Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

9 August, 2009

I’m Leaving in a Mini-Van

The mini-van is actually a clapped out jalopy. When I take her into the local Firestone place down the street for inspection she is tucked way in the back. Parked, I kid thee not, next to the dumpster. People who are car-proud usually keep them sticker-free. Here are some photographs of the crazy stickers on the back of mine.

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Anyway, I’m leaving in this Mini-Van today and heading out to the place in America where, I hope, when I am dead, my ashes will be scattered: Bread Loaf in Ripton, VT. This is where, for the past five years, I have had the enormous good fortune of attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It is the first place where I ever sat in a workshop – which ended up resulting in the beginnings of my first novel. It is the place where I grew most into the parts of myself that I love, in my writing as well as in my personal life. The place where I felt completely at home and affirmed for the best iterations of my personality and where whatever was dark could be laid to rest. I will try to blog from there but I cannot promise to do so; there is an inviolable trust among its participants that I am not willing to break. But perhaps I will be able to write about the impact of a reading, a lecture or provide a guest post from a friend or two that will communicate what it means to be there.

Bread Loaf is unique for the fact that it is a conference where writers come to be around other writers rather than to write. Of course people come to Bread Loaf hoping to meet agents, make connections, and get their books published – I certainly did – but sooner rather than later, this desire is replaced by the realization that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to fall freshly in love with the art-form. img_1077The campus is situated on a loaf-shaped mountain in the village of Ripton, inaccessible by cell-phone – unless one chooses to go and perch upon a particularly craggy rock in the significantly tall grass, but why would you? There are pay-phones of the variety that is hardly ever seen anywhere these days, and phones linked by a network in small cottages which ring with a sound that most people in high school now would never have heard in their lives. Few Bread Loafers use the phones, in the end. There is wireless access in some spaces, and people will send the occasional email home, but there is very little time or, indeed, desire, to communicate with the world outside Bread Loaf.

The conference takes place over ten days and is charged from the get go with a schedule that brings the campus together for no less than four readings and a lecture by its distinguished and relentlessly gracious faculty and fellows each day alongside workshops in poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction, and craft-classes and panels and special talks and social gatherings. Most evenings are also given over to late-night readings by the amazingly talented waiters and staff (to which group I have belonged for the past three years as well as this), its accomplished scholars and fellows (Jhumpa Lahiri was a fellow img_1116 – the year her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection came out), as well as its faculty. Readings in the famous, and famously Spartan, Little Theater, go on until around ten thirty or eleven on many nights. There are also themed readings in the Blue Parlor, handled for the past three years and again this one, by the talented Nina McConigley whose book will undoubtedly be out soon. And there are informal readings arranged by conference participants during the day. And parties, and meals and conference-wide receptions and dances all of which revolve around being with and around and about writers and writing.

If I had to pick the one thing that made the dream possible, it was this one place. There’s a detoxifying atmosphere to Bread Loaf. Being exposed to 200 plus incredible writers at all levels of their career is like taking your seat among the blessed. You get a snapshot of the literary exercise, the journey, from before it img_1345 began to where it will still go, before you existed and after you are gone, and it is both sobering and heady. How can you compare anything to being able to stand and read from your very small contribution to the literary endeavor, in the same place where writers like Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, William Meredith, May Sarton, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, Wallace Stegnar, Carson McCullers, and Edward P. Jones and a hundred others, have stood to read from their work long before they achieved greatness in their chosen field? A plain theater, hard seats, one light on a wooden rostrum and nothing but your words in the air, nothing but people who love words listening.

For me, Bread Loaf = heaven.

19 July, 2009

The Ups & Downs

img_6641The world is divided into two kinds of people. Those who are empathetic toward cyclicsts as they wend their precarious way on streets made only for vehicles of the gas-guzzling variety, and those who treat cyclists like flies at a picnic. I’ve been thinking about such things, lately, as I pedal my way back and forth from the hospital. I also find myself looking yearningly at other cyclists, all of whom seem a hundred times more fit and capable and at ease than I am. They are certainly more suitably clad.

I am rarely suitably clad for cycling though I’ve made some serious concessions. I don’t wear high heels, for instance, though I’d like to. Instead I shuffle about in sneakers masquerading as brown, real-looking shoes. I have to wear loose t-shirts back home, which means I have to wear them there. I don’t own many t-shirts, mostly because they come up to my throat and make me feel strangled, but after a few days of biking around in pretty blouses on my girl-bike rubike3feeling like a demure English maid of yore, I had to locate t-shirts. I finally hacked at a grey one a friend had given me (front: Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel). I comforted myself that this is, indeed, what writers do: they hack to make a story fit. I put on dangly earrings and sun glasses, but the helmet kind of kills the whole look anyway. The only thing that makes me happy about this whole disguise are yoga pants which at least bestow the wearer some shape!

