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Tsering Yangzom Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang co-founded Lhakar Diaries in 2011 as a platform for Tibetan voices formed in solidarity with everyday acts of non-violent resistance inside Tibet. The blog, lhakardiaries.com, serves to “demystify ideas about Tibet,” ushering in decolonizing praxis among Tibetan youth well before the academic conversation in Tibetan and Himalayan studies got under way. Tsering Lama has been a longtime activist and fiction writer, holding an MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a BA in Creative Writing and International Relations from the University of British Columbia. Her debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, received much critical acclaim and won the 2023 GLCA New Writers Award for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Malahat Review, Grain, Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Vela, LaLit, and Himal SouthAsian, as well as the anthologies Old Demons New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet; House of Snow: An Anthology of the Greatest Writing About Nepal; and Brave New Play Rites.
Within academic circles and beyond, Dawa Lokyitsang, Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been at the forefront of efforts to decolonize Tibetan studies and her research involves cutting-edge explorations on intergenerational trauma, women leaders in exile, issues of sovereignty, decolonizing praxis, and intersectional feminism. She has presented on these topics in conferences such as the “Future of Tibet” in Paris (2022), International Association of Tibetan Studies (2022), American Anthropological Association (2021; 2017), American Academy of Religion (2021; 2019), Himalayan Studies Conference (2016) and Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (2014); invited lectures at UCLA, Humboldt-Universität, and SOAS; and publications including Oxford Handbook on the Himalayas (forthcoming), The Tibet Reader by Duke University Press (forthcoming), American Ethnologist (2022), Tibet Policy Institute Journal (2020), Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage (2018), Muse India (2014) and Lhakar Diaries (2011–2023).
This conversation, edited for clarity and length, took place at the University of Colorado Boulder at a Tibet Himalaya Initiative graduate symposium on March 3, 2023. One exchange from the previous evening’s “Reading and Dialogue with Tsering Yangzom Lama” on March 2 is inserted into the Q&A.
Holly Gayley: Let’s start with Lhakar Diaries and then get into different ways of writing, literary and academic, which are both representational practices and raise many of the same questions. How and why did the two of you found Lhakar Diaries. What was the purpose and how has it evolved over the last more than decade?
Tsering Lama: Well, we were in Dharamsala in northern India, and we had spent a month together in an activist training, thinking about our movement, the Tibetan Freedom movement. At this time, we were really thinking about where things are heading for Tibetans. This was around 2009, post the uprising in Tibet, which was a big moment for the movement, because it confirmed to us what we had always believed—that the struggle in Tibet continues. The people in Tibet do want sovereignty and have not acceded to colonization or to Sinification.
This was something that we, in exile, had been saying for years. But it was confirmed, and that was really important. Then also there was a huge crackdown [on the Tibetan plateau]. So we were thinking, as strategists and as activists, where do we need to go next? What does the movement need? First and foremost, we are engaged in a struggle as colonized people. But much of our engagement in a national struggle was coming from organizational voices, and we were missing the voices of ordinary Tibetans and ordinary youth. We don’t need to speak from an organizational voice; we don’t have to belong to a banner to speak.
In Tibet at the time, there were these “white Wednesdays” [Lhakar]. This was a grassroots movement that Tibetan people had started in such a repressive environment where they could no longer protest. Every Wednesday, they were speaking Tibetan or wearing Tibetan clothes or going to a Tibetan restaurant. In the safest way they could, they were expressing that they were not Chinese, they were Tibetan. That was really important and very inspiring to us. And we wanted to echo that back or respond in some way.
So we started this blog. We thought, let’s just post something every Wednesday about something we’re doing to assert our identity. And it doesn’t have to be serious. So it could be like: “Today I’m going to wear a Tibetan dress” or “Today I’m going to learn how to make momo.” So we’ve made videos of cooking. Or we would go to Jackson Heights and go eat a meal at a Tibetan restaurant and talk about how good Tibetan food is.
So it was joyful, it was fun. It was not seriously political. It was more identity oriented. But it was in direct defiance of this ongoing narrative that had been out there, that there was a division between Tibetans in exile and Tibetans in Tibet, which we as Tibetans know is not true. And we wanted to assert that.
Dawa Lokyitsang: This was in 2011, a momentous year. We launched Lhakar Diaries officially on July 6th to mark His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s birthday. Our month-long training coincided with His Holiness resigning from his political position from the Tibetan government, which sent shock and panic across the Tibetan world. Tibetans inside and outside Tibet were both in shock and did not want this to happen. Around the same time, we were engrossed in activist workshops, but we were also talking about what kind of narratives about Tibet are traveling in the world. I remember all of us felt that the stuff that’s out there is actually not for us, and neither is it by us.
