Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Environmental Movement in China

Here's the thing about China. It cannot be seen as a solid red paint blotch on some map. For six years Chen Kaifan, has been walking around China fighting for the environment. Just as our dragon wakes, Chen Kaifang has logged in his 23rd province. Click on link in the title for more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I grew up in New Hampshire at the base of a modest but inspiring mauve mountain. Mount Monadnock is known as the second-most-climbed-mountain in the world, second only to Mount Fuji. Melville referred to Moby Dick as a Monadnock Mound, Thoreau used to climb it, and, growing up, I looked at the mountain as my sometimes inspiration and sometimes barrier to the world. I was an outsider in New England. Even when I went back to New Hampshire as an adult, folks refused to believe that I grew up there. Yet the granite of my personality was quarried from strong, New England pragmatism and sense. If someone as dreamy as me had grown up anywhere else, I would never have found balance. But, back to the mountain, when we moved to the farmhouse in Old Jaffrey Center, Monadnock filled our windows and her wind rattled their panes. I remember laying on the big rock halfway down our hill and staring up at the stars at night. Mountains are in my blood.

I was Peace Corps Nepal 90-92. Sheila and Andrea's Nepali host family called me a pahardi, a hill person. I don’t know if they meant it as a compliment, there was definitely a tension between the Terrai, flat land bordering India, and the hills, but I found a label that fit. I lived first with Gurungs in a small village, Kapur Gau and worked an hours’ walk away in Baglung Pani (which translates to hidden tiger water). At about 6,000 meters, my village was just off the Annapurna Circuit trek and occasionally a tourist group would come through. I enjoyed my transformation from craving the tourist’s company to months later squatting on the stonewall with the kids commenting on the foreign trekkers’ strange clothing. My second year, I lived down in Pokhara, a charming lake town with incredible views of the Himalayas. My Dhera was just down the road from a Tibetan Refugee camp and I would sometimes talk to the girls there about their troubles as outsiders in Nepal. I also bought things from them. Tibetans are good traders.

One last story about Peace Corps, at least in this entry. When I was getting married, a friend who taught with me in Turkey commented, “Have you ever seen Carrie look so happy?” A friend from my Peace Corps days smiled and said, “oh, I have.” He was right. I don’t want to say that my days in Nepal are my “glory days” and I certainly am not trying to relive those times, but the experience fit. Sometimes when I am walking with Cheng down the paths to a village, I return to that same happiness. I like to go there.

I moved to Portland in 2001, another city with grand, if not distant, mountain views. In 2002, I had my daughter, Coranna, and realized that it was time to stop moving. Perhaps finally settling down after years of living like a nomad or living in the mountains again, brought the Himalayas into my dreams. I remember staring up at a sky with no edges (to borrow a word from my Leora friend, David) when I was high in the Annapurna Himals. That sky overtook my dreams and pressed me to the earth until I couldn’t breathe. It could have been anxiety from a bad marriage, and I’m sure that did play a part in my starting this novel, but it was bigger than that.

In December 2003, I had taken a seminar on China, and was thinking about Tibet again. Ever since studying Northern Ireland while in College, I’ve been fascinated with cultures in conflict. I sat down to write a simple short story with a Chinese main character set in Tibet to bring some of that natural conflict in play. Suddenly all these elements from my own life and interests—alienation, brother/sister conflict, identity, journey, magic--showed up in the story, driving it much further than the required ten pages. I stopped writing and spent a year studying China and Tibet, building my knowledge. I found a way for a nomad to travel while standing still. In 2005, I took up the novel again and have been working on it since. Last year I joined a fabulous writing group, Leora, and my intent to craft something worth publishing began in earnest. Up to that, I was just traveling.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Lingshan, Soul Mountain. This is the first Chinese novel I read when I decided to begin researching China. I chose Soul Mountain because Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after this book was published. On my first reading, I understood the existential exploration, but the subtext and cultural implications of the main character's journey went right past me. After a year of research, I returned to this novel and was elated at how much richer the novel's message was after I understood the Communist government better. This is a rich, complex, and enticing novel. It is like a favorite hike, each time I open this book I find something new. It has been so long since I read Soul Mountain, but I know it affected my work, especially in regard to the sense of self and community, and the complexity of this relationship in Chinese culture. In this country we look for ways to celebrate the individual, but that would not work in China. The closest I can come to understanding this complex relationship is when I still feel Catholic guilt even years after leaving the church.

