rev. of Not Where I Started From by Kate Wheeler

Issue #61
Fall 1993

Not Where I Started From 
Stories by Kate Wheeler. Houghton Mifflin, $19.95
cloth. Reviewed by Don Lee.

Since Kate Wheeler was once an ordained Buddhist nun in Burma, an immediate and cynical expectation might be for her first book to espouse some sort of New Age philosophy a saccharine embrace of everything metaphysical, all in the pursuit of enlightenment and harmony. And while it’s true that four of the ten stories in
Not Where I Started From explore Buddhism and its variants, such an attitude would only expose extreme ignorance and not give proper credit to this fine writer. This particular group of stories one piece, a foray into Mill Valley, notwithstanding offers remarkable insights into the practices and frequent beauty of Eastern religions.

In “Under the Roof,” a young Thai woman is given charge of an American monk who has been temporarily exiled from Burma, due to visa problems, and they forge a delicate and respectful relationship built on spiritual devotion. In “Manikarnika,” a lesbian graduate student journeys to India “to understand emptiness.” After learning that her father has died, a probable suicide, she goes to a river burial site: “Four corpses were in various stages of cremation, each releasing a braid of black smoke straight up to Heaven. No wind-intense transparent heat, like vaporized quartz. . . . The dead woman’s gastric juice shot up in a bitter, yellow fountain, and fell back hissing on the coals. Reality hits you in the face, Martina thought: What opinion could I possibly have?” And in “Ringworm,” a woman cloisters herself in Pingyan Monastery, seeking Nirvana, or the “end of suffering
cessation,” but civil unrest in Rangoon drives her out of the country, and a year later, she gives up her vows, despite her love of Buddhism’s purity, knowing “I could not stop the whirling of this world.”

Indeed, the other stories in the book present characters who are ironic, sometimes deeply jaded, about the prospect of finding any faith in this world. In several, Wheeler uses her own childhood in South America as background teenage American girls in Columbia and Argentina discovering the divisions between themselves and the nationals. Regardless of their good intentions, they eventually adopt the cultural detachment of their parents’. One of them, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Buenos Aires in “Urbino,” befriends a servant who is later killed. Ushered back to the States when Perón makes his return, she guiltily has only one real remembrance of loss: “Of all things, it felt worse to have left my horse alone, a loyal heart defenseless in that place.”

The remaining stories in
Not Where I Started From show a rather breathtaking range, from a woman hiding out with a cocaine dealer in Miami’s Little Havana to a couple of sexual misfits in Kansas. As a whole, this sharply written collection is linked by the inexorable motion of its characters and the contradictions inherent in their destinations. They look for transcendence and find moral ambiguity. They attempt fellowship and then abandon friends. They pursue love and settle for indifference. All of them begin to wonder, as does a dancer visiting her former lover in Paris: “How do people ever get along?”