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Old Demons, New Deities coverI want to preface this review by acknowledging my relationship with the text, and also those places where I lack the lived experience to comment on it. While I am marginalized in the United States for being Chinese American, in China and the contested regions around it I am part of the Han majority. Han hegemony actively works to sinicize non-Han peoples, as we are currently witnessing with China’s Uyghur concentration camps. Tibetan people, their cultural productions, and their livelihoods have also been suppressed in the name of assimilating to Han norms. In this review, I hope to amplify the Tibetan voices in Old Demons, New Deities without sinicizing their stories or recentering them on the West. While I make my best efforts, I acknowledge that I may fall short of my goal and welcome feedback on how to bridge that gap.

I liked the first halves [of movies], though. I didn’t need to know the ending, because I could always imagine it. But I needed to see the beginning to understand how it all happened. Beginnings, I thought, were most important. You couldn’t begin to understand the end without knowing the beginning. (Tenzin Dickie, “Winter in Patlikuhl”, p. 197)

Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories from Tibet features an eclectic array of contributors from three linguistic backgrounds—English, Chinese, and Tibetan—and several countries. The diversity of the contributors’ relationships with Tibet is itself a microcosm of the Tibetan diaspora and the migration patterns forced by exile: the authors are from Tibet, China, India, Nepal, Canada, and the United States. Many have emigrated from their birthplaces. There appear to be a couple of non-Tibetan translators among the contributors, but all the stories themselves are written by Tibetans, and the majority of the translation was also done by Tibetans.

The translators included in this volume are Tenzin Dickie, Christopher Peacock, Laura Hartley, Jampa, Bhuchung D. Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, Jane Perkins, Pema Tsewang Shastri, Catherine Tsuji, and Dhondup Tashi Rekjong. As a translator myself, I was particularly intrigued by the translation conventions in the book. [1] Some stories italicized non-English words, while others didn’t. Some had short explanatory asides for terms and concepts; others simply dropped a term and moved on. What remained constant, however, was who the audience was for the translations. That is, work translated for the Western anglophone reader’s comfort typically includes a lot of contextualization of unfamiliar terms and concepts, whether through an appendix, footnotes, or in-line explanatory asides. But work that is translated for an audience already familiar with the culture(s) represented skips over the contextualization, as the knowledge is assumed to be shared. Similarly, most of the stories in Old Demons, New Deities included untranslated lines in Tibetan, Mandarin, and Hindi—both a reflection of the multilingual landscape in which Tibetans are embedded, and also a refusal to make reading easier for monolingual Western anglophones by erasing that cultural verisimilitude.

Editor Tenzin Dickie’s introduction to the anthology centers on the first time she watched a Tibetan film and saw her experiences represented. In her story “Winter in Patlikuhl,” Dickie dives deeper into the expectations for Tibetans in exile:

Later I would realize that there were many other things I had never seen a Tibetan do. I had never seen a Tibetan bus driver, or a honey-seller, or a milkman. Nor a Tibetan artist, a Tibetan actor, a Tibetan scientist. Tibetans were only certain things in this exile of ours. (p. 199)

Gaze, then, is a recurring theme throughout the anthology. The stories resist both the Han gaze and the Western one. Instead, Old Demons, New Deities seems to be purposely made for the Tibetan gaze. After all, “Tibetan” and “Western” are not mutually exclusive, and many of the writers are anglophones. As the first English-language anthology of contemporary Tibetan fiction available in the West, Old Demons, New Deities does not position itself as a window to Tibet for the rest of the world—instead, the anthology offers a reflection for anglophone Tibetans, who may struggle to find representations of themselves in Western literature.

