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.

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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.

Autumn Reading List Catch-Up, Including Story-Driven Music

One of the perks of blogging about Buddhist fiction is that authors and readers of fiction that intersects with Buddhism regularly send emails to let us know of new or newly discovered works. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to review everything that comes our way, or even read every story. But we can certainly list it here for you to discover, read, and enjoy. With that said, here is a brief catch-up listing of books (and music!), alphabetically by author, that have been brought to our attention over the past few months. Thank-you to everyone who alerts us to the ever-growing assortment of Buddhist fiction.

darshan Pulse. Olive Moksha. 2018   https://darshanpulse.com/

darshan Pulse is a group of musicians who create and produce “Revolutionary Buddhist Rock from the Heart of the Rocky Mountains.” Based out of Missoula, Montana, the group recently produced an instrumental concept album to express “the essence of samsara, the Buddhist doctrine of cyclical existence” entitled Olive Moksha. For this their second album, darshan Pulse “focused on how duality can be transcended. . . The narrative of this second project focuses on the story of three tulkus and their willful reincarnation into the belly of the beast – the same matrix described by the first album – to bring about a new era of peace [sic] the world” (from https://darshanpulse.com/theory).

The music is driven by Buddhist narrative. The full story of these tulkus can be found here on the darshan Pulse website and their track Avalokiteshvara can be enjoyed there as well. Below the track they have written a narrative snippet, which begins thusly:

“Three monks, Daleth, Mem and Teth, practice their meditation every morning beneath the olive trees. One day, each of them separately experience the exact same phenomena during meditation. The vision nearly brings each of them to tears, and they separately spend many hours contemplating the surrounding landscape as if for the very first time; as if reborn.” (from https://darshanpulse.com/avalokiteshvara/ )

Gaber, Mark. Rijicho. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “The Sho Hondo Convention is over. Three thousand Buddhist Americans have returned from Japan, exhausted but triumphant. Relentlessly the next campaign begins: six months from now, a “Festival on Ice” will be held at the San Diego Sports Arena. Unknown to all, deadly cancer has invaded the body of George M. Williams, supernova nucleus of NSA. Urgent surgery is required, but this would delay the San Diego Convention. Will he save himself, or defy death to pursue the dream of a destitute priest who vowed seven hundred years ago to save humankind?”

Gaber, Mark. Sho Hondo. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “October marks the completion of the multimillion-dollar Sho Hondo Grand Main Temple in Taisekiji, Japan. Three thousand Buddhist Americans prepare to embark on a pilgrimage to meet their mentor and pray to the Dai-Gohonzon, the great mandala inscribed by the Buddha Nichiren in 1279 for the salvation of humankind. What will they find? Travel with them on their adventure, seen through the eyes of a 22-year old clarinet player in the NSA Brass Band.”

Merullo, Roland. The Delight of Being Ordinary: a Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Vintage Contemporaries, 2018.

From Amazon: “Roland Merullo’s playful, eloquent, and life-affirming novel finds the world’s two holiest men teaming up for an unsanctioned road trip through the Italian countryside–where they rediscover the everyday joys and challenges of ordinary life.

During the Dalai Lama’s highly publicized official visit to the Vatican, the Pope suggests an adventure so unexpected and appealing that neither man can resist: they will shed their robes for several days and live as ordinary men. Before dawn, the two beloved religious leaders make a daring escape from Vatican City, slip into a waiting car, and are soon traveling the Italian roads in disguise. Along for the ride is the Pope’s neurotic cousin and personal assistant, Paolo, who–to his terror– has been put in charge of arranging the details of their disappearance. Rounding out the group is Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, an eccentric entrepreneur with a lust for life, who orchestrates the sublime disguises of each man. Rosa is a woman who cannot resist the call to adventure–or the fun.

Against a landscape of good humor, intrigue, and spiritual fulfillment, The Delight of Being Ordinary showcases the uniquely charming sensibilities of author Roland Merullo. Part whimsical expedition, part love story, part spiritual search, this uplifting novel brings warmth and laughter to the universal concerns of family life, religious inspiration, and personal identity—all of which combine to transcend cultural and political barriers in the name of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.”

Okita, Dwight. The Hope Store. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

From Amazon: “Two Asian American men, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Their slogan: “We don’t just instill hope. We install it.” The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her Super-Responder status. But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can’t save Jada, can she save herself — or will she wind up as collateral damage?”

Padwa, David. Incident at Lukla: A Novel of the Himalayas. Hapax Press, 2013.

