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The Tenth Instalment of Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan Series – Bones of the Earth

Later this month, award-winning author Eliot Pattison’s tenth and perhaps last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series will hit book stores everywhere. Titled Bones of the Earth (Minotaur Books, March 2019), this story once again thrusts the complicated Inspector Shan into a multi-level power struggle from which he must wrestle justice out of the hands of angry gods of both China and Tibet.
Pattison’s first novel of this series, The Skull Mantra (St. Martin’s Press, 1999), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 2000. If you have not read any of Pattison’s other historical fiction novels, and you are interested in Tibetan life under Chinese occupation, The Skull Mantra is the best place to start. Pattison’s narratives are complex, deep, and subtle, investigating not only the mysteries set before the protagonist but also the geopolitical context out of which his story ideas evolve. His discourse is clear and explained in this note from Eliot Pattison‘s web site on why he writes about Tibet:

 

Whenever I have the pleasure of participating in group discussions about my novels, I am nearly always asked a question that can be distilled to Why Tibet? or Why set your books in such a distant, unknown land? Some assume it is simply because I sought an exotic locale to add color to my mysteries. The answer is far more complex. Conveying the realities of modern Tibet and the drama of Tibetan resistance in all its many aspects is as important to me as creating a spellbinding mystery. Of all the labels that are applied to me, I wear none more proudly than that of being part of the Tibetan resistance. My sentiments run deep:

-I write about Tibet not because I am a Buddhist but because I am not a Buddhist, because the ultimate treasures of Tibet are ones that transcend religion or philosophy, lessons that the rest of the world needs desperately to learn. Converting to the cause of Tibet does not mean a conversion to Buddhism, it means a conversion to compassion, self-awareness, human rights and political equality.

-I write about Tibet to give those who do not have the opportunity to travel there to understand what it feels like to witness an armed policeman assault a praying monk.

-I write about Tibet because after traveling a million miles around the planet I know of no more perfect lens for examining ourselves and the world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because in a war between an army of monks bearing prayer beads and an army of soldiers bearing machine guns I will side with the monks every time.

-I write about Tibet because of the despair and shame I feel over what prior generations did to the American Indians and many other original peoples. I know that though the same thing is happening in Tibet, this is our generation, it is happening on our watch, and I don’t want my descendants shamed by what you and I allowed to happen there.

-I write about Tibet because there is no purer symbol on earth of the struggle of soulless bureaucracy and sterile global economic forces versus tradition, spirituality, and ethnic identity.

-I write about Tibet because the world below is starved for heroes and saints and there are so many unsung ones living on the roof of the world.

-I write about Tibet because I can hear more in one hour beside a silent monk than in a hundred hours listening to Western media.

-I write about Tibet because in it lies the seeds of the antidote for the troubled world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because Tibet is a monk sitting in front of a steamroller, and if enough people around the world sit with him we can stop the steamroller.

The ultimate credo of the ideologue who commanded the invasion of Tibet was that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. In this as in so many other aspects Tibet has shown us a new truth — for Tibetan resistance has proven the opposite.

Clearly, Pattison’s historical fiction intersects with Buddhism on many levels not limited to his story settings in occupied Tibet. Since Pattison is a human rights advocate and his novels depict Tibetan Buddhism lived out under Chinese occupation, his narratives are, of course, political. While the author himself is not a Buddhist, his protagonist is, as are many other characters in the novel series, and through these characters, readers learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. I think that the fictional character, Inspector Shan, is ingenious because he provides Pattison with the opportunity to combine imagined lived religion with human rights advocacy. And Pattison imagines this lived religion in minute detail. For example, I read the Skull Mantra over a decade ago, and I still remember a description of silent mantras performed as mudras by Tibetan monks in a dark jail cell that was so well written I can, to this day, see it all as if in front of me. 
As with any beloved book series, I hope this is not the last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series from Eliot Pattison. If you are just learning about this series now, you have much to look forward to so happy reading!

Can Loving Kindness Make for a Dramatic Plot?

Just yesterday I was thinking about fiction and how, no matter the fictional sub-genre, each narrative requires drama to build the plot. Even romance novels, I reasoned, have a good deal of emotional drama, and suddenly I wondered, is there a Buddhist fiction novel about loving kindness? The Buddhist concept of loving kindness is not necessarily emotionally dramatic.

That’s when I remembered Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first novel, The Novice: A Story of True Love (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011). It is a retelling of the Thị Kính (or Quan Âm Thị Kính) legend in Vietnam. In China, Thị Kính is known as Guan Yin, the embodiment of compassionate lovingkindness and mercy. The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is beautifully tragic. Broadly outlined, the story goes that as a beautiful young woman newly married against her will, Thị Kính is falsely accused of murdering her husband. To survive the accusations, she poses as a male and joins a Buddhist monastic community, only to be falsely accused of impregnating a young local girl. Upon being forced to flee the temple, she finds the abandoned baby and decides to care for it. Thị Kính becomes a beggar to support herself and the child but dies of hardship. After her death, her true identity as a bodhisattva is revealed.

