete

In the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9 in the Callejón de la Loma in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, Orquidea Garcia is known by her alias:”Supermamá”.

La Supermamá Orquidea (left) with Jennifer Dines (center), daughter Orianna (right) and two of the La Supermamá’s students

In 2010, when I first met Orquidea, she was very excited for her daughter, Orianna, to join the Mariposa DR Foundation’s First Ever Young Women’s Summer Leadership Program , an all-girls summer program that, in its first year, provided 50 at-risk teenage girls with four weeks of academics, activities, and excursions. When Orquidea agreed to join the program herself as a part of the School Staff Training Program, she took the first steps towards her new life as “Supermamá”.

Orquidea’s talents were immediately apparent in her abilities to use her quiet yet radiant personality to engage the Mariposa program’s young women in both casual conversation as well as in their academic work. I remember one day in early July of 2010, I walked into the library at Puerto Cabarete and saw Orquidea with a group of twenty or so girls. Not one of the girls turned towards myself or Mariposa Assistant Director Jessica Lawson when we entered the library. Orquidea had these young ladies completely enamored with a Spanish translation of Tomie di Paola’s Italian folktale Strega Nona. Afterwards, when I commented to Orquidea about her abilities as a librarian, she said: Jenny, tengo mucho ánimo. “Jenny, I have a lot of positive energy.”

Along with her neighbors and best friends, Claudia and Kathy, Orquidea continued to volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation, and in the fall of 2011, she was extremely excited when Executive Director Tricia Suriel arrived at her home along with Jessica Lawson to offer her a job working in the office of the foundation.

Today, Orquidea works full-time for the Mariposa DR Foundation, where she serves as the office manager. Each morning, she starts her day by chatting with the program’s young ladies as she prepares breakfast for them and then sends them off to school. Orquidea has gained many computer skills as well as learned English through her work in the office, and she handles e-mail and phone correspondence, arranging trips, appointments, and guest speakers.

Additionally, Orquidea tutors younger girls in mathematics, and she works closely with the girls in the health class alongside of clinical child psychologist Alexandra Milián Martinez. Although Orquidea admits that she worries frequently about the problems that these young ladies discuss in their groups, from typical trials of coming-of-age to more intense personal and family struggles, she loves being able to guide the young women of her community through their teen years and she is learning much from Martinez, her mentor.

Orquidea hopes to complete a degree in psychology at the local university in Puerto Plata, and she is currently taking the first steps towards making her dream a reality – Orquidea is completing her bachiller or high school diploma in evening classes at Puerto Cabarete, a local public school. Orquidea says that working with the Mariposa DR Foundation made her realize that she was actually very smart. Although she attended school through the 8th grade, she didn’t really think of herself as a serious student or learner until she began working with the young ladies in her community.

Between her roles as an office administrator, social work intern, student, and mathematics tutor, Orquidea remains a “Supermamá” to her beautiful daughter, Orianna, now age 13. Orianna graduated from the 8th grade in June, and she will begin classes at Colegio CADIN, a private preparatory school, in Islabón on Monday.

Orquidea is an inspiration to her friends, family, and students in the Cabarete community, and Literacy Change is proud to feature her as our very first Change Agent profile because Orquidea is making positive changes in education in her community, and she is a model of a teacher who is also a learner.