I remember Tsering Lama coming up to me asking if I wanted to do this. She said, “No, we don’t need to speak to the ivory tower, we can create our own space.” At the time I said “no” [laughter] because I did not want to share my work with the public. But once I started to participate, I realized how important it was to create a space that was for us and by us: centering Tibetan lives, centering Tibetan perspectives, and centering Tibetan desires. I personally had gotten tired of the scholastic and popular writing on Tibet, which felt like it was never speaking to us. It was always [geared] towards outsiders, and it was not stuff we cared about or that moved us.
So we decided to create our own space where we actually do the things that we want to see for ourselves and have the kind of conversations that are important to us. And that’s exactly what Lhakar Diaries became. So I’m actually happy about how it started. For me, at least, I began to cover topics that I had been motivated by. In many ways, I wanted to invite the movement’s leaders on a journey because I happened to be embarking on an academic journey at the time.
I joined [CU Boulder] as a Master’s student in 2011, and I wanted to use Lhakar Diaries as a platform to share what I was learning and to share the kinds of topics that I’m interested in. So, it became my way of speaking back against the kind of scholarship that I did not enjoy and allowed me to create spaces for the things that I cared about.
Tsering Lama: That was much more scholarly oriented. My perspective was more movement oriented. Because I wasn’t really engaged with scholarly discussions. So we all had different perspectives, I guess, and we created a bunch of accounts and gave everybody the same password, and people could post whatever they wanted. I guess it was radically anarchist in that way, which is very much our politics.
Dawa Lokyitsang: Yeah, it was different perspectives, and that’s exactly what I liked about it.
Holly Gayley: Since you use the phrase “speaking back,” maybe we can explore what that means in terms of decolonizing praxis. In literary and academic terms, both of you speak back to popular and academic representations of Tibet. How do each of you define decolonizing praxis and how do you approach it in your writing?
Dawa Lokyitsang: To me, it’s about centering Tibetan perspectives and centering Tibetan voices. I think we were doing that on Lhakar Diaries even before we knew that’s what we were doing. For example, in exile, I have been so frustrated by the fact that Tibet never gets talked about as a colonial occupation. That’s exactly what I see going on inside Tibet, and the popular and academic literature did not address it. Still to this day, it doesn’t. My intervention was, well, I don’t need to wait for other people to do it. I’m going to do it.
This was something that was so blatant to Tibetans that it was never being talked about. So this has been one thing that I’ve pushed hard on in terms of making that a norm. Whenever we talk about Tibet, we need to acknowledge that it’s under colonial occupation. So that’s one way I speak back against scholarship but also by centering Tibetan worlds and centering Tibetan desires. My scholarship is very much driven by what Tibetans desire: What do they want to talk about? What are the conversations that I’m exposed to? I’m also engaging the fact that I am in this world. I’m part of this world, and I want to talk about what is important for the people that surround me. So that’s one way that I’ve tried to engage it.
Tsering Lama: In the space of literature and writing, there are so many different ways of thinking about it. For one, what do you look at? Who are you going to write about? For me, yes, I definitely want to center Tibetan stories and Tibetan people, but even within that, I’m interested in ordinary Tibetan people. And particularly for this book, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, Tibetan women and refugees.
Our broader narratives about Tibet have largely been about leaders. Or about the national struggle. To me literature is about the day-to-day quotidian, experience of living. Tibetan women are so central to our community, yet so largely invisible in the global space. And I wanted to recast the history of modern Tibet with women at the center.
Also to break down this idea in literature that there’s a systems novel and then there’s a domestic novel. The systems novel is the political novel. The serious stories. It’s the stories about how societies work. It has a masculine identity. The domestic novel [features] the stories of women, love, and relationships—things that are seen as lower level. And I wanted to write a book in which the two are mashed together. This book is about politics. It is about big picture stuff, but it’s through the everyday, through the really gritty and difficult realities of existing.
I didn’t think about a decolonial practice when I was writing this; that wasn’t the framework I had in mind. I wanted to bring it all down to the ground level and away from theory and away from romantic ideas of exile. It’s pretty popular in literature, the romanticization of exile. Also the romanticization of suffering. I wanted it to show how painful exile is: what it looks like and what it feels like. If that’s decolonial, then yeah, that’s my version of it.
Holly Gayley: That’s definitely speaking back to the romanticized Shangri-la version of Tibet and presenting the realities on the ground in an unvarnished way. What struck me about your novel the most is how you bring the reader into not just Tibetan communities, but into a whole lifeway and episteme: ways of knowing and moving in the world. Could you each speak to that, how your own writing comes out of a Tibetan worldview, which is also a kind of decolonizing praxis?
Dawa Lokyitsang: Well, one of the things that Tsering Lama did so well in this book is to actually talk about the pain and the trauma of not just losing Tibet, but its ongoing effects. That’s something that I have tried really hard to talk about in my scholarship. And how it gets easily misunderstood and misinterpreted by other people.
