Tag Archives: Buddhist Fiction

Currently Reading . . . MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

Kimberly Beek is currently reading:

Jeanne Larsen. Manchu Palaces. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996.

Summer is coming and this summer I only have time for one “extra-curricular” warm-weather read. I may not get to writing up the review for a few months due to other writing projects, but that will not dissuade me from enjoying Jeanne Larsen’s novel Manchu Palaces (1996). In fact I’ve already started because I looked at the blurb and read the preface and before I knew it I was finished the first chapter. This novel opens the door, bids you sit down and be comfortable, hands you a cup of green tea and then unveils a world that is instantly alive with sights, sounds, smells and tastes. So far it is an evocative blend of “thus have I heard” with “once upon a time.”

Manchu Palaces is the third novel in Larsen’s Avalokiteśvara trilogy, preceded by Silk Road (1989) and Bronze Mirror (1991). The trilogy is unique because it does not follow the same character, but rather presents stories of how the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara engages in the lives of humans, in various ways, in different forms, and particularly in the Middle Kingdom. Each novel is set during a different dynastic period, so if read chronologically, the novels convey a sense of how Buddhism was lived throughout different eras in China. Here is the IMG_1581Amazon.com blurb for Manchu Palaces: “The Empress Dowager’s bond-servant, Lotus decides to follow a spiritual path through the Forbidden City and down paths of erotic fancy in search of [a] place called Mandala, where life’s troubles are left behind.”

Let me tell you a little about Jeanne Larsen. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Comparative Literature. She translates Chinese poetry and is a Professor of English at Hollins University where she teaches creative writing as well as an interesting sounding course entitled Literary Journeys. I secretly hope the course reflects the fact that she has traveled a good deal to nurture and support her creativity. She writes across many genres including creative non-fiction, essays, fiction, poetry, and translations. No matter the genre, her work reveals the growing influence of Buddhism on anglophile literature.

I will report back at summer’s end on this engaging tale that includes a girl named Lotus, a Tara statue, and courtly intrigue.

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Fiction and History

Often when I’m reading Buddhist fiction, or any fiction, really, I find I take note of the history woven into the narrative. Fiction always bears historical markers. Lately I’ve been working on a paper about Buddhism in popular fiction and how certain works could be used to help fill in historical gaps. For example, while there are many ethnographic and historical texts that narrate portions of the history of Buddhism in Canada, a comprehensive history has yet to be written. There is for Buddhism in Canada, as far as I know, nothing like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. I contend that fictional narratives can help toward compiling a history of Buddhism in Canada. Fiction relates history in a rich way, capturing the “emotional traces”* of lived experiences in a narrative form that is engaging but is sometimes sidelined by the political and colonial concerns of historians.51edF6FZirL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Since narrative history is akin to good storytelling, it is by far my favourite type of history to read. So you can imagine how happy I am to report that the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with the University of Ottawa Press, just published a new text in their Mercury Series entitled Choosing Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians. This work by Mauro Peressini helps fill in some of the many gaps in the history of Buddhism in Canada. Here’s the blurb:

“This book presents the life stories of eight Canadians who chose to convert to Buddhism. They were amongst the first Canadians to have chosen Buddhism, encountering this spirituality between the late 1960s and the 1980s. All became ordained or lay Buddhist teachers, having embraced Buddhist teachings and practices in their daily lives. The eight Canadians featured in the book are Ajahn Viradhammo, Jim Bedard, Albert Low, Taigen Henderson, Zengetsu Myokyo, Louise Cormier, Kelsang Drenpa and Tsultrim Palmo. The book is heavily illustrated and addresses the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana. The book also includes significant contextual material regarding the history of Buddhism in Canada and various Buddhist notions and practices.”

