Thursday, January 14, 2016

Interview with Elizabeth Enslin on her book "While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal"


One of the best books I read in 2015 was "While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal" by Elizabeth Enslin. This book was a memoir about an American woman who fell in love with a Nepali man while studying anthropology in university, and then went back to live/work with his Brahmin joint family in rural Nepal during a local woman's uprising.

My mum read this book first, and handed it to me and said, "You HAVE to read this!" Curiously, I picked it up and gave it a try. Nepal is a country I know nothing about, although it is a neighbour to our homeland, India. I was surprised to find SO many similarities in customs between Elizabeth's Nepali family and our own crazy Tam-Brahm clan. I could relate to so much - struggling with the foreign concept of caste, living abroad, dealing with conservative elders, forging a bond with the women of the family, raising a child between two cultures, an interest in women's rights, and finding a home on the other side of the world. And as always, I loved the East meets West love story!

This novel is a must-read for our masala community, and I found it to be very inspiring.

(Img credit: Jerry Gaffke)

Today I'm thrilled to feature an intimate Q&A with Elizabeth Enslin about her book, "While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal"!


The memoir opens up with a gripping birth story, which takes places in rural Nepal - it instantly had me hooked. What are the fears you had about giving birth in a foreign country?
Elizabeth: Looking back now, I wonder why I didn't have more fears. I was in a phase of life when I wanted to shrug off doubts and open myself to new experiences. I was a graduate student in anthropology then and figured I could handle the challenges of cultural difference. My biggest fear had to do with my own mothering abilities. I grew up mostly as an only child and didn't crave contact with babies and children. I wasn't sure I was up to the task of motherhood. In that regard, I was lucky to be in Nepal, surrounded by people who love babies and children. 

Eastern and Western cultures have very different methods handling pregnancy, birth, and caring for a newborn. What were some things that surprised you?
Elizabeth: There's a lot of variation across cultures in the “East” and “West.” Even in Nepal, I saw how practices varied by ethnicity and caste. But one of the things that surprised me (even though I knew about it intellectually to some extent) was how seriously my high caste in-laws took notions of ritual purity around pregnancy and childbirth. In the last few months of pregnancy, I was shooed away from the cooked rice in the kitchen and politely invited to rest in my room during certain Brahman rituals. A more pleasant surprise: how much people loved caring for newborns. 

One of the most popular posts on my blog is about Telling Your Traditional Indian Parents About Your Intercultural Relationship. How did your ex-husband tell his parents about you? Did his parents have any reservations about an American girl joining their family?
Elizabeth: That's a story I tell in some detail in my book. My then-husband thought it best to ease into things, have his parents meet me before letting on that we were engaged. His pandit father had a lot of reservations about where we'd live and the caste status of any children we might have. The family worried about his elevated blood pressure for several days after my arrival. My future mother-in-law saw things more positively. She decided to embrace the opportunity for cross-cultural exploration and friendship. 

What advice can you give to young women who move to an entirely different country for love?
Elizabeth: The circumstances vary so much, I'm not sure how to generalize. I can say that love may not be enough to sustain you over the years even in familiar cultural circumstances, so consider how it will play out in marriage and family across cultures. Much will depend on whether your partner acts as your ally in any conflicts that arise. On a more positive note, I'd say that navigating those differences over the years can greatly expand your capacity for love, if you let it. 

Did you get any "reverse culture shock" when you moved back to the States after living in Nepal?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. I found it especially tough every time I returned to the US with a child. I had to remind myself that people don’t take the same joy in children here that they did in Nepal. 

You have a son, who is Nepali and American. Do you have any tips on raising a child between two diverse cultures?
Elizabeth: In each place, I made sure my son stayed connected to the other part of his identity and had cultural tools (stories, food, language, etc.) to define himself as needed as he grew up. But I didn't force any of it. For some time during his school years in the U.S., he turned away from identifying as Nepali-American. He was trying hard to blend in at school among mostly White friends. By high school, he began talking about his Nepali heritage with more pride and made several trips back to Nepal. I supported him in all that even though I was divorced from his father by then. 

