The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal

Written by Barbara J. Scot
Published by Calyx Books

Barbara Scot writes a compelling account of travels in Nepal, a place rich in fascinating cultures, animals, and faiths. But The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes is more than a simple travel narrative. It is also an in-depth look at the situation of women in Nepal of every age and financial bracket. In these days when loving anything Buddhist or Asian is trendy, a work should be more than just another “East is best” narrative to be worth reading—we got that message already. Luckily, Scot’s book has real insight, balance, and compassion, and is worth reading for people who are already fascinated with Nepal, as well as for people who know nothing of the region.

Scot’s prose is wonderfully rich and specific. Even when she is relating a truth that is less than delightful to say the least, it is a pleasure to read her keen insights and is very much like being there. Readers are treated to prose that addresses each of the senses, from the smell of Nepalese food to the sound of a child’s voice. Nothing escapes her keen notice, and she has a writer’s gift of committing it all to paper, losing nothing in the translation from mind to page. Do not feel that Scot’s weighty topic makes for dry reading; her prose is lively, energetic, and interesting.

While most travel tales seem to have an appreciation, almost reverence, for the culture or place described, Scot shows why the Nepalese way is so compelling. Initially horrified by conditions of the third-world nation, as well as confused by their love for all things Western, Scot learns from them more than she ever teaches them. Again we see that while home holds its own pleasures, travel to a different place is always broadening and as much of a spiritual journey as a physical one. Here, one of the core messages is that no matter how good the West’s intentions are for Nepal, over involvement is in some ways only making the situation worse, as the Nepalese are convinced that they know nothing and cannot rely upon themselves to run their own country. Scot, however, is of the opinion that indigenous people always know best about running their own country—something that should be self-evident to Americans, of all people, but often isn’t. Scot does not say that the Nepalese should not be given a Western education or taught English, but that should not be the extent of their education, nor should a Western teacher believe that their viewpoint is the only valid one. The paradox is that she wants Nepal’s people to change their treatment of women, while she also wants to give them the ultimate authority to choose for themselves how their nation will work. This is a moral dilemma that every liberal traveler must face—where to draw the line and condemn something another culture does as “wrong.”

More than a feminist tale, The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes is a stirring look at humanity and is a wonderful explanation of why women’s rights should matter to men everywhere. People interested in other cultures, especially Asia, will love this book, as will anyone interested in the fate of Buddhist China, Tibet, and Nepal or women’s studies in general. Even readers who do not currently have an interest in women’s studies will enjoy this work for its fascinating description of another culture and place, and for the sheer beauty of Scot’s writing. It is to our benefit to allow other cultures to educate themselves, choosing what they want from Western education and leaving the rest. After all, how boring would it be if we were all alike?

Grade: B+

Review submitted by Dindrane

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