Looking Backward, Looking Forward, and Upcoming Review of HOPE FOR THE WORST, a novel by Kate Brandt

This first month of this new Gregorian calendar year has gone by so quickly that, in an effort to feel like I still have time to ground myself in a new cycle, I have fully embraced the lunar new year that will be celebrated into early February. Time is supposedly fluid, after all. Looking back on 2022 and the books mentioned on this blog, we had a wide range of genres, including a children’s book, an alternative history, and modern Buddhist tales. Readers were introduced to a fiction work that focused on Mongolian Buddhism and three works of non-fiction. The third annual Buddhist Literary Festival Canada was announced, and the proceedings featured alumni authors from the Buddhist Fiction Blog in a collegial and enjoyable setting. As the year wound down, we recognized with gratitude the numerous award nominations for We Measure the Earth with our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama, including The Giller Prize Shortlist, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Longlist, and the Toronto Book Award Longlist.

As we look ahead, I am already so very excited about the first third of the year. Next month I review our Contributing Editor Kate Brandt’s debut novel, Hope for the Worst (2023). It will be released in early March, and since it is a Buddhist love story gone sideways, I thought posting a review around the secular observance of Valentine’s Day would be appropriate. I have only started reading it, but I am finding it hard to put the book down. The first-person narrative draws the reader in close like a lover even while the longing and pain of the protagonist positions the reader at arms length: we are voyeurs. You can learn more about Kate at https://katebrandt.net/ and you can pre-purchase a copy of Hope for the Worst here.

In March I will be reviewing a sequel novel, Hank Heals: A Novel of Miracles (November, 2022) by David Guy. Hank Heals is the sequel to Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence (2008). Since I enjoyed the first novel of the series so much, I am truly looking forward to reading more about the adventures of Henry “Hank” Wilder as he tries to establish a Zen center amidst the discovery of his unique spiritual gifts. You can learn more about David’s latest novel here: https://davidguy.org/ and it is available for purchase right now, here.

For April I am writing about approaching literature as a Buddhist reader. Scholars are beginning to turn a Buddhist eye toward classical literature, with interesting results. This spring post will briefly review recent scholarship around reading English literature through a Buddhist lens.

So stick around and invite others to join in as we shift into a !!SECOND DECADE!! of blogging about Buddhist fiction.

New in Kid’s Lit – LEO LEARNS TO MEDITATE by Francesca Hampton

Apologies for the long break, dear reader. After living as an expat for seven years, I have moved home to Canada. I am so grateful for the posts from Kate Brandt and John Negru over the past months that helped to keep up momentum on this blog while I got somewhat settled and back into a work routine.

At the beginning of this month I had the wonderful opportunity to virtually attend the Buddhist Literary Festival Canada 2022, which included presentations by Buddhist Fiction Blog alumni Francesca Hampton (author of the short story collection Buddha on a Midnight Sea, 2012), John Negru (Sumeru Press founder and author of the previous blog post on Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel We Measure the Earth with our Bodies, 2022), Vanessa Sasson (author of Yasodhara and the Buddha, 2021), Suwanda Sugunasiri (author of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, 2010), and Liz Unser (author of Winter into Spring, 2020).

Leo Learns to Meditate by Francesca Hampton.

During the literary festival, I was surprised to hear about Francesca Hampton’s newest work, Leo Learns to Meditate: A Curious Kid’s Guide to Life’s Ups and Downs and Lots In-Between (Bala Kids, 2022). Categorized as children’s literature and distributed by Penguin Random House, this beautiful hardcover book written by Francesca and illustrated by John Ledda is a story both children and adults will enjoy.

Here is the blurb from the publisher:

A wildly engaging and imaginative story that introduces the world of meditation to kids ages 6–10 through a relatable character named Leo, who learns to cultivate relaxation, mindfulness, and lovingkindness.

Everyone in Leo’s family meditates but him—his mom, his dad, his older sister, and even his stuffed bear, Teddy! But what does it mean to “meditate,” and is it something that Leo can do too?
 
When Mom becomes his meditation teacher, Leo discovers that it’s about more than just sitting still. After starting to get the hang of it, he’s got to apply what he’s learned off the cushion and out in the world when a bully targets him at school and steals his piece of apple pie.

Through his experiences, Leo learns to meditate in the up times, the down times, and the in-between times. A graphic-novel illustration style gives Leo’s story a fun and easy-to-follow narrative arc. It gives parents, guardians, and teachers an opportunity to playfully introduce children to meditation and even includes a step-by-step guided practice at the end to get their kids started.”

