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5 Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics

Bestselling author Syed M. Masood shares his top 5 tips for how to handle a controversial topic in your work.

I might not be the right author for this piece. I just want to admit that upfront.

Yes, my work is considered controversial in some quarters. I mean, my next book is called The Bad Muslim Discount. Obviously, that was always going to raise some eyebrows.

(Syed M. Masood: Let Your Characters Surprise You)

But I truly don’t set out to be controversial. My fictional worlds are based on the truths I know and have experienced. My goal has always been to tell these truths in the most entertaining way possible. That’s it. It just so happens that there are people—holding a wide variety of beliefs on the ideological spectrum—who find these truths uncomfortable. That, so far as I am concerned, is more of a ‘them’ problem than a ‘me’ problem.

So, what I’m saying is that if you are at your keyboard cackling like a supervillain because you’re looking to piss people off for the sake of pissing people off, I really have nothing to offer you. We’re not writing from the same place. But most authors, I believe, are just trying to tell the stories they know best and, sometimes, these stories happen to deal with controversial subjects.

So, for those kindred spirits, here are some tips on how to write—and perhaps cope with having written—something controversial.

1. Offend with Purpose

There is nothing wrong with offending the right people. When you’re making a point, especially about complex, sensitive, or painful topics, you are going to irritate some people.

If I say, to use a simplistic and clear-cut example, that “racism is evil,” and that offends racists…well, good.

What you want don’t want to do is give offense unintentionally. You don’t want to offend people you aren’t trying to offend. Mean what you say without being mean as often as possible.

2. Ask Yourself “Why”

Know the reason you are writing about a difficult subject. Have a purpose behind the story you are telling.

In The Bad Muslim Discount, one of the issues the characters grapple with is what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be American, and not everyone is going to agree with the conclusions my characters reach. That’s totally cool. The purpose is to have the conversation, to see some of the different sides of it, to appreciate that reasonable and good people can disagree.

Obviously, I’m personally invested in this discourse. It is important to me. Make sure what you’re writing about is important to you. That’ll help you treat it with respect.

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood

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3. Write with Love

My YA novel, More Than Just a Pretty Face, deals with a very different set of issues. It addresses, among other things, issues within the desi, Muslim community that I feel need to be addressed.

I have a great deal of affection for the people who make up this community. I am from them. So, when I do point out areas we need to work on, I’m not doing so with malice, but with hope.

This also allows you to write characters who disagree with your points of view with more empathy and accuracy, by the way. You can side with a son who wants to pursue his dreams and be a chef. But you don’t have to make the father who worries about how viable a career that is for his kid a villain if you at least attempt to understand him.

4. Write the Truth

Yes, all fiction is fiction. And, no, I’m not saying not to write fantasy or sci-fi worlds. I’m saying that if you write about controversial topics, tell the truth as you understand it. You might be wrong, but you’re going to have an easier time dealing with questions that are posed to you (and, more importantly, an easier time living with yourself) if you did your best to be honest in your writing.

Also, you’ll have an easier time selling your work, in my opinion. People say “sex sells,” and that’s true, but earnestness—even if it isn’t as much fun—also sells.

(Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics in Fiction)

5. Be Balanced

Don’t worry about what people say about your themes. Worry about what they say about your craft.

When More Than Just a Pretty Face came out, I was a little surprised by some of the criticism I got. I knew that my novel for adults, The Bad Muslim Discount, had the potential to stir the pot a little, but my sweet YA rom-com? I was not expecting any backlash.

But I did get some. I don’t read reviews anymore (a practice I highly recommend), but even then, people will tell you things. Sometimes they’ll even tag you on social media. Sometimes your mom will go on Goodreads and want to know why some people think the Muslim representation in your book isn’t accurate.

Don’t worry about it. I know that is easier said than done, but it is also easier if you’ve followed Tips 1 through 4. Find peace with your work. You told the truth, you told it with love, you were precise, and you had a purpose. You did good.

One of the highest compliments I received was someone saying they were offended by More Than Just a Pretty Face but couldn’t stop reading it. I am absolutely, completely good with that, and I think you should be too. 

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range.

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Get Yourself A Nemesis

There’s nothing more thrilling than a good nemesis. A bad nemesis is like a bad bagel—better not to have one at all, than have one that falls short of the mark. But a good one shines a spotlight on your deepest fears about yourself. A good nemesis is a mirror for your aspirations, since whatever qualities you’ve given this person are markers of what you value. If someone’s very name inspires in you nauseating self-loathing tinged with ecstasy—congrats! You have a nemesis. In due time, a proper nemesis may even spur you on to acts of insanity revealing your long-buried desires—for example, if you’re Patricia Highsmith, killing your wife. (Somehow Patricia is always killing the wives.)

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

In my novel We Play Ourselves, Cass is a playwright who finds herself obsessed with Tara-Jean Slater, a playwright a decade younger who is sweeping up awards and acclaim with nonchalance. Tara-Jean exists as a focal point for Cass’s hungry jealousy, as she provides a window into what Cass believes she wants—in fact, believes she deserves. More than that however, Tara-Jean becomes a shining example of what cultural gatekeepers so often require of a woman before they let her succeed: bare your soul, sell us your trauma. Don’t tell us what you think, tell us what you’ve been through. Tara-Jean is more than willing to weaponize her trauma, whereas Cass—who often has a hard time articulating her own pain to herself—is electrified by a grotesque mix of resentment and admiration. Cass’s relationship with Tara-Jean catalyzes the career-ending scandal that drives Cass from East to West Coast, but also—when they meet again—jump-starts a series of revelations. Cass must begin to acknowledge the machines of culture that are behind which stories get told—and how, and to whom, and in what way. 

In writing this book, I’ve been asked a number of times if I have a nemesis. To which I can only reply: Shouldn’t we all? Below are some of the books and plays that show how deliciously shattering a good nemesis can be.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

This book is mesmerizingly strange, a fragmented landscape of reinventions across which two nemeses chase each other: Mr. Fox and the witchy, uncanny, possibly-unreal Mary Foxe. With sly wit and a mind like no other, Helen Oyeyemi manages both a ruthless investigation of gendered violence, and an upending of all those old and-then-she-gets-killed stories as Mr. Fox and Mary get closer to something new and true.

Amazon.com: Strangers on a Train (9780393321982): Highsmith, Patricia: Books

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has no use for humans, but she does love their weaknesses. Also she used to store snails in her bra so she could carry them across international borders, but that’s an obsession for another day. Look, you have to read this book. There’s a train. Two men meet and make an unspeakable pact. And things just get worse from there…

The Treasurer by Max Posner 

An elegant, wry and constantly surprising play in which a man’s nemesis is his aging mother—and he feels terrible about it. But also, she’s making his life a living hell. Produced by Playwrights Horizons and published by Dramatists Play Service, this is as much a beautiful read on the page as it was a beautiful production. 

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

You know what’s worse than a regular nemesis? An immortal one. Doro pursues shape-changing Anyanwu across countries and centuries, as their relationship shifts from lovers to enemies to something more familial and complicated. This book is not a comfortable read (cue: consent issues, slavery, and weird body-snatcher sex), but let me put it this way: during the week I read it, I was fully captivated by something other than rising COVID numbers…

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

I read this book like falling down a well: quickly, and with a great fear about what was waiting at the bottom. An American writer-in-residence at an increasingly bizarre German arts institution develops an unsettling obsession with a far-right cop show… and then with the man who is making it. Smart, scary, and compelling.

The Skriker by Caryl Churchill

For my money, Caryl Churchill is one of our greatest living playwrights—and this play is pure Churchill, a blending of genres that redefines both style and language. The play is about an ancient and malevolent fairy pursuing two teenage mothers in 90s London, and it manages to be funny and chilling at the same time. 

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

Oh listen. Whatever you’re going to say about Hemingway, I know, and you’re right, and I would never have dated him. That said, this book is the trashy seaside love-hate threesome you always wished would transport you far far from reality. Is it problematic? Sure! Is there a great nemesis? More than one! Do I feel like, as a queer woman, I got something very different from this than what Hemingway intended? Absolutely. And therein, my friends, lies the power of literature.

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

This collection of poems is searing, riveting, and deeply human. The nemesis is alcohol. Or it is God. Or it is the poet himself, who comes up against his own limitations again and again; who sees both his divine potential alongside the brutality of his failures. A line from the poem “Exciting The Canvas” is both in the front materials for We Play Ourselves, and a good summation of 2020: “Odd, for an apocalypse to announce itself with such bounty.”

The post Get Yourself A Nemesis appeared first on Electric Literature.

11 Fictional Hotels for Your Fictional Vacation

In the epic words of Phoebe Bridgers: “I want to live at the Holiday Inn, where somebody else makes the bed.” Don’t we all, Phoebe—especially after months of various travel restrictions and working from home on top of crumpled sheets that need to be washed. But if it’s looking tricky to stay in a real-life hotel anytime in your near future, there’s fortunately an overwhelming number of books suitable for your fictional getaway. 

It’s not surprising that the hotel novel has become a literary genre in its own right—hotels have proven to be fascinating settings for fiction: a mixture of the intimately private and corporate conglomerate, the foreign and the mundane. Going beyond well-known classics like The Shining and Grand Hotel, here are 11 novels to immerse yourself in the world of hotels, hospitality work, and bed-making. And you won’t need to check out of these fictional hotels by 11 a.m.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

What does it cost to craft a pristine hotel experience at an “exotic” location? Here Comes the Sun takes place at a luxury resort in River Bank, a fictional Jamaican town. 30-year-old Margot is a worker there, trying her best to support and protect her artistic younger sister. Although she has sex with the wealthy white guests for extra income, Margot is forced to keep her love for Verdene, the village’s ostracized lesbian, undercover. However, Margot and her community must reckon with imminent destruction when developers plan to build another resort that will put many villagers out of work. Dennis-Benn’s unflinching yet compassionate debut is a searing look into the tourism industry and its effects on women’s communities. 

The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg

This psychological thriller skulks through ghostly hotel bedrooms and Havana streets, written in Van Den Berg’s signature propulsive, elegant, and unsettling prose. A recently-widowed American woman, Clare, travels to Cuba to attend a horror film festival in memory of her late husband, Richard, who was a horror film scholar. When she arrives in Havana, however, she finds the allegedly dead Richard standing outside of a museum—setting off a chain of surreal events as she attempts to track him down. If you love The Shining and Psycho, this contemporary hotel novel is a must-read. 

