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.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities