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Romance, Revelations and Revolutions

October 13, 2008

A review of "Tibet's True Heart -- Selected Poems by Woeser"

Newspaper headlines describe Woeser as Tibet's most famous woman
writer and blogger and a lone Tibetan voice, intent on speaking out.
Until now, Woeser has perhaps been best known as a Tibetan dissident
writer whose blogs are banned and have either been repeatedly shut
down in China or hacked by Chinese nationalists. Her collection of
poems, short stories and essays published in 2003 by a small
publishing house in southern China entitled "Notes on Tibet" was
subsequently banned and, refusing to be subjected to political
re-education, she left her prestigious job as editor of a literary
journal in Lhasa, as well as all the security such a job brought, and
went to live in Beijing, where she still continues to live today.

High Peaks Pure Earth
October 10, 2008

In March 2008 she was briefly placed under house arrest, during which
time she became the main source of information regarding the wave of
protests and demonstrations that swept Tibet, as chronicled in the
daily Tibet Updates on her blog. The threats to her personal safety
have been well documented and translations into English of her Tibet
Updates, published online on China Digital Times, have brought Woeser
and her work to a wider audience. In July 2008, her decision to sue
the Chinese government for their continued refusal to grant her a
passport was a brave, audacious move, testing China's legal system
and bringing the plight of Tibetans as second-class citizens within
China to the world's attention.

Now a new volume of translations of Woeser's poetry is available to
English readers thanks to the efforts of scholar and translator A.E.
Clark. "Tibet's True Heart", published by Ragged Banner Press, brings
together original translations of 42 poems written by Woeser spanning
a period of 20 years. It is a remarkable volume of poetry with
translations that not only do justice to an eloquent, moving literary
voice but also enlighten and educate with the copious notes,
explanations and maps included in appendix.

The earliest poems contained in this volume were written in the late
'80s during Woeser's days as a student of Chinese literature in
Chengdu's South West University for Nationalities. Although born in
Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution and spending her first four
years there, her family moved to Kham and she spent most of her
childhood in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, Chengdu being the
provincial capital. Woeser candidly writes about growing up Sinicised
– her father was a high-ranking officer in the People's Liberation
Army and she grew up very much in a Chinese-speaking environment. In
her 2004 poem "Tibet's Secret" she writes "From birth I grew up to
the bugle calls of the PLA / A worthy heir of Communism".

Through the poems included in "Tibet's True Heart", the journey of
this girl, born into a privileged cadre family in Lhasa to school
girl and student in Kham, back to Lhasa as a government employee and
ultimately to Beijing in self-imposed exile, is mapped out not only
in these places but also in the personal geography of several
parallel journeys, the most remarkable being the journey of
self-discovery and spirituality conveyed in the text through
memories, people and heavy doses of personal experience. The year the
poem was written along with the place is documented by Woeser and has
been diligently translated by Clark with good reason, these details
are crucial to the reader's understanding of the context of the
journeys. "Remembering A Battered Buddha" begins with: 'Twenty days
since I left Lhasa…" whilst "Return to Lhasa" begins by stating "It's
been a year. I was somewhat excited about going home". In addition to
being useful markers for the reader, places in Woeser's poetry are
imbued with significance for personal reasons. Derge, in Kham, for
example, is evoked more than once in painful memories:

"Derge, ancestral home!
Would that it meant nothing,
Would that no road led there!"

As Clark writes in his notes, "Derge was the birthplace of her father
and was associated, in her mind, with his death".

Travelling is a recurring theme associated with pilgrimage, escape,
voyages of discovery. Woeser is sketching the inner and outer
contours of Tibet and Tibetan landscapes are a source of inspiration
in themselves. In the achingly moving 1994 poem "A Mala That Was
Meant to Be", although written in the third person, Woeser's physical
journey to Amdo is internalized with memories of her father's death
three years earlier, personal struggles with identity and a
re-discovering not only of her father's past but also of her own –
all interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist imagery symbolically evoked in
the poem. She describes the woman at the beginning of the journey:

"She lacks the root of wisdom.
She finds it hard to visualize
An image of the Buddha or
A letter of Tibetan
On a leaf."

