An Interview with Mischa Berlinski
Your new novel tells the story of a confrontation between an anthropologist and a family of missionaries working with one of the tribal peoples of northern Thailand. Let's start with missionaries. How did you get interested in them?
I was hanging out on the beach in southern India, at one of those places where people go who have much more time than money, which was certainly my case, when I met a pair of very unusual brothers. They were Americans, and very, very scruffy, with long hair and beards. They were making a living as hashish smugglers, and I got along with them splendidly. The older one was maybe twenty-five and the younger one twenty-two. They had a very unusual background: it turned out that they were children of a family of missionaries living in Japan; had grown up in Japan; and spoke native Japanese. (This, by the way, was how they were making a living as hashish smugglers; they said that the customs officials in Japan were so shocked to be addressed in fluent, idiomatic, perfectly polite Japanese by a pair of big-nosed foreigners with long hair that they never even considered opening their luggage. But I'm digressing.) They were estranged from their parents, but from the way they spoke about their family and the work they did, I had the feeling that this estrangement was just going to be a parenthesis in a pair of otherwise solid Christian lives. I remember one of them asking me just how you could square not being a missionary with your conscience, if you genuinely deep in your heart believed every word of the Gospel? That we were all smoking some of the best hashish in the world, really amazing stuff these guys brought down from the high Himalayas, made the thought seem all the more profound. These brothers would eventually fuse into David Walker, one of the central characters of the novel.
I didn't think about missionaries again for a long time, until I went to live in northern Thailand, under circumstances so very similar to the hero of the novel girlfriend, international school, broke, free lance journalism, somewhat aimless, etc. that I gave him my own name. There I discovered that northern Thailand has a lot of missionaries. I thought they might make a good story. I started talking to one, who gave me the name of another, and I couldn't stay away. I ended up meeting with dozens of them. The amazing thing about the missionaries was that they weren't weird at all . In fact, they were totally normal people who had done this amazing thing: they had left everything behind, learned these strange and very difficult tribal languages, took amazing risks with their lives and they really weren't odd at all, personality-wise. In fact, most of the missionaries I met seemed totally down-to-earth, good-natured, warm, welcoming, honest people, the kind of people who drove the kids to car pool and made tuna casseroles for sick neighbors. They were just very normal people, most of them, who felt themselves in possession of a truth so startling and important that they absolutely had to share it.
I had a lot of time on my hands that year in Thailand, and eventually I settled on one particular missionary-related story. It was a grand story, like Gone with the Wind or Roots . I wanted to write a book telling the story of the conversion of the Lisu people, one of the tribal peoples of southeast Asia, to Christianity. I thought this was an amazing thing: almost a quarter of a million people had given up their ancient traditional religion and become Christians because of the actions of a handful of Occidental missionaries. I wanted to know why they did it, and the answer that kept coming back to me from whomever I asked was startling and unexpected: they did it because they wanted to escape the spirits whom they believed lived everywhere around them and oppressed them. Christianity really met the emotional and spiritual needs of these peoples, which were so very different from Occidental concerns. So I spent almost a year talking with almost every missionary alive who has ever worked with the Lisu; I did archival research at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London; and I read lots of biographies and autobiographies of missionaries.
I wrote a proposal for the book. In the end, though, I couldn't find a publisher for the book and so I put all the material on a shelf, and let my subconscious play with it for a while. Almost three years to the day after I left Thailand, I woke up from a long nap with the plot of a novel, and just to see what would happen, I started to write it. I suppose I too felt myself in possession of a truth so startling that I absolutely had to share it.
That's one half of the book. What about anthropologists?
In stark contrast to missionaries, who are down-to-earth, good-natured, humble people, anthropologists are really weird. I found everything about anthropologists and the culture of anthropologists very, very strange.
I had met two anthropologists in my life before I started this book. One was a professor of mine at Berkeley; to meet a graduation requirement I took a course in the Hindus of the Himalayas. Only a couple of things really stuck with me from that course. The first was that the Hindus would always sort of line-up spontaneously in order of caste whenever you put them together in a room. The other was the professor didn't really seem to have liked studying the Hindus of the Himalayas. He had done his fieldwork almost twenty-five years earlier, and the only time he ever really grew animated was when he was describing how cold it was, how bad the food was, and how lonely he got. I had spent a lot of time in India myself by the time I took this course, and I was much more interested in how Professor B. had learned what he had learned than I was in the Hindus of the Himalayas, so I ended up asking a lot of questions about anthropological fieldwork and how it was conducted, rather than, say, about caste or rice planting.