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita 

The I Hotel (short for “International Hotel”), a Bay Area landmark in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is the centerpiece of Yamashita’s kaleidoscopic novel. Separated into ten novellas on different groups of Asian American activists from 1968 to 1977 (one novella for each year), I Hotel is an ambitious exploration of the Yellow Power Movement, when Asian Americans fought for representation and economic equality. Yamashita uses a diverse array of narrative and structural choices, including forms such as graphic art, stage dialogue, and philosophy; her cast of characters is as equally diverse, including a whole range of hyphenated Asian identities. (And for another book that connects hotels with historical Asian American events, check out Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which addresses Japanese internment camps during WWII.) 

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Strange Hotel addresses the strange, surreal feeling of uniformity in hotels, of how one big hotel somehow feels exactly the same as another. Check-ins, check-outs, room service, one-night stands, buried memories of home—all blur together for McBride’s unnamed narrator, a middle-aged woman constantly hopping from one hotel to another. Along the way, she grapples with her sense of identity. McBride, as always, is inventive and challengingly illuminating with her use of language; in modernistic, fragmented prose, she probes at the connections between words and bodies.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This 2020 Booker Prize nominee starts in a run-down youth hostel in Harare, Zimbabwe. Tambudzai (or Tambu), Dangarembga’s protagonist from Nervous Conditions, has just left her stagnant copywriting position and a stable place to live. After various jobs and one humiliation after another, Tambu winds up working in ecotourism in her childhood home; she must constantly deal with both the pressure of imminent poverty and the claustrophobia of Harare society. Dangarembga points out the acute effects of capitalism and colonialism, showing how this toxic combination seeps into every element of Tambu’s fight for survival.

Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Ogawa’s 1996 novella centers on a sadomasochistic love affair between a teenage hotel receptionist and an older foreign guest, exploring the many ways of articulating—and translating—desire, power, and control. 17-year-old Mari and her mother run a dingy seaside hotel in coastal Japan. One evening, they have to eject a guest and his prostitute from a room, and Mari becomes captivated by the guest’s voice. He turns out to be a mysteriously widowed Russian translator, and the two fall into a complex relationship of pain and pleasure. Through Mari’s sharp observations and gritty details of hotel service life, Hotel Iris shines a spotlight on the grotesque, macabre nature of human relationships.

Hotel World

Hotel World by Ali Smith

A hotel is both the main catalyst and the setting for Smith’s postmodern novel about grief, in which five female characters, each with a differing relationship to the Grand Hotel, all end up spending a night together. Sara, a chambermaid who falls to her death in a dumbwaiter, is still lingering there as a ghost; her younger sister Clare has come because of the tragedy; Else is a homeless woman who is invited to stay one night in the hotel by Lise, the receptionist; Penny is an established journalist who is reviewing the hotel. Smith’s inventive novel uses the idea of “hotel”—a homogenous corporate entity that people are constantly checking in and out of—as an extended metaphor for our society and life. 

When All is Said by Anne Griffin

Inspired by a real-life hotel conversation, Griffin’s debut novel takes place exclusively in a hotel bar in Ireland over the course of one night; sitting alone, 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan raises toasts to five people from his life: his children, his relatives, his wife. The five individual monologues, which tell the story of his entire life in conversational, engaging prose, are connected through the precious Edward VIII Gold Sovereign Coin, which Maurice unthinkingly took from his abusive employer in his youth and never gave back. Griffin paints Maurice as a flawed but deeply honest character, crafting a warm-hearted portrait. 

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel’s protagonist, Vincent, takes you to the other side of the bar–her story begins as a bartender at a luxury hotel in Vancouver Island. One night, shaken by a message scrawled on the hotel lobby’s glass wall (”Why don’t you swallow broken glass”), Vincent chooses to leave the hotel for the “kingdom of money.” She becomes involved with an international conman, Jonathan Alkaitis, posing as his wife. But when Alkaitis’s schemes collapse, Vincent also disappears. Mandel’s intricate narratives blur the lines between the past and present, living and dead, reality and self-delusion.

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon

Winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize, Hotel Silence is about a middle-aged man who flies away to a mysterious hotel. Jónas Ebeneser, after finding out that his daughter is not his biological child and reeling from a recent divorce, is contemplating suicide. However, he gets caught up in the logistics (what if his daughter finds his body?) and decides the best course of action is to disappear. Hence, a reservation at Hotel Silence, located in an unnamed country that is recovering from the aftereffects of a brutal war. Jónas travels with just one change of clothes and a toolbox, intent on ending his life. However, his stay at Hotel Silence leads to an unexpected turn of events, as he winds up as the resident handyman of the ravaged town. Ólafsdóttir’s novel is a touching meditation on new beginnings, both as an individual and as a community. 

The Girls Of Slender Means

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks 

This classic focuses on a group of young girls living together in a ladies’ hostel in war-devastated London, 1945. Their temporary home, the May of Teck Club, is a hostel established for girls underage 30 with “slender means” in Kensington. The girls try their best to act as if everything is as it was before the war; they gossip about love interests and practice their posture. In true Sparks style, though, the novella is layered with flashbacks and hiding a tragedy that the girls are trying to forget, framed by a research storyline set in 1963. 

The post 11 Fictional Hotels for Your Fictional Vacation appeared first on Electric Literature.

Writer: Get Rejected This Month…And Be Happy | Writer’s Relief

Our Review Board Is Open!

Submit Short Prose, Poetry, and Books TODAY!

