Author Archives: buddhistfictionblogger

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!!!

 

 

 

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – White Tiger Legend by Hu Yuan Nabe

bookcoverThe novel White Tiger Legend by Hu Yuan Nabe was written for young readers, particularly those with a passion for the martial arts. The authorial pseudonym is a play on Chinese and Japanese words that begs the questions “who you wanna be?” The first-time author behind the pseudonym, Kory Juul, is an accomplished Hollywood visual effects artist who has worked on movies such as The BFG, DeadpoolAvatar, the Hobbit Trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and the Matrix sequels. He has also harnessed his visual effects skills to bring White Tiger Legend to the screen. The animated movie is currently in post-production but to get an idea of the characters in the story, check out the website http://www.whitetigerlegend.com .

Juul’s first novel tells the marvelous adventures of Zi, a young Shaolin monk who lived about 400 years ago in China. But it is more than just a young reader’s adventure story. Juul combines Buddhas, bodhisattvas and an understanding of Taoism with extensive martial arts knowledge, wisdom gleaned from a deep empathy of many cultures, and a sense of humour that bubbles through the story like a babbling brook.

Below is a summary and some reviews from the PR package for White Tiger Legend. As one of the reviewers noted, I wish this story was around when I was a kid! Enjoy.


“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” meets “The Alchemist.”


Buddhism is awesome. It is liberating. Everyone loves freedom.

But how do you present such amazing concepts in a way the next generation will connect? Knowing an idea is one thing, but breathing it and feeling it enhance your life is another!

It was for this reason that White Tiger Legend was written. It is a Buddhist sneak attack on the heart of every young adult beginning to fall into maya.  It’s time to dance again!

“In some ways I am disappointed this was not written and available when I was a child. This would have fallen into the list of titles that sparked my young and exploring mind to expand and evolve, and likely would have stayed with me forever.” – Xonrad (Goodreads)

Journey back to 12th century China, and discover the tale of Zi, a young Buddhist monk who loses everything – his home, his family, and the Shaolin Temple.  Armed only with his pet grasshopper and courageous little heart, Zi embarks on an epic quest for enlightenment and to become a Kung Fu Master.  Such an impossible journey can only have an incredible ending!

“The message in this book is timeless. It reframes many ideas that you might have read from various sources into a coherent and integrated understanding of universality. I firmly believe that this book will become a spiritual evergreen for many many years to come.” – Adnan (Amazon)

What a gift to learn such life enhancing lessons so early in life!

White Tiger Legend is now available in Audiobook, Paperback, and Ebook formats at Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Nobles.

quanyinshot zi cranegirlembrace

In the Spirit of Giving – MORTAL FRAMES by Aranya Devi

It is that time of year in the West when many thoughts turn to holidays and gift giving. In the spirit of giving, I have something very special to share with you.

Last month I received an email from Aranya Devi. She is an incredibly talented artist and itinerant Buddhist nun. Her approach to her practice is unique in the way she experiments with presence alongside having a voice. You can learn more at her blog, Boundless: aranyadevi.wordpress.com

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-6-13-51-pm

Ayya Aranya contacted me to let me know about an art book she created and wanted to share. Her creation, entitled Mortal Frames, is an imaginative pictorial and poetic narrative that voices her ontological experience to amplify aspects of the human condition. Granted, art books may not fall into the category of Buddhist fiction, but I can think of no better time or place to share her compelling work than right here and right now. Please click on this link to experience Mortal Frames:

https://aranyadevi.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/mortal-frames-sp.pdf

May freedom and peace be boundless for you during this season and throughout the coming year.

 

Review of MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

81mtixdw9al

Manchu Palaces
Jeanne Larsen
iUniverse, 2009
368 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

Way back in May I promised to review Manchu Palaces, a novel by Sinologist Jeanne Larsen, first published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. I guess readers could consider this an anniversary review since the book is twenty years old this year. I suggested to Dr. Larsen that her novels be reprinted in a digital format so that readers could more easily access these wonderful works. That would be a nice way to commemorate the first publication anniversary.

