Raise High the Roof Beam, Women Authors

By Josette Kubaszyk

November 3, 2014

Raise High the Roof Beam, Women Authors

When in 2013 e-books publisher Shebooks launched the online sale of short reads written by women, some folks in the industry perked up their ears and welcomed an exclusive outlet for female writers in the male-dominated publishing business. Since its inception, Shebooks’ digital collection of downloadable fiction, memoir, and journalism has grown to over 70 books, each of which the publishers say can be read “in an hour or two.” Their library is composed of works by both new and established writers, including PEN award winner Faith Adiele (Meeting Faith) and American Book award winner Suzanne Paola (Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, a New York Times Notable Book). The editors note their aim is to inspire, turn on, transport, and entertain—“sometimes all at once”—today’s time-crunched readers.

First up is the travel memoir, Great Buddha Gym for All Mens and Womens by Sallie Tisdale (Talk Dirty to Me and Stepping Westward, one of the 100 Notable Books of the West). The book ships readers to the northeast regions of India, steeping them in a land where the rich diversity of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity collide. Great Buddha Gym chronicles the writer’s journey to the four fundamental locations pivotal to the Buddha Shakyamuni’s Enlightenment and life.

Tisdale, a practicing Zen Buddhist, has a surprising reason for visiting Bodh Gaya: she has agreed to accompany a grieving friend, a member of her Zen community, on his search for spiritual clarity following the deaths of his father, his partner, and his two dogs. Driven by curiosity about “places whose names I had been chanting for 30 years,” Tisdale claims a lack of “any religious imperative for pilgrimage,” dedicating much of the narrative to how the multitudes and their various sects practice Buddhism.

The travelogue centers primarily on Bodh Gaya, a region within the Indian state of Bihar and site of the Mahabodhi Temple and Bodhi tree. There, it is believed, Buddha Shakyamuni (a.k.a, Siddhartha Gautama, Gautama Buddha, or simply, the Buddha) received his Enlightenment. Tisdale’s is a colorful but crowded portrayal of the Zen of Bodh Gaya, the hub of both Buddhist beliefs and religious tourism in India.

Readers of Great Buddha Gym not up-to-speed on India’s geography or Buddhist history, teaching, and sects should keep an Internet tab open to research the Buddhist nomenclature Tisdale bandies heavily throughout the book. According to the Pew Research Center, a mere 1.1 percent of Americans claim to be Buddhists in 2013 and know little about the religion. Despite this ignorance, Tisdale tacitly assumes readers will not only be familiar with the differences between Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism but also have a working knowledge of the spiritual traditions, practices and iconology of all Buddhism’s forms.

A raucous and vibrant mayhem epitomizes urban Bodh Gaya. The most interesting reading in the book are Tisdale’s shoulder-to-shoulder, endlessly rolling descriptions of India’s busy, madras streets:

Lines of vendors sold pastries, bananas, jewelry, cheap hand luggage, recreational spices in lines of foil packets like condoms, potato chips flavored masala and tandoori, scarves and shawls, tiny tents for meditation, fruit and tea and out-of-date guidebooks. The streets nearest the complex were tightly lined with tables and tarps heaped with Buddha statues, rosaries, prayer wheels, incense burners, meditation cushions, Buddhist key rings, Buddhist coasters, Buddhist T-shirts, and optical illusion posters of Hindu gods, with eyes that follow you around.

Great Buddha Gym is overflowing with the blur and blare of packed and vibrant urban India. But while such facile passages work well to immerse us in the overpowering, over-stimulating cultural milieu that is Bodh Gaya, Tisdale’s descriptions frequently come off as perfunctory list-making. Although they are clearly scenic, a little goes a long way. Eventually we grow weary of yet another series of descriptors and wonder if the writer isn’t focusing on the outward in order to avoid contemplating the inward in this questionably sub-titled travel memoir.

