Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – October 2017 Edition

With the autumnal equinox behind us, and the western world thinking about all things harvest and Hallowe’en, the introduction of two new works of spooky Buddhist fiction is apropos of the season.

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The Haunting of Cragg Hill House by Elyse Salpeter, 2017  Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform/Amazon Digital Services LLC.

Here’s what goodreads has to say about Elyse and the Kelsey Porter, Buddhist Thriller series:

“Elyse Salpeter is an author who loves mixing “the real with the fantastic” in her books. She likes nothing better than taking different scenarios and creating worlds where things just aren’t what they appear to be.

Her suspense thriller series, THE HUNT FOR XANADU, THE QUEST OF THE EMPTY TOMB and THE CALL OF MOUNT SUMERU are [sic] about a brilliant and fearless young woman named Kelsey Porter, whose life is steeped in Buddhist spiritual mysteries and she is constantly discovering the world around her is not what she believed it to be.”

Elyse Salpeter’s most recent book is #4 in her Kelsey Porter, Buddhist Thriller series: THE HAUNTING OF CRAGG HILL HOUSE. She says: “I truly believe folks should read the books in order, as I take them through the series and reveal in book #1 startling things about the main character’s spiritual path. That said, I did write Book #4 as a standalone.”

Promotional Blurb for The Haunting of Cragg Hill House:

All she wanted was a weekend away…

“Kelsey and Desmond escape to a Gothic Victorian mountain resort for the weekend, but when they arrive, their idyllic plans begin to unravel fast. Kelsey feels a sinister, dark presence pervading the hotel, and with a snowstorm raging, they are stranded with an evil she cannot name. A fleeting figure screaming down the hallway, staff with missing body parts, and then Desmond disappears, leaving behind a trail of blood. Kelsey soon discovers she’s fighting a deep magic she hasn’t seen in eons and she must figure out what is happening at Cragg Hill House… before it is too late.”

Book #1 THE HUNT FOR XANADU
AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1CEvEab
UK Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Cp2awz

Book #2 THE QUEST OF THE EMPTY TOMB
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1EvXExO
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1JSRNqT

Book #3 THE CALL OF MOUNT SUMERU
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1SUskAv
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1nPF6TO

Book #4 THE HAUNTING OF CRAGG HILL HOUSE:
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/2pb1HyT
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/2pVJLGB

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Waking the Fake Snake: The Mystery of the Blue Robe Manuscripts by Mat Skybrook, 2017  Publisher: Vajra Books, Nepal.

Mat Skybrook is the pseudonym of an American author who, after many years of living in Asia and elsewhere, is now based on the West Coast of the USA. He has written what has been called “A remarkable debut novel on separation, delusive attachments and seeing through them.”

Blurb:

It is summer 1985 and the young American teacher Richard Tatem heads for the Himalayas, there discovering a rare manuscript of the secret Blue-Robes cult. Hoping to kick-start his career and regain the affection of Miki Tojinbara, an unforgettable Japanese junior colleague from Osaka who has recently ditched him, Tatem returns to India. His search goes dangerously awry when he finds himself hunted by ruthless later-day guardians of the supposedly dead Blue Robe cult. Meanwhile, Tatem and Miki try a second time to see whether Buddhist love is really a contradiction in terms.

Touching a fake snake for Tibetan Buddhists can symbolize overcoming false fears through insight. Filled with both lofty Buddhist philosophies and gritty Tibetan reality, this novel thus explores perceptively the limits of obsessive attachment and romantic love for Buddhists.

