Guest post by Blair Hurley
I wrote my first novel, The Devoted, while still living in my hometown of Boston, fresh out of a grad writing program and keen to tell a story that I felt passionate about. It took four or five years of struggling with scenes and characters and memories from my own childhood, but it didn’t really come together as a story until I realized that I had to step into risky, unknown territory, both from my own realm of experience and also beyond it.
The Devoted is inspired by both my Irish Catholic roots and my lifelong interest and research into Buddhism in America, particularly the experience of women exploring Buddhist practice. The novel is about a Boston Irish Catholic woman who, disillusioned by the sexual abuse scandals of the church that broke in the early 2000s, converts to Zen Buddhism. After heartbreak and betrayal, she becomes trapped in a manipulative sexual relationship with her Zen Master. The book raises the question of how the #metoo movement can play out in spiritual spaces, where powerful, respected teachers have abused their authority with vulnerable students seeking a spiritual experience. It also explores the healing and redemptive power that faith, both Catholic and Zen, can bring to our lives.
To write the novel, I had to immerse myself in research about both Catholicism and Zen, reading religious texts, but also Zen poetry, koans, and folktales from Buddhist cultures. I read the fascinating memoirs of medieval Buddhist nuns and was surprised to discover their honest, forthright discussions of the discrimination they encountered. In one Tibetan nun’s account, she sings mournfully of how her Master refuses to believe she can achieve the same level of spiritual accomplishment as the monks that surround her; she defiantly declares she will prove him wrong.
Many of my readers assume that I’m more familiar with the Catholic portions of the story, but even though my family has Irish Catholic history, I was raised without any particular religious affiliation, free to explore and visit religious spaces without any sort of official allegiance. To write my character’s strict Catholic upbringing, I had to dive deep into Catholic stories, songs, and doctrine, questioning my family about their own memories and jokes and superstitions. When writing scenes set both in Catholic churches and Buddhist Zendos, I felt as much of an outsider as my character, stepping tentatively inside the temple for the first time. What if I got some crucial points of doctrine or ritual wrong? What if I inadvertently disrespected someone else’s sacred space? For the early drafts of my writing, I hovered nervously on the edges of writing these scenes, afraid to offend or to misrepresent, afraid that I didn’t have what it took to write the scene authentically. Writers often struggle with this question of authenticity — do I dare tell this story? Is it my story to tell? Can I do this story justice?
For me, the line came when I realized I had written cautiously around the edges of the real issues I wanted to address. To really show my character’s experience on the page — with her family, with her Zen Master, singing in church and running away from it, fighting with her brother and falling in love and betraying people all on her messy quest for personal grace — I had to walk into those rooms with her. I had to do my homework, get the research right, walk into those spaces myself whenever I could, and in my imagination when I couldn’t. I visited Zen and Tibetan temples, and wandered in and out of Catholic churches; I read and listened; and at some point, when I had done the work, I had to sit down at my desk, take a deep breath, and begin.
Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted published by W.W. Norton and Penguin Random House Canada. The novel was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Hawthornden Castle, and the Ontario Arts Council.
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