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Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change.

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 Shalcya 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 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, to highlight the unequal sociopolitical and cultural status of the two languages, Tibetan and Chinese, being used within the same communities (175). She shows that despite tensions, both languages have provided viable outlets for Tibetan authors. Maconi calls for new critical frameworks that "leave room for plurality, hybridity and "otherness" (196), a call partly answered by collections like this one.

Other articles in this section discuss specific Sino-Tibetan authors and the tensions around their hybrid identities. Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani argues that Zhaxi Dawa's magical realism, sometimes misinterpreted as an exoticizing technique, is instead a useful protective language with which he disguises any overt criticism, and allows him to transcend "the boundaries of Tibet and China" (219). The Chinese-Tibetan writer Alai, studied by Howard Choy, is also one who must occupy multiple positions, and for whom his Chinese identity is placed at the center of both his work and its reception. It is clear from these essays that tensions arising from split and hybrid identities, intertwined with issues of language, are inescapable realities for those writing, reading, and studying Tibetan literature.

In the closing article of the collection Steven Venturino uses Jamyang Norbu's English fiction work "The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes" to describe contributions Tibetan literature can make to world literature studies. Venturino argues that by writing in English, Norbu, and other Tibetan fiction writers, effectively allows readers to re-hear contesting narratives around Tibet, allowing tropes like the "peacefully liberated" developing nation and the "threatened spiritual paradise" to "merge into new combinations" wherein "global Tibetan society is both product and producer of the world's texts" (306). He argues that while post-colonial studies remains strongly reliant on concepts of "returned" nations, for Tibetans, coloniality still means either occupation or exile (304). Similarly, Concepts of "international postmodernism" and "the global" he argues, have been formed in relation to modern nation states, and contribute little to the analysis of exceptional literatures, like Tibetan, that are not explicitly wedded to one (uncontested) nation state. For Venturino Tibetan literature can thus be of great value to expand and complicate theories of coloniality, modernity and post-modernity. It is this suggested position and agency for Tibetan authors and literature that is the greatest contribution of this collection.

The difficulty faced by such a collection and topic is the real and threatening newness of it all. A glance at very useful appendix of Tibetan literary sources at the back of the collection reveals just how contemporary most of them are, with the massive bulk published in just the last ten years. Furthermore, the politics and social conditions of the authors discussed are still in flux. In the two years since publication of this collection, many Tibetan areas of the People's Republic of China have undergone new and ever more stringent controls since uprisings in 2008. The current state of many Tibetan authors, and literary journals issued within the TAR that were just beginning to appear as the book went to press, would have surely changed even further. The collection presents a much needed opening, but not of course a definitive presentation, of a topic that still requires much more discussion and study, but promises to contribute much not only to area studies, but to broader studies of modern cultural forms in flux.


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Author:Richardson, Sarah
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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