ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)

A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities


Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities is an open access, peer-reviewed annual journal that publishes academic articles, book reviews, and interviews related to Tibet, as well as poetry, prose, art, and fiction.


Bound-Up Scenery (1), 1987, 4 Photographs

Pema Tseden, The Master

Interview by Phurwa Tsering and Françoise Robin

(Translated from the French into English by Lamo Dorjee )

Pema Tseden is the leading Tibetan filmmaker. A director who has also published novels and short stories in Tibetan and English, he writes his own screenplays. Among his beautiful and provocative films are The Search, Old Dog, and Tharlo.

In February 2019, Pema Tseden presented his new film Jinpa at the International Asian Film Festival in Vesoul. The movie also launched at theaters in Paris. This interview was conducted in Amdo Tibetan, and edited and subtitled into French for the DVD of Jinpa released in France. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Phurwa Tsering: I’m going to start by asking you a brief background of your life; your early education, and then your film studies, your debut in film, etc. Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Pema Tseden: Well, it will be hard to be brief. I mean, it’s a long story. I was born in a small village in Amdo. After Tibetan language primary and middle school, I went to a Tibetan language high school. So I was educated in the Tibetan language from early childhood. Then I went to a teacher’s school in the prefectural capital. After graduation, I returned to my village to work as a teacher. That lasted four years. Then I passed the entrance examination of the Tibetan language section of the Northwest University of Nationalities. I got my university degree there and I was hired at Tsolho prefecture in the administration, for 4 years. Then I returned to the same university. I majored in Tibetan-Chinese translation. During my third year, I went to the Beijing Film Academy. This opportunity was given to me by the Trace Foundation which financed my studies. I loved cinema since I was a child. At the Beijing Film Academy, I studied directing and screenwriting for the first two years. Then, after graduation, I directed The Silent Holy Stones, my graduation film. Then I went back to school at the Academy. Back in the directing section, I studied directing. It lasted three years. Since then, I have been professionally involved in the film industry.

I am also a writer. I write short stories in two languages: Tibetan and Chinese. Since 2002, and my time studying at the Beijing Film Academy, I have been studying film. And I also write literature. I pursue both interests at the same time. I have directed six films in the Tibetan language so far. Jinpa is my sixth feature film in the Tibetan language. I am currently finishing the post-production of my seventh film. I continue to write many short stories. And I keep on working as a translator. That’s it in a nutshell.

Phurwa Tsering: You are fluent in Tibetan and Chinese. You have expertise in a range of fields. However, you have given up the other fields of expertise. You were a teacher and then a translator. Can you explain the reason why you gave up teaching and translating, and tell us how filmmaking is special for you. How did you get the idea to go to film school? What made you say “I’m going to be a director”? Where did that come from?

Pema Tseden: When you study Tibetan in the Tibetan areas, the choice of specialisation is very limited. I went to school and was educated in Tibetan including during primary school, secondary school, and university. The only specialisation available was the Tibetan language. There were no others. So, at university, it’s the same: my major was Tibetan, which only opens up to Tibetan. If you don’t study Tibetan, you can study any subject, like literature.  If you study literature, or Chinese, or other languages, it’s totally different. Afterward, there are a lot of opportunities. In Tibet, there is only one pathway with the Tibetan language. Once you’re there, you’re stuck in a few fields: astrology, poetry, grammar, and so on. That’s all you can study. And once you have graduated from Tibetan, your choice of professional career is extremely limited. For example, once I graduated, I had to work in literature or in translation. That’s about it. In my case, and in the case of many graduates like me, you could be an editor for a newspaper and work in publishing, or you could be a translator in the administration. Other fields were out of reach. So, when I was a kid, I loved cinema, but the passion alone did not provide any opportunity to study film. And there is the problem of geographical origin. I come from a tiny village in Qinghai. To go to Beijing, to Shanghai, to study film as a specialty in a professional way, was impossible. It was complicated to even think about it. But this passion for cinema has never left me throughout my life. As a child, I used to go to the movies in the village. In the capital of the prefecture, in the university town, the passion for cinema has never left me in my life. So first of all, there is my passion for cinema.

Moreover, when I was a child, there were many films about Tibet. I have seen many of these films. But these films about Tibet, while I was watching them, left me wanting more. And I am not the only one. Many of my friends feel the same way. These films were about Tibetan life, but the dialogue was in Chinese. Whether it was the clothes, the customs, the manners, every element, even the smallest, was inaccurate. Because of that, at the time, I thought that later on, if someone made films with even a little knowledge of the language of my people, the culture, the traditions of my people, it would be completely different. I remember thinking that I would like to make films later on. These two reasons led me from the Northwest University of Nationalities, in the second year of the “translation” major, to the Beijing Film Academy where I had an opportunity to go. In this institute specialising in film, I learned about cinema, made a short film, and gradually became a professional filmmaker. That’s how it happened.

Phurwa Tsering: In the Chinese environment, at the Beijing Film Academy, what were the greatest difficulties you faced? You were a Tibetan student. Arriving for the first time in a big city, studying there, in daily life, customs, etc. what was most challenging?

Pema Tseden: During my studies, I did not encounter any particular difficulties: the subjects, the language used by the teachers… It was in Chinese, but my level of Chinese was decent. Since university, I could write short stories in Tibetan and Chinese. So at the university, books on cinema or lectures in Chinese were not a problem for me. In these areas, I didn’t suffer too much. However, in terms of my passion, cinema—I was at the Beijing Film Academy. I had watched a lot of films as a child in the village, in the city, and in the prefectural capital. Then in the city, at the university, I had seen many films. But few of them were “professional”, or “real films”. I had to learn the history of cinema, the history of Chinese cinema, the history of world cinema, and also the different stages of the history of cinema and the great films that made history. Yes, I had seen almost nothing. The films that I had seen were not good films that count in the history of cinema, nor were they films that were considered classics. They were commercial or comedy films. I had seen very few that belonged in the history of cinema.

At the Academy, in the beginning, when the teacher mentioned a film, when he gave an example: “This film tells this, it symbolises that”, “such a film is a classic in the history of cinema…,” when he said such things, for me it was very difficult to understand. I had never seen any of these films. So in my first year, I watched a lot of films. The Academy is a very special place. There is a film library. It contained mostly films that were unknown to me. I spent a lot of time there watching a ton of films. You also had to have knowledge about cinema. You always had to watch more. At that time, it was difficult.  Then I made films. I’ve talked about it a bit today. For my first film, The Silent Holy Stones, I didn’t have professional actors. I thought that for the plot of the film, for its style, which is realistic, and for other reasons, amateur actors were perfect. So that was one reason to have amateurs. The other reason was that professional actors, especially at that time, especially in Amdo, were very rare. People trained in professional acting, with good filming experience, did not exist. In Lhasa, there were people trained for that. Like the Tibet Autonomous Region theatre group. They have been trained in Shanghai, or elsewhere, in acting. They can act in films, in theatre, and they have a good level.

But in Amdo, we don’t have that. So when I shoot my films, I have a lot of difficulties with actors. And then, in Tibet, cinema is something new. Cinema does not exist in Tibetan culture. There is no market, no film industry. So finding funding is very complicated. Making a film is not like writing literature or poetry. You have to have secure funding. But in Tibet, the market and the economy are not very developed. It is very difficult to find funding for film in Tibet, to make quality films in Tibet. So I started by teaming up with some friends. We had to face many difficulties. And also, in China, filmmakers also face the problem of film authorisation. Tibet is filled with brilliant stories. In the beginning, you don’t know whether it’s a historical film, a fairy tale, a realistic story because Tibet is just full of excellent stories. It’s a real reservoir. But not everything is allowed. When you are involved in cinema, you realise that little by little. At first, you think, “there, that’s no problem”. You can pick your script like that. It’s easy. But then problems arise.

Phurwa Tsering: You have already answered my next question. It concerns the difficulties of making films in the Tibetan environment, as a director. And then also, the problems of finding financing. And obtaining the authorisations to make the films. Are there more particular difficulties?

Pema Tseden: I mentioned it—the problem of professionalism. You need professionals. The process involves bringing together a lot of people to work together. This is not an activity that relies on just two people, a director, and a scriptwriter. You have to bring a lot of people together, and they all have to be professionals. In the Tibetan area, the film is a new professional field. So the basics are not there. Chief operator, sound recordist, set designer, actors, etc.—these professionals are extremely rare. They are really very rare. Personally, my initial goal was to bring together people who were familiar with Tibetan culture and customs, who have some skills or background in filmmaking to make films. Maybe we could manage to render Tibetan life with some depth. But it was very difficult. For example, the sound recordist. Every single word of the actors contains various information, feelings, or intonation. Someone who doesn’t know Tibetan will find it very difficult to grasp the subtleties and show them. But if he speaks Tibetan, if he knows Tibetan customs, Tibetan manners, he will grasp the subtleties of the dialogue.

