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On Sale: August 12, 2008
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-45525-3
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Alex , a twenty-year-old American student, is spending the year in Nepal, backpacking and photographing. As a favor to Will – her American friend – she uses one of her Himalayan treks to seek out Maya, a young Nepali woman desperate to flee her traditional family to find work in Kathmandu. But helping Maya has unforeseen implications. Soon Alex is embroiled in a strange triangle with Maya and Will, where the lines between friendship, love, and lust grow more tangled every day.

Over the course of the next eight years, Alex returns to Nepal: first to visit and to photograph, then in an attempt to help the troubled Maya. Moving between Kathmandu, New York, and the grim houses of prostitution along Falkland Road in Bombay, Alex begins to understand the pitfalls of trying to be both adventurer and savior in an unfamiliar world. In the Land of No Right Angles introduces the fiction of Daphne Beal, whose evocations of life in Nepal, and of the universal conflicts inherent to love and friendship, mark the arrival of a stunningly talented, intuitive writer.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

It started out as a little adventure, or an adventure tagged onto an adventure. I was twenty and about to go trekking in the central hill region of Nepal by myself after living in the country for almost eight months when I mentioned it to my friend Will. We were at a party on the rooftop of a small hotel high on a hill at the western edge of Kathmandu, and when I told him where I was going in a few days' time, he lit up and asked if I could do him a favor. “It'll take you an hour out of your way. Two, tops,” he said as we looked out at the lowslung, ancient city twinkling before us.

“Sure,” I said. Two hours was nothing when you were talking about a two-and-a-half-week trek. Besides, the errand sounded interesting. He wanted me to find a girl he 'd met the year before and give her a message. As it was, the purpose of my solo trek was not only to take pictures, but to say good-bye to the people in a remote, hardscrabble village called Jankat where I'd lived for a month in the winter, and it all seemed a little melancholy. I was pleased to add a more cheerful mission.

With a map to the girl's house and a photograph, I took a bus to Ghorka and asked around town if anyone was headed to Barpak, the first town on my route. A small group of men and women said they were leaving in the morning for their home, and when I mentioned I was friends with some other bideshis-foreigners-who stayed there a few months before, they happily added me to their gang. We headed northwest to the thriving village set in lush green fields where I spent a
couple of nights and went to a village elder's funeral high on a hillside. The whole village paraded up a winding path to the burial site as women keened and lamas danced and chanted, spinning in their colorful robes and hats, a kind of Hindu-Buddhist-animist blend of rites. As I was taking pictures, I knew I'd made the right decision, even if it was unconventional, to go trekking on my own, to be only one outsider watching all this. From there, I went northeast with a few people to the northernmost point where I was allowed without a permit. We walked uphill all morning, and I spent the afternoon sliding and jumping down muddy terraces until my knees ached, and then walking along the rushing Buri Gandaki some distance behind everyone else until I arrived at a desolate, tight-lipped little town of stone houses in a craggy grayand-brown setting of boulders and cliffs, where strings of tattered prayer flags whipped in the wind. When I couldn't find anyone to walk with the next day, I started due south along the river toward Tatopani, the town where the girl lived, knowing from Will's description that I didn't have a long day ahead of me. It was an easy walk compared to the day before, and I met enough people along the way that I didn't mind being alone. I expected to be there by about three, but it was almost four when the rain began to fall, and I still hadn't passed any of the landmarks he 'd mentioned.

