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A Reader's Guide

The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon

Questions for Discussion

1. What are the ways in which Henry understands or misunderstands life around him? How might these ways be considered representative of an American type, or, more broadly, of American history?

2. At which points do you grow more or less sympathetic to Henry? How does the book lead you toward greater or less sympathy?

3. How would you characterize Nani? What is it that she sees in Henry? When does she have the truest closeness with Henry?

4. What is the role of superstition for Henry as opposed to its role for Nani and the other villagers?

5. How does blindness figure as a theme in the book?

6. Does Henry move beyond his original goal? Does the book lead you to believe with certainty that the outcome is superior to his initial intention, or is its value left ambiguous, for you to decide?

7. What might be Henry's greatest moment of intimacy with another human being?

8. Where does Nani tell the truth to herself? What, in general, is her relation to truth?

9. How is Nani's charisma established?

10. Why does the pace of the book fluctuate? How does the pace bring you into the world of the book?

11. What is Johnny's greatest struggle and greatest fear? When is he most honest with himself?

12. What biblical resonance do you find in the plot?

About the Author

Edie Meidav was born in Toronto and grew up in Berkeley, California. After attending Yale University, she taught fiction at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She has spent much of her life traveling and living in other countries. A Fulbright fellowship gave her the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), where she studied the Sinhala languages and local dance, monitored elections, and researched the culture and colonial history of the region, specifically exploring the origins of the civil war that rages there today.

In writing The Far Field, Meidav was also inspired by her childhood in the New Age culture of northern California, the plantation journals of Thomas Jefferson, and the lives of the spiritualists Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky, who were turn-of-the-century founders of the Theosophical Society and forerunners of today's New Age movement.

The Far Field is Edie Meidav's first novel, early sections of which were published in the Kenyon Review and Terra Nova. Meidav was selected by the editors of the Voice Literary Supplement as one of their "Writers on the Verge" in 2000.

A poet and classically trained pianist who has also danced in a West African dance troupe, Edie Meidav lives in northern California.

A Conversation with Edie Meidav

Q) How would you describe your novel, The Far Field?

A) In 1936 an American reformer, Henry Fyre Gould, fed up with his own failures and the spiritual salons of New York, sets sail for the island of Ceylon. He's convinced that he will free the locals from colonial influence and restore his idea of an appropriate Buddhism to a model village. Along the way, while proselytizing on morality and hygiene, Henry becomes embroiled in the lives of the local characters. Finally, through catastrophe and crisis, he finds transcendence.

Q) What were some of the sources that you tapped for this sweeping story?

A) I grew up in a California that was prone to every sort of spiritual delusion, which must have contributed to my fascination with the predecessors of our contemporary New Age movement, Madame Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, who were inspirations for the novel. At the time the story began gathering creative steam, I was reading some of the founding texts of our idea of America. I'm attracted to the less official documents that you can find, such as Jefferson's plantation journals, in which he describes the ripeness of fruit while failing to mention his affair with his slave Sally Hemings. I was drawn to this tension: one of the founders of this country, filled with idealism, wants to make sober notations on fruit but can't help describing them with unconsciously lush excess. Meanwhile, I'd started writing a novel that a friend said resembled, in its plot, a chapter in the history of Sri Lanka. Hearing that it resembled Sri Lanka's history was then a catalyst for getting a Fulbright fellowship, which allowed me to live for an extended period in Sri Lanka and begin a new novel that became The Far Field.

Q) What was your time like in Sri Lanka?

A) I felt I could not contact the complex world of Sri Lanka if I didn't know at least one of the languages. Half of the people who came to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright at that time gave up the fellowship and returned to America after just a few weeks.

The assumptions that run contemporary Sri Lankan society are so different from those that run most parts of individualistic America that, if you let any of the culture in, it can be hard to find a way to continue as the self you thought you were back in the West. I felt less culture shock going from California to Sri Lanka than I had felt at age seventeen going from California to the East Coast. The first few months in Sri Lanka, I focused on learning to speak and read Sinhala with a teacher. When I moved away from the capital to a more remote village, I walked an hour to a village across the river to study Kandyan dance, a kind of made-up nationalist dance that combines various Indian styles. To be a dancer in Sri Lanka generally means you belong to a particular caste. Caste in Sri Lanka is the huge but subliminal discourse underwriting everything; there is practically a caste for writers.

I was lucky to meet many of the great Asian and Western anthropologists working in Sri Lanka now, and even more fortunate to travel around remote villages with a journalist friend. It's too complex to go into the layers of politics that have brought about the current situation. The problems stem from the old situation of colonial divide-and-conquer, but you can easily argue that colonialism magnified and froze in time certain linguistic and cultural divides (not ethnic divides) between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. I also worked as an election monitor in some of the war zone areas, the refugee camps and contested territories in the east, and felt the daily live-or-die tension that wears people down.

The Far Field explores the colonial backdrop to the current crisis. Since the gilded age of empire, there have always been Western meddlers who think their system should be universal. In contemporary Sri Lanka, for example, there are hundreds of well-meaning aid agencies, and the people who get drawn to work in such places are often the cream of the crop, the most idealistic. The sad truth of it may be that there is no one way an organized institution can ever understand the day-to-day elements of life for village people who suffer from layers of oppression deep and long-standing. In a vein similar to Barbara Kingsolver's exploration of the Congo's colonial history, and Michael Ondaatje's examination of the recent violence in Sri Lanka, I'm investigating the fissures that led to the current crisis. I'm also interested in Conrad's theme of how the real heart of darkness is the heart you bring to the jungle.

Q) Could you talk about the Western fascination with the East that is so central to the story of Henry's journey?

A) Growing up in Berkeley during the 1970s and 1980s was like arriving at a party that had peaked. That party was the American romantic obsession with otherness, as defined through the prism of the East in the American imagination. This began not just with Thoreau and Emerson but with the first Puritan who said no to religious constraint, that he was getting on that boat for the New World. As Americans we tend to define ourselves as being against something. And yet we define ourselves so idealistically that it often mutes our discourse. We also slip under the table the discussions we should be having about racial or economic injustice, for example. The nation wants to be the loudmouthed, idealistic high school rebel; it doesn't want its own hypocrisies pointed out.

In the Berkeley I grew up in, almost anything Western was negated. There were false gurus on every laundromat bulletin board; Hare Krishnas danced through traffic; red-clothed Rajneeshis around the corner; Sufi trancers and bearded men wearing cowrie beads doing tai chi on any bit of lawn; nudists, poets, ideas, concerts, movements, beliefs, even restaurants of any ethnicity, so long as it all stayed non-Western. In turn, all the unromantic qualities — anything linear, complex, planned — were ascribed as Western.

I remember being about eight years old and talking to a friend of my family who had written on her notebook in big bubble letters: Stay Simple and Also Breathe. When I asked her why she wanted to stay simple, she went into a long Buddhist discourse, citing chapter and verse, and I accepted the idea that the world was too complex and one should be on this very earnestly American course of self-improvement, trying to Stay Simple. You can find this strain in some of Salinger's books in which he talks about Buddhist ideas. But so often I see this American hunger to escape the self as being closer to Lenny in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men — the hand that clutches the thing and doesn't realize how violent such clutching is; that the clutching can kill whatever thing it wants to hold and love.

Q) You make use of innovative stylistic devices, like a rotating perspective. Why did you decide on this approach?

A) I thought a rotating perspective would better reveal the consequences of blind idealism. You don't just see Henry grappling in the dark with his morals; you also see Nani's world, with all the survivor wisdom she has and how she chooses to recoil and respond far beyond the world that Henry thinks is his alone to see.

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