Tag Archives: writing

BOOKS: The Lady and the Monk

I was quite excited to read another of Pico Iyer’s books, as his series of essays on Asian cultures titled Video Night in Kathmandu is one of my all-time favorites. The Lady and the Monk takes place over four seasons, one year starting in autumn, in Kyoto, Japan. He travels to Kyoto with the intention to live a monkish existence, renouncing some aspects of the material world with the hopes of further understanding Zen Buddhism, Japan and himself. After a short stay at a local Kyoto monastery with several peculiar Japanese monks, Iyer quickly moves into another ascetic space that suits him better: a small guesthouse full of interesting, strange and eccentric foreign characters. After Iyer moves out of the first monastery, I felt that his mission to understand Japan, the culture and the people took on a new character that focused less on Zen Buddhism and more on the uniquely mysterious individual and collective psyche of the country.

Iyer soon meets Sachiko, a Japanese woman who seems to want to both embrace and spurn the Japanese ideals set out for her as a woman, a mother and a wife. Sachiko both conforms and rebels against the rigid cultural rules set out for her by her home country and her family, which makes for some intriguing conflict, with Iyer as the “Western” intermediary between Sachiko’s reality and fantasy.

The Lady and the Monk was like one long poem, perhaps overly flowery at some points, but I think the flowery language was meant to reflect the deep aesthetic appeal of Japanese society. When I think of Japan, I think of utmost simplicity, but also an incredible sense of beauty that emerges from that simplicity. Iyer captures this feeling quite well, too well sometimes, mimicking the soft pinkness of a cherry blossom, the curve of a flower petal and the uncomplicated solitude of a Buddhist monastery with his words. Iyer’s immersion into Japan, which seems as complete as can be for a foreigner, allowed me to see Japan from a new perspective through his discerning and astute eyes.

In the beginning, I was a bit confused about Iyer’s goal to become a Zen Buddhist monk. It was almost a haphazard mission, just some reason to go to Japan, live there and write for a year (not a bad mission). He doesn’t fare very well in the monasteries or the temples, only staying for short periods of time. His understanding of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese culture’s relation to the religion mostly comes from other people he meets, mostly Westerners, as well as a plentitude of Japanese literature.

Ninomaru Garden, Kyoto, Japan: Simply beautiful, beautifully simple. Photo by: jimg944

I got a deep sense of loneliness from reading this book, but I think that was the point. Maybe the feeling is was not exactly loneliness per say, but it surely was solitude. For example, when Iyer is walking through quiet streets, lanes covered in fallen pink cherry blossoms, or when he is exploring the somewhat creepy and dark sex and “entertainment” industry in Japan. It is lonely, but that seems to be what Pico Iyer is looking for: loneliness and solitude as tools to help him discover himself and more about Zen Buddhism and Japan.

Sachiko’s character, the conflicted young woman whom Iyer develops a deep friendship (and maybe more?), was one that I never truly connected with. She remained a mystery to me and her conflict between wanting to take on Western cultural values, but being stuck with the Japanese ones was awkward, mostly because Iyer describes Sachiko is quite childish. The relationship between Iyer and Sachiko was a main point of confusion for me. Iyer is obviously highly educated and incredibly eloquent and I often wondered at the nature of he and Sachiko’s relationship. How did he not get frustrated with her girlishness? How did he not get frustrated with their limited ability to converse? Were they just friends, or lovers too? I found some sentences that I thought could be taken as allusions to them having sex, but my suspicions were never confirmed. I almost feel like their relationship is one of parent and child, but at the same time they are friends and other times they share very intimate moments. He introduces to her to many things about Western society, and she, mostly unknowingly, introduces him to things about Japan, but the conclusions about Japanese society are all his own, not hers at all.

Partway through Iyer’s stay in Kyoto, Sachiko decides she wants to change her life drastically and I felt that Iyer was the main disrupting force, although he never blatantly acknowledges it. I wonder if he felt bad? He completely changed the course of her family’s life: she divorces her husband who we know nothing about, and she takes on a goal of becoming an international tour guide, which also surely affects her relationship with her two young children. I wondered: What about the children and the husband? Iyer doesn’t acknowledge this much.

