Some of the press for “This Is Paradise”
WGBY-TV’s Jim Madigan interviews Suzanne and the subject of her book, Mags Riordan, founder of the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic in Cape Maclear, Malawi.
On the Radio:
Bill Newman interviews Suzanne on WHMP radio’s “The Bill Newman Show. Listen here.
In the Papers:
The Irish Times
Read Suzanne’s essay about “This Is Paradise” and an excerpt from the book here.
The Boston Globe
Read Kate Tuttle’s piece on Suzanne and “This Is Paradise” here.
Suzanne Strempek Shea publishes 10th book, ‘This is Paradise’
Popular area author Suzanne Strempek Shea releases her 10th book this month, “This is Paradise: An Irish mother’s grief, an African village’s plight and the medical clinic that brought fresh hope to both.”
The non-fiction is the story of The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, founded by Riordan’s mother in Cape Maclear, Malawi, Africa. The Irish born Riordan drowned in the village in 1999. The clinic was established, in his memory, 10 years ago, and has served more than one-quarter of a million people, in an area traditionally served by one doctor for more than three-quarter of a million people.
This year is a busy one for Shea, writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path College, in Longmeadow, who will serve as emcee of the college’s 19th annual Women’s Leadership Conference on April 25 at the MassMutual Center. Its theme is “Own Your Own Story,” and the featured speaker is pioneering broadcast journalist Barbara Walters. In the fall, Shea will release her sixth novel, “Make a Wish But Not For Money,” about a palm reader in a “dead mall,” and before that has monthly readings scheduled for “This is Paradise.”It is almost 20 years ago that Shea published her first book, “Selling the Lite of Heaven,” to much acclaim. The resident of the Bondsville section of Palmer has shared many of her experiences, during the last two decades, through her non-fiction books, including her 2002 “Songs from a Lead-Line Room: Notes, High and Low, From My Journey Through Breast Cancer,” the 2004 “Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore,” and her 2009 “Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith.”
Her novels include “Hoopi, Shoopi Donna,” published in 1996, whose title character plays the accordion, like Shea, the 1999 “Lily of the Valley,” and the 2010 “Around Again.”
Married to Tom Shea, the former, long-time, award-winning columnist for The Republican, the couple, along with author Michele P. Barker, wrote “140 Years of Providential Caring” for the Sisters of Providence of Holyoke.
Shea will debut her book on April 23 at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main St., Northampton, in a reading and signing that will also feature poet Kathleen Aguero, author of “After That.”
Shea, who spent more than three years doing research for “This is Paradise,” is donating a portion of the proceeds from her book to the clinic. Mags Riordan, who established the clinic, said she felt her son would be “very pleased at what has happened in the village” in terms of the clinic’s impact.
“He was very attached to the place having made three separate trips there,” Riordan, a former guidance counselor from County Kerry, Ireland, said.
The following is an edited interview with Shea about her newest book. She noted the villagers of Cape Maclear, population 15,000, have five cars, and face a 90 percent unemployment rate.
What led to the establishment of the clinic?
Twenty-five year old Dingle resident Billy Riordan was a world traveler when not working at his father’s hostel in Dingle. On the first night of his third trip to Cape Maclear, Malawi, in 1999, he entered massive Lake Malawi and drowned. When Mags visited the Cape a year later, to place a memorial stone in his honor, she noted the poor state of the schools, but then became aware of the lack of any healthcare when a villager, thinking a visitor might have a first aid kid, brought to her a boy who’d injured his leg.
The closest medical facility is roughly 11 miles away, down a very corrugated road that can wash out in the rainy season. It’s not exaggerating to say that a simple untreated infection might lead to death. Mags realized that over several visits, and raised funds to build the clinic that opened in 2004.
What made you feel there was a book story to be told about it?
There are so many aspects to this story that have you shaking your head for both the hardships Mags and the people of Cape Maclear have faced, and face, and there are so many wonderful points to celebrate. This is a story about one woman’s attempts to bring change to a community. She knew nothing about starting a clinic, and, yes, her father had been a physician, but she knew nothing about medicine. She knew only that creating a clinic would save lives.
Mags has done this with some very personal experiences of loss. Billy actually was the third child Mags lost over 26 years, her first child – daughter Niamh – drowned at four months when the family car malfunctioned and rolled off a pier, and her second child, Luke, was a crib death, also at four months.
I thought Mags’ story would make a strong magazine piece about motherhood, grief, healing, moving outside the comfort zone, and how one person can change one part of our world. The clinic serves 150 people a day, in a catchment area where there was one doctor for 800,000 people. Villagers died regularly, even from complications related to the slightest infection. My husband, Tommy Shea, who always has the better idea, said, “That’s not a magazine piece, that’s a book.”