Reviews:

“Buddhism is not only a profound spiritual and philosophical tradition. As proven by Mat Skybrook’s wonderfully written Waking the Fake Snake, its world and ideas can also provide the setting for an enthralling narrative of adventurous discovery and revealing self-discovery.”—Florin Deleanu, PhD, Professor of Buddhist Studies, ICPBS/IIBS (Tokyo)

“A hopeful novel for the century that lies ahead, with plenty of inter-cultural romance, ample sex, and a stiff dose of danger–though less violence than expected. Even more than in great classic novels, it’s all about seeing under, around or through the delusions thus created, and Skybrook obviously knows his delusions.” –Dr. gDan Martin, author of Tibet.Logic blog

“Skybrook’s fascinating mystery is three books in one: an Asian adventure, a love story and an intellectual puzzle. It vividly evokes the place and people of the Tibetan exile scene in Dharamsala and Tibetan friends in India as we knew them decades ago.” –Prof. Ramon Prats, Barcelona

Like A. S. Byatt’s Obsession did for English literary research, this compelling Himalayan mystery dramatizes Tibetan and Buddhist studies field-work, with nearly as many true historical wrinkles as The Da Vinci Code.

Kindle version:

https://www.amazon.com/Waking-Fake-Snake-Mystery-Manuscripts-ebook/dp/B01MZZM05X/

The novel is also available in book form from the website vajrabookshop.com:

http://www.vajrabookshop.com/categories/vajra-publications/products/waking-the-fake-snake-the-mystery-of-the-blue-robe-manuscripts

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Buddhist Literary Festival – Toronto, ON, Canada 24 September 2017

I’m pleased to announce what I hope is the first of many Buddhist Literary Festivals to be held in conjunction with the Word on the Street Book and Magazine Festival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on 24 September, 2017.  This inaugural event is founded and coordinated by Professor Suwanda Sugunasiri, himself an author of Buddhist fiction, poetry, and academic works. If you’re in the area, stop by!

Nepali storyteller brings Buddhist tale of adventure to Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 27 August

Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Religion and Culture, in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies, presents a retelling of the Avadāna of the Merchant Simhala at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Sunday, Aug. 27.

The full announcement about this event from the Wilfrid Laurier University web site reads as follows:

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Nepali storyteller brings Buddhist tale of adventure to ROM in Laurier-organized event

 

It’s an epic tale of adventure involving merchant sailors shipwrecked on an island that’s home to shape-shifting ogresses. It’s also part of a storytelling tradition of major significance to Buddhist scholars as well as to the Nepali and Tibetan communities.

A prominent Buddhist scholar will conduct a retelling of the Avadāna of the Merchant Simhala at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Sunday, Aug. 27. It’s an event being organized by Associate Professor Jason Neelis of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Religion and Culture, in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies, to kick off a mini-conference on the past lives of the Buddha.

The storytelling will be performed in English by Professor Naresh Man Bajracharya, vice-chancellor of Lumbini Buddhist University in Nepal. Accompanying the story will be a reproduction of a nine-metre (30-foot) painted scroll from the Kathmandu Valley that illustrates the tale. Parts of the scroll will also be digitally projected onto screens.

The event will take place at the Eaton Theatre Auditorium of the ROM, from 10 a.m. to noon. It should be of interest to a wide audience ranging from children eager to hear an exciting tale of magic and heroism to Buddhist scholars, says Neelis. The version of the tale being told is from the Newar people of Nepal.

Doors open at 9:30 a.m. and the event is free but does not include ROM admission. Attendees wishing to visit the ROM after the event must buy tickets. No pre-registration is necessary and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Bajracharya will be introduced by Associate Professor Christoph Emmrich of the University of Toronto and Deepali Dewan, the ROM’s curator of South Asian art and culture. Honorary Consul General of Nepal Kunjar Sharma will also speak briefly. Professor Todd Lewis of College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts) will speak after the storytelling to put it in context.

In the story, the hero, Simhala-Sarthavahu, is rescued from the island by a horse that is a bodhisattva, destined to be reborn as the Indian prince who came to be known as the Buddha.

Exploring narratives of “Where the Buddha was Previously Born, Seen, and Heard” is the topic of the mini-conference, which will be attended largely by members of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS) following that organization’s XVIIIth Congress at the University of Toronto.

The conference will bring together leading international Buddhist studies scholars and graduate students who will contribute to interdisciplinary academic panels on the transmission and transformation of Buddhist rebirth narratives in texts and art across Asia.