You can order the book on Amazon.ca or here: https://www.historymuseum.ca/boutique/product/choosing-buddhism-the-life-stories-of-eight-canadians/

If you have any thoughts about the connections between fiction, history, and Buddhism, please feel free to comment. Or maybe just see what you notice the next time you’re reading a work of Buddhist fiction. Even works of science fiction and fantasy have historical markers, because nothing is written in a vacuum.

* The concept of emotional traces in fiction is taken from Laurie J. Sears’ book Situated Testimonies: Dread and Enchantment in an Indonesian Literary Archive. University of Hawaii Press, 2013.

Dear Buddhist Fiction Blogger . . .

Since starting this blog in 2011, I have received many emails from authors and their agents who would like a book reviewed. This is to be expected for this kind of blog. What I did not expect was the number of authors who ask me for advice. Invariably, the advice requested is of two kinds: to review work to determine if it is Buddhist fiction, or to ask about suitable publishers for their work. At the heart of both of these types of questions is the challenge of categorizing and framing “Buddhist fiction”; there is no category for it in the publishing industry. Most library classification systems work on genre, and there is (as yet) no genre label for Buddhist fiction. I discussed this type of genre labeling in a previous blog post here: Bookstore Signs of the Times

In this post, my aim is to respond to these requests, however, I am very sure I cannot provide decisive advice. You see, for my academic purposes, the category name “Buddhist fiction” is a convenience that allows for the grouping together of a wide variety of popular fiction works across a breadth of sub-genres (mystery, adventure, romance, etc.) that narrate experiences of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) in a multiplicity of ways, times and places. For authors of Buddhist fiction, the category label is a challenge on two fronts: 1. Is the novel or short story truly Buddhist and not just a conflation of ideas about karma and/or rebirth and mysticism that is better suited to new religious movements?; and, 2. If it is Buddhist fiction, how does the author pitch the work to publishers who seem to want nothing to do with fiction about Buddhism?

Tackling # 1. Author Liz contacted me recently to let me know that she has already submitted to publishers a present day Buddhist romantic fiction based on a Lotus Sutra quotation.

Joseph McKinley’s soon to be published ebook The Bearer of Grievances will be available on Amazon on 4 April, 2016. He said that while the novel is not exclusively about Buddhism, he uses several Buddhist concepts and characters, including the concepts of dukkha and upadana and characters such as pretas.

Both of these authors have used what I call Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in their novels. When a 20th/21st century novel or short story incorporates aspects of Buddhist suttas/sutras, vinayas, abhidhamma/abhidharma, cosmologies, commentaries, philosophies, basic teachings, classic narratives (jatakas or the Journey to the West) or the writing of great Buddhist monks, nuns, or teachers (i.e. Dōgen), it is perpetuating Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes. This, to me, indicates the inscription of Buddhist ideas and concepts into popular culture and literature. This, to me, is Buddhist fiction. If a novel or short story is not using clear Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes but uses ideas of karma, reincarnation, or mysticism in a generalized way, I consider the work more in the realm of new religious movements because of the eclecticism of concepts.

Tackling # 2. Whereas I get very excited about Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in popular fiction, publishers may not. Author Liz, mentioned above, has not yet had responses to her novel submissions and was wondering if I knew of any publishers amenable to Buddhist fiction. I wish I did, Liz. The Buddhist publishing house Wisdom Publications has tried publishing an assortment of Buddhist fiction works, and rarely do these works do well in sales. They seem to try to publish new Buddhist fiction every decade or so, and the most recent offerings were in 2015 (see posts on Maya and Sid). In fact, it was Wisdom who first published works under the category name of “Buddhist fiction” with short story anthologies Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2004) and You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2006). The Buddhist publishing house is pushing the boundaries of the industry.

