Will McGrath Q&A

October 5, 2020
Will McGrath spent an unforgettable year in Lesotho.

“I wanted to make sure my book took equal pains to represent the joy and humor and witty intelligence that are characteristic of everyday life in Lesotho. An excessive emphasis on suffering flattens the lived experience of most people.”

I admired how early on in the book you made it clear you were not going to Lesotho to “find yourself” or any of those well-worn tropes, but to experience how other people lived. But the irony is you did find yourself. Didn’t you?

I don’t know if I’ve been found yet, by myself or anyone else. I do hope the book’s narrator demonstrates some growth, I suppose, or at least awareness of life’s complexity. But in my writing, both journalistic projects and those that skew memoir-y, I’m always more interested in other people. There’s always something beautiful to learn from the different ways that people move about this planet.

Did you know while you were there that you would write about the experience?

After my first trip to Lesotho, I think I did know that any return trips would involve me writing about the place. Writing is one of the means I use to process and understand my experiences. But I wasn’t sure at the outset that it would ever be a book. Many of the chapters began as blog posts that then grew—over years and years and via revision and revision—into more polished and cohesive narratives of people and experience.

The statistics you shared about the HIV incidence in the country is breathtaking. Your sketch of Limpho was so lovely and heartbreaking. How hard was it for you and your wife, who went there to study HIV treatments, to witness such suffering?

Well, there were certainly sad moments while we were there; it would be incomplete and dishonest, I think, to write about Lesotho without acknowledging AIDS’ encompassing impact on the lives of Basotho people. But I wanted to make sure my book took equal pains to represent the joy and humor and witty intelligence that are characteristic of everyday life in Lesotho. An excessive emphasis on suffering flattens the lived experience of most people.

Your writing of your teaching experience while in the country was wonderful—it reminded me of Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man.” Did you find students in Lesotho had enough books that spoke to their own cultural experience?

That was definitely something underrepresented in the school where I worked. But there is a growing movement of younger creative and literary Basotho, so it’s only a matter of time before those kinds of gaps are addressed.

I loved your scene where you show how everyone holds hands in Lesotho, which I found so charming. What observations have you made about the differences in cultures since you moved back to America?

It’s funny you bring that scene up, because now, in the days of the global pandemic, Americans are even more cagey about their personal space. But another issue that seems especially starkly different right now is our treatment of our elders. In Lesotho, getting older is a matter of respect, an increase in status. But the pandemic here has only emphasized how little care we pay to our elders in America.

You’ve been back to Lesotho twice. Is it changing in good ways? Are you optimistic about the country’s future?

All told, I’ve been in Lesotho for four lengthy stays, with my first visit back in 2007. Over the last 13 years, the thing I’ve seen change the most was technology and internet access. During that first trip we would have to go to a special building to get screechy super-slow dial-up internet; during my last trip (in 2015), we had Wi-Fi in our hut. People I thought I might lose touch with initially are now people I communicate with regularly on Facebook and Instagram. So that has been a fantastic change.

Are you still working toward an MFA at Hamline? 

I’m finished with my MFA now. I defended my thesis back in May (via Zoom – thanks, Covid!). It was in creative nonfiction. And now I’m back at Hamline teaching creative writing (via Zoom – thanks, Covid!).

You also write journalism pieces. Are you able to combine your interests in your magazine work?

In my magazine writing so far, I’ve managed to avoid sticking to a certain “beat” (which can be good and bad). Mainly I just try to connect with and celebrate people who are doing interesting things in the world.

What is your next book?

I’ve got a few book ideas in the works, but I’m keeping them close to the vest for now. My next magazine profile involves a man who was wrongly imprisoned for 30 years before being exonerated.