Woeser’s story “Nyima Tsering’s Tears”—translated by Jampa, Bhuchung D. Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, and Jane Perkins—is a kaleidoscope made up of the many gazes to which Tibetans are subjected. Three pressures intersect in the story: the respective desires of China, Tibet, and the West. Nyima Tsering is a lama, tour guide, and member of the Standing Committee of the People’s Assembly in Lhasa. On short notice, he has to travel to a human rights convention in Norway. He is the single Tibetan in the Chinese delegation. On the first day in Norway, Nyima Tsering is on the way to a lunch party at the Chinese Embassy when he faces a protest held by Tibetans, who call him “Communist lama.” Shocked by their disgust, Nyima Tsering feels ashamed and struggles to reconcile the hurt he feels:

This was the first time he had seen so many exiled Tibetans of his own flesh and blood in a foreign land. Though they were only a few feet away, it was as if they were separated by ranges of mountains. (p. 90)

The story is an incredible dramatization of the conundrum Tibetans face with exile and the inescapability of politics. In another paragraph, Woeser summarizes the struggle of performing Tibetanness to a global audience:

On the third day, Nyima Tsering gave his speech, which was the real purpose of sending him to the convention. Because the voice of Tibetans had been missing from previous meetings, the reasnoing from the Chinese side about human rights conditions in Tibet always sounded very weak. The presence and testimony of Nyima Tsering was supposed to prove that Tibetans had human rights and that their human rights were protected. However, who would know what the dilemmas were in Nyima Tsering’s heart? How to speak? What to speak? What should be spoken… and what shouldn’t be spoken? He was really troubled. Although he was aware that he, in his burgundy robe, was no more than a stage prop, he didn’t want to sound too out of tune or go beyond what was proper. Quietly, he asked the opinion of a foreigner whom he had begun to trust. The foreigner also quietly told him to talk in general terms and avoid mentioning anything concrete. (p. 91)

The narrative then goes on to grapple with the division between the sourceland and the diaspora. The next day, Nyima Tsering is at a park when a young woman approaches him. He immediately recognizes that she is Tibetan and reaches out to hold her hands. The young woman begins to cry as she asks what Nyima Tsering is doing in Norway with Chinese officials. As Nyima Tsering tries to reassure her, she tells him not to go back to China. To which he responds, “How can I not return? Our home is there. If we all leave, to whom will Tibet be left?” (p. 93)

That sense of inevitability permeates through the anthology, whether in stories that explicitly discuss exile and dispossession, or in stories that are more intimate and individual in scope. Several other touchstones recur throughout the anthology. The first is Buddhism. This is unsurprising, as Tibet is the seat of a long Buddhist tradition. The introduction provides context on how Tibetan literature originated with Buddhist works before developing into the form it takes now. In any case, Buddhism suffuses all the stories, from iconic photos of the Dalai Lama, to characters drawing from their religious background in small talk:

Choying Drakpa and the woman talked for some time, and now and then he would send some compliments her way. After a while their intentions began to align.

“Ah, you know what they say, ‘There’s no suffering in the recitation hall, but you have to sit ’til your butt’s numb, and there’s no happiness in samsara, but you can still dispel your troubles […] What if the two of us could be together our whole lives, wouldn’t that be great?” (Tsering Dondrup trans. Christopher Peacock, “Ralo,” p. 54)

Or while reasoning with themselves:

Her bad karma from her previous lives had led her to some terrible actions but she would not go down that path again, she vowed, or there was no dharma, no three jewels. (Kyabchen Dedrol trans. Tenzin Dickie, Catherine Tsuji, and Dhondup Tashi Rekjong, “Snow Pilgrimage,” p. 214)

