INTERVIEW DAVID J CONSTABLE
Every writer should leave home – that’s what I tell young writers who ask me for advice. It’s only by leaving home that you learn something about yourself. It’s the people at home who ask the roadblock questions: “How are you going to do that?” or “Why do you want to?” You’re better off without them.
Go away and find out what the real world is like. Meet people, learn a new language, figure out how to read a road map.
I grew-up in a big family in Massachusetts and my parents – my mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a salesman – never thought that you could make a living from being a writer, let alone a travel writer. After my studies I joined the Peace Corps as a teacher in Malawi. It was 1963. I learnt the Chichewa language and was able to understand the culture more as I could listen to conversations and ask questions. Travel works best when you’re forced to come to terms with the place you’re in.
‘People travel with phones, laptops and credit cards today, almost nothing is remote. They’ll be credit card tabs behind the bars and wifi in the hotel. You shouldn’t be calling your Mum every five minutes. Let her worry.’
I’m not an urban traveller. My writing is not about having brunch or staying in a five-star hotel. I prefer to travel by bus or train rather than to fly. On the train I can read, walk around, sleep, view the scenery, talk to people and get off anywhere I wish.
When I was living in central Africa I didn’t make a phone call for two years. Nobody had mobile phones back then and there wasn’t always a telephone available. I wrote letters to my family, but it wasn’t like today. People travel with phones, laptops and credit cards today, almost nothing is remote. They’ll be credit card tabs behind the bars and wifi in the hotel. You shouldn’t be calling your Mum every five minutes. Let her worry.
People travel for different reasons now. They go to Africa to go on safari and see the large or outlandish animals in the wild, while some others make the visit to tell Africans how to improve their lives.
I am inevitably curious about Africa. Living there in the 60s I was witness to many things: new governments (Kenya, Mozambique), growth, revolutions. But progress in Africa seems more and more a myth to me. Take Malawi, where American teachers were sent in the 60s to train locals. We’re still sending teachers there now. Why haven’t Malawians taken-up the baton and trained their own teachers? Well of course, teachers are under-paid, it’s a terrible job and they have no status. Africa is 53 countries and I’m talking about Malawi, but I was in Angola recently, a country that pumps two million barrels of oil a day (at $100 a barrel) and has more money than the Queen. But politicians spend it on themselves. Angola has no animals, no tourist will go there for safari, but they have over two millions landmines.
I’ll keep going back to Africa out of curiosity, but in The Last Train to Zona Verde, I think I’ve written my last word on it.