Young Adult Buddhist Fiction

Since the year is young I’ve decided to highlight some young adult Buddhist fiction in this post. I was recently contacted by author Yudron Wangma about her new novel, Excavating Pema Ozer (Cycle of the Sky)(Volume 1) published in the fall of 2015 by Mayum Mountain Resources. As the press release states, “Oakland author Yudron Wangmo is determined to carve out a niche in the burgeoning world of young adult fiction for books that address the stresses and conflicts of teen life with Buddhist remedies.”

Here is the blurb for the novel: “Weslyn Redinger wants one thing: to be normal again. Racked by panic attacks that have ruined her life and driven off her friends in the months since she saw the body of a young boy she loved rolled out to a waiting ambulance, she is now drawn into a circle of seekers who surround a mysterious stranger living in her grandmother’s backyard shed. After reluctantly attending his teachings, a series of dreams is unleashed—as vivid as her waking life. At night she is an attendant to the female teacher Uza Khandro from the Tibetan countryside, during the day she is a flawed sixteen-year-old struggling to get control over her body and her life.

Why does she care so much about this man’s story of a long-lost set of Tibetan books hoarded by a greedy collector?”

I admire Yudron Wangmo’s goal in carving out a niche for Buddhism in the growing genre of Young Adult Fiction. She is not alone. Another Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and author, Tahlia Newland, has written whole series of Young Adult Fiction that intersects with Buddhist fiction.

In a previous blog post I mentioned Tahlia’s book Worlds Within Worlds: A Prunella Smith Novel. In this post I want to alert readers to more of her work, specifically (and most Buddhist oriented), The Diamond Peak Series and You Can’t Shatter Me. These and more of her Young Adult Fiction can be found here:


Between Yudron Wangmo’s work in the U.S. and Tahliah Newland’s work in Australia you could say that Young Adult Buddhist Fiction is growing to span the globe. If you know of other Young Adult novels that could fall into the Buddhist Fiction category, let me know! Happy reading.


SID, by Anita N. Feng (Wisdom, 2015) Reviewed by Chris Beal

Do we live again? Is there reincarnation? Anita D. Feng answers these questions and more in Sid, a lyrical novel that is two tales in one. Or, rather, it is three tales if you count – and you should – the marvelous drawings by illustrator Linda Davidson. Life is just life, whenever and however it is lived, the novel lets us see. The forms change but the essence is the same. And we are that essence.

The structure of the book works to convey this truth. Inhabiting two different eras, that of the historical Buddha and the modern one, the dual cast of characters sport similar names: Siddhartha and Sid; their respective mothers – Mahamaya and Maya; their fathers – King Suddhodana and Professor Sudovsky; their nanny/midwives – Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and her counterpart Ava; and their wives – Yasodhara and Yasmen. Rahula, the son, bears the same name in both stories. There are, in addition, symbolic characters, such as Homeless Woman, identified as “Old Age, Sickness, and Death.” The plots of the two tales are likewise parallel, making it clear that the story of Siddhartha is still happening today.

This is a folktale-like world of archetypes: everything is perfect and then . . . The initial paragraph gives the flavor: “Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavastu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tusita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)

Or, later, after Siddhartha marries his beloved, we learn that, “their joy creates days, months, and years of perfect weather and bountiful pleasure for all that are blessed to live nearby. . . . Prince Siddhartha never says anything that is not beautiful to Yasodhara’s ears, nor does he see any aspect of his beloved that is not sweet and pleasant to his eyes.” (p. 57) We are, indeed, in the realm of fairy tales.

The book is organized into sections labeled, “Birth,” “Youth,” “Love and Family Life,” “Leaving Home,” Meditation,” “Return,” and “Death.” Each of the sections has a chapter on Siddhartha and one on Sid, and within each section, the story is told from the point of view of a number of characters in turn. And then there is a third section of each chapter: Zen-like drawings by Linda Davidson of animals or other natural scenes, with a short explanation on the opposite page, which together tell the story in still a third, more metaphorical, way. For example, early on we have “Hare,” and his imputed words: “Please do not distract yourselves with the irrelevant argument about what you see. Is it a hare or a man in the moon? Who cares! As for me, I am only grinding the elixir of life into golden dust between my jaws, letting the dust scatter at your feet.” (p.33)

Sid is whimsical, poetic, transcendent, and unique. Its author, Feng, is a Zen master teaching at the Blue Heron Zen Community as well as a poet and sculptor. In Sid, she displays not only her spiritual wisdom but her ability to use her creative skills to reveal that wisdom. I recommend a digital version of Sid if you have that possibility, as the typeface is quite small. But whichever version you read, this book is a gem that may move you to see more clearly how life and enlightenment are inextricably bound together in an eternal web of Truth.

