Wednesday, September 11, 2013

About The Third Buddha

It is a difficult task for me to acknowledge how all the elements of this novel came into place or where the details were derived—to do so would require me to publish an encyclopedic list of all the news accounts I have sifted through since September 11th, 2001 occurred—but the inspiration for the novel arrived during a conversation at a dinner party in Chelsea sometime after the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.

The novel first began as a short story and was originally intended to be the final one of a working manuscript titled The Chelsea Rose, about the interlocking lives of the gay and lesbian inhabitants of a New York neighborhood apartment building. Readers who might be familiar with my short stories will recognize the background of the character of James MacTiernan in this novel as similar to the one in the published story “The Chelsea Rose,” which was included in my collection of short stories Still Dancing. The early short story version of “The Third Buddha” revolved around the stories told at a dinner party, when Jim returns to visit the apartment building post 9/11. I must also thank an unknown editor at a literary magazine where I submitted that short story, whose form rejection letter sent to me contained the handwritten note, “Have you considered expanding this to a book-length work?”

That note sent me drinking and thinking and worrying and working. At the heart of this story was always the desire to recast and retell the story of “The Good Samaritan” during a time of crisis and within a clash of religions and cultures, and as the work grew and morphed and solidified, I knew I also wanted it to represent what it meant to be an articulate gay activist and citizen of the world. While gay men and lesbians have made great strides in being open and recognized, there is still an uncertainty within the mainstream media on how and when to depict their personal lives within the context of newsworthy events, and I felt this was an important and often overlooked view which needed to be represented.

The title of The Third Buddha refers to an undiscovered reclining giant Buddha in the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan. Bamiyan is the site of the two giant Buddha statues which were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

The novel opens in Manhattan post-9/11 when Teddy Bridges, a law school dropout, meets Sam, a non-government organization worker who has returned from a stint in Afghanistan, and then flashes back to tell the stories of Jim MacTiernan, a television reporter, and Ari Sarghello, his partner/cameraman, who are separated in the aftermath of a roadside bombing in Bamiyan which injures both while they are on assignment to interview an archeologist about the third, giant, reclining Buddha. Interwoven into Jim’s search for Ari is Teddy’s search for his older brother Philip in Manhattan in the days following the bombing of the World Trade Center. Both brothers, separated in age by years, are gay, but each face different and distinct conflicts and paths.

Throughout the novel details are included of the history of Afghanistan and the intermingling of cultures within the Bamiyan region where the giant Buddha statues once stood. Afghanistan was once the crossroads of several ancient cultures—Greece, India, China. The final chapter of the novel occurs at an exhibition of the ancient items recovered from Afghanistan known as the Bactrian Gold at the Guimet museum in Paris.

The novel was written and rewritten over a span of about seven years as I sifted through books, maps, documentaries, articles, and satellite images of Afghanistan and Bamiyan. Important formative source materials used on Afghanistan and Bamiyan include Christian Frei’s documentary, The Giant Buddhas; Rory Stewart’s memoir of walking across Afghanistan, The Places In Between; Peter Levi’s travel journal, The Light Garden of the Angel King; and Afghanistan, A Companion and Guide by Bijan Omrani, Matthew Leeming, and Elizabeth Chatwin. Acknowledgement must also be given to Zemaryali Tarzi, the archeologist and professor who has led the search for the reclining Buddha in Bamiyan. Equally important in providing a contextual case of gay men and the Muslim countries was Michael Luongo’s anthology Gay Travels in the Muslim World, whose introductory note was as significant and as illuminating as his contributors’ essays. An important emotional source for the 9/11 portions of this novel was Marian Fontana’s book A Widow’s Walk.

The novel is unique in that it switches between telling the stories from first person and third person narratives. Several readers and editors helped to shape the narrative, including suggesting that I switch the sequence of the first two chapters of the book, and I am grateful for this insight. The opening chapter was first published in Best Gay Romance 2011, and reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2011.

The novel was published by Chelsea Station Editions in August 2011. It was a finalist for the 2011 Rainbow Book Award in Contemporary Fiction, a 2012 Rainbow Book cited by the American Library Association, and was nominated for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. It is also pleasing to note, that two years post publication of the novel in August 2013, Library Journal included the novel in a list of noteworthy (and often overlooked) LGBTI books, calling the novel, “a complex, character-propelled story in which the search for others becomes self-discovery.”