How has the clinic’s story evolved since it opened?
Now care is less than a mile from either end of town, available 24 hours a day. It’s also a rare source of employment for villagers.
The doctors and nurses continue to be all volunteer and all from other countries, but the idea is to have the clinic taken over one day by professionals from the village. And some residents have been inspired to train as medical professionals, so that possibility is slowly coming. It’s also doubled in size over the 10 years, thanks to an addition that includes a laboratory and a beds for overnight care. Services, including an HIV/AIDS clinic and a porridge distribution for children five and under, have been added, and eye care has just become available.
What work went into telling the clinic’s story? Where did it take you geographically and who are a few of the people in the book?
I traveled for interviews to Cape Maclear once, to Dingle and Dublin twice, and to West Springfield more than a few times (Mags, a regular visitor to the Eastern States Exposition’s Big E, for fund-raising, stays with the Meserve family in the town).
I went through library archives in Ireland, read a stack of books and prowled about online for all kinds of info, data and details. Some of the subjects include Mags’ mother and sister, retired nurse and current world-traveler Kitty Dillon, who lives in Dingle; her sister, Cathy Dillon, in Dublin, a writer for The Irish Times; her good friend Steve Free, project manager in Cape Maclear and her right-hand man; a variety of volunteer doctors and nurses, including a pair of medical students from Australia and a nurse from England inspired to travel by an uncle who had a map of the world stuck with pins designating the places he’d been; and villagers, including Justice Chiphwanya, 24, who works in reception and in his spare time has founded two churches in the village that has 15 places of worship.
A Cape resident, lucky enough to have a regularly scheduled paying job, typically supports an average of 11 people, and Justice is no exception. “I like the income for my life and my relatives,” he says. “I’m supporting my child and two brothers for school. I volunteer my life for them now.”
What did you learn from writing the book?
I had the great honor of really getting to follow, observe, talk to, talk about and pick the brain of a woman who had an idea and went forth with it – to such astounding results. I learned so much about my subject, both what she did and who she is as a real person.
This isn’t a woman behind a desk all day, or someone who puts a few hours of time into a charitable effort once a month. This has become Mags Riordan’s life — getting someone to fix a plumbing problem, haggle with an insurer, check on a patient. I was floored by the dawn-to-duskness of her work, but also astounded by the great energy and enthusiasm with which she approaches it all.
How do you hope the book will help the clinic, and what do you hope it will impart to readers?
I hope it will tell people about this particular clinic, give them an example of what they might do to help at the Cape (healthcare professionals always are needed as volunteers, for periods of four months or more; laypeople are needed for office work, landscaping, and more – check the website: http://www.billysmalawiproject.org or, for general information,http://www.billysmalawiprojectusa.org.
We can’t all start a clinic, but we might be able to regularly pick up trash, walk a pound pup, collect food for a pantry, tutor a child, knit a blanket.
How much do you enjoy moving from fiction to nonfiction in writing a book? Is your palm book mainly ficition?
I really like writing both fiction and nonfiction. With a background as a reporter, nonfiction is my first love. But, it was when I was put on a night shift that I began writing fiction in my spare time. It’s great to get to go back and forth between genres, between making nothing up, and getting to make up anything and everything.
“Make a Wish But Not for Money,” about a palm reader in a down-and-out shopping mall, will be out Oct. 5, from PFP Publishing, and it’s fictional, except for the idea of a “dead mall,” a nickname anyone familiar with the old Mountain Farms Mall along Hadley’s Route 5 will know. I did borrow some details and vibe from the excitement of the 1967 opening of the Eastfield Mall, in my neck of the woods – what a big deal that was.
© Copyright The Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts)
The Valley Advocate
Paradise Regained – Valley author Suzanne Strempek Shea’s new book looks at a mother’s remarkable response to tragedy
In Chembe Village, in the southeast African country of Malawi, the population is 90 percent unemployed, 90 percent illiterate, 50 percent malnourished “and 100 percent beyond the American middle class mind’s concept of poverty,” as Suzanne Strempek Shea puts it in her new book, This is Paradise(PFP Publishing).
Nonetheless, this village of 15,000 people, by the “turquoise and inviting” waters of Lake Malawi, is also a draw for tourists, who come to the remote area with a typically laid-back itinerary that might include “working on a tan, going for a snorkel, taking a lounge in a hammock and settling into the latest gap year campsite,” Strempek Shea writes.