The author often turns her attention to the motley collection of Buddhists pouring through Bodh Gaya, observing with a bit of amusement their prostrations, meditations, and circumambulations before eventually homing in on what she considers the doubtful worship of what they value as “sacred”—a place, a tree, the temple, and a belief in a religion the Buddha himself never intended. “He never said his teaching was a religion,” she stresses, “—just that it was the truth.”

Apparently, during all those years of chanting, Tisdale spent little time reflecting on why she had chosen to become a Zen Buddhist. Remarkably, in her memoir, she seems oblivious to the obvious: Her attitude toward her fellow Buddhists’ religious practices directly contradicts her own Zen beliefs, those she is quick to point out to her traveling companion, Thomas:

“This is a sacred place,” Thomas said to me one day as we found our places near the tree.

“It’s just a tree,” I said. “Nothing is sacred.” Basic Zen approach: don’t create inside and outside, right or wrong. For one thing to be sacred, another must be profane.

Her tone’s edginess bespeaks an underlying criticism of clamorous tourists, unorthodox and chaotic Buddhist throngs, locals hawking “the same key rings and rosaries,” and Hindu guides providing “inaccurate lecture[s] on Buddhism.” Her idea of Buddhism is ruined by the commerce of Buddhism. Tisdale’s irritation with the pilgrims’ disregard for the Buddha’s original teachings and their disrespectful noise, despite the prominently displayed requests for silence in the temple, erupts when she chastises a few young vendors, selling miniature Buddhas and singing bowls. “It is against the rules to sell here, stop it,” she says abruptly.

Ironically, Tisdale not long afterwards finds herself chastised when she stumbles across the germane words of eighth-century Buddhist monk and scholar, Shantideva: “And my hatred towards those who damage sacred images and stupas or who abuse the true teaching is inappropriate, since the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not distressed.”

With these words, we might anticipate an authorial epiphany. But not so. There’s no spark of enlightenment here. What is lacking from Tisdale’s memoir—especially one thematically focused on practices of spiritual belief—are the expressive personal musings for which many readers yearn. Tisdale’s anti-pilgrimage sojourn might have resulted in a small spiritual awakening, but I can’t say for sure. The narrative pushes forward as if she were searching for something, but the author seems resistant to admit it. What we want is to be let inside her. Instead, Tisdale seems to purposely keep us out. Ultimately, readers can piece together an illumination the author might have experienced in India—an enlightenment of which she never speaks. But maybe that’s the Zen of Buddhism and Bodh Gaya.

Those in search of slightly more biographical reading with a cultural flavor can turn to a second Shebooks offering, Jamaica Dreams: A Memoir by Rosemarie Robotham. This volume of vignettes centers on the writer’s life as the daughter of a Supreme Court judge in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1960s and 1970s. The book features four, self-contained chapters arranged chronologically, each with ruminations on such defining moments as her father’s sudden and complete renouncement of alcohol and her own sexual initiation into adulthood.

As a previous deputy editor for Essence magazine and a current editor for Shebooks, Robotham is skilled at sentence-level construction and building an even-tempoed, readable story with just enough interesting plot elements to keep the action rising and the reader hooked. Her intriguing characters and exotic Jamaican setting mean the average bookworm will find her story a light and easy read that neither offends nor challenges. Individuals like murderous “mad” Martha who haunts the home, which is adjacent to the convent school, the abandoned “orphan” girl Jesse who believes she’s Martha’s daughter, and the author’s privately critical—yet publically generous—alcoholic father are fascinating characters around which to center a memoir.

However, there’s nothing ground-shaking in Robotham’s memoir. The characters and relationships, so ripe for excavation, are abandoned before we’ve really gotten a chance to know them. Mad Martha—rumored to dance wantonly in the night and to have murdered her two young daughters—and her relationship with Jesse are never explored. Instead, Robotham’s rendering presents a careful yet surface-level description of these and other characters from her past. While the writer dedicates an entire chapter to Martha and Jesse, she never digs with enough intensity to discover why the two are so important to her own story. In fact, we don’t even know Robotham’s story. Jamaica Dreams is a collection of nostalgic chapters which, when read in its entirety, fails to reexamine and recollect.

