Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tell a Thousand Lies...And See What Happens

This week I'm happy to review Rasana Atyeya's hard-to-tear-the-eyes-from first novel, which was shortlisted  for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2012.  Tell a Thousand Lies  traces the dizzying fallout when traditional Indian marriage plans run afoul of a rebellious young bride and a malignant politician.
Available as paperback and ebook
16-year old Pullama may be considered ineligible for marriage because of her tall frame and dark skin, but she's more shocked than anyone in the village to find herself being worshiped as a goddess.   (It's exhausting, sitting in state on that bumpy silver chair.)  She is not the rebellious bride, however--her twin sister Latta is.
The twins' grandmother, Ammamma, ably pulls off a trifecta by arranging marriages for all three of her granddaughters, despite her poverty and the demands of dowry--the goal of Pullama's marriage to the dreamy and long-suffering Srikar being to rescue her from the goddess setup orchestrated by the dastardly politician Kondal Rao.
Scheming is the MO of all the characters in the novel. Mayhem springs forth, from kidnappings to blackmail to revelations of secret relatives to forced husband-swapping. From beginning to end, the power volleys between  level-headed Pullama, the borderline Latta, and the buffoonish politico, Kondal Rao.  Ammamma's nuanced, complex, but settled character provides the reader with a welcome breather from all that intensity.
The story's precipitating event is Latta's desertion of a wildly inappropriate husband --or, wait, is it actually fired off by Latta's out-off-wedlock pregnancy, or does it result from the twins' older sister Malli's "bridal viewing," in which a prospective bride is displayed for the first time to the groom's family? --In a book this crammed with calamitous events, it's hard to keep track of them all.
I found myself  unable to stop reading, even as I complained about the book's relentless pace and the unconvincing, puppeteer villain. I'm still not sure whether or not Atreya intended to write a farce.  Still, she tells a whomping good story, and like the savvy Pullama,  Atreya knows how to reassemble her own broken pieces to create a vivid tale that won't let you go.
Possibly the world's coolest tree
Courtesy of
For the reader unacquainted with rural life in India, the book is eye-opening, rich in detail about a way of life that's prevailed for thousands of years.  Clearly, democratization, the women's movement, and pride in one's natural skin tone haven't yet made their way under the shadow of the banyan tree in Pullama's village.  Yet in the book's upbeat ending, Atreya assures us that women of spirit and intelligence can triumph over injustice, even if their "fairness creams" are ineffective.
Rasana Atreya's website and blog

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012

Snarky Meditator Insults Quakers and Lives to Tell the Tale

"You think that's bad?"
I posted something snarky on Twitter. (I know, it doesn't seem like much. But.)  Le Snark popped into my head when I walked around in stylish shoes after being in silent meditation for a week (featuring Birkenstocks, socks, slipper socks, monkey socks) in the Land of Enlightenment, aka the Insight Meditation Society.

I draw on tribal privileges here.  Just as Sherman Alexie gets away with lobbing hilarious shots at Native Americans in his Freakin' Marvelous short stories, I revel in the idiosyncrasies of Quakerism.

I wasn't going to tweet the possibly-insulting-to-Quakers-Tweet, but then I did. It is an experiment.  I'm watching my body to see how it responds to this moral transgression.  The Buddha taught that our bodies are the first part of us to register moral responses to ourselves and the world.  Can't say I've spent much time noticing that, but by golly! This is going to change.


I know, not a big deal. Sherman is laughing at me for being so effin' sensitive. Yeah, but you weren't raised Quaker, SHERMAN

Okay, Quakers can be hip and edgy. Got it.
Granted, most people won't be offended by it because Quakers have practiced modesty so well that nobody knows them.  (Knowing OF them is another story)  People might be surprised by my little snark. Quakers are all saints, right?  Not.

So far, I feel a nervous flutter in my stomach and an ohgodwhathaveIdone tension pressing from the top of my head and clamping my eyes.


What do you feel?  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Was T.S. Eliot Inspired by "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"?

Feeling the blogging itch; but after my retreat at Insight Meditation Society, I am so backed up with W*o*R*k! there's little time to post.

Here's what I got:

This quotation from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets ("Burnt Norton" section V) feels like it was scooped from the air in the IMS meditation hall:  

Words move, music moves
Only in time: but that which is only living
Can only die.  Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

On a practical level, this translates into an interesting observation: When people do walking meditation very slowly, they look like the zombified actors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  It was a little distracting at first.  Of course, rather than being taken over by aliens, my fellow meditators were becoming more fully themselves.
This lady is either close to Nirvana or she's in big trouble.

Friday, February 17, 2012

On Generosity in Self-Promotion


On an Internet forum, I ran across a serious discussion by blogger/writers about using search engines and key words to identify HoT! cUrReNT! topics so they can write about them and get lots of readers/sales/recognition/money.   Whatever.

What happened to,um, having something to say?  But I admit I feel the impulse.This modern-post-modern-rationalist-whatever publishing environment can feel like a popularity contest. More on artist Gwyneth Leech next time!
I think the key to being noticed has to be generosity.  Generosity and being a savvy marketer.  "The main point," says Pema Chodron, "isn't so much what we give, but that we unlock our habit of clinging."  A poet I know insisted so often that "Editors don't want me. No one's interested in what I have to say," that he talked himself into not writing.  He clung to his pride, but at a cost to himself. 

Generosity means reaching out: Thanking anyone who praises your work, however insincere you might think they are; sending the email; writing the note; evaluating someone else's work; learning to navigate social media if you feel pulled in that direction; being content with small gains. Writing to people whose work you admire...  

