An Exiled Publisher Creates a ‘Brotherhood Across Tibetans’

In the winter of 1982, Buchun Sonam left her home in central Tibet. He spent five days trekking with his father across the Himalayas to the Nepal border. Only 11 years old at the time, he knew little about what they were fleeing—the decades-long Chinese colonization of his homeland—and why. He also didn’t realize that he would never see his hometown, his mother, and his six brothers again.

After arriving in Nepal, Sonam and his father made a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in neighboring India, home to the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans in exile. Her father then left Sonam with a friend of his family and returned to Tibet without much explanation.

Sonam never saw his father, who died when he was in the 11th grade. The last time he spoke to his mother was nine years ago. During her brief phone call, she promised, “I’ll see you again.” But by then Sonam knew that the political situation in Tibet made that nearly impossible.

Left in a foreign country with no relatives, he said everything was fresh: bananas, dal and the infamous Indian monsoon. His writing and literature became a remedy for surviving the loss of his homeland and family. “Writing seals the pain,” he says. “This is the process of negotiating this truly grueling, never-ending barrage of obstacles and challenges that the Outcast throws at you.”

He became a writer and editor and published nine books of poetry and an anthology. But arguably his more significant literary contribution is as editor and publisher of his TibetWrites, a publishing and online platform for Tibetan literature. Now in its 20th year, his TibetWrites and its publishing arm, his Blackneck, have printed over 50 books and power a small but growing ecosystem of Tibetan literature.

As the Chinese government continues to crack down on Tibet, detain Many Tibetans, including writers and intellectuals, say the Sonam publishers have given the stateless who deal with exile a sense of home, making literature a proxy for the nation-state.

Writer and editor Tenzin Dickey said, “You can’t live your life on Tibetan soil, but you can live in Tibetan literature.”

The idea for TibetWrites started in 2003. After working for a publication in Delhi, Sonam returned to Dharamsala, India and connected with writer and activist Tenzin Tundwe. Like Sonam, Tsundwe was concerned about the limited availability of Tibetan writers, especially the lack of secular Tibetan literature available in English. At the time, Sonam was compiling what he believes to be the first English anthology of Tibetan poetry, The Muses in Exile. But it was just one anthology. He wanted to do more to foster the Tibetan literary tradition.

For more than 1,000 years, Tibetan literature has centered on the Buddhist quest for enlightenment, which Dickey argues is the exact opposite of fiction. In the preface to his narrative anthology, Old Demons, New Godities, Dickey writes that “the ideal of Buddhism has always been the elimination of desire,” and that “fiction, of course, begins with desire.”

Although Tibetan writers circumvented censorship restrictions, Tibetan-run publications in India focused primarily on Buddhism, history, and politics. In the West, Sonam felt Tibetan writers struggled with narratives with a spiritual focus that flattened the Tibetan experience. And he believed that Tibetan editors would best help shape the voice and sensibility of Tibetan writers.

Aside from a short-lived literary magazine founded by a Tibetan student at the University of Delhi in the late 1970s, Tibetan writers had few means to express the lived experience of ordinary people, especially Tibetans in exile.

Sonam, Tsundue and another founder decided to create an online platform for writing from Tibet and the Diaspora. After much deliberation, the three named their company TibetWrites. It was declarative, Sonam said. It called on the world to see Tibetans “as human beings first and foremost.”

The partnership between Sonam and Tsundu has been successful. Within a few years, they began publishing their books under the name Blackneck. Sonam, the quieter and softer-spoken of the two, takes on editorial duties. Tundwe, who wears a red bandana he vowed not to remove until Tibet is freed from Chinese rule, has a more outspoken personality and is in charge of marketing.

Among the books they have published are Broken Portraits, a collection of feminist poetry by Keisan, a third-generation exiled Tibetan, and Wandu’s Diary, which describes the experiences of a high-ranking government official in exile visiting Tibet. in 1980.

Both Sonam and Tundu are working from home, but neither are paid for their work. Until just a few years ago, TibetWrites’ limited budgets meant that writers paid for the printing of their books. In return, they got a platform and a promotion.

In addition to publishing original works by Tibetan authors written in English, Sonam translates Tibetan texts into English. Last year, his translation won the Ostana Prize in Italy, which recognizes writers who have contributed to the preservation of minority language literature.

In an unusual move that carries significant legal risks, Sonam does not require copyright permission to publish translated works by Tibetan authors. To avoid putting the writers at risk, he said. “If the Chinese government has evidence that writers from Tibet are collaborating with defectors or what the government calls ‘separatists’, they can be detained.

Scherry Boyle, editor and scholar of Resistant Hybridities: New Narratives of Exile Tibet, praised Sonam’s reporting for helping change perceptions of Tibet and Tibetan writers. “He showed the world that Tibetans are the authors of their own stories,” she said.

By making Tibetan literature available in English to a wide range of diasporic Tibetans, many of whom cannot read Tibetan, Boyle “extended the Brotherhood beyond Tibetans, beyond borders, and beyond the Himalayas.” said.

Academics are also eyeing TibetWrites. Boyle has noticed a growing interest in Tibetan literature in areas historically dominated by the study of Buddhism and history. Sonam often receives inquiries from scholars and others interested in Tibetan literature.

Sonam hopes to include the novels of young New York-based Tibetan author Rugma Wanjie in her own collection of short stories and poetry, Under the Blue Skies, before printing her work in magazines. I was contacted by the University Press. Anthology.

Although the two never met in person, Sonam encouraged Wanjae to continue writing. “He is a mentor and an inspiration to me,” said Wanjie.

It remains to be seen whether TibetWrites will lead writers to success outside of Tibetan literature. But Tshering Yanzom Lama, a Tibetan-Canadian author and Tibet Rights collaborator, said the success of her novel We Measure the Earth, published last year by Bloomsbury Press, was “what readers think.” “I’m hungry for crabs,” he said in an email. Tibetan story. Dickie also hopes that TibetWrites will launch writers’ careers soon. “If it hasn’t happened yet, it will.”

Sonam and Tsundwe are trying to correct the translation imbalance between Tibetan and Western languages. “Everything we have is what we have given,” Sonam said.

However, very few works have been translated into Tibetan. He is trying to improve it, and has already begun translating John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

As TibetWrites and its readership expanded, Sonam, in an unexpected development, began receiving submissions from non-Tibet writers, including Indian and Western writers. However, he remains adamant that his publications are exclusively for Tibetans, who have little access to more mainstream publications.

And Tibetans inside Tibet are also paying attention. Sonam said he heard from his local friends that writers were asking about writers in exile, including Sonam himself. Knowing that his work is appreciated in Tibet, it confirmed his determination both to the intrinsic value of his literature and to his service to the Tibetan national self-determination movement.

“Until a political solution is found, we must hold on to and build on this idea of ​​Tibet. Whether you call it home or an idea, art does it. I will,” he said.

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