Adam Popescu’s debut novel, NIMA, tells the story of a young Sherpa woman’s journey through the many challenges of her world: an exploitive Western tourism industry, strict gender restrictions and the implacable presence of the Himalayas. An excerpt, followed by Q&A between the author and writer D.B. Zweier touching on writing in a woman’s voice, snow leopards and personal transformation-plus a recommended reading list deep-dive for literary lovers of Nepal.
Dressed in our best, thick coats over yak wool sweaters, itchy, but warm, under red sashes and white kata scarves blowing in the wind, my whole family marches past neighbors who bow and press their hands together and whisper congratulations of “Namaste.” At the center of our procession, the two brides, cheeks painted crimson, our heads covered by pill box hats trimmed with fox fur tickling my ears with each step, our necks weighed down by long shaped pieces of bone set into metal grooves, protective necklaces worn to keep evil spirits from rising to the head. Over that, strung coral beads, studded with heavy stones supporting jantar box amulets, more weapons to ward of the evil that lives all around us.
“For protection against mountain spirits,” my mother says. “Always eager to snatch the body of a wayward bride. Don’t even think of taking those stones of until you’ve said your vows and your marriage has been sewed. Understand?”
I nod, my jaw still sore but covered with makeup, the redness from my bruise makes my cheeks even brighter. I’m not so sure I believe in these stories—or the power of what I’m wearing—but it is tradition.
And in my next life, my life with Norbu and my bride sister, I welcome all manner of help to keep me safe.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Nyi my second sister giggles, and I force a smile in reply as my mother yells “Quiet!”
We have been transformed—for once we look pretty—fully women. Worth being wanted. All around, every step, every tradition and ritual, is made to protect us. My sisters carry lightly burning juniper branches, the smoke flowing over us in the wind, part of our ceremonial cleansing.
My mother—with Sixth strapped to her back—carries our dowry, a silver box encrusted with two large pearls, she strums a long, blue-green turquoise necklace, fingers rubbing the beads, lips whispering good fortune prayers. And my father, in a long black cloak, felt fedora angled up on the crown of his head, riding on the back of a black pony he borrowed from a neighbor, even he looks transformed—almost happy. Two steps closer to lay-koh.
Tomorrow will be the ceremony, a feast, many glasses raising with the chant “che, che, che,” arms linked in dance, the exchange of gifts, katas, vows. We’ll eat meat, surely we will, the first time I’ll taste it since…I don’t remember when. Then, our bellies full, my sister and I—we will be transferred to Norbu’s house. What follows after that, the work, the responsibilities, I know I can manage, but the idea of giving myself to a man is terrifying. I remember watching Norbu work, heaving stones with hands so big it’s hard to imagine that they could be gentle.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. The deal is already set, if either side backs out now, neither family would be able to save face. And yet, today is for both families to give the other one last look, to make absolutely sure. And if there are any other details to settle—there couldn’t be another sister added, could there?—then they will be made today. And so, here we are, on display for all of Khunde to see our “virtuous beauty,” as my mother calls it. We walk slowly, slow enough for all to lay eyes on my sister and I—us—the living prize. We walk for three hours on a path that should take half that time, that’s how much we stop, sharing tea with neighbors who come out of their homes, pressing their hands together and bowing, father, never getting off his pony, trailing behind his flock like a shepherd, everyone wishing us tashi delek. Good fortune. A fortune that’s tested when we finally come back to Khumjung, the first time we all return as a family, the first time in four years we’re all so close to our brother Ang—our old home still forever buried, none of us look that way—don’t look back.
Excerpted from NIMA by Adam Popescu, with permission from the author
Q&A Between Adam Popescu & D.B. Zweier
D.B. Zweier: NIMA, at its heart, is a feminist story of a native female Sherpa who encounters the Western world and her own male-dominated world in a visceral way. Can you talk more about how you related to her, as a white Western man, and what you did to so deeply root yourself in her voice?
Adam Popescu: As the literary giant Michael Silverblatt recently put it to me over linguini with clams, the very real magic of the novel is its ability to shed skins, step into another one and transport us as readers to worlds of fantasy. That magic is the reason I write and read—because it is magic to be able to inhabit another mind and body. And I think that’s what readers want, they want to be transported. That’s what draws me to fiction. Curiosity is key and so is compassion. That connects all of us, and that’s what I think we’re missing when I’m asked how could I relate to Nima, my female Nepali lead. The problem with this line of questioning is that it assumes there’s more differences between us as people than there are similarities. Sure, I’m a white Western man as if an entire existence or circumstance can be summed by an ethnic descriptor. I’m also only two generations removed from the shtetl, one from communism and refugees. I’m a first generation American. I’m a Jew. All factors that deeply shaped my identity and have made me often feel like an outsider even growing up in California. If outsiders assume I’m assimilated and advantaged—and in many ways I am—the flipside of this assumption is that it shows just how much can be accomplished by immigrants in the United States, and how quickly. The American experiment is far from perfect, and in many ways it is more dream than reality, but I continue to believe strongly in our potential as a nation. I think many of us as Americans don’t appreciate how unique our perch is because we’re largely in the dark to just how upside down so many other nations are.