This novel is Larsen’s third in her Avalokiteśvara triptych, each of which features Guan Yin who complicates or moves the plot. The previous novels are Silk Road (first published in 1989, set in the Tang dynasty) and The Bronze Mirror (first published in 1991, set in the Southern Song), but the reader does not have to read these in order to enjoy the story of a young girl growing up in China that is at the heart of each novel. Further, every novel of the triptych has a fantastic, cosmic framework reminiscent of Buddhist jātaka and sūtra structures. Lastly, every novel in the triptych features different types of narrative perspective and voice and a story built with various genre styles, some modeled on Chinese literary genres or scholarly works.

Given such variety of narratives contained within each novel of the triptych, this brief review of Manchu Palaces comes with a caveat. The novel is so elaborate that I cannot convey all of the intricate, marvellous aspects of it in this blog post. Reading this novel is like taking a long trip to a foreign country and having such a profound experience that the souvenirs and photographs cannot possibly accommodate or express the lasting impression. What I can do is provide my favourite elements of the novel and hopefully leave Buddhist Fiction Blog readers wanting more.

But first, preliminaries. Manchu Palaces, set during China’s Qing dynasty, tells the story of Lotus, a young girl and sole heir of a well-to-do Manchu family of bondservants to the emperor. When the reader meets Lotus, her mother has died and yet through her grief she must figure how to navigate family tensions and filial obligations on her journey to womanhood. Her best option for a secure future is to marry well, but along the way she wins a commission as a maid-servant to the Empress Dowager in the Forbidden City, a place that will become her own personal mandala, of sorts. For Lotus’ journey to womanhood also takes a spiritual route affected by her deceased mother Cassia, bodhisattvas such as Guan Yin, and Confucian and Taoist spirits. Both Lotus and Cassia will transcend their current states if Lotus can only find a misplaced white Tara statue and its thirty-six lost companion statues that form their own mandala.

Whenever I am presented with such an engaging opportunity for imaginary travel in Asian time and place, I am almost always on the lookout for one thing: what is “distinctly Buddhist” in this narrative? The jacket cover of Manchu Palaces actually uses the phrase “distinctly Buddhist perspective” to describe the way Larsen examines human loss and human folly. And I think this perspective is achieved, remarkably so, within the context of the Qing dynasty Chinese setting.

Let me explain why I think it is remarkable that anything is highlighted as “distinctly Buddhist” during the Qing dynasty era. The Manchu-led Qing dynasty was notable for its multicultural population, in part due to its military and political sweep across the Asian continent from Mongolia to Tibet that brought other Asian ethnic groups into the Chinese fold. Europeans and Arabs were also trickling into the Chinese societal landscape through missionization and trade. So during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese religious milieu was made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, various forms of Shamanism, popular folk traditions, Christianity through missionaries, and even Islam. I’ve probably overlooked the presence of other religions in this list (such as Hinduism in small pockets of China), but you get the idea. Yet Larsen achieved a “distinctly Buddhist perspective” by using the Buddhist concept of rebirth to help drive the plot and steer Lotus and her mother Cassia on their respective journeys. In a scene that describes Cassia’s journey through the popular folk tradition/Taoist underworld of Mount Tai, Larsen intertwines the fate of Wu Ming, the creator of the lost Buddhist statues, with Cassia’s fate. The scene takes place in an underworld courtroom presided over by The Lord of Mount Tai, and as a bailiff presents the next case, we read:

“Yessir. Sorry, sir. It’s certain, ah, ecumenical aspects that have truly complicated the case, sir, as much as all these questions of motive and effects. That’s why I’ve held off, pending clarifications. Certain Buddhist . . . personages have been inquiring into the situation. Seems they’re chiefly concerned about the mandala statues for some reason, sir. Want them reunited, sir, and delivered to their intended home in the Five Crest Mountains. Word came from Avalokiteshvara—”

Guan-yin’s in on this?” Great bulging eyes roll as exasperation washes over that green face. “Well now. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Mustn’t forget that.” Lord Mount Tai chortles, though Cassia’s not sure she sees the joke.

[Lord Mount Tai considers sending Wu Ming to clean up the mess he made and reunite the statues.]

