From the Author
It took years for me to decide to write Meeting Faith. Sure, I fancied myself a writer and I had the data—a journal stuffed in a drawer for years; and sure, folks leaned in whenever I let slip at cocktail parties that I’d spent time as Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun. So why not tell the story? When it comes to the messy, oft-misunderstood world of memoir, however, I believe that the question has to be far more passionate—more than why not, more like why? Why tell this story? What can be gained (and lost) from taking a personal, intimate experience and exposing it to the world?
I was already writing one memoir, about the impact of political history on my Nigerian-Nordic-American family, so I knew the work involved. I knew the years of laboring before a blank computer screen, convinced that no one would want to hear from some farm girl who flunked out of the Ivy League and made a wild gamble to reclaim her identity. I knew that I risked being thought narcissistic and eager to confess things that still filled me with discomfort.
In order to move your story out of the realm of catharsis and therapy and into the territory of art, I caution my students, you must be able to identify the larger, universal themes that will allow others to join you on the journey. Meeting Faith was my attempt to answer the first question always put to me—why did you ordain? And I attempted first and foremost to answer that question for myself. Was this an aberration, forever relegated to cocktail party chitchat, or was it integral to the narrative trajectory of my life? Was it a story not about wacky ordained life but in fact about how to live life? If I did my job correctly, would my readers be somehow more human than when they first picked up the book?
Structure seemed crucial to the endeavor. The challenge for this story was to seduce readers, particularly those uninterested in Buddhism or spiritual endeavor, onto the path with me. The work of determining how began with the poet Jen Hofer falling into my lap, literally. Soon after I’d transcribed my journal entries, Jen, whom I’d met only once before, crawled over the top of the booth where I was sitting in a bar, Doc Maartens first, and dropped into place beside me. After one look at her short blue hair, spiky dog collar, and open grin, I took another leap of faith. “Do you want to read several hundred pages of journal entries and tell me how to write my book?” I blurted in a rush. To her credit, she blinked only once. “Sure!”
A few weeks later over a homemade Argentine lunch, Jen showed me where she’d marked recurring themes (e.g., re-visioning success, the role of the body, overcoming fear) in green ink. Even more importantly, she said she heard multiple voices in the text and encouraged me to add even more, like what books inspired me during my ordination. This permission to imagine an experimental structure clarified the role of the journal. I knew it was crucial to maintain the young, raw, intimate voice of a narrator who was writing in the absence of language, only to herself. The voice kept asking questions—what am I doing here? Do I believe this?—and would let readers see the ragged progression (one step forward, two steps back) involved in developing any practice.
Mentors Stuart Dybek, Patricia Foster, and Sam Chang guided me through the memoir. Intellectually, I knew readers needed an adult voice that could reflect and comment on what I’d learned from the experience, but I wasn’t sure what the memoir should cover. Patricia pushed me to investigate how my childhood as an ambitious, biracial girl with a fierce, feminist, Anglo mother had set the groundwork for what was in fact a project of identity recovery, not just spiritual awakening. Initially I resisted (both Patricia and Sam, who pushed me to write about the very things I hoped to avoid—“This isn’t about blackness or femaleness!”). Stuart helped me realize that the two voices should differ, the memoir revealing the external journey while the journals detail the internal journey, moving deeper into the psyche as the narrative progresses, which actually occurs during intensive meditation.
Finally, book designer Shari DeGraw gave form to it all. Intrigued by my project, she researched historical texts for a dual-narrative precedent. We finally settled on the Talmud, though we reversed the positions of primary text and commentary: the memoir assumes the center of the page, with journal entries, quotations from other texts, and Buddhist teachings—chosen for their relation to the central theme of the chapter—in the margins. My goal was to craft a text that re-created the spiritual experience, providing white space that would allow readers to breathe, and choices for deciding how they want to read (following each narrative separately or reading both across the page).
It was gratifying to see it all come together, and, like many first-time memoirists, I naively assumed that people would buy my book for the writing. But suddenly, after its publication, I found myself face to face with an audience wanting the same thing I’d wanted when I embarked on this odyssey: strategies for living life. Institutions invited me to give Dharma talks and comment on current social ills. Audiences inquired about my current spiritual practice and sense of identity. The emails were even odder. Complete strangers wrote to ask for help with traveling to Thailand, maintaining a meditation practice, leaving dead marriages.
But I’m being facetious. Because writing, according to Joan Didion, is an aggressive act, a declaration of Listen to me! And though I don’t want to be the spokesperson for black Buddhism, I do want to assume the weighty mantle of nonfiction, the opportunity to interweave culture, politics, and spirituality, to show how building a practice requires daily commitment and struggle. I want to speak for the importance of risk and movement, of going outside yourself and your comfort zone. I want to champion the lessons of failure and seduce you into traveling the world to find home. I want you to imagine the unimaginable and use literature to embrace a life different from your own. And I want you to question. I hope the reading group guide will aid in this journey.
- How does Faith mature over the course of her time in Thailand?
- What are some of the Buddhist lessons that Faith identifies as relevant to her own life, from understanding her childhood to writing Meeting Faith?
- What new aspects of Buddhism did you discover in reading Meeting Faith? Did any of Faith’s experiences challenge your existing understanding of Buddhist thought?
- Compare and contrast the learning practices Faith encounters in America versus in Thailand. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach?
- Excerpts from Faith’s original journals appear in the margins of Meeting Faith, supplementing the primary text. Faith describes her strategy for this Talmud model above. How did you choose to read the book? How did that affect your understanding and absorption of the book?
- How does Faith’s definition of success evolve over the course of her spiritual journeying?
- While the Buddhist principles Faith studies during her forest retreat offer universal relevance, Meeting Faith is a woman’s story. How are Faith and her fellow nuns’ experiences affected by their sexuality?
- Before entering the temple, Faith shaves her head and strips herself of all outward signs of individual identity. Why is this intentional loss of identity necessary for her development?
- What realizations about race and identity does Faith make as a result of her ordination experience?
- Faith opens the preface to her book with a confession: “I’m an unlikely candidate for spiritual aspirations.” Yet she survived longs hours of meditation and scant meals over months of silence. What personal strengths does she draw on to do so?
- Buddhism can be classified as religion or philosophy, but the author takes up the word “faith” to embody her experience of it. Explain the significance of this word choice.
- Name the mentors who have influenced Faith since childhood. How has each uniquely contributed to her philosophy on life?
- What lessons of community building does Faith take from the temple for her reentry into American society?
- How does Faith use her personal story to try to get readers to think about the larger issues, such as the connection between politics and spirituality, or the global condition of women, or the politics of travel?
About Faith Adiele
Faith Adiele, a graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Books by Faith Adiele
A wry account of the road from Harvard scholarship student to ordination as northern Thailand's first black Buddhist nun.More