Cover image: © Urgyen Dolma for the Rubin Museum
Bottom Line: In a traditional patriarchal society, today’s Tibetan female writers are giving a new voice to a community in exile. Their defiance of both cultural norms and the occupation of their ancestral homeland is done with wit and nostalgia. Authors Tsering Lama, Sonam Tsomo and Tenzin Dickie. sat down with Robbie Barnett for this month’s Himalayan Heritage Meet Up at the Rubin Museum.
Review: “I have no home. I’ve been away for too long,” Tsering Lama quietly read a passage from one of her works. We listened intently as she took us through her childhood in India and parents’ stories of Tibet.
Since the invasion of 1959, Tibetan communities had struggled to keep their heritage intact. From the systematic eradication of their culture in the occupied plateau to the Tibetan diaspora spread across the globe, it has been a major challenge to preserve what remains. Recently, however, a rising group of talented Tibetan writers are attracting an international audience. Authors such as: Ann Tashi Slater and Tsering Dhompa, both of whom have spoken at previous Himalayan Heritage Meet Up events, present a new kind of feminism. Worldly, professional, multilingual and independent, these Tibetan writers have managed to preserve their family stories while cleverly putting their own individual stamp. Similarly to Ms. Dhompa’s moving book, Coming Home to Tibet, Sonam Tsomo writing features a very personal, nostalgic imagery that transports the reader to a different time. This storytelling extends beyond the Tibetan community, invoking themes “dislocation” to which “everyone can relate,” according to Tenzin Dickie.
Seated in the heart of the Rubin’s Monumental Lhasa exhibit, the location for this month’s Himalayan Heritage Meet Up could not have been more fitting. Exquisite maps and images of Lhasa both long ago and today surrounded us as we listened to the authors’ readings. Curator Natasha Kimmet, inspired by an antique map of Lhasa in the museum’s permanent collection, began putting together other images and artifacts for this exhibit. “When you visit Tibet and the Himalayas, you encounter fortresses, palaces, temples, and residential buildings that form a distinctive part of the physical and visual landscape. These buildings also tell us a great deal about the region’s history and culture, yet they have never been the focus of a major museum exhibition.”
The sheer brilliance of seeing Tibet from afar with quirky addition of View-Master cameras set up around the spiral staircase, complimented the stories we heard of memory and nostalgia.
All three writers share a common desire to return to Tibet, although none were born there. “Vagabonds, not by choice” and living in refugee communities in India, they often felt apart. They inherited both their families’ physical traits and their longing to return to a homeland, occupied by the Beijing government. Similarly to many communities, both immigrant or refugee, the definition of “home” changes. From Tibet, Nepal, India to the United States, many Tibetan children in exile grow up with a certain inbetweeness. “There is this double obsession with home.” Tenzin told moderator Robbie Barnett. Though none of them have been able to travel to Tibet, Tsering, nearly made it during an attempt to retrace her family’s trek across the Himalayas. She almost made it, briefly seeing a wire fence and a distant blue dot, which turned out to be a garrison of about 1000 Chinese soldiers!
It would be a mistake to assume that these writers lived in misery, growing up outside of Tibet. On the contrary, thanks to their parents’ perilous journeys, these women grew up free. They, for the most part, received an English education and see themselves as independent. In spite of their success as individuals, the collective memory of Tibet stemming from their families, still is a major part of their cultural identity.
As I listened to their stories, I thought of my own parents who, as small children, had fled their homeland. Like Sonam and Tenzin, I also had felt a strange inbetweeness growing up as a child. My father, however, rarely talked about his traumatic experience. Once I remembered seeing tears in his eyes as he talked one evening about a lost childhood and yearning to return to a house north in Punjab, where his family had had a small farm. I never asked him again about it, perhaps because I could see how emotional it must have been for him.
Following the event, I returned home and dug out a picture of my late father and my uncle smiling with some young Tibetans during a visit to a refugee community in Dharamsala, India. I remembered him talking about that trip and how he felt that Tibetans and Indians had “a lot in common.” Indeed, “Vagabonds not by choice” and “dislocation” are themes shared by many.
Don’t miss the upcoming Himalayan Heritage Meet Up on November 2nd.