Posts Tagged ‘literature’

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

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.

5 August, 2009

The End

butterfly2The words, “The End” apparently only exist for the purposes of lulling very small and, presumably, unimaginative children, into believing that stories should only be entertained so long as an author has control over the words. There is no other place that I have found which can lay claim to those words.

We may die, but, as pointed out so eloquently by James Ellroy in an article that appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek about the death of a girl, Lily Burk, he barely knew, we live in our words, our work, and the thoughts and memories and commitments and photographs and circumstances of the people who have known us. There is, in death, often more life than the dead could have dreamed possible.

We may come to the end of a story and know, as writers, that the unknown sometimes leads us to pause at that particular moment, allowing the characters to carry on and leave us voyeurs behind. Readers reach the last page and look away, taking fragments and associations with them, using them as advice or warning, handing bits and pieces away in reference, praise or blame.

I have been preoccupied with endings afresh, or the lack of them, as I came to the end of my treatment. I realized that this new “free” time was defined, for me, not by the ceasing of treatments, but rather the loss of a series of rituals I had come to enjoy:

My morning bike rides where I have to decide whether to take the low or the high road, the way I braced for – and twice misjudged – the approaching pavement, the preparation for the last stretches of uphill paved roads in both directions as well a the anticipation of the downhill runs, the way I had to think up some new way to announce my arrival to people who shared the sidewalk with me (to whistle? to talk over their iPods? to yell? to creep along near their ankles? to hope for psychic awareness on their part?), the exhilaration of making it each day and the inward thank god when I come across the bar blocking the escape of cars in the parking garage which was perpetually untended in those early morning hours.

img_9657The way I glanced at the clock by the empty reception desk to see how I had done in terms of speed and the daily contemplation and religious avoidance of the stack of new cookies in the waiting room (yes, they are out by 6.15 am!) and the way I experienced network news on TV, something I have never done at home.

Most of all, my curiosity about the nurse who looked after me as well as tended to the application of treatments. She works two jobs, coming in to this one early, by 6 am, and leaving by 3 to sometimes do a shift at the second. She has a home she just bought, a family of parents and siblings that gather together on occasion, a father to help her with installing a window in her garage, a dog who can no longer see her working in the garden over the raised fence she had installed, a couple of weeks back, to keep him in. She has flown in a plane just once, to go to a beach with friends after school. She doesn’t quite like NYC, but she likes the Jersey Shore. She is good at what she does, but she is terrified of my physician, Dr. Weiss, and of not having me set up to her perfect specifications before she comes in to check on me. She clips up her blond hair in a sort of casual up-do, and walks with a slight side to side step, like a skater might do out of habit, which makes her seem tentative and child-like. She bought a bike for $20 at a garage sale and they told her she only had to get the tires some air, but she hasn’t done it yet though she hopes to. She “has someone” but she never said more than that.

I wonder what her relationships are like, what she does when she goes home, whether she feels the same antipathy I did toward the resident who came in to help during the last ten days of my treatment. She seemed genuinely sorry to see me go when she said she would miss seeing me early morning. She always had a question for me, and she never sounded like it was just standard OP. She moved my hair away like it belonged to a person she knew, she averted her eyes when I drew back the covers, she smiled and in ways I cannot quite describe, made it something we were experiencing together. I miss her.

Which is how and why, I suppose, the end is not quite here. A specific time period during which I had to undergo a certain form of death, of a part of me if not my whole, came and went. And yet I remain, she remains, and we go on in each others’ lives. That period came and went and because of it I am a little less quick to own the road as it were. A little quicker to remember what blessings still exist. And even more than before, interested in ordinary stories, the ones that tell of people going about ordinary days, where nationality and culture and personal history simply illuminate interactions and imbue them with a truth that points to the ultimate insignificance of those broad-brushed colors in the scheme of human life and death whose own hues are both feather light and brilliant.

14 May, 2009

Sweet Blood

Charles Rice-Gonzalez

In August of 2005, I met someone who would turn out to be my kindred soul, my brother from another life, and a friend unlike any other. It was my first year at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, that place of much beauty, equal pain and a creative energy that all but makes these things inconsequential. I ran into Charles Rice-Gonzalez in the famous “barn” where writers go to linger, mingle, read or be read to, and to dance. We were not in the same workshop; Charles was working with the inimitable Percival Everett, I was working with the equally formidable Lynn Freed. We met because, I think, the universe felt that we needed to find each other. Over the next ten days, we drank a lot of wine, talked a lot of dreams and shopped at TJ-Max. Over the next few years I had the good fortune to see parts of Charles’ other life, at BAAD, meet his amazingly talented and generous partner, Arthur Aviles, and enjoy his hospitality in their home in the Bronx.