From Amazon: “Little Nepal, poor and beautiful, lies sandwiched between China and India and is ravaged by an armed revolution. Brutal Maoist guerrillas are attempting to overthrow a corrupt and half-deranged monarchy. Two middle-aged love-starved American intelligence agents, Elsie and Ripp, are running operations in the Himalayas. They uncover a bizarre weapons trade across the Tibetan frontier which is under the control of a ranking Chinese military officer. As intelligence operatives attempt to outflank each other two young lovers, Annie and Pemba, experienced and adventurous mountaineers, are unwittingly drawn into a gyre of conflicting espionage operations. A dramatic incident at a Sherpa village creates a chain of unforeseen consequences and comes, literally, to a breath-taking climax amidst the world’s highest mountains. A nearby Lama sees a wheel of time turning, fueled by erotic attraction leading to birth and consciousness.”

**All of these novels can be purchased on Amazon.com. **

 

 

 

 

The Devoted by Blair Hurley, sheds light on psychological bondage

Hurley, Blair. The Devoted: A Novel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Reviewed by Chris Beal.

In Japan, Buddhism is an established religion, of course, and believers tend to be the more conservative members of society. So, as someone who was introduced to the religion there, I had a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of conversion to Buddhism as an act of teenage rebellion. But Nicole, the protagonist in The Devoted, arrived at her devotion to Buddhism the Western way: she read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

As the novel opens, Nicole is 32, but her youth is presented in extended flashback. She was raised in Boston, a Catholic at the time the sex abuse scandals were rocking the Church there. Her family’s local church was one of many closed and sold, as the archdiocese sought to raise money to pay the numerous judgments against it. In the midst of all this, Nicole finds a religion she believes to be purer and truer. Her parents neither understand nor approve.

Buddhism is only part of Nicole’s rebellion. She finds a boy as rebellious as she and runs away with him and his friend, without telling her parents. She has read about a Buddhist community in Colorado and sets her sights on it. When things don’t work out, she returns home chastened but still determined to find a Buddhist practice and teacher.

The teacher she finds makes her feel special and valuable – something she missed in her upbringing – and when he begins to teach her privately, she is delighted. Soon she allows him to seduce her. He tells her that in order to get enlightened, she must do everything he says. This is where I, as a reader, began to squirm. How will this dangerous liaison play out? And there is certainly irony in leaving a religion in which sexual misbehavior was rampant only to find such misbehavior in the new, adopted faith.

The Master (he is never given a name) tells Nicole that she needs to overcome her Catholic repression and insists there is nothing wrong with their liaison. Yet his advice is belied by the fact that he sees her only in private meetings, never venturing into public with her, and even in private, he barely acknowledges the sexual nature of their relationship. Why does she continue? Here I think it might help to understand what the student/teacher relationship is like for many dedicated students of Zen and most other types of Eastern spirituality. The teacher – at least in the beginning – is seen as the complete source of wisdom. So when the Master tells Nicole that she must do everything he says, he is only voicing what she already believes. That he uses her belief in him for his own selfish purposes is, of course, unconscionable. And that the reader is meant to see this, while Nicole does not, sets up the primary conflict: when will she see the truth and what will she do about it when she does?

The first hint of her suspicion of his motives comes when she learns that a younger and newer female student is now also the Master’s lover. How many more does he have? We never learn that, but even knowing that he has more than one disciple/lover tells us plenty about this man.

The Master is never physically described, which was the cause of some confusion for this reader. At first, I assumed he was Japanese, so when it was mentioned that he had studied Zen in Japan as a foreigner, I was surprised. A description, even in broad strokes, would have allowed readers to picture this man from the beginning and thus to understand that he shares Nicole’s cultural background.

Portions of the book seem designed mainly or solely to educate the reader about Zen and Buddhism in general. They don’t go on too long, so the already-informed reader doesn’t get bored, but they do slow the action down a bit. The most extended example of this occurs later in the book, when Nicole begins a relationship with a man named Sean, a relationship she hopes will allow her to overcome the hold the Master has on her (although, significantly, she doesn’t tell Sean about the Master). Nicole writes Sean long letters about the dharma, the purpose of which seems unclear. Although it is later revealed that Nicole never sent the letters, this doesn’t really answer the question, in terms of narrative coherence, of why she wrote them.

Another question I had concerned the Master’s teaching the Shin Buddhist mantra, Nembutsu, to Nicole. Having practiced both Zen and Shin Buddhism in Japan, I couldn’t help wondering why he would do this. In Japan, at least, Zen and Shin are completely separate sects with entirely different approaches to attaining enlightenment. I never heard Nembutsu recited in a Zen temple.

Still, these quibbles aside, The Devoted is one of the most successful and well written Buddhist-themed novels I have read. The characters are well drawn – including a number I haven’t mentioned. I especially appreciated the author’s knack for choosing perfectly apt and unique words and phrases to describe both people and places. But mostly, the novel is a success because the point of view works. We know about the Master because of what he does and says not because of any authorial pronouncements. We want Nicole to get a clue, but we know how trapped she is because, most likely, we too have been trapped at some point in our lives by a love that is unfulfilling and yet impossible to jettison.