To me, [trauma] is something that continues to impact Tibetans everywhere. It impacts how we interact with each other: how we see the present and how we see the past. That’s what I loved about this book, because it engaged it in such a slow and detailed way that it deserved. I feel like other people talk about the Tibetan invasion as if it was done, you know, “It happened in 1959. Now we’re in the development stage, now Tibetans are moving abroad” as if we’ve gotten over it. I see the ways in which this trauma comes back again and again. In my scholarship, I tried to talk about it through the conversations of purity and authenticity that both Tibetans and scholars engage in, and how that conversation continually impacts Tibetans generationally.
I also think ethnography is my way of engaging Tibetan conversations and highlighting what’s important to them. I remember when this conversation [about purity] was intensifying and seeing the way it affects us. I’m directly impacted by these conversations. My friends were directly impacted by it. Instead of having this binary approach—who do we listen to, the younger generation or the older generation—I asked: can we stop and actually acknowledge that people are talking about pain. Where does this pain come from? This pain is continually tied to the original pain of loss, and it continues to play out in new spaces of exile.
I just loved the detail with which you engaged that pain, Tsering, because nobody has given a space to talk about this pain—not in such detail. So that’s what I loved about this book.
Tsering Lama: I have so many questions about the Tibetan worldview, and I feel I’m still learning a lot about it. There are many worldviews in the Tibetan worldview obviously as well. It’s a complicated term. What’s contained inside of that? For instance, there was a baby that was born recently in a vlog (Tibetan blog) I was watching. I love Tibetan vlogs. When the cousin came over to bless the baby, she reacted by saying, “Oh, so you took a human life this time. Nyingje!” And then she said a prayer. That is such a Tibetan perspective. It’s rooted in centuries of Tibetan thought that is so rich and complex and vast and beautiful and unique and precious. Even I don’t think that way. I want to engage in this. I want to think about this.
Where I am right now is a result of history. So I want to think about how colonization is not just deracination from land, but it is a severance from a worldview. Then I want to think about how this one community managed to hold onto that worldview and maintained it in exile, which is another huge project that nobody really thinks about or acknowledges the brilliance of. Dawa Lokyitsang is doing work on that, thank God! People don’t think about the fact that not only did the Tibetan people have very little support in a governmental political space, but that this tiny nation with so little managed to actually rebuild and maintain a civilization in exile, which is profound.
When I talk to my mom, she’s so funny. She says, “You know, I’ve not really suffered in my life.” She’ll say stuff like that. And I respond, “I know you buried your parents on riverbeds.” But that’s how she thinks. Now, if somebody else who’s not Tibetan hears that they might think, “Oh, Tibetans are so resilient; they don’t suffer.” If they lack the context and the subtlety of mind to think about how Tibetans talk about their experience, then they might take a really blunt instrument to that. But if you’re conscious of the history and also the worldview that is encompassed in a statement like that, then you realize that there is a bedrock of suffering, but there’s also a bedrock of other stuff like joy and love and resistance and struggle and trauma.
But then there’s an outward facing perspective that is so Tibetan to me that is not about trauma and me, but trauma and us. Which I think comes from the struggle that we have as a people. Which in some ways probably saved us. Even though it’s been obviously horrible at the same time. But I think that shared struggle gives us a focal point that is each other as opposed to ourselves.
Dawa Lokyitsang: Yeah, I agree in terms of the pain and trauma that’s caused by a loss of country, loss of homeland, loss of family, loss of access to ways in which this entire world gets enacted. My work concentrates on how Tibetans built something out of that painful experience and how they built relations with each other. How they rebuilt these worlds away from their homeland and reproduced these relations in new ways to sustain each other.
Those are not talked about in the scholarship on exile that looks at exile as if it’s inauthentic. It’s not about authenticity here. It’s about how people come together in a time of crisis to help each other, because they understand what they’ve all lost together. That trauma is an experience that we have moved through, but it’s also an experience that brought us together. I’ve also seen biomedical scholarship on Tibetan resilience, how Tibetans engage trauma and how it seems like Buddhism helps these Tibetans be so resilient against pain and suffering. But it’s not just Buddhism.
It’s suffering that’s acknowledged and shared, and Buddhism becomes a framework for producing relation and love for each other in this context. That’s what I find to be amazing about Tibetans, especially in post-invasion Tibet and across the Tibetan diaspora in exile. It’s a way in which we relate to each other even without having to say anything.
Holly Gayley: To acknowledge the intergenerational trauma feels so important and also the incredible restoration that has been happening in exile and also on the Tibetan plateau. What it took to rebuild Tibetan culture and Buddhist institutions in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. The solidarity and communal effort is itself a means of healing and restoration.
So just to take intergenerational trauma one step further and bring it back to your book for a moment, Tsering Lama. Let’s talk about memory and land-based practices in relation to oracles. There are moments that feel prophetic, almost like terma [treasures], where there is direct access to the past through a different type of memory. These are healing moments, where time and space open up into a connection back to the land of Tibet.