We were lucky enough to meet each other for a few more years at Bread Loaf, to bond in the way that only people at Bread Loaf do, and discover our various commonalities: ironing our clothes with religious zeal for instance, rolling with the punches, holding the bad in until we could share it in private, letting the sunshine out. @ Bread Loaf

Charles has helped me be myself more than I had permitted myself to be myself, and he has taught me a lot about blooming where we are planted. But the one thing that he said to me that I have carried with me every day is a comment he made about our writing life. We were standing outside, the clear Vermont skies above, a cold nip in the air, the heat of a blessed life lighting us up from within. With a glass raised in a toast he said,

“No matter where we get to, when our books are published, and everything falls into place, no matter what happens, this, right now, is who we really are. We are the people who hang with everybody. We aren’t better than anybody else here, or worse than anybody else here. We are part of this journey. Let us never forget that.”

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So perhaps we were a little high on our creative life right then, or the mood was right for deep thoughts. It was sound advice then and it is sound advice today. For all of us writer-types, we are like the dusty starry particles in the sky. If you look up from below, we make something beautiful – some of us shine brighter, other less so, but it takes us all to make the whole a thing of beauty.

So today I want to salute a guy who has the talent and the guts to tell the stories he does, and the humility and wisdom to make him also a beloved fellow-traveler and friend.

Happy birthday, bro – may the coming year be good to you.

10 May, 2009

For a Mother I Once Knew

In my purse, I carry a note which describes the clinical condition of a woman I knew. Tracy was not a good friend of mine in any real sense of the word; I did not share my life with her, not ask her for any help. For one, we moved in different circles, for another, Tracy was in not in a position to help me except by example. She was the mother of a little girl named Tessa, whom it had taken her seven years to conceive. She was diagnosed with cancer when Tess was very young, and by the time her daughter turned five, Tracy’s cancer was terminal, and all of her will was bent toward staying alive for one more day.

I assumed that I could help by getting Tracy more information because I have always found that knowledge is my best defense. Furious at the fact that her treatment had been delayed, and certain medications not administered to her because she did not have health insurance, I sat down with her and wrote those symptoms down. But instead of calling him, I waited two weeks until that Thanksgiving when I ran into my brother-in-law at the time, an oncologist, to ask him what he thought about Tracy’s situation. He looked at the drugs she was on, explained to me that they were usually given when there was nothing else that could be done, but that in some very rare cases, patients responded positively to them.

I didn’t tell Tracy that. I told her instead about the experimental drugs that she might be able to access were she willing to try them, by driving from Fairfield, Maine, where she lived, to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She wanted to give it a go but, by then, her body was too far gone. Not long after, I stopped to talk to her as she sat in her car, waiting for her husband to pick up their daughter from school. She was so weak she could hardly speak. Thinner than it seemed humanly possible to be, and the fragrance of medicinal marijuana clinging to her, she had shown up, as she always did, to pick up Tessa, even if she could not herself get down from the car and walk to the door.

I saw Tracy one last time just before she passed away. She was lying in a bed that had been set up in her living room, with her husband and mother there to help. By this time she was simply receiving morphine so she could be comfortable while she waited to die. As someone who believes in the power of books, I brought one for Tessa that day, The Next Place, by Warren Hansen. I asked if Tessa would like to go home with me for a play date and it was incredibly poignant to me to watch Tessa climb up onto her mother’s bed to ask if she could go. It didn’t seem to strike her that her movements might be painful to her mother who was so wracked with frailty. Perhaps she knew that nothing she did could hurt the mother who had fought so hard to stay with her.

When she was told that I was going to leave, Tracy asked her mother to lift her up. She wanted to give me a hug, she said. I don’t know where she found the strength, nor what might have motivated her to try to do this for a woman she barely knew. Except that there was Tessa. I remember that I stood there saying, don’t worry, we will look after Tessa. I remember that whatever I said had the weight of a promise and though it wasn’t a request that Tracy had the capacity to make out loud, it was still one she articulated. That grateful farewell was all she could do for her daughter.

I meant well. But I moved from Maine. Tracy’s note stayed in my purse when I bought a new one. And Tessa stayed on my mind. One mother’s day came and went in the throes of selling and buying and moving and settling and bemoaning the mundane difficulties of a life lived with the blessing of good health. But this mother’s day, as I went through a series of medical tests of my own, I recalled once more my promise to Tracy. I called up the school she still attends, its tuition paid by her grandmother, to see if she was still there. I remembered that more than anything else, Tracy wanted her daughter to stay at the Kennebec Montessori School, within the inclusive, familial embrace of a high quality education transmitted by teachers gifted in the art of recognizing the unique nature of each child. Apparently, despite the loss of an elderly care-giver who had taken care of Tessa before and after school, her father is committed to her staying there for one more year. I am not sure what she will do this summer, but I hope I can find a way to help.

