Minneapolis and Tibetans and Booksellers February 2, 2017

So there I was following a Tibetan monk around the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Nosy of me, but I was wondering what would interest a Tibetan monk in a Midwestern art museum. He was an older man in a saffron robe with a mustard-yellow toque and fetching mustard-and-crimson striped socks emerging from big sneakers. Huge sneakers, basketball-player-sized sneakers. He strolled down the corridor in an amiably splay-footed manner, talking in a language I didn’t understand to a younger man and woman wearing American clothes.

This was last Sunday, two days after the immigration order from the Trump administration barred people from six countries from entering the U.S., a shout of xenophobia leading to worldwide protests and some folks cancelling travel to the U.S., although I was locked in.

Of course, the people being barred were from Muslim-majority countries and the monk was Buddhist, and for all I knew, an American citizen or resident. That would make him a happy embodiment of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. A mongrel nation, a conglomerate. Consider the scene: a Tibetan monk bends down to examine a six-inch tall German Meissen figurine in a Minnesota art museum, solemn for a moment, then breaking into a smile of delight.

He was either a happy embodiment or the next person to be excluded. It was a beautiful sight but it felt unstable, as if disaster could wail in at any moment: the concrete walls beginning to shake, irreplaceable canvases torn and tossed, figurines smashed, another blast of malignantly hot air from Trump and his advisors ruining a beautiful thing that more or less works.

I was in Minneapolis for the American Booksellers Association convention, their Winter Institute, a gathering of U.S. independent booksellers who meet each year to offer mutual support in our disrupted, resilient industry, networking and taking seminars. Late Sunday afternoon, after leaving the museum, I was scheduled to join about 150 other writers at a massive promotional event in the ballroom of the hotel where the convention was being held. Tables would be set up around the stadium-sized perimeter, each with signs showing author photos and enlarged covers of books. My publisher, ECW Press, had reserved a place for me and Mad Richard, offering complimentary books as an introduction and hoping to open a dialogue with sellers and readers.

But I still had a couple of hours, time to inspect the Meissen figurine that had so entranced the monk. A china boy and his china dog. My mother had liked figurines but I’d always found them too sweet. When I turned away, the monk had disappeared. No sign anywhere. It was hard not to wonder whether he’d been there in the first place, so incongruous were his striped socks and big shoes beside the 18th century china.

There was also the fact I had started reading Patti Smith’s M Train that morning on my flight from Toronto, a memoir in which she reports seeing all sorts of things that aren’t there, at least not in conventional terms: symbols and augurs and gnomic cowboys who speak in her dreams. Why not the ghost of a monk in a museum?

But my world is more concrete, and the monk ambled back in when I reached the display of furniture built by the famous Prairie School architects Frank Lloyd Wright and George Grant Elmslie. He continued his splay-footed stroll among the intensely-crafted tables and chairs that the curator’s signs admitted were uncomfortable. After a quick circle, he peered over a walkway to look at quilts hung like flags from the walls and ceilings. And what was more American about this scene? The quilts, the furniture or the monk? The famous American architect George Grant Elmslie having been born in Scotland, after all.

“People who voted for Trump,” the cabbie told me on the way back to the hotel, perhaps meaning himself, “people wanted jobs. They didn’t want this.” There were anti-Trump demonstrations at the Minneapolis airport, he told me, having just dropped off a traveller. “People doing their thing in the terminal,” he said, turning ironical. “Making America great again.”

When we reached the hotel, I joined ECW publisher David Caron and publicist Susannah Ames in the ballroom for a very American pursuit: marketing. After we made a quick circle of the room, I found I’d be sharing a table with Ed Brubaker, the multi-award-winning American graphic novelist, comic book writer and cartoonist who had drawn both Captain America and Wonder Woman and now writes for the TV series Westworld.

We chatted for half a second, then the clock hit 5 pm and the ballroom doors opened. An extraordinary sight, very welcome to a writer. Booksellers surged in, a flood of booksellers, a tsunami of booksellers crashing across the carpet like a wave and breaking toward their favorite authors. Elizabeth Strout was engulfed. Emma Donoghue’s scarlet hair bobbed above her fans like a buoy, while beside me, Ed was quickly surrounded by enough tattoos and piercings to fill a waterfront bar.

Out there somewhere, David and Susannah worked the room with ECW sales reps, sending a stream of booksellers to my side of the table. A mixing began as young women in Ed’s line heard that Charlotte Brontë is a character in my novel and began lapping toward me. At the same time, people sent over by ECW recognized Ed and washed over to him. Strange tablefellows: Ed’s new graphic novel, Kill or Be Killed (“Brubaker’s next ‘Kill’ oozes with modern pulp”—USA Today) and my historical novel. But people seemed to find common ground.

A couple of hours later, my hand sore from signing, I watched booksellers stream out of the ballroom almost as quickly as they’d streamed in. Two of them chatted as they passed me. “I keep thinking Trump is just a bad dream,” one said. “I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be back to normal.”

Two more passed by. “I keep hoping I’ll wake up and he’s just gone. It never happened.”

Wake up. Wake up. I kept hearing it.

Late that night, after dinner, I did a quick search on my phone for “Tibetans + Minneapolis” and learned there are enough Tibetans in Minnesota that the reincarnation of a lama has been identified in the capital, one of the few lamas ever discovered in the west. According to the Star Tribune, the Dalai Lama has agreed that Jalue Dorjee is a reincarnation and sent his parents two letters confirming it and offering advice.

Jalue is now ten years old. “He wakes just before 6 a.m. and heads to the family prayer room,” the story says. “There, he sits with his father and reads aloud from Buddhist scriptures. Boxes of the sacred texts line the walls in the room, and Jalue has learned many of them by heart.

“His father, Dorje Tsegyal, listens as he reads, gently correcting him as needed. The two have a deal: For every book the young lama memorizes, he receives one Pokemon card. He’s up to 258 cards.”

After reading the article, I opened Patti Smith’s book. Her dream cowboy drawled, “The writer is a conductor.” I wondered if he meant a symphony conductor, given of the way we try to pull disparate elements together instead of breaking them apart. But the book is called M Train, so Smith seems to feel the cowboy meant conductors of a different stripe (although maybe not mustard and crimson).

Finding my place in her memoir, I jumped on board.