DiPrete Brown revisits personal journey through novel

Lori DiPrete Brown has traveled professional pathways that have taken her to countries around the world, as a global public health educator, researcher, and author of policies and guidebooks, working with international agencies and educational institutions.

Her journey is deeply rooted in an intensely personal odyssey that DiPrete Brown took three decades ago – an experience that continues to serve as the underpinning for her work. Recently, she found a powerful means to share that formative chapter of her life.

DiPrete Brown, who leads global health education programs for the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, served in 1983-85 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, working in a home for orphaned and abandoned teenage girls. The experiences of accompanying some of the girls to obtain documentation from their places of birth and to search for their birth mothers inspired her to write a novel, Caminata: A Journey (Global Reflections Press, 2013).

DiPrete Brown will read from Caminata: A Journey and sign copies of the book on Sunday, April 27, at 2 p.m., at A Room of One’s Own, 315 W. Gorham St., Madison. The event is sponsored by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Wisconsin–Madison, UW–Madison Global Health Institute and Division of International Studies.

Attracted to the Peace Corps

She recently talked about her Peace Corps experience and her book in an interview:

“I was born in 1961 when the Peace Corps was founded, so I grew up knowing about the Peace Corps and I always wanted to do it,” the Rhode Island native says.

Her Catholic schooling exposed her to the idea of global service with children. She also recalls seeing TV news reports about conflicts and humanitarian turmoil in Biafra and in Bangladesh.

“I wanted to be part of the solutions to the problems that children were facing globally,” she says. “So I always kind of thought I would join the Peace Corps when I finished college.”

Lori DiPrete Brown

Lori DiPrete Brown

DiPrete Brown, who graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology, began working as a counselor for runaway teens prior to going abroad, which further fueled her aspirations.

“I was particularly interested in figuring out how to address the needs of people who didn’t have parents or their parents weren’t taking care of them for one reason or another,” she says.

She joined the Peace Corps with this specific mission in mind.

“I found a program in Honduras working with teenagers in an orphanage. The Peace Corps arranged a special assignment for me to work there,” she says. “My role was as a live-in counselor, advising teenage girls to try to help them get launched to the next stage of their life.”

Her work in Honduras shaped her belief that health and social services, clustered and done well, can prevent and ameliorate a lot of the harmful effects of poverty for children and young mothers.

“I also came away with a very strong sense that, while we need to focus on scale and change, that change is personal,” she says. “It really is a hand-to-hand movement to create social change. The more I go on, the more I return to that lesson, that caring for people on an individual level – the Peace Corps way – is a really important anchor.”

Novel approach to sharing her story

Even though Caminata: A Journey was published only last year, DiPrete Brown says she’s always loved writing and entered the Peace Corps with the idea that “I would use the writing as a tool for my own growth and reflection, but also share my story in some way.”

She eventually opted to share her story in the form of a novel.

In Caminata: A Journey, Beth Pellegrino, a young American woman, goes to Honduras to help the orphaned girls of La Casa de los Niños, and accompanies four of them, one at a time, on a journey, or caminata, to their birthplaces. Through Beth’s eyes, readers are introduced to a variety of Honduran landscapes – a coffee plantation, a rural town where people make their living from basket weaving, and unexplored caves among Mayan Ruins.

Caminata: A JourneyWhat made me write this novel this way, which is fiction, about the experiences I had in Honduras, was just that I really felt the reader should get to know these girls, or girls like them, in the way that I did, without the filter, because I was part of their day-to-day lives,” DiPrete Brown says. “I really wanted to honor their lives and voices with these stories of coming of age, because they were amazing people, and I really loved them very much.”

She wanted to show that these girls have the same hopes and dreams, and the same desires to connect with their mothers and families as anyone else.

DiPrete Brown also incorporated ideas that she had thought about in graduate school – “about what social change is and what the power of the feminine is … You don’t have to be looking for that to enjoy the story, but that layer is there.”

Because Beth’s story so closely mirrors hers, people often ask DiPrete Brown about what’s real and what’s fiction.

“So much of it is autobiographical, the scenes, the places,” she says. “The stories are composites. I changed the names and protected the identities, but many things are the same.  I did marry my college boyfriend. Some of the other family things are the same as well.”

But some scenes and some elements are fictionalized.

