Pema Bhum: Writer, Scholar, Publisher, Historian

Interview by Tenzin Dickie


Pema Bhum is one of the great Tibetan writers of our time. His two memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, Six Stars with a Crooked Neck and Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering, are among the most important examples of Tibetan scar literature, and two of the most important Tibetan books to be published in the last sixty years. Pema Bhum is also a significant scholar of Tibetan literature, known for his celebrated essay Heartbeat of a New Generation: A Discussion of the New Poetry, and a Tibetan historian of the Cultural Revolution.

As a founding director of Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala and founding director of Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultural Library in New York City, he has published newspapers and journals and spent a lifetime in service to Tibetan literature. He currently teaches Tibetan language and literature at Stanford and Northwestern universities. I conducted this interview over the phone in June 2022.


Pema Bhum. Courtesy of the Latse Library.


Tenzin Dickie: You are one of the most important Tibetan writers working today. But I think not everyone is familiar with your background. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Pema Bhum: I was born in Amdo Rebkong. I went to school during the Cultural Revolution, which meant that we didn’t study very much, because we were mostly carrying out revolutionary activities. I had only six years of primary and secondary schooling, and that was it. I didn’t graduate high school. Then I was sent to the nomad areas to work as a teacher and translator. After the Cultural Revolution ended, I finally had a chance to go to a real school and get a proper education, in 1979, at university. I studied for four years at Northwest Nationalities Institute in Lanzhou, and after graduating, then I taught there. While I was teaching, I got my Master’s degree there as well. After my arrival in India in 1988, I founded the first independent Tibetan language newspaper in exile, Mangtso, and the Tibetan literary magazine, Jangshon. From 1992-1996, I served as founding director of the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala, India。

In1994, through Taktser Rinpoche, I got a chance to study English at Indiana University. I also taught Tibetan at Indiana University. And afterward, Trace Foundation was started and Latse Library was established. I was there from its founding, working as Director of Latse Library, and I have been doing that work till recently. These days, I teach the Tibetan language and literature at Stanford and Northwestern. 


Tenzin Dickie: You were teaching Tibetan language and literature at Northwest Nationalities Institute in Lanzhou, Gansu Province. Why did you leave Tibet to come into exile? 

Pema Bhum: It is complicated. In the 1980s in China, even among the Chinese, there was an awakening, a hunger for democracy and freedom. And for us Tibetans at universities, for instance at Northwest in Lanzhou (and it wasn’t just us Tibetans, but also Mongolians and Uighurs), we were all asking ourselves, who were we as a people? There was this feeling that we had been living under oppression, that the Chinese were oppressing us. And the political situation wasn’t like now, we could actually show this feeling, express this feeling. And this wasn’t just taking place in universities, but in society at large. There was this sense that our culture and our customs were being oppressed, that we weren’t free. And then in 1987, there was an unprecedented mass uprising in Lhasa. I was teaching then at Northwest. Because I was one of the youngest teachers, I was close with the teachers and also with the students. Many of the more dedicated students used to gather at my apartment a lot, drinking and eating and discussing everything. And during that time, the Dalai Lama unveiled his Five Point Peace Plan in the United States. 

Following this, there were many anonymous letters and petitions in support of the Five Point Peace Plan and against the Chinese government. Because I was one of the youngest teachers and because I was close with the students, the authorities began to suspect that I had written these letters or that I was involved in them somehow. The security office wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept wanting to meet with me. Finally, I was able to convince them and prove to them that it wasn’t me, but now they wanted me to do a job for them, which I absolutely refused. One of their high-ranking officials from Beijing wanted to meet with me. Soon it became clear to me that either I had to cooperate or it was going to be difficult for me. And so I began to think about going into exile. And the following year I escaped and went into exile. 


Tenzin Dickie: When you came into exile in India, what was the state of Tibetan exile then? What were the challenges facing Tibetans in exile? 

Pema Bhum: The international situation for Tibet then was very good. The Soviet Union had broken up, and with what had just happened with Tiananmen Square in China, there was a lot of solidarity with Tibetans internationally. The Dalai Lama was beloved and world-renowned. For both Tibetans inside and outside, there was a lot of new hope. It was like that. 

But there was a lot of regional politics in Dharamsala, a lot of partisanship, and even though I didn’t have partisan feelings, it was very easy to get caught up in these partisan rivalries. You found yourself being dragged into partisan politics by other people. This was the situation back then. 


Tenzin Dickie: What are the challenges facing Tibetan exile now? 