DEADLINE: Thursday, February 18th, 2021

Writer: Get Rejected This Month…And Be Happy | Writer’s Relief

When most writers think of rejection letters, their thoughts run from “Nooooo!” to “I’ll never write another word!” to “Well, maybe I’ll try again.” Rarely does a writer get rejected and think, “Yippee!” But that’s exactly what you should be thinking as you read that thanks but no thanks e-mail. At Writer’s Relief, our submission strategists know you need to read between the lines to see the positives when your work is rejected. In fact, here’s why you should make a point of getting rejected this month—and why you should be happy when you are!

Writer: Get Rejected By Editors And Agents

Having your work rejected by a literary editor or agent is rarely personal. Though it can be easy to get discouraged, try to see rejection as a badge of honor—it means you’re making an effort and putting your work out there! With each rejection you receive, remind yourself what it’s really telling you. First, that you worked hard to create poetry, a short story, or a book that was good enough to submit for publication. Second, you took that brave next step and submitted your work to literary editors or agents. Yay, you! Give yourself a big pat on the back, because each rejection brings you one step closer to the submission that’s going to get a YES.

And if you need a morale boost, remember that many successful authors have been rejected, so you’re in good company!

Meanwhile, know that every rejection teaches you something. There are different reasons why a short story, poem, or book might be rejected, and different types of rejection letters. Our submission strategy experts recommend you submit a piece 100 times before giving up—that could mean 99 rejections before you get an acceptance! Here are a few reasons why your submission might be rejected.

5 Reasons A Literary Agent Or Journal Might Reject A Submission

  1. Submitting to the wrong markets. Researching editors’ and agents’ preferences is a time-consuming, daunting task. There are thousands and thousands of markets to sift through to find those that are the right fit and, just as important, those that are not right. Maybe you submitted your rhyming poem to a journal that focuses on free verse. Perhaps your short story was simply too experimental for a more traditional magazine. Or maybe you queried an agent who loves historical fiction, but your book was set in the BC era while the agent prefers Victorian-era works. This doesn’t reflect on your writing—it simply means your submissions were sent to the wrong markets.
  1. A poorly written query or cover letter. Unfortunately, if your query letter or cover letter doesn’t cover the requirements or misrepresents your work, an agent or editor may not even get to the point of looking at your submission. This might be a technical error—you might miscategorize your writing as a genre they don’t work with, or mention a word count outside their requirements. It could be a personal faux pas, like addressing the agent or editor by the wrong name or gender, or an etiquette breach such as complaining about the publishing industry in your letter. If your letter rubs them the wrong way, even if they do read your submission, they may not want to work with you.
  2. Typos and grammar errors. Everyone makes mistakes, and agents and editors know that! But if your work is riddled with spelling errors and your constant misuse of grammar makes them grimace, they’re likely to see these issues as grounds for rejection. It can be very difficult to catch errors in your own work, so ask a friend or another writer to proofread for you. If you don’t know anyone with top-notch grammar skills, a professional proofreading service may be the way to go!
  1. Not following submission guidelines. Even the best submissions are rejected because they fail to follow an agent’s or journal’s guidelines. Maybe you sent pages of your book to a literary agent whose submission guidelines clearly state to only send a query letter. Or maybe your short story was incredible, but you submitted it outside the journal’s reading dates, so it was automatically rejected. These may seem like simple, easily overlooked mistakes, but agents and editors are very busy people. And one way they cut down on the number of submissions they have to read is by immediately eliminating any that don’t follow the guidelines.
  2. Your work was too similar to a piece already accepted. Sometimes your writing is right up a literary agent’s or editor’s alley—so much so that they recently accepted something very similar to yours. If an agent just signed a book that has the same premise as yours, even if your book is amazing, it’s going to be rejected. Or perhaps your poem is exactly what a journal editor is looking for, but a poem in the same form on the same topic is already slated for the next issue.

Again, it’s not a reflection on your writing; it’s simply poor timing. This is why you should never assume your writing is bad and just give up making submissions. Very good writing can still be rejected. You simply need to move on and find the right home for your work.

At Writer’s Relief, we’ve spent over twenty-six years pinpointing the best markets for our clients to boost their odds of getting published—and we can help you find the right markets too! We’ll format and proofread your work, write an effective query or cover letter, and research the best markets. And right now, our Review Board is reading for new clients! If you’re ready to start smiling when you get a rejection letter…and to happy dance when you get an acceptance…submit your short story, personal essay, poetry, or book to our Review Board today!


Question: Which part of the submission process do you struggle with?

Dial-A-Story From The New York Public Library | Writer’s Relief

Our Review Board Is Open!

Submit Short Prose, Poetry, and Books TODAY!

DEADLINE: Thursday, February 18th, 2021

Dial-A-Story From The New York Public Library | Writer’s Relief

The New York Public Library recently started offering a new service. Writer’s Relief learned you can call the library’s Story Line to hear a new children’s story read by the librarians each week. The stories are available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin!

Learn more about how to hear a story each week.


In Conversation

Ellen Coon has been collecting oral histories in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal for over thirty years, recording the stories of the Newar people, an Indigenous community based in the region. Isabella Tree – our guest editor for Granta 153: Second Nature – wrote her first book on the Living Goddess tradition celebrated by the Newars. They came together early this year to discuss the Newar approach to the divine feminine and the care for the land it encourages, while considering what we can learn from this community through our own commitments to building a sustainable natural environment.



