- Oral and Literary Continuities in Modern Tibetan Literature: The Inescapable Nation by Lama Jabb
Oral and Literary Continuities in Modern Tibetan Literature: The Inescapable Nation is a provocative and uncompromising study of the persistence of [End Page e-10] Tibet’s cultural traditions in the literary productions of the present. Lama Jabb’s work is the first book-length study of its kind and is a landmark in modern Tibetan cultural studies. The study of modern Tibetan literature is still in its infancy and this work represents a major contribution to this emerging field.
The work is centered around two interrelated theses on continuity and nationhood.
The first, that rather than representing a break with the past, modern Tibetan literature is informed by Tibet’s rich artistic and cultural traditions. While previous studies have located the origins of modern Tibetan literature in the 1980s, the author contends that the prevailing periodization obscures the continuities between past and present. The second, that literary developments in Tibet cannot be seen as separate from the issue of nationhood. Advocating a Tibetan national identity that is “constituted of history, culture, language, religion, territory, shared myths and rituals, collective memories, and a common sense of belonging to a troubled land” (232), the author argues that the nation is the primary topic of modern Tibetan literature. Lama Jabb extends his argument to suggest that the Tibetan context could provide an alternative model to state-centric models of the nation.
The book is divided into six chapters, the introduction and conclusion excluded. Eschewing a chronological approach, the work addresses a range of issues in thematically arranged chapters. Chapter two is a study of Tibetan popular music as an “embryonic public space” through which Tibetans articulate their “common concerns and collective identity” (29). Chapter three is a refutation of the notion that social criticism in Tibetan literature was a post-1950s development by foregrounding the influence of the Gesar epic and Tibetan balladry on modernist writers like Dhondhup Gyal. Chapter four focuses on the narration of cultural trauma, specifically the 1958 uprisings in Amdo, through a close reading of Tsering Dhondup’s 2009 novel The Red Wind Scream (Rlung dmar 'ur 'ur). Chapter five reads against the self-characterization of the Third Generation of Tibetan poets (mi rabs gsum pa’i snyan ngag), to show that their works owe much to Tibet’s poetic tradition. Chapter six examines contemporary erotic poetry in light of its historical precedents, problematizing the idea that expressions of sensual desire are “exclusively modern phenomena” (183).
This is a book of many strengths. Lama Jabb has succeeded in providing a compelling introduction to the fertile literary landscape of the Tibetan plateau that at the same time problematizes facile dichotomies between the modern and the traditional. The author’s writing is lucid and his argument nuanced, making the book an accessible read for both specialist and general [End Page e-11] reader alike. The author moves effortlessly between Western literary theory, ornate classical Tibetan works, free verse literature, folk songs, popular music, and the work of avant-garde Tibetan writers active today, demonstrating a mastery of his sources. Much of the rich material Lama Jabb draws on is presented in English for the first time, and his translations are both evocative and faithful to the original Tibetan.
Where Lama Jabb is less convincing is in his theorization of the Tibetan nation. Nationalism as a modern construct is dismissed as modernist fancy, and the author locates a will to live in a “political community of shared values” in the three Tibetan provinces (chol kha gsum). The idea of a greater Tibet composed of the chol kha gsum being “etched into the Tibetan imagination” is contentious, and the author’s arguments here display a tendency to dehistoricization, especially in his use of older texts (Chapter two). National identities are of course neither primordial nor ideologically monolithic, but are instead characterized by heterogeneity, disagreement, and discursive struggle.
The stress on cultural nationalism sees the author forego any discussion on the...