The Lady and the Monk was especially interesting to me because I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying Japan and Japanese language (almost 15 years). Along with language study, I’ve taken a number of Japanese literature classes and read many of the works Iyer touches on in his book like The Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillowbook and The Tale of the Heike. After reading The Lady and the Monk, I feel I’ve gained new perspective on classical Japanese literature and I see these pieces with what feels like fresh eyes. If I were teaching a Japanese literature course, I would have my students read The Lady and the Monk as part of the course, preferably before reading the great volumes of Japanese literature. For anyone interested, The Lady and the Monk, along with classical Japanese works by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, along with contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami, would be a great collection and series to read to gain a broad understanding of the Japanese psyche, which in some ways has not changed much from 1,000 years ago.

The Lady and the Monk makes me realize how painfully little I actually understand about Japanese society, which is sort of shocking considering I’ve spent the majority of my life studying the language and the culture. In school, we learned about the culture like tea ceremonies, but not about any of the true nuances of Japan, which probably can’t be understood unless one lives there. I’ve been thinking about living in Japan myself (maybe next year?), but this book makes me wonder if I would actually have a good time there, or if I would simply leave frustrated by the challenge of never being able to truly permeate the Japanese shell that exists in so many aspects of life and work.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Iyer leaves Japan for Taiwan and Bangkok. I like his descriptions of the assault to his senses after he is been in the clean, sanitized and hard Japan for so long. It was almost the feeling I had (but in reverse) when after 5 months in Nepal, I flew into the Singapore airport. The shine, the sparkle, the glinting taxis, the lack of overpowering smells: it was a wonder.

Having finished this book, I feel like I’m now craving to truly know more about the Japan that exists behind the hard surface.

BLOG: Week 8 Updates

Whoa! I’ve already been here for 8 weeks? Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun.

Mostly good updates from my eighth week here in Nepal’s capital. I’ve been quite bogged down (in a good way) with work.  Kathmandu, and Nepal in general, is a writer’s paradise because there are SO many interesting things and SO many interesting people doing those interesting things.  So far I’ve written about/am writing about foreign diplomats, artists, wood-workers, writers, chefs, tea experts, yoga gurus, hotel managers, athletes and more.  My job as a magazine writer allows me the opportunity to meet, interview and write about all kinds of fascinating people, which is what I thrive off doing.

The monsoon is slowly abating here in Nepal, which is a blessing and a curse.  I’m not a huge fan of the rains (I know, I know, I am from Portland, Oregon… But still!) so it’s nice to have some moments of hot sun shining through the rain clouds.  The bad part about the slowing rains is that it means the power supply will also soon decrease.  The power in Nepal is directly correlated with the rains (as far as I know) because it is made through hydroelectric plants.  Without lots of water to power the hydro plants, there will be a decreased supply of electricity.  Last year the power was out a maximum of 16 hours per day in the dry season and I’ve heard rumors that this year will be worse, with up to 20 hours of power cuts per day.  So, there will be no rain but no power.  Luckily for people living in Kathmandu (and who can afford it), many of the restaurants and cafes have generators.  This means I’ll probably be living at the local coffee shop when the power is out for 20 hours per day, caffeinating and charging my electronics.

All was good on the running front until a few days ago when I started getting bad pains in what I think are the tendons on the top of my right foot.  I have a tendency to push myself too fast, too hard and too much.  I predict that my foot injury (please don’t be a stress fracture, please don’t be a stress fracture) is a result of too much running with not enough rest.  I’ve been hobbling about for the past three days, begrudging my swollen foot, hoping that the pain will magically disappear.  The timing not so great (is the timing ever great for an injury?) as the Kathmandu Marathon, of which I was planning to do the half, is coming up on October 2nd.  I’m hoping that with a little rest and rehabilitation, I’ll be ok for the race.  I attended this Saturday’s Hash run but, sadly, went with the walking group.  Walking the Hash was nice and relaxing, but I missed the heart-pounding intensity of the running group.

