‘…the bulk of Tibetan literature written inside Tibet is not available in translation’: Shelly Bhoil

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By Aminah Sheikh

She read one of her poems with a lot of poise, to an audience sitting in the jungle that played host to the Kumaon Literary Festival, in Uttrakhand. A practising poet, Shelly Bhoil’s first poetry book  An Ember From Her Pyre has recently been published.  But her interest goes beyond poetry. It extends to Tibetan literature, an area in which she is doing meaningful work. Shelly speaks to Kitaab on her role as a growing Tibetologist and poet.

dsc_0370When did you begin writing poetry? 

I remember writing an angry poem on patriarchy when I was in class 8. I dismissed it because it couldn’t be rhymed, which was essential in my then understanding of poetry. It was at St. Bede’s College in Shimla where I studied from 1997-2001 that I began to write poetry vigorously. Back then I mostly wrote in Hindi. My mentor (Sangeeta Saraswat) suggested I drop ‘tukbandi’ (rhyming) and experiment with different styles. Most of my early poems perhaps sound sophomoric or patriotic. By the time I graduated, I was told by my mentor that my verses had reached a certain level of maturity. College was the preparatory ground. A few years ago, I moved to Brazil, I became serious about writing and publishing poetry, this time in English. Poetry has been liberating both during my college life and now in Brazil where sometimes one could feel very isolated!

What led to your interest in Tibetan literature?

This might surprise you, I am a native of Kangra, an exile capital for Tibetans but it was only in 2003 that my interest in Tibet and its issues grew. It was after I attend a talk in Shimla by an exiled Tibetan poet Tenzin Tsundue. Suddenly, McLeodganj transformed from a place of momos and weekend drives to the place of political resistance by the Tibetans. Tsundue’s words still ring in my ears- ‘I belong to a problem called Tibet!’ Having read courses on post-colonialism in Masters, it had immediately occurred to me that our curriculum must concern not just with the post-colonial and but also what is happening to people from the ongoing or living colonies in our apparently ‘postcolonial world’.

Jamyang Norbu’s award-winning novel, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, which I had earlier passed on as another detective fiction sequel, now interested me as a political testament. A humble activist-poet that Tsundue is, he sent me a passionate letter, which I still treasure, introducing me to works of other Tibetan writers, after which I began to combine my family visits to Dharamsala with research. When I approached a prominent Tibetologist in Dharamsala for readings, he tested my intention by saying, “aren’t we ‘chinkis’ for you Indians because of our slant eyes and flat noses, and like many western scholars are you too attracted by the romance of our religion!” I think he was satisfied to know that some of the most beautiful and bold faces I know have features like the Tibetans and some of these are in my immediate family, and that there is a surfeit of religion too in my bhajan (devotional songs) and temple loving family. So what I want to point out is that my interest in Tibetan literature is primarily led by the political crisis and nationalism of Tibetans-in-exile.

Please share some of the work you’ve done on Tibetan literature.

The bulk of my work is still to show, hopefully in 2018, but among the little I have done so far, my most significant contribution, I think, is in the forthcoming publication of Dr Tsewang Yishey Pemba’s posthumous novel White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings. Dr Pemba is the first Tibetan to become a surgeon in western medical science and to have written a novel and an autobiography in English, published by Jonathan Cape in 1966 and 1957 respectively. I learnt about him in 2007 through a photocopy of his first novel, Idols on the Path, which had been resting on an unvisited shelf of the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala. This fine work of fiction is historically significant and also the earliest one to Tibetanize the English language. There was no information about Dr Pemba on the internet at that time. Though the book was serialized in a German newspaper, the Tibetan writers in Dharamsala I spoke with, to my surprise, had no idea then about this novel. But I understand this when I look at the socio-political scenario of Tibetans in the 1960s when preservation of tradition was the dominating concern among Tibetans in light of its rapid destruction inside Tibet under the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It also coincided with the western world’s fascination for the mysterious Dharma of the hitherto forbidden country of their imagination. Besides, the Tibetan exiles were not English literate to read the novel (except a handful of early immigrants to have received English schooling). So there was much to eclipse a secular Tibetan novel in English then. It is not surprising that the second Tibetan-English novel to publish in exile, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, took over three decades.

