The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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Sisterhood

Several years ago I wrote ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei‘, a novel about sisterhood that was embraced by readers all over the world and received some astonishing critical attention.

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover“Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” ~ China Books

“This evocative novel is sure to be popular with fans of Amy Tan, Gail Tsukiyama, and even Marion Zimmer Bradley,” … a perfect genre-buster… highly recommended.” ~ Library Journal

(It’s still available and you can buy it HERE)

It comes to mind now because of a story in Flavorwire by Emily Temple

25 Fascinating Female Friendships in Literature

“It’s amazing to me how rare it still is to find complex female friendships in literature for adults (YA has it a little more locked), and even the whiff of a good one can send me straight to the bookstore,” she says. “In case you’ve been having the same feeling, here are 25 books that investigate female friendship in one form or another. More please.”Sisterhood montage

If anyone wants to suggest ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’… Well, she did ask.

You can see her selections at Flavorwire HERE

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Some time ago, Katherine Brooks offered at the Huffington Post

12 Books That Will Lift You Up When You Are Down
Uplifting Books montage

Everyone need a pick-me-up now and then, so wander over to Huffpost and check out her selections HERE

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Quote of the Day

Bookshops and pubs, together with post offices and schools, are the four pillars upon which a local community is built and to my mind no fragile friendship built online can compete.” ~ Author Richard Watson

…of course, I don’t entirely agree. Friendships I built online are anything but fragile – some have lasted decades, one has morphed into marriage. Bookshops and pubs and schools and post offices are good, though. There’s nothing like an educated human reading a book over a nice drink in a friendly local with a check that the post office just delivered (or a letter from one of those distant friends) in their pocket….

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ALL fiction is fantasy

Alma’s Bookshelf: “The Secrets of Jin-shei”

One of a series of essays on writing referencing my own books for examples

I spend half my life living in dreams, in alternate realities.

That might sound bizarre to some, even verging on pure lunacy – but it applies to every writer of fiction out there. Whether you’re writing contemporary thrillers, historical bodice-rippers, science fiction or pure fairy tale, you face one simple truth – whatever the world you’re in, it’s a world created by YOU.

There are places out there that feel like they have been torn out of the gritty gray reality of our own workaday world, where you can smell the smog in the streets and hear the squeal of brakes. It’s the kind of pure “reality” on which a lot of writers have built careers.

And then there are those, like me, who like to just make it all up.

The very first book I had published was a series of fairy tales, literary stories modeled rather more on the emotional and subtle and almost mystical fairy tales as told by Oscar Wilde. But every single one of those stories had one thing in common. They were set like tiny gems into a setting of their own particular world, a setting I took pains to build and create, a setting in which I lovingly breathed life into every leaf and every rose petal and every drop of sea foam I wrote about.

Worldbuilding is one of the most exhilarating, heady things that it is given to a writer to do. The process of building a world – star by star, tree by tree, shimmering piece of magic by shimmering piece of magic – is unsurpassed by anything that it is possible for the human mind to achieve.

True fantasy is extremely hard to do well, because you cannot rely on the familiar scaffolding of the world that your reader is already familiar with in order to tell your tale. The setting of a fantasy has to be so strong, so unbreakable, so seamless, that it is invisible – much like the real world is in a contemporary novel – and leaves its readers, at the completion of the book, waking up as if from a lovely dream.

But there is another kind of fantasy, one which I value even more highly, “historical” fantasy – the kind that magically invokes an otherness that is almost painfully familiar.

Historical fantasy is the kind that you read knowing, just knowing, that this IS in fact your own world… only different. The kind of book where the author has done a LOT of research into the details of his or her chosen period, and although choices were made for the sake of the story that may not match perfectly with the original historical events, those events are recreated in such a manner that the provenance of the fantasy itself is immediately warmly familiar.

The Secrets of Jin-shei coverWhen I began “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, this is the kind of book that I was writing. I took the rich tapestry of Imperial China, and I unraveled it thread by thread, and then re-wove it into a different world, a different China, my China, one that never really existed – but which owed everything to the time and place of its inspiration and which breathed the same mystical oriental air.

I researched meticulously – but this is not the kind of research that is done for a purely historical novel and aimed at checking facts. I was not going to exactly recreate the facts, I wanted to re-create the sense, the feel, the atmosphere.