Review of MAYA: A NOVEL by C.W. (Sandy) Huntington, Jr.

Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

My apologies, dear reader, for the overly long wait on this review. It is no reflection on Maya: A Novel by C. W. Maya(Sandy) Huntington, Jr.  In fact, his first novel about journeys is what accompanied me on my most recent journey: the huge transition of moving with my family from North America to the Middle East. This transition has taken months, and over those months, I have read Maya in the same way one would eat a full five course meal, savouring it and trying to eat slowly so as to appreciate every biteI went back to the story continually to reread portions that spoke to me, that spurred me to read other works and that encouraged me to view life situations with a new perspective.

On the surface, the novel tells the story of University of Chicago doctoral candidate Stanley Harrington who travels to India on a Fulbright scholarship in order to study Sanskrit. The story begins in the India of 1975, when visas to stay and travel the subcontinent were easier to procure and seekers of all sorts were looking East-ward. Stanley is all too happy to escape his life in Chicago, the location of his failing marriage and his long suffering dissertation advisor. As he travels through India meeting teachers, gurus, locals, other academics, expats and spiritual seekers, his journey through a richly described cultural landscape and some of its most famous sacred texts begins to parallel an inner journey that opens a door to an awakening.

I will not give away more of the storyline than what I have written above, except to say that Maya is a novel I will read again, and again. And when I read it again it will be alongside copies (in translation) of the Sanskrit texts referenced in the novel that Stanley uses to navigate his personal journey. Reading Maya made me want to broaden my reading experience. For example, this novel could be used as the locus of a sophomore level university course on Sanskrit literature read in the West, in translation. At the very least, a reading guide from the publisher, Wisdom Publications, would be a nice addition for readers who want to take their reading experience further. This is not to say that the novel is at all stuffy or overly academic – quite the opposite. The Sanskrit literature referred to or even translated and used in the story is always a jumping off point for philosophical ideas that are so well integrated into the plot line that readers do not notice them overtly. Rather, the narrative is first person so as Stanley lives out the philosophical hypotheses he’s learning about and translating, he takes the reader along for the ride. And it’s a roller coaster of a ride through libraries, jungles and holy cities, on elephants, trains and buses, and through the full range of emotions from desire to self-loathing, to a moment or two of equanimity.

While I have not met Dr. Sandy Huntington in person, we have exchanged emails and he is a very kind correspondent. I took the opportunity to ask him if he would consider using his first work of fiction for a university course in the way I suggested. He replied:

“I’m actually planning on using Maya in a course I’ll teach for the first time in spring 2016, titled “The Spiritual Quest”. Along with Maya, we’ll be reading some other fiction and memoir. I haven’t yet put together a list, but I’m considering things like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Hesse’sNarcissus and Goldman… I know this isn’t exactly what you’ve suggested, but I agree with you that Maya could be used in a number of various academic settings, as a way of inspiring students to go deeper into Buddhism, Hinduism, or Sanskrit literature in general.”

Following on my initial urge to use the novel as a jumping off point for a broader reading experience, Stanley’s story and Huntington’s beautiful writing style have led me to contemplate further the very act of reading. At its simplest, reading is an act of creative communicative engagement out of which meaning is made. In creating a fictional story such as Maya, Huntington performs maya itself – he creates an illusion. Thus one way to read the novel is to view it as an experiment that uses fiction to examine the idea of life as an illusion. Taken further, though, the title of the novel poses the question of whether fiction can have true meaning, to which I answer a loud YES! If there is one thing I took from the act of reading this novel it is that fiction holds a good deal of truth, which should not be confused with fact. Fiction should never be dismissed for lack of meaning or truth.