The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is so dramatic that is has been made into a Western-style opera. (If opera isn’t dramatic, I don’t know what is!) So the emotional sensation is built-in for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first attempt at fiction. I’ve read the novel and various reviews on Amazon and Good Reads. Like many other people, I found the story compelling but Thích Nhất Hạnh’s prose somewhat preachy, as if he couldn’t quite shed the voice of his non-fiction work. Some parts of this story are originally found in sacred Buddhist texts, other parts in traditional miracle tales, and of course wherever Guan Yin has traveled, there are localized legends, so there are actually many genres and centuries of tales that could inform this version. It must be challenging to shift voices for genres and times. Thích Nhất Hạnh retells this story with the purpose of passing on Buddhist wisdom, which is clear from the first pages. If you have read this novel (or are now interested in reading it), let me know your thoughts on the narrative. 

Charles Johnson’s Buddhist Fiction

This month, for the 33rd year, Americans commemorated the birthday of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. Since my brain marks time by books or stories, every January I am reminded of Charles Johnson’s short story “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” that was first published in his anthology Dr. King’s Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories in 2005 by Scribner.

Charles Johnson is an acclaimed scholar and author of Black American Literature. His novels and short stories often take up the theme of black life in America, but what many readers may not know is that Johnson is also a Buddhist and he infuses his Buddhist perspective into his writing. Much has been written on his novel Oxherding Tale (1982) and the follow-on, award-winning novel Middle Passage (1990), both of which are at once Black American Literature and Buddhist fiction.

I love the short story “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” because it is sweet yet dignified: a young Martin Luther King, Jr. goes to the refrigerator looking for a late night snack and some writing inspiration. The story is also deeply perceptive, as the young minister and ABD Ph.D. Candidate finds insight into the interdependent nature of our world while previewing food on the shelves of his fridge. The short story reads on one level as a mundane slice of life, and on another level as a view into the workings of a brilliant, loving mind situated in an ontologically oppressive time and place.

You can read a version of “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” on the website Mindful.org at this link: https://www.mindful.org/dr-kings-refrigerator/  The story is a wonderful reminder to be grateful that we have appliances like refrigerators, and to keep an open mind whenever we open that refrigerator door.

Rounding Up 2018

December cracked on like lightning and before I knew it, here we are in a new year! These are a few of the anthologies and novels I missed sharing about in 2018.

Emily France. Zen and Gone. New York, NY: Soho Teen, July 2018. This is another young adult novel that incorporates Buddhism in 2018. It is good to have so many young adult lit. options to choose from with Buddhist themes, and it is also delightful that this novel is covered in a Tricycle interview with the author here.

 

Charles Johnson. Night Hawks: Stories. New York, NY: Scribner, May 2018 includes the short story “Kamadhatu” about a lonely abbot in Japan who meets a Black American Buddhist.

 

 

John Manderino. Bopper’s Progress. London, England: Wundor Editions, March 2018.  This is a novel about a guy named Bopper whose life goes sideways before he attends a Zen meditation retreat. The novel recounts a day in his life at the retreat. This is a Lion’s Roar staff favourite of Buddhist Books of 2018.

 

 

Thinking About Buddhist Fiction in Light of Cultural Appropriation

I recently returned from the 2018 American Academy of Religion Conference, held this year in Denver, Colorado, where I indulged in the reverie of scholarly friendships and meet and greets and conference paper panels and receptions in the mile high city. My agenda revolved around attending the Buddhism in the West Unit sessions, which made a big impact on me this year. In particular, the co-sponsored Buddhism in the West Unit and Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Unit sessional theme “From Rape Texts to Bro Buddhism: Critical Canonical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Sexual Abuse Scandals in Western Buddhism” made me aware of the role and strength of identity politics in the formation of Buddhist identities in the West.

I took many notes from the AAR sessions I attended and when I got home, I began to research. As I went down the internet rabbit-hole in an attempt to understand the contemporary concept of meaningful consent, I came across an article by staff writer Barbara who wrote the article “Meaningful Consent and the Meaning of Consent in Game of Thrones” (21 April 2016) for the Fandomentals website (https://www.thefandomentals.com/meaningful-consent-and-the-meaning-of-consent-in-game-of-thrones/). While discussing meaningful consent, cultural contexts and fiction, Barbara writes: 

Just as I believe reading good fiction makes us better at empathy (and not just me, a bunch of scientists think so too), I also believe it can make it easier for us to understand a different cultural setting, a different set of values. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or accept those values, but learning to understand where another person comes from is, I think, the necessary basis for any kind of intercultural or interreligious dialogue.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But then I began to think about cultural appropriation. There is another side to this sentiment about intercultural or interreligious dialogue in fiction, a side that critiques.