If this is a memoir (and that’s what Robotham calls it), where is the reflection and meaning-making? What do her characters’ stories have to do with her? She does wonderful work whetting our taste buds, building tension with fine imagery (“None of the other girls had ever dared approach ‘the fence,’ overgrown with vines, hidden by spreading bougainvillea, the grass high and as sharp as a first-form girl. Only Jesse had ventured there, risking her very life for a glimpse of Mad Martha.”), but she seldom goes beyond such imagery. The exposition features her with a little rising action, but there’s no climax, no resolution, no purpose. Chapters and passages dedicated to her relationship with her father and his alcoholism hint at a darker side but are never explored and instead are wrapped up in a tidy, happily-ever-after resolution that seems a little too good to be true. Why has Robotham shared these stories in the first place?

In the style of reportage, Sonya Huber’s Two Eyes are Never Enough: A Minimum Wage Memoir offers the meat-and-potatoes scrutiny of mixing the personal and the political creative nonfiction-lovers crave. Author of two full-length nonfiction books—Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and Opa Nobody, shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize—Huber’s Two Eyes is personal and informative as well as thoughtful, reflective, and readable.

Two Eyes is an intimate, investigative look at direct-care workers, those minimum-wage earners who live with and tend to the basic needs of the aging, developmentally disabled, and mentally ill and who sometimes find themselves battered and abused by their clients in protected residential facilities throughout the country. The book is a revealing and well-researched study of those on the front lines, the majority of them women, who care for many of the country’s most fragile citizens. Drawing on her personal experiences working in a residential center for mentally ill teens and incorporating case studies and employment data, Huber sheds light on the nearly invisible class of workers so necessary to caring for society’s most underprivileged population.

Two Eyes takes a close look at the overwhelming daily challenges faced by direct-care workers. From poverty-level wages to physical dangers and burnout, Huber writes with urgency and style. Taking its title from repeated administrative counsel the author received on the job, Two Eyes calls attention to the imperative that “two eyes are never enough” in protecting and caring for these patients. Her recollections of what these caregivers regularly endure are riveting:

On my first job, one day one of the residents, a muscular young man with anger issues, pushed a teacher as she was unlocking a cabinet full of residents’ belongings. He took a lighter from his pocket and reached into the cabinet to grab a can of butane, used for filling the boys’ Zippos. He backed the teacher against the wall of the classroom, screamed that he was going to set her on fire, then held the lighter up high in one hand, his other hand poised on the nozzle of the butane canister. The other residents backed away, fanning out against the walls of the classroom, staring.

Readers soon get a keen sense of Huber’s frustration with a system that is dangerous, physically and emotionally demanding, and which requires workers to provide compassion and counseling. All this while going uncompensated for overtime and at minimum wage. But Two Eyes is far from a rant. It is clearly Huber’s attempt not only to fathom but also to instigate a change for a critically sensitive workforce, one which, as she points out, will comprise the “single largest occupational group in the country” by 2020.

The only flaw in this fascinating read is that readers leave the table still hungry. We want more information, more case studies, and more of the writer’s sharp insights and brilliant writing. Two Eyes feels like only the beginning. Huber says she took a job in direct care because she wanted to help people. Now she can put her gifts to work in achieving that goal—by expanding this into a full-length book.



Great Buddha Gym for All Mens and Womens by Sallie Tisdale

Jamaica Dreams: A Memoir by Rosemarie Robotham

Two Eyes Are Never Enough by Sonya Huber

Each Shebook costs $2.99 and can be purchased directly from Amazon, bn.com, or kobo.


About the Reviewer:

Josette Kubaszyk is a high school English teacher for Knox Community School Corporation. Her writing has appeared in Marco Polo Arts Magazine and Storm Cellar literary magazine. She is a recent graduate of the Ashland University MFA in Creative Writing program.


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