Monday, April 25, 2011

Author and readers haunted by images in 'The Blue Notebook'

Originally printed July 24, 2010.

James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, is a prime example of why the University of Iowa is right to hold conferences such as this year's "The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine" as well as why such a surprisingly large number of Iowa Writers' Workshop graduates go on to earn their medical degree and become physicians.

Even though he already has published one well-received novel -- "The Blue Notebook" (Spiegel and Grau, 2009) -- he has another novel already in the hands of his publishers and is working on a third novel, Levine doesn't really think of himself as "a writer." He still views himself primarily as a physician and obesity researcher who, while on a visit to Mumbai, became haunted by the sight of one of India's estimated 500,000 child prostitutes who was jotting down her thoughts in a blue notebook.

Having read many reports and spoken with many of the fieldworkers who study these 21st-century sex slaves, Levine knew that most of these exploited children had no opportunity for school and, thus, only a very few were literate. And then, in an attempt to excise the powerful image from his mind, Levine decided to try his hand at writing a novel about what this particular girl would have been writing in that blue notebook.

Levine had no formal training in fiction writing, but he knew he needed about 60,000 words. So he decided to take the next 60 days and focus on writing 1,000 words each day. In the end, he wound up needing only 58 days because two of the stories within the novel came from tales he already had written for his children.

The result of Levine's two months away from his day job is a powerful and disturbing novel narrated by Batuk, a 15-year-old Indian girl who was sold into the brothels by her father at age nine. The novel includes several particularly powerful scenes -- scenes Levine wasn't sure could ever be published -- that will make readers hope against hope that first-time novelist has been exaggerating or over-dramatizing the horrors his characters face.

But Levine says the events described in "The Blue Notebook" are just "one-1,000th of one-1-1,00th" of what these children actually experience every day. In writing the novel, Levine said he reached the limits of literary realism itself.

"There are times when these children are completely disassociated from time or future, from their wishes or wants," Levine said in a phone interview Thursday. "Times when they just express this absolute nothingness. If you were to focus on recreating only that in a novel, it would just be a book of blank pages."

"The Blue Notebook" has received its share of good reviews, but many of the reviewers are overly cautious in how they express their admiration of the novel. The reviewers seem disturbed by their own ability to "enjoy" reading a novel that describes such an awful situation.

Levine said he isn't surprised by such a reaction. He was interested in telling Batuk's story because it essentially affirms the resilience of the human spirit when faced with such overwhelming conditions. He said he intended the novel to be "uplifting" rather than "depressive." And he's been very gratified with the response.

"Someone painted a picture ... of what they thought Batuk looked like and gave it to me," Levine said. "Now, whenever I have a bad day, I sit in my living room and look at the beautiful painting of this small girl, and I say, 'Here is a young woman who has the power to endure.' ... Suddenly my day seems much better."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 3887-5435 or

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