“Now how can I tell my children where we came from?”
~Tenzin Tsundue

William Dalrymple introduces Tenzin Tsundue as “the most arrested author at the festival”. Tsundue’s life has been a struggle in service of the Tibetan cause, and his cv includes 12 jail terms and a close acquaintanceship with torture. His session with Isabel Hilton comes close on the heels of Anne Applebaum’s session, and perhaps gulags of all kinds are much on our minds.
Hilton has the right credentials, too: she has travelled in, and been thrown out of, Tibet an almost equal number of times, and is currently studying climate change effects in China. The session covered a lot of ground—a few highlights:
Isabel Hilton: “As a Brit, I’m well-qualified to recognize the imperialist mentality—we’re so wounded because we’re building schools and hospitals for you, and you’re not grateful—at work in China. After the 2008 uprising (the violence that followed a peaceful protest by monks and continued for five months), the attitude among my Chinese liberal friends changed. There is a tremendous shortage of information in China. People had thought of the Tibetans through the usual clichés: cute, spiritual people, the “pure in heart”. That has shifted to a perception that Tibetans are an ugly, violent, dangerous people. Propaganda comes into play…”

(On the settlement of nomads): “The nomads are being herded into these barrack-like settlements; their way of life is being taken from under them. They have no animals, no jobs. They are given money, enough for a while, but they aren’t used to money—and then they spend it in a year, and then there is nothing. There is nothing. You see these barracks across Tibet. Soon, one of the mainstays of Tibetan culture will be gone.”
(Hilton tries to duck answering questions on what she thinks of Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet, but gives in): “I admire Patrick’s other work, but Tibet, Tibet is part of this trope of a kind of Western writing about Tibet. French went to Tibet and didn’t find what…the kind of… a kind of meaning that he thought he would find. Why is it Tibet’s job to give meaning to the life of a Westerner?”
Tenzin Tsundue, his red bandana adding emphasis to his comments, reiterates his stance: “You can never ask for freedom. Or beg for it. You must take it. It is something that has to be taken.” (Rahul Bhatia, who’s also blogging the JLF, has a beautiful post on Tenzin Tsundue, so I won’t repeat what he’s said.)
He closes the session with two poems, and for a second you can sense nervousness in the audience; activism and poetry go together about as well as dictators and literature. But Tsundue reads first a lovely poem about being in Dharamsala, as displaced as the landlady who argues with him about what is more beautiful, her Kashmir, or his Tibet, and then reads Space Bar. This is a poem, he says, he wrote and sent as a tactful proposal to “twenty rich friends”, when he had little money and was looking for a roof over his head. The full poem is here, with his other work; a brief excerpt:

“pull your ceiling half-way down
and you can create a mezzanine for me
your walls open into cupboards
is there an empty shelf for me
let me grow in your garden
with your roses and prickly pears …”

Tsundue sent it out, and waited for the offers of home and hearth to come in, but there was only silence. Finally, he asked one of his rich prospective mentors. “I thought it was a poem—I didn’t think it was a proposal,” said the man. As the Urdu court poets before Tsundue often learned to their cost, a successful poem may yet be a failed petition.