Alan Lightman, a globally recognized astrophysicist, professor and international bestselling author, will join Traverse City’s National Writers Series for a free, virtual event on Thursday, January 21, 7 p.m., to discuss his first novel in seven years, “Three Flames.” The book is available at Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount and other area bookstores. The guest host for the event is award-winning documentarian Kalyanee Mam, director of “The River Changes Course.”
A trip to Cambodia flamed into a novel and a cause.
Nearly 20 years ago, a friend convinced Alan Lightman to visit Cambodia and see the work he’d been doing there for the past few years. Lightman, an MIT physics professor and author of the international bestseller, “Einstein’s Dreams,” was admittedly just looking for adventure. But after spending time in a small rural village with no electricity or running water, his life was forever changed.
“I met some women, mothers holding their children in their arms and saying, ‘Would you please build a school for us?’ And I was just totally blown over by how these uneducated women placed a value on education despite the terrible hardships they had endured,” he says.
That trip planted the seed that would eventually grow into his novel “Three Flames”—a story that follows six members of an impoverished Cambodian family across decades of cultural change and invasive industrialization, as factories take over farmland and cell phones creep in where basic radios were once a rare luxury.
It’s a story that took Lightman over a decade and many return trips to Cambodia to write.
“After a few years … I realized that I was having really unusual emotional experiences that were very different from my own culture. And that could possibly provide the basis for a fictional story,” Lightman explains.
From the very first page of “Three Flames,” it’s clear that Lightman’s years of travel to Southeast Asia have manifested in an in-depth understanding of Cambodian culture, religion, customs and etiquette. You can feel the heat and sweat of the jungle, hear the slosh of the water irrigating the rice beds, taste the mango, grilled pork and palm wine.
All these things set the stage for readers to meet a mother, Ryna, haunted by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge; Pich, a cruelly flawed patriarch; son Kamal, who dreams of marrying his way out of his home village; and three daughters: Nita, Thida and Sreypov. Nita has hopes to attend university before plans for an arranged marriage get in the way, Thida is sent to the sweatshops to earn money for the family and Sreypov takes a different, hard-earned yet eventually hopeful, path toward her emancipation.
The stories of the daughters stand out the most in the novel and speak to the titular “Three Flames”—tenets that Cambodian women are taught to live by. As Nita succinctly puts it: “Never take family problems outside the house. Never forget what you and Father have done for me. Always serve my husband and be respectful of him.”
Understanding the world of those characters with the necessary depth took years. “I didn’t want to start writing fiction too soon,” Lightman says. “You have to understand a foreign culture even more deeply to write fiction than nonfiction. Because fiction involves all the nuances and gestures of daily life. And it’s very hard to get that right.”
It’s a world that’s clearly informed by—and dedicated to—the women served by Lightman’s Harpswell Foundation, created to help build a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. Sponsoring the NWS event is an organization that bridges the gap between Michigan and Cambodia—Red Dirt Road is a nonprofit organization founded by Northern Michiganders Marie Eckstein and Lin Alessio, and also supported by the Harpswell Foundation.
The organization helps teach women sewing and business skills, so they can support themselves independently while creating clothing and accessories away from the cities and remaining closer to their families. Those clothes can then be purchased online, but also travel to stores around Northern Michigan, where the proceeds help fund gardens, latrines and additional educational opportunities.
It’s a long 8,500-mile trip between here and Cambodia, but novels like “Three Flames” and organizations like Red Dirt Road and NWS are making the journey for all of us a bit shorter.