The Way Between
Author's Note and Q & A with Author Rivera Sun
Everybody loves a good story. Action, adventure, mystery, magic, great characters, moments of courage, heroics, heart . . . human beings delight in stories. Since time immemorial, we've been spinning legends, myths, epics, sagas to inspire and educate our populaces.
And, after four thousand or so years of war, violence, and conquest, it's time for some new stories. Our literature needs a 21st century update. If we look around the world today, the most exciting adventures of our times are unfolding in nonviolent movements for change. Gandhi liberating India from British Rule; the American Civil Rights Movement; Leymah Gbowee and the Liberian Mass Action for Peace ending the Second Liberian Civil War; Estonia's Singing Revolution and the 50 nonviolent revolutions that have happened in the last 30 years.
New research shows that nonviolent action is on the rise . . . and violence is on the decline. And, nonviolence is proving to be twice as effective as violence in achieving the very socio-political goals so often depicted in our epic literature: stopping invasions, overthrowing tyrants, and liberating populaces. So, it's time to stop making our children read King Arthur and Robin Hood, Hercules and Odysseus, and to start writing new stories that reflect the reality of our world today.
The Way Between is a story for our times. It offers the younger generations (and ourselves) the values of peace and nonviolence, anti-bullying, compassion, inclusion and belonging. It challenges war, violence, discrimination, and prejudice. The story has all the beauty of the great stories of old: adventure, action, challenges, courage, the mythic, secrets and mysteries, surprises, friendships, connection; but without the outdated glorification of swords and warriors.
In our modern world, we need stories, heroes and heroines, myths and legends, that offer the viable, amazing skills of peacebuilding, unarmed peacekeeping, restorative justice, conflict resolution, nonviolence and nonviolent action. Around the world, there are hundreds and thousands of stories of real people making change and confronting injustice through these skills. Our literature must rise to the times. Every school child should be dreaming about civil disobedience instead of sword fighting; boycotts instead of bombs.
As an author, my pen is bent to this task, flying across the page to rewrite the cultural mythologies in our literature. If our children and our populace is to be trained for the world that is emerging, then we must put the tools of peace and active nonviolence in their hands, hearts, minds, dreams, and stories, today.
Q & A with Author Rivera Sun
What inspired Azar, the Way Between?
The Way Between is inspired by a common phrase in the field of conflict studies. "Between fight and flight, there's a third option." That third option is nonviolent action, which is neither passivity nor violence. It confronts injustice and oppression without adding more violence, injustice, or oppression to the world. It's a powerful force, and people are increasingly using it to resolve socio-political problems around the globe. It is being used more often than violence, and is proving to be twice as effective as violence in achieving some major goals, such as overthrowing dictators, ending occupations, and expelling foreign invasions. The Way Between is a 21st century update to our love of fantasy stories. We've got better options than violence that still include all the courage, action, adventure, cleverness, and danger that humanity still seems to love in its stories.
Going further, there are really two aspects of your question: inner and outer Azar. Inner Azar is a blend of meditation, peace training, nonviolent conflict resolution, de-escalation skills, restorative justice, nonviolent struggle, truth and reconciliation, peacebuilding, and more.
Outer Azar, the physical form, is a blend from many sources. Aikido, of course, but also Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art form. Capoeira was driven underground during the colonial period of Brazil's history and turned into a dance. In it, the two dancers whip around each other swiftly with flying arms and legs! However, the point is to come close to striking without actually hitting one another. It's incredible. Another influence on Azar is modern dance, which I studied for many years.
Were you like Ari Ara as a child?
Great question! I've got red hair and a temper. I'm well-versed in nonviolent action. I even had a couple of sheep when I was younger. I love to move, mostly in dance. But, I also love to read and write and learned to do so at a young age (unlike Ari Ara). I was also (believe it or not) incredibly shy when I was eleven. I also had two loving parents who taught me a lot about peace, justice, and nonviolence. My mother taught me not to use violence. (That temper of mine was leading me into some not very nice behaviors toward my younger brothers.) My father was a peace activist and a conscientious objector. They were parent of a generation of parents who debunked the myth of "spare the rod, spoil the child" and refused to spank any of their children. They found other options for resolving our household conflicts over chores or disputes. It was a formative upbringing, and one for which I am very grateful.
What's the backstory on the Fanten?