By the end of the poem, the personal revelations and discovery of
spirituality stemming from grief and a deep sense of loss have made their mark:

"Inside the gem-encrusted tower, a transformation:
A hundred thousand Buddha-images,
Or one hundred thousand letters of Tibetan,
Morph into as many leaves upon a tree"

These epiphanies are also to be found elsewhere in the poetry, the
personal and the political slowly merging as the poet develops and
forges her new identity. Subtle allusions to the Dalai Lama appear in
the poetry from the late 1980s but clearly the growing discovery of
faith runs parallel to the political awakening. Thus the overtly
political subject matters gradually start to appear, for example the
episode of the two Panchen Lamas that was both religious and
political. They are metaphorically alluded to in the 1995 poem
"December", written in Lhasa, as "Two sparrows in the woods" but ten
years later in the 2005 poem, written in Beijing, boldly and directly
titled "The Panchen Lama":

"If time can cover up a lie / Is ten years enough? [...] The other
child, where is he?"

As mentioned previously, it was in 2004, again in Beijing, that
Woeser wrote the poem "Tibet's Secret" dedicated to Tibet's political
prisoners, some of whom she knew personally. She poses the question:
"of the people in prison, why are so many more wearing the red robe
than not? [...] we're glad to leave the suffering to our monks and
nuns […] With shame I count down their practically endless prison
terms. / Tibet's true hearts beat steadfast in a Hell that's all too
real." Realising that due to her background she could easily have
never heard about their fate, ("what's the connection between them
and me?") she reflects on what they represent and compares her
upbringing with theirs ending with their shared fates of exile and
isolation, "Far from home, enmeshed in a race forever alien, [...]
Considering it carefully, how can there not be a connection between
them and me?".

The lines connecting the disparate true hearts of Tibet are as much
virtual as psychological or emotional -- technology has played a
crucial role and undoubtedly created new space for reflection and
self-education. Woeser's knowledge of a political prisoner's plight
comes from "a biography I downloaded in Lhasa" and "It was only on
the Web I saw, spread out before an old man, An array of handcuffs,
leg-irons, daggers…". In "Remembering A Battered Buddha" her memory
of that Buddha is kept alive digitally, "I only took some pictures,
So when I miss it I can turn on my computer and have a look." The
contemporary feel is refreshing and at times provides relief from the
overwhelmingly melancholy tone of the poetry. In "Spinning Wheels",
the wheel metaphor is not only the classically Buddhist circle, or
Kora, or Mani wheel but also "Mitsubishi tracker wheels, Beijing jeep
wheels, Dongfang truck wheels, long-distance bus wheels, Minivan
wheels, red taxi wheels, Walking tractor wheels." These observations
also give the reader an accurate impression of life in Tibet today
where wheels symbolise the development and changes taking place as
much as the religion. Woeser's details also identify the greatest
changes taking place in Tibet today, the poem "Return to Lhasa"
mentions "little fake zebras [...] a pink fake lotus [...] I saw the
celebrated Qinghai-Tibet railway on a concrete overpass", even noting
that the taxi drivers speak in Sichuanese dialect portrays Lhasa today exactly.

Leaving aside the Tibetan themes and subject matter, there are
universal themes of love, loss, grief and struggling for identity and
meaning in the poems. A highly literate poet, Woeser's points of
reference are very accessible for English-speaking audiences as she
keenly cites Allen Ginsberg, T.S Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez and at
least one poem owes a great debt to Jack Kerouac. It is also rare
that a translator can disappear to leave the poet's own voice
resounding and A.E. Clark's translations, sensitive and true to the
originals, must be commended for their elegance. Woeser is a prolific
writer, blogger and poet who has given up a great deal in pursuit of
the truth in her own time and on her own terms. Overcoming both
prescriptive and prohibitive censorship to ironically become a truly
free thinker, Woeser is a unique and much needed Tibetan voice. In
the burning house of the People's Republic of China, Woeser has so
far managed to find and make use of every fire exit and trap door in
order to be heard. "Tibet's True Heart" goes some way in ensuring
that these remain open for a while longer.

"Tibet's True Heart" -- Selected Poems by Woeser
Translated by A.E. Clark
Published by Ragged Banner Press, 2008
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