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…

Zen Radicals

Zen Radicals, Rebels,
and Reformers

BY Perle Besserman
AND Manfred B. Steger
(Wisdom Publications, 2011)

A New Zen for Women
BY Perle Besserman
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

A New Kabbalah for Women

A New Kabbalah for Women
BY Perle Besserman
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Grassroots Zen

Grassroots Zen
BY Perle Besserman
AND Manfred Steger
(Tuttle Publishing, 2002 )

Looking back on those years now, I’m amazed at the energy I invested in this search. I was driven. I met amazing people: miracle workers, psychics, yogis, shamans, healers. It was while doing research on Renaissance Christian Kabbalists in the Bodlian Library at Oxford that I discovered the writings of Dr. John Dee, astrologer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Or, rather, Dr. Dee discovered me. From that day on it was as if I’d been occupied by this character, a vehicle, as Yeats might have put it, for his story. It was eerie. Not like my usual fictional characters, who are recognizable amalgams of “real” people and invented ones. John Dee wouldn’t leave me alone. Not for twenty years of monumental struggle… until, 2011, when I finally completed my novel The Infamous Dr. Dee.

This is intriguing. Please tell us about The Infamous Dr. Dee.

Well, in addition to being relieved that The Infamous Dr. Dee has been satisfactorily completed and is currently under consideration by two publishers, I should add that I wrote another novel during my struggle to write him out of my system. That novel, Kabuki Boy — which I consider my “jewel” — will be published by Aqueous Books in 2013. I had been working on this story of the life and times of a Kabuki actor in nineteenth-century Tokugawa Japan for about five years, publishing excerpts from it in various literary magazines along the way. Oddly enough, although the settings, characters, and narrative styles couldn’t be more different, Dr. Dee does somehow manage to make his way into Kabuki Boy — in the form of a Japanese physician-healer. It wasn’t until I finished Kabuki Boy that I found the strength to tackle Dr. Dee again. As if putting him aside and throwing myself into the tumultuous events of nineteenth-century Japan was exactly the fuel I needed to prime the creative engines again. The solution came quickly: take Dr. Dee out of sixteenth-century England and turn him from an astrologer into a “New Age” experimental psychology researcher at New York University! I let the characters take over from there and found, to my surprise, that I was writing a spy novel! Something completely foreign to me until then. I even got into researching military records for real-life models of scientific psychical researchers. A treasure trove opened up, allowing me to finally resolve the novel’s ending that had been eluding me for so long.

Sometimes we have to satisfy the itch for pleasure before we can explore a darker sense. Was this the case, would you say, with Kabuki Boy vis-a-vis The Infamous Dr. Dee? Did writing the former allow you to explore a world of dramatic pleasure, sensuality? Can you share more about Kabuki Boy?

Interestingly, Kabuki Boy, while a pleasure to write, explores many of the same dark themes as The Infamous Dr. Dee: self-deception, misplaced love, political and social violence, spiritual naiveté — and its abuse by predatory individuals and institutions. The difference lies mainly in the disposition of the characters, particularly the two protagonists, John Dee and Myo, the young Kabuki actor whose brief but illustrious career parallels the story of mid-nineteenth-century Tokugawa Japan, in all its glory and violence, as it reluctantly makes its way into the modern world. Drawn to my love of Japan by Zen, I have always basked in its culture and been repelled by its militant nationalism. And this double-edged fascination naturally found its way into the novel. You could say I wrote Myo “from the inside.” The life and times of John Dee, while intellectually compelling, never captured me in the same way. I was more of a passive “observer,” led by my characters. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t passionate about Dr. Dee. It’s just that the writing experience wasn’t as visceral. The proof is, he hasn’t visited me since I completed his story. Whereas, Myo continues to live on.

Kabuki Boy
BY Perle Besserman
(Aqueous Books, 2013)

From the Publisher:

“Perle Besserman’s Kabuki Boy is a novel of Japan set in and around the capital city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) during the waning decades of the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868). Broadening the often narrowly focused literary and cinematic portrayals of samurai resistance to their declining social status, Besserman’s vivid narrative conveys that tumultuous period through the eyes of its peasants, priests, politicians, revolutionaries, mountebanks, geisha, and actors using the Kabuki theatre as a backdrop. Its nineteenth-century framework nested in a post-modern narrative by its fictional twentieth-century ‘editor,’ a cultural historian and abbot of a Zen monastery one hundred miles from Tokyo, the book is comprised of memoirs, theatrical and monastery records, personal letters and journals, all centering on the life of a Kabuki boy actor whose brief but illustrious career reflects not only the ‘golden age of Kabuki Theatre,’ but the most dramatic spiritual, political, and artistic events characterizing Japan’s violent emergence into the modern world.”

Writing your books sometimes requires you to do extensive research. Can you tell us about the research you did for Kabuki Boy?

