Lowell Cook reviews Old Demons, New Deities
The world of Tibetan literature just got a little bigger. A collection of twenty-one contemporary Tibetan short stories edited by Tenzin Dickie, wonderfully titled Old Demons, New Deities, was published by OR Books in December. The collection brings together some of the best fiction from the Tibetan world, featuring authors from both inside and outside Tibet. For many readers, Tibet means “Free Tibet” bumper stickers and Shangrila fantasies, but these stories evoke a different vision. They offer us windows into the lived experiences of ordinary Tibetans today, capturing the joys and sorrows of modern Tibet as it grapples with both the old demons of tradition and the new deities of modernity.
Tibetan literature is a national literature that lacks a nation. You may wonder: what it is about these stories that makes them Tibetan, beyond the simple fact of the authors’ ethnicity? The writers in this collection come from a range of different backgrounds. Some are natives to Tibet; some are refugees in India and Nepal; and others live out their exile in Western countries. The stories are all originally composed in either Tibetan, English or Chinese, and their subject matter is just as diverse, from the story of a nomadic family forcibly relocated to “Happy Resettlement Village,” to that of a young nun turned prostitute who finds out she has AIDS. For me, there are certain themes in Tibetan literature that define it, and keep me coming back for more. Four main flavors might be described as politics, tradition, the surreal, and exile abroad.
The modern Tibetan experience has been shaped, perhaps more than anything, by its inclusion into the People’s Republic of China. Naturally, the tensions between occupation on one side of the Himalayas and exile on the other have become a prevalent subject for contemporary Tibetan literature. Pema Bhum’s story ‘Wink’ takes place right at the end of the Cultural Revolution. In this semi-comical, semi-absurd piece, a man and his wife try to seek medical treatment for their feverish baby despite being blacklisted for political crimes. After arriving in the county town for treatment, the baby’s cries are mistaken as uncontrived mourning for the death of Mao Zedong. In a surreal twist, they are politically rehabilitated and welcomed as revolutionary heroes.
Politics is also a central focus for the Beijing-based blogger and activist Woeser, who is the only author in the collection to write in Chinese. Her short story ‘Nyima Tsering’s Tears’ sympathises with a “tour-guide-lama” named Nyima Tsering, who resembles a political puppet more than a monk. One day, Nyima Tsering is ordered to attend a convention in Norway where he will be a prop for the Chinese government to speak about how wonderful the situation inside Tibet is. But between ridicule from crowds of protesters and pressures from Big Brother, we see a humanity reflected in his tears that transcends the two camps of the Tibet debate.
With their abrupt, late entrance onto the modern stage, Tibetans often find themselves straddling an abyss between modern concerns and traditional values. ‘The New Road Controversy,’ a story by Takbum Gyal, depicts such tensions when a new road is planned to be constructed in the village of Nagshar. The local villagers cannot understand why they are not allowed to live as their ancestors did, assembling a hodgepodge militia to repel the construction crews with slingshots and stones. This, predictably, fails to prevent the construction of the road. The story ends with the dead-pan statement that “the people of the village are elated with happiness” – leaving the reader to make up their mind if that really is the case.
Magical realism has exerted a substantial influence on contemporary writing inside Tibet, particularly in the 90s, since it allowed authors to discuss sensitive issues through the veil of dreams and illusions. We can see this influence of the surreal in ‘The Dream of a Wandering Minstrel’ by Pema Tseden, who is known as much for his movies as his fiction. The story alternates between the reality of a young wandering bard, Tsering, and his dream world as recorded in a greasy dream journal. The reader travels with Tsering as he searches for his dream love across thirteen subsections of text, in an example of the kind of meta-story that Pema Tseden is famous for. Similarly, Kyabchen Deydrol’s story ‘The Agate and the Singer’ features a trippy dream world in which a mysterious female singer caputres the hearts of men all over Tibet, driving some to madness. A college student called Dorje is driven out of school by dreams of her, and one night dreams that his family’s heirloom agate releases her from her “suffering.” The next morning, he wakes to the news that the singer has died. The reader is left unsure whether she, or anything else for that matter, truly existed.
Other stories evoke how Tibet is not bound by a single language or region, and also exists abroad in exile. In Pema Bhum’s story ‘Tips,’ three Tibetan friends who have resettled in the United States reflect on their lives and on Tibetan issues over a smoke one sunny afternoon:
“We lost our country to the Chinese. Even here, even in America, we work our asses off for the Chinese. And the wages that we get for that, we spend on Chinese ass. We just can’t get away from the Chinese, can we?”
Some Tibetans do manage to get away, it would seem. ‘In the Season of Retreats,’ by Tsering Namgyal Khortsa, tells of a young Tibetan in America who heads to a retreat center in the Catskills mountains in southeast New York state to finish writing his novella. There he receives spicy Bhutanese dishes from a monk, as well as bits of wisdom, such as the difficulty of finding normal people in the West: “‘Relationships and mobile phones,’ the monks said, ‘combine these two and they make people completely crazy.’” India has historically been a major influence on classical Tibetan literature, but it continues to influence contemporary Tibetan literature as well. ‘Under the Shadow’ and ‘The Connection’ by Bhuchung D. Sonam, a poet and literary critic based in Dharamsala, transport us into the lives of Tibetans in India. Here, you can feel the drop from the Tibetan plateau down onto the Indian subcontinent as Tibetan words such as chupa and tsampa slowly give way to Hindi words, like hari rama and chai.
In the end, these diverse stories are not meant to be bracketed into discreet categories. Instead they are intended to speak to us, which was Tenzin Dickie’s guiding inspiration in selecting them for this collection. Some defy categorization and are simply about being human, such as Tsering Dondrup’s tale ‘Ralo,’ in which a snotty-nosed yet somehow charming man just can’t seem to make life work. His compulsive laziness leads him to fail in school, to fail in several marriages, to break his vows as a monk, and finally to find his true love only for her to be jailed for bigamy.
Combining the politics of China, the flashing lights of modernity, the pressures of tradition and the joys and sorrows of exile, there are countless old demons and new deities in the mandala of Tibetan literature. This book is the first of its kind, and presents a little-known literature that few readers in the West have been able to access. With the well-crafted translations of this collection, Tibetan literature takes a step forward onto the global stage to tell its story of the horrors of the modern world as well as the simple joys of life. These stories share particulars of the Tibetan experience, while at the same time speaking to the universal humanity inside all of us. ∎