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Creative in Kathmandu: A Report with Photos

The Writer in the World: Cultural Space and Displacement 2010

From Samrat Upadhyay, Director, Creative Writing Program:

For the second year in a row, the College Arts and Humanities Institute (CAHI) awarded me a grant to take with me MFA students to Nepal, my home country, for a 15-day cultural/literary trip.

For links to the PHOTOS of the trip, click HERE and HERE.

Titled, “The Writer in the World: Cultural Space and Displacement,” the project’s aim was to enable a shift in cultural location that would trigger perceptual changes, which would in turn stimulate creativity. The two-week displacement, I hoped, would transform my students’ writing by forcing it to engage with a broader social and political sphere, and that it would deepen their sense of being writers of the world.

The three students, Kevin Eldridge (poet), Alessandra Simmons (poet), and Lana Spendl (prose writer), were chosen through a competitive process. They arrived in Kathmandu in late June to a jam-packed itinerary that included, among other things, cultural tours of Kathmandu Valley’s three ancient cities—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur; journey to the resort town of Pokhara; dinner at my mother Shanta Sharma’s home in the outskirts of Kathmandu; and other cultural activities.

Kevin, Alessandra, and Lana also participated in a variety of literary events. They conducted workshops for upper-level students at St. Xavier’s School, my alma mater, offering critiques to the students on their poems and stories. On another day, we visited an impoverished city school, Kanya Mandir, the first all-girls school of the country. We interacted with the students, and Kevin, Alessandra, and Lana gave the students a good sense of life in America.

The visit coincided with the release of my novel, Buddha’s Orphans, in Nepal, and the three musketeers were part of the celebratory BOOK LAUNCH that was held at the Nepal-Bharat library.

The four of us also participated on a panel on Creative Writing at Quixote’s Cove bookstore The event was well-attended, with reporters in the audience—and the conversation was stimulating. The Kathmandu Post ran an ARTICLE on the panel.

What was the experience like for Kevin, Alessandra, and Lana? Please read their reflections below.

Kevin Eldridge, poet, MFA 2012

My original intention in going to Nepal was to gain insight into what “home” means by being radically outside of it. “Home” being, in its simplest form, a house in a specific time and place with specific people; and in a grander sense, being my habitual way of looking at and comprehending who I am, what’s around me, and where I come from. I already knew that travel had the ability to facilitate such perception transformations, but I hadn’t traveled with “writer” as one of my distinct identities, one way of understanding myself I was seeking to deepen.

Our excursion to Nepal provided numerous opportunities to look into myself as a writer: the chance to share my poetry with a room full of Nepalis: people from a place just about halfway around the world from me. I got to witness and participate in the release of a professor’s novel, and I gained more insight into the world of publication from that experience than from anything I had seen, read, or done in the United States. And as a writer, I meticulously kept a journal, experimenting with the writing method of basic collecting and writing, not with the purpose of producing polished, coherent pieces of writing so much as to process what I was experiencing. For me, writing became more a daily matter of maintaining sanity, and less one of “making” something that was meant to be read.

This was not exactly what I had initially had in mind. In an MFA program, the emphasis is largely on making work for the consumption of others. In workshops the output of ready-to-read work is staggering— but for me, it had started to lose some of its meaning. Who was I writing for? What was I trying to discover? Being able to keep a journal simply for the purposes of translating the world into language reminded me of the essential function of writing, and for me, its most deeply personal and urgent one: language is how I comprehend. I didn’t have to write a poem every day, I didn’t have to start and finish stories, but I did force myself to write: what did I feel, what did I think, what did I see? Always, what was I touching and tasting and learning?

I saw numerous times in Kathmandu a harrowing sight: street children sniffing glue in plain sight of hundreds of people, people passing them without glancing. They seemed to have become part of the background of the city. Children, sometimes as young as ten, gripping plastic bags to their mouth and nose, inflating and deflating it hungrily. I would see groups of them staggering down sidewalks, or laying in clumps on the pavement, staring dumbly at the sky. This was certainly not something I would see at home. It disturbed me deeply. And when I returned to my journal, I wrote about it. And I closed the journal and my mind turned to other thoughts. But still, I hope, there is something gained in writing about it.