Pema Bhum: There are three challenges that I see. The first is that we are in danger of losing the connection between Tibetans inside Tibet and outside Tibet. The generation that came after 1950 is almost all gone now, meaning Tibetans who have direct experience of Tibet are almost all gone. Then there are the Tibetans who came around 1989, like me. Comparatively, there are not that many of us. And these Tibetans are now in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. It’s these Tibetans who are keeping in touch directly in contact with Tibetans inside Tibet. After this generation is gone, the generation of people who are directly in contact with those inside Tibet will be finished. There may be a few Tibetans born and raised in exile who communicate directly with Tibetans inside Tibet, but I don’t know of one.

The second challenge is that in order to solve the Tibet issue, we can’t see any way other than just being angry at the Chinese. We don’t know what else to do. So for us, being angry at the Chinese is a virtue and not being angry at the Chinese is a fault. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has proposed the Middle Way and the Tibetan people have accepted the Middle Way because the Dalai Lama proposed it. But in their hearts, their anger has not gone away. We don’t think about whether this anger is helpful or not. Is this anger helpful to the Tibetan cause? Is there another way to solve our problem other than holding on to this anger? There’s been a lot of change in the international scene and a lot of change inside Tibet, but this exile Tibetan anger is still the same.

Third, if we look at literature, it’s a very small number of people who read Tibetan literature. Our exile population is not that large, and the number of people who read and write Tibetan is small indeed. The ones who read and write Tibetan are the ones who came from Tibet, and that’s a small number of people. Sometimes, a print run of five hundred won’t sell out even after ten years. Finally, most of us are writing on the side because writing doesn’t provide our livelihood, so that means that the writer cannot spend a long time on the work perfecting it.


Tenzin Dickie: What is the state of modern Tibetan literature today? What do you think are the differences between the Tibetan literature inside and outside? Is there a difference?

Pema Bhum: There are three points I want to make – 1) It’s hard to say exactly that this is what modern Tibetan literature is, but what we call modern Tibetan literature in Tibet today is something that comes out of the literature praising the Chinese Communist Party. But later on, far from praising the CCP, writers began distancing themselves from Chinese Communist ideology and started gravitating toward western ideas and influence. 2) In Tibet, there’s a significant amount of Tibetan language readers. The number of people reading Tibetan grew a lot after the peaceful protests of 2008. I have some writer friends in Tibet, and some of them have sold ten or twenty thousand copies of their books. Outside Tibet, it’s not like that. As I mentioned before, it’s hard to sell even five hundred copies. Of course we have a problem. These days, while more Tibetans can read and write in their language, a foreign language lives in your home. Our second language is our livelihood, it’s the background, it’s the environment. 3) In Tibet, there’s a nice ecosystem of writers and readers, researchers, and critics, commentators and journalists who will promote and discuss books. We don’t have that in exile. After the writer writes and publishes a book, that’s it. If a few people praise it online, that means the book’s doing really well. Most of the books just sink without a trace.


Tenzin Dickie: You are not only a writer of modern Tibetan literature; you are also a scholar of modern Tibetan literature. Do you see a difference between the modern Tibetan literature coming out from inside Tibet or outside Tibet? 

Pema Bhum: There are a few differences. The first difference is very clear. Writers inside Tibet don’t have freedom of expression. They can’t write anything that contradicts or goes against Communist ideology or official policy. Like I said earlier, I have a number of writer friends inside Tibet. Among them, I have friends who have been disappeared for a period of time because of something they wrote, or have been punished by having their freedom of movement restricted. I have one friend who is in prison right now. Outside, we don’t have a ban on anything. Any topic is allowed. In fact, the oppression and torture that Tibetans suffer under the Chinese is one of the main topics for writing in exile.

The second difference is that for writers inside Tibet, how they say something is more important than what they say. For example, because of influence from other literatures, we began to see free verse, magical realism, and stream of consciousness in Tibetan literature. Tibetan writers outside Tibet pay more attention to what they say rather than how they say it. There are writers in exile writing free verse but they didn’t innovate it, it came to them from inside Tibet. I haven’t paid much attention to Anglophone Tibetan literature, but I have friends who write in English with whom I have discussed literary issues. I have the feeling that they also pay more attention to what they say than how they say it.

Tibetan literature inside Tibet is inextricably tied to Chinese literature, influenced by Chinese literature. The highly popular and influential new poetry that we call free verse came to us from the Chinese. Actually, historically while we have had foreign influences on Tibetan literature, direct Chinese influence was quite rare.


