Life and Work
Born in 1964 to a Scandinavian American mother and a Nigerian father, Faith Adiele grew up in a rural area in Washington. Initially, her mother’s family rejected her parents’ biracial relationship, but they later accepted their daughter’s decision and their granddaughter. Adiele describes her relationship with her mother and grandparents as her “first training in arts and activism–question everything, put yourself on the line, but do it beautifully, and keep ’em laughing” (“Book Fest Q & A”). When she was a toddler, Adiele’s father left the United States and returned to Nigeria during the Biafran War. She wouldn’t see him again until she was twenty-six.
As a college student, Adiele obtained a bachelor of arts degree in Southeast Asian Studies at Harvard College (1987), a master of arts in creative writing at Lesley College (1996), and master of fine arts in fiction (2001) and nonfiction (2002) from the University of Iowa. During these years, she received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Banff Center for the Arts.
Adiele’s professional career has been diverse, and includes becoming a Buddhist nun in Thailand and working as a community advocate, a bureaucrat, a diversity teacher, and a college professor. She served as the Christa McAuliffe Chair at Framingham State College and also taught at University of Iowa. Currently, she teaches writing courses at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is an assistant professor of English. In addition to teaching, Adiele spends her time traveling and writing.
Having traveled internationally through Southeast Asia, Africa, Mexico, and Europe, Adiele appreciates the cultural aspects of Pittsburgh. She explains the factors that led to her choice to settle in this Pennsylvania city: “I live in Pittsburgh because the job is great. I just bought a house in an area called Polish Hill, because it’s close to the university yet also close to downtown and the warehouse district (and I’m hoping the little old ladies in my neighborhood are generous with the homemade piroghis)” (“Book Fest Q & A”).
In the summer of 2007, Adiele taught three workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” “Politics & Poetics: Writing Yourself Into/Onto The World,” and “Travel Tales: Making The Foreign Familiar & The Familiar Foreign.”
Throughout her writing career, Adiele has published essays in many journals, magazines, and anthologies. Using the penname Jane Harvard, Adiele co-wrote the novel The Student Body with three of her classmates: Michael Melcher, Bennett Singer, and Julia Sullivan. The novel takes place at Harvard and involves crime and sex scandals. In addition, Adiele has produced a PBS documentary called My Journey Home that records her journey to Nigeria to reunite with her father. She is currently working on a memoir, Twins: Growing Up Nigerian/Scandinavian/ American, which discusses her multicultural background, her childhood, and her reunion with her father.
Adiele’s Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun is a work of creative nonfiction that chronicles Adiele’s decision to become a Buddhist nun, or “maechi,” in Thailand. She characterizes the book as a “hybrid … (part memoir, part travelogue, part spiritual diary, part anthropological research)” that has a “title that would work on multiple levels” (Book Fest Q & A”). This hybrid nature is also demonstrated by the form of the novel. The narrative is framed by quotations from books, excerpts from her actual journals, and anthropological observations in the margins, and the story uses flashbacks, visions, dreams, and internal monologues in addition to recording the details of her life in the temple, or “wat.”
As a nun, Adiele learned to follow restrictive guidelines, called precepts, including eating only one meal a day, sleeping four hours a night, and meditating for up to nineteen hours each day. She shaved her head and eyebrows, and had no contact with the outside world. Part of Adiele’s exploration in the memoir includes an investigation of her choice to subject herself to these strict conditions.
One of the main reasons that Adiele decided to ordain as a nun was to understand her own identity and her difficulties dealing with conflicting dichotomies in society. As a biracial American, she feels alienated from white beauty standards that include the Barbie doll image, but she also doesn’t fit in with her fellow Black students at Harvard. The memoir explores how these feelings of alienation lead her believe that society equates Blackness with ugliness. This understanding, combined with several negative sexual experiences, taught her that white girls have the “desirability of someone you ask to dance,” while she had the “desirability of someone you take from behind, standing up, not caring who sees, like a slave” (113).
Adiele feels conflicted by this separation of women into sacred virgins versus profane whores. Adiele points out how this conflict extends beyond the borders of the United States; in Thailand, women are expected to be proper girls, but a thriving sex trade exploits the lure of passive and exotic women for Westerners. She explores this dichotomy in her chapter, “Orchids: Half Sacred, Half Profane,” in which she uses the sacred lotus and the profane poppy, both orchids, as metaphors for women.
Her frustration with these issues, as well as others, results in a mental breakdown while she is a scholarship student at Harvard. She comes to realize, “All I knew for sure was that I was drowning, a constant pressure on my chest to choose between things I could not choose between–black or white America, material or spiritual gain, gender or racial allegiance, beauty or safety, myself or others– choose, choose!” (26). To cope with these issues, she becomes a nun, a process she describes in terms of a marriage ceremony between herself and Buddha, whom she loves for his emphasis on fairness and equality.
In addition to helping Adiele understand the conflicting nature of the dichotomies in her identity, her time spent as a Buddhist nun teaches her that “through the medium of ourselves that we realize the truth about everyone and everything else, all human reactions and worldly occurrences” (153). This emphasis on community continues after she ends her travels in Thailand. Upon her return to the United States, she realizes that the only precept she still adheres to is the prohibition of the destruction of life. This precept, combined with the sense of social responsibility imparted from her mother, result in Adiele’s feelings that she has a responsibility to the global community.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. New York: Norton, 2004.
- The Student Body. New York: Random House, 1998. New York: Mayaluna, 2000.
- “The Fountain.” Sparks of Fire: Blake in a New Age. Ed. James Bogan and Fred Goss. Richmond: North Atlantic, 1982.
- “Fire: An Origin Tale.” Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing. Ed. Marita Golden and E. Lynn Harris. New York: Harlem Moon, 2002.
- “Traces.” Stone Lion Review 11 (1983).
- “this is the place you passed on the road.” Radcliffe Quarterly (Sept. 1983).
- “the dreaming of you in a cloister.” Windhorse Review 1.1 (Winter 1986).
- “Women in Flames.” Windhorse Review 1.1 (Winter 1986).
- “Learning to Eat.” Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women. Ed. Carol Camper. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1994.
- “Remembering Anticipating Africa.” Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women. Ed. Carol Camper. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1994.
- “Towards Creating a Multicultural Society.” Radcliffe Quarterly (March 1991).
- “The Encroaching Forest: Southeast Asian memories.” Ploughshares 20.2/3 (Fall 1994): 88-103.
- “The Multicultural Self.” Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women. Ed. Carol Camper. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1994.
- “Standing Alone with Myself.” Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women . Ed. Patricia Bell-Scott. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 364-88.
- “Learning to Recognize Each Other.” SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women (Spring 1995).
- “ABC.” Testimony: Young African Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity. Ed. Natasha Tarpley. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
- “Half Gold, Half Black: Thailand Journals, 1979-80.” Testimony: Young African Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity. Ed. Natasha Tarpley. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
- “The Transmigration of Souls.” Asheville Review (Fall 1996).
- “Locating Biafra: The Words We Wouldn’t Say.” Names We Call Home: An Autobiography on Racial Identity. Ed. Becky W. Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- “What I Came For.” Men We Cherish: African American Women Writing About Men. Ed. Brooke Stephens. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
- “Civilization.” Literal Latté 5.6 (Dec. 1999/Jan. 2000): 12.
- “Hungry Ghosts.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 4 (Oct. 2000). Reprinted in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2005: True Stories from around the World. Ed. Lucy McCauley. Palo Alto: Travelers’ Tales, 2005.
- “Pilgrims.” Transition 81/82 (Apr. 2000): 4-9.
- “The Names of Their Villages.” Transition 86 (2001): 4-21.
- “Passing through Bandit Territory.” A Woman Alone: Travel Tales from Around the Globe. Ed. Faith Conlon, et al. Seattle: Seal, 2001.
- “Ghosts.” Rosebud 21. (Fall 2001).
- “Lessons in Killing for the Black Buddhist Nun.” Diversity Dialogues. Ed. Lee Gutkind. Pittsburgh: Creative Nonfiction Foundation, 2002. Also in Creative Nonfiction 17. (Summer 2002).
- A Green and Gold Place.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 11.4 (Summer 2002).
- “My Sister, Myself.” Essence 1 Dec. 2002: 124-26.
- “Eating Africa.” Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food. Seattle: Seal, 2003.
- “Black Men.” Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America. Ed. Pooja Makhijani. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2004.
- “Learning to Fail.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 9 Apr. 2004.
- “Surrendering to Faith.” Essence 1 Apr. 2004: 151.
- “The Anthology of Myself.” The Best Buddhist Writing 2005. Ed. Melvin McLeod. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
- My Journey Home. Prod. Renee Tajima-Pena and WETA-TV. PBS. Apr. 2004.
- PEN New England Emerging Writer Award, 1994
- Dorothy & Granville Hicks Residency in Literature from the Yaddo Corporation, 1998
- Willard R. Espy Literary Foundation Award, 1999
- Second Prize from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, 2000
- Millenium Award from Creative Non-Fiction , 2000
- John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize from Crab Orchard Review , 2001
- UNESCO International Artists Bursary, 2003
- PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Biography/Memoir, 2004
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Riess, Jana. Rev. of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. Publishers Weekly 8 Mar. 2004: 70-71.
- Robotham, Rosemarie. Rev. of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. Black Issues Book Review 1 May 2004: 36.
- “Wisconsin Book Festival 2007: Faith Adiele Speaks.” Isthmus: The Daily Page. 4 Oct. 2207. <http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=9701>
- “Book Fest Q & A: Faith Adiele.” Isthmus: The Daily Page. 9 Oct. 2004. <http://www.thedailypage.com/features/books/archive/>