Cultural Crossroads: Lisa Alther


Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Lisa AltherAbout Lisa Alther

Lisa Alther was born in 1944 in Kingsport, Tennessee, where she went to public schools. She was graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in English literature in 1966. After attending the Publishing Procedures Course at Radcliffe College and working for Atheneum Publishers in New York, she moved to Hinesburg, Vermont, where she has lived for 45 years, raising her daughter. She taught Southern literature at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont, and at East Tennessee State University, where she was awarded the Basler Chair. Having lived in London and Paris, she currently divides her time among Tennessee, Vermont, and New York City.


Q:   You injected ideas from other cultures- scientific and esoteric ideas- into your novels, how important was that to stimulating your writing process?

A: My mother was from New York, and my father from Virginia.  There are enormous cultural differences between the North and the South in this country, so I grew up walking a tightrope between the two. This upbringing has made me acutely aware of cultural idiosyncrasies as I’ve traveled and lived in other places.  But at the same time, I discovered that people everywhere aren’t really all that different underneath their armor.  In fact, it seems to me that most living creatures contain an essence that is universal, though more active in some creatures than in others.  And that’s what makes metaphors possible.  You can compare one fragment of reality to another because an underlying unity already exists.  So I’m always looking for material I can mine for such metaphors, and that includes scientific discoveries, spiritual systems, and whatever else I come across. Seeing these underlying affinities definitely gives me a boost as I write, because it feeds my hope that what I’m trying to convey will resonate for someone else somewhere, since underneath our differences, we all seem to me to be similar.

Q:America is such a mix of cultures- but the obvious one is North and South- are there others that are currently overlooked based on your experiences in many different US environments over the years?

A:The more closely you focus your microscope, the more uniqueness you discover.  For instance, not only is the North different from the South, East Tennessee, where I grew up, is very different from Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee, at least to those who are really familiar with the regions.  It’s kind of like splitting the atom — you can keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller components forever.  Vermont is different from New Hampshire.  South Carolina is distinct from North Carolina.  And Texas is a world unto itself!

Q: The proliferation of gender possibilities has resulted in a new cultural norm- if it is easier to be different, is it harder to be average?

A: Interesting question!  I’m not sure how long respect for gender variation is going to last in this country.  The Department of Health and Human Services in Washington is proposing a legal definition of gender as immutable and based on one’s genitals at birth.  If they’re successful, some of the current gender options may be legislated out of existence and will have to go underground once again.  So I don’t think it’s necessarily going to remain “easier to be different”.   “Average” seems to be regaining its lost ground at quite a pace.

Q: Which Sufi ideas have you found the most useful over the years?

A: All the Sufi ideas have been vitally important to me.  I started reading Idries Shah’s books and the other Octagon Press publications in 1969 and have been reading them ever since — for almost fifty years now!. If I had to pick favorites, mine would be THE SUFIS, WISDOM OF THE IDIOTS, TALES OF THE DERVISHES, and THE SECRET GARDEN by Shabistari.  I don’t know exactly why these are my favorites, but they’re the ones I return to most often.