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.