restricted access Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change (review)
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Reviewed by
Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, edited by Lauran R. Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, Duke University Press, 2008

This excellent collection of essays provides a broad and comprehensive introduction to the study of modern Tibetan literature. It focuses on framing the recent evolution of this modern literature in relation to complex social changes both inside and outside Tibet, engaging ongoing debates that inflect this development. The collection goes well beyond typical literary studies writing, and serves as a valuable contribution to modern social studies, repeatedly emphasizing how literary arts and their producers are formed by, react to, and actively participate in complex processes of cultural change and negotiation.

The collection includes discussions of Tibetan literature by authors both inside and outside Tibet, who write in Tibetan, Chinese and English, and whose works span genres including poetry, fiction, literary magazines and films. This collection challenges familiar stereotypes about modern Tibet and the place of literary arts within it. Countering the popular western media view of Tibet as only a traditional society, with Buddhism as its only cultural product, where modern conditions are inevitably framed within narratives of victim-hood and oppression, this refreshing collection goes well beyond stereotypes to reflect on real and ongoing social and political changes in Tibet. Even amidst ongoing and unquestionable repression, the Tibetan authors discussed in this collection are present as active agents in the continued negotiation of their culture and identity.

Of course the book does follow one of the most common dichotomies applied to Tibet, dividing the two sections of the book’s papers into those “Engaging Traditions” and others “Negotiating Modernities.” Though the proposed dichotomy between such reified categories as “tradition” and “modernity” risk a continued over-simplification of both concepts, the essays themselves in fact work to complicate and transcend such a simple dichotomy. Thus these sections do not merely propose normative arguments around the supposed conflicts between tradition and modernity.

Within the first seven essays of “Engaging Traditions,” authors reevaluate the seeds of nascent modernism in Tibetan literature, focusing particularly on poetry. An elegant essay by Lauran Hartley argues for the importance of progressive intellectuals like Gendun Chompel working towards literary reform prior to the Chinese occupation. Nancy Lin looks at how Dondrup Gyel used the Ramayana narrative to revive and reform an indigenous model of Tibetan literature. Tsering Shakya identifies diverse sources for the emergent poetry of the 1980’s including Tibetan folk traditions, Indic Kavya style, Chinese short stories and post-Cultural Revolution “scar literature.” These papers seek to re-examine the early roots of modern Tibetan literature as globally positioned yet locally grown.

The authors have reprinted Pema Bhum’s controversial article Heartbeat of a New [End Page 79] Generation, which was first presented at a 1991 conference engendering a heated debate among some Tibetans in exile. At that time Bhum even received threats from those who took offense at the claim that the success of the new free-verse poetry was related to the failure of classical forms to express the needs and desires of the new Tibetan nation. Including this article reminds readers just how much is at stake and still contested about defining modernity for Tibet. Bhum also writes a follow up essay for this collection, which does not engage with this earlier debate, but instead updates his survey of modern Tibetan poetry to include sections on women authors, monastic writers, and Tibetan literary websites.

The second section of essays in “Negotiating Modernity” focus on literature and developments “that engage modernity on its own terms” (xxix). This section includes some of the more crucial pieces and major themes central to the collection, particularly issues of language, identity, and the limitations of current theoretical paradigms (post-modernity, post-colonial studies) to adequately study Tibetan literature. Lara Maconi’s important essay focuses on the heated and ongoing debate around the definition of Tibetan literature and who can write it, discussing when and how literature written in Chinese is included as Tibetan literature. Maconi’s essay highlights how language transcends communication, and further serves as a signifier and symbol of the (contested) nation (173). Maconi uses the term “diglossia” rather than bilingualism...