As it relates to Nima, a young woman who has never stepped foot off of the mountain, a woman who dreams of life in the city and has to sacrifice everything in order to take steps toward achieving the equality (or the reasonable facsimile) we take for granted in the West, in many ways I hope my choice to tell her story gives hope. Hope for a woman in a world we don’t often read about in the West, certainly not someone at the foot of the mountain as opposed to climbing to the top. And hope is something we could all use more of these days, no matter your background.
DZ: In my reading the serken, or snow leopard, was a central figure of power in NIMA, and stands as an apt symbol for Sherpa life. You seem to have a deep affection and fascination with snow leopards personally, and have even placed cameras that capture them on video (check out Adam’s Instagram!). Can you talk more about what the serken means to you, and how it mirrors Nima the character?
AP: There’s just so much to be impressed by. This ball of fur—which because of its thick coat looks like a big cat, actually weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 pounds—and yet they regularly take down prey more than double their weight, live at high altitude in some of the harshest climates in the world where you or me would freeze in minutes, they use their long tails to curl up and sleep in -25C—they’re magic, a fantasy that’s somehow real. And that romantic notion is what’s drawn me to this species. There is no more apt symbol for life on the edge, life between worlds. The beauty of journalism is it allows you to explore (and dispel) some of the romantic notions you might conjure in childhood. I’ve been fortunate to go on multiple assignments high in the Himalayas with a group of very skilled trackers trying to find these cats. To say it’s tough is an understatement, and it’s hard to put into words what it’s like when you lay eyes on something this mythical, but it’s very much spiritual.
DZ: This novel is written in first person, and is constantly layering three languages (Sherpa, Nepali, English) alongside Nima’s internal voice. How did you approach language in NIMA, and how did you make diction decisions for her internal dialogue, which (to me) felt both innocent and incredibly wise at the same time?
AP: As a journalist, I wanted this book to be as accurate as possible, to layer truth and reality as much as I could. But it was also important not to bog down the narrative with explanations and asides. In an earlier draft there was more usage of Nepali and Sherpa words and phrases, but in the interest of keeping the narrative flowing (and not sending the reader to a dictionary or a glossary that was eventually scrapped) the best route was to simplify the prose and just include words in a natural, self-explanatory format where a reader could understand a passage and its meaning without being spoon-fed a definition.
DZ: “What is the jewel in the lotus flower?” (Om mani preme hung) is a popular saying and theme in NIMA. What does it mean to you? What do you think it means to Nima, after her ascent?
AP: I am not a practicing Buddhist and I’m no guru or chela, but what I’ve learned from my time among Buddhists in these mountains are simple cultural concepts that easily translate: the respect for life, large and small, the value of the moment, a concept made all the more real by the challenges of life at altitude, and a cyclical transience that creates a more pragmatic approach to the connection between life and death.
DZ: On that note, the concepts of karma and rebirth, two key tenets of Buddhism, are circuitously weaved into many scenes in NIMA. Were you able to draw any conclusions from either of these concepts of afterlife, either for yourself, Nima, her father or the Westerners through writing the novel?
AP: The Hebrew term for reincarnation is gilgul. It’s not a concept I ever learned at Temple but it’s something I’ve explored in recent years. I think the idea of karma, while a Buddhist tenet specifically, translates across most religions and it’s a constant sprinkled throughout the novel because it’s believed, and believed strongly in Nepal and across the Himalaya. Concepts that may seem old fashioned and quaint here “in civilization” quickly lose that pretense at 14,000 feet.
DZ: I found a lot of wisdom in the structure of the novel—a descent done in a night, then a long, grueling climb of discovery. Can you talk more about personal transformation in NIMA, and how much the environment influenced your plot?
AP: I visited every single place depicted in the novel and I hope that that vantage helped the novel gain a certain authenticity although of course no matter if I spent the rest of my life in the Khumbu, I would always be a mikaru. That aside, I tried to use the mountain as another character to anchor the action and the narrative.