It was a gentle rain at first-sim-simi, like little beans, Nepalis say of this kind of soft, steady rain-and I wasn't fazed by it. It even felt good after the midday heat. But soon enough it was a full-on downpour, a kind of preview of the monsoon to come, and my skirt (an ankle-length, flowered lungi, same as all the village women wore), long underwear, double layers of socks, and boots were soaked through. Every step was audible now, not just the footfall, but the slurpsquish-squelch that followed. Only the small section of my torso that was squarely under my poncho qualified as damp,and I scanned the trail for signs that I was getting close: a water tap, a clearing of wild pot plants, a sharp bend in the path. But more than an hour after I should have seen them, with no letup in the rain, I came up with nothing. There was no one to ask and no porch overhang to stop under. Was Will messing with me? I wondered. Trying to give me some Buddhist lesson about seeking and not finding? It wouldn't be totally unlike him, even though I wasn't his student anymore. He seemed to delight in exposing the people around him to new and unsettling ideas. I felt exasperated at the thought, but also a little excited. Maybe there was a point even if there was no point. And then, wasn't this exactly the kind of thing I wanted, when I decided to come here, to see things from a completely different perspective, from outside the Western mind-set? What was that Whitman line that Ginsberg used and that I loved when I read it? “Unscrew the locks from the doors/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.” Here I was, a million miles from where I'd started, the landscape intensely beautiful, a pixelated world of glittering greens, everything smelling lushly of it. My footsteps splashed along the muddy path and mingled with the sound of my breath, the rustle of wet leaves, and the incessant rushing of the river,invisible beyond the dense growth.

If only I wasn't drenched and hungry. I hadn't eaten anything but a single chapati with peanut butter that I packed that morning. But I knew that eventually, even if I had to walk in the dark with a flashlight, I would run into the ramshackle trekking lodge I had stayed at a few months before. I could always get a good night's sleep (or as much as a wooden cot allowed) and look for the girl in the morning. It wasn't my nature to come this far and give up, and, even for Will, it would be too bizarre to make up such an elaborate lie. I'd seen him orchestrate surprising excursions for his students in the course of the semester program he ran, but nothing like this. Some of the students loved it, gathering at his apartment every evening to meet whatever guru or charlatan appeared,but I kept my distance. I hadn't traveled around the world to be in the thrall of an American man twelve years older than me. At the same time, from that distance, I liked him. Having lived in Nepal for the past eight years, he was smart and unconventional. And while I sometimes thought he enjoyed his role as teacher a bit too much, I also saw that he listened to the students and engaged with them in a way that made us all feel lucky. For all his grandstanding, there was something kind about him. He also happened to be a very good photographer, and from the beginning he and I had things to say to each other about people like Diane Arbus and Raghubir Singh, and about things like the quality of light in Kathmandu in the early morning, or how the landscape affected our sense of scale.

Then in January, before the new batch of students arrived, we ate a few meals together. I was staying on for another semester, and I told him that after a kind of hiatus from photography, I was looking for a project to work on in the six months I had left, before my money and visa ran out. “I want to do something that's not just old-school anthropology or cool postcards,” I told him. “I feel like I'm finally just beginning to know something about this place so that I can actually take a real picture now.” I think he was surprised and maybe even a little impressed that I stayed and wanted something more than the gift-wrapped bauble of a semester of studyabroad, and he took me around town on the back of his motorcycle to meet people, expats and lamas among others,to help me figure out what I might be looking for: life at a monastery or convent, in a leper colony, at an untouchable 's home. When I had a stomach bug one day, he brought me ayurvedic medicine, and I got better right away.

I didn't sleep with him, if you're wondering. It didn't come up, or not explicitly. Friends had, including Maggie, my closest friend in Nepal, whom I'd introduced to Will. She was my age and taking a year off from Berkeley to immerse herself in the whole Tibetan Buddhist scene, and I thought they would have things to talk about. Then, while I was in India for six weeks, she tried opium with him, and they slept together, which she regretted afterward. “He just wasn't very nice about it,” she told me. “It was like he was so invested in not being 'attached,' in the Buddhist way, that he forgot I was a real person.” I was so glad it wasn't me. I wouldn't have known what to do. Right before I left for India in February, after a couple of weeks of spending time together, there was a little frisson between Will and me, but I knew I wasn't his type. I saw that when he dated American girls, he liked them hippie-ish and diminutive, and I was, especially at that time, what I would call wholesomebordering-on-nerdy, too tall by at least six inches, and defiantly redheaded compared to his petite brunettes. I knew I was just a curiosity.