The passage in the novel that underscores my path of pondering can be found in Chapter 35 (of 40). At this point in the story, Stanley is living in Banaras (also known as Varanasi). He is living in a small room, meditating daily and translating passages of a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text. He has been working on translating for about an hour one day when his friend Mickey knocks on his door. Mick is an expat and spiritual seeker from South Boston. He had been raised Catholic but after taking robes in Thailand and living as a Buddhist monk for a time, he had drifted to India and had been there for about two years studying Indian art and music before meeting Stanley.  What Stanley likes most about  Mick, aside from his monkish tendancies, is his seemingly innate ability to fit in to Indian culture. In this scene, Mick brings Stanley a ticket to go to Delhi where Stanley wished to meet with a Tibetan monk in order to continue his translation work. Mick spies a bit of the translation and reads it. Having learned some Pali and experienced Buddhism in Thailand, Mick loves to argue about philosophy, and his first response to the translated passage is: “This Mahayana stuff is crazy shit, Stan.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4881 of 5794).

Part of the translation describes the preparedness of a bodhisattva. Mick questions Stanley about it and in the ensuing conversation, an analogy is incorrectly drawn between the bodhisattva‘s preparedness and the Bhagavadgita‘s character Arjuna preparing to go into battle. Mick takes the analogy to an unexpected conclusion and states “So the bodhisattva is well prepared to go out and kill his relatives” to which Stanley replies “I don’t think so, Mick.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4890 0f 5794). In an attempt to set Mick straight, Stanley says (I imagine) irritably “You can’t just go and read a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text as if it were a chapter from the Bhagavadgita.” Mick asks why not, and Stanley’s explanation is nothing short of the best philosophical summary of the difference between Hindu dharma and Buddhist dharma that I have ever read. When he finishes, Stanley proclaims “It’s all shunya — empty of any kind of absolute or ultimate reality.” But it is Mick who gets in the last word: “Sounds to me like some kind of bullshit philosophical hair-splitting.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4912 of 5794).

There are at least three readers involved in the above scene: the real reader, the fictional Stanley and the fictional Mick.

Through Stanley, we are given an example of a careful academic reader. The scene clarifies philosophies and reaffirms my conviction of the importance of context. Every reader brings her own context to the text, and the author has no way of knowing what that context will be. And every author brings a context to her work that is influenced by culture and era. Both of these contexts influence and shape the reading experience, which will form another context all together. This is why reading is creative communication because meaning and context, as well as meaning in contexts, are being created through the act of reading.

Through Mick, we have an example of a reader imposing (or juxtaposing?) a particular context onto a text. Even though Mick had been a Theravadin Buddhist monk in Thailand, he reverts to his knowledge of Indian texts such as the Gita when reading Stanley’s translation. Mick doesn’t really appreciate the philosophical nuances that separate Hindu Samkhya philosophy from Buddhist Prajnaparamita. For me, Mick’s character as a practitioner and person of action poses a type of foil to Stanley’s character as a scholar and philosopher, and I am still thinking about what this can teach me about reading as passive or active or both.

Through my own reading (playing the part here of the real reader), by the end of the scene – if not the end of the novel – I was questioning my ontology. This is the power of Maya the novel and maya the illusion.

My question for Dr. Huntington at this junction was to ask who was his intended audience. He responded thoughtfully, as follows:

“After years of writing and publishing for a handful of Buddhologists, I really, really wanted to break out of that closed circle and write for a wider audience. I’m a voracious reader of literary fiction, so like-minded readers were, I suppose, my first target: readers who especially enjoy the play of language on the page and the power of metaphor, how punctuation can be used to create a certain cadence, and all the rest of things that literary fiction is about. I like the kind of books that are set amidst quotidian dramas: the difficulties of love, the struggle to deal with a cranky boss, the joys and sorrows of everyday life. I’m not a genre reader; heavily plotted novels of romance, detective, sci-fi and so forth are not my thing. I’m all about mundane realism – which is, of course, oddly ironic, given the philosophical underpinnings of Maya. But it’s in conventional truth where we find the ultimate – that’s basic madhyamaka. In any case, I also wanted very much to take the philosophical ideas I’d been dealing with in my academic writing and bring them into the context of fiction.”

While Huntington’s first novel can be read as a philosophical treatise on maya in fictional form, it is also a quotidian drama that contains as much romance and adventure as philosophy. Some of my favourite quotations from the novel will give you a better idea of the beautiful prose narrative that awaits you in your role as reader.

