Tibet is like flower trapped in a cage, it can’t grow freely: Author Amy Yee

Author Amy Yee and her new book Far from the Roof of the World. Photo: Amy Yee/TPI

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Dharamshala — In an exclusive interview with the author of <<Far from the Roof of the World>>, the award-winning journalist and author said, "Tibet is like a flower or a plant that is trapped in a cage and cannot grow freely. Put a part of this flower in a different soil, like India or Australia, then it is no longer caged, it gets sunlight,, The soil is different but now it can grow."

Tibet Post International (TPI) had an exclusive interview with journalist Amy Yee, author of <<Far from the Roof of the World>>, she shared with TPI her new book, the reasons for writing it, and the challenges and insights she encountered while interviewing Tibetans. She hopes that, one day her book will be translated into Chinese, so that Chinese people can read it in China. Yee hopes it might change the minds of some people, particularly those in power, and that they will know that Tibetans do not hate Chinese people.

Amy Yee is an award-winning journalist and a former staff reporter and foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in New York and New Delhi. She lived in India from 2006 to 2013, Bangladesh in 2014-15, and reported from 10 countries in Africa from 2016 to 2018.

TPI: Can you tell us about your new book and the reasons for writing it?

Amy: I was very intrigued by Dharamshala and the history of Tibetans in India. At first I wanted to write an article for a magazine. But then I thought this could be a book because I didn't see much about ordinary Tibetans in exile. A lot is written about Tibetans in Tibet and the Dalai Lama, but not much about ordinary Tibetans in exile. The last book I found dates from the 1980s, so there is a gap in writing and research on Tibetans in exile. I interviewed more than one hundred Tibetans on four continents, in India, Australia, Europe and the United States. Some talked about their desire to return to Tibet and reunite with parents and family, their difficulties and also hopes for the future. Some Tibetans were left under duress so they couldn't say goodbye to their parents. They didn't want to risk their lives, so they left without saying anything to their family members.

Early one morning in Dharamsala, I met Norbu walking on the Kora (circuit or Pilgrimage Route). He later told me that he walks the Kora every morning and he prays to be able to see his mother. Later, when I met him again in Australia, he still talked about wanting to apply for a visa to meet his mother. He had gotten Australian citizenship and had applied several times for a visa to go to Tibet, but had been refused. He is still considering traveling elsewhere and applying for a visa from there to increase his chances of meeting his mother.

TPI: What does the title <<Far from the Roof of the World>> mean?

Amy: <<Far from the Roof of the World>> was originally the name of Chapter 14 about Bylakuppe, the largest Tibetan settlement, in South India, Karnataka. This chapter was originally published as a separate article and this was the title of the piece. "Bylakuppe is so far from the rooftop of the world, as Tibet is sometimes called. and so different. There are no mountains. It was originally a jungle and today there are cornfields.

I didn't expect to later go to Australia for this book. That was even further from the roof of the world and different from beaches and the Pacific Ocean. The environment is completely different and the title refers to the distance from Tibet. Yet the Tibetans I met in Australia retain and preserve their culture and their identity, and that's incredible.

I was also inspired by the people I met in Dharamshala. Dharamshala was Tibet in a parallel universe. Or you can imagine Tibet as a flower or plant trapped in a cage and it can’t grow freely. But take a piece of that plant and put it in a different soil like India or Australia. It's no longer caged, it gets sunlight, the soil is different but now it's growing; that's the way I think about it. The way culture changes and adapts to new places and situations is a theme in many of my stories, and not just for Tibetans. As an Asian American, I’ve always been fascinated by people navigating multiple identities and what changes and what stays the same when they immigrate or are transplanted in a new environment.

TPI: You changed the names of the Tibetans interviewed to protect their families in Tibet. Does this pressure come from transnational repression by the Chinese government?

Amy: It wasn't because of transnational repression that I changed the names, but to protect their identities. I didn't want to harm Norbu's chances of getting a visa to meet his mother. And with Topden some of our conversations were very personal and had nothing to do with politics, but with his personal life. Deckyi and Dhondup are in Belgium, but their families are still in Tibet. So I didn't want their names to appear on any blacklists, nor did I want there to be any serious repercussions for their families in Tibet, whom they hope to visit one day. In terms of transnational repression, it's shocking to see how much influence China can have outside its borders, even on trivial things, like supporting a team of young Tibetan footballers. Even local communities face censorship and pressure. It's quite sad. Globally, countries and governments are censoring themselves and disinviting people from visits or conferences under pressure from China.

TPI: What difficulties did you encounter in writing and publishing the book?

Amy: I wrote most of the book in two years, but it was very difficult to get it published. Agents and editors didn't think the book would sell, even though they liked the book and the writing. Publishing a book is a business, so they have to ask themselves whether the book will sell. It's harder to get a book published if it doesn't deal with a mainstream subject.

