I’m always looking for Tibet-related fiction to read. When travel to Tibet is difficult and Chinese propaganda so ridiculous, reading is also one of the ways to get new perspectives on this ancient yet changing country.
Here are some short reviews of the three most recent books I’ve read. There are no Tibetan authors this time but check out High Peaks Pure Earth (a website which translates Tibetan writing) for some recommendations. And please let me know with a comment if you have any of your own suggestions!
Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue (1987), translated from Chinese by Flora Dew
This is a collection of five short stories by exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, based on his visit to Tibet in 1985, in which he witnessed “the damage that Chinese rule had inflicted on the country”. The fictional stories paint a picture of a deeply spiritual but also dark, dreamlike and improbable place, which simultaneously references Tibetan traditions, mocks our perceptions and reminds us of our lack of knowledge.
We are always several steps from reality, with stories passed down by characters that the Chinese tourist protagonist encounters, who himself is unreliable due to hunger or altitude sickness.
Knowledge of Tibet is out of reach of the reader.
Just as knowledge of Tibet is out of reach of the reader, the characters are also in search of something: they are a tourist struggling to capture a traditional sky burial on his camera; a student returning from the town in search of his nomad family who is “so torn between the town and the grasslands that he felt as though his body were being ripped in two”; a man seeking to atone for his sins by circulating Mount Kailash until his death; a craftsman unable to leave an abandoned monastery, and a teenage Living Buddha preparing for her final initiation.
The title references the traditional Tibetan greeting, as well as the Western understanding of this expression. However, as well as welcoming and playfulness, the gesture can also suggest helplessness, as Ma Jian himself notes in the afterword describing his visit to Tibet: “As my faith crumbled, a void opened inside me. I felt empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue and begs his doctor to diagnose what’s wrong with him”.
Though the stories are beautifully told and fascinating, we are left with a sense of loss, abortion and destiny being in the hands of another. It’s not surprising that the Chinese government banned this book in China.
Joss Sheldon’s Occupied (2015)
Occupied was self-published last year and is available for free as an e-book. It was written while the British author was living in McLeod Ganj - the Tibetan exile community in northern India – and is dedicated to “Palestinians, Kurds and Tibetans”. The novel is set in a dystopian world where characters struggle against imperialism and corporate control to be at home.
Occupied begins in an idyllic land reminiscent of Tibet, with inhabitants forced to flee after invasion. They arrive in Protokia, where the refugees are met by natives, settlers and economic migrants. As the young protagonists learn to direct hatred for the authorities towards the other groups, to the reader there is no clear difference between each of the four communities.
A look at the idea of freedom and its limits around the world.
Protokia unsettlingly draws on the horrors of present occupied territories whilst exposing other restraints on freedoms in western society. Residents are controlled with propaganda, checkpoints, surveillance, soldiers, arbitrary detentions and torture; meanwhile they ‘occupy’ themselves at foreign chains like “Pizza Home” and “Pizza House” or by buying the latest “Garbie Dolls” and “Lejo building bricks”.
Left unchecked, by the final part of Occupied the takeover by corporate power is complete. To ensure maximum productivity, Protokia’s population is controlled by curfews, sleeping gas and daily happiness pills. A consortium of businesses has sued the government for reducing their profits; residents risks profit crimes by keeping plants or spending less than they earn; one character loses her job due to “those bloody computers […] coming over here and doing our jobs” and – in debt to the bank - is forced to agree a profitable marriage for her daughter. At one point a character is surprised to discover the prison she is taken to is actually her own home.
Occupied is a candid and disquieting look at the idea of freedom and its limits around the world.
The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung (2014), translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman
This novel by Chinese author Chan Koonchung follows the work and sex life of Tibetan Champa, a successful Chinese businesswoman’s driver - and later lover - who is known to others as her ‘Tibetan mastiff puppy’.
Champa and his world counter idealised Western perceptions of Tibet; atheist Champa drinks heavily, isn’t always likable and often treats women badly. His parents describe the Party as their religion and he and his “city boy” friends work for the Chinese government’s ‘Domestic Security’. In modern Tibet’s capital Lhasa, Tibetan, Chinese and Western culture are available for residents’ enjoyment, from nightlife, consumer goods and mobile phone apps to food and art. All are equally authentic and imbued with meaning – one of the novel’s most poignant scenes takes place between two Tibetans in a Beijing McDonald’s.
Champa remains an outsider in his own home.
Despite being a modern Tibetan, Champa remains an outsider in his own home; he struggles with his second language Chinese slang and defers to the Chinese and Tibetan “real experts” on Tibetan Buddhism. His Tibetan identity prevails and is often expressed in surprising ways; at one point Champa regrets that a destroyed monastery next to a new shopping mall will likely be handed over to developers: “It was a pity. I had many good memories of this place. When I was at middle school, I used to bring girls to mess around here”.
The Chinese Community Party’s repressive rule in Tibet – and China – is ever-present whilst never the story’s focus: identity checks, armed police, ‘Stability Preservation’ and imprisonment are just everyday realities which Champa must accept to survive.
Instead the novel focuses on the complexity of contemporary Tibetan-Chinese relations, through the love lives of its flawed main characters. It’s only when Champa tries to follow his dream to go to Beijing that injustice moves out of the background to confront him, and he becomes both victim and participant.
Whilst often funny and outrageous, this novel leaves a predominantly sombre feeling about today’s Tibet and China. But, as a wise old Tibetan man Champa meets says, “nothing lasts forever”.
About the author: Natasha is Free Tibet's Digital Officer. She has been an active supporter of Tibet since 2011, when she spent a few months living in India and volunteering with some of the Tibetan exile NGOs. She works across our website and other online channels - including our 130,000-strong Facebook community - helping to make sure as many people understand the truth about Tibet as possible.