So if a sound recordist is professional and speaks Tibetan, if he knows the customs, when he picks up the sounds, the dialogue, everything in the words of the characters, he can appropriate that information. Depending on whether a sound recordist understands Tibetan or not, it is not the same. So for me, the problem is this. In the future, for my next productions, I need film professionals. In all areas: sound, image, set, I want professionals. So, how can I put it? In any profession, and especially in art, you need a predisposition. For example, to learn drawing, you need a gift cultivated since childhood. Without this gift, it is very difficult to succeed in this profession. So we made a plan, with a few passionate people I knew who had a gift, to go together to Beijing, to train each in our own specialty. That’s how it worked. For example, with people like Sonthar Gyal, or Dukar Tserang, we went together to Beijing to study at the time with this purpose. And now they are making their own films. They first aimed at a particular specialty, and studied it. And then little by little they acquired film knowledge, filming opportunities, developed solid experience, and they started directing.

Phurwa Tsering: The films you have made, which genre do they belong to? You talked a bit about it, you said you wanted to show the real-life of Tibetans in your films. I have seen a couple of your films (Tharlo and Jinpa). Are most of your films similar in form and content? Are there any differences between them? Are they all the same?

Pema Tseden: There are differences of course, but what do they have in common? The common points are difficult to define. One of them could be the will to show real life. To have a strong link with reality. Before, films did not show reality. My literary writing is quite different. In fiction, the absence of a link with reality, or even magic realism, that is something I have practised a lot. But in cinema, for many reasons, my films so far have all been very linked to reality. Another important feature is to reveal something about the overall situation of Tibetans in this contemporary society. Yes. That is a characteristic of my films. Yes. For example, in The Silent Holy Stones, I show, through one Tibetan, one or two Tibetans, the situation of many Tibetans. The global situation of Tibetans. Between The Silent Holy Stones and Tharlo, what has changed? My films show an individual Tibetan, a single Tibetan, his situation and his status. And then, on the other hand… how can I put it? The individual changes. Indeed, through the destiny of one or two individual characters, I show how the overall situation of Tibetans in this society has changed.

Phurwa Tsering: Thank you. This is my last question. There are all sorts of difficulties in making a film. But funding is one of the biggest. You have made many films. If it is not confidential of course, where does the funding come from? Tibetans like your films and support you, individually or collectively. Do they give you donations? Do organisations help you?

Pema Tseden: Including my current film, I have made seven films. Each film has had its own funding. “The Silent Holy Stones” is my first film, and I was a beginner director at the time. People asked me what the film was about, what my level of cinema experience was. No one knew anything about me. I had very little funding, even though I had previously made a short film that had won many awards and was very much appreciated by professionals. This first short made me known a bit and some people financed my first feature film or were interested in it. So I got some funding from China. And then my friend, a Tibetan, and a few friends also contributed some funds. And I was able to make the film. The second and third films were the same. For The Search or Old Dog, friends helped me: Gangzhun, Dolha, who was associated with us at the time, and who is now a university professor. They all helped me and I was able to make the film. Then my films started to be known. They were well received. And so there were more people willing to finance me. Then, for almost all the following films from Tharlo onwards, the funding came from China. And then… Yes. As far as Tibet is concerned, whether it’s organisations or groups, a lot of people offer to support me. But even if they want to, raising funds and capital to finance a film, it’s very difficult for a Tibetan or when the funds come from Tibet. To make a film you need funds. But very few people have the money and the courage to do it. That’s right. Coming from Tibet, there are not many. Tibetans generally appreciate my work. Take for example Tharlo. In 2016, it was screened in China. Tibetans watched it, they said, “A Tibetan made a film!”. It was the first Tibetan film shown on the screens in China. It was an important thing. A matter of pride for the Tibetans who, individually and collectively, had supported me a lot.

Françoise Robin: Your films differ a lot from one another. Sometimes you might say to yourself: “I’m satisfied with this, I’m going to make it again”. Do you ever feel that way? Or do you always want to explore a new style, to always be new?

