Sonja S. Mongar

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Olivia & newborn – Sonja

STORYTELLER – WRITER – EDUCATOR – HARMONICA PLAYER

Sonja Mongar is a storyteller. It shows by how she presents herself to the world; right down to the Navajo cuff bracelet engraved with two figures sitting by a fire that she wears every day. “They’re storytellers,” says the Montana-born journalist who teaches creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

Mongar began her journalism career while earning a BA in Communication with a concentration in print journalism and black and white photography at the University of North Florida. She subsequently wrote for several city and entertainment magazines and was later the managing editor of regional Florida music magazine.

She worked briefly as a project coordinator disseminating services for People Living with AIDS where she was touched by the compelling life stories of HIV infected mothers and their children. She began writing her experiences on the job but felt limited with the journalism genre. She then completed an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of Central Florida. She polished her art with an MFA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of New Orleans. “One of the reasons I concentrated on creative non-fiction instead of fiction, is because the stories of ordinary people are so much more interesting and powerful than the ones I can invent,” says Mongar.

Going deeper into personal stories and modes of storytelling was her main interest, training in a style of improvised storytelling theater called “playback” and psychodrama at the Jonathan Fox School of Playback Theater in New York. It was there she began developing the philosophy which drives her work – that every person needs a place to tell his/her story and someone to hear it. She also participated in workshops in socio-drama at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan where she saw the techniques used to transform distressed communities. Fusing it all together, she developed a series of workshops based on the techniques to train educators and mental health professionals how to use improv storytelling in prevention education and therapy. “I now use the techniques I learned in the theater workshops in my creative writing classes to help students explore their personal stories as well as character and plot,” she explains. “The exercises also help build a safe writing community where writers feel more comfortable sharing their writing,” she adds.

Cut & Paste Poetry Montage – Creative Writing – 2011

Mongar migrated to Puerto Rico from Florida with her former partner in 2000. Her intention was to stay just long enough to write her “coming-of-age-in-the-sixties” memoir/thesis from a beautiful mountaintop casa overlooking the San Germán valley.

Initially, she worked as an adjunct English professor at UPRM to pay the bills but realized she enjoyed working with student writers almost as much as she loved to write.

Cut & Paste Poetry

It  was quite a challenge to her idealism to discover that academic elitism can actually block student success. “It’s easy to get discouraged as a writer, especially in academia where the demand is for critique and deconstruction rather than creativity,” she says. “Students get discouraged too because of a lack of writing courses, lack of mentors and no place to publish their work,” she adds which led her to found pastiche, a bilingual student literary and arts journal when she was first hired. However, after publishing three volumes, funding was cut. She then joined other local, like-minded musicians and writers to found a not-for-profit, independent publishing company, Mancha de Plátano, Inc. Partnering with a cross-platform studio, Estudio Casa Bohemia, they produced free literary and arts events for under-served communities such as students and senior citizens. Securing private funding enabled them to publish, Mancha…, a bilingual literary and arts journal featuring some of the best-known writers, poets and artists in Puerto Rico alongside many new, young voices. A second volume was slated to be published but lack of funding grounded the journal, she states.

Undaunted by setbacks as a writer and teacher, she is always eager to generate new writing projects, especially if they involve her students. She is currently working with volunteers and interns on a digital web publication, Esta Vida Boricua; A Digital Life Narrative Installation, Spoken History Archives & Public Performance Space. It consists of a collection of oral histories, autotopographies, and literary journalism among other genres written by students and others local writers. The addition of a public gallery for indie art, music, film and literature was a study in balance. “I didn’t just want this to be just a repository of stories, I wanted it to be active and alive, thus the concept of a stage as the defining structure and the addition of the gallery. It’s a museum, both an archive and a public performance space —  a ‘seat of the muses.’”

Snap Jam Poetry Nite

Mongar began collecting the stories almost ten years ago in her creative writing classes, but had not decided what to do with them. She just knew that they had to be somehow published and made available to the community to read. The concept of the website grew after observing how local communities in Puerto Rico are changing and along with it, identity. “Young people here are not as interested in traditions or the past,” says Mongar. “The economic situation complicates this because many students who graduate will be forced to leave the island to find work and they have to prepare themselves to adapt to a different culture. Conversely, American culture is making a huge impact on the island, so many familiar things are disappearing. But the project isn’t geared to preserve the past in order to stop culture from changing because that’s impossible. Culture is alive and always in flux integrating new elements from generation to generation. The goal is to hedge against losing those really defining aspects of the past for future generations to appreciate and learn from.”

Parrada Poetica Tour – 2007 – music art poetry – senior citizens

Currently, along with her creative writing courses at UPRM, Mongar mentors student writers for the Western Connecticut State Low Residency MFA program. She also works with writers  in her community and was a volunteer instructor for the Sea Grant Science and Journalism Program, training scientists to write literary journalism in order to more effectively inform the public and motivate activism regarding important environmental issues.

As a professional harmonica player, she has performed and recorded Blues and Latin music with numerous bands over the last twenty years.

She is also in the process of building her current studio, Willow House Studios, and preparing it for new art, music and poetry projects. Her ongoing project, Love in a Field of Wheat, Dreaming Cora Paul is a multi-modal life narrative project focused around a diary written by her fourteen-year-old great-grandmother when she was the daughter of an Central Montana rancher in 1907.

(by Nicole Alvarez – 2009 – updated-2012)

 

Contact: sonja.mongar@gmail.com

Hecho en Puerto Rico – Gran Melia 2010

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