When I asked Francesca if I could announce her latest book on this blog, she kindly said yes and sent this message from the author:

“I wrote Leo Learns to Meditate with the hope it might affirm the natural instinct for compassion in children and show them what a powerful method it can be to strengthen their own inner peace and balance in what seems an increasingly out-of-balance world. As presented in the book, the three meditational techniques of quieting and focusing the mind, analyzing an emotion to find its real causes, and deliberately applying loving kindness as an antidote were aligned carefully with my own long study of Buddhism.  However, Leo Learns to Meditate is not meant to be a Buddhist book. What Leo learns can also be found in many non-Buddhist traditions, and the encouragement to practice basic kindness to one another underlies all morality. Parents can emphasize whatever parts of these lessons most resonate within their own families.  I am grateful to the illustrator, Jon Ledda, who did such a masterful job of weaving the story into a graphic novel format with fun vivid imagery that children can relate to, even the inner experiences of a child’s first efforts to meditate!  “I wrote Leo Learns to Mediate with the hope it might affirm the natural instinct for compassion in children and show them what a powerful method it can be to strengthen their own inner peace and balance in what seems an increasingly out-of-balance world. As presented in the book, the three meditational techniques of quieting and focusing the mind, analyzing an emotion to find its real causes, and deliberately applying loving kindness as an antidote were aligned carefully with my own long study of Buddhism.  However, Leo Learns to Meditate is not meant to be a Buddhist book. What Leo learns can also be found in many non-Buddhist traditions, and the encouragement to practice basic kindness to one another underlies all morality. Parents can emphasize whatever parts of these lessons most resonate within their own families.  I am grateful to the illustrator, Jon Ledda, who did such a masterful job of weaving the story into a graphic novel format with fun vivid imagery that children can relate to, even the inner experiences of a child’s first efforts to meditate!”

Thank you so much Francesca and John for creating a children’s book that cultivates kindness through thoughtful storytelling.

John Negru Reviews WE MEASURE THE EARTH WITH OUR BODIES

This month I am grateful to John Negru for writing this candid and insightful review of Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth with our Bodies (Penguin Random House, 2022). The brief biography of John at the end of this post affirms why his review is so felicitous. John writes:

Here’s how the publisher describes the book: “A haunting first novel that recounts a Tibetan family’s fifty-year journey through exile and their struggles to forge new lives of dignity, love, and hope.”

Measuring the earth with one’s body is a reference to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of making prostrations, sometimes before a holy teacher or shrine, but sometimes on an extended pilgrimage.

In the case of this book, it’s not a pilgrimage, but rather a flight from Tibet after China’s invasion, through the Himalayas into a refugee camp in western Nepal and, for some of the characters, onward to Canada.

I was particularly interested in reading the book since I have been involved with Canadian Tibetan communities in Montreal and Toronto since the 1970s, when they were the first non-European refugees admitted to Canada. It turned out that the particulars of those communities don’t get a lot of play in the book, but I was deeply moved by the larger themes revealed in Lama’s novel.

The tragedy of Tibetan exiles is hardly unique. One has merely to turn on the television to see and hear what Ukrainians are going through. Canada has been home to waves of refugees, from Vietnam, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan to name but a few. Lama does an excellent job of bringing the turmoil and emotional loss of all refugees to life and teases out many of the intergenerational traumas they experience. Her book could be about refugees from any country; that they are Tibetan seems almost incidental in that frame of reference.

Here in Canada, we are grappling with our own sordid treatment of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now a Papal pilgrimage of penitence for the role of the Catholic Church in that cultural genocide (and worse, in the case of those Residential School children who were abused and those who did not survive). With that context, Lama’s characters rang true as they struggled with the realities they faced, distinct from the uniquely Tibetan character of their responses to their suffering. I found this the most viscerally tragic aspect of the book. It mirrors so much of what our own Indigenous Peoples have experienced at the hands of colonizers, doubly devastating because there was nowhere for them to escape. So Lama’s novel has helped me understand more deeply what is happening in finding a way forward with our Indigenous compatriots.

The book is mostly free of first novel over-emoting or stylistic showboating, which was good. We Measure the Earth with our Bodies took eight years to come to completion and the publisher has done a great job editing and promoting it. Over the course of that journey, the author has had many educational opportunities and allies, and it all comes together very well. Writing a novel is not easy. Writing a novel that knits together three generations and multiple locations is even harder. Stepping back from formulaic plotlines and elucidating moral ambiguities without judgment is harder yet again. This book will not disappoint.

Readers who are not from a Buddhist background may not get some of the more subtle references in the text which provide the foundation for some of the characters’ behaviours, but that won’t stop them from enjoying the book. It works on many levels.

Regarding the experience of Tibetan exiles in Canada, I’m happy to report that the communities have been very successful in maintaining their culture, integrating into society, and presenting an appealing perspective to their Canadian counterparts. There’s a lot more going on here than is portrayed in the portions of the novel that deal with Tibetans in Toronto in 2012.

