Bookstore Signs of the Times

Every once in a while, just for fun, I go to and search under the term “Buddhist fiction.” I am always pleasantly surprised to see novels and short story anthologies that I already know of amidst works that I have not seen before. Last year I walked into a large bookstore and saw an entire table piled high with copies of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize short-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being. I actually jumped up and down, smiling and clapping (really, I did – I have a witness to prove it and thankfully she understood my scholarly glee and was not at all embarrassed by my outburst). That experience made me wonder how I might react if I walked into a national chain bookstore and saw a row or section of books under a “Buddhist Fiction” sign. For I now see Christian Fiction sections in bookstores on a regular basis.

photo 1photo 2

These two photos  were taken this past summer in two different bookstores. The photo on the left was taken at a Chapters store in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the photo below was taken at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Minnesota. As you can see, they are both photos of bookstore sections categorized as Christian fiction.
I haven’t gone loopy – I know this blog is about Buddhist fiction, but there are no library or bookstore categories for Buddhist fiction. Yet. As far as I can find, there were no library or bookstore categories for Christian fiction until roughly a decade ago (or maybe fifteen years ago for libraries), even though Christian fiction broke into the publishing market in a big way in the 1980s with romance novels in the same formula fiction format as Harlequin Romance novels. This sub-genre would be followed up in the mid-1990s with the immense popularity of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s dispensationalist Left Behind series.

In an article on Christian fiction entitled “No Longer Left Behind:, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America”, Paul Gutjahr talks about the size and vibrancy of twentieth-century American Protestant publishing. He describes Christian novels as works “explicitly populated with Christian characters who partake in edifying narratives bent on espousing orthodox Christian doctrine and encouraging a Christ-like ethic of behaviour” and infers that the popularity of these novels grew with the sale of Christian books in general. Gutjahr asserts these sales reached a whopping 14 percent share of the country’s publishing industry in 1996. Perhaps this share is still growing in the twenty-first century. At the very least, there is evidence that the sub-genre of Christian fiction is growing and developing as well.  Just search for Amish fiction as proof.

So I wonder, as Buddhism becomes more and more mainstream in North America, when might we  see a section labeled Buddhist Fiction in national chain bookstores? Time will tell. It always does.

* Paul C. Gutjahr. “No Longer Left Behind:, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America” in Book History, Vol. 5 (2002), pp. 209-236.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – “Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire” by Gabriel Constans

I recently received the email below from Gabriel Constans, author of Buddha’s Wife: A Novel. His most recent work was published in August and it looks to be a welcome, uplifting addition to the growing body of Buddhist fiction short story literature.

“Dear Ms. Beek,

I hope you will let your readers and friends know about this satirical short-story collection Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire. Praise (and remorse) for the stories, from some famous, infamous, real and surreal, individuals follows (below the cover). Thank you for your infinite time and unwavering attention. Look forward to hearing from your most wondrous being.

Peace, love and tie-dye,


Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba by Gabriel Constans
Fountain Blue Publishing
Published: August 1, 2014

This fictional short-story collection challenges our perceptions and illusions about religious masters, spiritual teachers, gurus, charlatans and holy men and women of all persuasions, while simultaneously tickling our funny bone and exercising the muscles our faces rely on for laughter. Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba takes liberty with questionable material from the living sea, near Egypt; tofu paper, in Okinawa; a tomb, in Italy; a shaman, in Ethiopia; and a half-sister, in India. The words, quotes, koans and stories, of this soon to be classical work, include the timeless insights of Let the Worm’s Go, Dead Food, Reality Bites, Stealing the Buddha, Drip After Drip, Sound of One Eye, Catching Wind, Looking Good, My Cat’s Enlightened, Chocolate Box, and Sex, Drugs and Sushi Rolls.

Praise and Remorse for Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

“Enlightenment or laughs? With Gabriel Constans’ book you don’t have to choose. Zen masters usually have a sense of humor, or need one. Gabriel’s got it, and he gives us a world of illusions to laugh about.”
– Bob Fenster, author of Duh: The Stupid History of the Human Race

“This is a blessed book that can be read during the rapture or while burning in hell.”
– Rev. Paat Robertson

“World leaders and politicians could learn a thing or two from the teachings of Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba. She understood and transformed the inspiring, Yes. No. Maybe, into Yes, we can, long before its use in politics.”
– President Ohlama

“Zen Master Tova Tarantiono Toshiba is a splendid collection of wit, women and wine. It reminds me of a night on the town with Mohammad Ali in drag.”
– Lady GaGaGa

