Under a thatch-roofed school in western Thailand, near the border of Myanmar (formerly Burma) refugee children gather around a middle-aged white man who has come from America to live and work teaching them English and house building.
He’s flown half-way around the world from his native California to this one spot. In the weeks leading up to the trip he’d thought of everything he might impart about hard work, perseverance and success.
But as the children patiently wait for him to speak, this normally verbose and unusually outgoing man struggles to find the one thing that has come so naturally to him: words.
Shawn Thomas Odyssey is a successful Hollywood musician and new author. His first novel “The Wizard of Dark Street” has been nominated for an Agatha Award and an Edgar Award. After returning from abroad to his home in California, I spoke to the author about his work by telephone.
“Really, it was just total culture shock,” he explained. A whirlwind year-long United States coast-to-coast book tour took Odyssey from the metropolis experiences of New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles to the total opposite in less than one day. “They had absolutely nothing that you or I would take as a given.”
Caught between initial feelings of pity, sympathy and compassion, Odyssey set his mind to the work at hand. “You just begin,” he said. And so he did. Finding small ways to connect with eye contact and the human smile helped him transition.
Part of his ability to cope was developed over those few days by the head of the refugee camp, a Buddhist monk, who has dedicated his life to helping educate the young children displaced by the political situation. As he was himself a refugee and turned to Buddhism as a means of education.
He was intimately familiar with the political, social and emotional needs of the refugees. His Buddhist understanding of life, enthusiasm and his ability to communicate made a deep impression on Odyssey. As he spoke with appreciation and fondness for this unexpected spiritual mentor, it was evident that Odyssey’s voyage transformed him in a similar way his writing transformed Oona Crate, the heroine of Odyssey’s “The Wizard of Dark Street.”
When asked to reflect on his shifts in understanding, he said the two sides of this issue are fundamentally the same. Westerners have problems of excess; refugees lack. Rather than feel superior as an America with “stuff,” as many do, Odyssey felt these are opposites of the same fundamental problem, one of material balance.
In a sense, our culture is just as out of balance as theirs. It was the healing of a perceptual blind spot. With new insight, Odyssey seemed to find a passion for what he was doing. After a few days, he and the children were making better pace with the English teaching. He attributes that progress to his being able to better cope with the visual disparity that so strongly resonated with him upon arrival. His new sense of vision overcame a materialistic sense of seeing.
I asked him about his return to the U.S., and how this new type of perspective has held up to the strains of our image conscious culture. He laughed when he said, “Believe it or not, coming back was just as much a shock.” He’s only been back a few weeks, penned a deal for his next novel and started planning his itinerary.
But there is a new man behind those eyes, one that will inevitably produce an even better writer, grounded with both a deeper sense of the human condition and an ability to handle material success.
Kit Kelchner is a philosophy and health sciences major in his senior year.