When my book finally got a publisher, it was peer-reviewed by three academics So there were a lot of hurdles and loops. They read the book very carefully and sent me notes and comments to which I had to respond. One of the most frequent questions was why there was such a time jump between India and Australia. In the book itself, I had to explain that since the book couldn't be published, I had to wait.; If it had been published early on, the book would have ended in India. I met so many people, often the same people, but in different countries. Ultimately it was a blessing in disguise. We were able to keep following them as their lives unfolded. That moved the book forward in unexpected and surprising ways.

TPI: In 2008, Tibetans protested against China from three regions of Tibet. You must have seen the videos and reports, and you also attended the press conference given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Can you tell us more about the situation at that time?

Amy: It was the most violent unrest in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. That's why all the journalists were in Dharamshala at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's press conference. I remember the protests in the streets and the photos of people shot dead in Tibet that were shown here in Dharamshala. Their bodies were taken to Kirti Monastery in Tibet and monks took photos and sent them to show the outside world what was happening. These photos were put on display in Dharamsala and it was shocking and sad to see them. Being in Dharamshala and seeing the reaction of the Tibetans was moving. Tibetan people had been protesting and demonstrating all week in Dharamshala. What Tibetans couldn’t do in Tibet, the Tibetans in exile did for them.

I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a press conference in 2008 where he hugged me. My reaction was very different from that of any Tibetan who had so much emotional attachment toward him. My reaction was the same as when you see someone so well-known and iconic.

But after the press conference he came up to me, unexpectedly, and asked if I was Chinese. I was so surprised and did not know what to say, because he had spent two hours discussing the Chinese government’s repression. Of course I have nothing to do with it since I am American. However, I am ethnically Chinese. His response to me was surprising. He was welcoming, warm and he smiled at me. He hugged me, held my face in his hands and said: “Tibet and China must discuss, it’s between us”. “You must tell them,” he added. Any Tibetan would be overwhelmed by emotion. But for me, I had to go back to work. Later Tibetans told me how lucky I was that he hugged me. I later realized how much significance the Dalai Lama holds for any Tibetan.

TPI: What message would you like to send through this book?

Amy: Indians in India and Tibetans in exile in different countries could learn a lot from this book. One of the most striking things was the welcome I received from Tibetans in India. It's easy for them to see me as an enemy since I am ethnically Chinese. But they were enthusiastic and often said "Ni Hao” (Hello in Mandarin) when they saw me. It was incredible. His Holiness the Dalai Lama's approach to Chinese people shows that he still trusts them, despite what happened in Tibet and despite how he was often met with hostility by some Chinese when he travelled abroad around 2008. Tibetans were able to distinguish between an individual like me from the Chinese government, which is not easy for people to do. Even in democratic countries, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, Asians were targeted when they themselves were victims of the virus and of China's Covid-19 policy. People didn't distinguish between the government and the people.

I hope that one day the book will be translated into Chinese, so that someone in China can read it. Perhaps it will change someone's mind, especially those in power. Chinese want the same basic rights too, like freedom of expression, human rights, security and safety.

PRAISE FOR THE BOOK

Peter Hessler, New Yorker writer, MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award finalist, wrote that the book is: “Beautifully observed, with full-bodied, engaging characters who are never lost in the shadow of Chinese politics. Amy Yee has done a wonderful job of capturing the details, dramas, and dignities of Tibetan life in exile.”

Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the National Book Award: “Through a kaleidoscopic portrait, Amy Yee describes displaced Tibetans intimately and truthfully: people who are warm, open, large-hearted, peaceful. Their displacement cannot crush their humanity. Instead, their losses have strengthened them.”

Dr Lobsang Sangay, former Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile (CTA): "While Amy Yee's book is about the lives and political struggle of Tibetans in exile, it also reflects and speaks to the personal challenges and triumphs of 100 million refugees and diasporas around the world."

Tencho Gyatso, President of the International Campaign for Tibet: "In too many narratives, Tibetans are merely faceless victims. But in this perceptive and empathic work, Amy Yee shows we are people full of life, dreams, nuances, and resilience."

Wilson Center in DC: "Over the course of more than a decade, [Yee's] interactions and correspondences with her Tibetan contacts blossomed into a non-fiction narrative that is among the first of its kind...Yee’s focus on authentic lived experiences—stories that could only be written with deep and trusted connections—establishes a model for responsible and effective refugee representation."

Edward Luce, former Financial Times South Asia bureau chief: "A wonderful and moving portrait of a people whose predicament needs to be brought into the sunlight. This is a work of passion and insight that deserves to be widely read."