Tenzin Tsundue In Conversation With Michelle Cahill

Tenzin Tsundue is a poet, writer and a noted Tibetan freedom activist. He won the ‘Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction’ in 2001. He has published three books to date, which have been translated into several languages. Tsundue’s writings have also appeared in various publications around the world including The International PEN, The Indian PEN, Indian Literature, The Little Magazine, Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Better Photography, The Economic Times, Tehelka, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), Today (Singapore), Tibetan Review and Gandhi Marg. His work has also been anthologised in Both Sides of the Sky: Post-Independence Indian poetry in English, and Language For A New Century (Norton)




I interviewed Tenzin Tsundue at Rangzen “Freedom” Ashram, Dharamsala in October 2008, some months after he’d been arrested for a march to Tibet. Unfortunately it’s taken a while to present this, but I think Tenzin’s experiences and perspectives are extremely relevant to the political struggles that Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas continue to face.

In the wake of the recent earthquake in Yushu, Tibet, which has been reported as having occurred in China, as many as 10,000 Tibetans may have perished; the 1300 year old Thrangu monastery has been severely damaged, and many monks have lost their lives. The area has suffered intense political repression since protests broke out across the PRC from 2008 onwards. Being in Dharamsala, witnessing the conditions of Tibetans living in exile and meeting Tenzin was an experience that deeply moved me.            




MC:     What came first for you, the impetus for political activism or the impulse to write?
TT:     Writing was part of the education that I received from school, but even before that, from refugee camps, the first education, the first awareness that came to me is that our country is under Chinese occupation and that we have to some day go back to our country. This shock and lament of having lost one’s country and therefore one’s dignity of life was a huge disturbance for me from childhood. Writing came much later.
My concern has always been from childhood that we have to regain the dignity of life from being oppressed, from being a victim, from being a crying refugee to regaining the Independence of Tibet. I don’t want to be a refugee, here, with, or without money, and say that my country is under somebody else’s control. The sense of dignity is very important and if it is not there because I am not in my own country or my own home, the sense of dignity comes from the fact that I’m in the struggle. I’m in the process of regaining that Independence and the struggle is my identity.
MC:    I’m interested to hear about your education and how that has shaped your journey?
TT:     I realised that only my education would assist me to get involved in the struggle and to do anything useful for the struggle. I didn’t have a proper language, and that was my biggest concern. From school we learnt Tibetan and English and even Hindi, right up to the 8th standard. Most of the subjects were taught in English so we had exposure to the English language. But English is always considered the foreign language, the Other language. There was never the culture of spoken English; it was never the culture so therefore it was always the language that you spoke only in your English class. Even in English classes we hesitated and made fun of each other, but we never really got to speak English properly so the feel of the English language both written and spoken wasn’t there, which I think was huge loss and something I had to work very hard on.
In most Asian countries now, there are two or three languages being taught. Sometimes you don’t know what your real language is, the language that you feel comfortable with. Just to acquire a proper language was in itself a huge struggle for me. When I went to Madras I was the only Tibetan student in my whole class of 108 students studying English literature and I didn’t have this language. I didn’t have the fluency, the natural feel of the language. So I worked very hard, writing and re-writing.
It was only when I was studying my MA in English literature at Bombay University, that I started to write creatively, finding myself in a very supportive atmosphere. We used to have a small poetry circle of friends sharing writings with each other. That was a huge encouragement for me. Outside of class I used to attend readings by senior poets: Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jassawalla, Dom Moraes, Dilip Chitre. These Saturday poetry circles were my training ground. My writing seriously started in 1997, when I was 23. 
MC:    Many of your poems and essays express a manifested hybridity. You speak of being as much an Indian as a Tibetan. How important is hybridity for diasporic identities in our globalised world?
TT:    Well I think this multiple identity is the identity now in this hugely mobile world. And I think patriotism is something that is kind of outdated, internationally. For me my country is in a freedom struggle, but at the same time I’m not in Tibet, confronting the Chinese. I’m in India. I’m born here and I think I’m more effective being here. And being here, realistically, I have to deal with the Indian situation. So having been born and brought up here all my orientation is Indian. I feel I am Indian. At the same time, I feel that I have a huge responsibility for the Tibetan struggle, and I’m most willing to do anything required there. So therefore I do have multiple identities, but I know that the Tibetan cause is the most important cause that I want to dedicate my life towards. There are Indians all over the world. And there are Tibetans living in America and Europe who by virtue of the atmosphere in which they grew up are, in a way, European and American but the kind of priorities they keep for their lives makes a difference.
MC:    What writers first influenced you?