“There are no teachings that are outside of you, except the ones inside this book. Unless, of course, you’ve eaten this book.”
– Bob Tzu, guru, avatar, wisdumb teacher at

“An incredible onslaught of insight and universal truth – like Yoda on estrogen.”
– George Lucus

“An endearing and soul searching work that reveals hidden treasures of this infamous master and hysterically questionable abbess. My brother loves it.”
– Llama KanChew, Sister of the Dalai Lama

“Gabriel Constans’ divine book about the humble Abbess can be used as a book of prayer, inspiration or before communing with the poor or the filthy rich.”
– Pope Fransis, Bishop of Romen

“For those who are old enough to remember, the original Golden Girls sitcom was based on the real life teachings of that zany grand lady of Zen, Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba.”
– Bettie Whyte, Actress and Comedienne”

Summer Reading

Ah, summer. When the heat turns up, life seems to slow down a little, allowing time for more reading (hopefully!). And there is still enough time this summer to read at least one of the fantastic fiction novels I will mention in this post. These are titles that have popped up over the past year that, for whatever reason, I have not had time to mention on this blog. So please, do not let my posting tardiness keep you from an enlightening summer read. Here is a quick listing of two novels and two series complete with publisher’s blurbs and a link to a review, just to help you choose. Happy reading!

31SYtsNBLFL._SL500_ Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden: A Novel
New York, NY: Arcade Publishing, 2013

This novel deals with the age old challenges of celibacy and teacher-pupil relationships in Buddhism.

From the Publisher’s website:

“Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute, the Buddhist retreat where Beth Marriot has taken refuge, and that’s a big advantage. Beth has been working as a server, assisting in the kitchen and helping out—discreetly, so the meditators aren’t disturbed. The meditators are making big sacrifices to come here and change their lives. So the servers must observe the rules, and silence and separation of the sexes are chief among them.

But Beth is fighting demons. She came here at a crossroads in her life, caught between an older lover who wouldn’t choose her and a young one who wants to marry her, and she may have caused another man’s death when she risked her own life swimming out to sea in a gale. A singer in a band, vital and impulsive, fleshy and sexy, she has been a rebel and a provocateur. And now, conflicted and wandering, she stumbles on a diary in the men’s dorm and cannot keep away from it, or the man who wrote it. At the same time, desiring—all too hard—to achieve the inner peace that Buddhist practice promises, she yearns for the example set by the slim, silent, white-clad teacher Mi Nu, and maybe yearns for something more.

Comic and poignant at the same time, swiftly paced and completely engaging, Sex Is Forbidden
is an entertaining novel about two profoundly different attitudes to life, and Beth—our narrator—is a character to be savored.”

Dan Zigmond review “Romance Rehab” in Tricycle Magazine:

088ReviewsOnlyFiction Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise: A Novel
New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2014.

Mattheissen’s last novel is based on his experience of real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz, coordinated by Zen Peacemakers organization and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman.

From the Publisher’s website:

“In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed—and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive.

In Paradise is a brave and deeply thought-provoking novel by one of our most stunningly accomplished writers.”

Hawa Allan review “Only Fiction” in Tricycle Magazine:

New In Series

9781401941673_1 Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay, The Third Rule of Ten
Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Visions, 2013

This is the third book in a series written collaboratively by Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Professor of Counseling and Tinker Lindsay, accomplished screenwriter, author, and conceptual editor. The first two novels were The First Rule of Ten (2011) and The Second Rule of Ten (2012).

From the Publisher’s website:

“Keep current with the truth: we’re only as weak as our secrets- especially the ones we keep from ourselves. That’s the Third Rule of Ten.

As the go-to private detective for a bevy of high-profile clients, our beloved ex-Buddhist monk, ex-LAPD officer, Tenzing “Ten” Norbu, has finally found his stride. With his beautiful pathologist girlfriend, a healthy bank account, and a steady stream of clients, courtesy of middle-aged movie star Mac Gannon and rising political star Bets McMurtry, Ten’s life is bursting with activity. But it’s not all joy and happiness. The death of his father and a growing abundance of secrets-both personal and professional-leave Ten feeling an unexpected depth of sorrow and confusion. Even with the emotional turmoil, nothing can stop Ten from taking the case when McMurtry’s housekeeper goes missing.

