Elen Turner reviews Joe Niemczura’s The Sacrament of the Goddess (Austin: Plain View Press, 2014. 263 pp.) and Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal! (Asheville: Simi Books, 2014. 335 pp.)
Nepal is a country about which there is an extremely warped image in the minds of outsiders. The stereotypes do not need repeating, because anyone who has not been to Nepal but has given the country even a cursory thought, knows what they are. There is also very little literature available outside of South Asia that engages with the country in any meaningful way—Canadian-Nepali Manjushree Thapa’s fiction and non-fiction being notable exceptions. Therefore, it is refreshing and promising when non-Nepalis with an extensive knowledge of the country turn to literature to record their experiences.
Joe Niemczura’s The Sacrament of the Goddess and Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal! are two fictionalized accounts of American aid workers’ experiences in Nepal, published by small North American presses. They both have at their heart naïve young men with the best of intentions, who find love and friendship in Nepal. Both Niemczura’s protagonist Matt and Hughes’ protagonist Ben end up working in Nepali hospitals—Matt in the small town of Beni (the site of a large battle between Maoists and the Nepali army in 2004) in the Annapurna region, and Ben in an improbably-named settlement on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Pepsicola Townplanning. Both men have experienced love and heartbreak, the underlying reason for their being in Nepal.
Aside from these plot similarities, Niemczura and Hughes’ novels are quite different from each other. The Sacrament of the Goddess starts off rather weakly, with an over-reliance on expository dialogue. In fact, the whole book could have done with another thorough edit, as the writing is clunky at times. However, the story itself is captivating and the outcomes are quite unexpected. The love story had the potential to be sentimental, but avoids becoming so because it is nuanced, and Niemczura’s characters are three dimensional. Setting the action in Beni, rather than Kathmandu, is refreshing, and gives the reader an insight into a part of the country that suffered particularly badly in Nepal’s decade-long Maoist insurgency. Although Kathmandu was not unscathed, it was shielded from the worst of the violence, and so, stories that are told from purely a Kathmandu perspective can only hope to tell part of the story. Niemczura, a nurse with extensive experience in Nepal, has drawn on his knowledge of the particular dangers that both Nepalis and aid-workers faced in the more remote parts of Nepal during the war. The over-detailed descriptions of medical procedures aside, The Sacrament of the Goddess is a unique and enjoyable novel.
Jaya Nepal! is a better-written (and edited) book than The Sacrament of the Goddess (some over-writing aside) and Hughes’ descriptions of Kathmandu are spot-on. If a reader hasn’t been to Nepal, Hughes’ attention to detail and the accuracy of his observations are very trustworthy means through which to imagine the country. However, Jaya Nepal! seriously lacks a plot. A series of well-written, detailed descriptions does not a novel make. The protagonist, Ben, is not just naïve—a plausible trait in a US Peace Corps volunteer—but tiringly wholesome and earnest. He views every action as a possibility for cross-cultural dialogue and better mutual understanding between Nepalis and Americans, to the point where the reader wishes he would lighten up and have some fun:
I was a relative newcomer to the world of the water pipe, but I couldn’t think of a better way to foster a sense of cross-cultural exchange. Sharing a communal hookah, much like sharing pots of tea, opened up lines of communication among people who might otherwise not have spoken. I understood perfectly well the implications of its long-term use, but I wasn’t such a square that I would deny the hookah’s unifying effects for fear of the occasional, brief exposure to toxins and an unlikely subsequent addiction to nicotine. (p. 190)
Ben’s wholesomeness and ability to moralize and philosophize over every mundane action would be amusing if it didn’t actually reflect the author’s inability to be critical of those aspects of Nepal that warrant criticism. An outsider certainly needs to be careful how they go about discussing Nepal’s political and developmental problems, for fear of sounding judgemental. But, that does not mean that a writer who clearly has a deep knowledge of the place should shy away from addressing those serious issues. Niemczura manages to strike that balance in The Sacrament of the Goddess, which turns a poorly-edited book into a story worth reading.
These criticisms aside, it is promising that North Americans with extensive first-hand knowledge of Nepal are presenting the country in a manner not seen before. The cliché of young Westerners travelling to the ‘East’ to find themselves is still present, but these novels generally avoid the exoticization that often accompanies such books. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that non-fiction would have been a better way for these stories to be told—particularly in Hughes’ case.
Elen Turner is a Western New York-based editor and writer. She has a PhD from the Australian National University; her thesis looked at the contemporary Indian feminist publishing industry. Literature from South Asia is her specific area of interest, and she works for Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian magazine.