Perhaps we can look forward to a sequel, or more tales from Canada’s Tibetan communities. That would be wonderful.

Bio: John Harvey Negru is founder and publisher at The Sumeru Press, Canada’s largest independent Buddhist book publisher. Launched in 2009, the press website also hosts a Buddhist news blog and the canadianbuddhism.info directory that currently comprises 500+ temples, sanghas, sitting groups, associations and retreat centres across the country. In 2012 he conducted the first national sociological survey of Canadian Buddhist organizations, with assistance from the University of Toronto. The results were published in the Journal of Global Buddhism in 2013. Mr. Negru has been involved in many Buddhist community development projects and environmental causes over the past 50 years, and has been a technological design educator for more than 25 years. He is the author of several books on Buddhism and other subjects, including Understanding the Chinese Buddhist Temple, Understanding the Tibetan Buddhist Temple, and Boddhisttva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists. He also writes a regular column for Buddhistdoor Global about environment and technology issues from a Buddhist perspective, and features for a variety of other periodicals.

Reminder – Call for Papers for 3rd Buddhist Literary Festival Canada

This is a reminder that the deadline of 31 July, 2022 is coming up fast for submission of paper proposals to the 3rd annual Buddhist Literary Festival Canada. The festival will be held in Toronto from 4 – 6 November, 2022, with an option for online attendance. If you would like to participate, please fill out the form here: https://forms.office.com/r/L10qqmX6EV

More information is provided below. You can review the full Call for Papers document in the Buddhist Fiction Blog 3 July 2022 post here: https://buddhistfictionblog.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/blfc-2022-call-for-presentations-june-29-2022-.pdf

Hope to “see” you at the festival!

Call for Papers – Buddhist Literary Festival Canada

Kate Brandt Reviews WHEN I’M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST

When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East by Quan Barry (published by Penguin Random House).

I found this book on Lithub, where it’s possible to sample selected novels.  I read the first page and a half, and knew I was captive. 

The story is set in Mongolia.  It begins with a gambling novice monk, sent by the Rinpoche of his monastery to find the incarnation of a certain tulku. In the scene, the novice comes upon a group of men seated around a pool table, about to begin a game.  Here is a taste:

I am a novice of the Yatguulin Gol Monastery, a monk who lives in the shadow of a sleeping volcano.  As it is mid-morning the mail truck I am to ride to Ulanbaatar on the first stage of my journey is not scheduled to arrive for hours.  1300 years ago Shantideva tells us the only source of happiness is the cherishing of the other.  Silently I approach the table and nod.

The story continues in this way for close to 300 ages, unfolding in an eternal now, cantering at the same rhythm.  Action and thought placed beside prayer, an ongoing meditation on the world as it is and the world as it could be if we accept all unfailingly with equanimity. 

Due to the Tibetan diaspora, much more is known in the West about Tibetan Buddhism than Mongolian Buddhism.  From what I know of the former, I did not notice huge differences between the two.  What is different—the political situations of the two countries.  Tibet is still occupied by China, whereas Mongolia, which was under Soviet rule until the 1990s, now has a market economy and a democratic government.  The majority of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed during the Stalin years, but the country has now been able to restore many of its traditions. The result is a wonderful mix of tradition and modernity.  

As in Tibet, there is a tradition of “finding” reincarnated tulkus, a tradition that is controversial in the West and is called into question, also, in the novel.  The narrator, Chuluum, has a twin, Mun, who was recognized as a reincarnated tulku, but who ultimately abandoned his position.  Even as he helps Chuluun and the other monks complete their tasks, Mun critiques the practice.

There is much to learn about Mongolia from this book.  Traditional ways of life such as herding and eagle hunting are described in lyrical prose.  In the middle of the story, a contest between eagle hunters is described:

The first bird is let go; the stopwatch starts.  The bird comes swooping down from the rocks, its wingspan almost three meters, its shadow gliding along the earth like a cloud, and in one perfect move, it lands on the trainer’s arm.

Mongolia also contains starkly different landscapes: lush grasslands, mountains, desert.  Barry describes these landscapes so lyrically that they are like characters in the story:

I hold my free hand out at my side, dragging my palm through the tops of the grass, the long blades tickling my skin, the stems bowing down around me as if I am a boat cutting through water.

When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East is a deeply spiritual novel.  At its heart is questioning.  While Chuluum and his twin Mun seem to represent a commitment to a spiritual life and its opposite respectively, the truth is Chuluum, on the verge of committing himself to monkhood for life, has doubts.  His journey throughout Mongolia to find the tulku is mirrored by an inner quest to make peace with the renunciation he is faced with.  I won’t spoil it by revealing his decision.

If you like beauty, read this book.