Full disclosure – C.W. Huntington and I are not strangers, although until recently we hadn’t connected in well over a decade. Years ago, as an undergraduate English major at a small college in central New York, I enrolled in a Religion and Literature course taught by Huntington. This class, more than most of my humanities courses, expanded my thinking and forced me to reflect on my beliefs and experiences in new and often critical ways. Besides exploring religion’s presence in contemporary stories and narratives, Huntington asked us to consider self and other, the nature of suffering, and absurdity in the modern world, among other philosophical quandaries. More often than not, he guided us to new questions and personal truths, and his focus on close reading, observation, and self-reflection left a mark.
When I discovered that Huntington had a novel out in June, I ordered it up, and upon reading, I was happy to find many of those same contemplations within its pages. Maya, published by Wisdom Publications, has been gaining praise, including a recent rave from Jim Harrison, who noted that “Huntington is to be congratulated for his grace and spiritual power. [Maya] is an uncommonly vital book.” Personally, it’s a novel that forced me to slow down, reflect, and peer into my own thinking and assumptions, a worthwhile experience, and one I was pleased to revisit. Reaching out was easy enough, but asking the right questions was hard. Nevertheless, Huntington was kind enough to answer a few I sent his way.
W.B. BELCHER: Maya is set against the backdrop of “the Emergency” (India in the mid-1970s). I’m interested in how the idea for this novel took shape, how long you were working on it, and if you originally intended to write a novel.
C.W. HUNTINGTON: I’ve always been an avid reader of literary fiction, and at some point I guess I just asked myself, Why not try writing a novel? I had already published a string of academic articles and a book on Buddhist philosophy, so I knew something about the discipline involved in crafting words. Of course fiction is a whole new set of challenges, but I felt strongly that I wanted to see what I could do. That was in 1989, quite a while back. I had finished my Ph.D. and just returned from a few years of teaching in India when I began work. The bulk of the first draft was written in a trailer in the mountains outside Eugene, Oregon, where my wife and I were living in those years. I was unemployed and had a lot of time on my hands. Mostly I remember the endless winter rain pounding on the tin roof of the trailer while I sat in this tiny room, hours every day, bent over my old Mac plus keyboard, drinking way too much espresso. But then I drifted back into academics, and put the manuscript in a file cabinet. It stayed there for 15 years, until one day I pulled it out and was seized with a desire to finish what I’d begun. A lot of the material is drawn from my experience in India, where I’ve lived off and on since the 70’s. India’s a wild place, what with all the diversity of languages and clothing, the wandering holymen, monkeys and camels, all the old temples and mosques filled with people. For Americans, who are for the most part accustomed to a certain level of cleanliness and order, it’s like a round the clock carnival. You can’t live there for years without collecting a lot of great stories. But it was never my intention to compose a straightforward memoir. After all those years of academic writing, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was let myself be bound by some idea of what “really happened.” The idea of a fictional memoir, however, was very appealing for the sort of story I had in mind.
WBB: How much of the initial conceit was influenced by personal experience?
CWH: I’ve lived in India some eight years of my adult life, and spent many times that number of years immersed in study of the languages and culture. But I was interested in my experience only as a starting point, a sort of springboard from which I could leap into a world of my own creation. From the beginning, I wanted to compose a tribute to the India I had experienced, in all its crazy, mysterious ugliness and beauty. I know how that sounds. And I’m genuinely sensitive to legitimate concerns about Orientalism, about romanticizing “the East.” But I’m by nature a romantic, and Maya is as much imagination as it is memory or historical fact. The two are inseparable. That’s exactly what India is to me: an inseparable blend of inner and outer, of fact and fiction. And that’s what I wanted to get down on paper. I wanted to write about India through the lens of my own experience, the India that shaped me profoundly, the India I love. I’ve never particularly cared about objective truth, which in any case doesn’t exist. I wanted a good story. A story that would draw people in just way India drew me in.
WBB: I’m interested in illusion, masks, the malleability of memory. Without giving too much away, can you describe the concept of Maya and how it informs Stanley’s journey?