Isabella Tree:

We know we have to fundamentally change our relationship with nature, if we’re to address all the environmental crises facing us. And in this issue of Granta, Second Nature, I wanted to explore how other cultures view the land and living things. Especially those that have managed to strike a balance, to live sustainably for hundreds if not thousands of years. And one of the most intriguing cultures, I think, is the one that has a lot to say about human relationships with nature – that of Newars in the fertile Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalaya. Originally a Buddhist society and deeply spiritual with strong ties to farming as well as to the arts, I first encountered them in my teens travelling during my gap year. And that introduction eventually resulted in a book I wrote about the Living Goddess tradition in the Kathmandu Valley, a book that took me only fourteen years to write. And that is how I came to meet the wonderful Ellen Coon, about fifteen years ago now. And I soon realised how deep and extraordinary her understanding of Newar culture and their belief system is.

And so I wanted to talk to you, Ellen, to try and get a deeper understanding of this extraordinary culture that we both know and love, and consider how it has perhaps lessons for the way that we might look at nature and where we’ve gone so wrong.

But first, I thought you could introduce yourself and explain what took you to Kathmandu in the beginning. And what led you down this amazing path and how we met.


Ellen Coon:

I first went to the Kathmandu Valley in 1970, when I was a nine-year-old girl. My father was a diplomat. I was incredibly lucky, because he was posted to Kathmandu, in Nepal, not once, but twice. First in 1970, for three and a half years, and then from 1981 to 1984, when I was in college.

When I got to Kathmandu as a nine-year-old, I found it incredibly beautiful. It was absolutely vivid, an electric green, the green of rice paddies. The whole valley was intensively cultivated by hand, really gardened rather than farmed, with rice being the primary crop, sometimes more than one crop a year, with patches of forest and trees, sacred forest. And the three major towns of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan – were still these jewel-like antiquated cities, in the middle of all this green, ancient and rich, cities like honeycomb or coral reef.

Nepal has had some very strange and xenophobic rulers, the Ranas, who had established a dictatorship in the nineteenth century, and they had kept Nepal closed to most foreigners, almost all foreigners, certainly Westerners, until the monarchy staged a coup and reasserted power in 1951. And then the doors sort of opened. But in a lot of ways it was still a closed system, the Kathmandu Valley was a closed system. And 1970 was only nineteen years after it had begun to open.

I fell in love with the Kathmandu Valley almost immediately, as a child.  I felt that there was something beautiful and true there that the rest of the world should know about – and I still feel that way.  I started recording the stories of older Newars, mostly women, over thirty years ago. The rapid pace of change there has only made this work feel more urgent.  A kind of collective remembering of what was a sacred landscape, where a rich human culture didn’t destroy nature but on the contrary created the conditions for an equally rich biodiversity of plants and animals to flourish.



Kathmandu c. 1980 © Todd Lewis 



And how did we meet? Do you remember?



I think it was 2005 or 2006. I had a Fulbright scholarship, and I had been awarded a grant to expand the research that I had done earlier collecting oral histories from particularly religious Newar women, to try to understand their experience of Newar tantric religious culture. The Newars are the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.

I was living in a big cement bungalow with my husband and children on Museum Road near the Swyambhunath stupa. It was the spring, and we had lunch together outside in my garden under a flowering tree. You were researching your amazing book, The Living Goddess, and both of us were trying to understand the nature of the culture around us, which was very compelling, but difficult to put into words.

After we had lunch, I took you to the masked dances in Naradevi, it was during the Pahan Charhe festival, which is a springtime festival that involves a lot of goddesses on the move, street festivals. We went to see what’s called a Pyakhan or a masked dance near the Naradevi Temple, which is performed by farmers who each assume a hereditary lifelong role as a particular goddess. Possessed by the goddesses whose masks they wear, they do these long, slow dances while huge adoring crowds worship them. And that definitely put us into a nonplussed, wordless state.

One of the things about people who learn from and study with Newars is that they have a very hard time putting what they’re learning into what we would call coherent words. Because it really is a different system of thinking and a different perspective on the world. It gets even verbose people temporarily dumbstruck.



Yes, I certainly felt that writing the book [The Living Goddess: A Journey Into the Heart of Kathmandu]. In a way, it sort of feels like a betrayal if you’re just beginning to understand and to try and put into words on a page. Because something that is so different from our way of seeing is very difficult, I think, to express in written book-form. That is also why, I think, it’s much easier to talk about it.

So, how shall we begin? I wondered if you could give us an idea of how the relationship with the land really underpins everything in Newar culture, in the belief system, that connection with the landscape.



Let’s start with the Kathmandu Valley. When Newars talk about themselves and their lives, the Kathmandu Valley and places in the Kathmandu Valley, are always an integral part of their story, who they are as people. In fact, now that Newars have started to travel all over the world to live and work and study, it’s an interesting question: who you are when you are taken away from a place that that basically forms the marrow of your bones.

As I said, the Newars are the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. That’s how they see themselves. And they have their own Tibeto-Burman language, their own elaborate art and architecture and religious civilisation that are said to be thousands of years old. Who can really say. But definitely the Kathmandu Valley has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. In this way, they’re different from people from the surrounding hills. Linguistically, culturally, in every way, including in their religious civilisation, their particular forms of Hinduism, and Buddhism.



And the Kathmandu Valley is incredibly fertile, isn’t it?



Yes, the Kathmandu Valley is a lake bed; it used to be a lake in prehistoric time, which is also mythic time. And the soil is extraordinarily fertile. The Newar attitude toward the Kathmandu Valley is that it’s a sacred landscape. It’s holy ground. And it’s this pulsating heart of the sacred geography of the Himalayas, which is a broader sacred geography to Hinduism and Buddhism.



