Sunday, September 28, 2008

Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

Reading the haunting lyricism of Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent. It is a book about people in exile from country, from soul, from love, from desire. People who ache for a homeland, a love, a friendship, a loved-one, a taste from childhood. How stories, food, friendship, writing, can fill an ache if only temporarily. The story strips the skin back, rattles the reader's ghost bones, dares the reader to find peace.

The main character, Sirine is a middle-eastern chef. Food, obviously, plays into the novel. Yesterday I made Mousakka, today cumin-infused lentils. Middle East tastes are like comfort food. Above is a photo of my daughter, Coranna, making her first Baklava. I made one pan for my book group and she made another pan for my writing group. Now what I want is a hot cheese-dripping Kunefe with milky vanilla salep to remind me of wandering the cold, wet cobble streets of Antakya in December.

Here's my Baklava secret:
Use crushed pistachios instead of the walnuts. Also, don't use honey, use sugar for the sauce. After the sauce has boiled and thickened, add lemon juice. The lemon juice gives it a remarkable tang.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Richard Russo

Magic, humor, and class were the topics tonight. In listening to the first speaker in the Portland Arts and Lecture Series, writer Richard Russo, I discovered much about my own self. And I thought much about my own writer's voice.

A magic realist Russo is not, but a humorist who believes that adults need to be reminded of the magic in our mundane, every day surroundings. Isn't that magic realism, in some small strand of its definition. In that, somewhere in the weary task of survival (in whatever form that takes, maintaining the loft in the Pearl or foraging for food in the wild), our brains find explanation for every gap in the continuity of our rational minds. So if we see a commode, to use Russo's example, in the yard, we decide that the workers are working on the bathroom. Our adult, linear minds do not allow us to wonder at the vision of a commode in such a wide open space. Writers, said Russo, make the readers see the wonder.

Humor. Russo is a humorist who finds the funny in the serious and the serious in the funny. He said that when he first started writing, he didn't know what his writer's voice would be, only that he wanted to be a writer. He hoped that editors would publish his work and find it profound even though it wasn't. I related to that. I fought my narrative voice, wanted a deep, thought-provoking, serious voice. When in life, I'm a goof. When I workshopped Secret of the Plains, the writers in my group latched onto my humor, and soon I realized that I could not fight that part of my personality, or my way of relating to the world. My writing is earthy, and ghostlike, but it is also goofy and silly just like me. Russo helped me to articulate that about me as a writer.

Class. When I was getting my masters, I loved studying Marxist Literary Criticism because it looked at class. I've always been fascinated by class, which is one reason I like writing about Nepal because class, or cast, used to be barriers that people wouldn't even question or consider crossing. Now it is messy and that has caused much tension in the villages. Russo came from a small work class New York town, probably not far from where my brother-in-law, Chris Russo, grew up. I know east coast working class, am a product of that culture. And so I understand Richard Russo's experiences and the moral imperative he feels about putting that lens of class before his readers. He touched on the fact that talking about class has become almost an old-fashioned notion, and he warned against such sentiments. I agree with him.

Great night.

Saturday, September 6, 2008



Washington DC, September 5 (ICT)—Taktser Rinpoche, the eldest brother of the Dalai Lama, passed away earlier today (September 5) at home in Indiana in the United States having been ill for several years. He was 86 years old.

Taktser Rinpoche - whose given name was Thupten Jigme Norbu - was recognized at the age of three as the reincarnated abbot of Kumbum monastery in modern-day Qinghai, one of the most important monasteries in Tibet, and was therefore already a prominent figure in Tibet's religious hierarchy even before his brother the Dalai Lama was born.

In the immediate wake of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949-1950, Taktser Rinpoche played important intermediary roles first between the Dalai Lama and Chinese Communist officials and then later, when in India, between the US State Department and the Dalai Lama during the protracted negotiations between Beijing and Lhasa surrounding signature of the controversial Seventeen Point Agreement - the document which was intended to give legitimacy to China's rule of Tibet.

Taktser Rinpoche was deeply mistrustful of the Chinese Communist Party's intentions in Tibet, and was a prominent voice advising the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet in the face of what was perceived as direct threats to his own personal safety as well as to the integrity of Tibet itself.

In 1950, when the Dalai Lama was still in Lhasa, Chinese officials attempted to persuade Taktser Rinpoche to travel to Lhasa and convince the Dalai Lama to accept the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet, even promising to make him the governor of Tibet if he succeeded, according to one account. Taktser Rinpoche eventually agreed to travel to Lhasa to see the Dalai Lama, but evaded his Chinese escorts on route and instead conveyed to the Dalai Lama his deep misgivings about China's influence in Tibet, and urging the Dalai Lama to retreat to the border with India.

