Place: Tibet

Poetic Solidarity Across the Himalayan Divide in Burning the Sun’s Braids

The Chinese state . . . is unable to extinguish the fire of protest among Tibetans in exile and Tibet.

For the poets who bear witness, language has been both weapon and shield, but perhaps most importantly, it has always a chance to reach both inward and outward, so that the defiant strength against cruelty may arrive from any direction. The Tibetan poems collected by Bhuchung Dumra Sonam in Burning the Sun’s Braids is a testament to this endless realm of perseverance. In the following essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Tibet, Shelly Bhoil, writes about the urgent and moving works in this formidable collection of resistance and courage.

Bhuchung, which means “a little boy” in Tibetan, was ten or eleven years old when he was smuggled out of Tibet for a better life as a refugee in India. During his escape with a group of familiar strangers in the winter of 1983, this little boy, for no particular reason, held on to the visions of black boots from his fantasies, but had no idea that he would never get to see his parents again. Years later, in a moment of existential rage, he tore apart a notebook of poems he had penned during his college years. Lines from one of the earliest poems he recalls having written are telling:

Like a stray dog I cling
to the dry worldly bone . . .
In a blossoming garden of hatred
this little boy
drowns in tears of sorrow . . .

From the torn pages of this notebook were to emerge Bhuchung Dumra Sonam as a prolific poet, essayist, publisher, and translator.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Awards, book sales, conferences, festivals—poetics in its varied forms span the globe in this week's news.

Our editors pull both national bodies of literature and international exchanges into focus this week with a melange of events alive with tribute, celebration, and solidarity. In Toronto, a wide ranging arts and culture festival bring Iranian New Wave poetry and theatre to its stages. Valencia Poetry Festival proves a worthy debut with enthralling performances, experiments, and urgent messages. Tibetan literature and academia is featured with a comprehensive translation of a classic Buddhist text and a rich anniversary conference. This week’s dispatches are not to be missed!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Tirgan Festival, a celebration of Iranian art and culture, is held between July 25 and 28 in Toronto, Canada. This year’s festival includes some fifty events with participation of two hundred thirty guests, including performers, musicians, writers and poets, scholars, and others.

One of the events is a tribute to Iranian New Wave poet Yadollah Royaï (born 1932). Currently based in Paris, Royaï is one of the founders of “espacementalisme,” a poetry style influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology. The event will include scholars Farzaneh Milani and Khatereh Sheibani, editor and journalist Hassan Zerehi, Tirgan CEO Mehrdad Ariannejad, and Yadollah Royaï himself.

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Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

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What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Brookshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Tibet, North America, and South Africa.

Friday, as you well know, is world literature news day here at Asymptote. This week, we delve into news from three continents. In Asia, Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been following the Tibetan literary discussion, while in North America, Blog Editor Nina Sparling is keeping a close eye on post-election developments. Finally, we go to South Africa where Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs has plenty of awards news. 

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sends us this fascinating report on the Tibetan literary scene:

Some very interesting work on Tibetan literature is in the pipelines, as we found out from writer and researcher Shelly Bhoil Sood. Sood is co-editing two anthologies of academic essays (forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2018) on Tibetan narratives in exile with Enrique Galvan Alvarez. These books will offer a comprehensive study of different cultural and socio-political narratives crafted by the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950s, and will cover the literary works of writers such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsewang Pemba, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue as well as look at the cinematographic image of Tibet in the West and the music and dance of exile Tibet.

Speaking to Asymptote, Shelly expressed concern for indigenous Tibetan languages: ‘It is unfortunate that the condition of exile for Tibetans, while enabling secular education in English and Hindi, has been detrimental to the Tibetan language literacy among them.’ She also pointed towards important work being done by young translators of Tibetans like Tenzin Dickie and Riga Shakya and UK-based Dechen Pemba, who is dedicated to making available in English several resistance and banned writings from Tibet, including the blog posts of the Sinophone Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (who is prohibited from travelling outside Tibet), on highpeakspureearth.com.

At Himal magazine, which Asymptote reported in an earlier column will suspend operations from November due to “non-cooperation of regulatory state agencies in Nepal”, writer and scholar Bhuchung D Sonam has pointed to another facet of Tibetan literature, in what could be one of the last issues of the magazine. In his essay, Sonam looks at the trend in Tibetan fiction to often use religion and religious metaphors as somewhat formulaic devices which ‘leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring’. He sees this trend being adopted by several writers as a challenge to locate themselves ‘between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs.’ READ MORE…