One of the things that always struck me was, I was told that it was a taboo in the Newar belief system to plough. That ploughing would be like tearing your nails down your mother’s face, the earth being the body of your mother, the Mother Earth. That’s something that I’ve thought about a lot recently. Particularly editing this issue of Granta because we’re only just now beginning to understand, in the European tradition of agriculture, how bad it is for the land to be ploughed, and that every civilization, from the Romans to the Mayans to the Egyptians, have fallen because they have abused their soils and degraded their land.

I think it is incredibly interesting to have this taboo in the Kathmandu Valley, where there is a particularly sort of friable soil, which is easily prone to run off in the monsoon or to being blown off by the winds in the dry season – it’s a way to understand that ploughing is bad for that soil, that it shouldn’t be done, and it is expressed in this spiritual way.

And yet, while this is a taboo and a tradition that goes back centuries, in the last few decades, their whole tradition is beginning to unravel. The Kathmandu Valley itself is changing dramatically as this farmland disappears fast. But this is something we’ll return to. For now, I wonder if we could take a step back and just see it through your eyes when you when you first went there. What was it like?



I was surrounded by what you would call the divine feminine. There were shrines and temples everywhere. There were male deities, but by far the majority were goddesses. That makes an impression on a nine-year-old girl. And it wasn’t just that there were images of goddesses and others everywhere, beautifully exquisite images, paintings, bronze stone. But living women and living girls and living people could, in fact, embody deities and divinity. So the Kumari, about whom you wrote your book, was a little girl, also known as the Living Goddess, who was of national importance; she was called the Royal Kumari. And she was a little girl from the Buddhist Newar community, and embodied this very powerful female deity, who is seen to protect and really rule the whole country of Nepal. During her annual festival, my father had to squeeze into his tight pants, and his morning coat, which didn’t fit him very well anymore, and with the other diplomats was obligated to go and attend her during part of her annual festival. That made a huge impression on me.

What I took for granted at that time, was the fact that these cultural riches were embedded in an absolutely thriving natural world. That was filled with flowers and animals and plants and diversity, a great diversity of being. And so when I went back, while I was in college in the early 1980s, I began to get curious in an intellectual way about why I felt such a shock of incredible well-being when I was in the Kathmandu Valley. What was the source of this feeling? When I was a girl living in the Kathmandu Valley, I felt better than well, I felt a kind of thriving that is hard to put into words, a kind of fierce joy. And a lightness.



Samyak festival in Patan, Nepal.  Worshipping the dyas, in this case Dipankara Buddhas. © James Giambrone 


Do you think that was something as much to do with natural beauty of the valley and the integrity of the farming culture at the time, as it was to do with the belief system of the divine feminine, that is such a loss to us?



I absolutely do. I think they were completely intertwined. The belief system grew out of the land; and the land stayed looking the way it was due to the belief system.

I became curious about why I felt such intense well-being in the Kathmandu Valley, something I had never felt in the United States or any other Western country.

I was studying religion in college at the time, and in those days, there were some Western feminists and feminist religious scholars who were studying goddess worship in prehistoric times – the work of Marija Gimbutas comes to mind – and studying other cultures saying, ‘Look, if we just stopped this god nonsense, and went back to goddesses, everything would be so much better.’

And I thought, ‘Hmm, well, I’m not so sure it’s that simple.’ But I was interested because I couldn’t help but notice that Newar women were a visible force in society. They were very powerful. They were out, they were visible, they were conducting rituals, they were selling produce, they were extremely important as farmers. Whereas the orthodox Hindus in the hills, the women seemed not nearly as powerful, to my eyes. I thought, well, they’re both Hindus and Buddhists. So what’s different? And I began to learn about the tantric religious movement, and how that had shaped the practice of the Newars. And if you want to talk about what that is, right now, I invite you to.



That could be a huge vortex!



Okay, so I’ll just go very quickly. It was an anti-ascetic religious movement that took place in India in the seventh or eighth century. The Indian subcontinent, or South Asia, has often been in the grip of very strong asceticism, and a purity-pollution binary, where people are striving for purity and casting out those they consider lower castes, women or animals or all kinds of things, as polluted.

I would say that the tantric religious movement was really almost like the hippie countercultural movement, about celebrating the body. It was a movement of radical equality, and most of all it valorised the feminine. The Kathmandu Valley proved to be very fertile ground for this movement, which was somewhat wiped out elsewhere, or eradicated in India by the Muslim conquests.



And not tolerated either by the British. It didn’t fit with their ideas either.



Right. So the Newars, the way they practise Hinduism and Buddhism is tantric. And it is infused with the view that the feminine as primary, and that the earth is alive. The earth is sentient.



Can you explain a little bit more about that?



Yes, I’ll definitely talk about that. According to this view, the Earth is alive; the earth is sentient. Even the soil itself is filled with divine feminine energy. It’s alive, it’s pulsating. And the world is filled, teeming with other beings, invisible and visible. One of the really visible facets of tantric religious culture is this great proliferation of deities, which in the Newar language are called dya. So gods and goddesses or divine beings, but they are not all one.



And the wonderful thing about the word dya is that it’s not masculine or feminine, is it?



Right. It’s not a gendered word.

