In Tibet, the few people old enough to remember the arrival of the Chinese in the 1950s use the word dhulok for the period – when time collapsed. I stumble upon the word deep in Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s quietly moving memoir, A Home in Tibet, an account of her life in exile and her journeys to Tibet. Dhulok. The word stays with me, a cipher for the year of the pandemic when time collapsed around us.
Dhompa, a leading Tibetan poet and academic, explains how Tibetan writers are on familiar terrain even in the middle of this pandemic. “In many ways, the pandemic has revealed every day aspects of my life that I’d come to see as just my life. This period – of waiting, of uncertainty, of not knowing what the future holds, of not knowing if and when I will see loved ones in Tibet again, of restrictions on mobility, of virtual relations– – is hard for some people, but is familiar to me.”
The sentiment is echoed across the Tibetan literary community. Tibetan writers are scattered across countries and languages, dispersed by their recent history of occupation and exile. Those who remained in the country write in Tibetan or Chinese. In exile, many younger writers now work in English. However, they all share the same “political and cultural concerns, mainly because of their shared trauma of occupation and displacement” in the words of Shelly Bhoil, a poet and independent scholar. Bhoil added that this sense of community that cuts across the Himalayan divide is striking, given the extensive state control over communication.
While we were struggling with the new reality of social distancing, Tibetan writers had already developed strategies to deal with such distances – physical, social, emotional. They have relied primarily on online interactions and relationships over the last decade or more. They have kept memories and relationships alive across borders and internet firewalls.
Isolated in our homes, we forget that for many, this is a regular lived experience. Tenzin Tsundue’s collection Kora recreates the isolation of the refugee:
I sit on my island-nation bed— From ‘When it Rains in Dharamshala’.
and watch my country in flood,
notes on freedom,
memoirs of my prison days,
letters from college friends,
crumbs of bread
and Maggi noodles
rise sprightly to the surface
like a sudden recovery
of a forgotten memory.
We find a man stranded on his “island-nation bed”, stranded even at home. Like so many of us, dislocated and temporarily imprisoned as we grit our teeth through successive lockdowns, our homes a prison, the roads and markets and malls outside a breathing hazard.
Tsundue is a leading activist and poet, leading numerous national and global debates on Tibetan issues. Committed to his activism, he lives a threadbare life. His primary source of income is the poetry collection that he carries with him to all lecture venues. I am reminded of a rebel-minstrel, inspired by a message that he carries to distant lands.
The community reads
Kora was published by TibetWrites, an independent Tibetan poetry press based in Dharamshala. TibetWrites started as a website in 2006 before moving into traditional publishing. Its founder Bhuchung Sonam confessed that initially he had no idea about the world of publishing. Examining Penguin and HarperCollins catalogues, he noticed “something called the ISBN”. He registered with the ISBN office in New Delhi and received ten ISBN numbers that were quickly exhausted. More than a decade later, TibetWrites remains a small, not-for-profit publisher with no permanent staff. Logistics and marketing are a constant challenge.
But the outfit, under its imprint Blackneck Books, has still managed to publish some of the most exciting writers emerging from Tibet in recent years. Burning the Sun’s Braids (2017) featured thirteen contemporary poets, their works translated by Sonam himself. Many of the poets faced time in prison for their views or had their books confiscated. Theurang, who spent four years in prison, writes:
Food at the D restaurant tasted burned— From ‘Today, I Wish to Offer Three Prostrations towards Lhasa’.
Exactly like the smouldering of my flesh and bones
The smile of the waiter resembled an approaching red cliff
From which some guests are tumbling down
The imagery is not lost on anyone familiar with the recent history of self-immolation as a form of protest across the region. These are not merely poems, but witness accounts from a world that is beyond our reach or comprehension. Sonam told me he has relied on online channels – including messaging services – to reach authors inside Tibet.
However, in the trade and geo-political contestations that followed the pandemic, a number of Chinese apps such as WeChat were banned in India. Ironically, Sonam says, this could make it more difficult for him to reach his writers. Many editors or writers who wish to contact friends inside Tibet now pass messages through a third country.
Sonam told me Blackneck Books relies hugely on readings, with sales at such events contributing up to 25% of total revenue. These readings are organised with the support of friends across India and abroad. Despite limited resources, Blackneck Books has seen some success. Kora has sold around 30,000 copies, a dizzy achievement for any work of poetry in the subcontinent.
Sonam’s four collections have all gone into reprints, selling a few thousand copies. What explains these high sales in the absence of marketing campaigns or distribution networks? “The community reads. And it is a close-knit community.” With the pandemic, however, these readings have come to a halt and sales have collapsed. Their focus so far had been on reaching out to a wide network of readers through libraries and educational institutions. But now Sonam is planning to shift to online sales of both physical copies and e-books.
Translating for a cause
Books and writing have fundamentally shaped Tibet for centuries. By the dim light of butter lamps, Tibetan monks have translated and compiled voluminous Buddhist texts for over a millennium. While most Tibetan literature centred on the religious and esoteric, there were notable exceptions such as the verses written by the Sixth Dalai Lama in the late 16th century.