“There was an episode that I was always sure would be in whatever story I wrote about Honduras,” she says. “One of the girls threw a knife at me. It happened in the context that she was really mad … at her life, not at me.”

DiPrete Brown knew that the girl had no intent to hurt her, so she wasn’t afraid. “I sat her down and said, ‘Look, is this who you want to be? Do you want to be a knife-thrower?’ She was so sorry.”

She explains, “I always thought the knife would be in the book, but when I tried to write that scene, it was so melodramatic and it didn’t work. It ended up being rewritten as a scene where this girl breaks a dish … I had to tone down the story to make it truer.”

Perspectives tempered by time

DiPrete Brown acknowledges that writing her story decades removed from the experience itself has influenced her narrative. She started working on it when her children were young, and continued, on and off, for several years.

“It’s been five years under the couch,” she says.  “But I got to a point with it where I had the distance to do some things better.”

That distance came with some perspectives that didn’t bloom until later.

“I was exposed to the way these girls suffered, very up close and personal,” she explains. “In reality I was only five or six years older than they were. I hadn’t yet had the experience of being a mother. I did not know what motherlessness was until I was a mother.”

Still, she concludes that her lack of understanding at the time probably enabled her to do her job better.  “I think it would have been harder for me to do later when I really knew what the losses meant.”

However, she does have regrets over what she calls “a blind spot” that she recognized some 15 years after the fact.

“There was a small group of girls who were doing great – they were in nursing school, they were in teachers’ college,” she says. “I spent so much time and energy on the high-need girls. I just didn’t realize at this stage in life that I was at – which I realize now – how much those other girls, who were doing great, could have used more of my time and attention.”

She wonders: How much more could they have accomplished with some mentoring?

“I thought they were fine, because I was naïve … I didn’t know how hard it was to be motherless at that age,” she says. “I was overwhelmed, because there were 30 girls in the house. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t do more with them.”

Journeys layered with spirituality

From her Catholic schooling to her graduate degrees in theology and public health from Harvard, spirituality has always played an important role for DiPrete Brown. That, too, is reflected in her novel.

“I really tried for each of those journeys to be a journey toward seeking the maternal face of God,” she says. “Each of the girls explores that in a different way. I know it’s very Marian in tone, and that’s a Catholic heritage thing.”

This spiritual element has not been off-putting to readers who are not people of faith, who have connected to the story on other, sometimes personal levels, she says.

“I had a very ecumenical perspective, so some of the things that are very faith-oriented don’t come from the Christian tradition,” she says.

She points to a scene where Beth and one of the girls watch a woman giving birth, and people in the village come to pray to that woman.

“That is very literally like people praying to the Virgin Mother, right?” DiPrete Brown says. “But the idea of that kind of prayer, that a woman when she’s giving birth has powerful prayers that God listens to, was something told to me by a Muslim friend. She said, ‘We pray while we’re having labor pains for the people in our lives.’ I thought that was really, really beautiful.”

She also talks about Sister Paula and a little girl who doesn’t speak, who were completely fictional characters she created to represent maternal love.

“Writing it later, I was reflecting on the maternal love I experience as the mother of my own children,” she says. “This type of maternal love is given without a thought to whether it will be retained in memory. Being willing to risk your life for those you love, whether they know you are doing it or not, is very much the essence of maternal love.”

DiPrete Brown has been pleased by the responses to Caminata: A Journey.

She points to feedback from a friend who grew up in Nicaragua: “The countries are very similar, and she felt that I had nailed the sense of place of the part of the world where she is from.”

She also mentions a woman in her book club, neither Latina nor Catholic, who still connected spiritually with the story.

“I’ve been surprised that young people are interested in it,” DiPrete Brown says.

She hadn’t thought of her novel as the type of book that would appeal to today’s young readers, but has since observed that the book’s stories of aspiration appear to be connecting across generations and cultures.

She specifically mentions one male student: “I think of this as a woman’s book in some ways, but this young guy loved it.”

(Note: DiPrete Brown refers to her experience with one of the teenage girls she met as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras during a TEDxUWMadison talk last November, titled Start Small, Change the World.)

by Kerry G. Hill

Kerry G. Hill is the director of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of International Studies. In 1999-2000, he and his family hosted an exchange student – a teenage girl from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.