It will also feature a roundtable discussion of the results of a two-year collaborative research project in which art historians and textual specialists have been working on collecting and cataloguing artistic representations and summaries of previous-birth narratives in early Buddhist manuscripts from ancient Gandhāra, situated in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The conference and storytelling event are supported by grants from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation for Buddhist Studies and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

For more information, see simhala-sarthavaha.org or contact Jason Neelis.

 

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Review of MEDITATIONS ON THE MOTHER TONQUE by An Tran

Apologies, dear reader, for the delay of this review post. I have been travelling. And I have discovered that short stories are the perfect genre choice for journeys with many stops. On my recent travels, I have been reading and re-reading An Tran’s short story collection, Meditations on the Mother Tongue (C&R Press, 2016). These twelve stories span the world, from Alaska to Vietnam, from caves to zoos. The collection is a symphony of imagery that will give you goose bumps. They are told through the voices of men, women, and children, young and old, Asian and Caucasian. More than once my breath caught while reading one of Tran’s stories; his prose can be simultaneously incisive and surreal as it lays bare what it means to be human. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from these stories, perhaps because they can be categorised into so many intersecting genres. The short works of fiction would fit just as well into a collection of Asian American Literature as they would in a collection of Buddhist Fiction. You might think that the intersection of Asian American Literature and Buddhist Fiction is ubiquitous across these kinds of literature, but it is not a given that any work of fiction by an Asian American author includes major Buddhist themes or characters. Many of Tran’s short stories include both, and others of his stories have neither, but still, resonate with vibrations of the Buddha dharma. Some of the short stories could be further sub-categorized as realistic fiction, suspense, mystery and even mythopoeia. But none of these categories fully encapsulates the insightful, engaging experience of reading Tran’s first collective offering.

The stories in Meditations on The Mother Tongue comprise a discourse on language and its centrality to human identity. Tran accomplishes this through brilliant characterization that positions his reader for deep listening. It’s as if he ushers you to the best seat in the concert hall based on the particular piece of music on the program. And of course, Tran has composed the music to be performed. Which is perhaps why his prose is so musical. For example, in the story “A Clear Sky Above” the young protagonist Teuku ventures into a cave and experiences this:

“Teuku is hypnotised by the music of the cave, the way it accompanies human speech. A voice emerges small and then bounces off cavern walls, splits into a chorus that comes from all around, its vibration like warm electricity on the skin. It is a reverent hymn, and he follows every word like a scripture” (p. 17).

Since this story is written from the third person point-of-view, the reader is able to venture into the cave with Teuku and is then immersed in this natural yet unique world through sound imagery. Tran interweaves the natural world with the human experiences of language and sound to remind his reader that language is universal.

In the short story “Conversations with the Rest of the World” a deaf girl named Lily learns to communicate with the world around her through sign language. As she is learning, she realises certain things about language, such as: “Reading and writing were conventions made for the hearing” (p. 63) and “silence was a punishment” (p. 66). And in an insightful moment in which Lily compares her mode of communication to those around her, she wonders how being human feels (p. 69).

The connection between language and humanness is further blurred when, some weeks later, Lily goes to the zoo with her teacher. There she sees gorillas signing to each other, and she leans over the rail to get a closer look.

Lily signed down, Hello, friends!

Frantically, the gorillas signed their responses, simple words and ideas that described their moods and desires.

Lily watched the fragmented conversations of the animals. She imagined a future life: Lily, the adult; Lily, the scientist; Lily, the bridge between humanity and the rest of the world . . .  She imagined ripping away all the invisible railings in the world, all the barriers to speaking up. She saw herself filling up that moat with dirt, mud, soil, and all the richness of the earth.

In this story of a deaf girl who talks with a nonverbal gorilla, silence speaks volumes. Tran’s adept development and placement of characters in the natural world positions the reader to consider how – or why – language makes us human.

