The book that will be your first introduction to the world of Tibetan storytelling and storytellersOld Demons New Deities presents well-rounded narratives of the Tibetan people that go beyond the binary depiction of them as either a religious, peaceful community or slogan chanting freedom fighters.
In the introduction to Old Demons New Deities, the first English-language anthology of short stories by Tibetan writers, the book’s editor, Tenzin Dickie, writes about how Tibetans, both living in exile and in Tibet, have grown up as “literary orphans,” a term she borrows from American-Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat.
“As a function of growing up in Tibet-in-India, a young society, we were cut off from our historical past, from our historical literature and culture,” Dickie writes. “Of course, for Tibetans growing up on the other side of the mountains, this break from history was imposed by the Chinese state. This separation from our literacy past was compounded by the fact that modern Tibetan literature was still in its infancy. Thus, on both sides of the Himalayas, we grew up orphaned from our literature.”
Growing up, as a person with a hyphenated identity, I, too, struggled with finding literature and literary heroes whose work and experiences mirrored my own. Although Tibetan literature has a rich history, much of it is religious. The tradition of fiction writing began much later, and Tibetans writing in English, even more so. For a person like me, whose comprehension of written Tibetan (which is still very formal) is elementary at best, there has only been so much Tibetan fiction to devour.
Old Demons New Deities, which was launched in North America in the winter of 2017, is thus a landmark in the history of contemporary Tibetan fiction. As the book gets ready for its South Asia launch, I re-read it this past week, and realised my feelings toward it haven’t changed much. The stories that stayed with me after I read it for the first time nearly two years ago are still the ones I liked the most after my second reading.
Because much of contemporary Tibetan literature has been written after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, politics, communism, freedom, and identity have always featured heavily in both fiction and non-fiction. Nearly half of the 21 stories in the collection deal with these themes —in varying degrees— including the opening story, ‘Wink’ by Pema Bhum.
Set in the fictional county of Ogya in Tibet in the late 1970s, the story centres around a couple, who plan an escape from their village because they worry they are going to be sent to a re-education camp due to an accidental transgression. Bhum, who lived in Tibet until 1988, and has written two memoirs on the Cultural Revolution, uses his deep insight on life in occupied Tibet, and deftly interlaces elements of humour and suspense to weave a deeply engrossing tale about life under the Communist regime.
Beside the aforementioned, two other favourites are “Tears” by the Beijing-based writer Woeser, perhaps the most well-known of the lot, and ‘Letter for Love’ by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, who authored “A Home in Tibet”, a moving memoir of her trips to the homeland after her mother’s passing. (You must read this book if you haven’t already.)
While ‘Tears’ is a poignant tale about a Tibetan man conflicted between his duty as a Chinese government official and his desire to freely embrace his ethnic identity, ‘Letter for Love’ is about a mother-daughter duo living in a refugee settlement in Nepal who team up to assist a widowed neighbour find a suitor.
The two stories couldn’t be more different, but they spoke to me in equal measure because they successfully evoked an emotional response. I sighed reading ‘Tears’, feeling for the character as he dwells upon the question thousands of Tibetans living in Tibet ask themselves regularly: Should I stay or flee?
Woeser, who has been placed under house arrest multiple times by Chinese authorities and whose books are banned in mainland China, sums up the character’s dilemma with a searing line. “How can I not return? Our home is there. If we all leave, to whom will Tibet be left?” retorts the main character when a woman asks him to stay back in Europe after an official trip.
‘Letter for Love’ which was originally published in The Caravan in 2010 is a beautifully written story about a young Tibetan girl living in Nepal, who, as a consequence of being one of the few literate ones in the community, is regularly asked to pen letters by her neighbours—an experience I am all too familiar with. When a neighbour comes home with a request to help write a letter to an American man, with whom she had a brief interaction, her mother, who particularly enjoys the process and takes pride in her daughter’s ability, begins scheming.
While essentially a story about a mother-daughter helping their neighbour write love letters, it beautifully tackles concepts of love, longing, and desire. Dhompa has a knack for writing about the most mundane moments, and packed with cultural peculiarities (not Chinese-Chinese, but Chinese from Taiwan, remarks one character to another), her story presents a portrait of the Tibetan refugee community, perhaps more insightful than any research article. That she is deft with her prose only makes the story more enjoyable.
Here’s an example: “Karma imagined her mother studying her face carefully in the mirror the afternoon Pema had flown away. Perhaps for the first time she had looked at the slight swelling under her lower eyelids, at the three lines on her forehead, and had looked into them for signs of options other than the life she lived.”
‘Ralo’, ‘The Connection’ and ‘The Valley of Black Foxes’ are other stories that I enjoyed reading.
As is inevitable with any collection, some works shine brighter than others. And not all of them leave an impression. As much as I’ve admired Jamyang Norbu’s intrepid essays on Tibetan politics, his fiction is less impressive.
Norbu pens two of the stories in the collection: ‘The Silence’ and ‘Hunter’s Moon’, the latter being the superior of the two. In ‘The Silence’, a story about a mute fiddler’s journey to find love, Norbu writes in cliched prose: “And yet there was another side of his life that was not as sweet and beautiful as his music. He lived his life in silence because he could not speak.” I had similar feelings reading Tenzin Dorjee’s ‘The Fifth Man’.
For many Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike, this book will be their first introduction to the world of Tibetan storytelling and storytellers. While not all the stories hit their mark or can even be characterised as quality writing, they present well-rounded narratives of the Tibetan people that go beyond the binary depiction of them as either a religious, peaceful community or slogan chanting freedom fighters that we often see in popular culture.
Old Demons New Deities will be launched in Nepal at the end of the month.
Old Demons New Deities
Editor: Tenzin Dickie
Publisher: OR Books