Tuesday, February 22, 2022

As a senior at Stanford University, Maya Mahony took a Spanish human rights course in which she volunteered at an immigration detention center on the southern border of Texas. During this emotionally-taxing, life-changing experience, she helped families prepare for their asylum interviews.

“That was a really heartbreaking week, getting to know all these women who suffered so much in trying to get to the U.S.,” says Mahony, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. “They were fleeing such horrible situations. They were pretty much all being denied entry and asylum.”

Mahony, an MFA student in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has been passionate about immigration justice for quite some time, and those themes find their way into her stories that portray an image of what the world could be like if people were more welcoming to immigrants. One of her favorite stories she’s written is a young adult novel set on a utopian hot air balloon city and told through the eyes of teenage refugees who sneak on board and try to remain at their new home.

Maya Mahony
Maya Mahony, MFA candidate in Creative Writing

This multi-talented writer and youth teacher considered being an immigration lawyer at one time. However, spending a week at the detention center made her rethink a new way to work toward justice that felt more emotionally sustainable.

“It helped me realize I can do hard things and listen to people’s pain,” Mahony says. “I was really scared that it would be horrifying. It’s important work, but emotionally I couldn’t handle it day in and day out.”

One year earlier, Mahony spent an academic quarter studying in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, she learned about the legacy of apartheid and witnessed the stark inequality in race and wealth. This was an experience she will never forget as she now feels like she can never turn away from inequality and injustice.

“I felt powerless in Cape Town and felt inundated with suffering that I couldn’t do anything about,” Mahony says. “We would drive by slums where you’d see intense poverty. People were topping their fences with shards of broken glass, which was contrasted with a fancy, shiny city center with white people walking around.” 

Mahony will always remember the depth of the injustice she observed at the immigration detention center and on the streets of Cape Town. She is left trying to find a way to address these issues of inequality.

At home at Writing University

Maya Mahony at the Iowa Writers' Workshop
Maya Mahony at the Iowa Writers' Workshop

Mahony first became exposed to the University of Iowa, referred to as the Writing University, with more than 40 Pulitzer Prize winners and seven U.S. Poets Laureate, as a high school student after spending two weeks at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.

“It was such a fun experience for me to meet other kids who were obsessed with writing and reading,” Mahony says. “I didn’t have many friends at home who were nerdy like that. It felt so special to make those connections. It was very exciting for a teenager to stay at a college campus, live in a dorm, and get to know Iowa City.

“That camp experience helped convince me to come back here. Iowa City is such a welcoming, artsy town.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree at Stanford, she returned to the University of Iowa to join the creative writing program in the Department of English. Mahony received a Truman Capote Fellowship – a one-year award for first-year students funded by the Truman Capote Literary Trust.

In the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mahony and her colleagues focus more on improving their craft than on getting their writing published in a town where “writing is valued” and not just a hobby.

“The students here are very thoughtful. The workshop has been better than I expected,” Mahony says. “People are really generous with their feedback and take each other’s work seriously even if we’re doing different projects. I have light bulb moments all the time in workshop, and that is so helpful for my future writing.”

Helping children’s voices be heard

Mahony questioned if it’s okay to be a writer and teacher when those pursuits aren’t directly impacting systemic change. She concluded her best self is given through writing and teaching children her craft. At the same time, she could volunteer doing community organizing.

“I needed to find another way to contribute that was sustainable and genuine to me,” Mahony says. “Writing my novels have progressive values. Helping kids from marginalized communities unlock their own creative voices and be heard in the world are other ways I can contribute in a way that feels sustainable and joyful.”

Last summer, Mahony taught a writing camp for children. Currently, she is leading a book club for children ages 9 and 10. In that role, she writes creative prompts and leads the overall discussion of the book.

Helping children unlock their immense imagination in words is an enjoyable exercise for Mahony.

 “Kids have so much sparkle. It’s fun allowing kids to express themselves creatively,” Mahony says. “Having a creative outlet can help children realize that they are their own people with voices that deserve to be heard.”

Mahony feels children have a fresh way of looking at the world, and adults can take a page from their book.

“Children can see through the ways of thinking that adults have layered onto their way of experiencing the world through societal pressures or pressures to make a living,” Mahony says. “We need a dose of hope to help us get some action and make some change. If we get the kids early and give them a vision for what the world could be, then we all can work toward that.”