Tsering Lama: I think the terma concept is so cool in terms of a way of continuing a lineage and building a canon and all of that. But I think the scale of thought is beyond that. To me, Tibetan thought is centuries of scale, like geologic scale thought, and the idea that there could be something placed that will be revealed centuries later, and it’s placed in your mind. You don’t know why, but then you do something and it’s revealed to you and you are karmically tied to that moment. I think that’s incredible. And I think it’s connected to this rejection of subject-object separation in Buddhism. This rejection of the individual as a contained and separate entity. Which points towards something more communal or points towards something larger than the individual.
I remember my grandfather told me that he had buried things underground before they fled. And so this was a practice that Tibetans had been doing. And that’s a different kind of terma. It’s not a teaching, but it’s something else that’s buried. This is an old practice that Tibetans would do in times of crisis assuming that at some point the crisis would end, and they could come back. At some point, in the period of exile, my grandfather went back to try to find it; I think he snuck back in. But he couldn’t find it. I asked, “what happened?” And he said, “The ground must have shifted.” That could mean so many things. I found that to be a very poetic and ambivalent statement. It could have been looted, because I know that that was happening a lot. So I think about that—the earth was seen as a safe place.
This is part of colonization, the people and land are separated. And the land is treated as a dead thing, as a resource. I think a lot of ancient peoples and ancient wisdoms don’t hold that view. The connection to land is very deep, and the land is not a dead thing. The land is kin if you’re Indigenous, and contains gods and spirits if you’re Tibetan, and many other things I’m sure. So this is what I’m talking about in terms of worldviews. Colonization treats people and the land as things that can just be moved around. With that perspective, you really don’t ever get to understand the place you’re in. By treating the land as dead, we’ve ended up where we have ended up right now on a global level as a direct result of that kind of thinking.
So I really wanted to show how deep the connection to land is for Tibetans. And I feel like that story hasn’t been told that much. The story of sovereignty is the frame. Or there’s a national political frame or the legal frame of human rights. These are the frames that have been deployed in the international space. But land, spirituality, these kinds of connections are largely invisible outside of the Tibetan space when it comes to our story and what this loss has meant for us.
Holly Gayley: Your novel brings out so much around the centrality of land-based practices, and I don’t think that’s a frame that has been used much in academic research. There’s been research on mountain deities and their ancestral ties to various clans but not actually a recognition of land-based practice in relation to the experience of dispossession and thinking about the significance of that, how certain forms of spiritual or religious practice are simply not possible or possible in the same way in exile. So it feels like that’s a very rich and necessary area of further exploration.
Dawa Lokyitsang: In exile, at least in my work, land which encompasses Tibet as a whole plays a central role—except that land is away. How do Tibetans reimagine their homeland? It’s entirely about being away from this land. Right now I’m shifting from the 1960s generation to the next generation. But I’ve spent so much time in the stories about my grandparents’ generation. My grandparents insisted on living on the border of Tibet because they thought “anytime now, we’re going to go back.” Even the first generation of students in exile thought that, “we’re studying now, but anytime soon we’re going to go back.” This entire land that they lost, entire projects that they were embarking on, it was all about, when we’re going to go back to this land. So in many ways it was highly motivated by this—the need for land back. This was before land back movements. It’s called this now, but at the time it was all about this return to one’s country that they were going to enact. In many ways, Tibetans in exile refuse to believe [differently] even after 50 years. Older people think, “Anytime now. Anytime now.” This sentiment is so normal in our world.
But I also think about place making. How do you create a place away from home? I think about the world that I’m from in Dharamsala. These were the Tibetan communal spaces that I grew up in, which I came to realize as places that people created. But when I was little, it was such a Tibetan place that I lived in. And I remember moving to the West and missing this Tibetan place. And now I’m embarking on a dissertation that talks about how this place was created out of this dream to go back home anytime soon. I think it’s very central to how Tibetans conduct themselves in the world. Even the way that they recreate their world in exile is so tied back to Tibet. So yes, it’s very central.
Tsering Lama: Yes, exactly. Growing up we would always go to pilgrimage to the same sites over and over. There are holy sites that you go to over and over, and any Tibetan knows this. If we actually think about how Tibetan people live and study Tibetan culture through that perspective, then you really couldn’t ignore land-based frames.
Holly Gayley: Let’s bring gender back into the conversation and women’s roles in placemaking, especially in the everyday ways that culture is created and recreated. What are Tibetan women’s roles in the recreation of Tibetan worlds in exile? In what ways do you center women’s roles in this act of cultural stewardship?
Dawa Lokyitsang: I have engaged leading females from aristocratic families who helped in the construction of what we know now as the exile Tibetan world. These women were central in the making of schools and shaping the care children received. They continue to be remembered and recalled by men who are now in their sixties. I have a chapter on these women [in my dissertation]. How they approached their own relationship with children through loss. Again, they understood exactly what these kids lost. Some of the women I talk about had also experienced loss of their own children in Tibet. This experience then becomes a framework for producing a home for these kids, producing care, producing a family.