TT:    To begin with it was Khalil Gibran. His love poems and political writings in English were a huge inspiration. I’m thinking of books like Broken Wings, Spirits Rebellious, The Prophet. We used to borrow them from the library and keep them within our circle at school in Dharamsala. There weren’t many who knew about this. We used to go right up into the mountains, and read poetry, and feel that we were reading the most important poem. It became a kind of performance in the jungle. Imagine two or three poets lazing around in the pinewoods, reading poetry to each other and sharing candies; (for one rupee you would get ten small candies.) There was a huge excitement about reading, unravelling, the scenario of the Lebanese struggle, and the freedom struggle that he spoke for. We would read his poems as if they were about us and we could identify with the Tibetan freedom struggle. And that’s how the excitement for poetry began for me.
Later on, I read Shakespeare, EE Cummings, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Woeser and Tibetan writers in Tibetan whose new writing captures a kind of a rebellious movement in Tibet. They have been a huge encouragement. I continue to read them and enjoy.
MC:    In 1997 you crossed into Tibet where you were arrested and tortured. The Tibet you witnessed and described was more Chinese than you had imagined. Do you think the Western world still holds a stereotype of an ancient Tibet, a Shangri-La of Western orientalism and Western cinematic representations?
TT:    Sure, I think the Western perspective on Tibet hasn’t improved much; the whole romanticised notion about the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks. But I think what we have been successful in achieving over the past fifty years of living in exile is at least bringing about an awareness of what is Tibet is today. The stereotyping of Tibet as Shangri-La; the land of Buddhas where people lived like angels, levitating and living a superhuman life, I think, was hugely damaging because it immediately recognises Tibetans as not human beings but as interesting characters about whom it is interesting to write about or film.
What the Dalai Lama and Tibetans have been able to achieve in the last fifty years is to at least get the West to perceive that Tibet is a parcel of land, whose peoples’ culture is endangered like that of the North American Indians. And so there are tourists who go there and can witness how difficult life is for Tibetans living under the Chinese. This was especially highlighted in 2008 when Tibetans living in Tibet rose up in protest and people in the West were able to see it. So the Western stereotype of Tibet as Shangri-La is shattered. And this is a first success for us. It’s really damaging to look at an entire people and culture as if these are just characters and mythical elements who can be exoticised in cinemas. Films like Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, do not step beyond the limitations of stereotypes. This is necessary in order for the West to recognise Tibetans as human beings, who have equal capacity for anger, hatred and violence.
MC:     What is your understanding of the term “cultural genocide”?
Cultural genocide is a situation where there’s a disruption in the natural, organic growth of a culture and that disruption has not happened because of a natural disaster but because it’s been artificially imposed. The older generation Tibetans cannot tell the younger generation of what happened in the Cultural Revolution and how much they had to suffer. A silence was created by the political conditions and therefore a whole memory has been erased and hidden. By this strategy, the Chinese government is trying to homogenise the territories that are called China including the occupied Tibet, East Turkishtan, Mongolia and Manchuria. China is flattening all the cultural differences in the name of nationalism. As citizens of China we must practice one culture. Through the practice of population transfer, flooding the occupied lands with Chinese, and basically dictating that the Chinese language is the language of education, administration and media, China is trying to homogenise the culture so its uniqueness will not be recognised. This is what they call a peaceful liberation and the danger is that a whole memory will be erased and people will lose their memories.
MC:    Is Buddhism and non-violence undermining the political cause of Tibetan independence?
TT:    I think what His Holiness is trying to do with the process of dialogue, in itself, is an exemplary non-violent approach. How we want to approach the struggle is confrontational but at the same time non-violent. We want to confront the Chinese dictators and try to address the injustice they are placing on the Tibetans, while his Holiness tries to send delegations, one after the other. But when dialogue is not a sincere process, the dialogue will never work and has not been working. The Chinese try to buy time. In seeking a dialogue we are dependent on them. In confronting and demanding Independence we are not dependent on the dictator, who will never listen, who instead of listening places more conditions on us and therefore tries to stifle whatever little voice we have; a voice that we’ve acquired in exile, in a free country.
That freedom we’ve won in exile is the only power that we have to negotiate with the dictator and even that little power we seem to be losing. We prefer to take control of our struggle, confront the Chinese, and demand Independence and refuse to be dependent on the terms of their negotiation. I’m talking about the larger majority of young Tibetans. They absolutely do not trust the Chinese for any type of negotiation, and largely people think that only an Independent Tibet can really guarantee a future for Tibet. Our demand is Independence, our approach is non-violent, but it’s confrontational. It’s not about delegations or round-the-table dialogue.
MC:    What role do you think the media has played in raising awareness of the struggle for Tibetan Independence?
