Still in Motion
Kate Wheeler, author of "When Mountains Walked," is both everywhere and nowhere. But she gets her mail in Somerville, Massachusetts.
By John Freeman
APRIL 3, 2000: It's a chilly late-February afternoon in Somerville, and the first few flakes of an approaching snowstorm have begun to flutter down. Within a few hours Kate Wheeler will leave her yellow duplex and board a plane to Houston to begin the publicity tour for her first novel, When Mountains Walked. Travel makes some people nervous, and so do publicity tours, but Wheeler, sitting Indian-style in black running sweats and sipping coffee, couldn't appear any calmer.
Motion has been a way of life for her. Born in Peru to American parents, she moved 13 times before she left "home" for college. Wheeler has been in Somerville since 1994, her longest stay anywhere, but even that has been punctuated by long trips to Burma, footloose romps through Europe, a botched attempt to live in New Mexico, and treks through some of the most remote parts of Peru, India, and Australia. "Now I have stuff that stays packed and ready to go all the time," she says, letting out an infectious laugh.
Wheeler's fiction debut, the short-story collection Not Where I Started From, was a finalist for the 1994 PEN/Faulkner Award. Two years later, Granta magazine named Wheeler one of the 20 best novelists under 40 in America, putting her in company with Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, and David Guterson. When she finally did write a novel -- When Mountains Walked was published by Houghton Mifflin in February -- the book went into a second printing before it even hit stores.
In trying to put a finger on a unifying theme for his 20 Young Turks, Granta editor Ian Jack pointed to "their concern to be domestic and geographically specific -- regional, if you will." Wheeler fits this category, but in a less-than-conventional sense. With her stories and this new novel, Wheeler is doing as much as any contemporary writer to rehabilitate travel writing -- or, rather, the "travel novel."
In her fiction she uses travel to capture the way we are marooned within ourselves, moving toward a hazy destiny or goal. In many ways, When Mountains Walked is a delicious throwback to the tales Graham Greene and E.M. Forster wrote of innocence abroad, the kind of tale that only Robert Stone has been publishing with success these days. Though Wheeler certainly looks to Stone, and Greene and Joseph Conrad, as literary models, the tale she tells comes less from her literary ancestors than it does from her personal and spiritual ones.
When Mountains Walked is the story of Maggie Goodwin, a displaced New Englander who travels to a remote village in Peru with her husband to reopen a health clinic. But what begins as a goodwill trip winds up touching on social issues larger and more dangerous than they had expected. In a twist that could come right out of Stone's brutal Flag for Sunrise, a government-backed mine that is a major source of employment in the Peruvian valley also turns out to be a possible source of the villagers' lingering illnesses. As Maggie and her husband get drawn deeper and deeper into the village's tortured past, Maggie realizes that the marriage she has embraced may be stifling her. She starts a passionate love affair with a former member of a militant terrorist group called the Rainbow Forest Movement.
Maggie's story alternates with that of her grandmother, Althea Baines, who 50 years earlier lived in India while her geologist husband went crusading among the bones of the earth. She, too, had an affair, but she handled it a little differently. Recounted in alternating chapters, Maggie's disillusionment and Althea's tough-minded compromises create a rich psychological account of how differently we respond to threats to our lives.
Their stories create an equally rich portrait of the landscapes in which they're set. As a child, Wheeler spent time in Lima and in small desert towns, where her father worked as geologist prospecting for oil; the landscape and culture of Peru seem to have been seared into her consciousness. To recapture the feel of the area, she made several trips back to Peru, and several to India. Wheeler admits that her book sometimes reads like "a travel piece disguised as a novel," and she has a point. But that's what makes her novel special: Indian and Peruvian topographies rise up from its pages as they would appear through the muddy window of a bus lurching down into a canyon -- as ancient as time itself, dwarfing the human stories that unfold within them.