To return to your question regarding my contribution, I made a research trip to Darjeeling to learn about late Dr Pemba’s life in 2015. His daughter, Lhamo Pemba, entrusted me with her father’s unpublished novel. Looking at its literary merit and fineness, I decided to get this work published. I worked hard on it and got Niyogi Books take up its publication.

What are you working on at present?

At present, I am editing two books on Tibetan exile narratives with my colleague Dr Enrique Galvan-Alvarez who is based in the UK. We just signed the contracts with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield. One book focuses on the literary and cultural narratives of Tibetan exiles and the other deals with the social and political narratives of displacement. I am also winding up my doctoral research on Tibetan nationalism in exile through the study of Tibetan-English fiction. In a few months, I intend to put on computer another unpublished manuscript of late Dr Pemba, Diary of a Tibetan Doctor to Tibetan Mystics and Masters, and send it to some publishers.

Share with us some of the Tibetan writers/poets that inspire you and why?

The resilience, resourcefulness and hard work of Tibetan exiles, including that of artists and writers, that has helped them become one of the most successful refugee communities in the world is very inspiring. Those inside Tibet who in the lack of the liberty of free speech and free press innovatively put up resistance through veiled metaphors and themes in their writings are worth applauding. The Sinophone Tibetan poet and blogger, Tsering Woeser, for instance, was ripped off her state job after she published the anti-state Notes on Tibet, which was eventually banned. She is put under house arrest from time to time, but she continues to risk her life by writing dauntlessly on Tibet. Her works are made available in translation by Dechen Pemba on highpeakspureearth.com.

From among the exiled writers, I am in particularly influenced by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa and Jamyang Norbu. It is not only their works that inspire me but also the trajectory of their lives. Tsering’s mother, who was a daughter of a chieftain in eastern Tibet, was exiled in 1959, when she worked as road construction labourer before becoming the first woman to be elected in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile. Tsering lost her single parent in a car accident when she was 24 years of age. Now what inspires me is the way Tsering has built up her life and made her mother and community proud! She is the first Tibetan woman to publish poetry in the US and her works are taught in creative writing curriculum there. Her poetry is outstanding with startling metaphors, an amazing economy of words, experimental styles, and layering of multiple themes. It needs huge discipline and understanding to write poetry like hers. Also, her dedication to her mother that reflects in her poetry is heart touching. To me, as I have written in one of my poems on Tsering, she is a Tibetan Shravana Kumar who carries her mother in her heart and builds a stupa of words for her late mother in every book of hers. She recently published her mother’s memoir A Home in Tibet with Penguin.

Likewise, Jamyang Norbu inspires me as a self-educated intellectual and a fearless writer. In an interview last year I had conducted with him, he had a very important message for young Tibetans – ‘Be interesting, get interested!’ His evolution as an intellectual and writer is indeed interesting. Jamyang dropped out from his graduation course at St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling in the first year itself and ran away with loads of books to Mustang in Nepal where he joined the Tibetan guerrilla resistance force. After he moved to Dharamsala to serve His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he intellectualized the community in several ways including the writing of the first modern Tibetan plays and co-founding the Tibetan Institution of Advanced Studies. His dissatisfaction with the establishment in Dharamsala and the West’s appropriation of the Tibetan cause by romantic ideals turned him into what can be called the Tibetan version of an angry young man. He began to write mordacious prose essays exposing the pitfalls in the ideology and policies of the exiled government, bursting the Shangri-La myth of the western patrons of exiled Tibetans and criticizing the Chinese government’s imperial occupation of Tibet. Norbu’s essays are backed up with proper research and carry an unflinching veracity that makes them worth reading.

What are the challenges you face in your endeavour to promote Tibetan literature?