At this point, you may be wondering what, if anything, is Buddhist about any of the examples I have provided thus far? Based on the title of the short story collection, I posit that Tran uses his experience of Buddhism to interrogate the idea that language makes us human. Even if there is no mention of Buddhist concepts or teachings in the story, Tran’s narratives create a space for his reader to imagine human experience without words. This type of experience-without-language is like a samadhi meditation that opens up a “broad field of awareness” of being and knowing in non-discursive ways. (Keren Arbel, Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as Actualization and Insight. Routledge: New York, NY, 2017, p. 94). It’s a sweet irony, to be sure, that words can point to non-discursivity, like a finger pointing to the moon. But this is just one of the ways that Tran’s stories are meditations.

There is another, more overtly Buddhist way that Tran’s stories are meditations, and this relates directly to his mother tongue. He is a Vietnamese American, the son of refugees who fled to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. Buddhism is his birthright. His experience of growing up in a country foreign to his parents’ culture, and his experience of growing up with two languages, deeply influences his work (Anjali Enjeti, “Getting Lost in Language: An Tran On His Debut Collection, Meditations on the Mother TongueBrooklyn Magazine, 24 May 2017 http://www.bkmag.com/2017/05/24/an-tran-debut-collection-meditations-on-the-mother-tongue/ ). Tran’s stories are not the alienated, traumatic, situated testimonies of immigrants that are often associated with early Asian American Literature. Rather, his stories represent the experiences of later generations who are alienated from both their family’s cultural heritage and their birth country’s promises of freedom and prosperity. And for Tran, this cultural heritage includes Buddhism.

In my view, Tran’s best meditations on his mother tongue are comprised of stories in which the protagonist is Asian, for these protagonists position the reader to see cultures and worlds in tension. Take for example the first person point-of-view protagonist in “Once I Wed a White Woman.” In this story, an unnamed Asian (-American?) protagonist meets, courts, proposes to, and marries a white woman. As the reader is shown this developing relationship, we are privy to the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. For example, after just meeting her in a bar, the protagonist and his future wife discuss jazz and he reflects: “She’d only named singers and I believed real jazz had no room for singers. Words were obstructions; music was to be heard, not listened to” (p. 119). This distinction between hearing and listening speaks directly to the way in which each of these culturally representative characters make meaning from their backgrounds, their contexts. The distinction made between hearing and listening is a theme throughout the story. Hearing is a non-discursive activity – the act of perceiving sound – but listening somehow requires transference of meaning, an act that implies and emphasizes a gap between self and other.

On the concept of self, the protagonist thinks thusly: “It is a delusion. We only exist through our relationships” (p.122). When his relationship with his white significant other progresses to cohabitation, he states “We took down my altar to Gautama Buddha . . . We put up framed pictures of ourselves” (p. 122). The process of “blending” his culture with his partner’s culture requires more compromise on his part, and he describes how he comes home to his “culture in a corner” quite insightfully when he states: “Westerners couldn’t look at a swastika without a sense of shame, and so I was supposed to feel this shame too. Shame for my own faith” (p. 123). The lingering colonialism that informed his relationship experience takes centre stage as the couple decides the wedding location; she wants the wedding to take place in a church. He says:

“Neither of us are Christian.” She said, “I just want a normal wedding” (p 123).

The protagonist tries to maintain a Buddhist viewpoint of his relationship: “I thanked her for releasing me from my own dogmas, but I didn’t know if I believed myself” (p. 123). If he only existed through his relationship to others, then his existence in relation to his partner is challenged even in their marriage ceremony.

The church was a small building with white walls. From the gutters at the edge of the roof hung ribbons of rust that settled into the paint, staining it in oranges and browns and ambers. The paint had cracked and formed fissures at the corners of all the door and window frames. I thought about the space between the cracks, how a house of God wore rivers of absence. . . A man in a black robe talked to us about togetherness and God and eternity. I stopped listening (p. 125).

Throughout the rest of the story, the protagonist makes attempts to be heard, to rescue his relationship by various means, including exposing his partner to Buddhist meditation, as if he is trying to teach his partner to hear as well as listen. Tran’s descriptions of altar Buddhas and meditation spaces are transportive, like the beginnings of a guided meditation that sets the mental stage for practice.

