Friday, May 9, 2008

A view from Pamela Ewen's Window! Welcome!

It is my pleasure and privilege to share a recent interview I completed with Pamela Ewen. I posted a review of her latest novel, The Moon in the Mango Tree here.

Pamela is a fascinating lady, and her writing is both powerful and thought-provoking. I will post her direct response, as it includes the questions I sent to her. I hope you will enjoy our conversation, and that you will gain some insight about her latest work. Welcome, Pamela!

You have asked why Barbara's faith was weak during her time with the missionaries at Nan. When I read her letters after she passed on, I was amazed to find that she'd endured the same agonizing search for faith that I experienced, and just at the same age. Although I was raised in a Christian home, the rug was yanked from under my feet when I left home and began reading philosophers and writers like Ayn Rand who said this life is all there is, so you'd better make the most of it. Some of your older readers might remember the cover of Time Magazine in the 1960's that asked - Is God Dead? When I asked my pastor and others how they knew that the Gospel stories were true, the answer that I got was this: There's no way to know for sure, you just have to have faith. But I was a questioning young woman and that answer didn't help me. There are so many people today, skeptics, who want very much to believe, but just can't get there. They seem to approach the question of faith in a different way, as I did--taking what some might call a rational approach. That is, they need to find the soil for the seed of faith to grow. Their hearts just cannot accept what their minds reject. I believe that is why Jesus showed us 'Doubting Thomas' in the Gospels. And that is why He talked about the lost sheep that must be returned to the fold. It took many years for me to find the answers, and now I'm a committed Christian.

My grandmother, I found, was the same. But of course, by the time I came along, the problems were resolved. I knew her only as a Christian, and so that part of The Moon in the Mango Tree was probably the biggest surprise that I found in her letters.

But back to my grandmother, Barbara. She was raised in a large family, the oldest of seven, and Summit Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia was the center of family life when she was growing up. She sang in the choir, her friends were there. She met Harvey there; his father was an elder in the church. Barbara's family was very traditional--as I mentioned, her father tipped his hat when he passed Valley Forge! But she was girl and a woman who questioned things. Read a lot of philosophy and, as I found later, was particularly interested in the philosopher, William James, brother of Henry James. As a young woman, before going to Siam, I don't think she gave the questions regarding faith too much thought--she was happy in her church, was in love with Harvey, in love with her music and immersed in a romantic idea of singing on stage, and of course, WWI (called The Great War) took Harvey away from her for a period of time. So, I don't think that her philosophical musings at that time had a great impact on her faith, surrounded as she was by family and church. But I also believe that at that time her faith was untested, and comfortable, resting on childhood teachings.

You've asked whether it was the lack of grace in the other missionary's lives or the strange newness of Eastern religion that caused Barbara to question her faith? I think that the Nan Valley in the jungles of Siam is where her faith began to first be tested.

Remember that she was already an inquisitive, questioning young woman when she arrived in the jungles of Siam--quite to her surprise, as she'd expected to live in Bangkok. This was a young girl who had marched for women's rights--and this sort of challenge to authority was not readily understood by the missionaries at Nan. Small things at Nan seemed to combine to build a wall between her and the other missionaries (with the exception of her husband, Harvey, who she adored). But Harvey was immersed in his work as a medical doctor, and she was left to find her own way of fitting in with the missionaries. Their rejection of her attempts, the mission's disregard for the very music that she loved, their general lack of interest in anything different or challenging to the status quo, and her constant struggle with daily life and trying to conform--I think that all of those things brought her to the low point. I believe that her intentions when she first arrived at the mission were simple: to be a good wife for Harvey, and to fit in, to find her place there. But the missionaries were harsh, almost rigid, and her nature was to be interested in everything--people, ideas, differences in culture. Remember that her interest in Buddhist thought wasn't sought out deliberately. It was sparked during a trip to the abandoned temple that had been forbidden by Mr. Breeden, the headmaster at the mission, a move that was viewed as a rebellious act from the mission's point of view. But once she'd spoken to the old monk in the temple, she began to think about his words and thoughts, and as things grew more difficult day by day, she began to find herself becoming entranced with the fluid, and to her, exotic, Buddhist way of thinking. In the end of Part One though, neither Buddhism nor the Christianity enforced by the mission provides the answers she is seeking.