Although a devout and dedicated follower of the Dalai Lama, Taktser Rinpoche nevertheless took a different stand on Tibet's status to his brother, calling instead for the complete independence of Tibet as opposed to the model of autonomy put forward by the Dalai Lama.

An extremely energetic individual, Taktser Rinpoche dedicated his life to serving the Dalai Lama, Tibet and the Tibetan people, including serving as the Dalai Lama's representative in Japan. Upon leaving Tibet in the 1950s and over a long and prolific writing career, he wrote several academic papers and books on Tibet including his own autobiography, Tibet Is My Country, one of the first books on the Tibetan experience to have scholarly credibility. He went on to serve as Professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University in the United States, where in 1979 he founded the Tibetan Cultural Center.

Taktser Rinpoche was a tireless advocate for the protection of Tibetan culture and the rights of the Tibetan people in Tibet. Each year - including this year prior to the Beijing Olympics - he participated in long walks and cycle rides to raise awareness of the plight of the Tibetan people.

He is survived by his wife Kunyang Norbu, and three sons.

Tsewang Phuntso
Liaison Officer - Latin America
241 East 32nd Street
New York, NY 10016
Tel: (212) 213 5010 extn. 11


When I first trolled the internet and went into the Multnomah library to research Tharu culture for my second novel, I felt discouraged. A couple sites about tourists passing through left more questions than answers. I questioned myself in writing about a culture I know less about than Gurungs who I lived with in Nepal. But, I enjoy a research challenge. Besides, Nepal is a country I know. There are people I know who live in Nepal, work in Nepal, and still visit Nepal regularly. Many of my friends stay informed. So, as I researched the Tharu culture, I sent out two e-mails. Just two to a listserve of PC volunteers and to someone I know who lived in Nepal and still works with Nepalese artists. The response showed me, again, why I chose to write about Nepal. I'm still getting e-mails of photos, stories, titles of books, names of articles, and even documentaries. There is a monsoon of information out there, and people who want to talk about their experiences, who want to share.

This is Damian Jones' site. As written on his site: "Aid Through Trade™ was founded with a desire to bring the artistry and craftsmanship of Nepali designers to a western market, while at the same time improving the social and economic status for the artisan groups involved." His is one person I met in Nepal who never let go of the concept of "service".

Another person whose involvement in Nepal has been lifelong, and whose opinion I respect is Laurie Vasily. Laurie is a member of UNMN and is still actively working in Nepal.

Though I haven't gotten anything from Ravi Vadlamudi yet, I need to mention him. Ravi was my neighbor in Nepal and has been like a brother to me. He and his family just moved to Kathmandu so I'm sure I'll be picking Ravi's brain. Here's an article about Ravi's clinic in New Orleans. He's in the photo in front of his clinic.

Finally, Cora Clark. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer with me in 1990. Now she lives an hour away and has been a great sounding board. Here she is still talking about the Peace Corps.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Dog Mountain

Every Labor Day my family has had the run of a private camp. Acres of trees, and just us. It's on the Gorge so we enjoy the vinyards and the hikes. This year my brother-in-law and I hiked up Dog Mountain while everyone else went wine tasting.

The trail split at one point, to the left an easier hike, to the right a steeper grade. Next to the more challenging path were several warnings written by past hikers. Chris and I pondered for a moment if they were sarcastic, but then at the written warning of dragons, we both nodded. Chris turned to me said, "this is the zombie trail." Note to those who hike with others, never hike with someone who is deep into a zombie novel--they see zombie apocolypse hideouts in every cave and dark cavern of the trail. While Chris scanned for zombie hideouts, I breathed in the pine air, and tried to imagine the lush trail in the heart of wildflower season. We kept a good clip and I felt warm and comfortable until we crested the top.

The mountain next to Dog Mountain is called Wind Mountain. We hiked it last Labor Day, and stood sweating in the still, warmth at the top. This, Dog Mountain, should have been named after a scavenger dog or dingo because it must have stole the wind from poor Wind Mountain. At the top of Dog Mountain, gusts ripped through my jacket and chilled the sweat on my back. Gorge wind is famous, and as we started up the goat sized ledge to the apex, I was brought back to Nepal.

My village was on top of a 6,000 foot hill just below the Annapurna Himals. The Himalayan wind blew against me on my hour-long daily ridge walk to my school. I didn't wear a jacket, because Nepalis didn't have jackets. Instead I would cacoon myself in a green shawl and walk as fast as I could. I got into pretty good shape, and my cheeks took on a nice rouge red. I also remember that, during the winter months, I spent my time running from fire to fire, and filling my stomach with the most scalding tea available, not to mention that I hate tea.

Not having a fire or scalding tea, we scanned the beauty of the Columbia River and decided to run down. Besides running down a mountain is good training in case there is a zombie appocolypse.