A lot of the kids that they were looking after were orphans whose parents had either died or were lost inside Tibet under conditions of war or in India following their journeys to exile in efforts to bring their children to safety and their relatives had brought them to these schools. To me, women have played a leading role from day one, but it wasn’t really engaged that way. I remember writing about them five or six years ago and I thought, “Wow, we don’t acknowledge how much they have actually contributed to the making of exile and the making of home.” But also, how these women—and I think Ama Jetsun Pema [younger sister to His Holiness the Dalai Lama] is one of them—continue to play this role.
They have their own biological children, but they’re also mothers to so many, and they feel bound to actually perform that role for these kids [over decades]. So again, how this dynamic of kinship continues to play out, out of this loss. So, yes, it was more of a discovery. The women are not talked about as much the men. It’s almost like domestic roles are considered “natural” for women, so they weren’t as highlighted. And I wanted to highlight how central they were to the making of what became the Tibetan exile community.
Tsering Lama: I’m really glad you brought up Ama Jetsun Pema because I was just in Paris with the Tibetan community, doing a book tour there. She had just visited. There is a Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) alumni association there, and they just revere her. I stayed with the family of the head of the TCV alumni organization, and he was telling me about how he, like so many people of that generation, came as children into exile and were orphans.
The fracture of family is a big part of many Tibetan experiences, being orphaned or losing children, having fractured families. So that’s an essential thread across so many Tibetan experiences. Then you have the role of women as providing love and care and nurturance, and being so vital for a community of orphans, children of war essentially. So we’ve talked so much about loss, but there is a lot of love in Tibetan communities, and a lot of that comes from the women.
There’s a pragmatism to Tibetan women that I really admire too. Especially my mom and women from the older generation. They’re very pragmatic. They’re just very practical people. For instance, on auspicious days, you’re not supposed to eat eggs. You’re not supposed to eat meat. One time I already ate eggs. She said, “All right, well just don’t eat them for the rest of the day.” So there’s a lack of purity or strictness. Be practical, you know, just get on with it. Have compassion. The nice thing about Tibetan Buddhist ethics is they are not super strict in general. But that pragmatism is a response, in a world in which you have to be pragmatic and you cannot design a perfect environment for yourself all the time.
In my book specifically, I begin the book with the focus on a Tibetan woman, an oracle. And the oracle, as you know, plays the role of being a conduit between the divine and the human. Originally I was going to make my book a sort of a comedy, a funny book about Tibetans in exiles, because I think Tibetans are pretty funny people. We like to laugh at each other and make fun of each other, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have an immature sense of humor too, a lot of slapstick and stuff like that. I had lived in Toronto for two years and had seen all these personalities and I thought that I could write a novel about these people. But as I started to write about them, I kept thinking: Well, who are they? Where do they come from and what’s their backstory? Then the scale becomes bigger and they go from comedic characters to heroic characters in a sense.
Back in the days of Greek literature, there was Aristotle’s formulation of comedy versus tragedy. Comedy is about people whose essential nature is unchangeable. But a tragedy involves people who change and they’re heroic. I was realizing that actually I see even these people that I was thinking about as heroic in their own right. In their own lives, they’re heroic because the story of modern Tibet is such a dramatic story. It’s a story of rags—orphans begging on the side of the road—not to riches, but to some sort of survival. The stakes are so high. It’s a national story, and it involves tremendous suffering and tremendous exaltation and spiritual freedom and spiritual pursuits. It’s beautiful, and it’s all there. So I wanted to write about Tibetan women with a closeness and an appreciation that elevated them to the levels to which our mythic history did elevate them.
Holly Gayley: So in what ways did Tibetan women in exile emerge from this trauma into actually building a world? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Dawa Lokyitsang: The building of the Tibetan exile world is [central to] my research. Going back to the roles of women, I think about the ways in which His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and the exile government under his leadership emphasized that children’s lives are precious.
The first thing that happened—after the invasion and 1959 exodus to exile took place—was massive deaths, including deaths of children. This disturbed His Holiness. His first impulse was to create a school for children. It was to create a safe space for them. After that, the first thing he did was to give a bunch of orphan babies to his older sister [Ama Tsering Dolma], who’s a mother, saying to her, “You need to take care of them.” And this is not just any kind of school; babies need around the clock care. To build a community, you need the children to stay alive. That was the first thing. The fact that these women were literally caring after these children, day in and night, [is remarkable].
They built nurseries; they built schools. They were constantly performing this role of the mother and giving motherly care to children in order to literally ensure life that would sustain what would become exile. These women were counteracting the precarity of death for babies. For five women, there were often 30 babies. So the level of sacrifice these women made, even if they didn’t see it as such. It was like: we must.
