Old Demons, New Deities, edited by Tenzin Dickie
Tibet, despite its difficulties, is producing extraordinary writers. The groundbreaking Old Demons, New Deities stands as the first English-language anthology of contemporary Tibetan literature. Edited and introduced by Tenzin Dickie, these twenty-one stories are not simply impressive on their own but form a remarkable collection as a whole.
Dickie’s introduction provides important historical context. For example, she recounts how Tonmi Sambhota was sent to India in the seventh century to learn to write and create a Tibetan writing system. Buddhist ideals formed the core of Tibetan “literature” for the next thousand years with few exceptions. Monks taught other monks and men who wished to become monks through “tracts on ethics, metaphysics, medicine, epistemology, and the like.” From the eighth century, Tibetan centers of learning were monastic institutions in which a core belief was the elimination of desire.
But, as Dickie explains, “Fiction, of course, begins with desire. Fiction begins with a character wanting something. It is this desire that animates character, incites plot and seeks resolution.” This is the opposite of Buddhist theology and an obvious deterrent to creative writing. A second roadblock is less thematic and more prosaic. Wood was a literal impediment: until the mid-eighteenth century every page was printed arduously from a hand-carved traditional woodblock. It was not until the twentieth century that Tibetan literature began to gain a foothold, then Chairman Mao’s army invaded Tibet in 1949 and a long period of suppression of anything non-Chinese began.
These events produced a Tibetan diaspora that is reflected in the authors of Old Demons, New Deities. They come from Tibet, China, India, Nepal, the United States and Canada and write memoirs, novels, essays, and poems in multiple languages. “Short stories have become one of the primary modern Tibetan art forms,” Dickies writes. These stories “give the English reading audience a more authentic look at the lives of ordinary Tibetans navigating the space between tradition and modernity, occupation and exile, the national and the personal.” These are stories of longing for home, of seeking one’s place in the larger world.
Two stories are particularly reflective of the tensions noted above. Tsering Namgyal Khortsa, a business journalist based in Hong Kong who attended college in Taiwan and the United States, is the author of numerous essays on the Tibetan diaspora and the novel The Tibetan Suitcase. His story “The Season of Retreats” focuses on a narrator who has come to the Catskill Mountains (remember that Tibetans are scattered across the world) for a six-month retreat to study at the foot of a Tibetan lama and finish a novella about “Tibetan Buddhist ‘crazy wisdom.’” The pull between tradition and modernity is immediately apparent. Three months into his planned stay, a beautiful young woman arrives to volunteer for six weeks. Though he is no expert on Tibet, she constantly questions him as if he were: “Her questions turned every meal into a press conference.” Focused on the outside world, she is unavoidable. “‘Relationships and mobile phones,’ the monk said, ‘combine these two and they make people completely crazy.’”
Bhuchung D. Sonam was born in Tibet and now lives in exile in India. He has written five books and is the co-publisher of BlackNeck Books. The very first sentence of his story “The Connection” sets an ominous tone: “‘You have a background,’ said the police inspector.” We soon learn that the narrator must go to the local police station in order to obtain a letter so that he may acquire an Identity Certificate which will serve as a passport. This simple but laborious process had been plodding through the bureaucracy for more than two years, and now there is some question about his friendships with certain people at the university. Tensions rise as the narrator must decide what and how much to tell or whether simply to lie. The consequences of either decision weigh heavily on him. Some situations, it seems, have universal implications for the individual versus the government.
Old Demons, New Deities is a compelling collection of short stories and is sure to bring recognition to largely unknown writers whose viewpoint is not one to which westerners would normally have access. Despite their differences, these stories prove that people around the world share many of the same hopes and fears. Our literary world is richer for the fresh perspectives offered here.