Of Exile, Youth and Writing

Exile is a state of physical displacement and longing for the native land … place of birth, or of origin or sometimes just the idea of home. At a more subtle level an exile is some sort of a social outcaste, an outsider — one who intentionally remains outside the mainstream social intercourse. Such alienation from the popular societal norms may influence, in its own way, the critical judgement essential to any writer, poet, or for that matter anyone associated with intellectual traditions.

Youth, classically defined as “the state of being young”, is a tricky term — at once both definite and flexible. The youth [1] of today’s Tibetan diaspora are mostly born in exile, but encompass those who escape from behind the tantalizing Himalayas. Confronted early in life with the terrible truth of being exiles, compounded by the need to survive in a testing world, Tibetan youths venture into many avenues to relieve their angst; writing seems to be the primary pressure valve.

The literary works of young exile Tibetans are a raw and unpolished burst of energy that springs from their deeply wounded souls. These are sharp, youthful shrieks unchained by convention and coloured by their imagination of a Tibet most of them have never seen. Their outcry is poetry — reflections on woes of exile, an acute sense of displacement and a direct challenge to a freak reality.

Does exile induce writing? Suppression of, and restriction on, freedom certainly does. This is clear from the current sprouting of Tibetan writing within occupied Tibet, which is necessarily a muted composition under severely restricted circumstances.

The authors must toe the strict regimented code of a repressive regime lest they lose everything. Their obstacles are multiple, unlike the odds we face in exile. They have a fierce desire and the creative ability to coin their free-flowing thoughts, but have to curb these for fear of reprisal. They crave to bombard the state’s bigoted mechanism to ashes with their burning words.

The pen is not stronger than the gun yet. Thus, writing remains a challenge and a tool to hold onto their moral strength. Poetry, for them, is a more subtle defiance and the language reflects a veiled response to the agonizing life under ever-watchful eyes of the state’s apparatus.

Their exile compatriots, on the other hand, have the freedom (Ah … freedom!) to express their feelings of longing, loneliness, identity crisis, and displacement. The freedom to write without fear is, thus, what sets exile poetry writing apart.

The red flag flies above the Potala
The people of Tibet are drowned in an ocean of blood
A vampire army fills the mountains and plains … [2]

Chögyam Trungpa wrote this in 1972. Had this been written in Tibet around the same time, the author would have landed for the rest of his life in a forced labour camp. But in a free society creativity can run wild. It can defy convention. At times we see the line blur between the art of writing and absurdity. Freedom of thought knows no limit.

Exile induces writing. Solzhenitsyn, Neruda, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and many other expatriates wrote poignant verses on foreign shores, spending sleepless nights over alien desks in search of suitable words to define their torments. It is as much the strangeness of the foreign shore as the longing for home that commands the exiles to write. The experience of being driven from home, and the uncertainty of exile life, is emotionally daunting. Writing eases the pain. It salves the fear of extinction and rejuvenates the survival instinct.

While the majority of the exile populace accumulate wrinkles on their faces and bitterness in their hearts due to gross historical maltreatment, the poets and the writers chisel the bitterness into enduring images. They let their pens dance to the sorrowful music of time’s treachery to produce rays of warmth. Words, however disturbing, lighten up the burden. Exile is often the dominant force for artists, driving them closer to the reality of life, leaving behind highfalutin’ sentiment and philosophical claptrap.

Why do young exile Tibetans write? Most of us write primarily to exercise creative expression and to assert our identity in a world where we have neither political status nor definite direction; to declare our colour in a spectrum where our wavelength has become subservient to patterns not our own; to make clear in the minds of the listeners the fantastic illusions of life lived in our land churned, chanted and chained through the ages.

We write to reflect the agonies and anxieties of every unarmed and unattended refugee forever moving into the space of others; to create images –iof an old man, born and raised beside a gurgling brook in Tibet, but growing older by the hour struggling to earn his living in the oppressive Indian heat; of a tender African boy toiling his young life away in an underground factory in the US, while his dream of becoming the next Morgan Freeman slowly gets buried under a heap of refuse.

