The story centers on a rogue order of nuns who are raising an undocumented, bicultural baby god on the downlow. He’s blue. A little bit Hindu, a little bit Jew, the baby is an inconvenient truth about an affair between two Gods from opposing religions, one married, one the famous bachelor God of the bible. The Cardinals of the Great Church get wind of this illegitimate baby God and so begins the hunt. Expect an appearance by the Godma to sort out this metaphysical mess. Continue reading “White Monkey Chronicles by Isabella Ides”
Isabella Ides’ White Monkey Chronicles is my lectio divina, the wisdom, humor, and wonder of her story savored daily. (For an overview, see BJ Austin’s review.) Although the titular white monkey is at the heart of the chronicles, and his charge, foundling/avatar Conrad Eppler, is a boy, I have never encountered a more vivid evocation of goddess—multi-dimensional, earthy, transcendent, fierce, compassionate. No one knows Godma better than the Sisters of the Joyous Mysteries, an order of rogue nuns, the focus of this interview with the author.
Give us a thumbnail sketch of the three remaining members of the order, Sister Mary Subordinary, Sister Merry Berry, and Mother Mary Extraordinary.
Mother Mary Extraordinary is ancient, icy white, her soul as scuffed as an old shoe. Extraordinary’s veil hides long white hair that reaches to her ankles. Sister Merry Berry is youthful, dark as an espresso truffle, her hair a disarray of dreadlocks. She ditches her veil, crochets a Rastafarian beret, and adopts a pair of florescent orange running shoes. Nun on the run. The orderly Sister Mary Subordinary is almost without physical detail. She is selfless, a giver, a maker of bread and soup. She is porous. Sometimes her soul escapes her. Mary Subordinary has visitations; the monkey god, for one, slips in. Subordinary herself can enter other minds, although she tries not to snoop.
Have you encountered rogue nuns in your own life?
I spent my first-communion year at a Catholic school in Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard. One day on the playground, Sister Mary Agnus asked if I wanted to see the bones of a saint. Yes, I did! She reached into her deep pocket and fetched out a small gold case with red velvet lining and a glass portal. Forget Mary Poppins. I was enthralled. Yet in my secret life, I did not believe in her god. I was a seven-year-old redactor, appalled by the vision of an ocean of children drowning as the ark of animals sails on.
Then years of public school in the suburbs drained the world of mystery. I jumped at the chance to enroll in an all-girls Catholic high school. My notions about nuns changed irrevocably the day I wore a faux zebra coat over my school uniform. Sister Mary Malua asked to try it on. Her Sister friends giggled like girls. And with a shock, I was made aware that they were girls. Like me. These young Sisters, fresh off the boat. Irish – they spoke Gaelic when ruffled — upper-class girls, smart, some of them brilliant, but not very pretty, and not necessarily traditionally gendered.
And none of them as rogue as my creations. Indignant on their behalf, I stepped into the role of fairy Godmother to the Sister Cinderellas — working for no pay, made to obey their priest confessors, denied agency, denied priesthood, doomed to be brides of an indifferent god. Waving my writer’s wand, I de-colonized their minds, redressed them, and sent them invitations to a spiritual ball, the likes of which they had never known.
Toni Morrison said that she wrote the novels she wanted to read. I wrote the world I wanted for my beloveds.
Their mysterious foundling, Conrad Eppler, is home-schooled by the sisters who have widely and wildly varied approaches to his education. Give us a brief description of their curricula.
Paraphrasing Marx, from each according to her gifts. Sister Subordinary, mindful of Conrad’s origins, reads to him from the Ramayana, stories of the monkey god, Lord Hanuman, and the story of Guha, her idea of a perfect devotee. Guha’s practice is to faithfully kick the statue of Shiva that the Brahman priests have brought to his forest. She passes to Conrad the spiritual gifts of discernment and doubt.
Merry Berry gives Conrad the childhood that she never had. This is one of the fascinations of motherhood and mentorhood, how the child/student changes the teacher. Motherhood is actually one of the deep themes of the Chronicles, that and redemption. How we transform and are transformed by what we create, what we give birth to in the world.
Mothering a child, a planet, a poem, a prayer, a god.
Mother Mary Extraordinary teaches Conrad astral travel. She is a visionary, come to grief over dead and dying dreams. She is cranky, reluctant to crank up further investments in the material world that betrayed her. Her most potent gift comes late in the novel. She is the difficult parent. The dark side of the moon.