My China, a land I called Syai, shared a lot of things with ancient China – not least a religion based on the Tao, and an Imperial court full of beautiful wives and concubines dressed in scarlet brocades and jeweled embroidery.

Most importantly of all, my central premise – the secret women’s language I called “jin ashu” and the bond of sisterhood known as “Jin-shei” that gives the novel its name — is real. There is a women’s language passed from mother to daughter over generations which has survived to the present day in this magical form, although the last of the women who learned the language, nushu, organically at their mothers’ knee are now almost gone. There was a sisterhood, known as “Jiebai Zhimei”, which sometimes linked women in strong bonds of friendship and which had its roots in this secret language that the women shared.

But Syai, my ‘China’, is NOT the real China.

In the real historical China women did not have the kind of power that the women in Syai do. In the real China the women’s language and the secret sisterhood had considerably less global influence than portrayed in the Syai of my novel. I took the reality, unraveled it, re-wove it into a fantasy cloth rich with myth and legend and tradition and history – but only the memory of reality.

Syai is not China, any more than a painting is a precise likeness of a photograph.

When I first submitted the novel for publication, the response was that it was something that “transcended fantasy” – and the novel was subsequently sold to a publisher far more mainstream in outlook than I might have expected it to go to. Reviews have stated that the book is a “genre-buster” and have called it “mainstream fantasy”. It has been published in 13 languages.

And yet I was afraid that there would be people out there who would inevitably pick it up as a “pure” historical novel, and who would shred the culture and milieu of Syai on the basis of the historical inaccuracies on which has been built. Indeed, that happened. For example, one reader wrote in her blog:

I need another recommendation for a good book. The Secrets of Jin-shei turned out to be a pretty good book being female-centered and all. but I still don’t agree with how the author changed so many things with the Chinese culture … I can’t help comparing it to Memoirs of a Geisha…(I felt)l like I was enriched with the Japanese culture… after reading Secrets I couldn’t help but feel cheated. China was never a matriarchal society and yet that is how she portrayed it…”

But “Jin-shei” was never meant to be a factual representation of a culture or a world in the manner that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was.

“The Secrets of Jin-shei” is a dream, not a reality.

It is true, of course, that all fiction, even if set in the ‘real’ world, is fantasy, a story told about a place that seems real, but is not. But it is here, in the realm of fantasy, that this becomes something very important.

Think of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, if you like, as a Westernization of an ancient oriental fairy tale – of the kind that took the world by storm when ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made its explosive debut on the cinematic scene. (One of my favorite reviews of “Secrets of Jin-shei” , from a place that went by the completely appropriate name of China Books, cited that movie: “Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” )

It is a dream. An alternate reality. A place that could have, might have, should have existed… but never did, except in my heart and my mind.

Buy “The Secrets of Jin-shei” HERE

A fuller version of this essay appeared on the Book View Café HERE

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Stories are alive

What is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s a question that Neil Gaiman explores in a lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking, an article in Brain Pickings tells us.
Neil GaimanGaiman suggests that stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does. “Stories are alive – they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia,” he says.

Read the article and listen to Gaiman HERE

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My first major success was ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei‘, a novel of sisterhood set in a mythological land called Syai that resembles an Imperial China that never was. It is out in 13 languages so far.

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThe first Harper Collins hardcover edition of Jin-shei had a gorgeous cover. While the paperback is still available, the hardcover edition is out of print now and I have seen it being sold as a collector’s item. I have a few copies of my own stashed away that I am hoarding.

Published more than a decade ago, it is a story that fits Gaiman’s definition. It is a living thing. I still hear from or about women and girls who have pledged Jin-shei to each other like the characters in my story. Some time back, a teenager in Brazil posted a video about it on her blog. I don’t speak Portuguese, but she did seem to be enthusiastic about it.

At off the Shelf, Hilary Krutt takes a look at several other similar books:

 

11 Novels that Explore the Beautiful and Complex Bonds of Sisterhood

“The concept of sisterhood has always possessed an almost mystical allure for me,” Krutt says. “Growing up with no sisters of my own, my brother served as a proxy, begrudgingly allowing me to dress him up in old tutus and playing along with my extensive collection of Barbie dolls. He eventually grew out of it, but I always cherished the time when he allowed me to project my girlish whims on him. Whether you’re from a clan of sisters or sisterless like me, here are eleven books about the joys and challenges of sisterhood.”

e.g.