Tenzin Dickie: So does that mean that western literature has a big influence on modern Tibetan literature? 

Pema Bhum: Yes, western literature has a great deal of influence on Tibetan literature. Especially in poetry and short stories. Let’s look at modern Tibetan poetry, and especially at what we call free verse. Now, in fact, we did have free verse natively in Tibet. I think I might write about this. 

The new free verse that we now know, beginning with the Waterfall of Youth by Dhondup Gyal, this was free verse that came to us from the west via the Chinese. Because we didn’t know that we had free verse in our own literature, we didn’t know it was there. 

To hear Dhondup Wangbum, a Sinophone writer who is also a great scholar, tell it, he and Dhondup Gyal composed the Waterfall of Youth together. They were at a New Year celebration, doing a poetry reading. When the Chinese read their poems, they were reading so dramatically, with such music and feeling and rhythm, and when the Tibetans read, it was so flat and unmusical. There was no feeling. So Dhondup Gyal and Dhondup Wangbum talked about the need for Tibetan to have this same musicality, this same dramatic reading of poetry. They tried out a little experiment right then and there, with Waterfall of Youth—and found that it worked! That is what Dhondup Wangbum told me. So from this anecdote, it’s clear that for Tibetans, free verse comes from the Chinese. And where did the Chinese get it from? From the west. They didn’t have free verse in their traditional poetry. 

Magical realism is another export from the west. Starting with Tashi Dawa who began using it, other writers began to use magical realism. They also used stream of consciousness—these are all influences from the west. 


Tenzin Dickie: Now that we are talking about influences, who were your personal influences? What texts influenced you? 

Pema Bhum: I have done some research into Tibetan literature. Beginning with the Mirror of Poetry, there were Tibetan texts dealing with literary criticism but not very many. I did have some training in modern Tibetan literature, but my teachers were all Chinese. 

As far as western influence is concerned, When I was in Tibet, I read quite a lot of western literature. I read a lot of Russian literature. I read Goethe. In fact, I read the Sorrows of Young Werther many times. I also read a lot of Goethe’s poems. I read Dante. I actually translated Dante’s Inferno into Tibetan, I still have that translation. I translated all of Dante’s Inferno, and about half of Purgatorio, but not Paradiso, because I didn’t fully understand the third part of the Divine Comedy. In Inferno, Dante goes down into hell. I still have that translation, I just need to revise it and it’s ready for publication.

And as for Chinese literature, I have read a very great deal indeed. Both classical and modern Chinese literature, and a great deal of revolutionary literature as well. I am not sure I can point to a very specific influence from any of these books. Except for one book, Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I translated into Tibetan. Night had a very strong influence on me. This book and its style inspired my writing of my memoir Six Stars with a Crooked Neck. The way the story unfolds in Night and the way one scene or incident connects to another really struck me. I think that the writing in Night directly influenced the writing of Six Stars with a Crooked Neck. I can’t tell you which other book directly influenced this or that piece of writing, but this book, that comes directly from Night. And then afterward I wrote Doringma (Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering), and that also was the same style of writing.


Tenzin Dickie: From your writings, what makes you most proud?

Pema Bhum:  If I had to choose, I would choose Six Stars with a Crooked Neck. I didn’t plan to write this book. I was going to write Doringma. When I came to India, because I published newspapers and journals, people kept asking me, how did you learn Tibetan like this? Because people in Tibet didn’t have an opportunity to learn Tibetan, because I grew up during the Cultural Revolution.  Before I came to India, I hadn’t really thought about this, I hadn’t asked myself this question. It was an important question. I shouldn’t have known Tibetan. But I did, and why was that? It had to do with Rebkong—Rebkong as the cultural center, a center of Tibetan language and culture, but it wasn’t just Rebkong. Of course, you need a teacher, and someone who knew how to work within the Chinese system as it was, within the parameters of the Chinese policy of the times. When I drilled down to it, it was Sir Dorje Tsering who was the reason why I knew my Tibetan, and so I began to write about him. But when I started out to write about him, I ended up writing about Mao’s The Little Red Book instead. And that book was a fountain of childhood memories… So Doringma got sidetracked and delayed. I felt both so happy and so sad as I was writing Six Stars, it was about a truly crazy time in history. The Cultural Revolution was a huge phenomenon, and it affected everything in everyone’s life. But when I was writing about it, I focused tightly on language and I was able to keep that focus. I think that’s special. That’s something I am happy about. Anyway, that is my favorite thing that I have written.



Tenzin Dickie is the interview and fiction editor of Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities.