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The Spiritual Journey of Jan Willis

by Pam Kingsbury





Despite having left Alabama three decades ago Jan Willis still thinks of Birmingham as "home". When the winters in Connecticut are harsh, she smiles and asks herself, "How did I get stuck up here?". In her memoir, the author and editor of six previous academic books on Buddhism, turns inward writing about the wounds of race and the healing process of envisioning positive human emotions. When Willis, who has been writing since high school finally "stopped denying" that she yearned to be a "writer", everything worked in a neat circle to publish and promote Dreaming Me. First published in April 2001 as Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey, the book is scheduled for a trade paper release in February 2002 as Dreaming Me: From Baptist to Buddhist; One Woman's Spiritual Journey.


Do you see Dreaming Me as being a part the Southern literary tradition, the spiritual literary tradition, or the nonfiction prose tradition?

All three traditions! My family knew Alex Haley and the book was certainly influenced by Roots as well as  the African-American literary traditions, and slave narratives.

Eudora Welty is my favorite writer. She uses rich details and what an eye she had. I followed her practice of reading the chapters of the book aloud with a good friend sitting on the sofa listening to the language and details.

The book follows spiritual traditions. I have received NEH fellowships and had been taught to write in a ritualistic way by Tibetan teachers. When I was approached about writing a trade book, I said, "No, I am an academic writer."  My students kept writing on my evaluations, "She tells a good story." I had been writing since I was in elementary school and always wanted to write. I had been asked to write this family history and had been working on it. Everything clicked and moved in a neat circle to produce the book.

How did your parents influence Dreaming Me?

My mother was a storyteller. She worried about my soul, pushing me toward the church while my father urged us to think for ourselves. He was a self-educated orator. He would raise questions helping to get my mind turning.

What, if any, response have you received from Southern readers?

I know some people in the South have read, and enjoyed Dreaming Me.  I gotten lots of  emails telling me how much the book has been appreciated, mirrored a life, etc.  It's really been very gratifying.  (I've also gotten thank-you emails from Tibetan monks in India and from Black South African Buddhists.)

How can new readers find your earlier books?

Only Enlightened Beings and Feminine Ground--besides Dreaming Me-- are in print and easily accessible.  My two earlier books, The Diamond Light; An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (1972), and On Knowing Reality:(a translation and commentary on) The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi, (1979; reprinted in India) are harder to find, but still do-able.  After libraries, I generally advise people to go to the net, for example,

Do you have any recommendations for the spiritual seeker?

Count your blessings. Imagine yourself in another person's shoes. Learn to do that before looking for a group. Visit different places to find a supportive community. Talk with students. You can learn what you need to know from talking with students.

What is your next writing project?

I am currently enjoying very much conducting a series of workshop on practical meditations and exercises for increasing self-esteem at the York Correctional Institute for Women (Connecticut's only women's prison).  I do the workshops together with my good friend, Marlies Bosch, a Dutch woman with lots of experiences leading workshops in the Netherlands and with whom I am co-authoring a book entitled, "Transforming Prejudice: Practical Exercises and Meditations."  That's the next book.

Would you like to talk about "Transforming Prejudice"?

The publication of Dreaming Me opened up the opportunity to work at York and the experience has been transformative for us as well as the women inmates.
In the workshop we discuss the immense difficulties of putting into practice the Judeo-Christian injunction to "Love one's neighbor as thyself." In our Transforming Prejudice Workshops, we moved methodically through the dismantling of harmful prejudices, beginning with the recognition that we all harbor them .... For a future of peace to be possible, we must find methods for disarming our own hearts, ridding them of hateful stereotypes about others and of self-loathing and limiting views of ourselves.

When you started writing Dreaming Me, it was your intention to write about your family genealogy, do you plan to return to that project?

Next academic year (2002-2003) I'll be on sabbatical and will then finally get the chance to return to my family history work.  This is where my passion was when I was asked to write the memoir.  I'm looking forward to getting back to that research and the book I'm writing about the roller-coaster emotional process of doing such research.  It's called "My Search for Kin." I've located seven of the eights in line of "great-great grands." I didn't try to follow the line all the way back to Africa.

Do you have any insights to the emotional state of America post 9/11?

The emotional state of America?  Fear is a frightening and a terrible thing.  Terror is meant to paralyze us; hence to fight it, we must continue to act--to think and to feel.  Now is the time to seriously reflect upon prejudice and hatred and see if we can get to the roots of those negative emotions. I worry that the new wave of patriotism may be only a temporary coming together; an 'us' against 'them' thing.  Of course, it would be wonderful if the world and its nation-states would, as a result of the all out assault against terrorism, completely disarm themselves, but that seems an unlikely scenario.  What we can and must do, I think, is begin with ourselves, first by disarming our own hearts, then by looking deeply into the causes of hatred, and then by seeking to build bridges.

Jan Willis, Professor of Religion and Walter A. Crowell Professor of the Social Sciences at Wesleyan University

Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey
Riverhead Books, paperback edition, 2002
ISBN: 1573229091 

          Southern Scribe Review

Article on upcoming book Transforming Prejudice

2002 Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved