Pam Houston on Poets Cafe
The following interview of Pam Houston by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).
Biographical Information—Pam Houston
Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published by W.W. Norton in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program. and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
- Lhasa Tibet
At Drepung the monks are at morning prayer. Mao’s face, ten times bigger than life, is stamped all over the giant stones of the fallen monastery and red writing covers the crumbling walls. Tsering says the Red Guard knocked the stones over because the Buddha on them was smiling. When no one is within listening distance I ask him if they are forced to leave Mao’s picture on the wall and he says, “No, we leave it there to remember.”
In the Housewives Room the lama says, “If you touch this stone you will be a good housewife.” and Hailey and I both take huge steps back. There is one temple we are not allowed into and when I ask Tsering why he says, “Because women have a month, you understand what I mean?” and I do.
At the Sera Monastery we get to sit in on the Monk’s Debate where a hundred or so monks pair off, and one asks the question over and over and the other answers just as many times, all the while hitting himself in the arm with his own prayer beads, thereby sending good skyward and evil below.
Tsering keeps making eye contact with me like, let’s go, and I pretend not to see him because I want to sit in that courtyard for the rest of my life listening to the sounds of their voices that are really more like hyenas or snow geese, imagining all of the things I could be learning that afternoon if only I spoke Tibetan, could be hearing the questions and answers, could be learning what is big, or how is attachment, or why is the path to a valuable life.
Yesterday, on the way into town there was an overturned tractor-trailer (which here means a farm tractor hooked to an uncovered diesel engine with a flatbed on the back that hauls everything from people to animals to rocks to tumbleweed). There was corn scattered all across the road, one man kneeling over another man who had one shoe on and one shoe off and looked dead. The kneeling man had his hands over the dead man’s mouth and I wondered if he was feeling for breath, or holding his face together (literally) or if it was some Buddhist thing, like keeping his soul in there until the proper holy person arrived, and I thought, what happens now? and wondered if it was like Lat said it was in Laos, “You know this life? It is nothing.”
Later, at the Fill Up The Room With Gold restaurant (for the first half of dinner we think Tsering is saying Fill Up The Room With Goats), eating momos and potato soup with cardamom and yak 15 ways, Denzing asks Hailey to sing the theme song from the Titanic. We teach them to say, Go Broncos, and Tsering says, “I love Michael Jackson until he change his skin.”
Denzing runs outside to find an old person who can write our names for us in Tibetan.
I say, “Why are you guys so nice to us?”
Tsering says, “When you do something nice for somebody, it is just like walking around the temple. It is just like saying a prayer.”
From Contents May Have Shifted (Norton, 2012)