Author Ellis Nelson recently emailed me after the January 2016 post to plug her own YA Buddhist fiction: Into the Land of Snows (2012). 13542033As you may have guessed from the title, the novel is set in Tibet. According to the blurb, the protagonist goes to the base camp of Mount Everest and then finds himself on a magical adventure. Leaving aside the issue of Orientalism that accompanies many, many stories set in Tibet and that is extended into the marketing of said stories, the blurb for Nelson’s novel on Amazon says nothing about Buddhism. Amazon classifies this novel under “Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Philosophy > Eastern > Buddhism” and “Books > Religion & Spirituality.” Goodreads reviews, however, describe the work as a coming of age story that teaches basic Buddhist principals. Most publishers who think that they are tapped into what readers want will market books set in Tibet based on politics and spirituality, not Buddhism. I can only guess that publishers base projected sales on historical sales data and vague demographics. I wish someone would alert them to the growing demographic of Buddhists in North America, and indeed, in the Anglophile world.

That said, author José Vincent Alfaro emailed to let me know of his Spanish novel that was recently translated into English: The Hope of Tibet. He noted that it had done very well in 51U2jcS8yWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_the Spanish edition, and I noted that he is an “independent author,” which means that he publishes independently. There is a growing number of independent authors of Buddhist fiction, and some of them seem very comfortable with both digital and print independent publications. I would guess,however, that independent publication takes away a lot of time from writing due to the need for self-marketing. Furthermore, many readers feel that novels and short stories put into print by a publishing company or house are somehow “better” because they have been edited and vetted by professionals in the field of publishing. It’s a catch 22 (see what I did there?).

Author Marsha emailed to ask: “A lot of fantasy publishers are scared off by Buddhist themes because they feel there’s not a huge market for them. Do you have any advice for me?” She realizes that publishers shy away from marketing fiction as Buddhist. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice about finding a publisher or an agent. I honestly don’t. I’m an academic writer, not a creative writer (as you can probably tell from this blog). The closest I have ever come to publishing creatively was a very encouraging rejection letter from Vallum about a few poems I submitted for one of their themed volumes. When the particular volume was printed, I bought it and noted that one of my favourite contemporary Buddhist poets, Jane Hirshfield, was published therein. I was thrilled to have had my poems read by the same editors that published her poems in that volume. That is my first slight brush with greatness in the world of creative writing.

I mention this brush with greatness not out of any self-aggrandizement, but to bring me to my next, and last, point of this post. I knew who Jane Hirshfield was. Had I wanted to pursue my poetry writing, I would have kept writing and I would have reached out to poets like Hirshfield whom I admire and read. It seems to me what might be helpful is to use this blog, Amazon.com, Good Reads, and other easily accessible resources, to build a community of practice for authors of Buddhist fiction. Reach out to each other – published, not-yet-published, whomever. Read each others’ work and review it. Share information about agents and publishers. Put together panels and seminars at writing conferences and events. Talk to established authors like Ruth Ozeki and Charles Johnson (who, by the way, were established as authors before publishing novels that could fall into the category of Buddhist fiction). Talk about your writing. Talk about your Buddhist practice, or no-practice, since not all authors of Buddhist fiction practice Buddhism. Talk about whether your writing is a form of practice of any sort. Just connect. Good things come from connecting. And that’s the best advice I can give to authors of Buddhist fiction.

  • Thanks go out to my friend Rebecca for listening to my ramblings and reminding me of the importance of a community of practice, which will hopefully benefit the author readers of this blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I will leave you with this, dear reader: 

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

Enjoy!!! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview – Part II with Adam Grydehøj about his debut novel I HAVE NOT ANSWERED

by Kimberly Beek

As promised, here is Part II of my email interview with Adam Grydehøj. Since you can look at the last few posts for an introduction to his debut novel I Have Not Answered, I’m just going to dive right in to the second half of the interview.

Part II

KB: It is in the narrator that you most meld cosmologies, and I hope you can speak to the writing experience of this hybridization. For example, can a trow or dwarf also be a preta?