“Love is not about getting what we want. Love is about how we live with what we are given.” (Kindle Edition 748-5794)

“All the yogic traditions of India begin and end here, before creation, where the breath turns back on itself, where the breath of God moves like wind over the waters of the deep.” (Kindle Edition 2202-5794)

“She got up from the stool, her hands slipped around back again, and off came the bra. Once free, her breasts seemed to swell in the fluttering light of the candle. Bending low she stepped out of her petticoat one leg at a time. Stark naked now, she leaned over to blow out the candle. Her body appeared to me flawless, perfect–a divine vision sprung from my own desire.” (Kindle Edition 2397-5794)

“Just outside my window, a large crowd had gathered under a floursecent streetlight that cast a pallid glow over their faces. I could see the shadow of something lying crumpled in the dirt. A man stooped over and picked it up, and I watched as he cradled a small, limp body. . . . The man was staring down at the boy, his jaw slack, mouth hanging open. All around him women wailed and clutched at their saris. The sounds they made were appalling; I have never heard anything, before or since, so rawly human, so saturated in despair. Their cries rose up from a dark world buried deep beneath the earth.” (Kindle Edition 3326-5794)

“The image of his face floated there on the dark surface of the glass like a spirit trapped in the bardo realm between death and rebirth.” (Kindle Edition 3558-5794)

“First judge, then choose: Want or not want. Desire or fear. Self always must judge and choose. So everything very simple: No judge—no self. No self—no suffer! You see? Need only to stop judge and choose. Sit quiet, welcome pain and pleasure equal, like two stranger come for visit. No need for invite—guest come and guest go. Guest come, you be nice. Guest go, you be nice. Very simple.” (Kindle Edition 5603-5794)

And I will leave you with this, dear reader: 

“Our life and our death are inseparably bound together with words and ideas. All of this,” he swung his arm in a wide arc, “is made of words: shabda-mayi. Words, and only words: shabda-matra. This is Kalidasa’s meaning. This world of words–this life and death–it is nothing but bara tamasha.” He examined my face, as if unsure whether I was familiar with the Hindi expression. “Big drama. You know? Theater.” (Kindle Edition 2849-5794)


Currently Reading . . . MAYA: A NOVEL by C. W. Huntington, Jr.

MayaI’m so excited to be reading Maya: A Novel by C. W. Huntington, Jr. It was published in hard copy a few weeks ago and today – 23 June 2015 – it comes out on Kindle as an e-book. I have been reading a galley copy thus far, but as I am in the middle of a move across continents, e-books have recently become an important personal library component.

The e-book is far from the main reason I am excited about reading Maya. The novel begins with an epigraph that summarizes the definition of the Sanskrit word māyā from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary. It reads: “Māyā, (f.) art, wisdom, extraordinary or supernatural power, illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic.” You see, C. W. Huntington knows his stuff. He is a Sanskrit scholar with a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. He is currently Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Hartwick College. His main academic focus is on early Mahayana Buddhism, specifically Candrakīrti and early Indian Mādhyamika.

You might think that, given his academic background, Huntington’s fiction writing style could be stilted and pedantic. Amazon has even categorized the novel under “Fiction: Religion and Spirituality.” But Huntington’s fiction writing style is so accessible that the reader is powerfully pulled into the adventures of the main character, Stanley Harrington. Through Harrington’s perspective, this academic-turned-fiction author recreates an expat Indian experience for his readers in surreal, colourful, earthy detail. Here is the blurb from the publisher, Wisdom Publications:

“It is 1975 and India is in turmoil. American Stanley Harrington arrives to study Sanskrit philosophy and escape his failing marriage. When he finds himself witness to a violent accident, he begins to question his grip on reality.

Maya introduces us to an entertaining cast of hippies, expats, and Indians of all walks of life. From a hermit hiding in the Himalayan jungle since the days of the British Raj, to an accountant at the Bank of India with a passion for Sanskrit poetry, to the last in a line of brahman scholars, Stanley’s path ultimately leads him to a Tibetan yogi, who enlists the American’s help in translating a mysterious ancient text.

Maya, literally “illusion,” is an extended meditation on the unraveling of identity. Filled with rich observations and arresting reflections, it mines the porous border between memory and imagination.”