If it’s true, as Buddhism asserts, that the assumed differences between myself and others (humans, animals, plants, beings) are mostly imagined and largely unfounded, then children sniffing glue in the streets of Kathmandu has ramifications for me as a being. At a basic level, it’s a ramification caused by cognition. I have seen them, the experience somehow enters my consciousness, and it enacts an irreversible change. Pushed further, the boundaries between myself and these children are fluid, even nonexistent. Damage to them is damage to me. I was able to unravel these consequences by writing about it. I can’t say what followed from that.

My idea for a thesis project in the MFA is to write about my home. But in order to do that, I have first to discover what the word home means. Or perhaps the two will occur side-by-side instead. Is my home just Crestline, California— a small mountain town, with a limited (and almost entirely white) population? Is my home a collection of places that are important to me, that I have spent time in? Is it logical to understand home largely as an idea defined by physical space? If so, will these kids find their way into what I write about home?

What if I take home to mean my being, my sense of self? The place I occupy as an individual? Then home isn’t fixed to where I was, home is defined by where I am. And if the self doesn’t actually exist, if instead we have something of a communal self, then that means the people around me play a role in what home is, too. And not even the people immediately around me. Not even people— but all beings. In its grandest sense, home has a direct relationship with every sentient being, alive or dead. Home is the familiar and the unfamiliar, bundled together. Home is the places I know most intimately and also the places I have never been, and all the beings that fill them.

This might seem a dangerously large notion of home. It could become an unwieldy metaphor. But when I recalled what I wanted to gain from traveling to Nepal and what I ultimately discovered, I knew I had to rework what I meant when I said to myself, home. I had to find room to incorporate the economic poverty, the spiritual health, the incessant staring, the human warmth, the natural beauty, the sickening pollution, the healthy, happy, (very human) Nepalis; the lonely, sick, malnourished Nepalis— as a self moving through a new place and surrounded by new people, my home was being transformed. And the only way I could process it with any sense was to attempt to include all of it, to convert it from raw experience and memory into (sometimes fitting, sometimes useless) language. This was my most basic task, as a “displaced” writer. And this, it seems to me, is my most essential discovery stemming from the experience: a writer must be aware of this larger self we are a part of. That, indeed, seems to be why writers write, our way of reasserting this larger self. A way of rediscovering all that composes a fundamental aspect of ourselves. Our way of ensuring all the joys and misery of the world matter to more than the few who experience them.

Lana Spendl, fiction writer, MFA 2011

The first morning in Kathmandu, I woke up at five. The room in which Alessandra and I were staying stood on the top floor of a silk factory, and three of its walls had windows. I began to walk around in the morning chill, leaning into the windows against the mosquito netting, because I wanted to see as far up, down, left and right as I could. Outside, rooftops stood tall against a gray sky. Trees and bushes of pink flowers surrounded our building. Directly below, in a courtyard, a crouching Nepali woman cooked breakfast over an open fire. A floor down, women’s voices began to sing out morning prayers in unison.
An hour later, at the kitchen table on the ground floor, Kevin, Alessandra and I sipped milk tea and chatted. The table occupied a third of the darkened kitchen. Two girls, silk workers, prepared our breakfasts with careful hands and giggled whenever we asked them questions in English they did not understand. As I sat by the window, I felt as if I was experiencing the moment in the relaxed and open way I would experience moments as a child in my native Bosnia. The quiet, easy pace at which life unfolded was perhaps the same.

What I was seeing did not mirror the expectations I had built in the months preceding the trip. Although I have lived in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States, I had only had access to Asia through films, photographs and literature. Thus, when Samrat mentioned before the trip that we would be staying at a silk factory, I had pictured a large, stuffy building with windowless rooms. I had pictured the workers as men, not as young women from poor families who were taken in and educated in exchange for their work. More generally, in terms of Nepal, I had pictured the streets as busy, loud yellow-dirt roads. My mind had also conjured up images of colorful clothes and loud marketplaces with haggling people and beggars. But I had never expected this: this simple, fresh morning calm.

Certainly, some of the images I had anticipated to see ended up being confirmed during the trip. But I had merely expected to see colorful whirlwinds of moments. I had not expected to see the moments of morning quiet or the routine moments where women cooked or cleaned or stood at their window gazing at the street below. I had had no idea that these in-between moments existed in Kathmandu.

