On Exile-Inner and Outer: A Tibetan Odyssey; Martin Kovan reviews Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

On Exile—Inner, and Outer: A Tibetan Odyssey in Coming Home to Tibet: a Memoir of Love, Loss, and Belonging by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (Shambhala Boulder, 2016)

by Martin Kovan

As its title suggests, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s Coming Home to Tibet (Shambhala, 2016) is a memoir of exile with something of a difference: the return to a home once lost is possible, and what is found there can be told. On its first page Dhompa writes of her Tibetan-born mother: “She disciplined her memory to give up counting her losses. She gave her suffering one name: exile.” (1) The home to which Dhompa’s mother waits “all her exiled life” to return is a “more abundant and happy place” (2) than those of their newfound lives, and which she, but not her daughter, is ultimately denied.

Dhompa describes herself as “born in exile” in India, raised as a refugee and settling as an adult in the U.S.A., a successful poet (“the first Tibetan female poet to be published in English”) writing in a third or fourth tongue. Her memoir describes her repeat visits to the Eastern Tibetan motherland to complete an arc her mother began, seeking to resolve it on her behalf, and perhaps laying to rest some still haunting ghosts of her own on the way.

Dhompa’s own return, and the ambivalence it entails, prompts in Tibet a repetition of the projection to an unknown future revelation her mother has instilled in her during their shared life in exile (in India and Nepal). Dhompa’s aunt Tashi

 asks the same questions, sits in the same spot, and repeats the stories I know by heart. I rewrite notes I took down three, five, ten years ago. Quite often I have to resist the urge to go back to my room when irritation or fatigue overcomes me listening to the unnecessary and long diversions in the storytelling, but it is precisely at these moments I remind myself—a story does not have to make sense. Someday, I tell myself, the relevance and the wisdom of these moments will be revealed to me. (34-35)

This candour marks a wise humility before the many untold and untellable aspects of her own and others’ stories, including those one tells oneself. Dhompa’s memoir of going ‘home’ to Tibet is the story of the degree to which such is finally possible, and what it means even when it is. An understated weight burdens a narrative only occasionally leavened with the light of the Eastern Tibetan plateau that somehow salves the damage of history:

In the evenings the clouds are sometimes bandages for the sky’s scars. Perhaps it is my nostalgia for this place that gives the sky such grandness. I view the sky as though it belongs only to this location […] It is more beautiful than I imagined. The land is vast and unhindered by trees, highways, electric poles, or tall buildings. There are few distractions other than what is offered by the imagination. But this will not last for long. (103; 106)

This final caution is typical of a warning note sung quietly throughout the memoir. The modernisation of the traditional khampa nomadic culture of the Dhompa family’s native Kham region is frequently pitted against a much older, hard but tested relation with the vast grasslands and their unremittingly harsh conditions of life.

Dhompa is unsparing in her portrait of the often violent hardships and injustices of each: the coercions of the Chinese-enforced 21st-century offer conveniences many former nomads prefer, despite the loss of land, tradition, and earlier forms of independence; but the old ways also kept women, in particular, subjugated to a religious superstition and patriarchy itself subordinate to feudal dependencies on clan and clerical authority.

Yet, those same dependencies provided for khampas the foundations of personal and social security still possible within the stark constraints of nomadic life: the presumed lost world of exile. Dhompa questions and rues the insufficiencies of both sides of the divide between tradition and its deracination, ready to note facts and anecdotes with a documentary thoroughness. Her own fate is to find herself irremediably between worlds, to neither of which she properly belongs, as a woman or a writer, yet is irrevocably bound.

The memoir of exile is unsurprisingly a prominent genre in Tibetan diasporic literature in English: well-known examples include those of the 14th Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa, among many others primarily of a Buddhist religious-hagiographical, but also ethnographic and historical, character. These and texts like them offered, on their first appearance, a vital hermeneutic function for a Western audience hungry for Tibet lore: social and cultural histories of a threatened and archaic, if romanticized, authenticity.

The trope of the mystical snowbound ‘Shangri La’ fed into many early instances of a Central Asian imaginaire: from heroically framed fictions and films of the 1930s and post-war period, up to their only minimally updated versions of a Western framing of the Tibetan other, especially in a series of films of recent decades (notably, in Scorsese’s Kundun, itself a cinematic melding of the Dalai Lama text with Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, also filmed). A veritable industry of Tibet and Buddhist-themed film and text has ensued, but one result of the commercial dissemination of the Tibetan imaginary has been a limiting of its literary spectrum. Of the latest state of play of Tibetan diasporic literature in English, a current Wikipedia entry claims:

Especially popular are autobiographies of Tibetans for an American and British audience. However, pressures from the popular expectations of Western readers for […] the “authentic Tibetan” limit success to authors who identify themselves “as Buddhist, as nationalist, and as exiles”. Tibetans who actually live in Tibet, or whose experience incorporates aspects of Chinese or Western culture, are seen to be “tainted”.

Dhompa’s narrator passes all three criteria, but in very qualified terms, and in focusing on the latter ‘taints’ resists the homogenising trend. Perhaps only after a half-century of part-imagined projection, can a comparatively sober account of nearly seventy years of occupation be told in the demythologised voices of internal Tibetans or those like Dhompa’s, close yet distant enough as a direct and indirect participant to perceive the reverse sides of which earlier accounts, gauzed by different curatorial concerns, were unaware.

To the degree Dhompa’s account of her mother’s exile, and so indirectly her own, rehearses a well-trod twentieth-century trope, all the necessary ingredients are in place: political turmoil, totalitarian persecution, perilous journeys to comparatively safe haven, separation from family, gaps and mistranslations of oral history, memory, identity. Dhompa’s memoir has these aplenty and, given the ongoing Tibetan crisis, in a still acute form.

She sustains an unflinching view of the many truths of displacement, working against the simplifying trend of the packaged theme-tour of a 21st-century, Sinicized ‘real Tibet’. It demonstrates how polyvalent Tibetan reality is, especially for those personal histories, like hers, so deeply enmeshed in and alienated from it. The text is also a continuation of the earlier phase of introducing Tibet to a global readership: part travelogue, ethnographic survey of traditional nomadic culture, social history, and personal confession, it sits, in terms of its discursive and affective foci, and their linguistic strategies, between all of those.

Dhompa is known primarily as a poet (with three full-length volumes, among other work, to her name), and an abundance of well-turned metaphors rise from a sometimes flat descriptive exposition: one relative “has undulating flesh, abundant and light, and a singing voice that echoes the tenderness of a teenage girl’s elbow” (64); while “With its temperate summers and the majestic backdrop of mountains, Dharamshala has been an auspicious sanctuary for Tibetans.” (45) The poet and the ethnographer together weave a portrait of Chinese Tibet that also limns its author: as if the wishful subject of an elusive otherness must repeatedly concede to a catalogue of often grim time-bound facts.

This stylistic division between objectivization and phenomenology reflects a host of other polarisations. These are various: between tradition and the modern—above all between the family home in rural Kham and the modernised West, but also between modern Sinicized Tibet and the ‘wild east’ of the rugged high country; between an opaque and unreliable third-person testimony and the first-person direct confession (at least one chapter thematizes Dhompa’s various family members’ ‘insider’ versions of shared stories contrasting with her own past and present ‘outsider’ interpretations of them). She contrasts a religious atavism and its mythopoeic certitudes, against her own acquired but ambivalent secular scepticism of the pre-modern world of superstition.

The apparently fixed identities of Dhompa’s Tibetan relatives resist her own fluid, uncertain and displaced one. The pre-1959 and post-occupation Tibetan lifeworlds of relative political and sovereign autonomy (with age-old clans and chieftains perpetuating all the forms of a feudal, hierarchised religious society) contrast with the post-Cultural Revolution flattening of the same rich social-religious layers of identity—only to introduce new ones where Tibetan ethnicity is at the lowest and most disempowered of its social rungs. And all of this resonates, ironically, against the backdrop of promises from Beijing of equality, economic liberalisation and the benefits of 21st-century technology, speed and efficiency.

Another of the many ironies of these polarisations is the degree to which Sinicized Tibetans themselves, including the poet’s own young and old family members, have readily taken to some of those changes—’a new four-star hotel, a twenty-two-story apartment building shimmering in glass, KFC outlets, coffee houses, and new public buses’ (6)—while sustaining the unbridgeable rift between the ‘elders’ who have endured and survived the shattering turn of 1958 “when time collapsed” (dhulok) (36) and their Chinese usurpation amid so many generic shifts of a 21st-century globalised order. Dhompa’s narrator sits, poetically and empirically, right in the uneasy midst of their now sepia-toned cultural and personal tragedy and her own globalised generation that in many respects risks consigning the Tibetan history of the prior century to a netherworld of forgetting.

One of the important tasks of Dhompa’s memoir thus lies in its attentive restitution of some of that cultural memory, before its guardians disappear in the wake of the changed social and cultural landscape of a homogenised, globalised, deracinated and diminished Tibetan ‘fatherland’ (phayul). Dhompa claims to be someone in a permanent state of exile from that fatherland, but to what does this refer?

Her restitutive project uncannily illustrates the Derridean sense in which the “more abundant and happy place” to which much of the exile’s psychic and emotional life aspires as a more-privileged present, exists as a virtual chimaera fulfillable only as unfulfillable. It exposes the degree to which the fatherland can and will only exist as a trace or image of something that survives just by virtue of the exercise of the notion of exile, sustained among others by the poet herself. Dhompa writes: ‘I have lived my life defined as a refugee in Nepal and India, a resident alien and immigrant in the United States. At last, I am a Tibetan in Tibet, a Khampa in Kham—albeit as a tourist in my occupied and tethered country.’ (94)

In this and in many other minutely examined ways, the poet is unlike her Tibetan (semi-)nomad family: as she suggests, she is a Khampa of one (where even their own unicity of identity is increasingly fractured). Its necessary condition, moreover, is precisely its supplement: she can only be so as a tourist, itself defined as someone who is not from the place of visitation, and stays there only temporarily before leaving again.

