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.
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.