After a party welcoming the spring semester's students, we danced a little. Will asked me to come to Ghorka to give a “lecture” about my experience in the area to the new students, and I told him I was thinking I should go to India if I wanted to get to Dharamsala in time for the Tibetan New Year. I knew he expected me to go home with him that night, but at the end of the party, I jumped on the back of a friend's scooter.

“What? Why are you going with her?” he asked.

“I'm exhausted,” I said, pretending not to hear the irritation in his voice. When I ran into him at school a couple days later, he was friendly enough, as if he'd forgotten all about it. All the same, I fled the country soon after. I was way too inexperienced to get involved with someone like him. He was the Casanova of Kathmandu, and I was just a girl from Des Moines who knew more about sex and romance in theory than in practice. When I got back from India, he had moved on. There was Maggie, and then his Nepali girlfriend. We were just pals now.

Still, as I slogged on, I wondered if this errand of his was a kind of test to see how I responded: impatient, irate, amused, defeated? How much had I let Nepal into my psyche? Not enough to want to be walking at night by myself. Just as I decided to speed up to make it to the lodge I knew about, I saw a little path to my left, looked around, and jogged a few steps through the dripping underbrush, my pack thumping against my back as I went. Then I saw the thatched roof, tall and pointy, thick with straw, and the solid gray stone walls beneath it. I felt like Gretel at the candy cottage. “A well-built house,” Will had said. This had to be it!

As I got closer, I saw a porch on the far side of the house and on it, under the eaves, a girl, maybe seventeen, leaning against a post holding a big tin water jug to her hip and watching the rain as if she were reading something in it. Her attitude, wistful and contemplative, was familiar in a way that few things were here. People, by and large, were so rooted in their lives, their minds never seemed to float too far away.

Namaste, little sister!” I called, and she swung around and grinned.

Namaste, big sister!” she shouted, as if she 'd been expecting me. “Come quickly!” She set down her jug and helped me off with my pack and onto the dry porch, whisking away my poncho to a covered line at the far end. The whole wall facing the river and porch was open, and Nepalis and Tibetans were gathered in the dim light of the late afternoon, drinking from tin cups. I propped my pack against a near wall, yanked off my boots and socks, and went to sit by the small cooking fire at the front of the room, tended to by a cheerful older woman who had to be the girl's mother.

Raksi or tea?” she asked with a sly grin.

“Tea, please,” I said, practically sticking my long, bony, freckled feet in the fire. I wanted all my wits about me. The woman chortled. It was a little test on her part, because a woman, especially a young-read, sexually viable-woman really didn't drink. An older village woman had earned her right, and highcaste women just didn't drink at all. So, she was sussing out, was I in fact a foreigner who didn't know all the rules, or one who knew them and was willing to flout them? I was so cold and sodden I might have had raksi if I weren't there for such a specific reason. That, and if the drink hadn't tasted so much like lighter fluid the few times I'd tried it.

Holding the hot metal cup close to my face, trying to drive off the chill, I answered all the usual questions. What country was I from? Where did I come from that day? How long had it taken me? The woman was clearly pleased that I could speak Nepali. I shaved off more than an hour so that I didn't look too pathetic. Did I have a mother, father, sisters, brothers? Why was I traveling alone? Had I eaten? When I told her I hadn't, the woman offered me some cold boiled potatoes with salt, which I gobbled up. I knew it wasn't the best idea, eating food that had been sitting around, but my stomach needed something to chew on besides itself. Then I asked about their family, crops, chickens, the weather, and also, because I wanted to be sure, the name of the place.
Daphne Beal|Author Q&A

About Daphne Beal

Daphne Beal - In the Land of No Right Angles
Daphne Beal's writing has appeared in Vogue, McSweeney's, Open City, and The London Review of Books. She was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and educated at Brown and New York University, where she was a New York Times fellow. Her work has been anthologized in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and The KGB Reader. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she now lives in New York City with her husband, Sean Wilsey, and their two children.