I hope to post a write up of my reading experience of Maya, along with some email discussions with Dr. Huntington about the novel, all before the end of September. In the mean time, please read the novel along with me and if you have any questions about Maya you would like me to pass along to Dr. Huntington, feel free to post them in the comments or contact me through this blog.

One Memoir, Two Works of Buddhist Fiction, and A Blurred Line

In this post I offer links to one memoir and two works of Buddhist fiction. I hesitated listing the memoir, Turtle Feet by Nikolai Grozni, since it is clearly a different genre than fiction. Of course, fiction is not all untruth, and non-fiction is not all truth. Even in some ethnography, there is a fine, blurred line between fiction and non-fiction. But what really helped me make the decision was Grozni’s caveat in the front matter of the book:

“Some things pertaining to time and space have been changed. Some names and identifying details have been changed. It is important to bear in mind, however, that most Buddhists regard time, space, names and identifying details as nonexistent.”

While I’m not sure that I agree with Grozni’s generalization of most Buddhists’ ontological orientation, I like the fact that he is willing to blur lines and genres. So without further ado, I offer the following suggestions for your reading pleasure.

3268590Turtle Feet by Nikolai Grozni (2009).

Buddhist Fiction Blog Contributing Editor Chris Beal has written an insightful review of this memoir on goodreads, which you can read here:

41Vr4-bEB5L The Kosambi Intrigue by Susan Carol Stone (2012).

worlds1-600x600Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds by Tahlia Newlands (2014).

The Season of Giving

Here in North America it is the holiday season, so I hope this short post finds everyone able to take some time away from work and refocus on spending time as you would like: with family, relaxing, at a retreat, etc.

Since this is also known as the season of giving, I thought I would share with you a very generous gift – Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey by Suwanda Sugunasiri is available for free at this link:

The author originally offered this story as his 75th birthday gift to the world, so it is fitting that it be offered to our blog readers during this season of giving. Thank-you Dr. Sugunasiri!

And to you, dear reader, best wishes for a new year filled with 365 days of potential. The year 2015 promises to be very transitional for me, so there will be fewer posts. That said, I look forward to continuing to discover more works of Buddhist fiction and alert you to more great reading opportunities.


I have been having wonderful email discussions with Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri about his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The story is simultaneously simple and complex, and the characters are well interwoven into each other’s lives so as to be interdependent. Moreover, the novel is genre-blurring and could be classified as post-colonial fiction, Buddhist fiction, mythic fiction, hybrid fiction, the list goes on. And yet the novel is a true chronotope, to use a Bakhtinian term, and works as a world unto itself.

During the course of our conversations, it was playfully suggested that I develop a list of things I liked about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. So instead of the usual author interview (because these can be terse), or review (because I don’t want to give away too much of the novel), I’m following his suggestion! I will interweave bits of our conversation and snippets of story from the novel as I go.

Counting back from five, then:

5. Coconuts!

The novel is set in post-colonial Sri Lanka and the author helps set the scenes in the novel with descriptions of streets and sounds, local flora and fauna, the ocean, and with descriptions of food, especially tea, fish and food made with coconuts and a great variety of spices. It all sounds so delicious, but more importantly I am reminded of how food practices are cultural markers and a part of our identity construction.* So I enjoyed the initial character and narrator we meet–Swadesh–who had immigrated to Canada but returned to visit his homeland and his friend Milton. As an expatriate character, Swadesh seemed very happy about the meals he was eating during his visit back home, meals made with fresh local ingredients. Later in the novel, THE untouchable woman of the title, Tangamma, now known as the Buddhist nun Venerable Karuna, is described while eating the single daily meal of a renunciant. She is further described drinking tea out of a coconut bowl later that day. The descriptions of the Ven. Karuna eating and drinking are markedly different from other descriptions of practices surrounding food and drink in the novel; these descriptions are more meditative in tone, and show yet another aspect of food practice that is a cultural marker and part of identity construction, that of a Buddhist nun. This is but one example of the way in which Dr. Sugunasiri’s writing is simple yet complex.

4. Transnational literary influences

Right from the contents page of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, it was clear to me that the novelist had many literary influences from the West, from traditional Buddhist literature, and from his homeland. I asked him to comment on his literary influences and whether these were mostly Buddhist.