We write to create noises from our twisted past, uncertain existence and wobbling future, in which case most of what we write becomes a bold chain of unchiselled words giving clarion calls for freedom and justice as exemplified in Lhasang Tsering‘s[3] poems. He once remarked that poetry meant beauty and art, which when taken literally would hamper expression of our reality, which must necessarily be painted in crude, harsh and at times brutal words. It is difficult to capture our turbulence in sophisticated and polished words and phrases.

The poetic images created by exile-born Tibetans, based on information sourced from cheap propaganda materials and skewed-patriotism fed in schools can still be accurate and fresh as dewdrops on early morning grass.

Let me sing a song
The rhythm belongs to the mountains
And words to the green pasture … [4]

When I was ten years old, I accompanied my father on a fifteen-day trip to the northern plains — Jhangthang. After crossing the rugged mountains and steep passes, we reached the “green pastures”, a wide expanse of meadows occasionally cut across by slow-winding rivulets. Every now and then we met camping nomads with whom — in a time-tested manner — we gave woollen cloth in exchange for butter, meat and, if the bargain went well, sheep. Pictures of purity and beauty were indelibly etched in my mind during that trip. Now, in exile, my own words fail to convey that moving experience. I have to reach for the works of others.

From amongst the hundreds of us who write poetry, Tsering W. Dhompa[5] seems to have found her niche, left her footprint on the sands of poetry’s world. Her distinctive style, which the American poet Anne Waldman described as “interestingly fractured, cross-genred narrative poetry”, is remarkable both in style and content. Broadly influenced by Buddhist philosophy, she weaves flowery yet subtle patterns which can be peeled away layer by layer. Each sentence is a new revelation, a new thread and an unexpected turn. Vignettes of Tibetan ways of life ooze through her American English. It must be terribly hard to live one life and write about another.

A hundred and one butter lamps are offered to my uncle who is no more…
Every seven days he must relive his moment of expiration.
The living pray frequently amid burning juniper. [6]

Imagination and observation of ordinary experiences in life are essential to write poetry. I was once asked how I thought of putting Bob Dylan, Robin Hood and myself in a poem. Well, imagination is to be blamed. Tsamchoe Dolma‘s[7] poetry poignantly reflects ordinary incidents in life stretching into fantasy and fairytale — an old Tibetan woman’s conversation with a cuckoo, the wedding of a snail queen, twilight’s delight — she invokes them all, worldly and beyond.

The movement of words and the images that exile Tibetan youth create is not a second-hand borrowing but the first-hand experience of traumatized lives. Tenzin Tsundue[8] recognizable with his trademark red bandana, is an archetypical exile-born young man lost between the search for self-identity and protest. Out of his own experience he painfully writes about the sense of not belonging anywhere, a feeling universal to all refugees across the five oceans.

The fences have grown into a jungle
Now how can I tell my children
Where we came from? [9]

Chögyam Trungpa, the eccentric yet sublime meditation master, once wrote, “I have no name, but others call me ‘the nameless one’.” The same can be said about young exile Tibetan poets. We have no name and you can give us any name for name’s sake. But with pulsating hearts of a new generation, ink will still flow from our exile pens, our fingers will dance on the borrowed keyboards inducing words to flash across your screens. And we will continue searching the deepest recesses of our minds for verses still undiscovered and unborn.


  • [1] For an interesting essay on Tibetan youth, see “Identity Interrupted: The Story of Exile Tibetan Youth” by Topden Tsering.
  • [2] The red flag flies, Chögyam Trungpa, First Thought Best Thought — 108 Poems; published by Shambhala, Boston; p.38
  • [3] For Lhasang Tsering’s poems see Tomorrow and Other Poems, published by Rupa & Co., 2003
  • [4] “Freedom Song”, by Thupten N. Chakrishar, Young Tibet, published by the author, 2002, p.8
  • [5] For Tsering Wangmo Dhompa‘s poems see Rules of the House and In the Absent Everyday, both published by Apogee Press
  • [6] “Bardo”, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Rules of the House, Apogee Press, p.62
  • [7] For Tsamchoe Dolma‘s poems see Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, published by Paljor Publications, 2004
  • [8] For Tenzin Tsundue‘s poetry see Crossing the Border, and Kora: stories and poems, published by TCV Alumni Association Nepal
  • [9] “Exile House”, Tenzin Tsundue, Kora: stories and poems; p.23


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