As a meditation on the mother tongue, this story, “Once I Wed a White Woman,” juxtaposes two cultures, east and west, Buddhist and Christian, through an exploration of the distinctions between hearing and listening. I cannot help but read the title of this short story and wonder if it is an allusion to the traditional opening to western folk tales beginning with “Once upon a time,” a phrase that serves as a verbal cue to begin listening. For the protagonist, this western folk tale phrase has displaced the traditional opening to Buddhist stories from sutras: “Thus have I heard.” In the tension between hearing and listening, this story provides a subtle and nuanced meditation on language, culture, contexts, and colonialism.

Regardless of what languages are represented in his stories, taken together, Tran’s meditations on the mother tongue form a discourse about how language shapes our experience of the world around us, and how non-discursive experience – being without words – can relieve suffering and open us to reality. Once again I am left appreciating the irony of how Tran’s stories can be read as a meditation on the benefits of not constantly creating stories, of experiencing life without reversion to mental narrating.

 

 

 

 

Currently Reading . . . MEDITATIONS ON THE MOTHER TONGUE by An Tran

I am pleased to announce the publication of a volume of short stories by the young, talented author An Tran entitled Meditations on the Mother Tongue (C&R Press, 2016). I have read the first three stories and I don’t want to put the volume down in order to do my own work, but I must. So a full review will have to wait until the end of May or early June. You can read and review the stories yourself if you buy the book through Amazon HERE or Barnes & Noble HERE .

To pique your interest, here is the C&R Press press release:

A deaf child discovers to her delight that she can communicate with zoo gorillas in her native language. An old man grieving for his departed wife looks to the giant turtle in Hanoi’s sacred lake for solace, believing it to be a god. An American scientist searches the mountains and rivers of Sumatra for signs of an otter believed to be extinct. A young man finds a surprising connection to his Vietnamese heritage when he takes up the acrobatic sport of parkour, motivating him to re-learn his forgotten first language.

In rich and vivid prose across twelve stories, men and women are displaced from their loved ones, their cultures and their homes, and look to the natural and spiritual worlds in search of anything that can offer a sense of belonging and lasting satisfaction. These are careful meditations on the desire to know one’s self and be known by others, where parents and lovers alike appear as gods or as ghosts, dominating and unknowable, and where the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, men and women, husbands and wives, are built, tested and found lacking.

Matthew Salesses says, “The stories in Meditations on the Mother Tongue build like storms. They gather on the horizon until they’re upon you without you realizing when exactly you moved inside them. An Tran has written a collection of tense skies and complex humans longing for the light beyond. Put this book on your radar.”

Justin Lawrece Daughtery says, “There are ghosts inhabiting An Tran’s Meditations on the Mother Tongue. They are not haunting, though: they are reminders and etchings. They are not echoes, but the original voices sounding their guttural howls into deep caverns and awaiting return. Each of these stories lives with a presence lingering, a remembrance attached to what we might try to leave behind us. We pick up each one, each of An Tran’s stories, and there we are, holding what the ghosts have returned, and each one trembles with history, and each one unburies a treasure we do not know hides in the earth.”

Amber Sparks says, “Early in this fine collection, one of Tran’s narrators remarks on the final tonal distinctions that are the only difference between one word and another in Vietnamese. I mention this because it’s also such a perfect description of Tran’s unique gift as a writer: he has an ear attuned to the subtlest of differences in tone that open to reveal a world of nuance and meaning in the in-between places. The people living there in his collection – second generation immigrants, a Deaf girl, the parents of a chronically ill child – are seekers and wanderers, wondering how to tell their own stories. And it is here where Tran shines: he writes fiercely into the gap for the misfits and outsiders of the world.”

Richard Peabody says, “An Tran is one of the most gifted writers to appear on the DC lit scene in recent memory. These surprisingly varied stories about communication (and lack thereof) are so adventurous, intelligent, and wise (about humans and non-humans) that when the book was over I felt like I’d been scuba diving on Mars. Damn he’s good.”

