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Jessica Blank - Karma for Beginners

Book review

Karma for beginners is a novel for young adults. It is about Tessa, a fourteen year old girl with an unusual life. Her mom moves them around a lot, and is always trying to be spiritual. One day out of nowhere, Tessa's mom picks up and moves them to the Ashram, a place to find her spiritual self. Tessa feels alone, she has no one to talk to, her mom is off who knows where half the time and the people there don't like her. She is starting to get upset, she can't take it anymore, but one day she meets Colin. He fixes trucks for the Ashram, he's 20 years old. As Tessa starts to like Colin and their relationship becomes very confusing and complicated, Tessa finds herself caught up in life. She can only keep her secrets for so long.

I thought this book was good, but it took a little bit of time for me to get into it. I thought it was a little hard to follow at first because I couldn't exactly relate to it because I wasn't familiar with some words and expressions. As the book progressed and you start to hear more about Tessa and the troubles she's facing as a teenage girl it's easier to relate to. I thought that as soon as Colin came into the picture, it got more interesting. I kept wanting to know what would happen, which is always important in a book because it keeps you reading. I think that overall this book was pretty good.

It might take a little bit to get into it, but I think you should read it because it really does get interesting. And even though at the beginning I was sort of frustrated that I didn't understand some of the stuff, I did end up learning some new things. So if you like learning stuff, excitement, and hearing about normal teen issues, you should defiantly read this book.

Do you think that young adults can benefit from reading about Tessa's struggles (e.g. with drugs and being involved with someone who is illegally old for her) and the obstacles she has to overcome in the book?  

I do. I think that storytelling can serve to create empathy – we see ourselves in the characters and the characters in ourselves; that's what makes us relate to a protagonist or a story. That's, I think, why reading novels (or watching movies or plays) is satisfying and fulfilling: it reminds us that we're not alone. Characters in a novel can be like a mirror for the reader, letting her know that others have been where she's been before, have felt some of the same things, asked some of the same questions, and made it through some of the same struggles. Sometimes reading about a character who shares some of your struggles, and seeing how that character deals with them – whether it's the same or different from how you would deal with them – can teach us about ourselves and make us feel a little less alone in the world.

The whole setting of the story isn't really your typical spot. It's on an Ashram, which has a very strict way of life. What inspired you to write a book about this? Did you have personal experiences with this sort of spiritual way of life, or did you have to research it?  

Both. My parents (happily married – I grew up in a much more intact family than Tessa's is in the book) are very interested in Eastern religions, and I grew up around many different spiritualities and religions. I've absorbed a lot of those ideas, and in my own life now I study Buddhism (the ashram in the book is kind of a "New Age" place that's loosely based in an Americanized version of Hinduism).  My parents brought me to an ashram for visits sometimes when I was a kid. But we never lived there, and the real ashram wasn't the same as the one in the book. When you're writing fiction, you have to have high stakes for the character, and you're always looking to magnify the intensity of the obstacles the character faces, so I made the ashram in the book a little weirder and more alienating than the one I visited as a kid, and I made it so that Tessa had to actually live there – she didn't have a "normal" life to go back to.

Tessa goes through the typical teenage obstacles and challenges, but she also is put in a difficult situation when she meets Colin. He is older, and he is starting to get her involved with drugs and alcohol. Why do you think it's good for young people to read about these sorts of things?  

I think that a lot of teenagers are curious about the world outside their family and school, including about things that are "against the rules" or maybe a little dangerous. I know I was curious in that way as a teenager, and I think a lot of young people explore who they are by rebelling.  I think rather than being afraid of it, or judging it, or pushing it away, it's important for both adults and kids to try to understand that impulse and what it means.  I wanted to write a book that explored – in a non-judgmental way--what happens when you get in over your head, how it can be exciting at first and then turn scary, and how you can grow from it and come out the other side stronger.

The Ashram is a place where you are basically being told what to do. We read this and most probably think it's no way to live, but the people on the Ashram seem content to live in this very structured place. Why do you think this is? 

That's a really interesting question! I think that most of us live in a very structured way – it's just that the structures that most of us live in (having a job, going to work in an office from 9-5 or school from 8-3, etc) are so normalized that we take them for granted and don't even really notice that they're there. The ashram has a structure that's totally different from what most of us are used to in our daily lives, and that's part of why the rules are so noticeable.  I do also think, though, that the folks at the ashram can be pretty rigid about their "rules." I think that kind of rigidity seems to be comforting to some people – maybe it gives them a set of structures they feel like they can control and rely on.

Do you think all teenagers can relate to what Tessa is going through no matter what their background is?  

I do – or at least, I think most of them can.  I think most teenagers have felt like outsiders sometimes; I think most teenagers have been put in situations they feel like they have no choice about; I think most teenagers have been curious about rebelling and many of them have gotten into situations where they got in a little over their heads emotionally. Those are the things that Tessa is grappling with in the book, and regardless of the setting or the context, I think most teenagers can relate to those things.

What writing process did you go through to write this book? Did you have to do a lot of research on spirituality, the strict ways of an Ashram etc.? Or did you know all the information already? 

Like I said above, I had experience with some of it – some of the aspects of being in an ashram, some of the philosophies, etc.; and many of the characters draw upon aspects of different people I've known in my life.  But whenever I write a novel, I spend a lot of time at the beginning reading whatever I can get my hands on that has to do with the subject matter – so for this one, I read a lot of memoirs of countercultural childhoods, people who have lived in ashrams, etc., as well as a lot of fiction about teenage daughters and single moms.

Tessa is just trying to be a normal teenager but has a hard time doing this in her strict environment. What sorts of effects do you think this feeling of confinement has on a person?  

I think that's a big part of what makes her want to rebel! Tessa is in a situation (which I think a lot of teenagers can relate to) where she feels like everyone is telling her what to do and how to  be, and she doesn't have a lot of control over her own environment or the chance to make a lot of choices.  On top of that, she's an outsider, and doesn't have any real friends.  So she finds another outsider – Colin, who fixes buses for the ashram – and throws herself into spending time with him.  Tessa isn't given enough freedom or agency by the adults around her, so she winds up trying to find it for herself – and goes a little overboard.

Tessa's mother is often away and Tessa feels as though she isn't there for her. When you were writing this book how did you want Tessa's mother to be perceived by readers? As the bad guy? Or as someone we should feel sorry for because she, like many people on the Ashram, are essentially being brainwashed by the guru?  

Well, I don't really believe there's such a thing as "bad guys."  I think there are people who do bad things – don't get me wrong – but I don't think that's because those people are inherently bad. I think it's because they're damaged, or hurting in some way.  Tessa's mom is lonely, and she never had the chance to live out her own dreams.  That, more than anything else, is what motivates her.  She's dealing with it in the wrong way – by being a pretty irresponsible parent and not being conscientious or generous enough with her own daughter – and I think she ultimately gets a pretty big wake-up call about that.  And hopefully, she'll make the choice to grow from that..

Photo caputred from book cover