Pema Tseden: I’ve already talked about it a little. There are many differences between the writing of my films and my fiction. In literature, I rely on my life, the stages of my existence. Whether it’s the content or the form, you can see very clearly how I have evolved. What I wrote in the 1980s, the themes I dealt with, or in the 1990s, and the same for the 2000s: it’s very clear how my writing and themes have evolved. But in cinema, the possibilities for innovation are reduced. There are many instances, as I said, many instances of authorisation. If you feel like writing something, a short story, you can write it straight away. But if you want to make a film, there’s a story you love, you send the script, but you sometimes don’t have the power to make it happen. There is the authorisation process and the search for financing. I speak from experience. I’ve written a lot of scripts. For example, I wrote the script for “Jinpa” before “Tharlo”. I had wanted to make this film for a long time. But I didn’t get permission to shoot. And I did get permission to shoot “Tharlo”. So I shot “Tharlo” before “Jinpa”. So it’s very difficult to say. In the future, I want to try new things. But whether it’s in terms of form or content, I can be innovative within the same genre. I want to make films like that.

Françoise Robin: The film Jinpa is based on two short stories. One written by you, one by another writer. I would like to know the order in which you work. Did you write the short story “The Killer” or the other one “I killed a Sheep”?

Pema Tseden: The other story [“I Killed a Sheep”].

Françoise Robin: When you were writing “I Killed a Sheep”, did you have plans to make a film of it? What was the time span between writing the story and making the film? Secondly, when you write short stories, do you think of a possible connection with the cinema?

Pema Tseden: This is how it happened. A long time ago, I had read the short story written by Tsering Norbu, “The Killer” in a literary magazine. I found it very compelling at the time. The story is about an assassin. There are many stories about assassins, but this one is very different. That’s why I liked it so much. I thought it would be good to make a film about it later on. Then several years went by. And then I wrote my own short story: “I Killed a Sheep”. It’s been quite a while too. But when I was writing it, I didn’t think that later on, I could make a film out of it. My other short stories are the same. The story came to me, I felt the emotions, and then I wrote it quickly. When I adapted Tsering Norbu’s short story “The Killer,” the script was too short. It was only 5 or 6,000 characters. For a screenplay, you need 30 to 40,000. So in terms of content or length, it was not enough for a screenplay. I thought of my own short story, “I Killed a Sheep.” It has many similarities with Tsering Norbu’s story. Both take place on the road. So I mixed the two stories together and wrote the script. It was like that. To write a short story and then say to myself, “I could make a film out of it”, I don’t think about that. Short stories work in accordance with principles and literary feelings, and that’s what guides my writing. But writing while telling myself that later I will adapt it to the cinema, no, I don’t operate like that. But perhaps the two influence each other. I’ve studied a lot of films. I’ve seen a lot of films. So I guess when I write short stories, it influences me a little bit. In the same way, when I make a film, I am nurtured by my reading. And by my experience as a writer. I have written a lot. And when I shoot, it has an influence. I think it has an influence.


Françoise Robin is a Professor of Tibetan studies at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris. Through her studies of the contemporary Tibetan language literary and film scene, complemented by regular fieldwork in Tibet, she investigates social changes in contemporary Tibetan society as well as emerging trends in literature and cinema.

Phurwa Tsering is a Tibetan student at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris.

Lamo Dorjee was born in Amdo and was later predominantly educated in France. She has a Masters degree in International Relations from Warwick University (UK) and is currently based in Paris (France).

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Memory Keeper

Interview by Tenzin Dickie

Ours is the inheritance of loss—loss of home, family, freedom, justice. That loss is the dark matter of our lives, the carefully contained heartbreak at the center of our busy, everyday lives. And as the writer Jeanette Winterson says, you break your leg, you go to a doctor, you break your heart, you go to a poet.

For us, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is that poet, that writer.  In her books of poetry, and most recently in her memoir, she examines and explains our heartbreak—the heartbreak of our occupation, our exile, our diaspora—and in doing so, she gives us comfort, clarity, and a measure of belonging. For me personally, Tsering shows not only how to be a writer in the world but also how to be a human. She is a deeply observant, compassionate, and courageous writer. She honors our stories, our secrets, and our memories —she is our memory keeper. 

I spoke with Tsering Wangmo Dhompa on a May evening in 2021 through Google Meet. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Tenzin Dickie: What is your personal relationship to poetry?

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (TWD): I guess I would say that it’s a language that I am most comfortable in. It’s also a lens through which I take my questions, and try to understand how I see things, what I understand about things, how I feel. From a very young age, poetry became for me a way to put into words what I was thinking. Because when I speak I feel that I often never get to what I want to say, and writing comes much closer to what I want to say. I am very inept with speech. I feel that I chatter and am unable to verbalize my thoughts. Poetry has always been the place where I can think through things. 

Tenzin Dickie: I feel like that too. I feel like sometimes to know what I am thinking, I have to write what I am thinking, and then I know. So to continue then, how did you become a writer? Can you tell us about that writer’s journey?

