Apogee Benefit Preview #1
This week we’re posting interviews and previews for our annual benefit on Friday September 25th. Today’s interview features Tibetan writer and intellectual, Jamyang Norbu, one of our four benefit readers.
Tibetan resilience: an interview with Jamyang Norbu
by Tenzin Dickie
I talked to Tibetan writer and intellectual Jamyang Norbu, who lives in Tennessee, on Skype the other night. His Skype handle includes the numbers 59, referring to the year the Chinese army consolidated its occupation of Tibet, an event that radically changed the trajectory of JN’s life. As a teenager growing up in the Indian border town of Darjeeling where a substantial Tibetan refugee community had resettled, JN dropped out of school to join the Tibetan resistance forces based in the Himalayan kingdom of Mustang in Nepal. Still in his late teens, he taught the Khampa guerillas Nepali and military history. The CIA had been covertly supporting the Tibetan resistance but when they began pulling out, the Tibetan government sent JN to Paris. He was successful in his mission and French intelligence supported the guerillas for two more years.
Coming back to Dharamsala, the Tibetan capital of exile in northern India, as director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, JN began to write and produce plays. He was astonishingly productive in those years, writing not only countless journal articles and pieces, but also co-founding Amnye Machen Institute, the leading center for advanced Tibetan studies. When he wrote his novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant account of the famous detective’s missing years in Tibet, he won the Crossword Book Award (India’s Booker) and found mainstream literary success.
JN says he thought of himself when he was a teenager as a Hemingway character, but for me, he brings to mind a Kipling character: Kipling’s beloved Kim, the precocious and brilliant boy who gets caught up in the Great Game and emerges an unlikely hero. Like Kim, JN picked up languages like so much luggage (Tibetan, English, Hindi, Nepali, French) and had an early and defining encounter with the underworld of spycraft. But more importantly, like Kim, the talented, brilliant, and courageous Jamyang Norbu has an irrepressible zest for life, a deep-rooted belief in justice, and a deep, abiding love for his country and his people.
Tenzin Dickie (TD): How did you come to writing?
Jamyang Norbu (JN): I never intended to be a writer. I never studied writing. I got into it in a very roundabout way. Ever since I was a kid, I was very fond of reading. I went to a British style public school called St. Joseph’s – a boys’ school in Darjeeling in India. And it was very lonely for me there. I had a lot of problems and the way you could escape was to read. That school was hard, but at least it encouraged you to read. So I read a lot. But I never wanted to be a writer. I didn’t think much of intellectuals. My big hero was Ernest Hemingway. I read everything by Hemingway from when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I always believed I was a Hemingway character. Well, I was a kid. I played the guitar. I read a lot. One day I read Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, the great novel of the Spanish civil war. And then suddenly it clicked. Before that I read a lot but I was a confused kid. Then I realized that the Fascist army in Spain, that’s the PLA. The heroic Spanish guerillas in the mountains, that’s the Khampas fighters in the resistance. And Robert Jordan the hero, ahem, that’s me.
TD: So basically you went to Mustang as a teenager to join the Tibetan resistance there, in the same way that Hemingway went to war or other writers went to Paris.
JN: I had a very unsophisticated appreciation of Hemingway. Only later I outgrew the macho ideology and developed a more nuanced take on his writing. When I was in Mustang after the Tibetan resistance collapsed, after the whole thing failed, I asked myself what I could do going on? At that time in the world, what was being written about Tibet was really negative. This was the 70s and it was the height of Maoism when Mao had this great cachet with Western intellectuals. The Cultural Revolution was totally misinterpreted – experts in the West claimed it was this wonderful social experiment that Mao had conducted to change the fundamental psyche of the Chinese people. They thought he was taking a people who had been oppressed by the system, people who had been dehumanized over centuries and with one stroke, was turning them into revolutionaries. I felt I had to respond to all this. I tried writing letters to editors. Then you realize how hard writing as a craft is. How hard it is to write in a convincing manner. I needed an education in writing. I was never at university, but I was a great reader. I was, furthermore, a serious reader, and I read everything I could lay my hands on. When I went to Mustang I had two mule-loads of books. I worked out study projects for myself. For instance, I said to myself, for the next two years I am going to study military history.
TD: It sounds like your time in Mustang was basically training, you were reading and training to become a writer and intellectual. Tell us more about that experience.
JN: When I was there I was training but I was also teaching. We had a school. I taught Nepali to the guerillas and I taught simple arithmetic because we had to keep accounts and stuff. We had a journal called Gotok that was cyclostyled and for internal circulation for the guerillas. I wrote articles on the fighting in South East Asia at the time, on the wars of national liberation. I also taught them some military history. I soon came to realize the limitations we faced up at Mustang. The raids were failing and the CIA was pulling out. I realized that the one thing I could do to keep up the struggle was to sit down and write. I had to train myself. I had to build up my vocabulary. I drilled myself with these little cards where I jotted down all those new words I came across. Every morning I would take half an hour to go through them. To have command of a language the first thing you need is an extensive vocabulary. So I started that way.
TD: So you were writing articles for the journal during your Mustang years. Were you doing creative writing also during that time?
JN: I started writing some short stories. I also started doing other projects. For instance, I wrote a history of the Jewish freedom struggle. I wrote it in English and it was translated to Tibetan. I was also writing plays. The Tibetan Youth Congress asked me if I could write a play and I wrote a full three-act play. That was probably the first modern Tibetan play ever written. When I came to Dharamsala, I was at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and I didn’t like the plays they were performing – skits based on Red Army propaganda plays, you know – about how the Chinese oppressed Tibetans. At the end, it’s the good guys and the bad guys all on stage, having a big battle. There’s no real written dialogue. I thought we can’t do that. We have to have a proper play. So I wrote it, a fictional play called The Chinese Horse, (the title taken from a folk-song) about the tragic story of a middle class family in Lhasa after the Chinese invasion. It was the first proper Tibetan play with a written dialogue. People loved it. His Holiness the Dalai Lama wanted a command performance and he enjoyed it. That was my first foray into plays. Since then I have written six. I wrote some comedies that later got me into trouble with the exile government.
I produced a tableau vivant based on Shelkar Lingpa’s famous poem ‘Memories of Lhasa.’ There was a Barkor scene, with lamas and aristocrats and all these people and then in the streets you see animals, donkeys carrying firewood etc., and while these men are playing instruments, these singers come into the scene. And I was accused of bringing prostitutes and donkeys in front of His Holiness. So anyway, I wrote a lot of plays. I wrote an opera called Chaksam about how the opera first started in Tibet.
TD: What were you writing in the years in between, between Mustang and the Mandala of Sherlock Holmes?
JN: I really wanted to write political essays. And I found out how difficult they were to write. It never worked out for me. I was always too angry, or getting carried away. I wrote a piece for the Tibetan Youth Congress journal that’s embarrassing to read now. Zola wrote an opinion piece “J’Accuse,” accusing the French of anti-semitism during the Dreyfus case. I liked that style. After Mao died, the Kashag [the Tibetan cabinet in Dharamsala] was doing nothing. They didn’t even bother having a meeting. So I wrote my own version of “J’Accuse,” essentially asking why we aren’t we doing anything, even when Mao has just died? It was my accusation against the Tibetan government. It wasn’t a very good article, but it served to piss off the Tibetan government.
I had read a lot of Orwell. One day I came across “the Decline of the English Murder”— a very provocative title, basically about all the famous murders that took place in English before the war and during the war. And he shows you the English hypocrisy during the war and when the change in social norms happened and he explained it through popular murders. He wrote a very amusing essay dealing with an important subject, in a convincing matter. And truth. And I thought: that’s how it’s done!
TD: I definitely think of you as following in the footsteps of Orwell. You know someone who writes about justice and freedom and power, whose writing is very political in the best sense.
JN: I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a creative writer. For me literature is about truth. Whatever you do, whether you write novels or non-fiction, that has to be your essential goal. You can’t bullshit your reader (and yourself) – it has to be as true as you can make it. For me that’s really important. And that I think is the quality in writing that shines, that makes you a great writer. When you read a writer like Orwell, or lets say even Gandhi, you can spot that. There’s a certain amount of naivete in some of Gandhi’s writing – but that sincerity, that truth-telling provides a kind of simplicity to his work. You can read and reread Gandhi’s work. For me writing is a kind of exercise in finding the truth. To start with, you think you have many wonderful ideas and you tell yourself: I am going to write this powerful piece. But when you try and organize your ideas, you realize you don’t have full command of the subject. You may have certain sketchy outlines of ideas but when you try and put them down on paper, it’s doesn’t work at all. Then you realize how all the concepts and profundities that we think we have are all largely sketchy and unformed. You have to sit down and work these ideas out, write and rewrite them. It’s an exercise in trying to find the truth, and to express the truth. So for me, literature is in some ways a spiritual exercise, in the basic Buddhist sense.
TD: What do you think is the role of literature in a colonial society? Tibetans live a colonial reality in a postcolonial world. What is the role of the writer or the intellectual in such a society?
JN: In many ways it’s—I won’t say educational because that sounds too weak—it’s revolutionary. It’s opening the eyes of people who because of their circumstances haven’t been able to grasp the truth. They are conditioning you, there’s a whole lot of conditioning that goes on. All colonial societies, all societies under authoritarian states, have been brainwashed to a certain extent by the system. Sometimes in a very sophisticated way like the Communist system, and less so under the British, but whatever, they were still very good at it—you get totally sucked into all that. And a lot of your perception of reality, of truth, is subsumed by what the colonial masters are pushing on you. So you as a writer, it’s up to you—it’s a revolutionary task to open the eyes of these people in a real way.
That’s why for me, the most important modern Chinese writer – forget the two Chinese writers who won the Nobel Prize – is the great Lu Xun. I read Lu Xun quite early. I got all his books from Calcutta. West Bengal was a Communist state then and the People’s Republic of China had a dealership there. I ordered journals for the Tibetan government from Calcutta, and also got all the literary works I needed. I eventually collected all of Lu Xun’s works. He impressed me tremendously. He is the George Orwell of China. He could really speak truth to power, to use a cliché. For me this is what great literature is about.
TD: Let’s talk about your novel, the Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. How did you come to write it? What was writing it like?
JN: I love crime fiction. I think in the Tibetan world I am probably the only expert on the subject. I had read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories from when I was a child. An American crime writer, John Ball, came to Dharamsala in 1969. He had written a book, In the Heat of the Night, which was made into a film with a black detective played by Sidney Poitier. He came to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. I met him over dinner with His Holiness’s secretary. John Ball introduced himself as the president of the “Baker Street Irregulars,” the international Sherlock Holmes organization. I said I had heard of them, and he asked how. I said I had read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. He started quizzing me about the different cases. I knew all the cases inside out. Right there he made me a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. And he said you ought to write a book about Sherlock Holmes in Tibet. I thought, if I am going to do this, I am going to do this seriously. I am not going to do a sendup, a campy thing, you know. I am going to do it as seriously as I can.
So I sat down and got to work. I knew my limitations. For instance, in colonial India even the spoken English language was varied depending on your background or profession. If you belonged to the Indian Civil Service, you spoke very differently from, let us say, a cavalry officer. And then of course the Indian Babus spoke differently… so I made extensive language charts. I was dealing with many languages—of course there’s Tibetan, there’s Chinese, Persian, Hindustani, Turkic, and a whole mixture of influences going back and forth. The English in the past tended to make fun of the Indian accent, especially that of the Babus. But of course I couldn’t do that. At the same time when Kipling wrote about the Babu, he made him a figure of fun, so I was to find an acceptable middle ground on this issue. He [Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in Mandala, a character that JN imported from Kipling’s Kim] has that comic element but he’s a much more profound character. He presents this exterior in order to get along with the British who deal with him in a dismissive way, but on the inside he’s a far more complicated and resourceful person.
TD: Can you tell us about your current project?
JN: I am writing my magnum opus, my “War and Peace,” about the whole Tibetan struggle and everything else, besides, including my own life. My mother’s father was the Governor General of Eastern Tibet and on my father’s side, his family had worked for the British, for the East India Company, so that covers a lot of ground in Tibetan history without it getting too boring for the readers. The book is essentially memories of all the people important to me. I call it a “Literary Journey into Memories of Tibet.” The memories of all the people I knew, my mother, my relatives, my comrades – all the resistance fighters who were my friends, who are now dead and have no one to speak for them. All the brave people who fought in the Lhasa Uprising. I have their stories in detail. It took me decades to collect all the interviews and material. So that’s my big project. Let me finish that. I’ll try and finish it by the end of the year. If people like you don’t interrupt me all the time!
TENZIN DICKIE is a writer and literary translator living in NYC. Her poems and essays have been published in Indian Literature; The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians; Tibetan Review; Cultural Anthropology; Seminar Magazine; Apogee Journal and Huffington Post. Her translations have been published in The Washington Post online, Words Without Borders and are forthcoming from Modern Poetry in Translation. She was formerly fiction editor of Apogee Journal.