And so there’s this great proliferation of dyas, most of whom are believed to be female. But they really arise from this living, pulsating, sentient soil, almost like stem cells of the Kathmandu Valley, this incredibly fertile soil.

I became very interested in dyas, in deity worship, which proliferated all around me. I was interested in where the dyas come from, because these deities could have Buddhist or Hindu names, but they also have local names. They can be traced back to a place.

You could have this beautiful, elaborately carved image of a deity, worshipped with singing, with vermillion and all kinds of food and flower offerings. But that same deity might also be recognized in a big rock in the middle of the field, or clump of dirt.

How is this living pulsating energy kind of erupting in this place or that place? I always used to think, well, how do we know? How do we know that this divine Shakti [primordial female energy], is erupting into a manifestation right there. Some rocks might be put there, and those would be worshipped, and then an image would be carved of a goddess. And that would be put against the rock or against the dirt. And that would be worshipped. And stories would be told. And in this way the same deity would gain many other identities just like you are Izzy and Mummy, and, you know, ‘Isabella Tree, the celebrated author’, all those identities, it’s still you.

I was fascinated by that process. What I often felt Newar farmers were doing, when I was a little girl, and later, was that they were listening. They were listening to something I couldn’t hear.


Jyapu farmer with dya, © Thomas Kelly



Is there sense that, in a tantric sense, that farmers were relating their own bodies to the land? That a correlation is happening between sacred places and sites and with one’s own physical body?



That’s right. There’s an embodied understanding that there isn’t a division between us and the earth that we come from. We aren’t separate from the earth.

I want to back up a little bit and talk a little bit more about Newar farmers. Most Newars were engaged in agriculture in the past. And there was a hereditary caste, the largest caste of Newars called Jyapu – ‘Jya’ means work, and ‘pu’ means able, and it means ‘very strong workers’ – but they were the backbone of the whole Newar society. And not only were they farmers, but they were highly realised tantric Hindu and Buddhist practitioners.  They embodied and practiced this knowledge that there’s divinity in a clump of dirt, but also an intimacy with elaborate proliferations of deity, esoteric Buddhist concepts such as impermanence and emptiness, and lengthy, difficult rituals.

Newar farmers have a hereditary obligation to learn the arts, the sacred arts, painting and sculpting, but especially music and drumming, which are forms of worship. And so they go through an apprenticeship of this intricate drumming that you hear in processions and around temples, because the language of the drums, it’s called dya bhae, or the language of the gods, god-speak.

There is an understanding that the soil is alive and filled with divinity, and every fall before the harvest, there is a three-day fasting worship of the Buddhist goddess Vasundhara who is a goddess of the harvest, wealth and of the earth. She’s dressed in yellow, she can be many-armed. She holds in one hand a sheaf of paddy, rice grain on the stalk, and in the other, she holds the foundational Buddhist text, the Prajnaparamita, which is the perfection of emptiness, the idea that nothing is permanent, nothing stays the same, and that there is no real self.

Jyapu farmers would worship Vasundhara in these elaborate forms, including as these esoteric and very cerebral Buddhist texts about the understanding of impermanence and emptiness. But she is also present in a handful of rice. And Jyapu farmers would also worship her before planting rice, on their knees before a lump of wet mud in the fields. So there’s this understanding of both: that the goddess Vasundhara is a lump of soil, and also something more abstract and personified.



I think what you’re talking about is a very intense love of the earth, that we just can’t imagine really. And that intimacy that is felt for the earth is the same kind of intimacy one would feel for other human beings, for all sentient beings, essentially. There are specific days to worship the creatures that are integral to the whole farming system. It’s a very intimate, immediate relationship with living things.



The masked dances that you and I went to in Naradevi the Pyakhan, where the farmers were embodying these goddesses, these earth goddesses, territorial and land-based goddesses – I learned the most about these dances from an old Jyapu farmer named Jit Narayan Maharjan. He was already a very old man at that time. And I said, ‘Tell me about these dances.’ And the way he started to tell me what’s happening was to start a fifteen-minute roaring recitation of the names of different divinities. And I started listening closely and I thought, ‘What is this? This isn’t just the names of goddesses.’ He was saying, ‘Flies! Fly goddess, frog goddess, dog goddess, sparrow goddess’ you know, it was like this kind of litany of living beings, as well as supernatural beings. That every being, alive or supernatural, has divinity. And the way he was telling me about it was to start with the names of everything. Love starts with recognition.



There was a moment you shared with me that I think epitomises what you’re explaining and that I thought was so moving. I must have messaged you because I was worried you were in Kathmandu when the terrible earthquake happened in April 2015. I didn’t know what had happened to you, or to anybody else that I knew and loved there. I found you somehow, you must have had connection. And you told me what it had been like when the earthquake struck. Can you describe to me the extraordinary scene you described when you went out and found the Newar women pressing their thumbs into the ground. What was happening there? Because it seems to embody exactly what you’re talking about, this profound empathy and love and shared responsibility for the earth.



When the earthquake struck, I was interviewing Newar farmers specifically about farming, the old farmers, because so much knowledge has been lost as you pointed out earlier. I was with an 83-year-old woman on the third floor of her wood and mud house in Bhaktapur when the earthquake struck. And we were able to run out, and went to the nearest open space that we could find. There were at least fifty or a hundred other people, mostly Newars, there waiting, because the aftershocks were still shuddering through and it was very scary, buildings were falling on down all around us. I could hear the screams of injured and dying people. Each time, we were alerted to the fact that an aftershock was coming because the crows would start calling and the dogs would start barking and howling. When this happened, the older women would get down onto their knees on the ground and they would press their thumbs into the earth and slowly say, ‘ha, ha, ha ha, ha ha.’