AG: Once I started thinking through the mindset of a preta and the fact that it would necessarily be unaware of its own nature, I got to thinking about what else a preta would be unaware of. It would be highly unlikely for a preta to have knowledge of the cosmology of which it is a part. But a preta would certainly wonder about the world in which it found itself. The novel’s narrator is immensely frightened by the world. Its greatest fear is encountering one of its own kind, which from a theological perspective could be the equivalent of the nightmare of the mirror with no eyes. Seeing itself for what it really is would cause a psychological break for which the narrator, in its unconscious state of heightened desire, is not yet prepared – this is the point beyond which the narrator cannot cross. We can see this expressed in the dreams that the narrator prompts in Innes, where the narrator – through Innes’ dream-eyes – is forced to repeatedly encounter its own image yet manages to trick itself into thinking that this image is always illusory or deceptive.

So the narrator and – we gather – other non-human spirits have created a cosmology to explain their own existence. There are Those Who Came Before, the Earthy Ones, and so on, beings of immense power on whom it might be possible to pin some of the blame for the damnation suffered by the spirits of everyday life. Personally, I don’t even think that the island of Foula is evil; Foula is just an excuse for the cruelty of the spirits’ world. Yet the spirits themselves contest and negotiate the truth of this cosmology. The narrator is acutely aware that humans have their own cosmologies: in a Shetland context, first pre-Christian deities, then the Christian god, then the Viking gods, then the Christian god again.

KB: If cosmologies are hybridized in I Have Not Answered, was it your intention that the Buddhist cosmology be the overarching cosmology in the novel?

AG: There is an overarching cosmology beyond the knowledge of the narrator or any of the other characters in the novel, and this is evident in the fact that the narrator is disturbed both by Christian prayer and by smoke from Buddhist incense. Religions are negotiated locally, but the cosmological truth is universal.
Since I am indeed imagining the narrator as a preta, the novel’s overarching cosmology is most definitely Buddhist. The fact that the narrator lives in Shetland does not represent a contradiction for me as an author because of this distinction between local explanations of the world on the one hand and the ‘true’ cosmology of the novel on the other. From this perspective, those beings that Shetlanders refer to as trows, that the English call fairies (a generic term), that the Japanese call yōkai would all be preta; they just would not necessarily be recognized as such. In this sense, the narrator is not a trow. This is just the only word that Shetlanders would have for it.

Here is a caveat: If Northern Europe ever possessed complex cosmological systems of thought prior to the coming of Christianity, we have no clue as to what these may have been. People today may seek to piece together mythologies on the basis of old written sources (all of which were written by Christians), but really, there is little evidence as to what people actually believed. The ‘native’ cosmology in the novel (with the crawling things, Foula, the Earthy Ones, Those Who Came Before) is all invented by me and has no roots in anything that used to be believed.

Even now, I have no idea what ‘fey streamers’ might be or what they may mean. They are simply mysteries. And they are mysteries for the narrator as well, who is constantly engaging in myth building.

KB: In your debut novel, you have managed to combine European myths with Buddhist myths through dream sequences, imagery and symbols. For example, I recognize the symbols of the chalice and the harp from Celtic myths. Is this merging something you did consciously and, if so, what were some of the challenges you dealt with when combining myths?

AG: Celtic myth, per se, plays virtually no role in the novel. Inasmuch as the novel’s characters discuss folkloric systems, they are discussing a Scandinavian-derived system rather than a Celtic one (on account of Shetland’s history of Norse colonization). However, in practice, various folkloric systems merge, and there are huge similarities between supernatural traditions from around the world, in part because, for whatever reason, peoples around the world seem to have very similar supernatural experiences, which are then explained on the basis of these peoples’ various cultural contexts. We thus have the taboo against the naming, the taboo against eating or drinking otherworldly food or drink, the taboo about revealing the existence of a supernatural lover, etc. across most of the world’s cultures. The symbols of the chalice and the harp, what do they symbolise? I have no idea. But for some reason, these are symbols that run through certain sorts of supernatural stories across cultures, without the necessity of cultural transmission (i.e. cultures come up with these similar or sometimes identical stories independently of one another). So in this sense, the combination of various cultural traditions was not difficult for me.

As I mentioned, the narrator is constantly engaging in myth building. There is no evidence that the narrator actually ever sees other supernatural beings, though it does have memories (or are they invented memories?) of a time in the past when it was not alone. Therefore the narrator is constantly negotiating its own cosmology and expresses that other supernatural beings are similarly engaged. Did Those Who Came Before ever truly exist? Who dug the tunnels deep within the Earth? Are there even any tunnels at all? As readers, we only encounter the tunnels in dreams, and there is a passage (pages 190-191) that suggests that each individual excavates his or her own mental tunnels in order to avoid having to confront his or her own inner truths.

KB: Why tell this story through a semi-omniscient, third person narrator who also happens to be a hungry ghost?

AG: I’ll be honest: This narrator was a real pain to write. By its nature, it needs to be both unaware of its own nature and unable to fully understand human emotion. It also needs to (wrongly) believe that it is not exercising its will in the world. It’s very difficult to make a character like this the driving force behind a novel’s plot.

Indeed, I’ve experienced that almost everyone who’s read the novel regards Innes as the protagonist. I guess I’ll just have to get used to that. For me though, Innes is the antagonist. We can feel sorry for Innes, and I don’t doubt that he loved Sal or, later, May (even if his love for May is a projection of the narrator’s own desires), but I would guess that Innes was a bit annoying even before he had his heart broken. It’s hard to tell since we only have indirect access to Innes’ thoughts (via his dreams and his writings). Innes’ role in the novel is to resist the narrator’s attempts to find an outlet for his will. And Innes actually does a pretty good job of it for a while.

The trouble for Innes is that the narrator is attracted to him precisely because of Innes’ misguided attempt to destroy his own will. Innes is not a random victim of supernatural attack. He is inviting this attack upon himself, and his very efforts to defend himself against the attack serve to further heighten the attack’s intensity. When Innes realizes that something is wrong with him, he seeks to starve his will. Yet starvation of will is, in the novel’s worldview, the ultimate expression of willfulness, driving the narrator to constantly reinforce Innes’ willfulness.

So Innes is only an interesting character in relation to the narrator. Innes is afraid that he’s sometimes wearing a psychological ‘mask’, but only at the very end of the novel does he gain awareness of the true horror of the situation: that he has in fact become someone else’s mask. As in Shindo’s Onibaba, it is unclear as to who is haunting whom. Fundamentally though, this is the narrator’s story, and only the narrator can tell it.

KB: Did you have an intended audience in mind when you wrote the novel?

AG: I knew that a good portion of the intended audience would simply be Shetlanders. I always wished that novel would have a Buddhist readership, but practically speaking, I think it’s rather unlikely that it will be widely read in these circles since the novel is only implicitly Buddhist. It is entirely possible to read the novel without engaging in any Buddhist interpretation whatsoever. Interestingly, the novel is being marketed as a supernatural thriller and as an example of ‘weird fiction’ (i.e. as related to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the concept of ‘cosmic horror’). Thematically, the novel is quite different from these genres, particularly in the Western tradition.

KB: How do you think your novel will be received in Shetland?

AG: I think that the content of the novel will be well enough received in Shetland, and some people will be happy to see a treatment of ‘trows’ that is not comic in tone. However, there’s a good chance that a lot of folks will be angry about the way in which I’ve dealt with the local dialect. I’ve basically taken aspects of the actual dialect and used them to create something that isn’t dialect – but that’s readable to a wider audience. This might not go down well!

KB: Your novel certainly goes down well as a work of Buddhist fiction. Like certain aspects of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize nominated 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being, your debut work I Have Not Answered is at the forefront of narratives that combine Buddhist cosmology and myth with European or North American cosmology and myth. Thank-you for the opportunity to read your novel, discuss it with you through email, and share it here on the Buddhist Fiction Blog.