CWH: Now we’re at the heart of the project – the part that really captured my interest. There’s a line from the Lankavatara Sutra – an early Mahayana Buddhist text – that perfectly captures the gist of the rather obscure way of looking at the world that is expressed in the Sanskrit word maya: “Things are not as they seem; nor are they otherwise.” I actually used this line in the novel. Maya isn’t simply “illusion” as opposed to “reality.” It’s much more subtle than that. As I mentioned already, prior to working on the novel I had written extensively on Buddhist philosophy, in particular on the philosophy of emptiness. To say that the world and the self are “empty” is to say that they are ungraspable, that experience cannot be understood or captured in any kind of absolute terms. This is the meaning of maya. It was this sense of the profound mystery – the miracle, really – of our ordinary experience of self and world that I wanted to illustrate in the story of Stanley’s journey. Stanley is, I suppose, a kind of anti-hero. He’s not a character anyone would want to emulate. He cheated on his wife and destroyed their marriage; he has an unfortunate tendency to look at women as sexual objects; he’s judgmental and overly critical of the people around him. But he is also deeply self aware, deeply committed to searching for truth – which means, primarily, the truth about himself. This is, perhaps, his single virtue, and ultimately his deepest flaw. From the moment he arrives in India, this whole business of searching for the “truth” becomes increasingly problematic, and increasingly unsettling, both for Stanley and for the reader.
WBB: This novel is immersive; it captures the reader at a very visceral level. For me, the moments that resonate involve some sort of interplay between Stanley’s inner conflict and the pain and suffering he’s observing on the street. The juxtaposition is powerful. Can you talk about this tension between the interior and exterior, how it relates to “self,” and how it connects to our 21st Century existence?
CWH: Once again, these are extremely important questions that bear directly on what you might call “the philosophical underpinnings” of the novel. At the top of the cover, the publisher placed a line that reads: “A stunning debut novel of sex, loss, and redemption.” When I saw it, I said no, it should read “love, loss, and redemption.” I lost that battle, probably to someone in marketing. But Maya isn’t really about sex; it’s about love. “I am incapable of love.” These are Stanley’s own words, spoken about himself early on in the story. It was his doubts about the very possibility of love that ultimately poisoned his marriage, and throughout the novel he asks, repeatedly, “Is this love?” To ask about love is to inquire about the secret source of the self, and about the mysterious relations between self and other. Again, as Stanley says early on in the novel, with reference to his failed marriage: “One always wonders how much of oneself can be given over to a relationship before there is no self left to relate.” But it’s not just romantic love that troubles him; what he’s searching for is a way to love the world, to love the life he is given. His struggle is, of course, complicated – and heightened – by the human and animal suffering he encounters all around him. As you have suggested, these questions are very much a part of contemporary investigations in philosophy, neuropsychology, and other disciplines. I was recently on the faculty of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, a sort of “think tank” organized by the Dalai Lama, and questions about the nature of suffering, and of the self, were precisely what was driving the conversation. As for the problem of love – what it is, what it means – this is, I think you’ll agree, a perennial issue.
WBB: There’s a moment late in the novel when Stanley realizes that “there are only the stories. Stories we tell to ourselves and to each other. Stories about ourselves in the world. There is only this endless layering of memory and imagination.” Can you expand on that thought? What do stories mean to you?
CWH: Well, this isn’t really an original idea. Others have made similar observations. For instance, the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And it’s true. Or perhaps I should say, it’s as close to an absolute truth as we’re likely to get. If you ask someone, Who are you? they’ll tell you a story. For that matter, the whole idea of “atoms” is nothing but an ongoing story that’s been subject to constant revision for the last two millennia. I once tried to tell a logician that logic is just another way of telling stories. Of course he didn’t believe me. People want to think we have something more real, more solid and dependable than the stories we tell about ourselves and the world. But, for better or worse, we don’t. It’s turtles all the way down.
WBB: What’s next? Are you working on another novel or do you have another adventure in store?
CWH: I don’t know about another adventure, especially if it involves traveling. I used to love nothing more than packing a small bag and taking a long journey, but I think those days are over. I pretty much hate flying now. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever go back to India, a place I dearly miss. It’s changed so much, anyway, chain restaurants and cell phones everywhere. What with e-mail and skype and those omnipresent phones, nowadays it’s almost impossible to get away – really get away, the way I describe in Maya. That kind of adventure is harder and harder to find. The last time I took college students to India, they were calling home on their phones before we’d made it through customs, processing the experience before they’d even had it. But I’ll keep writing. I still have hundreds of pages of first draft material left over from those days in the trailer in Oregon. I’m looking it over. A lot of it is worthless, but still, there’s something in there worth salvaging, another story to be told. And I just had a long academic piece published on Theravada Buddhist meditation, how it’s being coopted by American capitalism. Writing isn’t easy for me, but I love it. So maybe there’s the adventure.
W.B. Belcher’s debut novel Lay Down Your Weary Tune is forthcoming from Other Press (January 2016).” Feel free to visit www.wbbelcher.com for more information or an expanded bio.
C.W. Huntington translates and interprets classical Sanskrit and Tibetan texts and is a professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. He is the author The Emptiness of Emptiness and Maya: A Novel. He lives in Oneonta, New York.