I’ve always wondered about Joan Didion’s famous words: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Can’t we live without stories? Well, certainly. But stories enchant. Stories seduce. Stories transport us into territories both foreign and familiar. These landscapes, though rife with complications and contradictions, also shimmer with a particular kind of hope: a lingering belief that despite inevitable doom and suffering, we can walk away with more knowledge about the world and ourselves.
In the prologue of her new book Coming Home to Tibet: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Belonging, the US-based Tibetan poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa provides a necessary teaching about her own life narrative: this is not a simple story. It serves as a welcome reminder. The desire to simplify the past can feel alluring and overwhelming, urgent even. How satisfying it would be to pick up pieces of our memories and rearrange them into something sweet. Something clear. Something that helps us arrive at a reckoning.
Throughout her book, Dhompa tries this to do this, but she does not succeed. Thank goodness for that. By describing and acknowledging the complexities and layers of her culture, her family, and herself, she honors the difficulties we all face when we disassemble the pieces of our lives and try to reconstruct them in a way that makes sense.
Dhompa’s story is, in many respects, one of homecoming. Dhompa was raised in India and Nepal, but her book covers a period of months she spent visiting her mother’s family in Tibet as an adult. Dhompa uses colorful and vivid language to describe the Tibetan landscape, often casting it as both harsh and beautiful. There is also something about the land that is timeless and steadfast, qualities that makes us long for it even if we’ve never been there. Despite this, we get the impression that the edges are starting to fray. Modernity is creeping in. Tibetans choose motorbikes over horses and instant noodles over of traditional fare. The lasting effects of the Cultural Revolution seem especially concerning and foreboding; at one point in the story, Dhompa scolds a group of children who are speaking Chinese. “You are Tibetan,” she says. “Speak Tibetan.”
Dhompa also explores her relationship with her deceased mother—another story that is not simple. Her family members recall her mother’s early life in Tibet as well as her exile in 1959—a harrowing journey to India that her mother made prior to Dhompa’s birth. These retellings are saturated with reverence, love, and devotion—for not only the memories of her mother but also all of the qualities her mother represented. Her family remembers Dhompa’s mother as strong and independent, unlike other Tibetan women of her time. As the daughter of a chief, she was fearless and beautiful, daring and mischievous. Dhompa portrays her as a selfless, nurturing, and forgiving mother, but also as a person who was restrained when talking about her own struggles and emotions.
As this narrative deepens, complications emerge. Dhompa expresses some confusion—and maybe even a subtle resentment—about her relationship with her mother. “Every now and then she had to remind me that she was the mother and I was the child,” she writes. She also tells us that, even long after her mother’s death, she continues to worry about her. In certain moments, this seems to consume Dhompa, who writes, “I was more rooted in her past than in my own life.” She also invites us into a sweet memory of watching her mother dance to a disco song. This recollection, however, also seems fraught with tension: “I stand before her, as I often did, telling her to behave herself.” These interactions cast a harsh but necessary light on a question many families ponder regardless of their culture or heritage: what kind of relationship exists between an innocent child and a parent who has experienced deep struggle and suffering?
We are reminded, yet again: this is not a simple story.
As the book evolves, Dhompa seems to maintain a distance from her own emotional unraveling throughout her visit. As a nosy reader, I found myself wanting to know more about this narrator and clinging to the few pieces of information she does share about herself. Early in the book, she tells us “the beauty of the land makes loneliness palpable.” Her elders often refer to her as a “poor thing, all alone in the world.” She does share illuminating thoughts about anger, an emotion she often wonders about but rarely observes while in Tibet. She admits that she “does not know how to be angry in Tibetan,” and later realizes, after observing the emotional lives of her elders, “since they do not possess anger themselves, they could not bequeath anger to me.” Is anger a skill we must learn? Is anger inherited?
After finishing the book, I realized that what I initially perceived as a lack of emotional awareness might actually be clear evidence of Dhompa’s honoring the traditions of her family; at one point, she explains, “elders tell their stories as a series of events that unfold over time so that the process of understanding a life takes a lifetime.” That said, it may be shortsighted—perhaps even irresponsible—to expect Dhompa to come to an understanding or resolution about such complicated experiences and emotions in a mere 300 pages. Perhaps this is her book’s most promising teaching: as readers, we must meet Dhompa where she is. In doing so, we learn to meet ourselves where we are.
Coming Home to Tibet is available from Shambhala Publications on July 12.
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