Hawley maps a different terrainElizabeth Hawley, the 91-year-old American journalist and creator of the Himalayan Database, is sitting on her wheelchair,
The 2,400 page piece of work is a month-to-month chronicling of 19 years of Nepali history spanning 1988 to 2007. “Nobody else has the information you can find in it. If you read it, it’s like having a master in Nepali history,” says writer and artist Mikel Dunham, who, along with New Zealand Consul Lisa Choegyal, brought the whole project to life. “Someone could cover a few years’ time, or pick a little section, a significant event to talk about. This has breadth. It is like Elizabeth saying: if you really want to know about Nepal, here you go. How much do you really want to know?”
Writing a book on Nepal’s political landscape and history was never Hawley’s aim. Her detailed account in the Nepal Scene is nothing more than her monthly report to her boss, Nepal’s tourism pioneer AV Jim Edwards, as part of her job working for him at Tiger Tops and Mountain Travel Nepal. Edwards was, at the time, often travelling around the country and abroad and Hawley’s accurate and timely political summaries would keep him regularly up to date. “Jim valued them greatly, and shared them only occasionally with select friends such as the British, American or New Zealand ambassadors,” says Lisa Choegyal.
But one day, over two years ago, Dunham bumped into those precious dusty files, which lay forgotten among the thousands of other folders, books and documents on a shelf in a passageway in Hawley’s home.
“I was at her residence filming an interview when we started to chat about Nepal and my passion for its political history. It was then that Miss Hawley mentioned that she had kept monthly chronicles of Nepal’s political situation for many years. I was a little shocked. I’d never heard about her chronicles and couldn’t believe that in all my reading and research I had never come across her book,” says Dunham.
Hawley informed him that there was, in fact, no book, but that the manuscript was still lying on her shelves.
Dunham took down the first binder he found, labelled ‘2001’, and started to read her report on the royal massacre on June 1 of that year. “What was exciting about her entry was that it was written in real time, or almost real time…at any rate, written within days or, at most, weeks after the massacre took place.”
Dunham knew from the outset that he wanted to be the one to get the chronicles to the outside world. Since he was based in Los Angeles, he needed a partner in Nepal; he called up Lisa Choegyal, who had a long-term working relationship and friendship with Hawley. Choegyal immediately signed up for the project.
“We kept it very authentic and changed very few things. Mikel is a specialist on Nepali history and politics, so he did the political side of it and I did the main text. The volume was very daunting. We embarked on this with no idea of how it would turn out,” says Choegyal.
The book is not divided into chapters but is instead made up of a month-by-month succession of facts, as Hawley witnessed them unfolding. “In bold letters there is the year, say, 1988, then the text for January of that year begins. We tried to recreate in design the thrill that I was having going to the next month,” says Dunham.
Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit was asked to write the foreword of the book. He knows Hawley since the time he was her intern at the Reuters news agency in the early 1980s. “As these pages show, Liz had a clinical attention to facts and detail—to the point that some might find it overwhelming and dull. But the value of her painstaking work over the decades is now evident. This is going to be a reference tool for this period for journalists, diplomats, academics and researchers into the future.”
Despite the book’s daunting volume and extremely descriptive writing, its first yearly and then monthly segmentation makes it easy for the reader to explore its full scope of information and follow the chronological developments. Its thorough index and glossary, respectively 19 and 11 pages long, allow the less experienced users to navigate through the facts with full awareness of what is happening and who is involved.
“Elizabeth Hawley’s detailed account of Nepal’s long years of struggle allows the reader to revisit and relive an entire nation’s quest for change,” says Nepal’s former foreign minister Bhekh Bahadur Thapa.
The manuscript’s tone is not that of an essay, nor is it a political tract: Hawley’s works is a solid documentation of facts with no bias nor analysis of any kind.
The readers, according to their expertise and motivation, can become the critical eye, as probably Edwards did during those 19 years, and make use of this ‘raw’ and unvarnished material for future research, investigation, or simply personal interest.
The ambitious project took two years to complete and it was crowdfunded through the world’s largest funding platform, Kickstarter. Within the first 10 days of the campaign, Hawley’s chronicles exceeded the funding goal of $9,000, set to cover only the printing costs, securing an extra $3,000.
Her proviso, when she agreed to the publishing of the manuscript, was that any proceeds should be donated to the Himalayan Database and the Himalayan Trust, a unique detailed account created by her of all the expeditions to more than 300 significant Nepali peaks from 1950 until today.
The Himalayan Database is the go-to information site for mountaineers and others interested in Himalayan expeditions of the past. The Nepal Scene could very well become the information resource for those seeking information, in similar granular detail, on Nepal’s political events between 1998 to 2007.