Tsering Lama: In my book, I wanted to think about how families were broken and then remade in exile and how kinship becomes much more flexible in exile. And that was my experience. We were just talking about that earlier, how whether you’re in the camp or whether you’re growing up outside of the camp, there’s a sense in which everybody’s constantly around and everybody’s related, and we’re all sort of kin in some way. I think that [in my novel] Lhamo and Tenkyi develop kinship with lots of other people throughout their lives. Their uncle raises them as his own daughters, and he calls them his daughters. I guess that’s just another response to the trauma we’re talking about. But the response is beautiful; it’s essentially love. And it’s a more flexible concept of kinship through the desire to build new families.
Dawa Lokyitsang: Yes, similar to what you said, this is also what I realized over the years that was very unique to Tibetans and Tibetan communities. I had grown up in a community where everyone felt related, which I thought was the norm as a child. Then I came to the west, and I see that’s not the norm here. Over the years I’ve heard other people make comments about how Tibetans seem to just be more together as a community.
What I realized was this way of relating, this norm was again conditioned by the historical invasion. How do you get to a point where this seems normal? This is how we all feel, like we’re related to each other. And my work is now looking at how this came into being—this feeling. Whenever I see a Tibetan, I automatically feel like we relate. I think that’s very essential to how we operate in the world.
Holly Gayley: To bring that back to trauma for a moment, I think there’s something about atomization that compounds trauma. What you’re describing about the way the Tibetan community in exile came together, especially early on to ensure the survival of the culture and the community, is significant.
Tsering Lama: I think the atomization is something that lots of Tibetans in exile feel. That is the atomization all of us are experiencing in a neoliberal, capitalist society. But I’ve met Tibetans in all kinds of random places on this tour, just tiny little cities in Canada on the edge of the Atlantic. And there’s like one Tibetan girl living there, or this one Tibetan guy. Somehow they hear about my book, and they come to this book event and in a sea of injees [non-Tibetans], I see one Tibetan person, and I know they’re Tibetan right away. Then they come and talk to me and they’re saying, what else can I read like this? I can sense the hunger, the desire to connect. Dawa Lokyitsang grew up in Dharamsala and had more connections with Tibetans, but not all Tibetans have that kind of connection. And I think there is a lot of loneliness and isolation, as a human being in the world we live in.
Dawa Lokyitsang: Speaking of women, you know, speaking of each other [laughter], the Lhakar Diaries involves a lot of us. And we all come from different facets of life and different spaces. Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in a Tibetan community and some weren’t. Still, we gravitated towards each other because we felt the same passion for land back—this connection to Tibet. It brought us together.
I think that’s essentially what, again, brings all Tibetans together. It brought us together; we met each other through this movement and through this passion. And many of us have been able to sustain that friendship. To me, Tibetan female friendship has been so central to what I’ve been doing. I remember when Tsering Lama was working on her book, and to see this journey come full circle, is so satisfying. And I know she’s been following me too.
It is because we’re motivated by the same things, and it is a way for us to relate with each other. I don’t get to talk about female friendships too much, but to me, Tibetan female friendships have been extremely affirming and empowering for the kind of visions that I want to evoke and walk towards, especially when you feel like you have a group of women who also feel the same way.
Holly Gayley: That’s beautiful. Well, let me ask then, just to broaden this out, what role do you feel like friendships with other Tibetan women has played in a kind of—I’m using now Dawa Lokyitsang’s term—Tibetan intersectional feminism. What is it about these close networks that actually empower a kind of political action or writing from a certain sensibility that centers women as agents and actors in Tibet communities?
Dawa Lokyitsang: I mean, I already said it. To me, it’s really powerful to feel like you’re not alone. To feel like you are affirmed, to feel like you and I have the same vision, and we didn’t even have to explain it to each other, to just be together.
We’ve talked about feeling atomized and feeling alone. That’s one place where we gather and affirm each other and move forward. I have been excited about this vision that has come into fruition. It is a similar vision I have. I envisioned it too. It’s easy to support Tsering just because she’s my friend, but that’s not why I rally behind her book. She captures and address this level of depth that we both felt was missing when it came to how people think about us.
When I work, I think about my Tibetan friends: “Oh, I’m going to write this. And my friends are going to enjoy this.” Even that piece I wrote about who’s a pure Tibetan was because I saw how that discourse was harming my friends. I wanted to create a way of talking about this pain that could be healing. It was seeing my friends in pain, but it was also a mutual pain. So there are ways in which we affirm and empower each other. It’s very important.
Tsering Lama: I think identity is relational, and writing a book is a search for a new language or a new form to assert a relationship and to assert identities. My book’s structure is relationships: it’s daughter, sisters, lovers, self. I wanted to point to how our identities are formed in relation to each other and the roles we play for each other, whether that’s friends or sisters or lovers or whatever.