Married to a South Indian Brahmin myself, I noticed A LOT of surprising similarities in the book between your ex-husband's family rituals and our own - including the status of being a Brahmin and all that comes with it. How did you deal with this entirely new mindset?
Elizabeth: Not well at first. I moved in with the family when I was pregnant and immediately encountered some oppressive notions around gender. I simply could not accept the idea that my body was polluted and dangerous because I was pregnant (or later, right after I'd given birth). But being there at that time also brought me closer to my mother-in-law who had long been questioning certain aspects of gender inequality. That laid the groundwork for a wonderful friendship. Once I moved beyond pregnancy and birth, I found it easier to see the Brahman rituals in a more distanced way. And I talked to many in the family who questioned things like menstrual seclusion and untouchability. Not everyone agreed on what rituals should mean. Eventually, I learned to do what I do in the US around holidays and rituals: partially put aside some critical thinking about symbolism and history and simply enjoy the celebration of family, friends and food. 

Your developing relationship with your mother-in-law was a beautiful part of your memoir. Do you have any tips for young women who are struggling to get along with their desi mother-in-law?
Elizabeth: There has to be some give and take and a huge capacity for forgiveness on both sides. I was lucky to have a mother-in-law who supported me from the very beginning. She was a political activist already advocating for women's rights. But there were moments around late pregnancy and birth where she favored tradition. That hurt, partly because I expected something different from her. But it was important for me to get past that hurt, to not hold it against her, so that we could both rise toward other possibilities. I can imagine other mothers-in-law in Nepal or India who would not have been so easy to get along with. I also had unconditional support from my husband. He defied the advice of elders and stayed with me during labor. He also took my side in standing up to oppressive practices around postpartum seclusion. If your husband won't stand up for you like that, it might be hard to get along with the in-laws. 

The rights of women in Nepal is a huge theme in your book and it is a fascinating read. In what ways are women's rights different in Nepal than they were in America, back then?
Elizabeth: I find it hard to talk about women's rights anywhere without considering how women's experiences are also shaped by class, race, caste, religion, geography, sexual orientation and other identities and social divisions. That's partly what my book is about. In Nepal, just as in the US, women may organize around "women’s issues," but at some point they face an issue which foregrounds those other identities/divisions and may call for more varied responses. For example, Dalit women in our village often had their particular concerns (e.g., exclusion from the temple area) dismissed by high caste women. One thing I find it important to emphasize for North American audiences is that - contrary to many stereotypes - South Asia has a deep and rich history of women and men challenging prevailing notions of gender. Women have been involved all along in struggles for democracy and social justice throughout the subcontinent, including Nepal.

In what ways have women's rights changed in modern day Nepal?
Elizabeth: Thanks to the work of many feminists and human rights activists, women's issues have become central to political debates about democracy and social justice in Nepal. And I see a lot of creativity in how Nepali activists are holding their government accountable to international agreements (e.g. CEDAW - Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination), making reproductive health a human rights issue and organizing around gender equality in citizenship in the new constitution. But just like in the US and other countries, women activists in Nepal have to celebrate their gains while also organizing against forces that want to roll them back. 

Nepal suffered a devastating earthquake earlier this year. Were any of your Nepali family or friends affected there? What is the situation like there now?
Elizabeth: Most of the family lives in the plains, so they came through fine. One family member living northeast of Kathmandu had to abandon her damaged rental home and live in a greenhouse for awhile. Many suffered much more. I haven't seen the situation first-hand, but I think a bad situation has been made worse because of maneuvering by political elites (not unlike some power plays described in my book). In September, political parties pushed through a constitution that ignored demands from key constituencies. The result has been widespread political unrest. Many in earthquake affected areas at high elevations are now facing winter in makeshift shelters. And protests and blockades along the Indian border are preventing fuel, food, medicines and other supplies from getting through. I fear Nepal may be on the verge of another civil war that will be much more devastating than the earthquake. 

What is the best way people can help the survivors of the Nepal Earthquake?
Elizabeth: Giving money to charitable organizations is so personal. I continue to donate some proceeds from my book to Rural Health Education Service Trust (RHEST - a Nepali-run organization) for projects that improve women's reproductive health. That's an undeserved need (and human rights issue) that continues on through earthquakes and political conflicts. I've also donated to Stop Girl Trafficking, another program run by RHEST. Unfortunately, the earthquake and border blockade have escalated chaos and desperation in Nepal's hills and created more opportunities for human traffickers to do their work. Many young women supported by Stop Girl Trafficking have been giving back to their communities by volunteering for earthquake relief. If I had more money to give, I'd like to support Abari, an innovative Nepali-run organization designing and building earthquake-safe housing using bamboo and other local and sustainable materials. Given the current blockade, I'd also consider donating to large, international aid organizations (UNICEF, Mercy Corps, OXFAM) that have good track records in Nepal as well as the capacity (e.g. hiring helicopters) to get aid into mountainous areas over the winter.

