By Shelly Bhoil

Bhuchung D Sonam

Photo credit: Tenzin Sangmo Dharamsala

Poet, translator Bhuchung D. Sonam is the author of four books, including Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics and Songs of the Arrow. He has edited Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, and compiled and translated Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet. His writings are published in the Journal of Indian LiteratureHIMAL Southasian, Hindustan Times and Tibetan Review among others.

Burning the Sun’s Braids is Bhuchung Sonam’s most recent work, perhaps the first collection in English of new poetry from Tibet. This book provides an alternative view of Tibet where creative artists play a crucial role to assert their voice as well as to inspire the ordinary people to carry out resistance against an outside force.

Bhuchung Sonam’s permanent address was stolen.

 

Shelly: What a violent yet necessary, audacious yet logical, and unusual imagery of the burning of the pigtailed-sunrays in the title of your poetry anthology Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet! Can you throw some light on the title and also the intriguing cover of the book?

Bhuchung: The title of the book Burning the Sun’s Braids comes from the poem ‘Farewell Prostrations’ by Khawa Nyingchak who died at the age of twenty-six in 2015 while preventing Chinese poachers from killing endangered golden fishes from Kokonor Lake in eastern Tibet. The cover image is a painting titled ‘Two Spirits’ by Tsering Sherpa, a contemporary Tibetan artist based in California. I put them together to indicate the reality in Tibet today. Readers need to make their own interpretations and conclusions.

Shelly: As a bi-lingual book, Burning the Sun’s Braids accomplishes many things; not only does it cater to the Tibetan and English speaking readers but also reinforces the idea of rooting one’s identity in one’s home language, especially for the exile-born generation of Tibetans who have circumstantially drifted away from the Tibetan language. What was your idea behind translating poems into English from Tibetan?

Bhuchung: In an ideal world, I think, a work of art should not have any agenda or aim. But the world, as it is, is far from our dreams. This is even more so for people such as Tibetans living under occupation and as refugees away from their homes. For the third and fourth generation of Tibetans in exile who are growing far from their culture and language, I hope this bi-lingual book introduces what writers in Tibet are writing about and also inspires them to learn their language and strengthen their sense of identity.

The other goal is to get a wider audience for the poets from Tibet who have been suffering harassment, arrests and jail terms under China. I have immense respect for their courage and the least that I can do is to translate their work into a language that has, by and large, a global audience.

Shelly: The Tibetan language has undergone massive changes in the last few decades inside Tibet where a socialist ideology was introduced into it. In exile too, the Tibetan language had to be standardized in the schools for refugees who spoke different regional dialects. As I am told, the newcomer refugees (those who have come from Tibet in the last decade or so) and the born-refugees (those who were born in India to exiled parents) speak in a language which is mutually intelligible but not necessarily the same. Did you confront any issues of variations in the Tibetan language of the poems from what is standardized in the exile community, and the problem of the un-translatability of certain Tibetan nuances into English? If yes, how did you deal with these? Could you illustrate with an example or two?

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By Anurima Chanda 

shelly-poem-bk

We see the various stages of birth – the birth of a piece of writing, in Shelly Bhoil’s maiden collection of poems An Ember from Her Pyre. She begins at the beginning, when there exists only the turbulent blank that comes before the beginning. The germs of assorted ideas squirming in the brain, while the mind is still trying to process which one of it needs to be carried for a full term and finally given birth to. This is what the poems in the first section of her book – “The Recalling” give you a sense of. Bhoil seems unafraid to let the reader penetrate deep within the poet’s mind space, where everything is still raw, half-processed and unbaked. It is like the dustbin full of scratched out first lines written down on papers that have now been reduced into crushed little wrinkly balls. Here the poet is not yet a mother, but still the one whose egg has not met its fertilising agent. The “dream” of a poem, the imprint of another poem or poet on your poem, the struggle with words, with meanings, with grammar, the play with form, with diction and with dialects, and the lure of stories heard and memories made – millions of these seeds of ideas ejaculated into the poet’s mind womb is put out on open display as they swim towards the egg trying to reach it before the others.

As we reach the second section of her book – “An Ember from Her Pyre,” the union of the two has occurred. As Bhoil herself writes in “Unstitch”, one of her poems, “the word is pregnant”. The poems in this section are more sure of their existence. They are no longer fragmentary. They have now become full grown foetuses, which the poet has carefully nurtured in “the womb of [the] waters” of the mind. The isolated words that had been floating in the poet’s mind, have now been assimilated through “self-consummation” to narrate stories of their own. These tales have reignited the memories of many a “forgotten story”, given words to many a story that have been guarding painful “secrets”, and encouraged the mute “mannequins” to shake off the weight of “scripted roles” and be born anew as “a bud”. Bhoil has carefully shaken out the ghosts of the yesteryears from her “urn of life” and let them form roots of their own, in order to branch “deeper into the earth” and unearth “saplings” of tales bearing the weight of those experiences that have so long existed only between the lines.

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.