The major challenge comes from the fact that the bulk of Tibetan literature written inside Tibet is not available in translation. A lot of it, as I am informed, has to be first smuggled out, which is a task in itself. And though there are sufficient dharma books and political testaments written in exile, the secular literature by the Tibetan exiles is in a nascent stage. A lot of Tibetans are writing poetry and stories in English, and publishing it too using alternate platforms, but not all of it has literary merit. Even then, the process of Tibetans falling for pen itself is significant, for it speaks about their aspirations as exiles. Some fine Tibetan writers like Tsundue have used literature as a soft power resource to garner international support for the cause of Tibet.

How do you plan to bring about wide acceptance/readership, will you consider translations in Indian languages or other South Asian languages? 

Of course, translation is the foremost vehicle to promote literature and cultural dialog. I wish I had the time to learn the Tibetan language, for there is a necessity to translate works in this area. A lot of available translation is on the religious texts of the Tibetans. Some Tibetologists I know are translating stories and poetry from Tibet. In my capacity, I am collaborating with a Brazilian poet Gisele Wolkoff on an Indo-Brazilian translation project; it’s too early to speak about it. In the past, I have made efforts to bring some attention to the Tibetan-English writings through guest-editing on this topic with the exile historian Professor Tsering Shakya an edition of Muse India which has a wide readership. I have also published papers and interviews of Tibetan writers in some mainstream academic journals such as by Routledge.

Tell us about your first book of poems An Ember from Her Pyre.

An Ember from Her Pyre was waiting on my desk for several years. I was in no haste to bring it out, so first I sent individual poems to journal editors. Each rejection feedback brought me a lesson and each acceptance some confidence. I improved my poems as I went along. Finally, in 2015 I sent the manuscript to Writers Workshop. This publisher is recommended as one of the most prestigious poetry publishers in India that brought out the first works of writers such as Nissim Ezekiel, Kamla Das, A K Ramanujan, Vikram Seth and other prominent Indian-English poets. I was very thrilled when the Director Prof Ananda Lal sent me the acceptance letter. The book was unveiled on October 2 by the Honourable Governor of Himachal Pradesh Acharya Dev Vrat during the International Film Festival Shimla. A formal launch is scheduled during the forthcoming Delhi Poetry Festival.

The title An Ember from Her Pyre is intended to be a reminder of the sati-pratha (widow burning) and the unfinished or to-be-continued project of liberation. The book, however, is not an attempt to frame another feminist slogan; it transcends the gender walls to penetrate in other social issues of injustice in our society such as pertaining to child victims, exiles, poverty, marriage, racial bias, sex workers, accidents, love, death and memory, and that of compassion, understanding, gratitude and soulfulness. The fifty-six poems in this collection are spread over four sections which respectively deal with the philosophical, feminist, existential and spiritual themes.

What comes next from your poetry stable?

My second poetry collection is titled Laatoo, the word in Kangri (the language of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh) for light bulb. My mother struggled a lot for the education of her three children. She was often told – ‘ina baccheya tijo laatoo ni lagana’ (these children will not put on you light bulbs or brighten your name). This book is for all the self-respecting and hard working women. The first draft of the book has 55 poems ready, but I might take a long time to bring it out because I have disciplined myself into distancing from my poems by several months and then re-visiting them with a critical eye of an editor. Also, I need to divide time between my other book projects.

Who are the poets that inspire you through their literature?

Margret Atwood. It’s the connection between the wilderness and the human psychology in her works that first inspired my English poetry. I have learnt a lot from the unconventional metaphors used by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa in her Tibetan-English poetry. Kamla Das gives me the courage to bring the erotic in my verses, which is always intended as social satire or to untangle female body from the taboos built around it. Sudeep Sen’s poetry teaches me discipline in the use of form and style. Khalil Gibran’s philosophical poetry is an ideal I am far from reaching but I do aspire while writing those spiritual pieces of mine. The desire of the union of the atma and parmatma (the soul and the Divine) recurrent in Mahadevi Varma’s romantic poetry has a direct bearing on my Hindi poetry.

Aminah Sheikh is the online Editor of Kitaab.

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