Tag Archives: Fiction

The Devoted, by Blair Hurley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:
INDIEBOUND | AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOKS-A-MILLION

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” by Doris Dörrie

Book cover - Where Do We Go From Here? Doris Dörrie’s novel, Where Do We Go From Here?, published in English in 2002 by Bloomsbury U.S.A., first caught my attention because a chapter from this novel appears as a stand alone short story in Wisdom Publication’s first Buddhist fiction short story anthology, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. In this anthology, the chapter does not provide a name for the narrator and main character, so I was extremely curious to find out more about the larger story. Since purchasing the whole novel and seeing the cover, I think I would have picked up the book based on the picture of a Buddha sitting atop a burger. Now every time I look at the book I think of the blog the worst horse, home of the dharma burger. But I digress.

Bloomsbury U.S.A. gives the following overview of this novel: “Meet Fred Kaufmann, disillusioned husband of thoroughly competent Claudia and father of surly teenager Franka. His dreams of being a film director have long ago been shelved for marriage and a child. While Claudia sells her successful vegetarian take-away out to a fast-food chain and buys into Buddhism, her spouse is trapped in the throes of a classic midlife crisis, made worse when a young guru and Franka find each other irresistible. In this hilarious and touching social comedy Fred chaperones his daughter to the meditation centre in the South of France with the hope that brown rice and hardcore meditation will cure Franka’s obsession. But as a bizarre set of events unfolds Fred embarks on a journey of self discovery that only a special kind of hero can survive . . . ”

I have to give credit to Dörrie for writing an entire novel with such an unlikeable protagonist yet managing to keep me engaged. Usually I can find some form of empathy with a protagonist but I had difficulty in this area with Fred. I think I kept reading because I wanted to see what happened next in Fred’s adventure, and because I like the way that Dörrie rendered all of the other characters, who seemed to have sense enough to leave Fred to work his way through his own mid-life crisis.

One of my favorite parts of the book is a moment of clarity Fred experiences at the meditation retreat. After complaining about meditating, about the conditions of his surroundings, and about life in general, Fred finally starts to settle and has what Oprah would call an “aha” moment. During meditation he sees a blackbird hopping around outside of the meditation tent, and he suddenly hears the dawn chorus. . .

“I hear it as if I’d only just been equipped with ears. I don’t know anything about birds, so I can’t identify them, but I hear them not in the usual way, as an incidental twittering sound, but as a unique occurrence unrepeatable in this particular form. This dawn chorus will only occur once—now, this very moment—and if I don’t hear it now I’ll never hear it again. I’ll have missed it once and for all.

Euphoric as this realization makes me feel, I’m simultaneously shattered because it means I’m forever missing my own, unique life—because I’m blind and deaf” (p. 138).

After reading the description of this small mindful moment, I was hopeful that perhaps Fred’s metaphorical blindness and deafness would disappear and he would remember to keep his eyes and ears open, to try to be present in the moment not only for himself but for the people who still, miraculously, care for him. Then I finished reading the novel and was left wondering if Fred learned anything at all. I won’t spoil the ending for those who want to read the book, suffice to say that it is modern and open (no closure here by a long shot).

So did Fred learn anything from his moment of mindfulness? Clearly Dörrie’s novel is fiction, but can it be labeled “Buddhist” and if so, in what sense? Why? If there are other readers of this novel out there who would care to share their thoughts on this novel and more specifically these questions, I would really appreciate your comments!

Can There Be Such a Thing As Buddhist Fiction?

When I start explaining to friends, family and acquaintances the locus of my dissertation project, Buddhist Fiction, I get a lot of interesting responses: blank stares; gracious smiles and nods followed by a quick change of topic; and a reaction range from polite curiosity to not-so-polite dismissal at the very thought that precious time could be wasted on fiction when Buddhist practice is so squarely focused on reality. To be fair, most people have never heard of this emerging sub-genre of popular literature, so I have come to expect such responses. Still, I continually question, and get the question, can there be such as thing as “Buddhist fiction”?

After learning of the genre label Buddhist fiction I began to search everywhere for it. When I found the first short story anthology of Buddhist fiction, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), I hoped for some sort of guidance or illumination from the opening portions of the book. The collection was edited by former Buddhist nun and fiction author Kate Wheeler who says early in the intro, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheeky way, that “You can’t just lump Buddhism and fiction together, and start talking about “Buddhist fiction.” I want to take my royal seat as the editor of the world’s first anthology of “Buddhist fiction” and say there is no such thing, or at least that “Buddhist fiction” is a rather strange and impossible category.” I was off to a bumpy start.

In this introduction Wheeler also discusses the danger of words and the juxtaposition of fiction with the real that inevitably comes up when faced with the phrase “Buddhist fiction.” She leads her reader through a history of her thinking about this sub-genre and how it could and could not be delineated. She talks of Buddhist fiction as a form of writing that “dramatizes the dharma.” Eventually Wheeler turns to her job as editor and relates that she agreed to take on the editing project “with the stipulation that we would not define what the nature of the Buddhist connection [in the short stories] had to be. Rather, we’d leave that to the writers, and they didn’t have to identify themselves as Buddhists” (my parentheses). So if someone is a Buddhist practitioner who writes fiction it does not necessarily follow that their short stories or novels would fall into the category of Buddhist fiction. For a bit more on this, see Daniel Burke’s November 23rd, 2007 article in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled “A Bevy of Buddhist Fiction Writers” (recounted here on the Buddhist Channel) Herein, Burke interviews celebrated author and Buddhist George Saunders, who recounts to Burke that while he “believes his religion and his work are inseparable, he’s not inclined to pen any Karma-lized junk food. ‘I wouldn’t write a story where a guy has an identifiable Buddhist thought.'” And here is the heart of the matter – identity.

If author identification as a Buddhist and a fiction writer does not help delineate the genre-category Buddhist fiction then how did Wheeler choose which stories to include in the first short story anthology of Buddhist Fiction? She states that the main criterion she rigorously applied was that every story be satisfying. I like her use of this word, as it seems to me a solid translation of sukkha, the opposite of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, dis-ease, or suffering (which in my humble opinion is not the best translation of the term dukkha).

In similar fashion, Buddhist practitioner, fiction author and editor Keith Kachtick takes up the task of choosing Buddhist fiction stories that “dramatize the Dharma” in You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. In his introduction to this 2006 follow-up volume by Wisdom Publications, Kachtick notes that from a Buddhist perspective (or his understanding and practice of it), anyone can be identified as Buddhist: “As long as you’re paying attention to now–this moment and no other; and treat the neighbors the way you like to be treated; and understand that material things–your body, your house, this book you hold–are sandcastles, destined, by design, to eventually wash away with the tide to become something else, you are Buddhist.” Kachtick applied the same ideas to his selection process for choosing stories that would be included in the second anthology. He states that “Without exception, all of these stories say with verve: Pay attention–this life, right here, right now.”

So can there be such a thing as “Buddhist fiction”? I think so, particularly because literati and interested readers are paying attention and applying the label to many different works of popular fiction (see the “Reviews and Lists” page of this blog). The more pointed and complex question about Buddhist Fiction I have been sidestepping is “how do you identify it?” Any answer to this question is somewhat subjective, based on the novel or short story being read, the reader, and the familiarity with or experience of Buddhism they bring to the reading. For now I will make use of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase: “I know it when I see it.”