Mary Anne Mercer is the author of the new memoir Beyond the Next Village: A Year of Magic and Medicine in Nepal. She is the co-editor of the book Sickness and Wealth, and her work has appeared in publications including The Huffington Post. She works in the field of public health, and she's based in Seattle.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your experiences in Nepal?
A: Though this story took place several decades ago, the year I spent in rural Nepal never receded, in my mind, into the remote past.
Over time I realized how profoundly that experience had changed my perceptions of the rest of the world, my sense of kinship with people living in totally different circumstances from my own. That process meant gaining a sense of what culture really means and the purposes it serves.
I found, for example, that most Nepalis had very clear convictions about the reality of the spirit world. Eventually I realized how important that belief was for them in making sense of their lives, over which they had very little control. Attributing what we might call “luck,” good or bad, to spirit interventions gave them a way of understanding the world.
Q: Author Brenda Peterson said of the book, “Mary Anne Mercer treks between worlds in this mesmerizing memoir of adventure and initiation into another culture, another way of healing, of understanding home.” What do you think of this description, and how do you think the book touches on issues of home?
A: In the beginning, when the book starts, I’m overwhelmed with the strangeness of absolutely everything I encounter. Completely new language, customs, geography, physical gestures, beliefs, religion, ways of dressing, behaving – nothing was familiar, all very different from the life I’d left behind.
But while the men and women I related to were at first totally foreign, gradually all those differences faded in the background, and I was as comfortable with members of my team as I would be at home with my family. Those “foreign” factors were still there, but for the most part, they were unnoticed, irrelevant.
The simple sharing of daily life led to a much deeper awareness of how we are all alike in some very basic ways, no matter how vast the differences seem. I wanted others to have the opportunity to learn those lessons, and in a small way the book tries to make that happen.
Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book?
A: I began with a very clear aim: to write about the lives of the people I’d spent time with in Nepal. But sharing my early drafts with my writing group, I was gradually convinced that the story needed to include more of “me,” the protagonist, of what I experienced and how it changed me.
I resisted at first. My background was in academic writing, where the author or authors are meant to be essentially invisible, and it took some time for me to move into that very different approach to first-person descriptions.
I was fortunate to have written a detailed journal of that time in Nepal, with tentative impressions of what I gleaned from the experience. Writing the book gave me the opportunity of reliving what I’d written during that period of my life—and seeing in a new way how much I’d learned from it. It was the catalyst for my decision to spend the rest of my life working in international public health.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: That year in Gorkha was, physically, a process of trekking from village to village, not knowing exactly what I would encounter from one week to the next.
Every place we stopped would be a surprise of some sort: new village leaders, different geographic challenges, and being approached with a variety of health problems. My life seemed to revolve around what might happen at each succeeding place we went.
Then as the end of my time there approached, I began to envision what would come next, after my time in Nepal. I wondered how I my very special, unique time in the villages would affect what I might do with the rest of my life and career. As it turned out, it was profoundly influential.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have taken on the writing of a creative nonfiction book about my paternal ancestors. My grandfather was a cowboy in the late 1800s, and my father followed in those footsteps. I was raised on a Montana ranch where my grandfather lived in the original ranch house, next to my family home.
I have enough historical information about their lives that I wanted to present it for current and future generations in a story format that would be of interest to those who don’t read “history” per se.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: An article on my website gives a sense of my international health work, which has been profoundly affected by the experiences described in the book.
I went to Nepal at a time when I was ready for a new focus in my career, and nothing could have prepared me better for that effort than deep immersion in the lives of rural people in what was, at that time, the poorest country in Asia.
The lessons from Nepal have stayed with me in very important ways for the rest of my life.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb