"What It Means to Be Writing Our Stories," an Interview with Tsering Wangmo and Watson Dill
On April 19, 2021, I interviewed Tsering Wangmo, an English professor at Villanova University. She grew up as a Tibetan refugee, before coming to America and establishing herself as an esteemed poet and writer. It was vital to interview Professor Wangmo because of her relation to our literary journal’s mission and her ability to convey the hope and struggles of her people and her past. Her story speaks to Bridges' goal of highlighting BIPOC and transnational voices and experiences, as well as marginalized communities.
Although this was the first time we had spoken, I was inspired by Professor Wangmo’s journey and her desire to change the way individuals, especially those in Tibet, approach reading and writing. Our conversation centered around her childhood and subsequent experiences in America, her thoughts on the direction of the literary world, and her gratitude towards the free expression of literary thought in America as opposed to her home country of Tibet. While Professor Wangmo has been named a finalist for multiple awards and accolades, she cares more about showing the cruel realities facing Tibetans and other refugees. Her journey marks a critical stepping stone for progress in a literary world that needs to diversify its works. The following interview is a revised version of our private Zoom conversation. Some of our discussion has been edited for brevity.
- Watson Dill
Watson Dill: Hello, Professor Wangmo. It is so good to see you.
Tsering Wangmo: Hello, Watson. It is great to see you too. I appreciate the invitation to specifically talk about being a Tibetan, which is a rare invitation. So thank you.
WD: Absolutely! I don't know how much you know about our journal, but it is entitled Bridges. Our goal is to highlight stories and perspectives that are not widely heard, especially in today's literary world. Because of this, we wanted to interview you since you also speak towards a different culture and worldview than what we usually experience in the Western world. If you don't mind, we can get right into it. To give our readers a little background on your life in Tibet and the country itself, I was wondering if you could briefly talk about your childhood and your journey to being in the position you are today.
TW: I was born in India to Tibetan refugees. My mother fled Tibet in 1959, her entire family and nomadic community were left behind in Tibet.
Life in exile was a constant reminder of what she had lost. It was very palpable, her pain of being the only one to have survived, or that is what she thought then. For the first 20 years of her life in exile and the first 12 or so years of my life in exile, we had no idea if her family members were alive in Tibet.
Her flight from Tibet shaped our lives very intimately. There was this idea that everything was lost and that the only way to retrieve what was lost was to return to the past. The future seemed blurry to me as a refugee growing up in India.
I came to the U.S. when I was 23, which was a year after she [my mother] died. Then I worked for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. After I got my green card (which took me about fourteen years), I quit my full-time job and worked part-time while I completed my memoir. Once I finished writing it, I applied to graduate school. My friends tease me that it took me so long to get to what I wanted to do, but I think that waiting is part of my experience in exile. None of the elders who helped raise me had been formally educated, so school was not something they could discuss with me. I had nobody to guide me, and I had no immediate family after my mother died, so it took me a while to do things.
I'm quite surprised that I completed graduate school and that I am a professor. When I lived in Nepal, I thought the only option I had was to work as a secretary in a nonprofit organization in Kathmandu, where I didn't have to present documents. So, I am very thankful and surprised. In Nepal, my mother and I didn’t have any documents, refugee or otherwise, so the elders cautioned me to live without being noticed. Don't disturb anything or anyone, they said. Don’t ask questions. I could only answer questions.
WD: Were you always interested in writing, or did you pick it up once you came to America?
TW: I started writing when I was twelve-years-old. Who knows what first prompted me to write, but I think part of it was to make sense of my circumstances and navigating life. I received a sponsorship to attend an English-medium school in India.
Most of the other students were from middle-class families from different regions of India. I think I was so ashamed of being poor and of being a refugee. I always thought it was my fault. There came a time when I realized that when students spoke about being home, of belonging, or [having] freedom, it was not how I experienced those ideas. I understood my relationship with those terms as being very different.
The literary texts that we were studying in school were mostly works by British authors. Therefore, my idea about literature and who writes books was shaped by those texts. I thought there could only be a particular kind of person who could write. I did not read anything that seemed to address the condition that, you know, Tibetans were living in. I think writing became a way for me to create a sense of belonging. It was where I could be more free. I could think. I could ask questions. I could not really ask questions in my day-to-day life. I still have a tough time asking questions.
WD: Well, that is fascinating. You have written both short stories and poems, and they have garnered immense success. One of your works, the Rules of the House, was named a finalist for the Asian-American Literary Awards in 2003. Because of your wide variety of work, do you tend to gravitate more towards poems or short stories? Do you have a preference? Also, how do you decide that you are going to write a collection of poems or that you are going to shift towards a short story?
TW: Poetry feels more like my first language. Maybe it is because I began writing when I was twelve, so I have lived longer in that form. Not that I'm any better [at it]. I feel like I am still struggling and learning to write. I love writing short stories, but I go all over the place.
WD: I have not had that much experience with poetry or writing, but that's part of why I wanted to take this Editing and Publishing class. I wanted to dive deeper into the things that I was uncomfortable with, and I wanted to take a course in a subject area I wasn't that familiar with. I have loved it, however, and I am going to get an English minor because of this class, but something that I still really struggle with is poetry, primarily because of how interpretive it can be.
