Sunday, April 7, 2019

Q&A with Marilyn Stablein

Marilyn Stablein is the author of the new books Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu: Letters from India and Nepal 1966-1972 and Vermin: A Traveler's Bestiary. Her other books include The Census Taker and Sleeping in Caves. She lives in Portland, Oregon. 

Q: Why did you decide to turn your letters from India and Nepal into a book?

A: First of all I’m so amazed, inspired, and grateful that my mother saved the letters. They were not written with any thought of publication. When I left Berkeley at 18 for a summer abroad I hadn’t the vaguest notion that I wouldn’t return for seven years! 

I wanted my parents to share in my discoveries to distract them from worrying about me so far from home. I detailed my evolving interests in art, literature, music, Tibetan and Indian culture, and sacred places so they might see the value of my eclectic, self-initiated studies. 

The letters were spaced about a month apart so they show how my interests developed over the years…including my marriage to a Columbia University scholar in a Tibetan wedding ritual in the Queen’s forest in Kathmandu and giving birth in a Nepalese hospital.

When my mother gave me bundles of blue aerograms years later they evoked my hobby of collecting exotic stamps as a kid. The intriguing postage stamps, cancellation dates on folded blue flimsy aerogram paper and exotic addresses are historical novelties. In this era of digital overload even handwriting is a rarity. 

Recently I worked on a chronology of travels with a friend. We were still in our teens when we hitchiked across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and traveled throughout North India. After 50 years our accounts had lapses, differences. “I’ll check my letters,” I said.

The letters were dated, the city noted, and when I started reading them again I was surprised at the details, the small things that get lost over time like cooking on various kerosene stoves or cowdung and charcoal burners. 

Waking to the sound of the Maharaja’s (our neighbor in Varanasi) elephant chomping bodhi tree branches a few feet from our open window. A futile chase after a monkey that stole my sandal during the largest gathering on the planet, the Kumbha Mela. 

The letters reveal layers of experience not present in Sleeping in Caves, an earlier memoir; The Census Taker stories; and the surreal dream journals in Night Travels to Tibet. 

Q: Looking back at the letters, which go back half a century, how do you view your younger self?

A: Growing up in a home that hosted foreign exchange students I learned to respect people who had customs, traditions, languages, and practices I wasn’t familiar with. 

At 16 I joined a youth work camp in Mexico. Those two weeks really opened my eyes to life in another culture: Orozco, Kahlo, Ballet Folklorico, huaraches, guacamole, shopping in the marketplace in Oaxaca. Travel was fun, exciting. In Europe I wanted to keep going across North Africa and eventually overland through the Middle East to India. I’m surprised at my confidence, bravery and endurance. Amazed by people I met and what I learned. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your experiences?

A: Before smart phones, the internet, skype, online reservations, maps, menus, and ticket sales every day was an adventure full of surprises and challenges: where to stay, where to eat, where to catch a rickshaw or shikara. 

Hard now to imagine living by choice for months or years without a fridge, oven, hot water, telephone, car, insurance, social media, or credit cards.

The book offers an opportunity to glimpse a way of life where a slower pace allows time for reflection, serenity. The rewards of reading and translating; finding time for creativity, the necessity of innovation when there was a lack of conveniences we take for granted today.

The terrain was full of historical wonders to explore: sculptures at Khajuraho and Konarak, Buddhist cave monasteries, Ajanta frescos, the Ganges, the Himalayas. The ‘60s were an energized time. I met countercultural travelers, yoga and meditation students, anthropologists, artists, Indian saints and gurus, Tibetan lamas available to teach for the first time outside of Tibet. 

Q: You also have another new book out, Vermin. What inspired that book?

A: Travel introduced me to new environments. I didn’t go looking for critters. They found me! No one likes a flea, mosquito or tick bite. It was challenging figuring out how to deal with invasive pests without poisons, bombs, and repellents. Some critters like ants and cockroaches do not bite but their presence in the kitchen or bathroom is annoying. 

I learned that if I watched their habits I could figure out ways to outsmart them. 

Some of the tales are set in India. The etched bronze rat on the cover is from a door at the rat temple in Rajastan. In the “Leech Hall of Fame” you can read a story about the largest leech ever seen and be glad it didn’t find you!

Egyptians worshipped the scarab, a type of dung beetle, whose habits are actually mannerly, promethian, and ecologically useful—they cart off waste to bury. Vermin is a traveler’s bestiary that combines dozens of encounters, historical tales, remedies, oddities, and superstitions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A memoir about books and book fetishes: reading books, writing books, making artist books, collecting books, book dreams, amazing discoveries, adventurous book hunts. Between my antiquarian bookseller husband’s library of books and my own collections which range from Tibetan manuscripts, Asian literature, post-modernist classics (Donald Barthelme was my thesis advisor), and unique oddities there are many amusing stories to write about. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to add visual elements to literary readings, talks, and salons. Handmade artist books with travel artifacts or personal ephemera can illuminate written and spoken works. More information is available on my website. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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