Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of 14 books, including After Eden, Range of Light, Winter's Edge, and more. Her newest book, Traveling with Spirits is about her odyssey through Northern India and the Midwest section of the United States, as she explores religion, politics, international aid, human failings and innate goodness. It's a remarkable book, and I asked Valerie if she would write something about it for the blog. Thank you so, so much, Valerie. I'm so honored to host you here.
Traveling with Spirits is a book I swore I wouldn’t write.
But friend after friend said, “Of course your next novel will be set in India.”
“Oh, no,” I replied, “I’m not going to expropriate someone else’s culture. There are plenty of good Indian writers.”
I fell in love with India on my first trip there in 1988. Since then, the astonishingly diverse landscapes, the colors of the textiles, the spice of the foods, the music of the languages and most of all my good friends in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi kept drawing me back.
Every visit has involved teaching (including a six month Fulbright in 2000) at such places as the University of Calcutta, the University of New Delhi, the University of Himachel Pradesh. Mumbai University, the University of Rajasthan, Uktal University, North-Eastern Hills University and many other schools. And with every return I made new friends who made the next trip even more compelling.
I “knew” India, not as an Indian, but as an outsider. A lifelong traveler, I have spent 10 years of my adult life abroad. As much as I “knew” about India, I knew even more about the life of an expatriate. Now I saw a way I could spend more time there—in my imagination.
I began with three short stories, “Veranda,” “Always Avoid Accidents” and “The Fall,” published them in literary journals and in my fourth collection of short fiction, Abundant Light. The response was very heartening about each story from Indian and American readers. “Veranda” won the McGuinness Ritchie Prize for the year’s best fiction in the Southwest Review. Then it won a $25,000 McKnight Arts Grant. I started to play with some ideas for Traveling with Spirits.
One particular interest was the Catholic Church and its dubious role in developing countries. As a formerly active, but now totally lapsed (or collapsed), Catholic who had traveled a lot in developing lands, I had deep concerns about cultural imperialism.
OK, India and the Catholic Church and an expatriate. Suddenly Monica emerged—the family physician from Minneapolis who gets fed up with her clinic‘s uncompassionate triage treatment the greed of obdurate health insurance corporations. She decides to practice medicine in a place where she might be more useful. She opts for a Mission hospital in an Indian hill station, where she hopes to contribute and also to work in a more congenial atmosphere of colleagues with shared values. Just as Monica is in store for big surprises, so too I found myself floundering in the land of the unexpected as I began to write.
I always begin a novel by noting the things I know about the emotional, geographical, historical territory. With Traveling, I reminded myself, I knew about being an expatriate. I had spent long periods in India since 1988. Of course I knew all about the Catholic Church. I had friends who were doctors and had a good sense of how family practice clinics worked.
As I began the first draft, I discovered how much more I didn’t know. I wound up reading many books about the history of Catholicism in India (which began with the arrival of Thomas, the Apostle, in Kerala in the year 50.) Now there are almost 20 million Catholics in India (including Syriac Catholics and others). I read memoirs and studies about religious mission hospitals. The more I tried to write about Monica’s work as a doctor, I realized I had the most superficial knowledge of the work. This sent me to memoirs of family practitioners, studies of insurance companies (very depressing) and papers about the particular diseases she would encounter in India. I asked Indian friends to read the novel in draft to make sure it was appropriate, not appropriating. I asked a Minneapolis doctor to read with an eye to any flub I may have made in representing her profession. I returned to India three times during the writing of the book.
Now, after a decade of two steps forward and one step back, the novel is published and this writer has learned a wee bit more about both the hubris and the humility involved in writing novels.