Connection, connection, connection. Individual power comes only through connection to the power elements in society. That's why Soul Mountain is such a profound novel, because Goa Xingjian understood this yet tries to escape the power structure of his society, by a journey to the most distant mountain, by taking on a variety of points of view, and by exploding the self. Even in the most remote areas, he is unable to shake society. He remembers an old proverb: "Existence is returning, non-existence is returning, so don't stay by the river getting blown about by the cold wind." Yet he stands by the river, looking across at the Soul Mountain, afraid to cross.

As he avoids the dark road beyond the river, society knocks on his door in the form of a friend asking for help to get his daughter into a university. The writer tells the man that the girl's strong exam results should be enough, but the man tells him "you're really pedantic. Do you think all those children of high-ranking cadres have passed examinations?" The author responds, "I haven't researched such matters." The friend answers "You're a writer." The author refuses to see the connection, and answers "So what if I am a writer?" The friend answers, "you're the conscience of society, you must speak for the people!" The writer answers. "Stop joking, I say. Are you the people, or am I the people, or is it the so-called we who are the people? I speak only for myself." And with this disclaimer, Gao Xingjian makes a final attempt to disengage. By asserting that he is only an individual. The radicalness of the idea nearly brings him to the end. The next man knocking on the door wants the author to help him publish his manuscript. The author gives him back his novel and decides not to open the door again, not to let society enter. Only by ignoring society, by pretending it is not there, can he finally "reach the extremity of life." He crosses the river, "slowly transforming, gradually solidifying into a dark moon tinged with blue."

हिमालयन Poppy

The summer of 2004 I traveled to Vancouver BC with my family. While in Butchart Gardens, I saw a rare Meconopsis Baileyii or Himalayan Blue Poppy. It grows in the Himalayan Range and is very difficult for the average gardner to grow. I bought a packet thinking myself up for the challenge, but the packet is still unopened and somewhere in my garage. Even if I found the packet, the seeds are probably no good. I've thought about buying another packet on-line and trying to cultivate them. But who am I kidding? Even in a climate that grows everything, I'm a terrible gardner. I live too much in my head. But, the blue poppy did grow into my book. So, in the metaphorical sense, I grew a Himalayan Poppy. That's probably as close as I'll ever get.

From the Anatolian Plains to the Tibetan Plateau

In 1996 I was traveling through the Anatolian Plains with my friends Marianne and Maureen. Each of us chewed on sunflower seeds and stared out at the moody plains while internal conflicts chewed inside us. It was during a particularly long bus trip to Ankara that Marianne had a dream. In this dream she placed all her troubles and fears into her sunflower seed hull and then stuffed the hull into the dirty ashtray in her seatback. She woke all excited about this idea and each of us concentrated our turmoil into the small space before grinding our hulls in the ash of many Turkish butts.

In the spirit of Marianne's sunflower seed dream, I want to take all the energy I've put into this novel and stuff it into this blog. Cheng's world has taken up an enormous space in my life and I'm not sure I'll be able to walk away. This is my first step.

I started work on The Secret of the Plains the last week of December in 2003. I thought it would just be a short story, but it wouldn't let go. Since then I've been researching, pondering, writing, and revising. For one year I spent all my free time in the Asian stacks at Powell's and the library and only read Chinese and Tibetan writers. I went to three different Buddhist Centers in town. I interviewed Tibetans I met at craft fairs, in the Portland Tibetan stores, and at Tibetan Festivals. I watched Chinese and Tibetan films. And I mulled over all these ideas, talked them over with understanding friends, and wrote and rewrote. In February 2007, I joined a group of writers, Leora, and began the last few revisions. It is now November 2007, and I'm sharing my last six chapters with Leora. I've begun researching my second book, and thinking about submission.