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown:

Bianca, Cordelia, and Rosalind are the book-loving and wonderfully quirky spawn of Shakespeare scholar Dr. James Andreas. When the three sisters return to their childhood home to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there.

But the Andreas sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from might offer more than they ever expected.

 

Read the whole story HERE

 

 

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Another story that interested me because of the personal connection to one of my own books is a Flavorwire story on Internet novels. :

I didn’t write an Internet novel in the sense of the article below, but the man-who-was-to- become-my-husband and I wrote an epistolary novel together about NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in the form of an exchange of emails over the Internet between a pro-war American man, and a Serb woman living under the bombs. After the original bitter exchanges, the couple, despite themselves, fell in love.

Published by New Zealand HarperCollins, it was called ‘Letters from the Fire‘ and sold extremely well in New Zealand where I was living at the time. Now self published on the Internet… Well… No comment.

The books mentioned by Flavowire have made a lot more of a stir.

The Evolution of the Internet Novel, 1984 to Present: A Timeline

neuromancer

 

The article begins with, not surprisingly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984.

It may be argued that earlier novels, genre or otherwise, anticipated the Internet before William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but can any of them lay claim to the invention of the word “cyberspace,” or the cyberpunk genre, or the credible hacking novel?’

 

 

Read the whole story HERE

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ParbunkellsThe Word the Internet Didn’t Know

Ever heard of the word in the photo above? Maddie Stone asks at Gizmodo. Probably not, because, until this month, that word didn’t exist on the Internet.

That’s right: A 17th century English word that means “coming together through the binding of two ropes,” according to a 1627 publication housed at the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division, was, until this month, dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the internet knows everything, but it doesn’t.

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

New favorite review of ‘Wolf‘, second book in my The Were Chronicles. At Goodreads, a reader called Melani exclaims with glee,

They saved the day with SCIENCE!”

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The man who saved 2,000,000 babies

…and 14 other saviors of mankind

Read the whole Kindness Blog story HERE

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Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought

Read the whole story of the bee apocalypse HERE

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Quote of the day

Stories should change you – good stories should change you.” ~ Neil Gaiman

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Alma Alexander      My books      Email me   

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Dear Author…

In the little over a decade I have been writing full time, I have received some fascinating letters. Two stand out particularly.

I haven’t asked permission of the letter writers – in at least one case, it was so long ago that I am not sure my contact information is any longer valid. So these two examples are essentially paraphrased with names and other personal information excised.

The first was someone who had met me on a major book tour for The Secrets of Jin-Shei, a novel which involves a sisterhood. The letter writer speaks poignantly about how my book made her reflect on her own experiences.

Paraphrased excerpt:

You sat in front of me (on the plane) and eventually, like people who travel, often do, we began to talk. You said you were an author and showed me the cover of the book you had published. You were on your way to a book signing.

Though you did talk to me for most of the trip and even gave me your card, it was the cover of your book that, strangely, remained in my mind. So, that when I went to the library and saw that cover amongst the other books, I remembered it. I didn’t remember you had written it; I remembered the cover…I found your picture on the back and it all fell into place.

So, I started reading the book and that’s when the sadness came. Here in my hands was a book about sisterhood, a mirror reflecting the deep friendships I’ve had with several women, including the teenager I made my mother take into our home as my foster sister… your book helped me remember….and understand that.

The rest is far too personal for me to summarize here without her permission. But I was greatly touched by her letter.

The second also involves The Secrets of Jin-Shei. It was much shorter and rather… unusual.

Paraphrased excerpt:

I have never read any of your books, and up to today had not heard of them. However, last night I had a dream that clearly showed me the name Jin-Shei.

After researching the name on the internet all I could find related to it was your book. Could you possibly share with me the actual historical significance of this name? Does it have an English translation? Is it merely a name you created?…Your book sounds interesting…

I hope he did read it and did find it interesting. After all, his own dream had led him there.

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11 Contemporary Retellings of Classic Literature

At Off the Shelf, Sarah Jane Abbott offers some books by inspired authors that have reimagined beloved novels and iconic characters, using them as them as jumping off points to explore new settings, eras, and characters.

e.g.
Going-Bovine

Going Bovine by Libba Bray:

All sixteen-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks.

Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel or possible hallucination who sets him on a quest paralleling that of Don Quixote.

 

See all the books HERE

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10 Books To Read Before You See The Movies This Summer

We all love a few hours at the movie theater, Mark Athitakis writes at Huffpost, but there’s just no substitute for curling up with a few hundred pages of printed magic.

One example:

Every Secret ThingBy Laura Lippman: The thriller Every Secret Thing revolves around two teenage girls and the abduction and murder of a baby seven years earlier. Starring Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning, the movie casts more female leads than your average thriller (thank you!) and Laura Lippman, whose 2003 novel inspired the film, has deserved a big-screen treatment of her work for years. But the film was shot in New York, robbing the story of Lippman’s beloved Baltimore and her rich local details about everything from race relations to hairstyles. Let’s not overlook the scary pleasures of her prose, either. “There was something menacing in the very fineness of his bones,” she writes, “as if a bigger boy had been boiled down until all that remained was this concentrated bit of rage and bile.”

Read the whole story HERE

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Dinosaurs and All That RubbishDinosaurs and All That Rubbish Photograph: PR

Daniel Hahn’s top 10 underrated or forgotten children’s classics

The author of the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature chooses the children’s classics you probably haven’t heard of but really should read, from picture books about dinosaurs and bike rides to a historical novel narrated by a dog.

Read the whole story HERE

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66 on 66It’s arguably the most famous road in the world. Route 66 – just saying those words makes you want to hit the road. But did you know there are many wonderful used bookstores along the way from Chicago to Los Angeles?

Abe Books has plotted the ultimate bibliophile’s road trip where you can visit 66 bricks and mortar used bookstores – who all sell on the AbeBooks marketplace – while driving from the shores of Lake Michigan to the beaches of Santa Monica. We are talking about two thousand miles and hundreds of thousands of books. It’s a booklover’s paradise – and worth the trip for that alone. Some folks travel for culinary adventures, some travel for landmarks and museums, but bibliophiles travel for the finest in literary offerings. It’s called Bookstore Tourism, and yes – there’s a book about it.

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS n THAT

Destroying What Remains
Artic sea iceAs sea ice in the Arctic vanishes, the Navy plans training including live bombing runs

Disturbing essay by Dahr Jamail HERE

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We humans are so VERY GOOD at inventing things that kill…
The UrumiThe best bladed weapons are at least somewhat flexible—but the urumi is downright floppy. When swung, it acts like a whip. A metal whip. A metal whip with two sharp edges

10 of History’s Most Terrifying Swords, including THIS

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Quote of the Day

QUOTE Oscar Wilde~~~~~
Alma Alexander     My books     Email me
 
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The Importance of Womance

“So many fictional heroines seem to lack a great support base in female best friends. I’ve read about the Tomboy, the Lone Wolf, the Only Girl in the Clubhouse, et al, but not much about the girl with the BFF to whom she’s pours her heart and soul …. Nothing makes me a little sadder than reading books with fantastic female characters…who can only carry conversations about the men in their lives.”JJ

That has always bothered me, too. I didn’t — consciously at least — set out to address that when I wrote my most popular novel, The Secrets of Jin-shei, but friendship among women, sisterhood if you will, is the foundation of the story, and its followup, Embers of Heaven.

On sisterhood

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Super-Creepy Art Inside an Abandoned Mental Hospital

strange-shadows-jpg

Nightmare inducing stuff.

Actually, Ellen Datlow, this one made me think of you. It’s the kind of place that one of your anthologies seems to have come to life in.

Creepy art

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Hotels Add Libraries to Keep Guests Inside

Some hotels are giving the humble book another look, as they search for ways to persuade guests, particularly younger ones, to spend more time in their lobbies and bars. They are increasingly stocking books in a central location, designating book suites or playing host to author readings. While the trend began at boutique hotels like the Library Hotel in New York, the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Ore., and the Study at Yale in New Haven, it is expanding to chain hotels.

Hotel libraries

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Dolphins are people

Following the lead of Hungary, Costa Rica and Chile, the government of India has recognized dolphins as non-human persons. The decision means that India has officially banned the capture and importation of dolphins for commercial entertainment.

I concur. Wholeheartedly. I have been hugged by by one. But, ironically, I got that opportunity at a dolphin park, which will be banned in countries that agree to treat them as ‘non-human persons‘.