Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eula Biss's ‘perverse’ take on ‘wholesome’ Iowa City

If you miss Eula Biss’s 7 p.m. reading Wednesday at Prairie Lights Books, you can always catch it on CSPAN. That’s just one example of the national attention Biss has attracted since the University of Iowa graduate won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

But Wednesday's reading offers a chance for local residents to ask Biss about the essays on Iowa and Iowa City included in her new collection, “Notes from No Man’s Land.” Both essays describe her experiences teaching in UI’s Department of Rhetoric and earning her MFA in non-fiction, but neither paints a very flattering picture of our community.

“Her voice embraces a devastating mix of insistence and quandary,” Robert Polito observes in his judge’s afterword, “as though she is despairing and pressing on simultaneously.”

That “mix” is most “devastating” in the collection’s opening essay, “Time and Distance Overcome.” In a mere eight pages, Biss condenses a history of telephone poles from the visionary but impractical promise of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, to the efforts of communities to keep the poles from blighting the landscape, to the bridging of the continent through the first New York-San Francisco telephone call, to the horror of when the new poles — high, sturdy and cross-like — began to be used as lynching posts.

Only toward the end of the essay does Biss explain her autobiographical connection to this uncanny history of such familiar objects. Her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a pole fell on him. And her extended family has become racially diverse enough that she’s learned how “nothing is innocent” as well as how “nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

The other essays become more overtly memoir-like as Biss moves through her experiences living in New York, California and the Midwest. But the best essays continue to place Biss’ personal experiences into a history and world beyond what any one person could experience firsthand. She continues to present and to ruminate on familiar objects and concepts until they lose any sense of innocence.

When she describes Iowa in the essays “Back to Buxton” and “Is This Kansas,” she is struck by the ruins of an abandoned early-20th-century black community. She is dumbfounded at how her undergraduate students believe that neither racism nor sexism exist anymore and consider “my interest in these subjects very antiquated.” And she is confounded at “why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned.”

The Iowa City she describes is one that features a large pile of 15 couches on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Summit Street — couches scarred with cigarette burns and smelling of vomit. It’s a place where a drunken frat boy broke into her apartment two weekends in a row and refused to leave the second time until the police arrived. It’s a city that remains the only place Biss has lived — a list that includes in New York City, San Diego and Chicago — “where I have had reason to speak with the police with any regularity.”

Biss left Iowa City three months after the 2006 tornado ripped through the downtown. She contrasts that experience of a “small storm” in a “small city” against how her Iowa City students had disparaged New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. She quotes from a post-tornado column of mine to describe how “the onlookers seemed to view the damaged downtown as an amusement park — walking through the storm’s path of destruction like it was a new adventure ride.”

If Biss had been in Iowa during last year’s floods, her tone might be a little less despairing about how college-age Iowans react to a natural disaster. But her description of Iowa City comes at an opportune time. As the city deals with a growing number of unprovoked assaults on the pedestrian mall and as many residents continue to excuse such excesses of student or college-aged culture, we all could stand to be reminded that “this place was not wholesome, as the Midwest likes to imagine itself, but rather perverse.”

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at jcharisc@press-citizen.com or 319-887-5435.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poker, memoirs and a Hindu take on 12-step programs

Later this month, Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Cheeni Rao will celebrate the publication of his memoir/novel “In Hanuman’s Hands” with a poker tournament at the American Legion in Iowa City. The event will also be a fundraiser for Shelter House.

In order to get some perspective on Rao’s new book, I spoke with Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa and author of “Hanuman's Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey.”

Q: “In Hanuman’s Hands” blends a number of different genres — from coming-of-age novel, to addiction memoir, to second-generation immigrant tale. But this heavily fictionalized non-fiction novel comes out at a time when Hanuman, the divine monkey, has become very popular deity in the Hindu world. Can you explain who Hanuman is and where he ranks in the Hindu pantheon?

A: Hanuman is a character in the celebrated, ancient story of the “Ramayana,” an epic tale dating back more than two millennia. Hanuman is sort of the “best supporting actor.” He is the animal helper and sidekick to Rama, who is a prince.

Q: Is he the comic sidekick?

A: Not primarily, but he does have comical and trickster-like qualities.

Q: So he’s more like Loki, the powerful and mischievous blood-brother of Odin in Norse mythology?

A: Perhaps, but what’s most interesting to me is how Hanuman, in the last 1,000 years or so, has become one of the most popular deities in the Hindu pantheon. And that’s been the subject of my research: Why has Hanuman, a character most Western scholars consider fairly minor in the “Ramayana,” emerged as a major religious figure?

Q: So, why has he become so popular?

A: Well, answering that question takes about 400 pages in my book. But you can say that Hanuman’s rise has been connected with upward social mobility and the rise of the middle class. He is the folk deity who made it big. And he has come to represent many things. On the one hand, he represents devotion; he’s devoted to Rama. But he also represents pluck, resourcefulness and self-advancement.

Q: Hanuman sounds like a character in a Horatio Alger novel — one perfect for telling the story of a second-generation immigrant adapting to American culture.

A: He’s also very popular because he bridges a lot of the divides in Hinduism. He is associated with the big male gods, Vishnu and Shiva. While there are a lot of sects within Hinduism that worship either one or the other, Hanuman figures in both. He’s the great mediator. He is the monkey in the middle.