This list from the Association of Nepal and Himalayan Studies came out after the earthquake: http://anhs-himalaya.org/relief-agencies/. It is a bit out of date in some areas but includes links to many excellent organizations still involved in earthquake relief. 

Why did you decide to write a memoir about your life?
Elizabeth: I hoped memoir might be a good vehicle for shedding light on women's challenges and activism in the late 1980's. I wanted to counter stereotypes of women in Nepal and open a space for various voices, such as my mother-in-law's. 

Do you still keep a journal?
Elizabeth: Not like I used to, though I suppose we all keep a journal of sorts now on social media. I'd like to get back to old-style journaling, but I can hardly read my own handwriting any more. 

In what way did that period in your life (that you wrote about in your memoir) shape you in the years to come?
Elizabeth: It left some emotional scars. I still wish I could have given birth in a more supportive environment. But I also know I learned things about compassion and forgiveness that continue to shape me. That's something I hope to write about in another book. 

Where do you feel most inspired?
Elizabeth: I can find inspiration in a lot of different ways: reading a book, walking through a city I've never visited before, digging up potatoes on our farm. I live in a remote area of Northeastern Oregon, surrounded by natural beauty, so more and more I find inspiration without leaving home. 

What did your loved ones think of your memoir? Was there anything about it that surprised them?
Elizabeth: I worried a lot about that what family on both sides might think of my book. So far, everyone has been enthusiastic and supportive. No one has mentioned surprises. Perhaps they're just being polite.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Elizabeth: Don't wait for inspiration. Sit down and write. And then revise, revise, revise. It's hard work and the greatest reward comes from joy in the process. 

What do you hope readers take away from your memoir?
Elizabeth: Part of what I'm trying to do is deepen our understanding and imagination of places the world often assumes to be powerless, passive. I go into a lot of specific details in While the Gods Were Sleeping because I hope readers carry with them - even unconsciously - some sense of what a local uprising of women in a marginalized place like Nepal looks like. With more stories like that, maybe we can move beyond a foreign aid paradigm of victims and saviors and work toward something more like solidarity.

What's next for you? What projects are you currently working on?
Elizabeth: I'm working a sequel to While the Gods Were Sleeping which will explore in greater depth the joys and challenges of parenting a child with family roots in both Oregon and Nepal.

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A huge thank you to Elizabeth Enslin for sharing this amazing book with our readers. For more information about Elizabeth and her upcoming books, please visit her HERE. To purchase her book on Amazon, click HERE.


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3 comments

  1. Im curious about 2 things with regards to this book. What was the reasoning behind the name of the title ?, its an interesting title. And from reading this interview it sounded like the authors husband was loving and supportive. What was the reason for her break up?
    Just curious.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic interview!
    As someone who is living in Nepal now & participated in the Gate's Foundation's Rural Birth Project I'd like to add:
    It's not just that supplies aren't getting in past the ongoing India/Nepal border blockade, what little that does get through is being sold at enormously inflated prices. Gas cylinders ( a staple fuel used for cooking here) that previously cost $15 for 14kgs are now being sold for $80 and only half filled with 7 kgs. In a country where most men earn less than $2 a day gas cylinders have become a luxury & most Nepalis are cooking over firewood stoves & going without heat in their homes.
    In my district alone, 7 women died while giving birth in cowsheds last year. Four of these women died from overwhelming sepsis, the other 3 died from hypothermia. We also had three young women die of hypothermia from being forced to sleep in cowsheds during menses in the middle of winter last year. This number of deaths is about half what it was when I came to Nepal 15 yrs ago, so we've made some progress.

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  3. I read this book last year, and was the first material I ever read on cross-cultural relationships. I started reading blogs only recently, and am thankful to have stumbled upon yours. I liked how Elizabeth Enslin devoted a large section of her memoir on her interactions with people outside of her ex-husband's family. It gave me a sense of her life as a member of a bigger community.

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