SS: “Undeniably. As you’ve already noted, some parts of the novel falls back on the Jataka story – present story, past story and linking the two. But as you correctly note, it is not entirely along the Jataka lines. The narrator is not the ‘omniscient one’ but Swadesh, the on the ground Canadian expat who visits his home country after a quarter century.

Another influence that can be seen in the novel is the Beast Fable. This has been taken to be a genre of Hindu/Sanskrit literature, the Pancatantra and Hitopadesa being examples. But my latest research finding is that it is, in fact, the Buddha that is the initiator of the Beast fable genre (see the Appendix in my work Dhamma Aboard Evolution). So there then is another form of Buddhist literature that has guided my hand.

But there may be the inspiration of Sinhala literature itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what has been said to be the world’s first blank verse (about 500 of them, 6th to 8th c.), written on the ‘mirror wall’ (a slab of rock with a sheen) of Sigiriya (castle of King Kasyapa). Here’s one of my favourites:

Budal [name] I am.

Came alone.

Everyone writing poetry,

I didn’t!

(see the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, and Sigiriya by Canadian Professor Siri Gunasinghe.) And there are, of course, other classical works of Sinhala literature, between the 11th and 15th centuries – both secular but some of religious orientation.”

While there are many cultural and literary influences that can be discerned in the novel, it is writtenl in such as way as to be readable by anyone, from anywhere. When I asked him who he wrote for, who was his audience, Dr. Sugunasiri wrote this:

SS: “Frankly, I wrote the novel for myself. . . The story just came to me. Just as in poetry, when whole lines, or whole verses, even nuances appear on my mind’s screen. Not in all its refined form, for sure, but bits and pieces. Mind you, I enjoy writing. Perhaps I’m not market-savvy, or income-conscious, which is why I thought of the audience only after finishing writing.

It is perhaps when in this frame of mind that it occurred to me that, as it appears on the cover, it was going to be “My 75th year gift to humanity”. So in a literal sense, my audience is all of humanity.

However, it is possible that this wider audience was in my mind in writing the novel. Despite the fact that critics have located my novel, correctly of course, in Sri Lanka, there’s not a name that sounds Sinhala, or Tamil for that matter. I use them in translated form or have adapted them to bring out the flavour of the character. This was to specifically keep the novel from being attached to one or the other ethnically, which would immediately shut out a wide spectrum of readership. So for that reason I made the novel ‘generic’, or rather ‘non-ethnocentric’. The story is one that can take place in any society, at any historical time. In other words, it is generalized, even though, of course, it has to happen in some human society or the other. So the story being located in Sri Lanka should not take away from the generality.

But ‘humanity’ is a vast concept. So there has to be, for pragmatic reasons, a narrowing. So, while it is generally for the English-speaking literary world, including, of course, Sri Lanka, since I have been living in Canada for nearly five decades now, the Canadian reader can be said to be the primary audience. After all, the narrator of the story, Swadesh, is a true blue Canadian!

Of late, I’ve come to think of the younger generation readers as a possible and fruitful target audience. Thanks to colonialism, and other factors, the present generation of students of Sri Lanka seem to know pathetically little of the country, just as in the case of Tangamma. And there’s now a large number of Sri Lanka students going to private English schools in the country, and of course, there are the ones in the diaspora. So I thought they might well benefit from the novel.

Ambassadors may be another interested group of readers. Given that the novel covers a period of over 2500 years, could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the country without going to history books written by academics?”

As indicated, Dr. Sugunasiri’s novel is not only transnational but is also trans-temporal, bridging 2500 years of history through re-imagined and retold myths and traditional stories. This is, perhaps, why he hopes that in the long term, the novel will be readable “for all people at all times, turning it into a universal classic.”

3. Quotations

Have you ever picked up a book about Buddhism in the “Eastern Religions” section of a bookstore, opened it, read a portion and thought “which sutta (sutra) is this from, because I know it is from a Buddhist sacred text but the author doesn’t provide the reference?!” Such lack of references really rankles me. So imagine my delight when, in a fiction novel, I find well referenced quotations! Each section of the novel begins with a quotation from the Dhammapada, and he even provides the verse number. For example, “Book the First: Growing” bears the quotation:

“Ah, so pleasantly we live/ Without affliction among the afflicted./ Among humans with affliction/ Do we dwell without affliction. – Dhammapada, 198.”