The investigation leads him down a dangerous path littered with bodies, untraceable prescription drugs, and human organ trafficking. But nothing is as shocking as the realization that the mastermind behind it all is none other than-Chaco Morales, a criminal that slipped through Ten’s hands once already. The Third Rule of Ten will have readers on the edges of their seats, as they learn, along with Ten, that there is a fine line between healthy privacy and unhealthy secrecy. Knowing the difference may just determine whether Ten will stop Chaco or lose himself.”

Tom Armstrong review of The Third Rule of Ten on the Progressive Buddhism blog: Private Eye Tenzing Norbu, central character in Dharma Mystery series.”

HowPatienceWorks-cvr-thumb Janet Kathleen Ettele How Patience Works: The Quiet Mind to Benefit Others
Wayne, NJ: Karuna Publications, 2014.

This is the third book in the How Life Works Series by author Janet Ettele, author of a series of contemporary fables based on Shantideva’s teaching on The Six Perfections. The first two fables are How Generosity Works: The Intention to Benefit Others (2011) and How the Root of Kindness Works: The Virtue to Benefit Others (2012).

Overview from Publisher’s website: In How Patience Works, Troy continues his journey in the fable that began with How Generosity Works and How the Root of Kindness Works. The teachings of Master Shantideva’s Perfection of Patience provide the guiding wisdom that leads Troy as he struggles to conquer the internal tyrant of his own anger. Building on the lessons learned from Grace in How Generosity Works and Abe in How the Root of Kindness Works, Troy and his girlfriend Maggie encounter another sage. Mrs. Sternau is an elderly widow who is a regular customer at the diner where they work. The mysterious way she shares her wisdom that crosses between dimensions of time unfolds into teaching Troy the next lesson he needs to learn: Patience. Verses from Master Shantideva’s chapter on Patience provide the backbone of wisdom to the message Mrs. Sternau delivers to Troy.

Jennifer Campaniolo at Giving Notice Now blog review

BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN, by Richard C. Morais, Reviewed by Chris Beal

The still-developing genre of Buddhist fiction remains loosely defined. But when a novel’s main characters are all Buddhists, most of them grappling with some aspect of their faith and practice, such a book obviously meets the definition.  Such is the case with Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012).

Aside from the criteria specific to the “Buddhist Fiction” categorization, I want a novel generally to give me well-developed characters, richly defined settings that reflect what the author is trying to convey, and a story that keeps me engaged. At the same time, I’m hoping that the work will move me or make me ponder rather than try to convince me of some idea. (We have nonfiction forms for the latter.)

In all of these respects, Buddhaland Brooklyn succeeds. And while the story is, in a narrow sense, about the intersection of Buddhist belief and practice with lived reality, it has much broader implications: a Catholic priest thrown into another culture, for example, may face challenges similar to those faced by the Japanese Buddhist priest in Morais’ tale. Indeed, anyone coming into an unfamiliar setting with an agenda will find himself or herself so challenged.

The narrator of the novel is Seido Oda, a priest of the fictitious Japanese Headwater Sect of Buddhism. He begins the story with his childhood in a small mountain town, where his family owns an inn that primarily caters to pilgrims to the Headwater Sect temple nearby. Although his brother longs to become a monk while Seido himself feels no calling, he, in fact, is the sibling inexplicably given over to the temple while still a young boy. But not long after he leaves home, a tragedy befalls the family and Seido silently carries the guilt about what happened in his absence into adulthood.

Seido Oda becomes a quiet but stubborn priest who specializes in teaching art and has found his niche at the temple while going out of his way to avoid any surprises in life. But when his superior tells him he must go to Brooklyn to help the believers there build a temple, he is incredulous. Surely there is someone better for this task! No, his superior insists, there is no one else.

Oda’s first months in New York are chaotic and, for him, distressing. He can’t stand the Americans and thinks they practice their faith lazily and without understanding. He insists that he must teach them the proper forms in word and deed – “proper” being defined in terms of how things are done in Japan. In one scene, he converses with a New York Headwater believer who conducts a series of lectures on Buddhism:

“’And the lectures are based on what study material?’

‘Ton of books. The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion, Tales of Siddhartha, Buddhism for Dummies. The list goes on and on.’

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar. . . .’

‘Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.’. . .

‘I see . . . . very interesting choice of doctrinal material.’. . .

‘The Believers here know all about karma. All about it. I spent three sessions explaining the concept.’

‘This is very efficient. In Japan we believe it takes a lifetime to understand karma. At deep level.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll find things go a lot quicker in America.’” (pp. 86-87; ellipses added).

The Brooklyn setting, too, is keenly observed, with all of its abundant chaos. But as Oda changes, the way he sees Brooklyn changes as well, reflecting the key theme of the novel – that we make our own reality.