TT:    Being in exile in a free country means that the media is one of our most important partners. China, because of its business interests has to listen to the Western world. The Western world doesn’t voluntarily support Tibet. Sometimes the West uses the Tibet issue to counter China; they find it useful. Sometimes they are forced to take up the Tibet issue in the interests of public diplomacy, because it continues to arise in the international media right in their face. Before the Bejing Olympics, Presidents Bush and Sarkozy had to make statements that the Chinese had failed to keep their promise on human rights because of the brutality by the Chinese government against the Tibetan uprising. Hundreds of Tibetans were killed and thousands were imprisoned. This was openly reported in the Western media. Poland and Germany, in particular were genuinely interested.
Australia has a huge stake in Chinese business. Even if Australians would love to support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, I don’t think your government is in a position to do anything in favour of the Tibetans while China is actively importing Australian coal and iron ore.
MC:    You have written about protest as a celebration of difference. But is the celebrity status of the Dalai Lama and his adoring Western fans overshadowing the political cause of a free Tibet?
TT:    His Holiness has been created, and has become an icon for peace and sometimes we do feel that he’s becoming more a symbol for peace, and we feel we are missing the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan leader. But I think these are general concerns. The larger-than-life image that he has created is such a power that China is afraid of him. His Holiness has no gun. His Holiness has limited resources that can counteract China but what China fears is the media friendly image of the Dalai Lama. We are only six million Tibetans and China has a population of 1.3 billion, with financial resources and political power, but still in 2008 we shook the political assumptions of the PRC. We own the Dalai Lama’s leadership and power and therefore the Dalai Lama continues to be the symbol of hope for Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet.
MC:    Tibetan poets living in exile are writing in their native tongue and in English. But in Tibet, the Chinese language has infiltrated a generation of Tibetans, and has become the language in which they write. Is this a cause for concern?
TT:    As it stands, the majority of the Tibetan population are in Tibet and they are speaking Chinese. Chinese has a strong influence in education, administration, economy and the media. The Chinese government has made this mandatory in Tibet. English might become the third language. For those of us born in India, English is the second language or even for some, the first language. The patois of Tibetan and Hindi is not necessarily an undermining of Tibetan culture. There’s a latent fear that results if you start to practise other languages, for example Tibetans are speaking Tibetan but then insert English or Hindi expressions. Also some Tibetans expressions are a direct translation of Hindi. We can observe this in the placement of verbs. In Hindi the verbs are placed first while in English the subject placement occurs before the object is placed. Grammatical shifts, the sentence structure indicates these are direct translation of Hindi. This happens in towns where Tibetans are swelling sweaters by the roadside, which they have been doing for the last 30-40 years, and therefore live that life of direct interaction.
There is a cause for concern if our language is being undermined, but at the same time language and for that matter culture is not static, and not something that remains frozen in time. Culture is always in flux; organically developing and we cannot stop it. We may be able to divert it but we are not able to stop it and if we do stop it then that’s the end of the culture. For example if we speak of a genuine Tibetan culture, then this particular phase in the natural flow of our culture is genuine. If we refer to Indian culture, are we talking about post-Independence Indian Culture, are we talking about the Ghandi era, the Moghul period or the Ashoka period? Culture is in a natural flow. We may be able to change its flow organically from constantly evolving but we can’t stop it.
So what is happening in exile, is that the kind of Tibetan we are speaking is a very fast pace, with new idioms that we’ve created which were not there in pre-Chinese occupation times. Tibetans inside Tibet today don’t understand us, and we have thus advanced. We have a reason to celebrate that we’ve created a new language. In this new language there are poems being written, songs, novels and essays. Thousands of essays are being written here and it sounds wonderful in this Indian-Tibetan community. Likewise in Tibet with the coming of Communist Chinese they have created amongst themselves, especially during the Cultural Revolution, a lot of idioms that reflect the new revolutionary anti-feudal, anti-Imperialist tones that speak of the glory of socialism. So all these new idioms are created and they are today a part of the Tibetan language, and are confusing to us, and sometimes so Utopian to us. So the Tibetan languages have been evolving both in exile, and in Tibet, and even for Tibetans living in America and Europe. And there are Tibetans in America singing rap songs in Tibetan.
MC:    What are the possibilities for translation and transcreation of the languages that Tibetans today speak and write?
TT:    I think translation and transcreation are very important border areas of literature but presently there are not many poets who have skills in Chinese, Tibetan and English. But I think that increasingly just as the trend is happening in other communities in India, translators are creating a new genre of writing. There is a huge scope of writing and this area will be explored more in time.
MC:    Do you think that the stories and the memories of the now ageing generation of Tibetans who remember a free Tibet before the Chinese invasion have been adequately preserved?
TT:    There is a very rich oral tradition in Tibetan communities. We grew up listening to our parents’ and grandparents’ stories about pre-Chinese Occupation: the fantasy land of Tibet, the heavenly kind of livelihood they lived, the pristine beauty of the natural resources, and the clean water they always described. This is the imagination of Tibet that we grew up on.
