Valerie Miner's new novel illuminates global in personal

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Valerie Miner's new novel illuminates global in personal

'Traveling with Spirits' tackles issues of cultural imperialism, religion, healthcare

by Alexis Charles on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 9:39am

Valerie Miner has traveled to India numerous times as a teacher. But in her new novel Traveling with Spirits, Miner lets India do the teaching. Traveling with Spirits follows Miner’s strong female protagonist, Dr. Monica Murphy, on a sweeping journey from Minnesota, to the busy streets of Delhi, to the rural mountains of Moorty, India. As readers follow Monica’s travels, they also follow her emotional and spiritual growth in consciousness as she learns about Indian culture, customs, religions, and history while discovering tremendous amounts about herself, her values, and her connections to those around her.

Traveling with Spirits book coverMiner, artist in residence at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, read from Traveling with Spirits at an Artist Salon. The audience was plunged into the world of Traveling as Miner read the first three chapters, sharing Monica’s dizzying experiences as she arrives at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and battles the crowds, new sights, and smells to begin her new life.

Confronting cultural difference

The details of Monica’s previous life in the United States are revealed between chapters of her current life in India. A host of personal and professional problems have driven Monica to leave her home in Minnesota. The corporatization of medicine combined with obstructive insurance companies have pushed Monica to quit her comfortable though frustrating medical practice. Facing conflict with her family and boyfriend, Monica seeks distance from her problems and ultimately accepts a position with the Catholic mission hospital in Moorty.

But Monica’s new life in India is far from perfect. Every day, she confronts others' perceptions and suspicions of her as an outsider—including the controversial role of the Catholic Church in India. Monica herself struggles to reconcile the anti-birth-control policy governing the hospital with her own personal beliefs as a compassionate and pragmatic doctor. Ultimately, it’s the close personal relationships she ends up developing with a few special patients, students, and friends that help her come to terms with her position, her faith, and her role in India. 

Miner artfully explores questions about Catholicism, healthcare, and the position of Westernersand expatriates of all backgroundsin developing areas.

For example, a touching relationship develops between Monica and Sudha, an Indian woman born in Bombay and educated abroad. Sudha is initially cold and challenging to Monica, but within months the two become fast friends and mutual sources of support. Through this relationship, Miner provides insight into navigating cultural differences and also explores the strength of friendships between women.

It is through Monica’s daily conflicts and triumphs that Miner delves into difficult contemporary Indian and American—and global—social issues. Instead of bluntly asking and glibly answering, Miner uses Monica and her experiences to artfully raise and explore questions about Catholicism, healthcare, and the position of Westernersand expatriates of all backgroundsin developing areas.

A friendly challenge

Miner opened her reading at the Artist Salon with a brief talk about how Traveling came to be: “as an avid traveler in developing countries I have always had concerns about cultural imperialism” she said.

Even beyond cultural imperialism, the intrepid explorer Monica is an excellent vehicle for Miner to explore other weighty issues. Miner addresses the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty as well as Western privilege in Traveling through Monica’s observations: Monica notes the crumbling pavement in Delhi as she stumbles. She worries about her special treatment at the American Embassy while Indians wait in an overcrowded stuffy lobby. She is both bewildered and disturbed by the existence of so-called coolies traveling uphill bent under the possessions of others on their backs.

Photo of Valerie Miner, by John CampbellMiner was deliberate in her decision to write about Indian culture and these issues from Monica’s point of view: “I knew India of course not as an Indian, but as an outsider. As much as I knew about India, I knew even more about the life of an expatriate,” she explains. “I wanted to be appropriate and not appropriating.

I wanted to be appropriate and not appropriating.

For this reason, Miner works hard in Traveling to keep the focus on Monica’s experiences and reflections on Indian life and culture. Even so, Miner acknowledges that some readers still question what gives her the right to write about another culture at all.

In response, Miner cites two reasons. The first is the intensive research she didon Indian culture, the history of the Catholic Church in India, mission hospitals, and the medical profession.

The second is a remark from black feminist Barbara Christian, whom Miner paraphrases as follows: “Why is that I read all these books by black women that have white women characters in them, and then I read books by white women and all the characters are white? What’s wrong with this?” Upon hearing this, Miner thought to herself, “Okay, that’s permission. That’s a friendly challenge.”

Indeed, Miner takes on many challenges and handles them admirably in Traveling. By engaging and probing social issues through one expatriated woman’s beliefs, experiences, and views Miner can thoughtfully address global issues that affect us all. In doing so, Miner expands the dialogue about global and social issues in a way that prompts readers to expand their own views and beliefs as well.

V Miner
Valerie Miner
Clayman Institute Artist-in-Residence

Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of fourteen books and co-author of four others. She is artist-in-residence at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and a consulting professor in English and a member of the faculty in the Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her latest book is Traveling with Spirits.

Alexis Charles
Graduate Student, Program in Modern Thought & Literature

Alexis Charles is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University and a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team. Her research interests include cultural memory, futurity, popular culture, gender, race and sexuality.