Etc.  What have I missed? How does generosity work for you?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is "Happy Writer" an Oxymoron?

If I ain't happy now, I'm not going to be happy when I'm "successful."  Because apparently, being a successful writer is a formula for misery.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Lev Raphael describes "a contemporary writer whose first novel was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold 500,000 copies. That's the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for...This author... turned out to be very unhappy. Why? He hadn't gotten a Pulitzer nomination, and couldn't let go of the disappointment and frustration."

From "Nobody will publish me" to "I can't get nominated for a Pulitzer," writers are...Whiny?

"Illegible." Now that's an unkind cut.
Do Men Have It Better?
Raphael cites Roxane Gay's trenchant observations on Salon  that male authors in fact receive more attention than female authors.  (She points the finger at him, BTW.) Gay also states, "The (gender) disparit(ies)...are significant and worth examining, but we’re talking about such rarified air (when it comes to highly successful authors) that it’s difficult to make broad conclusions."  In other words, most of us barely make the auditions, let alone being sent to Hollywood for the real competition. 

I'm Not Asking for Much...Just a Billboard on Times Square
As Gay says, "All we (writers) want is everything."  No gender distinction there.

Perhaps it's a blessing to be as little known as I am.  In order to KEEP GOING and get the work done, I can't afford to indulge in jealousy & toxic mental comparisons--and I need to deeply treasure every gift of affirmation a reader gives me. (Thank you! You know who you are!)

What is Success?
So how do I see myself in the illustrious glow of our unnamed friend in the first paragraph who has not only attained critical acclaim, but untold riches (and who probably lives in a really cool apartment with a sub-zero fridge from which emerge the artisan cheeses he serves at the fabulous parties he throws for other fabulous authors I wouldn't dare 'friend' on Facebook)?  After all, I'm writing and publishing; and some people actually really like my stuff.

And how do you see yourself in the light of other people's success (or lack thereof)?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Jess Row, of Best American Short Stories, 2011: On Spirituality and Writing

Recently I had the privilege of conducting an email interview with Jess Row, whose story "The Call of Blood" is in Best American Short Stories, 2011.

What is your religious background, if any, and what led you to Zen practice?
I was raised a Unitarian Universalist. My parents were brought up more or less as Presbyterians, though more in the cultural sense than in the sense of regular churchgoing. It was a mostly secular and liberal household with strong Calvinistic undertones. I started practicing Zen when I was in college and searching for a tradition that made sense to me on my own terms. I was suffering a lot at the time, emotionally, and the Buddhist focus on the nature of suffering spoke to me. And I loved a silent practice that anyone could do. Unitarianism, as most people know, is an extremely talky religion...and also very much wedded to a certain cultural and socioeconomic milieu, outside of which it makes no sense at all. I was looking to escape that milieu, and so I found Zen practice. Of course, that process of "escape" is very questionable and also self-defeating, as I discovered later, but at the time it was the only trajectory I had.
Do you consider writing a spiritual practice? 
 Not exactly. I find my writing complementary to my religious life in some ways, but I don't feel that there's anything inherently religious about writing—to the contrary, in fact. I do think that Zen practice and Buddhism in general offers me a great deal of helpful insight into how to deal with the uncertainties of my writing life, but those insights are available for any vocation. 

 Does your meditation practice inform your writing practice...and vice versa?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MonkeyBrains: Oh, Yeah? Zat so?

This week someone challenged me about my  beliefs, saying that clinging to our cherished beliefs is the cause of much suffering. She wasn't referring so much to belief systems or religion, but bread-and-butter beliefs.  I'm pondering this, and I think it's true.

Some examples: "I didn't sleep well, so I won't have a good day."  "I can't find my keys. This is a disaster." "This guy is always a bore." "My friend just landed a book contract.  I can't get anyone to read my stuff."  Often these thoughts are triggered by some small perception--the sight of mud ground into the carpet "means" that I'm not staying on top of things, that that house is somehow decaying around me...

Everyone has their own beliefs and their own triggers...I've only been up for about an hour, and I've already "believed" myself into a bad mood!  Gotta take a walk and think about this!

Just because I always land in these situations doesn't make me a sewer rat!

Monday, January 9, 2012

He understood me, he said.  My pastor knew why I was drawn back to the silent meetings of Quakerism after years of churchgoing. I had been abused by adults as a kid and therefore had an "issue" with authority.  Quakers are "anti-authoritarian." Ergo.

Actually, I was simply famished from all the words. So much talk in church!  Silence is nourishing.  There's a place much deeper than than the mental fitness center where we process events through words or images.

Silence is also scary.   Hence "an awkward silence followed" and "Freddy gave me the silent treatment" and "Shhh in the library" and (when I was a kid) "children should be seen and not heard."  If you Google "Democrats silent" or "Republicans silent" you'll find that the American political system is hiding under the bed with tape over its mouth.

Why is it up to religious people to set the record straight on silence? A Catholic website declared in October that "Vatican Spokesman Discusses Value of Silence."  It's not a religious thing.  It's just...silence.

"In truth this "Internet" baffles me" GF, 1697
George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, went to a meeting where people were having all kind of arguments about God.  He kept his mouth shut: "I sate on a haystack and spake nothing for some hours, for I was to famish them from words."  When he did speak, it was electrifying. 

When you're struggling with a problem, sit in silence.  Focus on something neutral or pleasant--your breathing, or the sleeping cat.  (Play this Funeral March for a Deaf Man by Alphonse Allais.  Okay, that's a joke)  Keep silent for five or ten minutes.

See what shifts.