Here are some questions readers may wish to ponder:

How is Oda’s experience as a child and a young man in Japan a set-up for what happens later, in America?

Do you think Oda’s superiors sent him to Brooklyn because they knew what he needed?

Do you think a Buddhist priest coming to America for the first time would experience Americans the way Oda experiences them? How much is the way Oda experiences the United States a product of his unique personality and how much is common to the Japanese character?

Because the story is told in first person, the language the Oda character uses to describe his experiences is very important in conveying his inner world and how it changes. Do you think Morais succeeds in conveying these changes?

Although it is extremely unlikely that a Japanese who has never lived in any English-speaking country would understand the idiomatic slang with which Oda is confronted when he lands in New York, it would not be funny to have the character constantly saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Is artistic license justified here for the sake of some good laughs?

If you are American – and especially if you are a New Yorker – were you insulted by the stereotypes in the book? Do you think they were accurate? Do you think Morais can get away with this because he himself is American?

Although Morais avers in his Acknowledgements that the Headwater Sect of Buddhism is fictitious and based on a variety of sources, some not even Buddhist, he also says in at least one interview that astute readers will notice similarities to Nichiren Buddhism (and points out that many already have). In what ways does Morais capture the essence of Nichiren’s teachings? Are there ways in which he doesn’t? Based on your experiences of Buddhism in general, does Morais get the doctrine right?

How does the language Morais uses to describe Oda’s inner experience convey the changes he goes through?

Do the numerous haiku in the story enhance it? If so, how?

We love to get comments! Let us hear your impressions of this book.

Chris Beal is currently reading BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN by Richard C. Morais

Here is the publisher’s description of the book we’ll be reviewing next, Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012):

“Seido Oda spent his boyhood in a small mountainside village in rural Japan. When his parents hand him over to the monks at the nearby Buddhist monastery, he devotes himself to painting, poetry, and prayer—and avoiding human contact. But his safe and quiet existence is unexpectedly upended when he reaches middle age and is ordered by his superior to open a temple in Brooklyn.

“New York is a shock to the introverted Oda, who now must spiritually lead the ragtag army of eccentrics who make up the local Buddhist community. This motley crew provides for a host of hilarious cultural misunderstandings. But when tragedy strikes, Oda’s eyes are finally opened to the long-buried sadness and personal shortcomings in his own life. It is only when he comes to appreciate the Americans, flaws and all, that Oda finds in Brooklyn the home he has always sought.”

Check back in a couple of weeks for a more thorough discussion.  Happy reading!

Interview – Part II with Adam Grydehøj about his debut novel I HAVE NOT ANSWERED

by Kimberly Beek

As promised, here is Part II of my email interview with Adam Grydehøj. Since you can look at the last few posts for an introduction to his debut novel I Have Not Answered, I’m just going to dive right in to the second half of the interview.

Part II

KB: It is in the narrator that you most meld cosmologies, and I hope you can speak to the writing experience of this hybridization. For example, can a trow or dwarf also be a preta?

AG: Once I started thinking through the mindset of a preta and the fact that it would necessarily be unaware of its own nature, I got to thinking about what else a preta would be unaware of. It would be highly unlikely for a preta to have knowledge of the cosmology of which it is a part. But a preta would certainly wonder about the world in which it found itself. The novel’s narrator is immensely frightened by the world. Its greatest fear is encountering one of its own kind, which from a theological perspective could be the equivalent of the nightmare of the mirror with no eyes. Seeing itself for what it really is would cause a psychological break for which the narrator, in its unconscious state of heightened desire, is not yet prepared – this is the point beyond which the narrator cannot cross. We can see this expressed in the dreams that the narrator prompts in Innes, where the narrator – through Innes’ dream-eyes – is forced to repeatedly encounter its own image yet manages to trick itself into thinking that this image is always illusory or deceptive.

So the narrator and – we gather – other non-human spirits have created a cosmology to explain their own existence. There are Those Who Came Before, the Earthy Ones, and so on, beings of immense power on whom it might be possible to pin some of the blame for the damnation suffered by the spirits of everyday life. Personally, I don’t even think that the island of Foula is evil; Foula is just an excuse for the cruelty of the spirits’ world. Yet the spirits themselves contest and negotiate the truth of this cosmology. The narrator is acutely aware that humans have their own cosmologies: in a Shetland context, first pre-Christian deities, then the Christian god, then the Viking gods, then the Christian god again.

