Tag Archives: Buddhist Fiction

Stranger than Fiction: Rereading THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT by Kim Stanley Robinson

Rice and SaltIt’s been a year since I’ve posted here. A long year. A year of journeys and joys, a year of surprises and sorrows. And now we are at the intersection of a time and place that seems stranger than fiction. Except I feel like I have read a similar story . . .

During this unprecedented global pandemic that has inaugurated our new decade of 2020, I have been drawn to reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Robinson’s novel presents his reader with an alternative history: what would our world look like if over 90% of Europeans had died during the 7th century onslaught of the Bubonic Plague? In this surreal science fiction novel, he posits that Chinese Buddhism and Islam would fill the power void which in our reality was held by Europe and Christianity.

The novel is organized in ten “Books” that span more than twelve hundred years, from the 7th century to the turn of the 21st century. The storyline is linked together by rebirths of characters, and reborn characters are identified by the same first letter of their name in each successive book. The iconic character Monkey from the vernacular Chinese novel Journey to the West (16th century, Ming Dynasty) is the progenitor of this rebirth pedigree chart. This first chapter, especially, reads as if it is a post-modern continuation of author Wu Cheng’en’s fictional (quasi-historical?) retelling of the pilgrimage of the real monk Xuanzang’s journey from China to India in search of Buddhist texts. In the novel Journey to the West, the protagonist Tripitika goes on a journey with his disciples – including the character Sun Wu-kong the Monkey – from China to India in search of Buddhist teachings (sūtras) to propagate in the East upon their return. Sun Wu-kong (Monkey) translates to “awake to emptiness.” Robinson begins his novel with “Book 1: Awake to Emptiness” thusly:

“Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitika through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China.     Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame.”

The character Bold (Monkey) in The Years of Rice and Salt is a true rebirth of the character Monkey from Journey to the West. The name choice Bold Bardash is significant in this iteration of Monkey’s story, but I will leave it to your reading of the novel to come up with your own interpretation. For now, I wish to point out the meta-nature of Robinson’s science fiction. The real monk Xuanzang, whose pilgrimage from China to India and back inspired Journey to the West, brought back many texts from India and translated them from Sanskrit into Chinese over decades of work. The most famous of these texts is the Heart Sūtra (short for The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra). And in the fictional pilgrimage of Journey to the West, the Heart Sūtra is given to Tripitika and Monkey as a companion and guide for their journey. So it is not surprising when the character Bold (Monkey), in Book 1 of The Years of Rice and Salt, invokes the Heart Sūtra to help him through the shock and trauma of a dark discovery. While out on a reconnaissance mission to the west, Bold and his troop come across “a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind.”

“It was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sūtra to himself. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!”

Bold (Monkey) has known the sūtra for many lifetimes, and in this scene uses it to try and comprehend the sheer void of life created by the plague he encountered. This is another reason why the chapter is entitled “Awakening to Emptiness.” Bold awakens to the emptiness caused by a plague that killed over 90% of the population of people in Europe. His journey to “the West” in this rebirth is potentially lethal. During the ride back to the military camp from the plagued towns and cities, Bold conjectures whether he will die of the plague.

“Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them.”

It was at this point in my rereading that this fictional story seemed all too real. How many times in the early days of the current pandemic did I think, nonchalantly, the novel corona virus would be like SARS or MERS and never make a journey to the west. But we are such a small world now. And how many people have we heard comment that, even as the virus traveled the globe and reached pandemic proportions, they may be somehow immune? Bold was not immune to the effects of the plague in his story. While he did not catch it and die from it, he suffered the aftermath of decimated populations. Right now, if we are lucky, we are Bold (Monkey). And yet he suffered greatly.

While returning eastward to Temur’s camp, the plague followed Bold and his fellows. Robinson describes it in the form of an enormous wall of cloud that “reared up the western half of the sky. Like Kali’s black blanket pulling over them, The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.”

Robinson deftly characterizes the plague as Kāli, a Mahavidya (Tantric goddess of great wisdom), a Vajrayogini (literally, diamond female yogi, a female Buddhist deity), and always the fearsome Kālikā, a Shakti goddess of chaos and creation. I can think of no better personification. COVID-19 has certainly caused death and chaos across the world. And I wonder how our world will look in the aftermath. Will we learn anything? Will we take the opportunity to resume life in a more thoughtful way? Will we be better humans? Will we change negative patterns, not just individually but as whole societies?

Now, as the days become fluid, imperceptibly rolling into and out of each other, everything seems like a science fiction novel. Watching the pandemic proliferate from a shelter-in-place, socially distanced perch seems too surreal. But it’s all too real. So many are suffering from the pandemic’s path of destruction that this seems like the perfect time for a story that invokes the Heart Sūtra as a balm to the chaos of Kāli. As I pause to marvel at how Robinson’s ingenious, interdiscursive transmission of Buddhism across global social imaginaries is an all too appropriate science fiction novel for our times, I too invoke the phrase: “Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!” and pray:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred. (Metta Sutta)

And to this I would add, for our unprecedented times, may all beings be safe.

 

* All novel excerpts are from Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel. Reprint edition. Spectra, 2003.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Johnson’s Buddhist Fiction

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

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

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

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

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. **

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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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