The Fanten were inspired by some research I did on Celtic sagas and legends. There were references to earlier races of people, some of which became demi-gods or the Faer Folk as time went on. I imagine, however, that at the time of the sagas, they were much less vague and far more human. The Fanten are a culture hovering at the edge of another dominant culture (the Marianans), maintaining their identity, but with some difficulties. As we look around our world today, I think we see this story playing out in many different cultures in thousands of different ways. I think it's an important subject to explore.
Have you ever trained in martial arts?
I have not. I trained in modern dance in college, and spent seven years running a professional dance theater company in central California. Just down the street from my house was an aikido studio. On warm days, they used to open the wide, shuttered doors and I could watch the practices from the end of my driveway. There was a fierce beauty to the movement that I admired, but I was busy training in dance at the time.
Is there a real life inspiration for the character of Minli?
When I was in college, I had a friend with a prosthetic leg. He was - and still is - an amazing musician. Every time we went to campus, we had to go up and over a huge hill to get there. I could never make it up all the way on my bike. My friend used to laugh at me because he - with his one leg! - could. I've never forgotten that, nor the lessons I've learned from people with different abilities than my own.
Why did you choose to make Ari Ara unable to read?
My mother learned to read in fourth grade. One of my friends in high school taught herself to read as a teenager by starting with "The Lord of the Rings". I have another friend who just learned to read recently and she's in her forties! So, I think it's important to uplift the idea that people learn different skills at different times in their lives.
Also, our culture puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading and writing and mathematics and science. There are many other kinds of knowledge and learning, however. In the book, Ari Ara has a "genius for movement". I've known dancers like that, or martial artists. Some people are incredible musicians or painters or cooks or carpenters. Others have incredible skills at healing or deep listening or mentoring. I think we can do better at celebrating the different kinds of intelligence and the different skills that humanity carries. We will be a richer and more balanced society if we do.
The other reason Ari Ara struggles to learn to read and write is because we often see highly talented people and assume that they are perfect and never have any challenges. However, more often than note, when people excel at one skill set, they struggle at another. Understanding this helps us see ourselves in a similar light, and gives us the ability to both celebrate our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses.
What about Shulen? Where did he come from?
I am honored to have many friends who are members of Veterans for Peace, an organization of men and women who have served in the US military who organize for and advocate peace. One thing they have taught me is the vast differences between the popular culture's mythologies about soldiers or warriors, and the realities they experienced. I have two friends, in particular, who have meant a lot to me, and I wanted to honor them with a character that follows a similar journey to what I have heard them discuss.
Are the Desert People a reference to our current conflicts in the Middle East?
Not directly, though there are many insights to be drawn from the parallels that do occur. The Desert People in this book are mainly understood through the lens of the Marianans . . . which isn't always accurate and is often very prejudiced. Many times in the book, Shulen challenges Ari Ara and others to look beyond their preconceptions or to withhold judgment until they are better informed. I feel that this is very true for our real world, wherever there is conflict. We often dehumanize our "enemies" as our nation prepares to launch wars. Conversely, the process of building peace often includes increasing understanding on both sides of a conflict. In another book in this series, we'll hear the Desert People's side of the story. Stay tuned.
Are the Stories of the Third Brother written down anywhere?
They should be! All of the stories mentioned in the novel are adaptations from real life stories. The tale of Alaren and the bandits is loosely based on Vinoba Bhave and JK Narayan and the Dacoits of India. The truth-telling is inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation processes that have been used in South Africa and other places. The story of the blacksmiths, of course, is straight out of the famous Biblical line in Isaiah: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and study war no more. There are hundreds more. Adapting these real-life examples into Stories of the Third Brother would be a wonderful writing project at some point. (Note: Many of the stories are now available as The Adventures of Alaren, the perfect companion volume to the Ari Ara Series.)
In the book, followers of the Way Between were persecuted for promoting peace. Where did that idea come from?
During the Vietnam War, the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh and his fellow practitioners of Engaged Buddhism, attempted to stop the war and provide humanitarian relief to all sides. They were killed by both sides, repressed, imprisoned, and exiled. However, their efforts played a very important role in building the peace movement's opposition to the war. There are many other examples of peace activists being persecuted for advocating peace and the end of wars. Henry David Thoreau, for example, was jailed for refusing to pay a war tax for a war he viewed as unjust; it is from this experience that the word "civil disobedience" came into being.
So, will there be a sequel?
Absolutely! It's a series. As readers can tell by the first book, the story is far from over!