Author Q&A

Q: How would you describe your novel In the Land of No Right Angles? What inspired you to write the book and what do you think readers will enjoy most about it?

A: To me, first and foremost, it has always been a story about love and friendship among the three main characters. I have always been fascinated by stories that look at the psychology of intimacy, and three is a particularly interesting (maybe the most interesting) number. The fact that this triangle exists in Nepal and India is integral to the story, and I think (I hope!) that readers will enjoy visiting those parts of the world with a writer who is devoted to their beauty and complexity.

Q: The nation of Nepal plays almost as active a role as the characters in your book. What led you to want to write about Nepal, or more specifically, about an American in Nepal?

A: Like my protagonist Alex, I was fortunate to be able to spend a year in Nepal when I was twenty. When I got there, like so many people, I was captivated by the beauty of the setting and the culture I found, but most intriguing to me-the thing that really got my imagination going and stayed with me as the years passed-was observing the foreigners who had settled there. There was an ex-pat community of people who seemed to be genuinely seeking enlightenment while pursuing a more hedonistic existence, and the inherent contradiction in that fascinated me.

Q: What drew you to Nepal in the first place?

A: I was a sophomore at Brown when I completely burnt out on academics and the hyper-politicized atmosphere. I was determined to get an entirely different perspective...on everything. Nepal was about as far as I could go, in terms of sheer miles, and also philosophically. At first glance, the fact that it was geographically beautiful and not war-torn appealed to me. But investigating it further, I loved that the oral tradition was so much stronger than the literary one, and that it was more spiritually- than materially-inclined. In my first months there, living on the outskirts of Kathmandu in a mud house with a Brahmin family and a cow in the room next to mine was one of the things that that let me know I'd landed in the right place.

Q: You, like your character, Alex, have returned to Nepal several times. What do you think it is about Nepal that is so compelling? What brings you back time after time?

A: I returned, first and foremost, because I've never found that my mind was stretched in quite the same way here as it is in Nepal, and India, for that matter, and I wanted another fix of that. Later, I went for work to research articles.

While I never did do the "Buddhist thing," it is riveting to be in a place where, not just religion, but spiritualism is such a daily part of people's lives. I think even for those of us who aren't seeking enlightenment, it is amazing to encounter the kind of equanimity and unhurriedness that is not really part of our lives in the West. That quality has changed somewhat in recent years in Nepal, but not entirely.

Also, the Himalayas make for some pretty stunning landscape.

Q: What are the rewards and/or challenges of writing about another culture? Did the novel require a great deal of research, aside from your own experiences?

A: The challenge of writing about another place for me is I have such an intense desire to “get it right.” But of course, I will always be me, with my own cultural and personal baggage. Finally, I just decided to get it right for my characters and that was very freeing. That desire to be accurate, too, is what the title is about. I remember the first morning I went trekking, I woke up in a little village that was literally above a layer of clouds with the mountains shining above. I asked a new Nepali friend standing next to me how he would describe it, and he said simply, "good." But isn't there something more, I pressed? He laughed and said, "Very good." That was a kind of revelation in itself-that something could be significant without being immediately and precisely described.

The most actively researched part of the novel was the part that takes place on Falkland Road in Bombay, where I spent six weeks researching the novel and a piece about migrant sex workers that was published in McSweeney's called “The Poor Thing.”

Q: Prostitution can be a controversial issue. What drew you to this topic? What, in your experience, are the challenges of writing about this subject, and how did you approach it?