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: You know, I still don’t call myself a writer, and I am now fifty-two. I think part of it is I never imagined that I could be a writer. When I was growing up in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, there never seemed a future where I could write. I didn’t know any writers around me. Our curriculum in school didn’t include any SouthAsian writers. And it felt like everything we read was coming from this place of authority far away. I always wrote since I was twelve but I thought it was a private activity I did, like a private conversation. I was copying writers but also thinking through life, asking philosophical questions. I was also writing to my mother. I was in school and she was far away, and the poems were expressions of love. 

I think I only thought of myself as a writer when my first book of poems was published and even then I was more surprised than anything.  And I didn’t know how to bring it to my community because my friends from the community would tell me, ah, I don’t understand your poems! They are very supportive of my work, they are proud of me, I think. But I am rarely a writer to them. 

So that’s a long way of saying, when you ask about this journey, it still feels like something I do and I work very hard at it, but it still seems like a private conversation. Every now and then, I’ll be invited to read somewhere but the rest of the time I am thinking and writing alone. So these are the occasions, like when Tenzin Dickie is interviewing me, that suddenly I feel I am a writer!

Tenzin Dickie: You are absolutely a writer. And the fact that you were able to make that life possible for you, and make it possible for yourself to become a poet and a writer when you didn’t have people to look to, what that meant for us was that we could look to you. So you made it possible not just for yourself but also for us.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: That’s such a beautiful thing to say, thank you. I have always had a full-time job, you know, and I never felt I had anyone to lean on. But I have been lucky, to be able to make the time anyway and to write.

Tenzin Dickie: You have never had the luxury of being a full-time writer and yet you have produced this body of work. So how did you manage that balancing act of living a life, having regular jobs, and also having the writing career that you have nurtured?

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: I think by just being disciplined. And maybe I have led quite a boring life. I wrote in the evenings, I wrote on the weekends. And also, when I worked for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to get three or four months’ leave without pay. I chose time over money. When I was writing A Home in Tibet, I quit my full-time job and took part-time gigs for many months. I worked just enough days a month to cover my rent so I could write the rest of the time. I wasn’t buying any clothes or spending money outside of essentials. But my home was still open to people and I still cooked for people. In the end, it came down to really fighting for my time. Because I am a slow writer, especially with prose. I labor over form and I take my time. So by having certain rules for myself, being frugal, practical, and disciplined, I saved time to write. 

Tenzin Dickie: Since you have brought up prose and form, can you talk more about forms and about experiments with genre. Do you experiment with genre and what does that look like for you? A Home in Tibet is a nonfiction memoir, gorgeously written, and parts of it you can read as prose poems. It’s constructed with such thoughtfulness and precision, the way that poetry is constructed. So I know you do it, now please talk about it!  

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: It was just, like, hundreds of revisions. I had to keep reorganizing, keep reorganizing, keep reorganizing. How do I thread together three different elements in a way that doesn’t seem disruptive, that talk to each other but at the same time maintain their own structure and integrity? I couldn’t make it a linear narrative. Some US publishers had said, oh this would be a great book and we would be interested if this were less eclectic, less about Tibet, and more about you and your journey. And I thought, but I am not discovering anything, Tibet has always been there! And I am not going to fade into the sunset, meditate, and discover love, and so on. No, it’s about place and belonging.

Tenzin Dickie: This is not about you going to Bali, is what you were telling them.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: Yes. So then I felt like I had to work much harder to create a narrative that a reader could follow. It was a lot of arranging and rearranging and trying to think through history, personal memory, and dislocated spaces. Which, in poetry, I feel like I can do, because it’s on one page as my poems are not that long and I can see it all on the page. For me it’s important to see it visually, so to have something that extended over so many pages, was hard. I would print everything and put it on the wall and map out, almost, like a visual journey. Have pages speak to each other.  I wish I could say I am skilled at, that I am an expert at experimenting with genre, but no, it’s just labor, some accidents, and some help. I asked friends who are writers for their suggestions. I read a lot trying to figure out how other writers interweave texts and braid things together. And finally, I think it sort of worked. And right now I am struggling with the same thing with my new book. 

Tenzin Dickie: What is your new book? I am so excited for it!

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: It’s gnarly right now. It’ll probably get me in trouble. I’m interested in the Tibetan exile community’s continued focus on and definitions of “unity” and “regionalism” and what the terms connote. My book suggests that these values gained their importance in the mid-1960s; I tell the story of the Bhod Dedon Tsokpa (also known as “the 13”) as a way to ask if in advocating for emancipatory politics or in building a national freedom movement, Tibetans also ended up persecuting those who did not embrace all the views of the exile government. 

