While writing his novel, an alumnus shatters his old self

Michael Golding '80 calls 'A Poet of the Invisible World' a spiritual fable
Writer: 
March 15, 2016

Early in A Poet of the Invisible World, the recent novel by Michael Golding ’80, the young protagonist, Nouri, is shaken awake, swept up in the clattering movement of the busy fictional city Tan-Arzhan in thirteenth-century Persia. Nouri, an orphan, recently has begun lessons with a Sufi master—the benevolent Sheikh Bailiri—whose small order offered him shelter when he was just a foundling.

Nouri is full of feeling and questions. As they make their tour through a whirl of scents and colors, he asks Sheikh Bailiri if they might enter the mosque, whose dome and minarets he’d glimpsed many times from afar, but had yet to explore.

In that sanctuary, Nouri’s thoughts “soared like a dove,” writes Golding. But his flight is interrupted when one of the mosque’s polished lamps crashes, shattering on the ground. Nouri freezes, “his hand glued to Sheikh Bailiri, a strange light dazzling in his eyes. He felt as if he could see things as they were. …

‘That’s it, Nouri!’ whispered Sheikh Bailiri, ‘That’s what you’re after. That’s what you truly are!’

Nouri did not understand what he meant. But he saw that another world existed, and he was determined to find his way back.”

It will take Nouri a lifetime.

A Poet of the Invisible World occupies dreamy between-worlds territory—part fantasy, part allegory—it’s a fable of sorts that demands a willing suspension of disbelief. Nouri means light in Arabic, and as Golding moves the young apostolate through the stages of his journey and his many selves, that notion of “light” shifts in meaning, from epiphany to awareness to illumination. Nouri winds through a maze of life-altering encounters that force him to grapple with the pull of unexpected desires and the tumult of loss. He comes to understand the nature of his heart, but it means coming to terms with shattering an old self.

When Golding set pen to paper, he didn’t—or rather, couldn’t—know he was mapping a course in which his and his protagonist’s paths would not just cross but merge. For Golding, the author of two other novels (Simple Prayers and Benjamin’s Gift) and coauthor of a screenplay (2007’s Silk), the process of writing the book didn’t trigger an epiphany; rather, it opened a portal. The inquiry into Nouri’s quest and motivations allowed him to access a part of himself tucked away within the shadows of his psyche: seeing himself squarely as a gay man.

“It’s been for me a process of unraveling threads and looking at it and understanding what it means—and what it doesn’t mean,” he says. “Understanding it and writing this book has allowed that. And that is a gift.”

A “Spiritual Fable”

Seven years in the writing, A Poet of the Invisible World had both apparent and enigmatic beginnings. The poetry of the Sufi mystics, Golding explains, primed his subconscious. “I’d immersed in that kind of literature, so that’s a more logical response.” But the narrative itself appeared in a flash. “Often when I’m beginning to look for what the next book is, I’m trying to troll the waters and see what’s there. And at a certain point a book just flashes in my head. And really, it is a vision of a complete, finished book that exists somewhere on a shelf in the future,” he says.

There was no other way to characterize it. Nouri presented himself, and “I suddenly understood that I wanted to follow the path of someone who ended up having that kind of spiritual wisdom and to explore what could have led to the kind of spiritual wisdom that is in [the work of the poets] Attar, Rumi and Hafez.”

Language long has occupied a special place inside Golding. You hear it in the way he speaks, the burnished modulation of his sentences. You feel it on the page, in the sweeping lyricism of prose. “I’m a daily writer, and I love writing. One of the most uncomfortable times for me is between projects. I know I need to rest and let the well fill up again. But I don’t like those periods.”

Between his strict writing ritual and a steady slate of international travel, Golding teaches literature and academic writing part time at Yuba College in the foothills of the California Sierras. Those explorations provide an essential lens: “I’m a great believer that different cultures have their own psychology and that it is good to take yourself out of your own and just immerse yourself in new impressions. It puts you in a new mindset and gives you a different way of looking at life.”