It isn’t that bad, really. I get up every morning with an excuse hanging before me. It’s too early, you can stay in bed, you are allowed to be tired and unable, it says to me. I have to get past that road block and brush my teeth. Once I’ve done that and grimaced my way into the confounded t-shirts, I might as well get on the bike, so I do. Life is so much about disguise and performance. You get the right costume on (sneakers, t-shirt) stand before the props (bike, helmet), and the rest comes to pass. Which is probably why it isn’t good to loll around in bed or go out to greet the world on a normal day in sweatpants. You do that long enough and you become a slouch and a jock. I don’t think the slouch/jock life is a good one to get comfortable with.

But maybe that is just an inability I have to be okay with slacking off. That’s the other thing about the biking. I’m constantly meeting people who say complimentary things about me simply because I bike to the hospital. Those comments get under my skin and I think about them every morning as I zoom down the slopes (sometimes, just for the fun of it since there’s nobody to see, with ballet legs outstretched!), feeling like a fake. How could this be difficult, I ask myself, while the wind finds my skin every way it can, I’m going downhill for goodness sakes! Guilt washes over me. I feel I should stop talking about cycling at all since clearly I’m hardly pedaling! But then it struck me, surely if I’m going downhill at anytime, at least some of the time I must be going uphill too. But the uphills don’t register. All I see are the downhills. And the downhills make me feel like a fraud.

Which has, in turn, lead me to evaluate the way I look at myself, constantly seeing that which has been easy rather than recognizing anything that has been achieved with difficulty. It’s easy to learn to undermine ones own strength that way, and I don’t quite know how I became so used to doing it, but the bike thing has helped reset some of it. Monday looms. I’ll try to mind those ups tomorrow.

24 June, 2009

Waking Early

wakingearlyOkay, so this was supposed to be about conversations in Chicago about politics, but there’s time for that. I wanted to share this link that a friend posted on FB about the ‘Ten Benefits of Rising Early & How To Do It.’ which is written by author, Leo Babauto. Here’s #1:

Greet the day. I love being able to get up, and greet a wonderful new day. I suggest creating a morning ritual that includes saying thanks for your blessings. I’m inspired by the Dalai Lama, who said, ” Everyday, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’

Okay, so just for the record I’m not turning into (horrors!) a wishy-washing, touchy-feely, new-agey…..anything else?…..bore. Which is not to say that Leo is one. Leo has accomplished incredible things by simplifying life. I am far from that place yet, though I think some changes are afoot inside my head. But this post spoke to me because I wake up sometime after 5.30 now in order to get to therapy by 6.45 am. I wake up early because I decided to bike it there instead of driving. I chose the time of day and mode of transport because (a) I didn’t want to “wait for radiation” all day long as if it were the most important appointment of my day, and (b) because I wanted to do something healthy and right for myself and the world to counter the fact that I was going in to treat something that was “wrong” with me.

I am a night owl who now loves waking early. It is peaceful and lovely all along my drive which is only two or so blocks from Philly most of the way. I am moving slow enough to hear the birds, feel the air, admire the flowers planted around the many-roomed homes along the way – instead of cursing at their stop signs like I used to do. I make eye contact with other early risers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers. I sing as I go because those down hills make the songs burst forth. I’m not listening to recorded music in the car, it is just whatever comes to mind. At first I would sit back down on the bike when I saw other people, thinking they’d be concerned by a full grown woman standing up on the pedals, but now I don’t care what they think, I feel the world is big enough for their inhibitions, if such there be, and my lack of them.

There are moments when I wonder if this is “right” for me as I huff and puff my bottom up hills and/or am drenched by insensitive motorists on the main road, or worse, seek refuge like a child on pavements barely wide enough for cats let alone a bike and me atop). But what could have been a ritual that reminded me only of the impossible fragility of life and the way its end walks a heartbeat away from the conduct of our days, I am happy for the morning that has broken, and for the ability to bear witness to its coming.

Leaving a warm bed for that? Sure, it’s worth it.