Tonight I went to a book reception at the home of Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird, who recently released his fifth book called Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (New York Times review here).  I accompanied my friend and writing mentor, Don Messerschmidt, to the event and had quite a good time meeting everyone in attendance.  There were teachers, diplomats, INGO workers, bookstore owners, photo-journalists, USAID workers and number of people who had spent a large portion of their lives traveling and living abroad.  Meeting everyone and listening to their stories was quite inspirational for me, as I am currently considering just what I want to do with my life (development work? journalism? living abroad? grad school?).  I left the event feeling motivated and excited for both the coming year in Nepal and whatever lays ahead after that.

Before the Kai Bird event, Don and I had lunch and an interview with a spectacular Swiss woman with a fierce independent spirit named Ann-Marie.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal in 1962 and stayed continuously until 1990 before returning to Switzerland.  She still returns to the country every year to visit.  This lady was a fountain of amazing stories.  My hand was aching to keep up with her as I jotted down everything in my notebook and I recorded our whole 3 hour conversation on my iPhone.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal after a stint in the Congo because she was craving more adventure before settling back down in Switzerland.  She’s worked with the Swiss government, managed hotels, trekked with Nepali princesses, met famous mountain climbers and diplomats and investigated the origins of Swiss cheese making in Nepal.  I left the meeting with Ann-Marie thoroughly inspired to have equally splendid adventures as she has had.  If I can be like Ann-Marie, who was probably around 90 years old, with that many stories and that much wisdom, then I’ll consider my life a success.

This and That from This Week:

Above: This week I revisited the Trungram Monastery located in Sankhu, Nepal, where I used to teach English to the monks three years ago. It was great to see how all the boys have grown up and improved their English skills.  The above photo is Nima, who was one of the youngest monks when I arrived in 2007.

Above: This week I stood in a cave that my monk friends tell me was hollowed out of a rock in the 12th century by the famous Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa.  Supposedly Milarepa sat mediating in this very cave for 6 months.

BLOG: So… Just What Am I Doing?

The life of an editor. (Photo by Nic McPhee-flickr)

When I bought my ticket to Kathmandu several months ago, I knew I would be coming to Nepal for a job.  Through some connections, I found a job working at an English-language monthly magazine based in Kathmandu.  Despite the fact that I had secured my job long before I stepped on the plane to Asia, I still was not sure exactly what I would be doing.  I vaguely had the idea that I would be “writing” and “editing.”

Even on the first day of my job as “Assistant Editor” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Four solid nine to five days into working and now I’m slowly starting to understand what my job entails.  I shall now explain exactly what I have been doing, am expected to do and presume I will do for this period of employment.

As I mentioned, I am working at a Nepali-owned magazine that focuses on culture, people, customs, rituals, travels, religions, foods, etc… of Nepal.  The magazine was originally aimed at expatriates living in Nepal, but the target audience has since shifted to the elite, urbanites of Nepal.  “Urbanites of Kathmandu?” you may ask.  Yes… Urbanites.  They do exist in large numbers.  The ads especially are aimed at a reader who is educated and has disposable income to spend on cigarettes, gyms, alcohol, clothes, etc…  If I could compare it to another magazine at home, I would say it is like Portland Monthly.

As I also mentioned, I am the Assistant Editor.  So far, my job entails a number of things and I have also been taking on extra duties in terms of their web presence.  I edit and copy edit the articles that go in the magazine (along with one other person), I keep in contact with all the freelance writers (for example, I need to keep track of and keep organized what they are writing, which issue the story would fit in, what sort of subject matter they are best at covering, etc…), I (with the help of some others) make story plans for the magazine up to six months in advance, I keep in contact with the layout department, I write captions and pick pull quotes, I write anything that needs to be written (I went to an art gallery opening yesterday afternoon with one of the magazine’s photographers), I assign stories to in-house and freelance writers, and I am expected to contribute 5,000-6,000 words per month to the magazine.  Phew.  In addition to my editorial duties I am making a long plan on how to increase the magazine’s web presence and social media presence and I’m trying to figure out how the web site can become successful internationally.  Phew again.  These duties are not all 100% on my shoulders and I have other people on the team who I consult with about all of the above.

I am slowly learning everyone’s names and personalities at the office, which I am at from nine to five, six days per week (except when I go out on a writing assignment).  I still don’t fully know what to expect out of this job, but I know I am in for quite a stint here in Kathmandu.