Eliot Pattison Adds to the Inspector Shan Series with SKELETON GOD

How many bibliophiles do you know who anxiously await the publication of a new book in a series? The reader’s longing for the next instalment exemplifies the efficacy of narrative to expand meaning for the human experience. For often a fictional world becomes so real for the reader that she grieves when the story has ended.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce that Eliot Pattison’s 9th book in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series was published in March. It is entitled Skeleton God (2017). Pattison’s first novel of this series, The Skull Mantra (1999), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 2000. The series has been translated and published in over twenty languages. His work can be read on so many levels, from the cultural to the political to the spiritual. I read the Inspector Shan mysteries as fictional imaginings of lived religion in Tibet under Chinese occupation.

Here’s what readers can expect from Skeleton God:

Blurb: “In Eliot Pattison’s Skeleton God, Shan Tao Yun, now the reluctant constable of a remote Tibetan town, has learned to expect the impossible at the roof of the world, but nothing has prepared him for his discovery when he investigates a report that a nun has been savagely assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun lies a gilded saint buried centuries earlier, flanked by the remains of a Chinese soldier killed fifty years before and an American man murdered only hours earlier. Shan is thrust into a maelstrom of intrigue and contradiction.

The Tibetans are terrified, the notorious Public Security Bureau wants nothing to do with the murders, and the army seems determined to just bury the dead again and Shan with them. No one wants to pursue the truthÐexcept Shan, who finds himself in a violent collision between a heartbreaking, clandestine effort to reunite refugees from Tibet separated for decades and a covert corruption investigation that reaches to the top levels of the government in Beijing, China. The terrible secret Shan uncovers changes his town and his life forever.”

Praise for Skeleton God:

“Pattison‘s ninth installment provides an important history lesson little understood in the West with authority, nuance, and genuine suspense.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Edgar winner Pattison remains without peer at integrating a fairplay whodunit into a searing portrayal of life under an oppressive and capricious regime, as shown by his ninth Insp. Shan Tao Yun mystery. Even readers unfamiliar with the physical and cultural devastation China has wrought in Tibet will find themselves engrossed—and moved—by Pattison’s nuanced portrayal.” – Publishers Weekly *Starred Review*

 

About Eliot Pattison:

 

“An international lawyer by trade, Pattison spent many years in the backwaters of Asia, fascinated by how Buddhism shapes all aspects of people’s lives. He recently received the prestigious “Art of Freedom” award from the Tibet House, an international non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of Tibetan culture, founded by Columbia University professor Robert Thurman, actor Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama.

 

For more information on Eliot Pattison and his focus on Buddhism, visit http://eliotpattison.com/why_i_wrote_about_tibet.html

 

 

 

CANADIAN PUBLICATION Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel by Dianne Harke (Toronto: The Sumeru Press, Inc., 2016) Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

incognitoDianne Harke’s first novel, Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel is a fictional biography that might not have been completed but for the curiosity and encouragement of John Negru, Publisher at The Sumeru Press, Inc. As Harke explained in a recent interview, Negru read the first few chapters on Wattpad and offered to publish the finished manuscript. The Sumeru Press, Inc. is one part of Sumeru Books, a Canadian publishing company that focuses on Buddhist books, art and news. It is an important hub on the Canadian Buddhism landscape: “In addition to [their] publishing activities, [they] also maintain Canada’s leading Buddhist news blog (accessible at the bottom of [the] home page), and a directory of more than 580 Canadian Buddhist organizations (www.canadianbuddhism.info).” sumeru-small-horizontalSumeru also promotes a space for Canadian Buddhism on the international cultural landscape, as evidenced in this recent letter to the editor of Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2017 entitled “Northern Neighbor Neglect.” So when John Negru contacted me about Incognito, I knew I was in for a treat.

Alexandra David-Neel was an early 20th-century French explorer, spiritual seeker and feminist who travelled throughout Asia, including Bhutan, China, India, Japan, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Her journeys into sometimes dangerous areas were attempted during times of insular rule (Tibet was closed to the outside world) and times of great turmoil (such as the onset of WWI or the Second Sino-Japanese War). To move forward, Alexandra often had to travel incognito. Her adventures would have made for a good spy novel but she travelled in earnest search of various forms of enlightenment. Through her journeys and the application of her keen intellect, she became a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism. She was revered by lamas and tulkus and the European academy as well.