DZ: The kan runu, or crying ear, appears multiple times throughout NIMA, often indicating disaster, whether external or internal. Can you explain more about this concept, and how it’s embedded in Sherpa life?
AP: Sometimes you get a feeling while traveling on a ridgeline, call it intuition when you’re trudging along on a neverending glacier—maybe there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on while you’re behind the wheel on the freeway. Something not being right. This concept essentially describes a feeling of impending danger and it also happens that the language—a crying ear—I find it just so poetic and beautiful and evocative. In places where danger is tangible, people take this seriously. Omens are realer when the stakes are high.
DZ: The contrast between Sherpa life and Western life is best illustrated by Val and Nima, two female characters who carry their own culture, but have made large strides towards understanding the other culture. I’m curious how much “fiction” was in each of these strides. How much did Val really represent Western women who seek stories and connection on the mountain? And how much did Nima really represent Sherpa women who seek something beyond the traditional lifestyle?
AP: I had to have a foil to Nima, someone who could bring out the best in her and show how much similarities they shared, and at the same time I needed a character to also illustrate how big the chasm existed between them. I encourage anyone who picked up NIMA and was moved by the work to save up a few thousand dollars and book at ticket to Kathmandu and explore this country. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a nation and people more welcoming—and a country this small with so much eye popping natural riches.
DZ: What were some key authors and books that inspired you and helped you to write NIMA? If people love this book (I’m one), what else should they read?
AP: A Golden Age-Tahmima Anam, Belt and Road-Macaes Bruno, Mountains Painted With Turmeric-Lil Bahadur Chettri, Essays On Nepal-Sam Cowan, How To See Yourself As You Really Are-The Dalai Lama, The Anarchy-William Dalrymple, Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal-James F. Fisher, The Silk Roads and The New Silk Roads-Peter Frankopan, The Wayward Daughter-Shradha Ghale, Land of the Lamas: Adventures in Secret Tibet-Peter Goullart, Lost Horizon-James Hilton, The Great Game-Peter Hopkirk, The Devils’ Dance-Hamid Ismailov, The Tibetan Book of the Dead-translated and edited by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup and W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The Future Is Asian-Parag Khanna, Kim-Rudyard Kipling, Tibet & Nepal-Arnold Henry Savage Landor, The Life of Milarepa-translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills-edited by Eric Linxweiler and Mike Maude, Eastern Approaches-Fitzroy Maclean, Prisoners of Geography-Tim Marshall, The Snow Leopard-Peter Matthiesen, Snow Leopards-edited by Thomas McCarthy and David Mallon, On His Majesty’s Service-Hemanta R. Mishra and Jim Ottaway Jr., Touching My Father’s Soul-Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Sherpas Through Their Rituals-Sherry B. Ortner, Karnali Blues-Buddhi Sagar, Solo Faces-James Salter, Tibet Wild-George Schaller, Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya-George Schaller, Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain-Bruce Temper, Forget Kathmandu-Manjushree Thapa, An Era Of Darkness-Shashi Tharoor, The Tutor Of History-Manjushree Thapa, The Art Of Peace-Morihei Ueshiba, A History of Nepal-John Whelpton, Feminine Ground: Essays On Women and Tibet-edited by Janice D. Willis
Because I only read in English I’m gearing this list for English speakers. If I’ve missed a favorite of yours, please let me know!
DZ: Finally, what’s next for you with NIMA and/or your other projects?
AP: I have a handful of very different project I’m currently at work on. I think it’s bad luck to talk publicly about work yet to be finalized—for all my western values I’m still superstitious!—but I will say that if NIMA was unexpected, I hope my new offerings will be as equally surprising. While that brews, I’m continuing my journalism, with half a dozen features forthcoming in The New York Times, a very personal piece about growing up in L.A. for Los Angeles Magazine, and a big trip to India later this year joining a group of scientists and National Geographic filmmakers retracing a 1912 expedition exploring the mark of climate, development, and its threat to both biodiversity and local populations in the borderlands of Tibet, Myanmar and India. Here’s to 2020. 2020. We’re in the future.
Adam Popescu is an author and journalist who writes frequently for The New York Times. His debut novel, NIMA, is based on his BBC reporting from Mount Everest. He’s interviewed subjects as wide-ranging as Steven Spielberg and the Dalai Lama, and reported on climate issues from the Arctic to the Galapagos.
D.B. Zweier is an outdoor editor and writer based in Ventura, California. His stories are featured in Gone Lawn, Bloody Key Periodical, Stories from the Street, Leviathan and others. Mysticism, wilderness and the conscious pursuit of purpose are the central themes of his writing. His short story “The Incandescence of Your Light,” is featured in this issue.