Bringing Compassion to the World: Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Perle Besserman

Perle Besserman
© Manfred Steger

PERLE BESSERMAN is the author of numerous short stories and books of fiction and creative nonfiction. Pilgrimage, her autobiographical novel, was published by Houghton Mifflin, and Marriage and Other Travesties of Love, her short-story e-book, by Cantarabooks. Kabuki Boy, her latest novel, will be released next spring by Aqueous Books.

A longtime student of Zen, Besserman has written such books as A New Zen for Women and Grassroots Zen (coauthored with her husband, Manfred Steger). Her books have been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, Czech, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Thai, and she has written for publications as varied as Mademoiselle, The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, A Different Drummer, Canadian Literature, and East West.

Perle Besserman has appeared on national and international radio and television as well as in two Canadian documentary films about her work, and currently divides her time between Honolulu, Hawai‘i, and Melbourne, Australia. Her website is

Reading your Sweeping Zen interview a few minutes ago, I was struck by the strength and depth of your answers. I then went to my sink to clean up a few dinner dishes and saw a banana peel lying in the drain. It occurred to me that we are like the banana. Our shell — that which contains us before we are born into the world — is discarded and dies. However, we have the chance to be consumed by life. Your writing, your Zen studies, your travels — these all indicate that you have opened yourself to rich consumption. What have you not done that you would still like to do?

Succeed in bringing more compassion to the world.

Compassion is an important element in your close relationships. What about in your literary writing? Do you guide your characters to their fates with a gentle, compassionate hand? Or do you let them be unruly plotters of their own fates?

I’m not a literal believer in spirit mediumship, but I like the idea of spontaneous, free-wheeling characters telling their stories their way. I guess I’m not one of those writers who need to be in control.

Since what you refer to as my characters aren’t really mine, in that they come like a parade of anarchists occupying the stage of my imagination at will, performing — or not — as they fancy, they are indeed the “unruly plotters of their own fates.” (A brilliant way of putting it, I might add.) Which is why, when I re-read what I’ve written, I am often amazed at their Chekhovian irony in the face of dramas that, in my non-writing life, would elicit nothing but compassion. In this, I’m reminded of W.B. Yeats, who characterized himself as a stenographer recording the dictation of the muses. He even used his wife, a spirit medium, to “channel” symbolic “voices” from the past like Scipius Africanus. I’m not a literal believer in spirit mediumship, but I like the idea of spontaneous, free-wheeling characters telling their stories their way. I guess I’m not one of those writers who need to be in control. At least not until the revising process begins. But even then, I can’t seem to guide them to compassionate outcomes. It could be that they’re depicting the suffering that elicits compassion…

Tell us about the mysterious Dr. Dee and how he has insinuated himself into your life and your writing.

I wish I could present a clear, definitive answer to your question, but all I can do is speculate on its murky context. Starting with my ancestral inheritance: I come from a long line of mystics on my father’s side, so I might be genetically predisposed toward the “spiritual life.” I don’t know. What I do know is that my relationship with Dr. Dee began while I was a graduate student researching the Kabbalistic sources of British writer Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano for my doctoral dissertation. Publishing my book on Lowry and the Kabbalah was like tapping a hidden spring. I traveled the world interviewing Kabbalists, spent months studying ancient manuscripts in British, French, Czech, Indian, and Israeli libraries…

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