Nostalgia in Contemporary Tibetan Poetics

As Tibetan writers born in exile, many of us are aware that the memory of Tibet belongs to someone else. We grew up hearing our parents sigh — every time difficulties arose – for “the blue of the summer lupis in Kham” or “the sweet milk and butter” — for the home they had to leave. Perhaps they imagined a temporary exile when they left Tibet, or perhaps they found it necessary to view Tibet as their halycon years in order to stay loyal to their homeland. Whatever it may be, their language has in part shaped us. Nostalgia is political in our experience as “Tibetans”, and nostalgia is a recurring voice in contemporary Tibetan poetics in exile.

Secular poetry is relatively new to Tibetans. As the first generation born into exile we are just beginning to articulate our experience of being Tibetan outside Tibet. For this, we’ve chosen to write in English. We are entrusting a language different from our mother tongue to speak of the loss or the absence of a country. These are complex negotiations. So are the questions that accompany them: who is reading our work and who are we writing for?

The pathos in writing about life in exile is marked by an insistence on the loss of a better world. And better world it was if we are to read the numerous writings over the years where Tibet is rendered romantically, and in utopian text, by non-Tibetans and Tibetans alike. As Tibetans, how are we then supposed to remain rational about the condition of exile, the condition of separation, and the condition of being physically and emotionally a “refugee”?

Most of the poets whose work is included in the recent anthology, Muses in Exile, edited by Bhuchung D. Sonam, I presume, have not been to Tibet. Perhaps the definition of home is problematic because we have relied for so long on the elders to render a visual and physical form of a country and home. Tibet is approached with a reverence and an elegiac tone reserved for people and places irretrievably lost. But if despair exists within the writing, it does so as a temporary condition, before turning towards an undertaking of the present and the political: that of political resistance. This convergence makes the writing current and active and gives time its significance and the question — the question that all refugees in the world live with — will we return to the old home? Perhaps I am wrong to read all these struggles within the writings — perhaps I’m only speaking my ambivalence and my tendency to read where nostalgia and reality converge.

Poetry can speak directly to explore and exert identity — to say — this is where I come from; this is where I can return to. All contemporary Tibetans grapple with the contradictions of identity, of being Indian in habit and Tibetan at heart. It is not uncommon, for example, to meet young Tibetans who define “home” by prefacing that their real home is in Tibet and that their lives in Nepal or India are at best “home-like”. They are refugees and staying a refugee provides a link to the imaginative Tibet as well as the existing Tibet; it provides the basis of a homesickness that underlies much of contemporary poetry. In Tenzin Tsundue‘s poem, “The Tibetan in Mumbai“, the streets of Mumbai are the refugee’s “other” where he is found to be truly without voice. He is neither Indian nor is he ever mistaken for a Tibetan. He can speak the language but lacks the right accent. He is, ironically, mistaken for a Chinese or a Nepali — someone representing someone else to those around him and even to himself — thus he is thrice removed from what he is. He is a historical and a political figure swallowed in a stranger’s land and a stranger’s language.

From this place, comes a text of continual negotiation. How does one negotiate, through language, the philosophy of impermanence we all ascribe to (in theory at least) with the rigidity of our memories? This is an exciting, sad, and a knotty place to start from. And because it’s new to us, it provides a freedom that takes the form of hope in poetry — the hope of Tibet’s freedom from China — in spite of the present reality that we cannot return to Tibet. Many poems in the anthology refer to the present as being a preparation for a return to the past — to Tibet. Tsundue writes,

I am Tibetan.
But I am not from Tibet.
Never been there.
Yet I dream
Of dying there.

Every Tibetan has felt this way at some time. The loss of Tibet is experienced deeper ultimately than the experience of exile and that is a fascinating juxtaposition of experience and nostalgia. In his poem “Exile“, K. Dhondup writes,

is a memory of a beloved
bleeding somewhere behind the
high mountains

The beloved has no face but we cannot forget her; for forgetting will signify a loss of our identity as Tibetans.

The burden of introduction, of placing ourselves; of deciphering ourselves; of associating and disassociating ourselves, is a beginning and it’s not an easy journey. It’s wonderful it’s happening and we will see where it takes us.


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