A: A few months after I returned from Nepal the first time, someone showed me Mary Ellen Mark's photo essay Falkland Road, about Bombay's oldest red-light district. I was very surprised to see Nepali women there because I'd never heard about this migration, or trafficking, of women and girls into the Indian sex trade in the year I'd been in Nepal. I thought of the girls I knew there trying to make it in the big city, and wondered how at risk they were. As I started researching the topic, there began to be more and more written about it. But finally I knew that I had to simply go and see for myself if I was going to truly understand how it all worked. Personally, I think I was compelled, too, by the fact that I was a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city of New York, and yet clearly I had extremely different options available to me. I wanted to explore what choice and free will meant in a very specific set of circumstances.

To me, prostitution never felt controversial as an issue, simply complex. I began by interviewing people who work for organizations that help sex workers with basic human rights in the red-light district (getting food and cooking-fuel rations, enrolling their children in school, not being exploited by the police). I also interviewed people in Nepal who work for NGO's (non-governmental organizations) dealing with girl trafficking, either in prevention or in rehabilitation once girls and women returned and found themselves ostracized and often sick.

But the most fruitful work I did was simply going into brothels in the red-light district of Falkland Road. Speaking Nepali was key, which I had learned when I was a student. Being a good listener was also important. I think I am someone whom many different kinds of people are able to confide in, and it's a quality, for better or for worse, that I use a lot when researching and reporting, though I try to be sensitive with that information. I also wanted to convey the sense of humor and community that I found on Falkland Road. I think the biggest challenge when writing about poverty for any writer, is to convey the particulars of the situation, and to evoke empathy rather than pity from the reader.

Q: There are some “feminist” themes in NO RIGHT ANGLES, and you spend a lot of time exploring the lives of women in Nepal. What are some challenges they face? What kind of futures can they have, and what does the life of a “successful” Nepalese woman look like?

A: Women's lives have changed a lot since 1990, especially in the capital. There are more women in the work place. Both high caste and low caste women dress with more freedom and less modestly, and I think in general more girls are being educated. A friend of mine has worked for many years for a foreign NGO with increasing responsibilities. She is the main breadwinner and lives in an apartment that she bought for her husband and two daughters, after an unpleasant time with her in-laws. The fact that she comes from traditional Brahmin family and is able to achieve all that is clear indicator that things slowly but surely are beginning to change for women, and if they change in the capital, they will eventually change in more rural areas.
Q: When did you first become interested in being a writer? What other professions, if any, have you had?

A: I was interested in writing from a very young age, mostly because I read a lot (and my parents read to me). Fiction was like magic to me. Like a kid studying a magician pulling rabbits from a hat, I was dying to know how authors created a whole world that often felt as real as the one I was living in. I remember saying when I was as young as nine that I wanted to be a writer, and in particular that I wanted to write fiction, but I recommitted to that idea when I was seventeen and leaving to go to college. I've done lots of related work, as a journalist and an editor, both of which use similar muscles. Right now, my magazine journalism work feeds my brain enormously. I am always hungry to hear other people's stories. I've also loved teaching college students this year. They have so much energy and bravado, it can be exhilarating.

Q: Are there any writers, teachers, or other individuals that have had a major influence on your writing or helped you further your career?

A: Early on, I was lucky to study with James Robison and Mary Robison at the Bennington Writing Workshops. They are wonderful short story writers and were compelling teachers to me. At NYU, I worked with and for E.L. Doctorow (as his personal assistant), and he is such a magnificent storyteller and generous teacher that that was very meaningful as well. Also, working at The New Yorker in the mid-late '90s was like going to the best grad school in the world…to be surrounded by people who cared so deeply about writing, be it fiction or nonfiction. I worked in the “typing pool,” or word processing, when I first got there, and because everyone else worked on paper, we entered all changes made at the magazine into the computer, whether they came from the editor, writer, copy editor, legal, or fact checking. So you really got to see how a piece came to be made. It was very educational, and people were kind to the kids, as we thought of ourselves. It was exciting just to be walking the same halls as Janet Malcolm, Roger Angell, and Joseph Mitchell. I remember I answered the phone one day and Muriel Spark was on the line. I was completely floored.

Q: What writers/books do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?

A: Many of the usual suspects….Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dickens, the wonderfully imaginative Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. Also, many short story writers: Donald Barthelme, Eudora Welty, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver.
I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection Unaccustomed Earth. I was happy to read it right before it was published and became such a sensation, because it was one of those of those very private and moving reading experiences where I felt like I was learning something about how to live, by being so involved with her characters. She is such a nuanced and perceptive writer. She makes me think of Jane Austen, whom I also love.

Q: What is the writing process like for you? How do you develop your characters? What is your motivation for writing?

A: I often start with an image of people in a place. I love settings, describing them, and trying to figure out what's going on with people within them. My characters are either amalgams of people I've known, or people I've heard about whose stories or plights have grabbed my attention.

Q: What other books or projects are you working on?

A: At the moment, I'm working on magazine pieces and thinking that my next book will either be historical fiction or nonfiction. I recently wrote a piece for a collection called State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, which is 50 writers on the 50 states, and a tribute to the WPA Guides to the states produced by the Federal Writers Project in the 1940s. It's going to be a tremendous collection, and I'm enormously proud to be a part of it. I wrote about Wisconsin, and in the course of researching the piece, went to the historical society in Racine, Wisconsin, where my family settled in 1874. I loved learning about that era-post-Civil War, pre-1900-in the Midwest, and am considering returning to it. I was a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan as a child and have enjoyed Willa Cather as an adult.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers today?

A: Revise and revise. Show your writing to people you trust, listen to their critiques carefully, and only use what is useful to the story you most want to tell. You can't please everyone, and all great novels have flaws, which is part of what makes them great.

Praise

Praise

Praise for Daphne Beal’s In the Land of No Right Angles

“Capturing a self-satisfied expat world of mantra-spouting Don Juans and ‘highbrow hippie girl[s] taking a year off from Brown,’ Beal, like a new-generation Paul Bowles, targets an essential American naivete: the tendency to romanticize–and fear–more traditional cultures. Gently satirizing the idea that any social ill can be remedied with a bit of capital and good intentions, Beal’s richly textured story conjures a friendship as intimate as it is impossible.” –Vogue

“An unpredictable journey of the spirit and the flesh. . . . [An] enchanting, at times perilous, tale of love, magic, and illusion.” –Elle

“Beal . . . won us over. When naïve Alex makes a ‘karmic connection’ with magnetic Maya, there’s nothing pseudo about it. . . . Would you drop everything–your job, apartment–for a friend? Mediate on that.” –Marie Claire

“Vivid. . . . Tantalizingly ambiguous. . . . Beal capably describes the outsider’s disorientation in a foreign land.” –Rebecca Donner, BookForum

“An exquisitely rendered tale set against a continent teeming with motion. . . . [Beal] manages to trace a story that perfectly links the changing face of contemporary Nepal and the lurid underworld of Bombay’s red-light district.” –Time Out New York

“Beal deftly portrays the beauty of the countryside, the monasteries and temples, the quaint villages, the welcoming hinterland families and the easygoing expat community. But she also explores the soft underbelly of this opening up of Nepal and the shattering changes in tradition and desires that modernity brings.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Equal parts coming-of-age quest and travelogue, this debut novel dazzles most with its deft descriptions, which transform an unimaginably foreign land into terra cognita.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A meditation on what it means to be a traveler not only of the world, but of one’s own ever-changing, inner topography. Beal artfully balances clarity and chaos, and explores how even the thinnest line of human connection . . . can alter a person for good. . . . A subtly resonant masterpiece.” –Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

“Instantly suspenseful. . . . Beal’s intimate knowledge of Nepal . . . shines from these pages, making her a frank and humane tour guide into an underworld she makes fully her own.” –Jennifer Egan, author of The Keep

“Haunting, spare, fascinating. . . . A sharp, keenly observed meditation on friendship, on desire.” –Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals

  • In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal
  • August 12, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $13.95
  • 9780307388063

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