KB: If cosmologies are hybridized in I Have Not Answered, was it your intention that the Buddhist cosmology be the overarching cosmology in the novel?

AG: There is an overarching cosmology beyond the knowledge of the narrator or any of the other characters in the novel, and this is evident in the fact that the narrator is disturbed both by Christian prayer and by smoke from Buddhist incense. Religions are negotiated locally, but the cosmological truth is universal.
Since I am indeed imagining the narrator as a preta, the novel’s overarching cosmology is most definitely Buddhist. The fact that the narrator lives in Shetland does not represent a contradiction for me as an author because of this distinction between local explanations of the world on the one hand and the ‘true’ cosmology of the novel on the other. From this perspective, those beings that Shetlanders refer to as trows, that the English call fairies (a generic term), that the Japanese call yōkai would all be preta; they just would not necessarily be recognized as such. In this sense, the narrator is not a trow. This is just the only word that Shetlanders would have for it.

Here is a caveat: If Northern Europe ever possessed complex cosmological systems of thought prior to the coming of Christianity, we have no clue as to what these may have been. People today may seek to piece together mythologies on the basis of old written sources (all of which were written by Christians), but really, there is little evidence as to what people actually believed. The ‘native’ cosmology in the novel (with the crawling things, Foula, the Earthy Ones, Those Who Came Before) is all invented by me and has no roots in anything that used to be believed.

Even now, I have no idea what ‘fey streamers’ might be or what they may mean. They are simply mysteries. And they are mysteries for the narrator as well, who is constantly engaging in myth building.

KB: In your debut novel, you have managed to combine European myths with Buddhist myths through dream sequences, imagery and symbols. For example, I recognize the symbols of the chalice and the harp from Celtic myths. Is this merging something you did consciously and, if so, what were some of the challenges you dealt with when combining myths?

AG: Celtic myth, per se, plays virtually no role in the novel. Inasmuch as the novel’s characters discuss folkloric systems, they are discussing a Scandinavian-derived system rather than a Celtic one (on account of Shetland’s history of Norse colonization). However, in practice, various folkloric systems merge, and there are huge similarities between supernatural traditions from around the world, in part because, for whatever reason, peoples around the world seem to have very similar supernatural experiences, which are then explained on the basis of these peoples’ various cultural contexts. We thus have the taboo against the naming, the taboo against eating or drinking otherworldly food or drink, the taboo about revealing the existence of a supernatural lover, etc. across most of the world’s cultures. The symbols of the chalice and the harp, what do they symbolise? I have no idea. But for some reason, these are symbols that run through certain sorts of supernatural stories across cultures, without the necessity of cultural transmission (i.e. cultures come up with these similar or sometimes identical stories independently of one another). So in this sense, the combination of various cultural traditions was not difficult for me.

As I mentioned, the narrator is constantly engaging in myth building. There is no evidence that the narrator actually ever sees other supernatural beings, though it does have memories (or are they invented memories?) of a time in the past when it was not alone. Therefore the narrator is constantly negotiating its own cosmology and expresses that other supernatural beings are similarly engaged. Did Those Who Came Before ever truly exist? Who dug the tunnels deep within the Earth? Are there even any tunnels at all? As readers, we only encounter the tunnels in dreams, and there is a passage (pages 190-191) that suggests that each individual excavates his or her own mental tunnels in order to avoid having to confront his or her own inner truths.

KB: Why tell this story through a semi-omniscient, third person narrator who also happens to be a hungry ghost?

AG: I’ll be honest: This narrator was a real pain to write. By its nature, it needs to be both unaware of its own nature and unable to fully understand human emotion. It also needs to (wrongly) believe that it is not exercising its will in the world. It’s very difficult to make a character like this the driving force behind a novel’s plot.

Indeed, I’ve experienced that almost everyone who’s read the novel regards Innes as the protagonist. I guess I’ll just have to get used to that. For me though, Innes is the antagonist. We can feel sorry for Innes, and I don’t doubt that he loved Sal or, later, May (even if his love for May is a projection of the narrator’s own desires), but I would guess that Innes was a bit annoying even before he had his heart broken. It’s hard to tell since we only have indirect access to Innes’ thoughts (via his dreams and his writings). Innes’ role in the novel is to resist the narrator’s attempts to find an outlet for his will. And Innes actually does a pretty good job of it for a while.

The trouble for Innes is that the narrator is attracted to him precisely because of Innes’ misguided attempt to destroy his own will. Innes is not a random victim of supernatural attack. He is inviting this attack upon himself, and his very efforts to defend himself against the attack serve to further heighten the attack’s intensity. When Innes realizes that something is wrong with him, he seeks to starve his will. Yet starvation of will is, in the novel’s worldview, the ultimate expression of willfulness, driving the narrator to constantly reinforce Innes’ willfulness.

