Book Review: “Neon Pilgrim” by Lisa Dempster (@LisaDempster @ventura_press @AusWomenWriters #AWW2018)


This year I am glad to serve again as an Audience Advocate for the Melbourne Writers Festival. So far the experience is quite different. Back in 2015, when Artistic Director Lisa Dempster introduced the “somewhat unusual (but awesome!) initiative to make sure Melbourne’s readers have a direct line to the Festival to share their ideas”, I and eleven other book lovers were full of ambition. Working with Lisa, we discussed and occasionally argued in what styles should various sessions be delivered, which writers should be invited, what themes should be covered, and how audience questions should be facilitated at these sessions. We felt passionate and energetic, and the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival turned out to be a highly intellectual and memorable event, full of fierce debates about books, idea(l)s and writing.

I missed the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival, but returned in 2017 to attend a session and a workshop featuring Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi and Darryl Sterk, translator of Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle (Text Publishing, 2017), an awesome book longlisted for this year’s Man Book International Prize. That was also Lisa’s last year as Artistic Director, and I felt sad knowing a special literary era was ending. A new person would surely lead the Melbourne Writers Festival along an equally brilliant yet ultimately different path.

By then I had already started reading Lisa’s Neon Pilgrim (Ventura Press, 2017). I had to borrow the book two more times from our local library, but I am so glad I finally finished it that I want to buy a copy for my own collection. This is Lisa’s story of walking the henro michi, the 1,200-kilometre, 88-temple pilgrimage around Japans Shikoku island. The journey was full of hardship, featuring the sweltering Japanese summer, endless mountainous terrain, countless blisters and mosquito bites, and plenty of pain, sweat, rage, frustration, loneliness and tears. But the book is thought-provoking, as Lisa reflects on her own life while meeting her challenges and problems head-on.

This book resonates with me because Lisa is an honest writer. It takes courage to confess one’s weaknesses without resorting to self-deprecation, and in Lisa’s sense of humour we see no attempt to seek sympathy. Instead, much respect is shown, for the pilgrimage and its cultural and spiritual significance, for her fellow pilgrims who walked the henro michi for their own reasons, and especially for herself. It is a process of thinking and praying, the time for reflection. It is an individual journey towards self-affirmation, much more than self-discovery.

As a fellow introvert, I am touched by Lisa’s reflection on the idea of travel – “why we travel and what we get from it”. Do we really need to travel and learn from others, when we already have something unique in our hearts? On Page 124, after reaching Temple 31, Lisa writes:

Travel is an internal journey as much as an external one… Could I learn and grow without travel? I was seeking something tangible on the henro michi: wellness. Was that something I could have achieved at home? Do I need to be here?

The answer seems obvious, as Lisa finds herself walking in honour of Kōbō Dashi, a ninth-century Buddhist monk and one of the most important figure in Japanese history. She found enlightenment in the story of this man who lived over a thousand years before her, in the same way that readers like me feel inspired by her journey – the realisation that whatever we are seeking, we already have; we just need to accept it, without being hindered by fear.

I am further touched by Lisa’s reflection on the act of receiving. It is far more difficult to receive than to give, especially when one is gifted unconditionally and frequently. To accept other people’s kindness humbly and gracefully requires a fundamental belief in one’s own worthiness. It equally demands deep faith in one’s own physical, intellectual and psychological capacity to give as much as one is able to receive. It is as much a natural process as breathing in and out, but Lisa struggled to accept it. I think most of us will feel the same under similar circumstances, but I hope I am wrong.

Neon Pilgrim is a book to be read alone. It is a reader’s private pilgrimage, and we all read it for our own different reasons. Whatever yours is, I hope that you, too, can find that which is already in you.

More details about Lisa Dempster’s Neon Pilgrim can be found here.


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