The two subsequent weeks in Nepal for me fluctuated between moments of a similar deep contentment and moments of discomfort and fear, during which I felt trapped and wanted nothing more than to be back home in the States. The second day, for example, I got sunstroke and spent the night suffering from chills and fever. Then, a week into the stay, as Alessandra and I were returning home late in the night by taxi, the driver suspiciously kept on pulling into dark alleys for no apparent reason and slowing down to a stop. Another evening, as Kevin, Alessandra and I walked down a city street, two seemingly drugged-up teenagers pushed past us, crossed the street, and began to violently punch a cow on the side. More generally, the city air was sometimes painful to breathe because of smog. Also, our toilet at the silk factory was not working for part of the stay, and on certain days, we had no running water. On a stranger note, I almost got attacked by a monkey on the grounds of a temple.

Unique, precious and exciting moments were just as abundant. One morning, in Pokhara (a nearby city in the mountains), we stood at a lookout point at 4 a.m. to wait for the morning mist to clear so that we could see the Himalayas. When it cleared, it was hard to believe that these massive, wrinkled, snow-covered peaks were part of the earth on which we were standing. Another moment which sticks out in my mind took place back in Kathmandu where Samrat took us to see a Hindu astrologer, who drew up our charts and told us about our futures. We listened to him speak over a candle in a small room of a temple. From time to time, boys wandered in from the street and gaped at him as he talked and Samrat interpreted. Important moments also included visits to schools and an orphanage. In one school, each of us taught a class of creative writing to Nepali children. While in front of the room, I grew aware of how much I rely on my sense of humor and on certain physical gestures while I teach and how badly these translate into another, very different culture.

The themes of displacement, loss and isolation are common in my fiction. My characters are also sometimes hyperaware of how they are being perceived. They often look away from what they do not want to see. These are all feelings which had overcome me personally after the big moves of my life (from Bosnia to Spain, from Spain to America). These are also all feelings I was sure I had put behind me. I had thought that I had developed a strength, a confidence, a sense of self which was not ruled by external circumstances. Nepal poked holes in that sense of self every day and every hour, and I once again felt uncertainty and hesitance.
The first night, for example, as the older woman who owned the silk factory scooped out tomatoes and rice onto our dishes and sat to watch us eat, my eyes kept on darting away from hers. I did not know, at that moment, how to deal with being watched so openly and directly. Nepalis, in general, maintain eye contact even with someone whose eyes they meet in the street. This older woman’s gaze reminded me of my Bosnian grandmother’s in Sarajevo—my grandmother loved to sit and watch me eat, holding up her chin with a fisted hand—and in that sense, it was comforting. But what was disconcerting was the fact that my two American peers sat with me. Thus I had the element of my grandmother’s gaze, the element my two American peers which brought to mind a world where people did not watch one another, and the additional element of being in an utterly foreign country. None of these elements fit together. I was at a loss as to how to behave. I was not sure how not to retreat into myself. I was not sure how to remain open. Thinking about it more deeply, I was not sure what openness to the environment would entail in circumstances like these. Did one physically look at things more directly? Did one carefully observe and mimic the behavior of locals? Was there a way of staying emotionally open to the environment? If so, what were the internal strategies one could use to achieve this state, if one was not naturally prone to it?
The questions, which I only thought about later—I was too self-conscious in the moment to be analytical—have always played a big part in my fiction. Nepal served to bring them to light again, with more force, and I expect that they will emerge in my future stories in a riper form.

Alessandra Simmons, poet, MFA 2011

In my application essay for Creative in Kathmandu, I wrote: “The act of traveling, of displacing and immersing myself in the unfamiliar landscape. . .physically embodies the aspirations of poetry: the everyday and commonplace become extraordinary, demanding my full attention and care.” I wanted to know how I would change as a writer, what borders I would cross, not just national, but conceptual as well as we traveled to Kathmandu to lead workshops with high school students, attend literary panels, and visit historical places. I was ready for adventure.
The journey certainly began with an adventure—a seventeen-hour layover in Abu Dhabi where the archways were all curved and terminal walls and ceilings were decorated with grand deep blue and gold mosaics. Desert stretched out through the airport windows. After the layover, and a series of misfortunes including an electrical storm in Kathmandu, our flight to Kathmandu from Abu Dhabi was diverted to Kolkata, India. As we veered away Kathmandu, I peered over my Nepali airplane neighbors out the dark window and saw nothing, no lights, no city. Clouds or perhaps an electrical outage in the city prevented me from seeing our destination. Did Kathmandu really exist? The normally long journey to a country halfway around the world, grew longer, anticipation mounting inside of me, though I was exhausted from both the time change and the sleepless hours in confining airplane seats.