I asked what they were doing. And they told me that they were massaging the earth, they were pressing their thumbs into the earth to say, ‘We’re with you. It’s okay. It’s okay.’ And trying to help bear some of the weight of the Earth’s burden. It was almost as though the earth was trembling, a trembling woman who couldn’t stand up under her load anymore. And the women were showing their solidarity in love with this physical gesture, like a massage gesture or a holding gesture – we’re with you, we’re bearing the weight.


Changa, Nepal © Todd Lewis 


When you say bearing the weight, is there a sense that what human beings have been doing to the earth – polluting it, degrading the environment, even perhaps wars and the way we treat each other – that perhaps we have lost our way? As I understand it, Newars do feel that we are losing our connection with the gods and goddesses, and that spiritual relationship and the lack that selflessness that their culture really embodies. Is that the burden that the earth is feeling? That can precipitate, perhaps an earthquake, in the tantric sense?



Yes, that’s exactly right. I mean, one of the Newar religious elders with whom I worked said that the earthquake was a result of human greed and sin. She said that the greed had to do with extracting natural resources, especially water, without reverence, without permission, without sustainability. Human greed and pollution, and forgetting our inter-being with alive, sentient beings, animals but also rivers. We have just been greedily extracting, not sharing, having some people starve when other people get rich, and, and that becomes very heavy for the earth. And these were the reasons for earthquake. These are people who know the science of plate tectonics. They know about that. It’s that ‘and also’.



And where are we now? We know that the rivers of the Kathmandu Valley are increasingly polluted and heavy industry is growing apace. There’s unrestricted developments happening across the beautiful and sacred fields and the sacred landscape is being covered in concrete. It’s very dispiriting, isn’t it? Literally, when you see what’s happening to the Kathmandu Valley.

How, how are Newars responding to this, do you think? How do they live when something that must matter so much is being devastated?



Last summer, Newar farmers in the village of Khokana fought with armed police in a struggle to stop the government from taking over their fields and sacred grounds, without their permission, for some questionable development schemes – including a highway and a bus park.  They were actually threatened for the act of planting rice seedlings in their own fields. But I think that is a question that could really apply to all of us, right? How do we live with the grief of planetary destruction and species and habitat loss? It’s an important question. The Kathmandu Valley is now one of the most polluted places in Asia, which is just apocalyptic: air pollution, water pollution, fertile soil paved over with concrete, as you said.



And so quickly, considering what it was like before.


In my lifetime. What older Newars who I’ve talked to have said is that it’s important to remember. When I hear the word ‘remember’, I think of cultural historians. I’ve done oral histories with older Newars, and speaking with them I want to know what it was like to sustainably produce food, or a surplus of food, without harming the land or without inputs. But this older generation says, what is important to remember is all the other beings, it’s important to remember our obligations to them.

And just as we’ve created a kind of hell on earth, it’s actually within our power to create heaven again very quickly. But it starts in our minds and hearts. We’re not all going to become tantric Buddhists, but I think that we can start thinking about a sentient world, start thinking about the fact that there are many other beings here with us, and start using our imaginations, and our emotions, to imagine and receive the voices of other beings. To start to feel ourselves as interdependent and understand what inter-being is. That we’re not so separate. We’re not so important after all.

Actually, there’s one question that I want to ask you, Izzy, that I think readers would probably really like to have answered, to do with your last book The Living Goddess, about the Kumari tradition and Kathmandu’s religious culture, and your more recent book Wilding, for which you’re getting so much well-deserved and timely attention. Could you talk about the connection between those two books?



It’s so lovely to know you, Ellen, because you’re one of the very few people who could see the connection. The books might seem diametrically opposed. But I think both seem to be about what we’ve been discussing: a different way of looking at the land.

I go back to that idea of the taboo of ploughing. It’s that deep understanding of what nature is about and how it functions, but experienced and expressed in a very immediate and perhaps even emotional and spiritual way. It’s a difficult thing to talk about when you’re living as we are in a secular, desiccated kind of culture, the material world, the individual cult, you know.

It’s very difficult to talk about these things. It’s more natural when you’re talking about them in Kathmandu. It’s definitely something I feel. It seems to me that it’s all tied up with that idea of how we get back to a way in which the masculine-feminine is back in balance again, and with this deep respect for the earth. I think it’s no coincidence that our words humanity and humble, and even human, are connected with ‘humus’. And I think that’s something that that Newars instinctively understand.



That’s wonderful. I’ll just leave you with one last little story about Vasundhara and the fasting ritual to worship the earth. I was watching Vasundhara vrata [a fasting ritual to worship the Earth goddess], one year. (I also participated in the ritual once and found it a lot harder than I realised!) Next to me there was an old farmer with grey braids down her back, with a big pair of cracked horn-rimmed glasses. And I said to her, why do we perform Vasundhara vrata? And she looked at me quizzically, as Newars often do, and she said, ‘For our body. For the health of our body.’ I said, ‘I thought it was for the earth?’ And she said, ‘What’s the difference?’ The earth is your body. Your body is the earth. There is no your-body without the earth. And your body is part of the earth. However obvious that seems, it hadn’t been so obvious to me.

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