As a start, today, on mother’s day, I thought I’d honor both a mother of incredible courage and love, and keep a promise. I went out and bought a few of my favorite books, and a couple I had never heard of, for Tessa: The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster (David Conway), A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson), When Papa Comes Home Tonight (Eileen Spinelli), Incredible You: 10 Ways to let your Greatness Shine Through (Dr. Wayne W. Dyer), It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr), You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Mary Ann Hoberman) and You are my I love You (Maryanna K. Cusimano & Satomi Ichikawa). They are the kinds of books I imagine Tracy might have liked her daughter to have.

Tomorrow I will put them in the mail along with a note to Tessa. What I will say to her, I do not know. I know that she had read the first book I gave her many times, and I hope that these new books will help her navigate the parts of the world that are navigable. I cannot be like a mother to her, but it is not too late for me to be her mother’s friend.

16 April, 2009

PEN World Voices

It is a congenital defect (or strength), of mine, that I feel compelled to offer myself up where I feel I could be of some use. I am still waiting to see how this plays out now that I have a book coming out and another yet to be finished, a book tour and other promotional activities in between, not to mention my entire personal life, but I’m optimistic that all will be well, all will be well and all manner of things shall be well. This is the belief that drives the impulse to do the things that I do. Apparently we can delude ourselves into making self-destruction a sort of regrettable virtue!

As of this morning there is an underground/grassroots movement to be contributed to with regard to my country of birth, Sri Lanka, meetings to be had to advance the cause of my country of residence, the United States, news to be absorbed regarding both; there is reading and writing. But among the things I’ve signed myself up for, recently, is one that brings these worlds together in one place: the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. The festival runs from April 27th to May 3rd, this year, in NYC. I am, unfortunately, only able to be there for two and half days toward the end, but during that time I will be volunteering to help with the program and attending some of the events closest to my heart: the Moth Presents, which will include Salwa Al Neimi, Jonathan Ames, Petina Gappah, László Garaczi, and Salman Rushdie, and Readings from Around the Globe, which will include Bernardo Atxaga, Petina Gappah, Mariken Jongman, Michael Ondaatje, Daniel Sada, Hwang Sok-yong, Antonio Tabucchi, and Colm Tóibín.

The list of participants is incredible and presents an opportunity for anybody who can make it over there, to be exposed to writers and thinkers (are there any writers who don’t think?) from throughout the world. Among these writers are, of course, the iconic figures who are mentioned above, alongside younger and equally fascinating writers who are also activists, who include Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son), Edwidge Danticat ((Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! and Brother, I’m Dying, among others), and Nam Le (The Boat). If you can get to NY but were waiting for a good enough reason, then buy your tickets now!

I was struck while at a training for volunteers in NY on Monday, lead by the energetic and talented Nick Burd, whose own book, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, will be coming out in May, by the ordinariness as well as the palpable energy of the PEN American office. It reminded me again that the most loftiest of causes often have the lowliest of launching pads. I’m off to look for another such now.

23 March, 2009

Facebook & the Poet David Morley

I confess that I lean heavily on Facebook to stay in touch with my friends in the world of words, politics (words), and births, deaths and marriages (words, words, words). I’m an old-timer who joined Facebook way back in the year of the Lord 2004 or thereabouts when a ruckus erupted on campus over racist statements being bandied about on the site. It is only in the last few years though that I have become a tender of the flame. I avoid the quizzes; I haven’t taken one yet. I think. Quite recently, a good friend blinked out of Facebook because she needed to get back to writing. Last month, I caught Farhard Manjoor defending his piece against Facebook-holdouts in Slate on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. I have to admit that I laughed long and hard at the cranky anti-Facebookers that crowded the show, reminding me that the desire to be anti-cult can be just as cultish as the original cult. And that is said as someone who prides herself on being the front-line of defense for The Lord of the Rings against the tinny clamor of the Harry Potter chorus.

But the reason for this post is to share my discovery of an amazing poet, artist and human being named David Morley. Not being a poet myself, except in times of deep anguish when I am known to order unnecessarily melodramatic words into lines, claim that it is poetry and even mail it hither and yon only to cringe a day later, I had been oblivious of his existence or amazing contribution to literature until I ran across him on Facebook. I don’t even remember how it was that I found him. Perhaps it was a “friend suggestion,” or just by browsing through my friends’ lists of friends. I clicked on his link for the simple reason that he looked interesting. Yes, Virginia, your profile picture is important. David’s biography tells of eighteen published works including nine collections of poetry and of his life as “a critic, anthologist, editor and scientist of partly Romani extraction.” He teaches at the University of Warwick and this is his blog.

One of the most fascinating things that came to me through discovering Morley on Facebook, was a slow art poetry trail that he had constructed at Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire. The poems are written into the natural materials and are designed to remain there until they disappear. You can watch the introduction by Morley and follow the trail here.

The word-iteration of sand mandalas. The fact that my first novel contained an enormous amount of research into Romani rituals. David Morley out of the ether. Life is good. Facebook on, my friends, even with the new and not-improved version of the beast, it remains a beautiful thing.

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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