For all of the above reasons, readers of all persuasions, whether Buddhist or not, will find Blair Hurley’s novel an enjoyable and psychologically penetrating look at devotion. The novel can be purchased at Amazon.com here or at theW. W. Norton & Company web site here.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – YASODHARA: A NOVEL ABOUT THE BUDDHA’S WIFE by VANESSA R. SASSON

Vanessa R.  Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife. New Delhi, India: Speaking Tiger Books, June 10, 2018.

Last month I was thrilled to hear from my friend and recently retired colleague, Mavis, about a new novel by Buddhist Studies scholar Vanessa R. Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife is Sasson’s first work of fiction, and it is sublimely captivating.

The novel cuts across various genres. In the book’s Introductory Note, Sasson calls her retelling a work of hagiographical fiction vice historical fiction, drawing attention to the (somewhat sparse) information about Yasodhara in Buddhist narratives and texts given her role in the Buddha’s enlightenment narrative. In this respect, the novel is clearly Buddhist fiction, but also, and perhaps more poignantly, it is a feminist narrative because of Sasson’s skilful retelling. Her scholarly background combined with her talent for storytelling allows Sasson to give a unique voice to Yasodhara and portray her as having some agency while still functioning within the limitations of her cultural and societal contexts.

As I expected, Sasson writes context very well. The timeframe for the Buddha’s narrative is roughly fifth century BCE. The novel is set in Brahmanic northern India at a time when the tales of Rama and Sita from the Ramayana provided social archetypes, especially the archetypes of husband and wife. Sasson recreates the context of the novel by relying on Buddhist and Indian stories to revisit and tell Yasodhara’s story afresh. Readers may recognize Buddhist jatakas, suttas, vinayas, the Therigatha, and the Indian epic Ramayana used in the plot and – more importantly – character development. The Buddhist stories, in particular, were used carefully, thoughtfully, keeping in mind they would not have been circulating at the time Yasodhara’s story transpired (since Siddhattha Gautama had not yet become the Buddha and there was not yet a tradition of Buddhist narratives circulating in India). For example, the Vessantara Jataka is used as both a past life memory and a portentous dream. And while we expect Mahapajapati to show up as a character, (crafted as a very regal lady, I might add), Kisa Gotami is an unexpected but excellent addition to the character roster as well.

What I enjoyed most about the novel was Sasson’s use of traditional stories to help tell Yasodhara’s story. For example, when a troupe of actors and entertainers perform a portion of the Ramayana that contained the story of Suparnakha, Sasson’s imagined ancient minstrel version gave the palace audience a lot to consider. Yasodhara’s reaction to a more compassionate portrayal of Suparnakha, the female demon and sister of Ravana, was echoed by all:

“I thought people would raise their fists against this version of the story, but no one did. Night after night, the troupe transported us elsewhere, telling us the story from her point of view.” (Location 1322 of 5298 of my Kindle edition)

Just as this imagined troupe gave a compassionate voice to a demoness, Sasson gives a courageous voice to Yasodhara and opens up a view to her many challenges in her life-roles of daughter, wife to an awakening being, and mother. Further, this characterization of “the Buddha’s wife” suggests how, like the unfolding of the epic Ramayana instigated by Suparnakha, Siddhattha’s journey to Buddhahood may have been different without his marriage to Yasodhara. 

In Sasson’s careful, elevated retelling, Yasodhara’s hagiography is presented to readers as a gorgeous set of matryoshka dolls: a profound story within stories set in richly decorated, near-mythical domains, skillfully layered in cultural and historical contexts. 

You can buy Yasodhara from the publisher’s site: Speaking Tiger Books or on Amazon. I would love to hear from readers to know if you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

 

The Devoted, by Blair Hurley

First-time novelist Hurley, a Pushcart Prize winner, has written about a subject that is not new in the Zen community: sexual abuse by a Zen Master. But the way she approaches the subject and her description of the psychological hold the Master has on his student is original.

Here is what the publisher, W. W. Norton, says about THE DEVOTED:

“A spellbinding confession of what it means to abandon one life for another, The Devoted asks what it takes, and what you’ll sacrifice, to find enlightenment.

“Nicole Hennessy’s life revolves around her Zen practice at the Boston Zendo, seeking solace in the tenets of Buddhism to the chagrin of her Irish Catholic family. After a decade of grueling spiritual practice under her Master’s tutelage, living on a shoestring budget as a shop clerk, Nicole has become dangerously entangled with her mentor. As Nicole confronts her past—a drug-fueled year spent fleeing her family’s loaded silences and guilt-laden “Our Fathers”—and reinvents herself in New York City, her Master’s intoxicating voice pursues her, an electrifying whisper on the other end of the phone. Somehow, he knows everything.