The result of suspecting that this life is all there is...that the clock is a fierce desire to make every moment count, and that infuses Part II with Barbara's idea that she will seize each day. Harvey, on the other hand, never lost his faith. He didn't see himself as a teacher of faith, however, but rather as a medical doctor whose obligation was to help those who can not help themselves. His entire life was an act of faith. The questioning of faith was always on Barbara's part, not his. I was close to him as well--he was a kind and gentle man who loved God, and recognized God in the vines of the jungle that wound their way to the sun, in the nature of animals and birds, in the passion and needs of people. But he was quiet, private about all of this. He loved Barbara deeply, but his total immersion in medicine and duty and people who needed his help left Barbara dealing with her problem on her own. I don't want to give away the secret that came between them, or the answer, or the ending to the story (!!), so I'll just leave it at that, for now.

The Moon in the Mango Tree raises the issue of a woman who is faced with a choice between love for her music, and love for her family. In the beginning, there really is no choice. Barbara loved Harvey and was married to him, and in those days, the husband's career and decisions came first. But for so many years during the 1920's, both in the jungles in the North of Siam, and during the halcyon days of parties and the Charleston, and the royal court in Bangkok, Barbara still longed for her music. She wanted to sing, and to have some accomplishment that would give meaning and purpose to her life. So on to Paris, Lausanne, Rome. The natural question to ask here, though, is why wasn't the family that she and Harvey built accomplishment enough? That is the very heart of the story; and as Publisher's Weekly wrote, some people will love the ending and the final choice she makes, and some will not. I think your readers will love her choice.

You raise an important issue with this question, Kim: "Given the opposition faced by today's children--drugs, sex, homosexuality, gangs, it really such a mystery that women would come home and stand in the gap for their children?" I like the way you phrased that, and I think the answer is no, it is not a mystery at all. But statistics and the US census do show that this trend is something new, perhaps a shift from the prior decades since the 1960s, and suddenly everyone is interested in this idea.

I believe that today, because of women like my grandmother, women now have choices in their lives that weren't available before. My grandmother left for Siam just as women got the right to vote in 1920. It wasn't until 1926 that they were able to serve on juries in most states! So the idea of a musical career...tough! Now, today, it's a routine choice that can go either way--home or work. Any woman can achieve anything she wants SO LONG AS SHE UNDERSTANDS THE CHOICE. As I wrote in The Moon in the Mango Tree -- actions have consequences. And when you choose between two things you love, give that choice a lot of thought, because one might be forever lost.

Why do women feel they must be given the choice between a career and a full-time wife and mother? I think they just want to have the right to make the choice. And some women have to work for financial reasons, too. But the problem I think young women face today, however, is the idea that we can have it all. I dislike that old commercial--we can bring home the bacon, cook it up in the pan..etc, etc. No one can give 100% to everything. A woman today can be CEO of a major corporation, or President of the United States, if she's willing to work hard enough. But can you do that and also spend the time that is required to raise small children into strong, independent adults, particularly in today's environment? I'll leave that to your readers to decide!

Is there a balance between the two? Sometimes we have to find a balance, for a variety of reasons. Financial. Emotional. I'd be very interested in your readers' ideas on this question.

I have been blessed with the gift of faith after a long and grueling search that I described in my first book, Faith On Trial, and explored further in my first novel, Walk Back The Cat. I thank God for this strong, new belief every day of my life, and for my family, and for giving me the chance to write and to meet people like you and your readers. I want to write books that will give something to each reader to take away and ponder, people and characters and conflicts and universal ideas that will live on with them and not only entertain, but will hopefully make their lives richer and fuller. That is my hope and dream. And I hope that you and your readers will visit me at my web Thanks for inviting me to share these ideas with your readers! Pamela

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