How Not To Win A Trip With Nick Kristof

Every year New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announces his latest “Win-A-Trip” contest.  The contest is open to students around the United States who want to travel with Kristof as he reports on location in Africa.  Kristof, an incredibly influential voice where poverty is concerned, offers to take the student he chooses around Africa, investigating topics like AIDS, war and malnourishment.

When I first read about the contest, I thought: “I HAVE to apply for this.”  I immediately began crafting my essay for the contest.  The guidelines ask for a story that is no more than 700 words about why you would be the ultimate travel companion for Kristof on this reporting mission.  Past winners have included journalism students, medical students and high school teachers.  I spent a long time crafting and editing my essay and, unfortunately, didn’t win.  I thought my essay was pretty good, so here it is in original form, just as it was submitted to Nicholas Kristof.  I hope future applicants will read this essay and think of a new strategy to help win that elusive trip with Nick! Good luck to you all!

My Essay for Nick Kristof:

Sweat the Small Stuff

by Leah Olson

An old tooth changed my life.

In 2007, I visited Cambodia to learn more about the Khmer Rouge genocide. Some reports said 1.5 million people were killed, others said 3 million. Either way, it was impossible for me to conceptualize these enormous numbers.

“One million,” I thought. “Just how many is that?”

When I toured the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, I walked past the memorial full of skulls and discarded clothing and past the mass graves. Near the edge of the fields I spotted a human molar, yellow and half buried in the dirt.

I picked it up and held it in my palm. This tooth, a tragic reminder of one of the darkest periods in history, came from a single mouth. The statistics instantly became a gruesome reality. I couldn’t comprehend one million until I could comprehend one. Witnessing the details, firsthand or vicariously through storytelling, is perhaps the best way for humans to understand each other.

Details make inconceivable issues tangible. They engage our emotions, help us relate and feel empathy. Without the details, it’s easy to be indifferent.

I began writing seriously three years ago when I moved to Nepal to work in a hospital and first observed people living in poverty. When the sun disappeared behind Kathmandu’s jagged skyline, I found myself wandering the alleys, watching women line the streets and rickshaw drivers settle into their vehicles for a night’s sleep.

As the weeks passed, I noticed dark piles of tangled limbs and torsos in corners of the city: sleeping humans, many of them young boys. I soon learned a startling truth: they were addicted to huffing glue.

Every time I passed a child holding a brown paper bag to his mouth, I wanted to write about my anger but I knew that spouting statistics about drug addiction and poverty would do nothing to convey the grim scene. Instead I focused on the details of the boys’ lives: discarded tubes of Dendrite glue, crumpled paper bags and torn T-shirts. I found that my attention to detail provoked a profound emotional response from many readers of my blog.

I am studying journalism and Japanese at the University of Oregon. I’ve been studying Japanese for over fifteen years. I chose journalism because I thrive on crafting stories and I know that stories, not statistics, are what inspire outrage, hope and change. A story about the millions who have died from malaria is not as powerful as a story about how the disease has affected one person.

I have traveled extensively in South and Southeast Asia, writing along the way. I’ve worked at a hospital in Kathmandu, witnessing many of the country’s public health issues, like tuberculosis and hepatitis A. I’ve traveled in the Nepali countryside and seen villages that have suspiciously few young women, many of whom have been trafficked to India. I’ve worked on a small Thai farm with Burmese refugees. I’ve seen many of the problems in developing countries, but I’ve also talked to people who are working on the solutions.

I am an insatiably curious writer, blogger, reporter, photographer and videographer. I have more than three years experience with writing, blogging and photography. As an electronic media student, I’ve shot and edited videos on a deadline. I have worked as a writer and associate editor and am currently the multimedia director at the University of Oregon’s student-run multicultural magazine, Ethos.

Journalism is changing, and so are the means by which to captivate an audience. This reporting trip with Mr. Kristof is an opportunity to encourage readers, especially members of my generation, to be interested and involved in the developing world. In conjunction with compelling stories, breathtaking photographs and well-executed videos, we should be continuously using new media throughout the trip to connect with a new audience.

For me it was a long-forgotten tooth that made genocide tangible. Not everyone has the chance to travel to developing countries, yet, in the age of globalization, every world citizen needs to understand both its human triumphs and tragedies. I am confident that a better tomorrow is possible, but first, people need to see the details, one tooth at a time.