“In deft, soaring prose that bristles with psychological and erotic tension, Blair Hurley crafts a thrilling exploration of Nicole’s ecstatic quest for spirituality.”

THE DEVOTED will be reviewed here following release, expected in August. It can be pre-ordered from many sources.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction: THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X. R. Pan

About six weeks ago I got a message from my colleague and friend, Daniel, alerting me to an interview in Tricycle Magazine with a young lady named Emily X.R. Pan. The interview focused on Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After. Published in March 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the novel was an instant bestseller, and after reading it, I understand why. If you like Young Adult Literature, Pan’s new novel is a must read. It is marketed as magical realism, but it most definitely has Buddhist elements that drive the plot and infuse the characters.

The Astonishing Color of After is the beautiful, wistful yet heartwrenching story of Leigh, a teenaged girl grieving the loss of her beloved mother, Dory. The novel begins with these words: “My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.” The tone and voice articulated in these first few sentences instantly alert the reader to prepare themselves for time spent with an exceptional teenager. Leigh is the creative, insightful, quirky daughter of a Taiwanese mother and an American father. She describes her experiences in a synesthetic manner, assigning a color to a bicycle ride or a kiss. Her life filled with art classes, indie music and a teenaged crush was irrevocably changed by her mother’s suicide. The novel opens after Leigh has lost her mom, which immediately renders the story arc on a trajectory between grieving and healing. Shortly after the death, Leigh is visited by a large red bird who brings her gifts and a note. Leigh comes to believe that the bird is her mother and that the gifts are clues to family secrets that may explain why her mother suffered so much. Leigh and her father travel to Taiwan to visit with her maternal grandparents, and Leigh experiences her Taiwanese heritage, including its Buddhist and Taoist elements, while gaining some clarity about who her mother was, who her grandparents are, and – ultimately – who she is herself.

Pan’s debut novel is a liminal narrative. The storyline weaves between grieving and healing, between America and Asia, between then and now, between this life and the next. The discourse is liminal as well. Pan writes from her experience as an Asian-American, but her protagonist Leigh is bi-racial and feels isolated and out-of-place almost everywhere. She is ‘othered’ throughout the novel; a boy at her school refers to her as exotic, and the Taiwanese people she encounters call her “mixed blood” (hunxie).

The Buddhist aspects of the novel are liminal too. Leigh had been exposed to family altars and bodhisattva images but did not know about Taiwanese Buddhist death practices, such as the burning of joss paper crafts or the 49 days of liminality between the previous life and the next rebirth. This liminal period becomes a temporal framework for the story.

One of the strongest aspects of Pan’s novel is the way she tackles mental illness and contemporary discourse (and stigmatization) around mental illness. This aspect is made very poignant in Chapter 10, when Leigh thinks:

“I can’t stop myself from wondering about the physical pain of the experience. I try to imagine suffering so hard that death would be preferable. That’s how Dr O’Brien explained it. That Mom was suffering.

Suffering suffering suffering suffering suffering.

The word circles around in my head until the syllables lose their edges and the meaning warps. The word begins to sound like an herb, or a name, or maybe a semiprecious stone. I try to think of a color to match it, but all that comes to mind is the blackness of dried blood.

I can only hope that in becoming a bird my mother has shed her suffering.”  Chapter 10 Loc 516 of 5168, Kindle edition

As the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, suffering is the problem of the human condition, and also the description that a psychiatrist attached to Dory’s therapy-resistant depression. Pan does not shy away from writing about depression and suicide and how this disease affects individuals and families alike. She writes in her Author’s Note:

“I grew up witnessing firsthand the effects of depression, and watching how my family let the stigma surrounding it become one of the darkest, stickiest traps. That stigma is perpetuated by not talking.” Author’s Note, Loc 5093 of 5168, , Kindle edition

This stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide is an important contemporary issue that Pan tackles in her novel, and she is surprisingly vocal about her perceived greater intensity of this stigma for Asian families. In fact, in another debut novel interview on the website hellogiggles, Pan suggests that the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is “5000 times worse in Asian families.” Her first YA fiction book should go some way to breaking down the stigma of silence surrounding mental illness and suicide, and Pan and her publishers make sure to provide real-life (not magical realism) resources for suicide prevention and for suicide loss survivors after her Author’s Note. In this way, Pan’s novel functions as a Buddhist act of compassion, as a gift of dana to her readers. 

This novel will stay with me for a long time, and I have already recommended it to adults and teens alike. I would even assign this novel in a university level syllabus, especially in a course on death and dying. Put this novel on your list of books to read sooner than later. Purchase the hardcover, ebook, or audiobook:
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