That group included Billy Riordan, a young, adventurous Irishman who, in early 1999, sent his mother, Mags, an email that would one day give Strempek Shea the title of her book: “This is paradise, Mum,” he wrote of Chembe. “You have to come, you have to come, you have to come.”
Two days after he sent that message, 25-year-old Billy Riordan drowned while swimming in Lake Malawi—a tragedy that led to the subtitle of the book: “An Irish mother’s grief, an African village’s plight and the medical clinic that brought fresh hope to both.” In it, Strempek Shea, a Bondsville resident who worked as a reporter for the Springfield Newspapers before embarking on a career writing fiction and non-fiction books, tells the story of Mags Riordan and how she’s helped save countless lives in the village, 8,702 miles from her home in County Kerry, where her son lost his.
Mags Riordan first visited Chembe a year after Billy’s death. She came to deliver a stone, engraved with his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the words “This is Paradise.” She also began thinking about a way to memorialize him that would have a direct effect on this place he considered paradise.
A school guidance counselor, Riordan first contemplated opening a school in the village. But a chance encounter during a trip there in 2001 caused her to change direction: one day, a local man came to the tourist lodge where Riordan was staying, carrying a young boy with a badly hurt leg. He had nowhere else to take the boy, Strempek Shea writes. The nearest hospital was in a village called Monkey Bay, 11 miles away “down an often twisting and completely corrugated road that can partially disappear beneath torrents during the November-to-April rain season,” making it all but unreachable to residents of Chembe, which has no public transit and only a handful of privately owned cars.Wisely, the man realized that his best hope was to bring the boy to the lodge filled with international visitors who, the locals knew, often traveled with basic medical supplies.
Riordan cleaned and dressed the boy’s wound and gave him antibiotics. “I took one look and knew the child would die of septicemia [without that treatment]. Two or three weeks, he’d die,” she tells Strempek Shea. “Or he’d be taken to a witch doctor who would pour engine oil into the wound, and he’d definitely die.”
The experience, as well as a famine plaguing the area at the time, prompted Riordan to drop her plans to start a school and instead begin planning for a health clinic in Chembe. “I went to the village and people were dying on the streets of hunger-related diseases. Dropping dead in front of me,” she tells Strempek Shea. “Only then I realized, what was the point of building a school when people were getting sick and there was no one to treat them? Initially it seems a crazy, crazy idea, but I decided that’s what I was going to do.”
In 2004, the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic opened. It’s a modest operation, staffed by a rotating roster of volunteer doctors, nurses and medical students from other places (whom the locals call “Billys”) and some staff hired from the village. (While Riordan would like to hire more villagers, language barriers and the low rate of education in the area have made that hard.)
There’s no autoclave to sterilize medical implements (the staff sometimes boils equipment back in the kitchen of the lodge where out-of-towners stay), and new volunteers arrive with suitcases stuffed with exam gloves, antibiotics and other supplies that can be hard to come by. Power outages are a common occurrence, and water comes from a well that the clinic staff has had to lock to prevent villagers from draining it.
But those privations seem almost negligible in the context of public health in Malawi, where the life expectancy, Strempek Shea reports, is 57 or 58; eight of every 100 pregnant women die before giving birth; and one in 10 babies don’t live to their fifth birthday. Malaria and HIV rates are high, and devastating floods and famine occur regularly.
The country, the eighth poorest in the world, provides no social services, making a clinic like Riordan’s an invaluable asset. By the end of 2013, Strempek Shea writes, 275,000 people had been seen by the clinic, which also offers family planning counseling and distributes mosquito nets to ward off malaria and porridge mix to mothers with undernourished children.
To write This is Paradise, Strempek Shea trailed the seemingly tireless Riordan over a period of a couple of years, visiting her at the clinic, where she lives eight months of the year, and at her home in Ireland, where she runs the charitable trust that funds it. Riordan’s travels also include regular fundraising trips to Western Mass., where she’s found enthusiastic support, particularly among the Irish-American population. (Strempek Shea first met Riordan when she was manning a booth raising money for the clinic at the Big E.) A non-profit called Billy’s Malawi Project USA, which got its start at the Irish Cultural Center at Chicopee’s Elms College, collects donations and holds fundraisers to support the project.
In the book, Strempek Shea introduces readers to clinic staff and some of the volunteers, remarkable in their own right, who spend their own money to travel to a place most have never been before, where they’ll spend months with little or no contact with loved ones back home. She also introduces, through memories shared by family and friends, Billy Riordan, a laid-back young man who had, as his mother puts it, “itchy feet” that inspired him to pop on a backpack and see the world.