So Innes is only an interesting character in relation to the narrator. Innes is afraid that he’s sometimes wearing a psychological ‘mask’, but only at the very end of the novel does he gain awareness of the true horror of the situation: that he has in fact become someone else’s mask. As in Shindo’s Onibaba, it is unclear as to who is haunting whom. Fundamentally though, this is the narrator’s story, and only the narrator can tell it.

KB: Did you have an intended audience in mind when you wrote the novel?

AG: I knew that a good portion of the intended audience would simply be Shetlanders. I always wished that novel would have a Buddhist readership, but practically speaking, I think it’s rather unlikely that it will be widely read in these circles since the novel is only implicitly Buddhist. It is entirely possible to read the novel without engaging in any Buddhist interpretation whatsoever. Interestingly, the novel is being marketed as a supernatural thriller and as an example of ‘weird fiction’ (i.e. as related to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the concept of ‘cosmic horror’). Thematically, the novel is quite different from these genres, particularly in the Western tradition.

KB: How do you think your novel will be received in Shetland?

AG: I think that the content of the novel will be well enough received in Shetland, and some people will be happy to see a treatment of ‘trows’ that is not comic in tone. However, there’s a good chance that a lot of folks will be angry about the way in which I’ve dealt with the local dialect. I’ve basically taken aspects of the actual dialect and used them to create something that isn’t dialect – but that’s readable to a wider audience. This might not go down well!

KB: Your novel certainly goes down well as a work of Buddhist fiction. Like certain aspects of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize nominated 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being, your debut work I Have Not Answered is at the forefront of narratives that combine Buddhist cosmology and myth with European or North American cosmology and myth. Thank-you for the opportunity to read your novel, discuss it with you through email, and share it here on the Buddhist Fiction Blog.

Interview – Part I with Adam Grydehøj about his debut novel I HAVE NOT ANSWERED

by Kimberly Beek

Adam Grydehøj holds a Ph.D. in Ethnography from the University of Aberdeen U.K. He is most interested in islands and folklore in a contemporary context. Currently, he puts his ethnographic skills and his years of study of folklore to good use as the Director of Island Dynamics, an organization that uses cultural anthropology, economic geography, foreign and public policy, and tourism studies to “create and communicate island studies knowledge through conferences, courses, research and consulting.” Adam is very much a global citizen with a comprehensive understanding of how remembering the past, and the ways in which we do so, affects possibilities in the present.

imgresAdam’s debut novel I Have Not Answered is being marketed as a ‘supernatural thriller’, so readers of this blog may wonder how it also fits into the realm of Buddhist fiction. In my first communication with Adam, he wrote of I Have Not Answered that “I did consciously write it as a Buddhist novel – or rather, I thoroughly edited it into being a Buddhist novel from the end of the first draft onwards.” There are overt Buddhist elements in the narrative, since the seeming protagonist of the novel, Innes, practices Buddhist meditation in an effort to overcome some of his perceived challenges. Innes is a researcher who finds himself embroiled in strange circumstances while researching folklore in Shetland. What is more surprising, however, is the seamless interweaving of Buddhist cosmology into the perspective offered by the novel’s narrator, the real protagonist of the work. It is this interweaving that puts emphasis on the ‘supernatural’ in the label ‘supernatural thriller’.

The following interview with Adam may, in fact, provide a ‘flipside’ reading of the novel, since I Have Not Answered is set in Shetland and will likely be read as a novel about a particular locale, steeped in the locale’s inherent cultures and concerns. And the novel’s reception will be shaped by the reader’s interpretation of the narrator. So I feel very fortunate to have interviewed Adam through email in order to get an ‘author’s insight’ into a debut novel that is, indeed, a work of Buddhist fiction, and so much more.

What follows is Part I of a very rich, illuminating exchange with Adam Grydehøj about his first novel, I Have Not Answered (Beewolf Press: Copenhagen, Denmark, 2014). Part II will be posted next week, so I hope, dear reader, that you return to read both parts.

Part I

KB: Can you share with me a bit about your own experience with Buddhism?

