Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Interview with Graham Mercer, winner of the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition

Graham Mercer was born and brought up south Lancashire, England. He spent nine years in the Royal Navy before becoming an elementary teacher. Mercer lived and taught for 34 years in Tanzania, East Africa where he met his Pakistani wife, Anjum. Now they live in north Cheshire, England. Interests include wildlife, writing, travel, reading, photography, cricket, the company of young people.
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IMBO: First, Graham, congratulations on winning the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition! We were fortunate to have many accomplished writers among the Top 18, long- and shortlists—and of course you were among these. You write mainly about Tanzania. What led you there?

Mercer: My father served in India during WW2 and the stories he told when he came back often involved the jungle and its wildlife. As a young boy I was entranced, especially by the “big game” animals such as tigers. My interest extended to East Africa and its own “mega-fauna”. As a young sailor with the Royal Navy my first ship, a survey vessel, took part in the International Indian Ocean Expedition 1962 – 64, based in Mombasa. I fell in love with Kenya and with life on safari. After qualifying as an Elementary teacher I was determined to go back to East Africa and in 1977 got a job at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam. I went for two years and stayed for 34.

IMBO: What adjustments did you have to make culturally in those first few years living in Dar es Salaam?

Mercer: When I first went to live in Dar the Tanzanian economy was doing a bungee jump – often you couldn’t buy the basics, such as bread and butter, let alone “luxury” goods. On safari we virtually lived on corned beef. There were shortages of petrol (driving after 2 pm on Sundays was in any case banned in Dar), occasional water shortages and power cuts. TV, incidentally, was also banned. But of course the ordinary Africans were much worse off – they made us, as expatriates, seem like wimps. This degree of poverty was distressing but the Tanzanians generally bore it all with typical stoicism and good humour. Having an African “household help” (or servant) was also hard to get used to but they needed a job and we were grateful for their support. The climate (for us) could also be gruelling for much of the year – there was no air-conditioning in the school then and only the bedroom in our flat had a/c. But again, compared to the Africans we lived quite comfortably.

IMBO: During my youth in the American South, Zanzibar always represented that exotic place I’d never have enough money to visit. Now that I’m an obsessed traveler, I will at some point go to Zanzibar if I have my way. What are your feelings about the place and the people? How has the place changed over the last 20 years?

Mercer: My first ship (mentioned above) was the first ship to arrive in Zanzibar harbour during the revolution there in 1964. I wasn’t aboard but later heard horror stories about the uprising. Thirteen years later I visited Zanzibar for the first time and found it fascinating. I have been many times since. On my first visit there were two hotels, now there are hundreds, around the coast and in the old Stone Town, which is (structurally) much the same as it was in the days of the sultans, the slaves and the famous explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley. It is my favourite part of Zanzibar though there are many beautiful beaches and excellent dive-sites. The island is very popular with honeymooners, but for more adventurous backpackers etc its sister island Pemba is worth a visit also.

IMBO: Is Tanzania safe? What should tourists avoid doing there? 

Mercer: I hardly had a security problem in 34 years though my wife was mugged and petty theft is quite common. Tourists and travellers need to use a bit of common sense, as you do in most places – don’t go around wearing expensive jewellery, don’t carry too much money, don’t walk around the back-streets etc at night, be aware of potential bag-snatching etc. etc. But don’t become paranoid either or what’s the point of being there?

IMBO: There will be lots of young or new travel writers reading this interview. What advice can you give them about writing a successful travel article?

Mercer: I make no claims about my own writing but good writing is good writing, whether in a novel, an academic thesis or in a travel article. Make every word and sentence and punctuation mark count, be ruthless with your “purple prose” and with adjectives and adverbs and avoid “weasel words” – “really”, “basically”, “actually”, “very” etc. Be specific – don’t just say “trees”, say “Oaks or elms or Acacia tortillis”. Talk to the locals, look for interesting facts or places that others might have overlooked. Enjoy the cultural differences and the absurdities and your own misadventures but remember that it isn’t essentially about you, it’s about the place, the people and the experience. Edit, edit and re-edit – I must go through short articles about 50 times. The art of writing is as much about leaving things out as about putting things in. And try to hook the reader in the first few sentences. And to look for a different slant on things. Read good writers. Often. And never, ever, give up. Oh – and choose your travel partners wisely.

IMBO: Excellent tips, Graham. How do you go about talking to locals? I’m shy or maybe just reluctant to make contact with other people. Any suggestions here to get me out of my shell?

Mercer: I myself have always been very shy but when travelling I have always found the locals ready to talk if you approach them with some sensitivity (rather than poking a camera lens into their faces, for example). Fishermen, national park rangers, hotel staff, taxi-drivers, fellow-passengers on buses or trains, snake charmers, “dancing bear men” and Maasai “warriors” will often talk quite freely in my experience. In some places (India springs to mind) some individuals will even seek you out. A sense of humour is important. As a man I sometimes found it more difficult to talk to local women, especially Muslims, but once they know you are sincere they too will talk (though they won’t necessarily let you photograph them. Which is fine – don’t push them). My wife is Muslim (and talks to just about everyone) so in places like Zanzibar and Pakistan she was a great help. I think the secret is to be respectful, patient, genuinely interested and a good listener.

IMBO: If my information is correct, you’ve moved back to the UK. After so long in Tanzania, what culture shock are you experiencing?

Mercer: I find life here more comfortable but less exciting than life in Tanzania – for months after we came back I would walk through a local woodland keeping an eye open for elephants and looking for lion prints in the mud. And I miss the international nature of Dar es Salaam. Life here can sometimes seem trivial, also, after Africa, so many people seem to live their lives at second-hand, preoccupied with so-called “celebrities”, reality TV and material possessions. Bureaucracy is another issue (though it was bad in Dar also) – I seem to spend half my life filling in forms, responding to questionnaires (not this one!) and answering requests for information. Having said that we love being in England and there is much to see and do and be grateful for, so no complaints.

IMBO: Finally, some readers may have noticed that you and this year’s judge, Paola Fornari, both have a connection to Tanzania—which surprised you both.

Mercer: When I read about Paola’s background I was both intrigued and worried. Worried because I thought that in the unlikely event of me winning the competition she would be accused of “cronyism” when readers found out that she and I had spent so much of our lives in Tanzania. In fact we never met though our paths must have crossed many times. And thankfully, when she was judging the competition, she knew nothing of my own background. Fortunately too my article was not about Tanzania but Kashmir.

IMBO: Thank you for taking the time to talk, Graham. I wish you all the best.

Mercer: Many thanks, Chris. Not least for your part in organizing the competition. I think competitions like this provide wonderful opportunities for writers or would-be writers to improve their skills. Some people might think that writing 1,200 words is simple but it is much easier to write 12,000 words – the discipline and ruthlessness involved in cutting back your writing to the bare bones is a really valuable to a writer, whether he or she is short-listed or not.

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, Night Train, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.