The second recurring touchstone is the inescapable specter of China and Han hegemony. “Wink” by Pema Bhum (trans. Tenzin Dickie) critiques Han hegemony most directly and farcically. Tenpa and Lhamo have an infant named Darmar, who is ill. An official visits in order to pardon Lhamo for using pages from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung as kindling. Just as the official is about to leave, he sees Darmar drooling on a portrait of Chairman Mao that he had torn from Quotations, unbeknownst to his parents. Tenpa and Lhamo’s hopes for getting treatment for Darmar are dashed, but, just as suddenly, the tables are turned once more: Darmar becomes an icon of loyalty to Mao’s cult of personality on the day the Chairman dies. Tenpa and Lhamo have only just heard the news when Darmar grabs a badge with Mao’s face on it, becoming inconsolable when anyone tries to take it away. Chinese officials take Darmar’s response as sign of the infant’s miraculous grief over the Chairman’s death, stunning his parents. These capricious turns—all made in the name of a literalized image of China’s nationalism—mirror the concerns over image, face, and gaze that preoccupy much of Han hegemony. Into just the span of a short story—a mode which Dickie describes in the introduction as “one of the primary modern Tibetan art forms” (p. 7)—Bhum packs so many layers of critique, emotion, and ideology that it feels like I could write an entire essay on “Wink” alone—including on the brilliant way it concludes.

“Wink” is not, though, the only story in the anthology that ends with a twist. In fact, this particular story structure was so common that I began to notice when there wasn’t a twist and a story seemed to end more abruptly or openly. An undercurrent of satirical humor seemed to run through many of the pieces as well, although this was most obvious in “Wink.” For example, many stories feature Tibetan farmers or nomads rejoicing at the “kindness” of the Chinese administration, even when such “kindness” turns out to be useless or an active setback. I can’t help but read all the supposed harmony following Chinese help as a tongue-in-cheek reference to those of China’s policies purportedly made in the name of “social harmony”—a political ideology that has become a meme in light of China’s censorship and other suppression tactics. Even if the text claims that the Tibetans are satisfied, the actual inefficiency, exploitation, and destruction of Chinese policies are plainly put on display in contradiction of the idyllism.

Politics cannot be extricated from narratives, but, at the same time, there is more to narratives than just politics. A shared sense of identity emerges from a commonality of experience. The harvesting of caterpillar fungus, for example, appears in multiple stories as an example of economic pressures that have changed how Tibetans make a living. Similarly, the challenges nomadic people face in an increasingly sedentary world appear in several pieces, including stories in which nomads are resettled by the Chinese government and made to assimilate into a Han culture that centers certain ideologies about humanity’s relationship with natural resources. Identification papers—shorthand for recognition by the state—are a recurring symbol of the displacement and dislocation Tibetans have experienced. The same human experiences of loneliness and longing, of adapting to change and “search[ing] for meaning in samsara” (p. 4), are refracted through these facets of the Tibetan experience.

“I examined my life as I stood before him and could not recollect my life as a seamless series of events. And yet, the future was full of desire. I wanted to leave. For a place I did not know.” (Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “Letter for Love,” p. 132)

Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories from Tibet is a powerful anthology that brings an underrepresented voice to the anglophone literary conversation. At the same time, there is no single book that can contain all the experiences of a diaspora. I was left intrigued by the end of the anthology and hoping to find more Tibetan literature, particularly speculative fiction: what do futures through a Tibetan lens look like? [2] I  hope Old Demons, New Deities is the first of many volumes of Tibetan literature available in the anglophone world, then—both so we can all witness the true diversity of human experience, and also so that we can collectively imagine more narratives in which Tibetans have true agency and autonomy. To echo the Tenzin Dickie passage with which this review almost began, “I didn’t need to know the ending, because I could always imagine it.” To create the future, it must first be dreamed.

Endnotes

[1] As a complete aside, the translation choice that delighted me the most was the following line from Tsering Dondrup’s “The Valley of the Black Foxes,” translated by Tenzin Dickie and Pema Tsewang Shastri: “The owner of the shop with its ‘Hih Pris for Old Antigs’ sign board, written in a very ugly Tibetan handwriting with atrocious spelling, meticulously evaluated all the parts of Sangye’s saddle, and then held up his finger.” (p. 274) The English misspelling is brilliantly effective at conveying what I assume is the humor and sarcasm of the original. [return]

[2] I would especially love to translate Tibetan speculative fiction from Chinese, and speculative fiction by other Chinese ethnic minorities. Please contact me if you have any recommendations. [return]



S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website, s.qiouyi.lu.
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