Harke’s book is not merely a straightforward biography of Alexandra’s life. An author’s note both begins and sets the tone for this special work. In the note, Harke relates that there is an invisible line between fiction and non-fiction. Even though she has done substantial research for the biography on the extraordinary life of Alexandra David-Neel, the book is a work of fiction. As support for her assertion, Harke cites Alexandra herself who advised that Tibetan authors use their imaginations to a measure that finds its equal in Western fairy tales, except that all of the “extravagant wonders that abound in their narratives” are taken as authentic events. While the subject matter of Harke’s biography may suggest that this is a book filled with imaginary adventures, it is actually the author’s writing style that pushes the work across the threshold of fiction. Harke’s rigorous research and choice of both first and third person points of view narratives simultaneously generate and situate the voice of Alexandra. The author fairly channels Alexandra to give the reader a backstage pass into the spiritual seeker’s internal and external worlds.

Were it not for Harke’s detailed research grounding this story, the life of Alexandra would be difficult to believe simply because it is so very astounding, as the title of the novel suggests. Over the course of her life and travels, Alexandra met with European and Asian dignitaries and ambassadors, befriended a Sikkim Prince, and discussed Buddhist concepts with both the Panchen Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama. These meetings helped to nurture her scholarly pursuits to learn and translate Sanskrit and Tibetan and to better understand Buddhist concepts. But her experiences travelling incognito allowed her a spiritual development which augmented her education in a way that traditional scholarship could never replicate. Harke’s first person narratives of Alexandra’s time in China, India and Nepal and subsequent journey to Lhasa, Tibet are peopled with a variety of savoury characters, from helpful shepherds and villagers to cave-dwelling hermits. In travelling incognito, Alexandra learned and lived her own version of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, she developed and used the fire of tumo, a meditative method of physiologically warming the body that was useful in the extreme conditions of the Himalayas (p. 101).  In one side adventure, Alexandra was witness to a powa recitation, the “mystic incantation” that is chanted at the deathbed of a Buddhist to assist with the transference of consciousness to the next life (p. 113). And she experienced dream yoga after an encounter with a mysterious lama who insisted that she stop travelling incognito so that she could once again wear the rosary and rings of an initiate of Tibetan Buddhism (pp. 135 – 136). The effect of the first person narratives reads like a first-hand description of lived Tibetan Buddhism during the mid-twentieth century.

There is one more success in Harke’s first novel that I wish to mention in case it is overlooked. Whether intentional or not, her renderings of the European cultural contexts behind Alexandra’s story are instructive. The glimpses into the modus operandi of the Theosophical Society gave me a sense of how Theosophy and Spiritualism dovetailed with Buddhism and Hinduism at the turn of the twentieth century. Further, the systemic Orientalism that pervaded (and still permeates) Western societies’ perspectives of the “other” are evident in the form of descriptions of Protestant Buddhism: an idea of  a “pure” Buddhism interpreted from the Pali canon that discredits and excludes any “folk ritual” and “superstition.” Orientalist representations are described in some of Alexandra’s surprised reactions to her early experiences of Buddhism outside of Europe. For example, in a scene rendered from 1891, Alexandra was in Colombo and for the first time attended a Buddhist temple only to be greeted with “a huge Buddha lacquered in a hideous canary yellow, like something in a lurid carnival. By its side supplicants had placed a package of toothpicks and a glass jar containing preserved carrots and peas. Do they really think that the Buddha nibbles pickled vegetables as he meditates? (p. 35).” Decades later, after living as a Buddhist in Tibet, her reactions to such forms of lived religion were conveyed as quite the opposite. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Alexandra’s feminism poised against European culture at the fin de siecle is played out beautifully in her patronly marriage to her husband “Mouchy” and her adoptive “parenting” of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Yongden.

You can find Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel through Sumeru Books http://www.sumeru-books.com/dd-product/incognito-the-astounding-life-of-alexandra-david-neel/

or through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Incognito-Astounding-Life-Alexandra-David-Neel/dp/1896559336

Happy reading!!!