AG: My own experience of Buddhism is a bit difficult to express.
When I first started my ‘academic career’ as a bachelor’s student at The Evergreen State College, Washington State, I began by studying philosophy and comparative religion, which later morphed into folk belief and then, rather awkwardly, into small island governance and economic development. I suppose that this early background in comparative religion gave me some expectations for dealing with these sorts of subjects while my later work on folk belief taught me to distinguish between lived (or apparently lived) supernatural experience, feelings of religious devotion, and myth.

I did not start paying any attention to Buddhism whatsoever until after my son, Sigurd, was born in 2004. It actually began, inauspiciously enough, with Godzilla. As a child, I had watched quite a few ‘B-movies’, having inherited the tradition of American B-movie viewership from my mother. I thought that Sigurd might enjoy them. He thus received a pack containing DVDs of five early Godzilla films (1954-1974) when he was four years old. Sigurd really enjoyed these, and though we had been watching these in the English dubs, I thought that it couldn’t hurt to introduce him to some other Japanese films (which also gave me an excuse to finally watch some cinematic masterworks). It was through this that Sigurd and I moved from Godzilla into Kurosawa (both his historical/samurai films and those taking place in contemporary Japan) – and we have maintained a joint interest in Japan and Japanese movies ever since. Indeed, on the basis of films like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress as well as Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Sigurd came to regard himself as a Buddhist. The sort of conception of Buddhism that one would derive from such movies is, of course, very different to the more ‘peace-and-love’ focused vision of Buddhism that is most common in the West these days. This has been reinforced in Sigurd through our reading of the Heart Sutra, parts of the Lotus Sutra, Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings, etc.

But here, I must separate myself from Sigurd, for with my academic background and mindset, I have not been able to as straightforwardly accept the trappings of Zen Buddhism without worrying about the cosmology behind it. In so many present-day understandings of Buddhism, particularly here in the West, the emphasis on elements of the Buddhist tradition that fit our current social context (often mediated through Theosophist and post-Theosophist thinkers, particularly W.Y. Evans-Wentz) obscures culturally difficult ideas concerning the suffering that is inherent in the concept of a vast cycle of death and rebirth trending toward Nirvana. So, even at the time when I was most engaged with Buddhism per se (during a romance with a practicing Buddhist, which partly coincided with the writing of this novel), I was never able to accept the forest without investigating the trees, as it were.

At the same time, I came to be increasingly fascinated with how East Asian culture negotiates these issues, particularly in films (not all of which I showed to my son!). Japanese movies like Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968); Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964); and Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) show a willingness to explore the interface between Buddhist cosmology, lived practice, and human psychology. In these films (and many other East Asian films, not all of them involving supernatural subjects, that take up the Buddhist traditional mantle), Buddhism is not a path to immediate self-realisation; it is a path to further suffering. As indeed should be the case, given that, from a traditional Buddhist cosmological perspective, it is highly unlikely for human protagonists to be on the cusp of Nirvana.

So, to tie these various strands of my own life together, I am approaching Buddhism from a specifically East Asian perspective, rooted in 1) my academic interest in vernacular religion, 2) my love for good movies, and 3) my personal desire to learn about what motivated the thinking of a person who was very special to me.

KB: Clearly your experience of Buddhism is different than that of the novel’s main character, Innes. What can you tell me about the character Innes’ experience and ‘translation’ of Buddhism? He seems to be using Buddhism rather than practicing it.

AG: I honestly do not know how Innes got interested in Buddhism. The narrator does not have sufficient insight into Innes’ psychology (or perhaps human psychology in general) to be able to tell us this. I rather suspect that Innes picked up Zen Buddhism at some point in secondary school and did a lot of research about it. It is pretty clear to me that his learning is ‘book learning’, and he is placing his superior knowledge of the historical written sources above the experiential knowledge of other practitioners, as is evident in the scene at the yoga club in the town of Lerwick. Innes’ real problem, of course, is that he is attempting to use Buddhism in an instrumental manner, striving toward detachment in order to dull himself to the pain he feels from his failing relationship with his girlfriend (Sal). I imagine that Innes had a lot of knowledge of Buddhism prior to the problems in his love life, but I do not imagine that he was particularly emotionally engaged with Buddhism until then. What Innes cannot see is that his faulty Buddhist practice, his stubborn asceticism, is drawing him toward (temporary) damnation, not toward eternal liberation.

Innes is seeking to give his life meaning by solving what is really a very minor, though very complicated, academic riddle. As with his dangerous Buddhist practice, he fails to understand that it does not matter how the story ends. It is the process that matters.

I think that Innes gains a measure of self-understanding at the end of the novel, but I also think that, by the time this comes, it is too little, too late, and a part of me wonders whether Innes’ next incarnation is going to be like the narrator’s current form. Innes’ experience cannot really be understood without recourse to the narrator’s experience.