At Duke, he was an A.B. Duke Scholar who carried a double major, English and drama. His heart was in the theater. “I was in Hoof and Horn and the Duke Players. There were professors who made impressions, Judy Dearlove in English and John Clum in drama among them. And though on paper he might have appeared to have two strong allegiances, “back then,” he admits, “drama really was my world.” After graduation, he moved to New York and fell into the actor’s life. “I did theater and theater and theater. I did a lot of Shakespeare. That was really my love and passion.” Fiction writing would take a backseat for a while. “Everyone’s shocked when I say that I went to Duke while Reynolds Price was there and didn’t study with him. But I didn’t know I was going to be a novelist back then.”

Roads open, then swerve in unexpected ways. Golding has tried to stay open to that pull. In 1984, he performed in a Joseph Papp/Riverside Shakespeare Company parks tour production of Romeo and Juliet. After thirty-seven performances, “I realized that I didn’t want to be Romeo—I wanted to be Shakespeare.” Soon after, he decamped to Paris, where he sat in cafes and began writing, tapping back into an old self. “After Paris, I moved to Venice, where Simple Prayers and my son were born. Having a child,” he says, “evoked the need to connect what I was doing with earning a livelihood.” He applied to University of California Irvine in the creative writing program for a master’s. He would complete Simple Prayers as his thesis.

As chance would have it, Hollywood came calling. The manuscript was optioned to be made into a film “and they are still trying to make it into a movie twenty-one years later,” he says. He met the director François Girard (The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould) and they became friends. Girard was looking for someone to help him with a screen adaptation to Alessandro Baricco’s Silk, and the challenge piqued Golding’s interest. “We filmed it in Japan and in Italy. It was a very special experience in that it was both wonderful and frustrating. With screenwriting you have to have a very thick skin, which some people do. I don’t. I have a very thin skin, which I think makes my work better. But in Hollywood it is decision by committee, which is frustrating, I think in part it was feeling that the work in screenwriting was so out of my hands that I needed to get the wheel back, and that is when I started writing A Poet of the Invisible World.”

The World Within

Nouri, the poet of the title, struggles with what it truly means to unlock one’s voice—the essence of the soul. His journey across continents puts him face to face with the world’s most open-hearted generosity and the cruelest expressions of fear and selfishness. Yet his toughest battle is the war within himself.

“One of the things that the book is trying to say is that the body and spirit are together in this journey. You don’t reach a higher level of understanding by ignoring the body or defying the body,” Golding says.

And the same is true with the spirit.

“During those seven years I was working on the book, I was given a number of very difficult things to work through personally and that, I wouldn’t say slowed me down, but it made it take longer.

“Also, simultaneously, I couldn’t finish the book until I took care of certain things—and that took awhile. I was married, and I have a child. I haven’t been married for a while. It’s not something that I haven’t talked about with my former wife, my son, and with everyone who is dear to me. It’s been a process of unraveling threads and looking at it and understanding what it means and what it doesn’t mean. I mean, we all know how to say these things. It’s a very big part of the culture. But the book had to come from somewhere truthful within me. So it took a while. But better seven years than seventy.”

Golding found that following Nouri's journey on the page evolved into a walk alongside the character. He understands now that following his path meant overcoming obstacles and transforming, suffering and overcoming difficult experiences.

He is clear about the takeaway: “I wouldn’t say that it was a revelation, I would say it was an integration, which is very different. We are now talking about sexuality—about my sexuality—and I would think that if some of my classmates read this article, they would think: ‘Oh God, we knew that!’ And in a certain way, I did, too; but I wasn’t able to integrate it into my life and understand it; and writing this book has allowed that—and that’s the gift.

It is, as Sheikh Bailiri counseled young Nouri, seeing things as the really are. The winding journey of this writing, of converging paths and merging those heretofore-invisible selves, helped Golding to clarify: “I didn’t want to live in a narrow stricture. I want to embrace—and know—all the things that are inside of myself.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Poet of the Invisible World has been nominated for both the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Literary Award.

  • Lynell George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and essayist. Currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET |Artbound, she’s also a former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, where she covered arts, culture, and social issues.