It’s a trait he shared with Mags Riordan, who admits to her own wanderlust (as well as a track record of altruism; years before Billy’s death, Mags had traveled to Bosnia to do volunteer relief work there). As Strempek Shea describes her, Riordan is a perpetual motion machine, with little time or tolerance for dwelling on things like how she’s managed to live through the kind of tragedy that would bring many people to their knees. (In addition to Billy, Riordan lost two other of her five children, both as infants.) “If asked how she’s survived what life she’s been dealt, the answers are brief,” Strempek Shea writes. “‘It’s an Irish thing’ and/or ‘I was born like this.’…”
Most people, Riordan tells Strempek Shea, “think I’m out-of-my-mind crazy. I don’t think I am. I happen to think that, despite all that’s happened in my life, I’m very well balanced. I think when you’re born there are certain things genetically in you. Some people are born worriers, some people are born procrastinators, some people are born practical, impractical. Maybe I was just born with a certain predisposition to being able to cope. That’s kind of the only thing I can really say.”
While This is Paradise tells without apology its story of fortitude in the face of tragedy (“It’s not corny to say Mags’ story is very inspiring,” Strempek Shea says in an author interview at the back of the book), it also takes on some controversial material, notably, the uncomfortable history of Western aid efforts in Africa.
To people in the developed world, Strempek Shea writes, the word “Africa” invariably brings to mind two images: “sweeping vistas chock full of incomparable wildlife,” and people living in abject poverty, “if not coming at you with spears extended, then with outstretched hands.”
For generations of Catholic school children, that latter image was reinforced by drives to support African missions. At one point in Ireland, Strempek Shea writes, children would bring in their pennies for the “little black babies,” personified by a plastic doll called “Sammy” who would nod his thanks when you put a coin in his box. In another fundraising project, children would receive a card printed with a set of rosary beads. Every time they made a donation, they would punch out one of the beads, and when all the beads were punched, they could select a “Christian name” for an African child—a practice that some children took to mean that they’d “adopted” that child.
Later charitable efforts (think the Live Aid concerts of the 1980s), while perhaps more sensitive, still trafficked heavily in images of bloated-bellied African children with flies clustered around their eyes and mouths—the kind of images that some critics, Strempek Shea notes, describe as “the pornography of Africa.” Those images might be problematic, but they’re also effective, Elaine Cosgrove, the clinic’s assistant project manager, explains ruefully: “If you were trying to get money from someone, you showed people who are down. We have so much media at home, they need a shock factor in order for you to react.”
Money is a source of constant anxiety for the clinic, which runs on a tight budget with little fat. (Strempek Shea describes Riordan and a staffer on a shopping trip for supplies, debating where they can find the cheapest toilet paper.) Riordan dreams of finding a deep-pocketed American who might sponsor the operation, which she estimates would cost about $250,000 a year: “How many pay that in taxes a year?” she asks rhetorically. “[Y]ou think of all the people in America who have shedloads of money—if you could connect with them.”
Without that kind of support, Riordan worries about the clinic’s long-term viability. “I can’t remain independent as long as the entire thing depends on my raising money each year,” she tells Strempek Shea with a characteristic lack of sentiment. “I can’t continue to do this when I’m six feet under.”
© Copyright The Valley Advocate (Northampton, Massachusetts)
Book Club Questions
- What are your perceptions of Africa and how were they affected by this story?
- What surprised you about life in Cape Maclear?
- Which character could you relate to and why? What were some of his or her personality traits?
- Which volunteer’s story touched you the most? Could you put yourself in his or her shoes? How has the past shaped his or her life?
- The clinic began due to a tragedy in one mother’s life. Do you have an example of when a horrible experience sparked something positive in your life?How do you grieve? Do you talk about grief with your close friends or family?
- What experience do you have with volunteering? Have you ever started a volunteer program? If so, what difficulties did you run into? What blessings did the effort provide?
- Mags has to deal daily with a culture very different than the one in which she’s spent so much of her life. What would be the most difficult parts of living in Malawi? Which would you welcome?
- How does the author describe the sense of community in Malawi? How does it compare to your sense of community? What are the dynamics illustrated in the story.
- What borders have you crossed in your own life, both geographical and psychological?
- Why is there such a strong connection between Ireland and Africa?
- What would be a greater challenge for you: the actual hospital work or the fundraising? And in this day of so many competing good causes, how would you raise money for an African project?
- What charitable efforts do you support, and what story or stories led you to lend that support. In which ways do you choose to give — time, funds, prayer, others?
- What is the moral of this story?