And I think that’s also a deeply Buddhist concept too. That there is no innate self, but that identity comes through action and through relationships with each other. In the situation of Tibetan women in exile, or Tibetan women in general, the context is of a shared struggle and a shared sense of an opponent that generally wants to eradicate you, your identity and your culture, and has done a lot of damage.
When it’s that kind of context, then friendship and love and those relationships become that much more important because that’s all people had in a lot of situations. When they left, all they had was each other. They had nothing else except for whatever they were carrying on their backs. So relationships become so important and that’s what’s sustained Tibetan people, I think. That’s really what I wanted to celebrate. And that doesn’t mean we always get along [laughter].
Dawa Lokyitsang: Yes, we are strongly opinionated, different people. I love how we come together on things, and we can still disagree aggressively with each other.
Holly Gayley: Well, I think what you’re doing is modeling an alternative way of producing knowledge, which is in relationship, which is in conversation, which is in community, whether it’s a blog or a lunch colloquium. It happens as we create these conversations, this movable feast of conversations about and with Tibetan women writers. Just by us having sustained attention on these topics makes room for more and more voices to come forward. Both of you are actually creating a pathway that other Tibetan women and young Tibetans can follow and have their voices heard. On that note, I want to open it to any other voices who might want to participate in this conversation by way of comment or question.
Natalie Avalos: In my work, I am interested in putting the story of urban Indigenous refugees within the US in conversation with Tibetan refugees, and trying to link them because it would illuminate a global, colonial dynamic but also illustrate stories about land-based peoples and how they navigate life while land-less. I have a lot of ambivalent feelings about being too legible because in some way the decolonial work is for your community, so my question is: how much of this was a love letter to your community? And do you feel ambivalent about making yourself so legible to westerners, to white consumption? That’s something I really struggle with and I’m wondering how you navigate that.
Tsering Lama: Yes, I think it’s a real tension and it’s important to name that tension. When people who are creating new knowledge or creative texts are not coming from the culture at the center, we need to think about this, because we have to go through these organizations, these institutions, and these publishers.
I wanted this to be published through a big publisher, so it was important for me that this get wide readership. At the same time I wanted to do it on my terms. I really owe a lot to Toni Morrison’s teachings on this, thinking about how she centered her community, thinking about how when I read her novels, I know I’m getting about 20% of it. And it’s still good enough. It’s still that good. She’s writing for her community, and her community will get a lot more than I will get. But if it’s a work of real integrity, and it’s not a tourist guide type of situation, if it has that kind of integrity to it, you can tell as a reader.
That doesn’t mean the broader public will necessarily get that or critics will get that, but I think that a serious reader and certainly her community, the people that she’s writing for can hopefully see that. What she does that is so impressive to me, is her willingness to enter and access centuries of African American suffering, and to come out of that and create something artful, to render her community in art. And that’s what I want to do.
I’m willing to dive in there and come up with something, find the language, find the structure, find the story, the container that can somehow convey our story for ourselves. At the same time, any reader that is willing and interested in reading my book should get enough of it that it is still legible to them. I’m not out here to purposefully deny access to anyone who wants to struggle through it. It’s not a beach read, you know. Anyone who wants to read the book, I have respect for and thank you. There’s some opacity there, but there’s still enough there that they could understand. Thinking about it in concentric circles, the core audience, the bullseye, is Tibetan readers. And I have to hit that. That’s how I think about it.
Amelia Hall: I’ve got two questions. As a European mother of a Tibetan child, I’m struggling to help my child with how they work through their identity and the trauma they feel when they hear the stories of their grandmother. If there are kids who want to be writers, who are other models for this generation of kids that after exile have mixed identities? Last night, my daughter came to see you, and I could just see the joy in her face listening to you reading from your book. I’m just curious to hear your perspective. The other question is actually for you, Holly Gayley, which is: what does decolonizing practice mean to you as a white American scholar of Tibetan studies?
Tsering Lama: I draw a lot from other movements in other communities. You know, there’s a deep well there. So thinking about African American writers, I mentioned Toni Morrison already. There are also Indigenous writers right now who are talking about Indigenous joy. That’s a beautiful framing and a critical one, one that Tibetans can really relate to as well. What we’re experiencing as Tibetans is a very specific history, but it’s also not unique. Suffering is part of the history of the world.
Displacement is a common experience and centuries old. Especially if your daughter wants to be an artist, but really anybody who wants to be a thinking living person, we’re going to suffer, and we’re going to recognize our suffering. There’s so much to be gained from going toward that suffering and then opening up our lens to who else is suffering. There’s that story of the woman [Kisa Gotami] going to the Buddha, and she’s sad about her child dying. And the Buddha says, “Okay, I want you to find one family that hasn’t suffered and then I’ll bring back your child.” But she cannot find a family like that. And that’s such an essential lesson.
