News and Views on Tibet

Q&A with Tibetan writer Tsering Namgyal

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Tibetan author and well-known journalist Tsering Namgyal was born to a refugee family in 1971. Tsering attended schools in Dalhousie and Mussoorie and spent many years in Taiwan, initially as a student and later as a business writer and journalist. His first book Little Lhasa: reflections on exile Tibet was published in 2006. For the last few years, Tsering has traveled widely and has been prolific writing for various online journals and websites as well as publishing his first novel The Tibetan Suitcase this year (available here: and a biography of the Seventeenth Karpama Ogyen Triley Dorje.

Poet/writer Bhuchung D. Sonam speaks to Tsering on his novel.

Bhuchung D. Sonam: Congratulations. This is your second book after Little Lhasa: reflections on exile Tibet. Why a novel?

Tsering Namgyal: Thank you. After Little Lhasa, which was a collection of essays I wrote about Dharamsala, I just wanted to use the format of the novel to write about the Tibetan diasporic experience as a whole. I think novel is much more creative and imaginative than journalism. But I realized it is much harder to write a longer narrative such as a novel. It requires many years of consistent hard work.

BDS: Having been a journalist for a long time, did you find writing novel challenging?

TN: Unlike journalism, you need a lot of time and space for novel. And I think one of the biggest challenges was in having to find a sustained period of free time. I wrote the book in different places in a few countries (and in two American universities where I was supposedly preparing for a PhD and seek a career in academia). Yes, the experience of having been a reporter served me well in terms of discipline. But in newspapers and wire agencies, we wrote very little to no dialogues or scenes, let alone create characters. So I had to learn all of that from scratch.

BDS: Your book is very unusual in a sense that it is totally based on found letters. Is this inspired by real events?

TN: It is a fictionalized story of a young and aspiring Tibetan writer born in India.

BDS: Around the time you were writing this novel you were also working on the biography of Seventeenth Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, which is soon to be published here in India. How did you juggle between fiction and non-fiction?

TN: Actually, I wrote the novel before the biography. I started the novel in 2007. I began working on the biography of His Holiness Karmapa in the Fall of 2011. I set the novel aside for nearly a year while I was writing the biography. I did not want to publish it right away. First, I was not very secure and did not really know if it is good enough. I showed it to several agents. One leading Indian literary agent told me the book is good, but she did not know “which list to put” me in. I suppose what she meant was she did not know how to successfully market a so-called Tibetan novel, or a novel by a Tibetan. However, in 2012, I happened to show it to a friend of mine who liked it a lot. I think it was one of the key reasons why I decided to publish it and move on.

BDS: The Tibetan Suitcase is quintessentially a diasporic novel and in fact one of the characters in the novel says that travels are great for contemplation and reflection. Do you think exile and its challenges enrich writers?

TN: Yes, it moves around the world. I believe that being far away from home – especially in my case in Taiwan when I was quite young — was critical, I think. Being in foreign cultures has a way of challenging all the assumptions about your life, and things that you had taken for granted, and forces you look at the world anew. At the time, I was constantly homesick and I was always thinking, reflecting and writing about Tibet and Tibetan culture. However, New York, where I have been living for a few months now, is different. Jackson Heights sometimes feels more Dharamsala than Dharamsala.

BDS: An off-duty journalist after the Asian financial crisis finding a suitcase full of letters sounds pretty much like you. How much of the novel is autobiographical?

TN: I think it is inevitable that a lot of my own experience went into the book. I did work as a financial writer for a few years in Taiwan. For the book, I also did some traveling. I hung out a lot in Dharamsala, which really brought me very close to the thinking of the younger generation Tibetans, their aspirations and frustrations, their hopes and dreams. Are they happy living in India? Is there a future? Why everybody must somehow go to the US or Canada? Why is it so difficult to make a decent living in India as a Tibetan refugee, even after a few generations? These are important questions.

BDS: One of the most interesting characters in your book is the septuagenarian Tibetan scholar named Khenchen Sangpo. Who is Khenchen? Is he real?

TN: He is a fictional character and he exists for an important reason. It goes without saying that the spread of the Tibetan Buddhist culture around the world was one of the most fascinating phenomena of the 20th century. I thought this trend should better be explored in a novel that claims to reflect the Tibetan diasporic experience. Through the biographical story of this character, I was able to show how far Tibet’s wisdom culture had managed to travel around the world.
Writing about the diaspora and the globalization of Tibetan Buddhism also helped eject me out of the very risky “Chinese-are-bad-and-Tibetans-are-good” trap that most Tibetan writers or commentators so easily succumb to. So the book is much more than just about the political struggle but also about cultural formations and identity issues in the diaspora. It is still a sad book. Yet writing about the cultural aspect (for instance, growing interest in Tibetan studies around the world) also helped me reveal the positive side of the Tibetan story.

BDS: Letter writing as an art has basically disappeared with emergence of Internet and yet you have written an epistolary novel. Is this reflective of the state of your lost homeland and the need to tell your story in a way that is somewhat free of politics?

TN: At the University of Iowa, I wrote a short story in the form of a letter. The feedback was encouraging. The letter format also suited the Tibetan culture well because we are normally very reserved (kha nyung nyung and nyam chung). We are not as expressive and opinionated as Westerners, or Indians. The style also gave me the license to write the novel from the perspective of the characters themselves, which means I am not the narrator of the novel. Rather, the stories are told in the voices of the characters themselves. It let the characters take charge, so that I as the writer can step aside.
And our diasporic life is characterized by our separation from family and friends, which makes letter the primary means of communication (this is especially true in the pre-Internet era in which the novel is set). I think many readers were taken aback by this format because it is not an established genre. A friend of mine later pointed me to a novel The Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), a novel by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargos Llosa, which is also in letters. But I only knew about this book after I have finished my novel.

BDS: Any last words for young Tibetan writers?

TN: I think it is the same for any writer, regardless of where they come from. I think it is important to read a lot and then rewrite. Try not to worry too much about the opinion of others because it is ultimately all very subjective.

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