There are many more types of quotations or nods to literary works throughout the novel, and each one is referenced in some way, either directly, through dialogue or narration. And every quotation or reference to a real piece of writing is woven into the storyline so well that the reader experiences the intricate embedding of real events and texts into the fictional story in a seamless way.

2. Language Exploration

In keeping with his goal of writing a novel that has universal themes and appeal, Dr. Sugunasiri explores language in a universal way as well. Not only are names made familiar to English-language readers, but names of individual characters are changed with the character’s transformation. So, for example, Tangamma is the original name of the untouchable woman at the heart of the odyssey, and she is referred to lovingly as Tangi by her husband. Then, when she becomes a Buddhist nun, she takes the name Venerable Karuna. Likewise, Tangamma’s husband and the central character of the story, Milton, changes his name to Milinda with his developing nationalism.

Further exploration into language is plain in the story, since the main theme of the novel is “personal transformation in the context of a changing post-colonial society.” Many of the characters use English, the colonial language, as their means of communication because they have not learned the traditional de-Leonese or de-Andhrese. But the best example of language exploration in the novel is through the character Milton, who made his living as a writer in English and as a literary critic of European works. As Milton transformed into Milinda, he found himself wondering why he never learned Sanskrit or Pali. At one point in the novel, Milton says:

“I can’t live with my conscience any more, Tangi. In my blindness to monkey English, I forgot what my father stood for. Equality of the languages. I pushed back from my memory that he earned unequal pay for equal work only because he did not speak the colonial language. I thought that was the price to pay for progress” (page 219).

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a fine example of how the languages we use to communicate with the world around us are powerful pieces of our identity construction and serve as points of orientation in the many cultural contexts through which we all navigate.

1. Men writing the feminine

I am always impressed when men write in the voice of women, and Dr. Sugunasiri has done just that. He has created a very likeable female character, Tangamma, who goes through many transformations in her life, from an untouchable to a wife and mother, to a student, to a Buddhist nun (Venerable Karuna). In part of our discussion he spoke about the development of this character as a form of Buddhist practice.

SS: “Writing Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey could be said to be, in hindsight, a form of Buddhist practice on my part. It’s a novel, again as noted by critics, that offers Buddhism as a paradigm for peace in society (see Review by Prof Emeritus of English, C. K. Seshadri of Baroda University). Critics have also noted how the heroine Tangamma is a model of peace, and calm (meaning level-headed), though bubbling in life. As sharply observed by a Sinhala woman critic, Tangamma is not the classical unhappy wife seeking freedom from it all. She dons the robes not because she is unhappy with life or with her husband, but because she can see the qualitatively deeper happiness and calm of the higher religious life. In that sense, she’s the model Buddhist woman. And she’s also the wife that has earned the respect of a husband in a Buddhist society. She is as well the caricature case study that speaks to the Buddha’s words, “Not by birth is one an untouchable”. She’s the untouchable pragmatist (using ‘untouchable’ here to mean ‘unstoppable’), untouchable smarty pants, untouchable culture buff, untouchable language learner, untouchable husband-transformer, untouchable self-emancipator. So in many ways, she speaks again to the next line “ … by action alone does one come to be of nobility” (Brahmin).

So I suppose such a character coming to be created by my hands could be called Buddhist practice. For it upholds womanhood, as in the Buddha’s model: ‘mother and father’, and not the other way around. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey also speaks to the respectable way women are treated – by husbands, family and society, in Buddhist-Sri Lanka . It was no accident, for example, that the world’s first woman Prime Minister was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka.”


So there you have it – my top five things I enjoyed about Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri’s novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, a truly “extraordinary first novel” in the words of Professor of English Chelva Kanaganayaka of the University of Toronto [review is here]. If you have a chance to read the story yourself, I would love for you to add to the list! And if you want to read more about the novel, you can read other reviews of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey posted on my last blog post.

* My friend and colleague Rachel Brown, Ph.D. Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, is currently working on a dissertation focused on Maghrebine Muslim transnational food practices. Because of recent discussions with Rachel, I am becoming more aware of the interconnections between food practices and religious experience.