Lowell Cook reviews Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet
The past year has been an exciting one for Tibetan literature in English translation. Not only was a collection of twenty-one Tibetan short stories, Old Demons, New Deities, released in October, but at the same time an anthology of contemporary Tibetan poetry, Burning the Sun’s Braids, was published by the independent imprint Blackneck Books. These collections act as companions for understanding the literature being written by Tibetans today, both prose and poetry.
While there have been smatterings of Tibetan poetry in translation across the web for a while now – for example on the excellent website High Peaks, Pure Earth – Burning the Sun’s Braids is the first book devoted to new poetry written inside Tibet. Naturally, such a step cannot be expected to exhaustively cover the vast wealth of contemporary Tibetan poetry. Instead, the poems are selected for their ability to convey the resilience of Tibetan spirit in the face of the hard reality of Tibet as a part of China. Many of the poems offer haunting images of a Tibet caught between the currents of tradition and modernity, while others drive a cold stake into our hearts with bitter depictions of the often tragic lives of Tibetans today.
“Look behind your eyes,” Kyabchen Dedrol writes in one poem, “The snow-capped mountains are melting. / Look behind your eyes / Monks and nuns are dying.” Other poets present a more satirical account, as in Mar Jangnyuk’s ‘Monks Are the Enemies of the Communist Party’ where he mockingly rants on about those damn monks, monks and monks who just won’t get in line with the party!
Under heavy surveillance and censorship, not all of these poet from inside Tibet dare to be so direct. Some poems employ symbolic or coded language, such as in Nyen’s ‘In Memory of Wild Yaks.’ Here, the wild yaks represent the unconquerable resolve of the Tibetans of old, “before the red wind raged.” So while the overarching theme of Burning the Sun’s Braids is one with a heavy political bent, there is no lack of variety.
PULLQUOTE: “The poems offer haunting images of a Tibet caught between the currents of tradition and modernity”
The poems never let us forget that Tibetan literature cannot be divorced from the politics of everyday life. In Tibet, the very act of using one’s mother tongue is a political act in and of itself. As Tenzin Dorje writes in the afterword, “In Tibet, even nonpolitical matters like love, friendship and leisure are never truly free from the tentacles of politics.” Yet this emphasis is also one of the drawbacks of the book. If we understood the contemporary poetry of Tibet to be of an exclusively political nature, we would be missing the richness of the many poems that have nothing to do with politics. Indeed, some writers in the collection attempt to remain apolitical, or to transcend politics. Chen Metak writes in his poem ‘In Nakchu’ how “The crow has the politics of propaganda / The ant has the politics of government money / I have the politics of poetry.”
Steeped in the lived experiences of Tibetans inside today’s Tibet, Burning the Sun’s Braids is an ideal starting point for those wishing to enter the world of modern Tibetan poetry. There is a multitude of writing styles, from the surreal free-verse poems of Kyabchen Deydrol to the metered poems of Kawa Nyingchak with their images of nature, as well as the more narrative style of Chakmo Jam. There is no question that, despite Tibet’s small population and battles with literacy levels, these poets are flourishing in their creativity of form and variety of themes.
So who are these new poets writing inside Tibet? All 13 of the authors in the collection are from the historical Amdo region of Tibet, where a literary renaissance has been underway since the early 80s. That is not to say there are not skilled poets and authors outside of Amdo – there certainly are – but the Amdo poets far outnumber them. One factor might be the Tibetan language schools, established throughout Amdo not long after the Cultural Revolution by the tenth Panchen Lama. Or it may also be because Amdo – which lies scattered across Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces – falls outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and so its political climate is less strictly controlled that of the heartlands, even if just slightly so.
The limited freedom of expression which these poets are pushing to the limit has occasionally led them to wind up behind bars. A number of the poets’ biographies note that they have been jailed for their writings, while others have been detained, had their writings banned, or their notebooks confiscated. Dharamsala-based translator and editor Bhuchung D. Sonam is aware of these risks, and in his opening note writes how he intentionally did not contact any of the poets, so as to not implicate them in any way, while many of the contributors also use pen names. Wielding the pen in Tibet is not for the light of heart. It is a courageous act, which makes reading the poems in Burning the Sun’s Braids all the heavier.
Wielding the pen in Tibet is a courageous act
Of the 13 poets, only one is female, and at least three are monks. This gives an accurate picture of the demographics of the poetry scene in Tibet, where educational opportunities still remain very much limited for women, and where monasteries still act as one of the major centers for education. It was these poems that I was particularly curious to read. Reading ‘Remember Again’ by Chakmo Jam (a woman) and ‘Do You Know the Tales of Our Forefathers?’ by Dhi Lhaden’s (a monk) made for an interesting comparison. Both poems are addressed to younger female siblings, to whom they detail the ways of the Tibetan forefathers and traditional life on the grasslands, with an apprehension of what the future may hold. There are major differences in the way the two poets approach a similar topic. Chakmo Jam’s writing style is gentler and her form fuller than Dhi Lhaden’s short, abrupt lines with many breaks. And where Dhi Lhaden seems concerned with the “this single word called ‘freedom,’” Chakmo Jam worries over her little sister’s move to the city and its distancing effect.
Though concerns with the political realities of Tibet as a part of the PRC may initially seem to take precedence over literary considerations, Burning the Sun’s Braids offers a well-chosen and artfully translated anthology of contemporary Tibetan poetry. As the poets gaze towards Lhasa and beyond to an imagined Tibet-of-tomorrow, we gain invaluable insight into the realities that they are writing of today. ∎