In my previous blog post, I wrote about the honour of being asked to celebrate the work of Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser for this year’s Modern Literature Festival (held in conjunction with English Pen Writers At Risk Programme and curated by Steven J. Fowler), Rich Mix, 1st April 2017. Over the next few weeks, I am going to write about Woeser and her work, and also about my own process in preparing for the festival.
Woeser was born in Llasa, Tibet. Her father was half ethnic-Chinese and was an officer in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). He and his family were moved to a part of Sichuan when Woeser was only four years old. Woeser, therefore, grew up speaking Chinese and it was only when she was admitted to a College minority nationalities programme, that she really started to question her identity and her Tibetan heritage.
As an adult, she moved back to Llasa and started to study the history and culture of her land of birth. She soon realised that the official story she had been told – of a Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet – was a lie, concealing a brutal conquest.
She had already been building up a reputation as a writer and journalist but now she started to document the repression suffered by Tibetan people. This brought her into conflict with the authorities and her book Notes on Tibet was banned. She was dismissed from her job and assigned to ‘political re-education’.
She moved back to Beijing, but she continues to write about Tibet in poetry, essays and blogposts. In mainland China, her books are banned and her blog shut down (although she was able to move it to an overseas server) however she has still become widely known as a respected writer on Tibet. She is kept under surveillance, her movements have been restricted and she has, at times, been placed under house arrest.
For more information about her, and the other writers supported by English Pen’s Writers At Risk programme, see https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/international/writers-at-risk/
It has been a great privilege to get to know some of Woeser’s writings, including her online journalism as well as some of her poetry and her powerful book on the significance of self-immolation as a form of extreme protest in Tibet.
I will write more about her work in my later posts about my own preparation process, but examples of her writing in English translation by A. E. Clark can be found on the Ragged Banner Press website (see link above), including the following poem:
A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife
A sheet of paper can become a knife
—A rather sharp one, too.
I was only turning the page
When the ring finger of my right hand got sliced at the knuckle.
Though small, the sudden wound oozed blood,
A thread as fine as silk, and stung a little.
From paper into knife:
There must have been some mistake, or
Some kind of turning point.
This ordinary paper… a chill of awe.
Woeser, October 16, 2007, Beijing
My Own Travels in Tibet
About ten years ago, I was able to spend a short period of time travelling in Tibet. As a tourist, my perceptions were limited and partial, but nevertheless, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. One of the lessons it taught me was about the politics of language. Despite the altitude of the Tibetan plateau, there were hours of fierce sunshine when my heavy clothing became unbearable. I stripped down to my long-sleeved thermal vest and rolled my trousers to mid-calf. Suddenly I found myself the object of attention. In one village, a boy doubled himself over for a closer look at the tattoos on my ankle. A line of small, black characters marching up my calf. As he stood upright again, he said to me, ‘Tashi delek…tashi delek!’ I knew this phrase so I smiled and nodded back, ‘Hello! Good Fortune!’ The child buried his face in his mother’s long skirt. Suddenly I got it. I realised why my tattoos were attracting so much interest. They were Chinese characters. The language of the invaders. Worse. They were Chinese characters for the words Power and Strength. My celebration of a mended leg-break. As jarring as a swastika in Europe. I hardly dared look at my Tibetan hosts. They were still boycotting shops, petrol stations, even market stalls if they had signs in Chinese. But the reaction of my hosts was also a surprise: not condemnation but sympathy for one whose body was branded with an alien language. Despite the high temperatures, I kept my trousers rolled down for the rest of the trip.