In his book Yak Horns, Bhuchung D Sonam writes that Tibet needs its writers, activists, statesmen, thinkers and, most of all, bread-and-freedom poets to paint their reality and gain their freedom. In a new book of translated Tibetan poetry – Burning the Sun’s Braids Sonam attempts to get one step closer to that quest.

Over the past few months, I have come across several books that lament over themes of leaving and exile. Leaving home, leaving ideologies, leaving countries, all due to political and communal violence. Among works of fiction, there was Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing – which captures a heartbreaking story spanning generations across China’s turbulent history, exploring the complicity of its citizens in their own turmoil. There was also a new English translation of The Saga of Satisar by Chandrakanta, which begins with ominous warnings brought forth by an overcast sky to the city of Srinagar, and delves into the years that changed Kashmir violently.

There was Perumal Murugan’s Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile. And there was Ocean Vuong’s poem Aubade With Burning City, which plunges into the violence of a personal and political history of Vietnam.

Poets without fear

All these provide a backdrop of sorts to this newly translated collection of Tibetan poetry written by Tibetan poets living in Tibet and translated by Sonam in Dharamsala. I also went through Sonam’s previous book, Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film and Politics, which accumulates the thoughts, ideas and works of Tibetans within the pages of a single book. Recently, TibetWrites and its imprint Blackneck Books have published a wide range of books on Tibet.

Translation, it seems, is a new way in which Tibetans are now engaging with their literature and homeland. The purpose of this engagement with translation is not to simply refurbish Tibetan ideas of freedom, written bravely despite the possibility of being arrested and incarcerated by the Chinese government, but also to let these ideas seep into a different language. Tibetans like Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue, and Tsewang Yishey Pemba have been writing in English, but to translate the brave poems written by Tibetan poets who are still in Tibet is an important achievement.

If fiction is a creative reconstruction of memory, so too is translation in this case. Sonam not only translates the poems but also expands on them with extensive notes. With no conversation possible between the poet and the translator, given the dangerous nature of such attempted communication, Sonam takes it upon himself to breathe new life into the text in a new language. The notes come across as ecological, geographical and historical. Set within the context of the political landscape involving China, Tibet and India, they cannot but acquire a sharp political tone.

“One day, a tongue of flame may shoot up from the crown of Iron Hill
the flame may hear the laments of your chained sunrays,
It may taste the sour air coming and going across the stone bridge,
furthermore, it may feel the hunger of birds and fishes of Yarlung Tsangpo”

The geographical footnote to Lhasa Diary by Chen Metak aka Sonam Tenpa mentions the river Yarlung Tsangpo, which works as a metaphor for the relationship between India, Tibet and China. China is believed to have built a dam over the river, which impacts life in Tibet as well as India, since the same river is known as the Brahmaputra when it reaches India. A mere invocation of its name introduces its profoundly political-ecological importance.

The age of action

Poet Tenzin Tsundue says that the Tibetan poetry can be divided into two distinct periods: before and after the self-immolations of 2011, respectively. It reminded me of the lines on the poster of Abhishek Majumdar’s play on Tibet titled Pah-la:

“I just lit up. I did not burn.
And everyone else is becoming
this light, in these times of darkness.”

Tibetans can no longer write without recalling someone who sacrificed their life through the act of self-immolation or was jailed, or disappeared. Poet Theurang in his poem, Raise the Warrior’s Sword asks Tibetans:

“Isn’t it time
to exercise your fundamental rights
to assert control over your own life
your consciousness
your courage
your wisdom?”

The book contains poems written by a third generation of Tibetans under Chinese occupation. Their poems encourage Tibetans to forego the ideas of religious practice as the primary mode of their self-assertion. Instead, they ask them to rely on action and be involved in the struggle. Writers and poets in Tibet are doing their bit by writing and going to jail for it.

Writing in Tibet, specifically in the Tibetan language, is a political act which Theurang aka Tashi Rabten is quite familiar with. He spent four years in jail for writing and self-publishing 1,000 copies of his book, Written in Blood. By asking Tibetans to raise their swords in his poem, Theurang is demanding that they turn each and every act of their everyday life into an assertion for freedom. The poems shed the old skinned literary motifs of tradition and religion to run towards a different language, through translation, with a fierce intensity. They usher Tibet towards the age of action.

Memory and hope

Sonam tackles the monumental task of translating several poets in one anthology with flair, moving from psyche to psyche. The poems which are written in free verse boldly indicate the shift from traditional Tibetan poetry. Since the Tibetan language and literature have been continuously attacked and suppressed, writing in that language has also become a form of expressing angst. A sense of duality exists in this poetry – the finality of the word and the yearning for what the word might bring. Will it bring imprisonment or will it bring hope? For Tibetan poets, it brings both.

Their words bring them imprisonment first, and hope when their words travel to other countries, in other languages through books like this one, free from the clutches of occupation. For the translator as well, it has been a journey of living in duality with these poems: as an insider as well an outsider. To translate a landscape from which he is exiled, Sonam is forced to imagine a landscape of fear and subjugation while living as a “free man” in Dharamsala, away from the same worries that might have plagued the poet while writing any of these poems.

This act of writing poems and translating them is an act of remembrance, an act of holding on to one’s narrative, to one’s part of history. Books like this are important because they allow us to peel open a new layer of self-assertion in the current political climate, where Tibetans once again gathered in front of the Chinese consulate in New York to sing the Tibetan national anthem on February 13, The Tibetan Day of Independence. Books like this one remind us why books are written at all. Sonam said after a reading of these poems, “If we lose our narrative just as we lost our country then we end up nowhere.” But most importantly, these books are written and must be read because, in Sonam’s words, “I do not want to be forgotten.”

Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry From Tibet, translated by Bhuchung D Sonam, Blackneck Books.