We landed in Kolkata and sat on the tarmac, waiting for our next instructions. Lana, my traveling companion, told me about a Buddhist meditation where you picture other people and creatures, to be your mother. Even the people you found most annoying. I tried to practice this on the plane, as the pink-shirted Nepali man who told me he was on the police force in Kathmandu shouted loudly over me to the man seated behind me. I understood none of what he said, but it was loud, punctuated by laughter and extravagant hand gestures. Our Nepali guidebook had said Nepalis were offended by loud voices, so it was important to lower your voice when speaking to locals. Lana had been worried as her voice could sometimes carry. We realized she had nothing to worry about. The man sitting next to Lana played Bollywood music off his cell phone. The speakers were tinny but loud, serenading the entire plane of restless and sleeping passengers. We have different ideas of personal space, I realized, and tried again not to be annoyed.

“If these passengers had been Americans,” I whispered to Lana, “they’d be angry and demanding things.”

“God, could you imagine it?”

The majority of the passengers were Nepali and they were sleeping or trying to sleep or telling jokes and stories to their seatmates. A few people asked for updates every few hours, but no one complained. The man next to me helped me learned the phrase, Miro nam ka ho Alessandra. We spent eight hours on the tarmac.

After one hour of collecting passports, two hours of taxi rides to and from a hotel called the Peerless Inn somewhere in Kolkata, five hours of sleeping/eating at the Peerless Inn, and another two hours of passing back through security, reclaiming our passports from Indian officials, we boarded the plane, and listened to the Arabic prayer again that was chanted before take off at the beginning of all Etihad Airline’s flights. An hour later, we were in Kathmandu.

The humility and flexibility of our fellow passengers, the inefficient processes of collecting and returning our passports, the traffic accidents and bright colors we saw from the windows of our taxi were great welcome signs saying, Pay attention and slow down, You got your wish. Everything has been made new.

Once we were settled into our quarters at Kalaghuti we spent a great deal of time traveling around Kathmandu, the capital city. I awoke each morning not to the sound of my alarm, but instead to smoke from a neighbor who was cooking her breakfast in the traditional way, over an open fire. Pigeons and blackbirds watched from the eaves of our room, clucking and crowing. Cows wandered in and out of traffic, and often stopped for a nap on the side of the bridge we drove over daily.

And everywhere there, were temples, and shrines. And everywhere there were temple and shrines there were multitudes worshiping. From monks and nuns circumambulating Baudda—the largest and most picturesque (in my opinion) stupa in Kathmandu, to young men and women on their way to work stopping at a small and ancient shrine on a street corner for a moment of prayer. In most of the places I have lived in the United States faith and religious practice is nearly taboo: you do not talk about it, let alone practice it in public. It was startling (but something like a relief) to see that in another part of the globe, the invisible world was acknowledged to be as much a part of the life as the physical world.

Since I cannot in the space here describe all of Kathmandu, nor recount in thorough enough detail how I spent each day while I was there, I’m going to conclude with a short list of highlights:

1. Visiting Kanya Mandir, Nepal’s first all girls school. It is a poor school with few resources, but bright and eager students who pressed us with questions about the United States. One image I remember from this visit is unloaded the books I had helped to bring and donate to the school on the table, and seeing empty shelves in the back of the room.
2. Visiting St. Xavier’s Godavari School. While working with a group of eight students, I asked them to write about a favorite place, real or imagined, in as much detail as possible. One of the youngest boys then read us a poem he wrote about his bedroom. I hadn’t said it should be a poem. He said to me afterward, “When I write, it just comes out in poems.”
3. Fishtail (one of the peaks of the Himalayas) appearing through the fog and rainclouds one wet morning when we had woken before dawn and driven in a rickety taxi to a vista point in Pokhara
4. Hiking to the Peace Pagoda. We took a boat ride across a beautiful lake to a trail up a “mini-hillock” to a vista point and stupa.
5. Learning about Kalaghuti and Umila’s life when she sat with us for tea or dinner (where a plate of the sweetest fresh mangos was always served).
6. Learning that poetry publications are subsidized by the government in Nepal, because everyone needs access to poetry!

I cannot at this moment point to a poem I have written as say, You see since going to Nepal I have started writing only in the present tense, or something else so specific. But I can say my imagination and my well of words is deeper, brighter, wider, and full of newness, because the world I live in is now deeper, brighter, wider and full as well.