White crane, lend me your wings
I won’t fly far
Just to Lithang and back.
These lines, a departure from the religious tone of most Tibetan writing, set the norm for much of what followed in Tibetan literature (including three centuries later, Sonam’s poetry). In the mid-1970s, with Tibet in the throes of political turmoil, followed by the Cultural Revolution, writers and artistes were effectively debarred from public life. With Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, secular educated Tibetans started experimenting with literary forms in the early 1980s (though only “safe” themes were allowed). Some young writers drew inspiration from folk songs or classical verses, others from modern trends in Chinese literature.
Those in exile could speak to readers in their host countries, influenced by the literary cultures that now surrounded them. In exile, writing – both spiritual and secular – have kept the Tibetan identity alive. Shelly, whose research focuses on the many ways Tibetans are reimagining their cultural identities, adds that this is the case inside Tibet as well, where “banned writings or works that circulate underground are replete with references to the Dalai Lama or the history of Tibetan kings”.
Many of the Tibetan writers I know play different roles: writer, translator, editor, activist. Dechen Pemba started the website High Peaks Pure Earth. The site includes book reviews, translations and reading lists that feature the best contemporary writing on and from Tibet. Over the years, I have encountered the exceptional works of an earlier generation of writers, such as the historian Tsering Shakya or the writer and political essayist Jamyang Norbu. More recently, I have discovered new compilations of Tibetan writers such as Old Demons, New Deities, edited by Tenzin Dickie.
But during the pandemic, Pemba realised that translators could help public health messages reach the most vulnerable. Often, messages from state health authorities in national or dominant languages don’t reach the most vulnerable. Those at the greatest risk during public health crises are often not familiar with the languages in which instructions are issued (for instance, elderly Tibetan refugees, who may not easily understand Chinese / Hindi / English advisories).
Tibetan writers and translators, who usually work in the literary sphere, worked in recent months to get basic health information to people “in a language they can understand (and that) helps to keep them safe”. Pemba’s site started promoting simple graphics and videos with public health messages, translated into Tibetan. Here was the literary translator morphing into a public health worker. Pemba believes the pandemic inspired a “shared sense of concern for each other and a shared sense of community and responsibility amongst Tibetans”.
Reimagining the role of the writer
I often wonder whether my writing is a selfishly personal pursuit or a public commitment. I still haven’t decided. Most writers are in conversation with the world around them. But Tibetan writers are actively committed to the political and cultural survival of their nation and to its surrounding politics. “As a Tibetan writer, I cannot escape politics. My life is a political issue,” said Sonam.
But he added a cautionary note: “Do not become just an extension of politics, but develop an intimate personal reaction to the political question. You cannot become a political catch-phrase.” As we writers reimagine our roles during this pandemic, I find this clarity enlightening, even for my own writing.
Tibetans have to speak not only to the present moment, but also to a history that was abducted, a place that is always beyond reach, and a time that collapsed in 1959. In the post-pandemic world that awaits us, we too might have to converse with a world that no longer exists as we know it.
Dhompa said the pandemic has made her think about her mother in her early years as a refugee in India. “How difficult it must have been for her and for Tibetans new to life as refugees, dispossessed and weary at heart. Not knowing. The precarity of everything in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar experiences.”
The mild terror of never knowing the future marks most of the Tibetan writer, essayist and poet Woeser’s writing. She writes in Chinese and has been fiercely critical of the state’s policies. Following the publication of her collection of essays, Notes on Tibet in 2003, she was accused of “exaggerating and beautifying the positive function of religion in social life” and forced to undergo re-education to correct her “deviationist” writing. She is no longer allowed to write about the Dalai Lama (in an oblique protest, she slips in a line or two about how she will not write about the Dalai Lama), but refuses to criticise him.
Like Dhompa’s mother, Woeser is also intimately familiar with the experiences the pandemic has introduced into our lives. They are old inhabitants of this new world. More than half of humanity experienced their first lockdown this year, accompanied by an unprecedented expansion of state powers and suspension of rights and movement.
Many of these executive measures are justified from a public health perspective, but states also have a readymade excuse (pandemic! plague!) for creeping authoritarianism. It is easy to forget that these are everyday conditions for many across the world. Woeser has already gone through many stints of house arrest, as have so many of the poets and writers I discover across the community.
In April 2020, Woeser published Epidemic Three Line Poems (translated by Ian Boyden). One can sense a familiarity with the pandemic in her lines, as if she is talking of an adversary she has known for long.
No place exists that will not fall to the enemy
No epidemic exists that is not terrifying
No, there is a plague far worse than this one.
The author of two novels, Kaushik Barua won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his first novel Windhorse, set in the Tibetan resistance movement. He is currently working on a political satire and a non-fiction work on the adaptations of the Ramayana across South East Asia.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.