I’m struggling with genre because it doesn’t want to be an academic text and it’s not just nonfiction, so I am hovering in between forms again.

This story is important to my community, so I’ll write it the way I think I know how to write it. I am also working on a collection of poems. I like having both of these different forms because it helps me think through similar concerns in different ways.

Tenzin Dickie: What does it mean to you to be a writer in exile? 

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: The identity of “a writer in exile” is an intriguing one. I circle around the question of exile or the condition of being exiled in my writings as though it is the condition I am most familiar with. And perhaps it is, after all, I have not had the security of citizenship anywhere, but recently. I suppose to be in exile is to keep the question of homecoming alive, to keep visible a struggle that is still ongoing. On a more personal level, I am not free to visit my family and my loved ones in Tibet and that marks my life every day. My life has been shaped by this separation. 

Also, on the question that you asked earlier, on when did I feel like a writer (or something like that) I was also thinking that there are so many questions in that question. I would also add that I feel like a writer when I’m at my desk writing. The act of writing, regardless of whether it is going to be published, is undertaken with dedication and has meaning to me, and that’s when I am aware of myself as someone for whom writing is crucial and necessary. 

Tenzin Dickie: Has the pandemic affected your writing? 

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: I don’t know, time will tell when I see the writing “after” the pandemic. Personally, the kind of solitariness and aloneness that some of my friends feel during the pandemic, I have always felt that. On that front it’s the same, I have always just felt that yeah, it’s just me. But I definitely do feel the world has been impacted so severely. And it’s hard not to see and feel that. All the inequalities, the injustices are much more visible now, in terms of the communities who are disproportionately impacted both in local and global spheres. Like many, I have lost a lot of people this year, some to Covid. It’s hard to think that the spaces that I think of as home or home-like are altered because so many of our elders are gone. And people I know and love, their lives have also shifted and altered in so many ways. 

Tenzin Dickie: What you said just now about being alone reminded me of that searing line where you write in the memoir: “When there are just two of you in the world, you carry the fear that if one of the two should go, there will be just one left; you are two against the idea of time, death and happiness.” And the two of you, that was you and your mother, and then, after she was gone, then it was just you. She sounds like such a wonderful brilliant woman and she raised you to be one as well. If she could see you, what do you think she would say about your writing?

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: I don’t know. My mother was never someone who focused on my accomplishments. I worked so hard in school because I wanted to make her proud and that was something that I could do. I would get all the prizes I could get, and my mother always said–whether my grades dropped or whether I came first–she said, great job. For her, it was important that I be a considerate person and live according to certain values, and she was a practicing Buddhist and she really did live by her practice. She always said, put people first. And I feel for the most part I have. You know, I think that I would have written two or three more books had I not cooked so much for my friends every weekend for most of my life! Which I remind them. So I took my mother’s words very seriously and put people first, which has also meant, before my own writing. And I think that would make her proud, being as kind as I have tried to be and to learn from her. 

She was always proud of whatever I did or didn’t do. I did hear her once, overhear her really. Because she never praised me to my face, you know. I did overhear her say to somebody, a stranger who was asking about me–she said, my daughter writes for a magazine. And the tone in her voice, I was so startled and so touched. Because of course I knew she loved me, but I didn’t know what it meant-you know, what I did or my writing meant to her. 

She was more interested in the human being I would be. And you know, now I have lived more than she did. I think about her and I think, she was actually an incredible human being. Not just because she was my mother but because of who she was. I still think about her every day. It’s been more than half my life that she’s been gone, but she was the only person I had as family. 

Tenzin Dickie: And the thing is, you had her. You had her. And she was proud of you, Tsering the writer and Tsering the person. Now my last question is kind of random: what’s the bravest thing you have ever done?

Tsering Wagmo Dhompa: I am not a brave person. Let’s see. When I was school captain, I helped someone with a serious issue. I was proud of the way I handled it, the way I resolved it without taking it to the authorities. It’s not a brave thing but I have kept safe many secrets that people have entrusted to me, going back to when I was sixteen. It feels important to be able to hold that place, to keep those stories.

Tenzin Dickie: That’s very…what’s the word? You know, bravery is to brave as integrity is to, ah, having integrity. That’s not the word but you know what I mean. You are like a secret keeper.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: I am like a secret keeper, that’s my claim to bravery.

Tenzin Dickie is Yeshe’s fiction and interview editor.