Perle Besserman is a recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel, Pilgrimage, was published by Houghton Mifflin; her latest novels, Kabuki Boy and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively. Her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Agni, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, Bamboo Ridge, and many other publications, both online and in print. Her most recent books of creative nonfiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). She holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Columbia University and has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films about her work in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages.
From “Character Driven: A Conversation with
Perle Besserman and Pat Matsueda”
Pat: You compared one of your previous novels, Kabuki Boy, with The Infamous Dr. Dee. You said, “Interestingly, Kabuki Boy, while a pleasure to write, explores many of the same dark themes as The Infamous Dr. Dee: self-deception, misplaced love, political and social violence, spiritual naiveté—and its abuse by predatory individuals and institutions.” The abuse of faithful believers is one of the themes in my writing also. We see such abuse over and over again in patriarchal societies, and it reappears even in our supposedly liberated, egalitarian American society. What are your thoughts about this?
Perle: Unfortunately, too many “spiritual” leaders fall prey to their own delusions, hurting more people than they help in the process. Numerous scholarly, journalistic, fictional, and personal accounts have been written on the subject. No religion or continent is free of this kind of abuse. I speak from personal experience. Not just as a woman. The abuse isn’t necessarily sexual (although most spiritual abuse falls into that category). You’d think the “outing” of all the predatory gurus, masters, priests, and self-styled saviors of the last decades would have had some effect on their would-be followers. Apparently not: the debate continues. Yesterday, a rabbi allegedly photographing nude women in the ritual bath; today, a yogi accused of sexually assaulting his pretty young female trainees, as if charging them thousands of dollars to study with him weren’t sufficiently predatory. It takes an abuser to make a victim, and vice versa. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re all engaged in this dance of suffering.
Note: In slightly different form, the following originally appeared in “Bringing Compassion to the World: Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Perle Besserman,” an interview published in spring 2013 in Cerise Press.
I come from a family of book lovers, writers, readers, storytellers, poets, translators, and professors of literature. So, in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere — starting at breakfast and ending at bedtime — Dickens or Jack London, or Walter Scott, Joseph Conrad, or Herman Melville (my father’s favorites) or something Dad would make up himself or a chapter from Mom’s ongoing Siberian memoir. My father taught me to read, in a fashion, when I was two. I wrote my first published story when I was nine. I spent so much time “making up stories” — living them, actually — that, in order to keep me from continuously jabbering in class, an extremely perceptive elementary school teacher appointed me “class narrator” — entitling me to summarize (and embellish) the daily events in our classroom. So, oral storytelling, or, as we in Hawai‘i call it, “talking story,” was the start of my writing career. Eventually, my English teachers encouraged me on the path to becoming a writer. This is not to say my childhood wasn’t without its bumps in the road. As you can imagine, finding and projecting my voice in a family of such articulate, emotional, strong-minded, dramatic, highly opinionated individuals took some effort. In my case, childhood wasn’t so much an effort to “survive” as a willingness to “perform” the role of “heroine in my own novel” — as my father put it. I think that’s why, to this very day, I prize my “sovereignty” above everything else.