I spent five years doing “hands-on” research before starting to write Kabuki Boy. I did it the “old-fashioned” way — without help from the Internet — scouring through libraries, reading print books and articles, Kabuki plays, historical records, translations from the Japanese originals. In addition to making several trips to Japan and traveling all over the country locating the background sites for my story, I visited museums, attended as many Kabuki performances as I could, spent several months practicing Zen in a Japanese monastery in Mishima Province, and, with my husband, then a scholar-in-residence at Nichibunken, explored, and fell in love with, Kyoto. To understand the motivation and experience for myself the samurai “way of the warrior,” I practiced aikido for two years. My own early life as an actor/singer/dancer, in twentieth-century New York City, gave me much of what I needed to know about theatrical life, which, I discovered, wasn’t very different from Myo’s, in nineteenth-century Edo (Tokyo). All of this required a lot of legwork, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of it. By the time I started putting down the first words of my preface, the story flowed forth, almost on its own.

Flannery O’Connor once said that anyone who has survived his or her childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime. Did you have experiences in your childhood that would later make their way into your writing?

Flannery O’ Connor is one of my earliest literary role models. I still go around quoting Hazel Motes’s lines to people in what strike me as appropriate situations — and even get a smile from those who don’t share the same quirky vision of the universe. In my case, childhood wasn’t so much an effort to “survive” as a willingness to “perform” the role of “heroine in my own novel” — as my father put it. I come from a family of book lovers, writers, readers, storytellers, poets, translators, and professors of literature. …in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere. So, in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere — starting at breakfast and ending at bedtime — Dickens or Jack London, or Walter Scott, Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville (my father’s favorites) or something Dad would make up himself or a chapter from Mom’s ongoing Siberian memoir. My father taught me to read, in a fashion, when I was two. I wrote my first published story when I was nine. I spent so much time “making up stories” — living them, actually — that, in order to keep me from continuously jabbering in class, an extremely perceptive elementary school teacher appointed me “class narrator” —entitling me to summarize (and embellish) the daily events in our classroom. So, oral storytelling, or, as we in Hawai‘i call it, “talking story,” was the start of my writing career. Eventually, my English teachers encouraged me on the path to becoming a writer. This is not to say my childhood wasn’t without its bumps in the road. As you can imagine, finding, and projecting, my voice in a family of such articulate, emotional, strong-minded, dramatic, highly opinionated individuals took some effort. I think that’s why, to this very day, I prize my “sovereignty” above everything else.

You have spent much of the last several years in Australia. Can you say something about the environment for writers there? How does it compare to the state of publishing in the U.S.?

Perle Besserman
© Alex Pavlou

My experience as an American writer, in Australia, has been welcoming, on the one hand, and exclusionary, on the other. RMIT University, where my husband holds a professorship in Global Studies, is located in Melbourne, our second home for the past eight years. Designated as one of the world’s “cities of literature” by UNESCO, Melbourne hosts one of the most important international literary arts festivals. But it’s not the only city in Australia that loves and rewards its writers: the entire country blooms with creative writing programs, writing centers, literary fellowships and residencies. Australians treat writers like celebrities, lavishing them with constant media attention in direct proportion to the way Americans ignore their writers. But this literary love-fest is very insular and self-protective. Australians still suffer from what they themselves call “the cultural cringe” in the face of their parent country, the UK, and now, perhaps even more so, the U.S. Which is why they’ll invite American or British writers — usually the most famous ones — to give an occasional keynote speech or offer a university creative writing seminar, but, as an American writer actually living there, I’m regarded as a privileged intruder. My stories have appeared in several excellent Australian literary journals, and I’ve given readings and led a few workshops and creative writing seminars at a couple of universities — but I’ve been given the cold shoulder by publishers and agents, and, most importantly, the movers and shakers in the media. My few limited inroads came mostly through generous writers who’ve become close friends, but these haven’t resulted in any of my books being published or even sold in the country’s major independent bookstores.

This leads me into the second part of your question, which I’ve interpreted as “the state of publishing today.” A huge topic more suited to a book (and there are already several tackling the subject) than a quick answer. But I’ll try, using my own thirty-year publishing experience as an example. It’s clear that the new technologies have drastically changed the literary paradigm that you and I and just about every writer, bookseller, librarian, literary agent, and publisher have all grown up with. First thing that comes to mind is when I switched from writing longhand on yellow foolscap to using the computer. I resisted with all my might, but, in the end, I had to give in — or editors wouldn’t even look at my proposals, no less undertake the laborious process of blue-penciling my manuscripts! Even an interview, like the one we’re engaging in right now, required a tape recorder (my first used reel-to-reel tapes, so that tells you how long ago it took place!), and the two Canadian documentary films about my work on the Kabbalah required cameras, and lighting, and a whole slew of paraphernalia made obsolescent by e-mail, YouTube, and any number of devices I can’t even name. Literary agents have given up on working with any writer who can’t guarantee six-figure advances, which leaves writers of “mid-list” and “literary” fiction, not to speak of poets, to “do-it-yourself” publishing. And DIY publishing has become the name of the game in our blogosphere. Giants like Amazon and Google and Apple stalk the land, swallowing up, and spitting out, publishers, writers, musicians, anyone and anything that can be construed as “creative.” So, yes, I’d say the old paradigm is dead — and, while I’ve comfortably joined the new electronically-driven literary world of the future, I’m still not breaking out the champagne and celebrating the demise of the printing press.

My last word on the subject is, I’d trade my entire Kindle virtual library for a first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

— This interview took place in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, in October 2012.

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