He’s neither animal nor human. He has some qualities associated with demonic powers, but he’s very good. He’s a feisty go-between. An intermediate. An intercessor.

That’s why he becomes so helpful to someone like Cheeni Rao’s narrator, who is a young man struggling with addiction.

Q: Rao describes a conflict between Hanuman and Kali, the goddess his family has been devoted to for generations.

A: That’s where I, from the standpoint of the tradition, have some trouble. The narrator claims to be from a family of Kali devotees, yet the narrator presents her primarily as a negative and destructive power. That’s something a lot of Hindus would not agree with — wouldn’t be even comfortable with.

Kali is a complex divine figure. She does represent cosmic destruction but always in connection with rebirth and regeneration. She is a kind of divine, nurturing mother to her devotees. I didn’t see that side of her at all in the novel. Instead, it was more of a simplistic conflict between good and evil — between the forces of light and darkness.

It even comes across as a very western dichotomy.

Q: What do you mean?

A: There’s a bit of an Orientalist tone toward the latter part of the book, when Hanuman starts battling with Kali. It sometimes seems more in line with “Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom,” which Cheeni probably watched as a child.

But in defense of Cheeni, I have to say that Hinduism is a very decentralized religious tradition. Its individual participants have a great deal of freedom to interpret and to retell the stories in their own way. It’s very characteristic of the “Ramayana” tradition as a whole. There are many different folk and local retellings.

So I can’t say with absolute certainty that there isn’t some sect somewhere among Hindus in India that think of Hanuman and Kali in this way. But to my knowledge, they haven’t been paired together like this. In some of the traditions, in fact, Hanuman becomes the sidekick and servant of various war-like goddesses who are similar to Kali.

Q: So is it fair to say that Hanuman is more like Horatio in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” He’s Hamlet’s best friend, but even Hamlet’s enemies trust him and put their faith in him. And, at the end of the play, he’s about the last one standing.

A: That works well at end. When Rama leaves the earthly realms, he gives Hanuman immortality. That means Hanuman is here in the world. He is on earth. He is always available. You can always call on him — as Cheeni Rao’s narrator does.

He’s available. He has a physical presence — even if he is a shape-shifter who can transform himself.

Plus one of his key cultural roles is as a kind of a shaman-like healer. He is a healer of mental illness and of people thought to be possessed — which is an apt metaphor for addiction.

Again, this all suggests why he is so appropriate for the subject of this novel.

Q: “In Hanuman’s Hands” has been described as a Hindu take on 12-step programs. How does Hanuman’s presence in such a novel complicate that nearly century-old tradition?

A: I don’t know that much about the 12 steps, but I do know that the spiritual component is very crucial. That you have to recognize that you need a higher power to help you.

Q: The first step is to admit you are “powerless” over addiction and that your life has become “unmanageable.” The second step is to believe that “a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

A: That’s one of the things that intrigued me about the book — the use of a Hindu image pool or mythology for this narrative about a recovery program. And why not? It’s very appropriate, and there are times in the book where I think it works very well for the narrator. And in those times, having a little bit of knowledge of the “Ramayana” does enhance the reader’s appreciation for the character.

Q: Do think some knowledge of the “Ramayana” is necessary to enjoy the book?

A: Not really. But it does help you appreciate how Cheeni is experimenting with, meditating on, musing about, creatively retelling — and sometimes even warping — the “Ramayana” story.

Q: Where there any passages that were particularly surprising to you?

A: There are a couple of passages where he depicts Rama as a junkie. Those might be very disturbing to some American Hindus. So disturbing, in fact, that I’m interested to see how all this will play out in the public reception of the book. There are people out there who are just looking to be offended.

By saying that, I’m not trying to single out the Hindu Right. I remember well how “The Last Temptation of Christ” was pulled out of theaters in Iowa after a lot of protests from the Christian Right.

Q: Did those particular passages offend you?

A: They shocked me, but they are part of the license that I am willing to give him as a storyteller.

Q: You occasionally teach a class titled, “’Ramayana’ as Literature, Performance and Ideology.” Will you be adding this novel to the class next time you teach it?

A: That class looks at the whole scope and breadth of the “Ramayana” storytelling tradition — in which there is a great deal of freedom to retell the story. There’s an old phrase, “The 300 Ramayanas," and there is about that many major literary retellings of the story in all of the languages on the Indian subcontinent.

It’s very interesting that, prior to modern times, there was almost no translation of the oldest “Ramayana,” which is in Sanskrit. From a Western perspective, of course, you might think that the oldest “Ramayana” is the real or authentic “Ramayana,” and that everyone else is translating it. But that’s not the case.

And it’s not that people didn’t know about it or respect it. It’s just that they wanted to retell the story in their own way. There’s a real preference for retelling the story in such a way that every language and every group can make it their own.

Q: And that’s what you see Cheeni Rao doing?

A: That’s what he’s doing. And in that sense, his book is very much in the tradition. I would consider using “In Hanuman’s Hands” at the end of the course — after we look at the modern televisions series, movies and even anime cartoons. But I usually like to end the course on a more upbeat note than this novel provides.