Recently many authors whose intent it was to understand and/or give voice to minority groups have been accused of cultural appropriation. According to Katherine Cowdrey in her 2017 article “Authors fear accusations of cultural appropriation, forum hears, authors of English language fiction everywhere are being cautious, or not publishing works at all, for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation, especially after novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), which spent 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was knocked off its pedestal with accusations of cultural appropriation by very respected minority groups. So what do we make of non-Asian writers, and/or non-Buddhist writers, who write at the intersection of Buddhism and fiction, many of whom write Asian protagonists or minority secondary characters? Even though I am sure their intentions are only good, how do authors voice experiences of the other without offending? Should they even try? How do we as readers know when fiction has crossed the line into cultural appropriation? Is Buddhist fiction inherently misrepresentation if it is written by a Caucasian non-Buddhist? Or does it create a space for and present an opportunity for dialogue about cultural appropriation and cultural sharing?

I don’t have any clear answers at this time. If you do, I’d really like to hear from you.

Reflections on the Liminal – Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter Series

This time of year seems to be a liminal period around the globe, due to the earth’s trajectory around the sun. Even our landscapes cross thresholds as they become colder and wetter or hotter and dryer. Time seems to act differently. Clocks are changed due to global daylight savings time. We feel more intensely the rhythms of our universe; our connections to everything seem more tangible. This liminal period complicates boundaries so that, ironically, we might perceive portals previously unnoticed.

Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter novel series is befitting reading for this season. Beginning with The Hunt for Xanadu published on Amazon Digital Services in 2013, Salpeter has created the protagonist Kelsey Porter such that her character’s development depends on her growing knowledge of Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. The protagonist’s surname “Porter” is apt. Kelsey must find and open the door to Xanadu, which in Salpeter’s first novel is depicted as a Shangri-La-type place of Tibetan Buddhist legend. Salpeter has developed her protagonist character over an entire series, now into a fifth instalment, titled The Search for Starlight. With the recent release of this fifth novel in the series, Salpeter hopes to answer many of the questions brought up by Porter’s adventures and development, and this includes questions about her character’s intersection with Buddhism.

The Kelsey Porter novel series is liminal in various ways. As described, the protagonist is liminal in the way that her character parallels a threshold (no spoilers – you’ll have to read the novels yourself to find out how). And as advertised on Amazon, the whole novel series itself functions as a threshold between “the real and the fantastic.” In an email exchange, Salpeter wrote to me that her Kelsey Porter series of novels, in particular, is “steeped in Buddhist spiritual lore” and she did a “tremendous amount of research to make them believable.” So there is a good deal of “reality” or Buddhist concepts and ideologies grounding the story. And where Salpeter stretches Buddhist myth she creates the “fantastic” elements of the novels.

It’s this stretching of Buddhist myth, particularly Tibetan Buddhist cosmological worldviews, that allows for the generation of liminal space between cultures in Salpeter’s work. She uses Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” and his concept of Xanadu to conflate and duplicate the Tibetan concept of Shangri-La first presented to Western readers as a utopian earthly paradise in the Himalayas by British author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon (Mass Market Paperback, 1945). The plot line of The Hunt for Xanadu is dependent on the stretching of Buddhist myth. Due to the relationship between Xanadu and Shangri-La that Salpeter sets up, I was reminded of Prisoners of Shangri-La (University of Chicago Press, 1999) by Donald S. Lopez Jr., a text that takes to task the romanticization of Tibet and Tibetan exile while holding up to the light the ways that the West, including scholars, have co-opted and misrepresented Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Because of the plot premise/protagonist in The Hunt for Xanadu, Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter series of novels dances near a threshold, a fine line between misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and creative license. She works hard to never intentionally cross that line, but readers will have to decide for themselves if thresholds are forded. The fine line encourages reading the Kelsey Porter series of novels as an imaginative space of negotiation in which the representation of Tibetan Buddhism to contemporary Western readers is offered through “mystery”. By this, I mean that the genre of the novel series – mystery – becomes a space to unpack a complex religious tradition in the context of modernity, thus making it seem a little less mysterious. Further, mystery in the novel is often narrated as esoteric rites, even though imaginary, to which only initiates are usually admitted, thus exemplifying the idea of mystery religions. In all, Salpeter’s work is entertaining while providing a space to re-examine the discourse surrounding Shangri-La, with all of the cultural complications and intertextuality that entails.