The imaginative Tibet has been preserved but what we’ve lost in the process is how we became accommodated in boarding schools where hundreds of Tibetan youngsters lived together. We never got to hear and learn from parents and from our ancestors during these times. The memory we lost is how the older generation of Tibetans survived in the economic urgency of creating a livelihood, selling sweaters, working as roadside labourers to earn a living. There was nothing in exile. Tibetan children were sent to school while their parents were earning an income as street vendors. And therefore there was a kind of separation between the two generations and we missed learning from our parents and grandparents.
What happened in Tibet was even worse. The Communist cadres used to send informers into the community and they would watch each other. It would happen in areas within China. You were constantly being watched by your own family, your own friends, your own relatives. So you couldn’t do anything considered to be disloyal to the Communist Party. Tibetans inside Tibet could hardly speak about the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the reality of Tibet before the Chinese occupation, and therefore they could not talk about the spirit to fight for freedom. You would be disbanded. Children would be interrogated in this process and if it was found out that they were speaking against the Chinese, they would be guilty of creating a treason.
So there was a disruption in the handing over of the memory that we needed to inherit. This is a huge disturbance.  
MC:    Your poetry seems to differ from Nyam Mgur tradition. It seems less concerned with stylised symbolism and spiritual insight, conveying instead a very real sense of the problems that Tibetans in exile must deal with: a denied sense of home, identity and belonging. Would you like to comment on this?
TT:    I’ve read poetry from Tibet; coming from a traditional background as well as new poets writing in a revolutionary style. Their history, education and orientation is very different to mine. I’ve been influenced by India and the influence of English literature. In the expression of writing I don’t really speak in the language of symbolism. My writings are more monologues, a direct communication. I could easily say the same thing or I could read a poem. The language is very simple, and that’s why I think it works, because when it’s heard people identify with it.
I don’t feel I write from a traditional style or school of Tibetan writing. Neither do I adopt a spiritual perspective that might be expected of me as a Tibetan or as a follower of the Dalai Lama. It’s more an expression of a person without hope. All my writing is constantly in search of hope. The search of my writing is the process of searching for home, physically or in the imagination.
MC:    Do you think writers can make a difference to the humanitarian issues that face the politically repressed?
TT:    What writers can do is to express concerns and to speak the heart of the common people. They speak the truth; they don’t hide the truth or manoeuvre like politicians. So they are loved by the public. Politicians have to work desperately to win the heart of the people, because they’re never trusted.
Because writers tell the truth, they are respected. Naturally they have to bear the responsibility to understand the ground realities; to continue to bear the courage to speak the truth. They can have a huge influence in creating opinions and changing the direction of public opinion.
MC:    What is your relationship as a writer and an activist to India?
TT:    Whether I’m using the language of the writer or the language of the activist, for me the models are always coming from India. Ghandi is a huge influence as well as many other Indian writers: Dilip Chitre, Dom Moraes, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar. I’m indebted to the whole Indian environment and the hundreds of Indian friends I have, and how much I’ve learnt from them. Being in Bombay and travelling all over India, and learning from the Indian community are direct influences, and this is my relationship to India.
MC:    Is there a risk of Tibetan literatures in exile becoming nostalgically repetitive, or without innovation?
TT:    No, I don’t think so. Firstly, we are living in a fast pace modern world, especially here in the Tibetan community. So much change is happening, and we are either documenting or responding to these changes that we are witnessing as well as being nostalgic about an imaginative Tibet in exile. I think there are a host of things to write about, and I think that the poetry that’s coming out is very creative in terms of what is being expressed. It’s not just nostalgia. There is truly a voice of anger, frustration with the injustice and the apathy about Tibet from the Western world. There are solid expressions of anger coming from our writers, like the poet Bhuchung D Sonam. I can see that. There’s no concern.
MC:    What do you think are more important; the verbal or the non-verbal acts of protest and remembrance?
TT:    The trouble with non-verbal protest is that it’s transitory unless you have it published or broadcast in the media so that it enters the imagination and the memory of the public. But even that doesn’t help much and you have to be effective in the registering. Today the media with the greatest impact is film and television. But again the problem is that the memory of the broadcast is short-lived. There’s a barrage of cinematic information being targeted at every household. So a protest of climbing the Oberoi Hotel and confronting the Chinese premier is not a memory for Bombay people; it’s not.
Written memory is present as a reference and we can broadcast it with the use of technology, by the use of blogs, websites, personal community newsletters. We can personalise and present it. This can’t be erased. I’ve not been able to spend much time as a writer. I’ve spent more time being an activist, organising rallies, getting arrested, being in gaol and fighting court cases. There’s been more of all that and unfortunately less of writing.
I think I’ve created a little bit of written public memory.