But it is Maggie's internal landscape that proves Wheeler's most fertile terrain. Maggie, like Wheeler, was born in Latin America and grew up speaking Spanish. Because of some family roots in Peru, Maggie's journey there starts a process of reclaiming that she doesn't really know she is beginning, one that she can't stop once it's already begun. It's not a simple process. Going to the village of Piedras feels to Maggie like "the only deed . . . that had ever flowed from her true character." But the family history she was told she could find there is nowhere to be found, and because of her relatively pale skin she is made to feel like a foreigner on what she assumed might feel like native soil. As Maggie's marriage unravels, so does her grasp on the familiar. She tries desperately to hold all these separate worlds in her head -- her past, her present, her uncertain future -- while her husband, Carson, plugs away, unquestioning, at saving lives.
Wheeler experienced the same disorienting feeling growing up, and it returned when she started going back to Peru to write this book. "My first word as a baby was in Spanish," she says, "But because I had all the sensory inputs of a Spanish person and all the cultural inputs of an American person, my identity always seemed to be an artifice that never quite fit." Returning to Peru, she felt even less of a claim on the environment, but couldn't shake the feeling that it was, in some ways, home. "At first it was nice, but then I started to feel that I was exiled, because now my home is here," she says. "That's what helped me write Maggie's character."
"After a while, when you're traveling and you get tired of not being known, never having any of your stuff, it's just so nice to come back to a place where you are familiar," Wheeler says. She's been in a writing group here since 1987. "And my group is so important to me," she says. "It's gotten to the point now that moving anywhere else would mean starting over."
"I started reading these books on yoga and Eastern religion in eighth grade," she says, "when I was this lonely little fat misfit with dandruff. It was the '60s and all that stuff was around. After college, I went to a retreat and it started to become very genuine. The idea of actually being inside your experience was very attractive to me."
Wheeler was ordained a Buddhist nun in Burma in 1988. In fact, her first book was a collection of essays and Buddhist sermons. Like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Peter Matthiessen before her, she came to the religion through a long spiritual search. She has found a spiritual home in Buddhism, with its acceptance of transience and stillness in motion.
Wheeler was also attracted by Buddhism's notion that identity is not inherent, but part of a self-made structure we use to see the world. "I think it really fits how I feel, as a world traveler," she says, "as someone who never knew who I was, who moved to so many different places and has seen so many different things and learned two languages growing up." Today, sitting with her, it is hard not to feel the overwhelming solidness of her presence, as if there is something very still and peaceful at the center of her. She listens extremely well, and in an interview she asks as many questions as she is asked. The novelist John L'Heureux says he noticed Wheeler's poise back when she was a graduate student in a creative-writing class of his at Stanford: "In person, [she] was quiet, charming, utterly unassuming, and at least as interested in dogs and people as she was in becoming a writer. Getting to know her, though, you saw that beneath her delicacy and gentleness was a spine of steel."
Wheeler has taught meditation practice at retreats and for a psychiatrist in New York, and she occasionally writes about it for Buddhist publications. Helen Tworkov, editor-in-chief at Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist journal where Wheeler occasionally publishes essays, calls her by far one of the best writers working today at bringing Buddhist ideas into books without making them textbooks for Buddhism. "The combination of the way she moves around, and the understanding of Buddhism -- of the insubstantiality of form -- is really compelling in her work," Tworkov says. "There is so much emphasis in her work on changes and the way things dissolve. Of how when you're traveling you feel that in an external way, and how when you're meditating you feel that in an internal way."
Constant change is something Wheeler has, over the years, embraced. "I think that you can start to have a sense of being comfortable while being uncomfortable," she says, "of saying 'I can face it and I can tolerate and even enjoy it,' since you can't get away from it. We often construct very elaborate refuges from [change]." In When Mountains Walked, Maggie's marriage has become exactly that sort of a refuge, and the novel's genius emerges in its seamless plotting of Maggie's journey to the point where she can let go of those refuges.
Flapping around in her Adidas sandals, Wheeler seems as comfortable in her home as she is in herself. Looking out through the window near her desk, catching a glimpse of the eerily quiet curtain of white that is falling on Somerville, I remember a passage from When Mountains Walked, and I realize why she seems so here. The passage describes Maggie's encounter with a Cambridge winter as she's begun to realize she can no longer go back to a safe life: there are "big fat flakes like shreds of ash. Some were traveling upward. Inside and out, all distinctions were vanishing into pewter-colored flatness."
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