We've read a few different poems, and they vary in length. You have to talk about it and dissect it to truly understand it since poems can be interpreted differently. It is always lovely, though, hearing from somebody who is as good of a writer as you to explain it.
TW: To be honest, I also struggle to read poetry. I have to sit longer with poems. Right? Exactly. We're not used to doing that. I also think we are conditioned to believing that we have to make sense or find what a poem means in a particular way. Poetry allows for many different layers of engagement and interpretations. Perhaps that is unsettling for some readers.
WD: Exactly. It does take patience. Unfortunately, I don't always have that, but hearing your upbringing, it seems like you had to learn those skills at a very early age. I'm sure that that has helped you throughout your journey.
WD: I was wondering if we could switch topics a little bit and discuss diversity in the literary world. Coming from such a diverse background, I'm sure that you have frequently seen in this industry that there is a severe lack of diversity. Could you share your thoughts on this phenomenon and where you see literature going in the future?
TW: I think Bridges is an excellent example of what is possible when we speak of diversity and how it can happen. I've had the opportunity to think more about mainstream publishing, particularly in the U.S.--who reads, who's published, what becomes accepted as literature--in the last eight years.
I've had the opportunity to teach the works of writers I admire and who reflect the kind of diverse communities, struggles, and histories that reflect the world we live in. I'm drawn to the aesthetics of political writers and poets. Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that in American poetry and prose, “explicit politics” is for the most part left to writers of color, queer or trans writers, feminist writers, and anticolonial writers.
Overall, I think that that is true. These are also the writers I am excited about and look forward to reading with students in class. I think small presses are publishing great work. I hope that more and more readers demand such texts and look for them. The fact that we have Bridges at Villanova is something to celebrate.
WD: Absolutely. When I took this class, I did not have much experience with the literary world. However, I see how apparent the lack of diversity is at points. It was shocking to me how, especially in today's day and age, we say that we've made so much progress. While I do believe that we've made a lot of progress, I know that there is still so much more to be made. It is great to be a part of that progress through Bridges. Even though it's only a small piece, I hope to play my role and make an impact to show the rest of the world that there are so many more works out there that need to be highlighted.
TW: I think what you and Bridges are doing is showing how it can be done. It is making room for voices that are often submerged or not represented to have a place. Right? That is a kind of solidarity that is meaningful. I think a lot about it, too, because of the peripheral presence the Tibetan struggle occupies in global politics and history.
I am part of a very small but growing group of Tibetans writing in English. The Tibetan struggle or voice is still largely invisible in many creative and critical fields.
How is it that some scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Studies care deeply about the Tibetan past and overlook the present reality of Tibet as an occupied nation? That is also a question I am interested in asking.
WD: I believe that we often live in bubbles even when it's not intentional, and we are often closed off on so many different viewpoints and opinions and perspectives. Last year, I took a modern East Asian history class, and I was blown away by East Asia’s rich history. I was surprised that, once again, I had no idea about these cultures, which brings me right into my next question.
The Eastern world has a rich culture and a long history of reading and writing. However, Western culture often dominates the reader's attention in today's society. What has your experience been writing about Eastern culture in a predominantly white or Western audience?
TW: I think I would probably approach this question in a couple of different ways. But first, I don't necessarily think of myself as writing about “Eastern culture.” I see myself as writing about a struggle within other struggles for freedom. Also, I don't know if it's because I write poetry, but I imagine very few people reading my work.
I suppose my work gets framed in a certain way when it's published in the U.S., but because I've never really belonged entirely to any place, I imagine I am writing to Tibetans who are present. I believe that Tibetans will continue to exist and that the struggle will continue. It’s very important that I think of the exiled Tibetan community and Tibetans inside Tibet, precisely because there are so few of us who are writing our stories. I am presented as a Tibetan American or Asian American, but I have only recently been given U.S. citizenship, so it still feels like I am wearing a new jacket.
I am now a citizen, and that is a big change. I always felt I was in limbo. So, yes, absolutely.
WD: I think that that is where we get such rich stories. Even though that struggle can be hard and it's something that I'll never experience, it is amazing getting to hear those stories and being able to use what we have here to highlight those experiences and those struggles. Here is my final question: You were the first Tibetan female poet to have your works published in English. How did it feel to receive that honor? Do you believe that your past has influenced your idea of literature and art as a whole?
TW: Well, I mean, as far as the first Tibetan woman, it just happened to be me. There are a number of younger Tibetan artists and poets I'm excited about, and hopefully, their work will be available soon. Unfortunately, I did not have anyone to talk to when I began writing in English, so it’s lovely to have conversations with other writers about what it means to be Tibetan and to be writing our stories.
I definitely believe that the past has influenced my idea of literature and art. I think about the connection between culture and empire and the power of narrative. I also feel privileged to have the possibility of being published. Tibetan writers inside Tibet are imprisoned for simple articulations of desire for freedom or expressions of Tibetan identity. That also points to the power of stories.
So, definitely, history is crucial to my writing.
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa was raised in the Tibetan refugee communities of India and Nepal. She is the author of the poetry books, Revolute (Albion Books), My Rice Tastes Like the Lake, In the Absent Everyday, and Rules of the House (from Apogee Press) and a memoir Coming Home to Tibet (Shambhala Publications). She teaches Creative Writing at Villanova University.