The sisters have a highly original approach to prayer, which lands them in mortal trouble with the Great Church. Tell us a little about the flowering of the heretical practices.
The Great Church cast out its rebel brides for ordaining sister priests. Unbound, all holy mayhem broke loose at the convent. New sacraments were invented, Sisters married each other, created scrumptious communion breads, and each sister wrote a personal mass, worshiping the gods as she imagined them. Then disaster. The prayer eaters came and licked the pages of the prayer books clean. When a Sister’s prayer book went blank, death soon followed. And then there were three. Mary Extraordinary. Mary Subordinary. Merry Berry.
When the sky-blue baby deity is delivered to the convent, the three survivors crack open one of the old prayer books to enter his name in the litany of infants. Theirs is a radical hospitality. All gods are welcome. Well. Almost. This hospitality doesn’t quite extend to those gods who deny that they have mothers, or that claim one-and-only status, or label their progeny the only begotten. In the Sisters’ theology every child is a coming, and a godsend.
We’ll close with an excerpt from one of the sisters’ prayers:
Litany of the Infants
The infants come
on fresh beds of hay
on sterile hospital sheets
down dark Calcutta streets
on the back seats of taxi-cabs
on the beds of Mack trucks
in woodshed and chateau
in barn and bordello
on the snow belt
and bible belt
on the green veldt
and parched plains of Africa
in refugee camps
in quarantined villages
they set sail in Moses-baskets
afloat on the Nile
from the shores of Vietnam
from the banks of the Rio Grande
let them come
with halo hair
and soft eyes shining
Divine Mother, Sweet Protectoress
shelter each foundling
in the house of your infinite kindness
in the womb of your joyous mystery
Holy of Holies, Mary Mother of God
teach us thy trade.
Isabella Ides was born under the Hollywood sign and attended a Catholic School on Sunset Boulevard. Her father ran search lights for movie openings. Thus she was bent towards stage lights and spirit lights from the get go. A poet and playwright, she considers her debut novel, White Monkey Chronicles, the mother lode. Everything leads to it. And away.
I binge-read White Monkey Chronicles The Complete Trilogy. The first time. It’s like Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, J.K. Rowling and Gloria Steinem got drunk one night and decided to write a book.A second, slower read was even sweeter.
The first paragraph of the Prologue tipped me headfirst and wide-eyed into this mind-bending, myth-busting, topsy-turvy tale. Its innocuous, traditional “Once Upon” opening was immediately blown up by the explosive words “infant deity abandoned,”, “famous bachelor Jew,”, and “A-list Hindu”. Wait. Whaaat? The stage was set for a rebellious, revolutionary saga destined to be voted “Most Popular” at a fundamentalist book burning!
A white monkey (part-time Plush toy, full-time guardian of an off-the-record baby boy deity) sets the book’s roller coaster ride in motion on a snowy night in Humbolt County, USA. There, at the withered and weathered Sisters of Immaculate Conceptions convent, we meet the three remaining Sister-resisters of The Great Church’s preening patriarchy. (Lets just say the clergy is strictly for the birds — in dress and demeanor.) Getting a whiff of the unauthorized deity’s arrival, a conclave of Cardinals swoop in to confirm (and possibly kidnap) the threatening newborn from the kind, caring, and radical hands of the rogue nuns. Not so fast. Continue reading “White Monkey Chronicles: Myth-busting in Eden BOOK REVIEW by BJ Austin”
What does it mean to approach the idea of a Godma, a mother-of-all, as an act of the imagination, as a pure act of speculation? I particularly love the word speculator: one who is mining for the diamond, one who is going off the map, a voyager, a voyeur, a seer. A spiritual adventurer. A gambler, a trader in divine currencies.
I am a writer of fictions—speculative fictions. I am a poet-philosopher. Acts of the imagination and divine currencies are my trade.
I like this phrase: In the beginning was an of the imagination, a movement of mind. Or better—an act of procreation, a giving of birth. I love how words lead an idea deeper into the woods. A chance to get lost in variations and find new places to hide and seek. Perchance to meet an angel. Or a wolf. Or yourself in disguise. Continue reading “Creatrix Mundi: Speculating The Godma by Isabella Ides”