It’s easy to say, but the atomization that we’ve been talking about comes from this internal focus on the self only, and not recognizing how much we all have in common regardless of our race, gender, and so on. There’s something essential and human about our suffering and our connection. I would say to read and look to all of humanity as her kin. I don’t know, what would you say?
Dawa Lokyitsang: I wrote about this [issue of mixed identities]. I wanted to speak to the younger kids who were concerned by a particular narrative and to say: the people who are saying these things to you have suffered too. Like what Tsering Lama just said, it’s important not to individualize that pain, but to properly historize it. Then I wanted to turn to Tibetans and say this idea that you have of the static [purity] of Tibetans is a recent construction. Our tradition is filled with lotsawas [translators] with an acknowledged history of intermixing [the advent of Buddhism in Tibet by our kings from India for instance], and that has produced our culture.
I do think Tibetan identity is important. Especially considering the fact that it is under the threat of eradication inside Tibet. But it’s good to have an approach to Tibetan identity that isn’t defined by, “I’ll say what I learned from my friends.” Don’t let your identity be defined by other people. I respect people who have their own relationship to their identity.
Holly Gayley: Well, I’ll be brief, but I do want to address your question. I want to say something here in front of my students because I think that there’s this way in which we’ve been trained as scholars to put our positionality to the side as if we could have a view from nowhere. That’s how we’re trained to write, with the pretext of objectivity.
For me, decolonizing praxis entails self-reflexivity about my own positionality. I feel like what I’ve been trying to do is amplify Tibetan voices, as in the anthology Voices from Larung Gar, through translation and conversations like this at different gatherings. So it felt like a real blow at the Lotsawa Translation Workshop last October when Tashi Dekyid questioned the role of translation and whether it is enacting a cultural erasure. It’s such an important question to reflect on. I’ve always felt like translation is a service that I could provide, to amplify and offer an international platform to Tibetan writings by Tibetans on the plateau.
Personally, I also feel that this is an unmasking process. In my Buddhist community, I put my feminism to the side and that didn’t go well [laughter]. That kind of imploded [in an abuse scandal]. Then in my academic life, I’ve put my Buddhism to the side. And I had to, because in religious studies, it’s suspect to be an “insider.” For me, in this moment of reckoning, could I reunify the fragments of my own life? I think there’s a way that this can be healing: a reclamation on all sides if we’re willing to go outside the box of our training.
For me to think about writing from a more subjective voice is scary even though there is a feminist platform for that. Because when women speak in their personal voice, their life comes under scrutiny. And that’s a really painful process, especially on social media. So it’s a journey but I think it’s a valuable one. Then I think we can forge a kind of allyship that is more horizontal.
Dawa Lokyitsang: I also want to say that the focus on healing is central to decolonization. I loved reading your book, Love Letters from Golok, because of the tantric couple. Their entire focus was about how we can heal Tibetan traumas from the eradication [of Tibetan culture] they had experienced during the Cultural Revolution through love and the powerful ways in which they reimagined [Guru Rinpoche’s] prophecy about Tibet. Then to embody that prophecy and actually be the figures to heal Tibetans. Wow! In many ways I do think that’s actually how Tibetans engaged their trauma. It’s always trying to find ways to heal each other. And that is decolonial: centering healing frameworks for how we engage each other.
Holly Gayley: That’s beautiful. Because it runs right against the polarizing forces that are a new kind of divide and conquer. It’s actually the settler colonial culture today, at least in this country, turning in on itself. It’s like the untended traumas of the colonial state consuming itself, for better or for worse.
Dawa Lokyitsang: How powerful is it that under that very weight, people dare to heal themselves and heal each other. That’s such a powerful way of seeing what Tibetans do.
Holly Gayley: Well, I think we could end right there—on healing. I would like to thank you both so much. Everything you shared is so rich, also to witness this intimate friendship and the incredible work that both of you have done to anticipate and push the field forward. It is actually recasting how academics are going to approach Tibetan studies, including this next generation, many of whom are Tibetan. I so appreciate you both centering Tibetan women in that process and to be the Tibetan women doing that.
Holly Gayley is a scholar and translator of contemporary Buddhist literature in Tibet and associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research areas include women, gender and sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism, ethical reform in contemporary Tibet, and theorizing translation, both literary and cultural, in the transmission of Buddhist teachings to North America. She is author of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (2016); translator of Inseparable Across Lifetimes: The Lives and Love Letters of Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tāre Lhamo (2019), and editor of Voices from Larung Gar: Shaping Tibetan Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century (2021). She has co-authored two articles with Somtso Bhum about Buddhist themes in contemporary Tibetan women’s writings: “Parody and Pathos: Sexual Transgression by ‘Fake’ Lamas in Tibetan Short Stories” (Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, April 2022) and “Capturing the Quotidian in the Everyday Renunciation of Buddhist Nuns in Tibet” (Journal of Tibetan Literature, July 2023).
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities