This summer saw the publication of Old Demons, New Deities, a collection of contemporary short stories by Tibetan writers from Tibet as well as from the diaspora. Out of the twenty-one short stories, only four are authored by women. This is by no means a criticism to the editor - on the contrary, Tenzin Dickie, the translator and editor of the anthology, has produced a beautiful work that introduces anglophone readers to the richness and diversity of contemporary Tibetan literature. The point I want to make here is to highlight the scarcity of women’s voices in contemporary Tibetan literature.
When creative writing began to emerge in Tibet, the contributors were mainly men. The first two Tibetan-language literary magazines, Tibetan Literature and Arts (Tib. Bod kyi rtsom rig rgyu rtsal) and Light Rain (Tib. Sbrang char), established respectively in 1980 and 1981, do not show any writings by women in the first two years. The first poem written by a woman, Tsering Dolkar, appeared in Tibetan Literature and Arts in 1983. A year later, another poem by a woman appeared, this time by Drugmo Kyi in Light Rain. The poem by Tsering Dolkar urges those in exile to return back to Tibet, while Drugmo Kyi writes about the onset of modernity. Some might find it difficult to appreciate such poems, but Tibetans involved in the arts at that time, like other ethnic minorities, were persuaded to express in their works the benefits of communist ideology.
Works authored by women increased over the years, albeit at a slow pace. Lauran Hartley (2005), for example, writes that between 1984 and 2004 publications by women in these two journals was at a ratio of 1 to 22. Gender imbalance in the literary arts is not only a Tibetan issue - research done by VIDA, a non-profit organisation that draws attention to gender inequality in the literary world, shows that men dominate the literary world. The reasons for the lack of Tibetan women writers are varied and range from a literary tradition dominated by men to the consequences of lack of education for women to tendencies by male editors to simply ignore women writers. It comes as no surprise, then, that so far only three novels are authored by women, with all three appearing very recently: Dried Cheese (Tib. Phyur ba, 2015) by Khamo Gyal, Flowers and Dreams (Tib. Me tog dang rmi lam, 2016) by Tsering Yangkyi and One Pair of Shoes (Tib. Lham ya gcig), 2017) by Ngaba Tsering Kyid. Tsering Yangkyi’s novel was well received by the readership and by her male colleagues.
The category of women’s writing received a boost with the publication of Ornamental Hook (Tib. Bzho lung, 2005) and Contemporary Tibetan Women Series. A Collection of Short Stories (Tib. Deng rabs bod rigs bud med dpe tshogs. Sgrung rtsom phyogs bsgrigs, 2011), both edited by Palmo, a poet herself. The latter contains 17 short stories written by women and includes some “classics”, such as the award-winning short story The Abandoned Sprout (Tib. So nam shor ba’I ljang bu) by Tsering Yangkyi and Journal of the Grassland (Tib. Rtswa thang gi nyin tho) by Yangtso Kyi. No doubt, the publication of these two anthologies marks a conscious effort by the editor to raise awareness of women’s writing.
Tibetan women writing in Chinese began publishing creative writing much earlier. Yeshe Dolma (Ch. Yexi Zhuoma) has written a film script, In the Remote Pastureland (Ch. Zai yaoyuan de muchang shang), as early as 1957, and parts of her novel Early Morning (Ch. Qingchen, 1981) was published in a children’s literature magazine in 1963 under the title Little Huadan (Ch. Xiao Huadan). The story depicts the life of Huadan, son of a serf, who eagerly waits to be “liberated” by the PLA. The socialist realist style of writing and the topic reflects the official discourse of the time.
Sinophone women writers enjoy a few advantages. They can rely on a long list of Chinese women writers as their literary role models. Most of them received a good education and studied in China. Writing in Chinese is also encouraged and receives higher recognition by the state. The majority of the national literary awards are awarded to works written in Chinese. Yeshe Dolma, Medron (Ch. Meizhuo), Geyang (Ch. Geyang) and Yangdon (Ch. Yangzhen) all received the national minority literary prize for their novels. Works written in Chinese also tend to be translated more into other languages. Pema Norden’s (Ch. Baima Nazhen) Lhasa’s Red Dust (Ch. Lasa hongchen, 2002) was recently translated in English under the title Love in Lhasa. Woeser (Ch. Weise), poet and blogger, might to be the most translated Sinophone (woman) writer so far. Finally, the readership in Chinese exceeds the Tibetan readership. Sinophone (women) writers thus enjoy more exposure and recognition. It is therefore not surprising that novels written by Sinophone women writers outnumber those written by women in Tibetan. Because of the exposure they receive, it is tempting to think of them as representing the most important writers from Tibet. It suffices to say here that the taste of the Tibetan readership differs greatly from the Chinese or anglophone reader.
In the diaspora, an English-language poetry journal was founded as early as 1977, but no women participated in the literary conversations. With a few collections of poems and a memoir, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa might be the most prolific writer outside Tibet. Her prose eloquently describes the complexities of living in exile and her memoir is a moving account of her journey back to Tibet. Writings by Sonam Tsomo, Tenzin Dickie, Tsering Lama, and Tsering Dolkar are also worth paying attention to.
A handful of women in the diaspora only write in Tibetan. Mention should be made of Chukey Dolma, Kesang Lhamo, Tsering Kyi, and Chakmo Tso, all born and raised in Tibet and currently based in the US or Canada. Kesang Lhamo has published a book recounting her own and other’s experiences of being a nun, Tsering Kyi writes poems and has published a collection of her poems, Chakmo Tso, also known under the pen name of Yushun, writes poems and Chukey Dolma won the first prize in a ghost story writing contest.
As we can see, Tibetan women write in Tibetan, Chinese, and English. The topics they write about are as varied as the ones written by male writers - they deal with domestic and social issues (motherhood, divorce, arranged marriage system, Buddhism, and of being a student in China), explore Tibet’s history (Ma Bufeng’s role in Tibet), are love stories, or focus on the search for identity. What is distinct in the stories written by women is that the female character does not merely stand as a metaphor for the traditional Tibetan society. In their works, women have a subjective existence of their own. They highlight, affirm, and recount a personal female experience, claiming thus a space for women’s voices in the Tibetan literary world.
Yangdon Dhondup is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, from where she also holds a PhD. She has authored numerous publications on Tibetan culture and history, and co-edited Monastic and Lay Traditions in North-Eastern Tibet (Brill 2013). Image credit: Kaixian