Then in Thailand I met a very different anthropologist. Her name was Otome Klein Hutheesing, and she must have been in her early seventies. She was still quite a beautiful woman, very small, with sharp features and mesmerizing pale blue eyes. She had been a reasonably successful sociologist in her earlier life with a stable academic career, when in her early fifties she had shucked it all to move to the Lisu village of Doi Lan. She'd lived up there for almost five years, mastered the language, then wrote a splendid academic book about the Lisu; since then, she had lived in Chiang Mai, but really still continuing her fieldwork. She was passionately curious about the Lisu, but she confessed that even after all these years it sometimes bothered her, her inability to see the world through Lisu eyes. I think she felt that the Lisu collectively were in possession of a great secret that she wished to know.
I later learned from reading biographies of anthropologists and accounts of anthropological fieldwork that Ms. Hutheesing's attitude was far from atypical. Anthropologists really did tend to see their fieldwork in almost mystical terms. They saw entering into the life of another people as nothing less than a liberation from the self. This attitude began with Bronislaw Malinowski, who is generally considered the founder of anthropological fieldwork Malinowski famously wrote that fieldwork was to anthropology what the blood of martyrs was to the Church but can be found in the writing of almost all the great anthropologists, people like E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Radcliffe-Brown and Claude Lèvi-Strauss. I think that it was Lèvi-Strauss who referred to anthropology as a vocation, in the classic sense of the word.
This was the side of anthropology that I wanted to write about: on the one hand, just what an anthropologist does all day long in the field; and on the other hand, why they do it.
Now let's talk about the Dyalo. Have you spent much time in a Dyalo village?
To write this novel, I lived for almost three years in a Dyalo village, in a small thatch hut, not far from the communal cooking hut. Once, after I was bit by a snake, the village shaman
But the Dyalo don't exist. I invented them, and my Dyalo village was my living room, where I made my study. I originally intended to use the Lisu as the tribal people of the novel, but the ethnographic literature on the Lisu was too thin to answer every question I had about how the Lisu lived and how they would respond to the various events of the novel, so I invented a new people. They're a cross between the Lisu, the Hmong, and the Lahu, with a touch of Akha added in. The truth is I've only spent one long weekend in a tribal village. Everything else I pretty much just made up the communal cooking hut, various rites and ceremonies, the rules separating the clans, etc. as the dramatic needs of the novel required.
What I tried to present as accurately as I could was an animistic world view. My Dyalo believed that they were living in a world in which invisible spirits lived all around them, some of them benign but the vast majority malignant, who controlled just about everything that happens, from little things like a vase accidentally falling to big, like the failure of the rice crop. I tried to imagine what a relief it must have been for them when the Christians came, with the message that Jesus could control the spirits. Jesus, in this way of thinking, was just a more powerful spirit than the others. It must have been, I thought, like a powerful general subduing a host of petty warlords and bringing peace to a troubled land.
You wrote this novel about northern Thailand while living in northern Italy. Why?
Mainly because my girlfriend, who is now my wife, was living in Torino. She was very sympathetic to my novel-writing ambitions, and she invited me to share her studio apartment there. Oddly enough, Italy was a great place to write about Thailand, although I constantly had to be on guard not to slip Italian stuff into my Dyalo village by accident things like olive oil, which one time I mistakenly did include in one scene.
Tell me about your writing habits.
My sister is also a novelist a very good one, too, I might add and we've developed a new physiological theory of creativity. We've postulated the existence of a very, very tiny neural particle called the "creaton," which is responsible for all literary success. Now the thing about the creaton is, it's very unstable and is produced only in the part of sleep in which one is dreaming intensely. A few hours after waking up, it's gone, and without creatons, one can do no useful literary work at all. Without creatons, I can write just about nothing; with creatons, I can see solutions to even the very trickiest literary problems. So a good deal of my time as a novelist is spent chasing those few hours in which creaton-supply is high immediately after waking up in the morning, and immediately upon awakening from an afternoon nap. (I work so hard looking for creatons that my girlfriend calls me the Bradipo, which is Italian for three-toed sloth.)
So what's your next project?
I am currently writing about a woman in Orissa, India who married a snake.