Eight Questions with Lisa Napoli, Author of “Radio Shangri-La”

Lisa Napoli with children outside a Bhutanese library. Photo courtesy of  Kezang Choden, READGlobal.org

Lisa Napoli with children outside a Bhutanese library. Photo courtesy of Kezang Choden, READGlobal.org

Lisa Napoli, author of “Radio Shangri-La,” visits the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan once a year — more times than the average American could hope to go in a lifetime. She enjoys some luxuries as a result of traveling there as a guest, like having the $200 a day tourist tax waived, but she also sees herself as an ambassador on each trip.

In the midst of promoting her book, Napoli recently chatted with Divanee.com. Read on to get to know her better.

What are the top three things that we should know about you?

I love connecting people. I love having new experiences. And I feel extremely lucky. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had great things sort of present themselves to me but also that I’ve been able to follow through and actually experience and appreciate those things.

In the book, it sounded like you were talking quite a bit about luck and coincidences. Do you believe in fate?

I feel like what’s important in life is how you frame the experiences and opportunities that you have. I don’t know if I believe that it was my fate or karma or destiny to go to Bhutan or to do these things. I think it’s more perspective than it is fate. If you follow a path, you don’t know where it’s going to take you but you just have to be open to all the different forks in the road on that path. I don’t know that there’s one right way to go.

I think it’s really important for women, especially younger women to see that. That man, if you marry him and have children with him, that wasn’t the only way you could go. It’s really just making the best out of what presents itself to you.

Some of the most moving passages in your story involved painful experiences from your past. How did you decide to include those in your book?

As a rape survivor I didn’t go around advertising to people that this had happened to me. But I always had a palpable sense that explaining that to somebody as they got to know me better might help them understand that that happens, it unfortunately happens more than we’d like to believe it and that it’s really possible after something really terrible happens to you to transcend it. I felt like this book was a really wonderful opportunity to say – not just to women, but women in particular – there are some really bad things that happen to all of us along the way. I’m very proud that I didn’t let that experience that happened to me as a young woman, while of course it influenced me, I didn’t let it hold  me back. I think it’s really important for people to see that you can deal with something that’s not a positive experience and not necessarily turn it into a positive but not let it weigh you down and define you and ruin your life.

Did you, at any point, feel like it might not be a good idea for your personal life or even for the story to include those details?

No, because they’re so essentially entwined with who I am in the sense that if I’m going to tell a story about my history, I felt that it was that. It’s been really moving to see how people I know and people I don’t know react to that story in particular. I’ve had people I don’t know come up to me and say, I love your book but I hate that page where that happens to you. And then I’ve had people who know me and of course knew that incident who said, we’re really excited to see how you explained how it fit into your life, we hate that it happened to you, but we just understand you a little bit better. What greater gift is there in this world than someone understanding you, taking the time to understand you and wanting to understand you?

Let’s talk about Bhutan. Do you still go back there? Have you been recently?

I’ve been there six times now. I was there in October and I had the privilege of visiting a friend of mine in a part of the country where I hadn’t been and where very few tourists go, and that was an amazing experience. My friend, who I’ve known for the whole time I’ve been going to Bhutan – about four years now – is the governor of this district called Mangar. It was really exciting because most of the time, I was with my friend’s wife and she kept taking me to visit monasteries and schools. We would go to these elementary schools and the kids would see me and they had never seen me, an American, before. It was really moving and incredible to see these beautiful children so curious and so excited.

I visited the first community library outside of the capitol that had been built. There’s only one library, one small library, in the capitol city that’s open to the people. Some of the schools have very little libraries, but there’s a program called READ Global that just entered Bhutan and a friend of mine from the radio station had jumped from there to work at this non-profit and had gone to this very remote village to set up this library. To go to this library, which is in this old, retro-fitted farmhouse, and to see these kids for whom having a pencil is a big deal and for whom owning books is an even bigger deal, it was extremely moving but also really inspirational. They are so excited to have this library there and they are so eager to learn and it makes you feel very hopeful for the future to see that kids who are living in a farm village, not necessarily poor but certainly not financially well off, are loving the idea of learning.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the Bhutanese people today?

It’s how to grow up gracefully. I think it is to figure out how to welcome the world that they’ve opened themselves up to, both literally and figuratively–because it’s media as much as it’s outsiders–without losing their sense of values and customs and traditions. How you [adapt to so much change so quickly] and not lose your core is tough, especially when you have TV and movies as an influence on your young people.

Can you give me an example of something you do regularly now that you wouldn’t do if you hadn’t gone to Bhutan?

Because I left that job and because I’ve had this sense of transformation, I volunteer and it’s a very important part of my life. Before, it was always really difficult for me to commit to volunteering because my schedule was always so weird and I was either exhausted from the hours I was working or I had such an erratic schedule, I just couldn’t commit. And I always felt like I was open and available to people who wanted information or help, younger people in journalism, but I never had that sense of contributing to my community but that’s definitely a part of my life that I couldn’t extricate at this point.

If I wanted to go to Bhutan on vacation, what advice would you give me?

I would say, go with an open heart and just talk to as many people as you possibly can. I think a lot of people go to Bhutan on vacation, from what I’ve seen, and they try to go too many places. I think that’s true of anywhere. It’s really important if you could just go one place and just sort of soak up that place, but talk to as many people as you can and ask them the kinds of questions you’re asking me. Get to know them better.

Check out our review of “Radio Shangri-La” and enter for your chance to win a copy. Also follow @AminaBook for more information on the upcoming Divanee Book Club!