KB: After much mulling, re-reading of passages and contextualizing, I can only conclude that the narrator is a trow (fairy). Am I off on this?

AG: To me, the narrator has always been the centre of the book, the protagonist who drives events forward. This causes technical difficulties for telling the story, obviously, since the narrator needs to interact with the other characters while not speaking (it – he? – has a single line of spoken dialogue) and is generally invisible.

I know that the narrator is going to be regarded as a trow. This is unavoidable, for trow is the word that exists for the narrator in the cultural context in which the narrator finds itself. There are even indications that the narrator associates itself with what people are terming trows. The people of Shetland are not aware of the true nature of such trows. Besides which, none of the Shetlanders in the novel, with the possible exception of Graham, actually believe in trows.

Yet trow itself is just a word. The narrator is conflicted about words. For the narrator, words have power, are something to be feared – but it is the intention behind words that give them meaning, not the sounds or the concepts themselves. As in (fairly universal) folk belief, names have particular power, and the narrator’s namelessness as well as its inability to ever learn Innes’ name are an indication of its own impotence, of its own curse. To me though, the narrator is no more a trow than a yokai or a dwarf or a ghost or whatever else humans might choose to call such things on the basis of their own culturally mediated experience.

What I know – and what the narrator, crucially, does not know – is that, cosmologically speaking, it is a preta or hungry ghost, destined never to achieve what it desires most. What the narrator desires most seems to be connection with a human. At times, it seems to be seeking a romantic connection, but based on how events in the novel play out, I would guess that the narrator is unconsciously seeking to project its own nature onto a person, to attain actual unity. There are indications that the narrator’s attempts at achieving such connections always end in death. The narrator is not evil, but it is inherently malignant to humans. When the narrator someday gains self-awareness, someday comes to understand this, it will at last be able to move closer toward liberation – a step up in the cycle of rebirth. Will this take another two years, two millennia, millions of years? I have no idea. Perhaps we can gain hope from the end of the novel that the narrator has learned something. But perhaps not, for we know that the narrator is cursed with forgetfulness, which we also know is a function of its damnation.

KB: How did you come to the idea of the narrator? After reading the novel I cannot imagine the story told by any but this narrator, but I have never encountered anything like this before.

AG: I came to the idea of having the narrator be a ‘hungry ghost’ as a result of wondering what kind of emotional life such a being might have. What is the psychology of the compulsion to destroy the thing that one loves the most, and to be unaware that one is doing so? Just as Innes mistakenly believes that he is observing people from a position within the world without intervening in the working of the world, so too the narrator genuinely believes that it exists in isolation, that its own actions and thoughts do not affect those of Innes. The narrator fails to realize that Innes’ words and visions have gradually begun echoing its own and vice versa. The narrator shows no comprehension that it is “the uncanny presence in the room.” The instant that the narrator realizes this, its (present stage of) damnation will be over. The nightmare imagining of the mirror without eyes (pages 68-69) presents the narrator at the cusp of self-realisation and thus of self-destruction and renewal, but burdened by its karma, there is a point beyond which the narrator cannot yet progress.

KB: The way you crafted the narrator suggests a good deal of flexibility. Why did you choose this form for a narrator? As far as I have read, this is the first version of a hungry ghost in contemporary popular fiction (written for a Western audience) that is not a psychologized version of a human character, but is imagined as an actual preta.

AG: I came up with the idea for this narrator precisely because of the lack you note. There are plenty of excellent fictional accounts (in both literature and film) of human encounters with the supernatural. There are also plenty of accounts of the supernatural’s encounters with people, though these often have something of a post-modern flair. An exception could be Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, depending on how you interpret the story. Meyrink, who was himself interested in Buddhist (and more broadly, Theosophical) thought, is a strong influence on my own writing.

At any rate, I got to thinking that a preta would likely have a very interesting psychology and set of emotions. I hypothesized that an inherent aspect of this state of being would be a lack of awareness that one was a preta.

This is the central tragedy of the narrator of I Have Not Answered. It possesses insufficient self-awareness to recognize its own fundamental malignancy. If it possessed this level of self-awareness, it would no longer be a preta. Instead, it believes that it has succeeded in distancing itself from the world and in having conquered will. It is this mistaken belief in its own lack of desire that leads it to destroy others, ironically by pushing others (in this case, Innes) toward greater willfulness. The curse of the preta is thus precisely that it is unconscious of its will.


Stand-by for Part II!