“And I believe,” he adds, “I can leave it to my Buddhist colleagues to decide whether the collected statues are to be consecrated in that temple at Five Crests anyway, or what. Given the desecration. Imagine!” . . . . He raises his oblong gavel. “You are condemned to return to earth and see that all those statues of yours are gathered up and taken—”

“Oh let me, let me!” With those words, Cassia dashes forward from her nebulous location . . . . “I believe, your Majesty, that I know already where one of the statues is . . . ”

[Cassia and Wu Ming are sent back to earth as ghosts to achieve their mission]. Manchu Palaces, pp. 91 – 93.

What Larsen has managed to do in this scene is imagine the syncretism of Chinese religions in a way I could never have envisioned until reading her novel. For years I have struggled with getting my head around just how Chinese ancestor veneration worked in conjunction with Buddhist concepts of rebirth into other realms. This imagined account highlighted Buddhism’s role in Qing dynasty culture while maintaining the integrity of syncretism among Chinese religions.

Moreover, Buddhist interdependence must be at the heart of the structure of Manchu Palaces, because the plot is highly intricate. Sometimes I had to backtrack in my reading to make connections or ensure I didn’t miss an important piece of information because of the many narrative threads that are well interwoven. Still, Larsen knows how to situate a reader. Many times in the novel she switches narrative perspective, from third person to first person, and back again. Sometimes in a third person narrative voice the reader is addressed as “Reader” or “kindly reader”, thus forming a coy meta-narrative hinting at the creative relationship between author and reader. And her prose is so silky and such a pleasure to read that the need for review was a minor trial. I was always quickly soothed with paragraphs like this:

“A warm breeze comes up like a blessing from the Southern Sea. Surely this much is true—call it delusion, call it karma, call it free will and human perversity, call it the zigs and zags of narrative complications or tangled chains of psychological cause and effect: Neither storyteller nor incarnate being travels an easy straight-line road” (Manchu Palaces, p. 223).

The various narrative perspectives and different narrative voices give the novel a breadth and depth that reflect Larsen’s own dynamic acuity for Chinese culture, history and literature. Manchu Palaces is categorized as a fantasy due to the cosmic elements of the plot, but perhaps due to its narrative perspectives and voices, I read the novel as a work of historical fiction that brought past eras and unfamiliar locations to life. Manchu Palaces will be well received by any reader looking for an engaging story that could fall into the genres of Women’s Writing, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, and of course Buddhist Fiction. Better yet, if you want to go on a trip to China and don’t have the resources to leave your current situation, just pick up this book here.

Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism: “Buddhism and Modern Literature”

buddhismI am very proud to announce the publication of my Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism article “Buddhism and Modern Literature.” It came online yesterday and I am excited to see how it develops over the next few years, since I am sure I will have to add to it as Buddhism continues to intersect with modern literature in a multitude of forms and ways. The citations cover Buddhism in modern fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, autobiography and biography from around the globe. Have a look here: Buddhism and Modern Literature.

And I am particularly fond of a reference under the heading “Literary Fiction” that our readers might remember from the Buddhist Fiction Blog:

Beal, Chris. “An Interview with Ruth Ozeki about Her New Novel: A Tale for the Time Being.” Buddhist Fiction Blog (10 April 2013).        This engaging interview reveals the Zen aspects, influences, and nuances of Ozeki’s award-winning novel A Tale for the Time Being (2013). Beal’s well-honed questions solicit deep and provocative answers about Zen Buddhism, fiction, and philosophy.

Another reference that might interest Buddhist Fiction Blog readers can be found under the heading “Cross-Genre Fiction”:

Beek, Kimberly. “Telling Tales Out of School: The Fiction of Buddhism.” In Buddhism beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States. Edited by Mitchell Scott and Quli Natalie, 125–142. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.     Beek examines the reception of Buddhist stories narrated inside and outside of Asian contexts by comparing the different reflections of Buddhism in Amy Tan’s Asian American novel The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Keith Kachtick’s Buddhist-infused novel Hungry Ghost (2004), suggesting the emergence of Buddhist fiction.

The whole bibliographic article contains over 80 citations to general overviews, anthologies, primary works, articles, dissertations, web sites, etc. that outline the depth and breadth of Buddhism and Modern Literature. If you cannot access the entire article directly from the Oxford Bibliographies web site, you can probably access it through an institutional library. Happy perusing!!