ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
Under the Blue Skies
Bhuchung D. Sonam (Editor)
378 pages, 2022, 350 INR (Paperback)
Reviewed by Jigme Wangchuk
Under the Blue Skies: A Tibetan Reader, edited by Tibetan writer and poet Bhuchung D Sonam and published in 2022, contains writings from Tibetans that mainly revolve around the subject of the loss of one’s country, acclimatization to life in exile, negotiations on one’s identity arising from a sense of physical displacement, and the effort to link multi-generational histories. The anthology (hereafter referred as the Tibetan Reader)“ divided into fiction, poetry, and non-fiction and does not necessarily portray the latest writings in Tibetan anglophone literature. Instead, through the interspersing of short-stories, chapters from novels, old and new poetry, memoir, and political ideology, the book captures snippets of Tibetan life beginning with the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile in the late 1950s to the eventual migration of Tibetans to the West.
Narratives of exile, especially pertaining to return towards homeland and the fleetingness of life in exile, dissipate and cover new grounds in the Tibetan Reader. In “Lonely Women,” the protagonist wanders about Japan, observing similarities in the lives of other women and ruminating on the transient nature of the writer’s childhood. In Zumski’s Snowlion, a young Tibetan child raised in America fantasizes about seeing a snowlion on her holiday to Dharamshala, marking a remarkable shift in exilic perceptions about the continued struggle for the Tibetan cause into the indeterminate future. In “Nyima Tsering’s Tears,” an innocuous Tibetan monk from Lhasa is exhorted by Chinese officials to attend an international event on Tibet. When Nyima Tsering arrives at the event, he is greeted by angry Tibetan protestors who accuse him of impersonating a Tibetan monk. Here, one witnesses the juxtaposition of two opposing political realities: the continued occupation and assimilation of Tibet within China, and the active and vehement negation of Chinese rule in Tibet by Tibetans living in exile.
Many of the fictional pieces gaze into the past, redrawing those circumstances in pellucid fashion what once must have seemed a never-ending phenomenon in Tibetan exilic life. In “Letter for Love,” Mr. Greg finds a companion in a Tibetan woman who runs a shop in Nepal and is extremely cautious about avoiding certain subjects in letters that Mr. Greg might disapprove of. From a sea of Tibetans, Mr. Greg pulls out the figure of Pema, indicating that period when sponsors from the West transformed Tibetan lives, most often the lives of unassuming Tibetans. Other short pieces recall events, people, and places situated firmly within exile. In “Winter in Patlikuhl,” Momo Pasang stoking the fire in the kitchen signifies for the narrator the remnants of her childhood inextricably linked with feelings of displacement and the loss of homeland familiar to those who grew up in Tibetan schools.
Poems within the Tibetan Reader deal variously with concepts of home, identity, politics, religion, and exile. The immediacy of the loss of a country or home—often used interchangeably—is palpable in poems like ‘Exile House,’ ‘When it Rains in Dharamshala,’ and ‘When was I Born?’ while poems such as ‘Pilgrimage,’ ‘Exile,’ and ‘When I Lose my Red Cheeks’ slowly gather distance from Tibet, hinting at contemplations on the exilic experience and the poet’s own identity. The self-effacing nature of poems dealing with the loss of homeland is juxtaposed against poems that hint at the realization of the self, often achieved through the poet’s stance on the role played by religion, exile politics, and Tibetan history. In ‘Third Lesson,’ the poet questions the nature of death and the foreignness of belief systems that ascribe a totalizing narrative to the concept of living and dying. Similar focus attends poems such as ‘Geyser’s daughter’ which deal with Tibetan exile politics that shun the political participation of Tibetan women. Poems like ‘Pilgrimage’ and ‘When the Impossible Arrives’ reimagine the violence of an imminent invasion and the hardships incurred by Tibetan families in deciding to migrate. In making sense of new lives within old histories, poems within the Tibetan Reader reflect personal experiences of Tibetans on loneliness, identity, loss, displacement, and longing.
Non-fictional writings in the Tibetan Reader consist of travel memoirs, portraits, political ideology, and personal memoirs. Tibetan travellers, conscious of China’s impact on the lives of Tibetan people in Tibet, are appalled by the seismic cultural shift as a result of China’s assimilation of Tibet. In “A Stranger in My Native Land,” Tenzing Sonam provides an account of the extent of this assimilation as he searches for the remnants of a place that now only exists as little clues. On the other hand, Kunsang Dolma’s “Fiasco at the Disco” situates the reader within the churn of exile drama in Dharamshala where tourists fall in love with the landscape and the local people, and where tin-roofed local hotspots still indicate the presence of a thriving youth culture. Other pieces recall fond memories of people associated with the narrator’s childhood, public protests in Dharamshala, and borderland experiences.
Under the Blue Skies: A Tibetan Reader offers much more to the first-time reader of Tibetan anglophone literature than to those familiar with Tibetan writings. The writings span decades, and the inclusion of fresher elements deny the essentialization of the Tibetan experience into one coherent, digestible mass. At certain places, the inclusion of chapters from novels or lengthier works within the collection feel incomplete and incongruous, especially considering their inclusion alongside short stories. The absence of page number reference in the index and slight oversights in editing intervene in the reading process. Despite the numerous challenges involved in publication, this anthology from Blackneck Books raises pertinent questions that are bound to affect those who are concerned about the future of the Tibetan diaspora.
Jigme Wangchuk is a writer and communications professional who currently works with a non-profit in Dharamshala, India. He holds a master’s in English from Ambedkar University in New Delhi and a bachelor’s in history from Delhi University. He has previously worked as a journalist for Indian news media organizations like the Quint and NewsX.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities