Books about Nepal ( and why mine matters…)

author’s note: I wrote this for my Amazon author page and thought it would be worth reposting here..

On Amazon I compiled a “listmania” a few years back – the dozen or so books I thought a prospective foreign medical person needed to read before traveling to Nepal.  Alas! Amazon phased this out. But you can still read my individual reviews. If you go to Amazon, I used my real name for all reviews and if you search for me as a reviewer you can see what I may have recommended since then.

In 2013,  I wrote a blog entry listing things to study. This blog has more than two hundred entries and I guess it would help if I relisted the pertinent ones now and again instead of re-writing the exact same theme as if it were new. Here it is:

What book do you think of when you think of Nepal?

The American concept of Nepal has been shaped by only a few books –  definitely The Snow Leopard and Annapurna. I suppose you could add the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the heroine is found tending bar for some musty Asian characters; but apart from Kim Stanley Robinson’s romp Escape from Kathmandu, the English-speaking world needs an update.

Sure, these are fine books and they describe incredible personal journeys taken by explorers and adventurers in the Himalaya – the highest mountain range in the world. And tourism is a major source of foreign exchange for the former Hindu Kingdom. But let’s look at one small fact: ninety nine per cent of the twenty six million residents of the country do not live in the Himalaya. And a book about a personal goal such as climbing Sagarmatha will focus on the thrilling rock jock aspects of conquering an 8,000 meter peak, not on the day to day lives of people who live there.

Other South Asian Cultures have their turn in the USA limelight

And by this I mean, The Kite Runner. Or Reading Lolita in Tehran. Or The Namesake. Or A Fine Balance. Each of these books contributes to our understanding of the human condition.  I have written my reviews of these elsewhere on Amazon.

We are each the hero of our own lives.

When an adventure is concerned, we all construct our own stories (of which we are the hero). What if the adventure is to actually see the culture from the eyes of a Nepali person? or to learn about the lived experience of a person in a collectivist culture? This area is out-of-focus, blurry, not easy to tease out of a cursory visit to a foreign country. It’s easier to stick to the list of monuments and temples and waterfalls. Stuff from a tourist manual. Something we can learn. The usual adventurer fare needs to go beyond this, and go beyond the “White Guy As Hero” meme and actually look both ways through the looking glass.


Many people decide to read a book only after looking at the back cover. Here’s the one for The Sacrament of the Goddess

And that’s what I set out to do with this book. The best books take you to a time and place where the rules are different and the reader gets inside the head of a person whose thoughts would normally never be shared. That’s the kind of book I personally love, and I wrote The Sacrament of the Goddess with this in mind.

People ask me all the time – “What’s it like being in Nepal? did you climb Everest?”

I always laugh at the second question (“no, but I did see it out of a plane window one time”)  and struggle with the first. It deserves a book-length response. Too long. the reply? “It’s nice. everyone should try it.”

Omar Sharif

The Sacrament of the Goddess has two particular features. The first is, The White Guy is (still) the Hero.  This is a time-honored meme, and in our post-deconstructionist era, there will be literati who are determined to bring this to heel.

Doctor Zhivago comes to mind. A very famous movie with an all-star cast.  The story goes that Omar Sharif complained to David Lean, the director. “I am in the title role. Why don’t I have better speaking parts than I do?” Omar asked. “You’re giving all the best time to the other characters!”

David Lean is said to have replied “You are the eyes and ears of the audience. They see all the action through your point of view. For that reason, you serve a greater purpose than simply being the focus.”

How could Mr. Sharif argue with that premise? and for that reason, the largest share of the internal dialog (split between the characters) goes to Matt, the American surgeon. For an American reader, the  action is best described through the American cultural lens which then matures and grows as the action takes place. Matt won’t tell you how to feel about the events; you will see them through his eyes and decode them for your own self.

The “Other”

The second feature of The Sacrament of the Goddess is the relationship between Matt and Sushila, the heroine. Sushila is a Nepali woman, dark-skinned. There may be sophisticated readers ready to stone any writer who re-tells the boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, re-unites with girl theme. And her complexion highlights the discovery of “otherness” in a fellow human being. The fact is, we need to learn about the day-to-day lives of Nepali women, and the best way to write it is to embody the values into a person the reader can identify with. For persons who think this is trite or that it’s already been done a million times, I say – get out of your ennui and celebrate the idea that people can still connect on a deep personal level.

Let he who is innocent cast the first stone! would be another way to say it. This meme can be fresh if it is well told – look at Slumdog Millionaire.

When the human race is no longer motivated by love, the planet will die.

Finally, I wanted to write this book because it’s good a honking good story line. Things happen. Unexpected yet believable twists take place, and challenges arise.  People confront major problems with real consequences. I love a good page-turner – don’t you?

Joe Niemczura
March 2014

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