Book review

A new and varied collection of short stories is a much-needed addition to Tibetan literature

With a mix of themes and voices, ‘Old Demons, New Deities’ challenges conventional depictions of Tibetans in English-language writing.

Modern Tibetan literature has been rather hard to find, with the exception of religious and spiritual writings, and some poetry, notably Woeser’s Tibet’s True Heart: Selected Poetry, the only book of modern Tibetan poetry I have come across. Woeser has a short story in this new collection, and was the only Tibetan writer represented that I actually knew by name.

Tenzin Dickie, with a story of her own included, has done a singular service in gathering together these twenty-one stories from Tibetan authors, the first collection of such writings that has been made available to the English-language reader. Quite a few of the writers are from the Tibetan diaspora, notably that in the United States, and a number of them have either been educated abroad or occupy teaching positions there now. Some of them actually write in English.

Tenzin Dickie and the other translators have given us elegant and accessible stories on a variety of themes by the most distinguished of modern Tibetan writers, and this collection will go a long way to encouraging further interest in Tibetan literature.

Given Tibet’s political history, it’s natural that many of the stories here deal with either the way people interact with the communist government and its party cadres or with matters concerning traditional Tibetan values, such as the belief in ghosts in Tenzin Dorjee’s “The Fifth Man”, as they are contrasted with modern times or with Chinese influence. Pema Bhum’s “Wink”, the very first story, is a delightfully snide satire on communist officialdom as it is combined with old-fashioned superstition, and ends with a surprise twist which I won’t spoil for the reader.

Officialdom also comes under fire in Bhuchung D Sonam’s “The Connection”, in which a Tibetan refugee is trying to get the right form to settle in India and is treated like a suspected terrorist collaborator by a rather dim-witted Indian police inspector who has information on people he met in Nepal. More than one story is set in Dharamshala, the border city in India where the exiled Dalai Lama now lives, and which has taken on the identity of a “little Tibet” because of the considerable number of Tibetans who have managed to get the correct permits.

There are serious stories, too: Woeser’s “Nyima Tsering’s Tears” features a monk who goes to Norway as part of a human rights delegation, but whose collaboration with the communists evidently troubles him. The climax comes when a woman in a park asks him, “What are you doing here? What are you doing with these Chinese? You are a Tibetan...” All he can say, sadly, is that if everyone leaves, who will be left? It’s a legitimate question.

Other stories simply deal with modern life and its problems. Tibetans are no longer quite “exotics”, even in the West.

They own cellphones, drive cars and ride motorcycles, and they fall in love like everyone else. Their emotional triumphs and tragedies, at least to some extent, can be shared by people of all nations, and one of the good things about this book is that it shows Tibetans as very much people of our times, not primitive or superstitious, not even, for the most part, profoundly spiritual, for that matter, although the old traditions and religion still have their place. Kyabchen Dedrol’s “Snow Pilgrimage” introduces us to a girl called Llhamo, who is actually a prostitute, travelling as a pilgrim on the road and sleeping rough, when she meets Yeshi Tsering, a young man who tells her he is “an AIDS prevention health worker”. They strike up an acquaintance and end up having sex, but it’s a different kind of sex for Llhamo (not even her real name), because it involves real feelings and makes her want to see him again, so they exchange phone numbers, but when she later contacts him tragedy has struck with horrible irony and her previous world catches up with her.

These stories dealing with contemporary life show us Tibetans as sometimes liminal people; tradition lies behind them, but they have not yet stepped completely across the threshold into modernity, although now, under Chinese rule, they are being pushed harder to make that final step. In many ways Tibet can be compared with Palestine; it’s an occupied territory whose identity is sometimes tenuous, its writers are for the most part defenders of its nationalism, and it has a considerable diaspora abroad, which in its own way strives to keep that identity alive.

Keeping the past in mind reminds Tibetans that they have a unique history, and while they are, like the rest of us, human beings, there is a Tibetan spirit that needs to be kept alive, which has just as much meaning as a Chinese or British spirit, and is the life-blood of that part of their identity.

Old Demons, New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet, edited by Tenzin Dickie, OR Books.

This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.

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