This apparently conclusive return to the Buddhist theme of impermanence only confirms much of the traditional religious subtext Dhompa’s mother has impressed upon her daughter in exile all along. However, it is in fact twice allusively noted, if easy to miss, that the mother does pay at least one visit back to Tibet, but its significance for the narrative is elided: we learn nothing of what must be an intriguing response to this shift in the terms of exile.

Rather than impermanence, it is perhaps the resort to substitution that elision allows—of an appeal to an inauthentic real but impermanent state—that is more deeply at work in the willing nostalgias of exile and its self-representations. A passing anecdote metonymizes the primacy of the absence of home, truth, centre, certainty, and self:

Each March my mother sent me a birthday card extolling in cursive print the joys of having a daughter, and of love, that love of a mother for her child not as I had known from her but as the greeting cards made known in florid language. Even though individual birthdays were a new concept to her she learned about greeting cards and gifts and said she did not want me to feel excluded from the customs of my time. Her date of birth was unknown. (107)

The strength of Dhompa’s memoir lies in this kind of acute attention to the quotidian but strange event serving as a deep poetic metaphor. Her liminality is due not merely to the overt loss of her geographic homeland (an actual phayul) but still more the apparent loss of a stabilising idea of her ‘Homeland’ (a virtual phayul) to and upon which so much of Tibetan diasporic self-representation refers and relies—in India, Nepal, and all the exile communities spread through the liberal-democratic West. Dhompa writes:

An imagined country has a tenacious grip, perhaps more so than a known one, for there are no disappointments or memories to contradict the ideal. The imagined country is an ideal, and within it, a perspective of the motherland gathers meaning. In this lies the irony of a refugee’s state of mind, seeking to establish roots in a place that bears very little resemblance to what it becomes over time. (218)

Among that global Tibetan diasporic community, and its sizeable Western fraternity, ‘the imagined country’ of Tibet is replicated, marketed and indeed sold as a privileged commodity of cultural capital: a phantasmatic object in which the aspirations of Buddhist Tibetan and Western selfhood invest a genuinely fulfilled future. Yet the degree to which the ideal might be realised is in perhaps inverse proportion to the degree to which, as an always deferred object, it is successfully sustained in a circulating cultural economy.

This also means that an ideal of a free and authentic Tibet, of its unstained past, of fatherland, sustains a fetishized power of the sacred to the degree that it remains unrealisable under conditions of Chinese geopolitical hegemony—in which Western capital is tacitly implicated. If the real sovereign Tibet has in fact been permanently sundered, then by the same token a global capitalism guarantees that a virtual ideal Tibet can endure indefinitely (indeed, much as its commodified ‘Buddhist’ double of a kitsch ‘Shangri La’ has, replete with levitating monks, miraculous phenomena, supernatural proofs, and so on). The unhappy irony of this is that it is only the tragedy of the former that proves the necessary condition for the triumph of the latter—something on which Beijing appears to be doggedly trying to capitalise.

Conditions inside an actual geographic ‘Tibet’ that is neither of these, are both more ordinary and more strange, as Dhompa’s text admirably reveals: whatever survives of ‘authentic’ Tibetan and nomadic culture inevitably morphs into something novel and untested, not merely by virtue of the Chinese juggernaut but also the encroachments of a global technocratic order. What has been lost, for the contemporary Tibetan conscience (personified in Dhompa’s probing narrator) is not merely a place and its firm roots of an anachronistic culture, but their possibility of survival in the same form. One of the new features of 21st-century Tibetan literary self-representation is surely that Communist China as a prime antagonist is only one among a much wider field of global forces that Dhompa’s not-literate khampa family are only passively able to comprehend.

Dhompa’s beautiful memoir registers a final, but radical, elision. It is only in its last (supplemental) page of Epilogue that a direct authorial address gravely references the seismic phenomenon of Tibetan self-immolation in which since 2009 over 155 people have burnt themselves, most usually, to death. Coming Home to Tibet was first published in India in 2013. The relative absence in the body of the memoir of its own real traumatic climax replicates the social haunting already conditioning its writing; (nor does the U.S. edition of 2016 expand on this ongoing crisis). Its retroactively dark irony lies in the fact that its central locale is the same eastern Kham region (the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan) which has been the origin and epicentre of so many Tibetan deaths by fire—not least of many nomadic khampa herdsmen and women, such as those Dhompa brings so faithfully to life.


MARTIN KOVAN is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His essays, poetry, short fiction, literary reviews and articles on ethics, politics, North and South Asian issues and Buddhism, have been published widely in Australia and overseas. In 2018, he is graduating with a PhD. in philosophy at Melbourne University and completing a novel of which the story published in Mascara Literary Review (Winter, 2018) is the first chapter.