19 June, 2009

Desi Writers Reflected in the Bean

chicagobeanIt’s been a week since I’ve been back from Chicago where I experienced a range of emotions. I got to be intensely frustrated, for instance, by having to look for a table as though we were trying to birth Jesus in a manger, and then having to wait an hour for no more than a pizza. I go to be bemused by my own interest in photographing my fellow-diners and myself as we were reflected in Anish Kapoor’s “bean” – more reverently named ‘Cloud Gate,’ – the giant polished steel-plated sculpture in Millennium Park that is like solid liquid mercury if such a thing is possible. I got to experience the happy oddness of being on a panel on politics which consisted of no less than four Sri Lankan (born in/affiliated) authors. More on that in another post, perhaps.

I got to watch one of my favorite things: a writer (in this case, Romesh Gunasekara), go from his ordinary life as an unassuming, gracious and quiet human being to embodying his art and electrifying his audience. romeshIt was too bad that I had to duck out after his first short story, set on a street in London where two men meet and are transported to the serendipity that might await them in an new life on Sri Lanka’s Northern shores. It was a marvelous picture-in-words of the possibilities people hold on to, whose very non-materialization is as important a part of their hold on us as is the prospect of making dreams come true. Romesh’s latest book is The Match.

I also had the good fortune of having deeply personal conversations with my host, Mridu Sekhar, who had opened her doors to me without ever having met me before; access to her food and room with a spectacular view and her lushly sweet and naughty grandchildren were add-ons. Mridu and I listened to Buddhist chants late into the night, and talked until 2 a.m. about the damage that can be done by kindness, the lasting hold that parents have on their children – she speaking of her father’s death, I of my habit of scolding my own for calling me every day, and about the way strangers meet and lift each other up.

bapsiprettyI have always been drawn to people who are several decades older than I am, particularly women – the more decades, the better! They ease my mind with their words and deeds, making me feel that I am not carrying some monumental burden on my own, that the world is being held up by someone with greater wisdom than I possess. Perhaps that is why my favorite festival moments were with Bapsi Sidhwa, who combines charm and wit and sagacity in a wonderful bouquet. I look forward to re-reading Cracking India now that I have heard it in her voice.

Meeting and listening to Amitava Kumar was also a sheer delight. He is one of those people who can be entertaining without being obnoxious, self-effacing without being condescending, and…there’s a third thing here since all things must come in threes, but I can’t find it. Suffice to say that his reading of The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri accomplished the difficult task of amitavaadmiring a fellow-writer with the kind of clarity that serves as a guidepost to other readers, as well as an insight into his, Amitava’s, world view. I also enjoyed, for obvious reasons, his decision to read his essay on parenting his daughter, Ila. Having said all this, I was also acutely aware that he is not the sort of person to be a boor to an aspiring author, or anybody, really, but that he would not mince his words if he hated what you wrote. Which can be very funny, if it is not your own – bad – work he’s contemplating. Lord, may this not be my lot in life!! Before I go, and on that note, here is a clip of Bapsi speaking about forgiveness in her novels (this is the first youtube video I’ve uploaded!), and although it isn’t complete, it gives you a flavor of what she is like in person:

Overall it was great to meet all the South Asian writers, to share our experiences and grind our various axes. But it is always the conversations that stay on my mind. I’ll post on that soon.

12 June, 2009

Kriti Festival, Chicago

First of all, I no longer love flying. I hate it. The wings looked like they had been painted in the air by a mathematically inclined seven year old child. They did not look substantial. It did not help that my first seat assignment placed a pilot next to me who looked clammy and said, “I hate doing this.” Give me the road, the train, my own two feet any day!

The festival kicked off with a rapid fire reading by a host of amazing readers, among whom were V. V. (Sugi) Ganesananthan who read an excerpt involving cadavers and ragging (hazing), from her book Love Marriage, and Deepak Unnikrishnan, who performed a series of shorts among which were the articulation of loathing and disgust toward a spastic pan handler described as being vaguely Shel Silversteinian (poetically speaking, not physically), a brilliantly evocative image, and a dying mother. It was easy to embody, in the listening, those feelings, the kind which are usually relegated to the shadowy recesses of our being. Quite an act.

I also enjoyed hearing Nawaz Ahmed, my friend from Bread Loaf and now headed to the MFA program at Ann Arbor. Nawaz has a sharp, edgy, naked writing voice, both challenging and imploring. I still remember the short story he read in Ripton last year during the wonderful From The Dark Tower reading, and I know that I will enjoy his work in the years to come.

I leave you with two lines from Rachna Vohra, a South Asian poet and spoken word artist, who performed an ode to love which was sweet and refreshing and over the top, kind of like my favorite drink, Faluda, which was evened out by a somber meditation on America’s war on Iraq. I close with two lines from the beginning of that work:

“September days have gone from
autumn leaves to nine elevens.”

And now, fortified by advil, neosporin and enormous bandages, I leave to get back to Stevenson Hall and to the pleasures that await.

11 June, 2009

Chicago bound

kritilogowhiteYuck. I hate leaving home just before I have to. Once I do, I resign myself to the world outside and generally have a whale of a time. I will be in Chicago – if all goes well (this is my version of the Moslem, “Insha’Allah” – if God wishes) – from this afternoon until Sunday, attending Kriti – the South Asian Literary Festival, where I will see some old friends, Nawaz Ahmed, Rishi Reddi, Ashini Desai, Anne Kalayil, and make a boatload of new ones. Check out their page for a list of the amazing line up. There is more information on my Events page regarding panels and readings in which I am involved, and if you are in Chicago, holler! I’ll be checking email pretty regularly.

For a change I’m packing light! Hmmm. Stranger things have happened in this world.

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

23 April, 2009

A Song

I am rushing off to catch various modes of transport to head to Washington, DC, but I wanted to share this beautiful song that I heard this morning. It is a song called ‘It Wont Be Like This For a Long Time.

I guess these are the thoughts that come to mind when leaving home.

20 April, 2009

Character

On my way home from a visit to the radiology unit of the nearest hospital – where, it turns out, I was a week early but which enabled me to pick up an x-ray of my foot for free – the woman in front of me backed her car into mine. She got out and said I drove my car into hers. We were both stopped at a red light, so the backing and forwarding was done at such slow speed that nary a scratch remained. The point is that we are both equally convinced (of course, I’m right), that the other person was at fault. But the more interesting thing is that because she got out of her car making accusations and calling me, “honey” (which is the equivalent of strangers talking to little kids at top volume as if they are deaf in my book), in a disparaging tone, what could have been an “oh well, but thank goodness” turned into an escalation of note-taking and insurance card handling and calling until what was left was this:

1. Two angry people driving off feeling worse.
2. Her walking off with my note book, handed to her in my own state of agitation, without a backward glance.

I can deal with the feeling worse. In the privacy of home there are many remedies to that – a variety of warm and room-temperature beverages served either in cups or fine glassware, listening to Susan Boyle one more time on YouTube. I’m sure she has a store of rituals all her own for dealing with such days, too. Maybe hers involves cupcakes and flowers.

But walking off with my note book? Why would a middle-aged woman living in one of the most self-consciously forward-thinking, family-friendly communities on the Main Line do such a thing? Because, however she’d like to spin it, it’s called stealing. It got me thinking about kids, parenting, civic-engagement, community-spirit, the things that go toward making a person a human being. As Theodore Roosevelt is supposed to have said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

I’m worried about the nation, of course. But even more about my community.

12 April, 2009

New York, NY

I’ve been away from the blog for a few days on account of a last-minute rush to keep several fires going at the same time – the heart needs heat and sometimes that means more than one stove, apparently! Anyway, as I hopped on the Philly-NYC bolt bus for the sweet price of $10 and gathered my thoughts, I realized that they were barreling relentlessly toward the time when I used to work in the city and commuted in everyday from Northern NJ. It was much easier to be here then, and though I left in the aftermath of 9/11, heading toward the differently salubrious culture of Maine, it was still not quite such a challenge to get in and out of the city. But perhaps it is not the city that has changed, but me. I feel sheepish about my inability to stop a taxi – how is this a challenge for a Colombo-girl?! – and head to the managed-curb outside Penn Station to secure one, allowing the crackling voice and piercing whistle of the old man there to do what I was shying away from: flagging a quixotic driver.

I ride almost the entire journey in silence, re-imagining my old life here, but, almost at the end, I engage with the taxi driver, fresh here from Florida, accented like us all, less unhappy than happy about NY. “If you ask me, do I like, do I not like, I will have to say, I like NY,” he says, finishing and ending his sentence with me, but pausing in between to talk through glass to other, less patient, motorists around him. And I am reminded of a beautiful song, ‘Her Morning Elegance,’ beautifully articulated and magically illustrated, by Oren Lavie. If you are in NY, look out a window and listen. If you aren’t in NY, just listen.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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