Sunday, June 1, 2014

Yangzom Brauen's "Across Many Mountains": Book Review

Probably the first Swiss-Tibetan ever, at least as a writer, actress, and activist, this granddaughter of a Buddhist nun who fled the Chinese invasion of her homeland, with her little child in tow, tells her family's story over three generations. Efficiently conveyed, without sentiment or romantic reverie, Brauen narrates how Kunsang, her grandmother, married in the Nyingma order, which tolerated if not encouraged such liaisons, her father, a monk. This period, of course, takes place in the pre-Chinese decades, when Tibet remained remote and its class structure and traditions firmly endured. Even now, Brauen admits, her "mola" affirms many of the old ways, despite a life which has pulled her away, first to refugee camp in India, then asylum in Switzerland, and now visiting her daughter, Yangzom's "amala," who resides as an artist in New York City's affluent enclave of cosmopolitan Chelsea.

The author compares herself to the bottom of a sandwich; between the tsampa dough of her grandmother and Sonam, her mother's "juicy filling" partaking of both ends but remaining intact and flavorful, Yangzom represents wholesome wheat bread. She tells the saga of half a century and more directly. Her highly educated grandparents did not feel, she insists, part of a backward society, nor did those under them feel that they resented the traditional ways. All was seen in thrall to a higher order. People did not question their place in a stratified and long-settled society.

With the Chinese refusing to let Tibet, then or now, develop in its own way and time to reform and modernity, it's sobering to find that Lhasa has been reduced to a garish, polluted Chinese city, and that the ancestral settlement of Pang, visited in a poignant journey back home, survives but part in ruins, as the monks resist the spies planted in such places by the PRC to ensure conformity. Brauen as an activist has been arrested for her part in demonstrating in Moscow against this regime when it held the 2008 Summer Olympics, and her path, from Bern to Berlin to Los Angeles, all bear symbolic territory, she observes, reveals her steadfast commitment to gaining if not independence then autonomy for her familial homeland. Since her birth in Switzerland in 1970, she has a unique p-o-v.

She reveals small tidbits which enrich her tale. I've read a few Tibetan accounts, but hers stands out for its natural and welcome portrayal of a rare combination of monastic and lay outlooks on Buddhism and Tibetan society within the same living lineage, its focus on women, and its European and American perspectives from one rarely and well-placed to make such a perspective come alive. For instance, we learn that meat was divided up among eaters as widely as possible to diffuse the negative karmic impact of its consumption in a harsh land; the wheel was known to Tibetans, but rather than revealing them as primitive for not using it, they preferred to keep it holy by not putting it into action. The result was that beasts of burden, animal and human, had to labor instead at raw toil.

Brauen presents fairly Tibet as it was, and she does not sensationalize or preach. Still, we see in Sonam's coming of age as a refugee and then immigrant to Swiss Germany the considerable challenge she and her mother faced, let alone the determination of her "pala," her father from another distinguished family, descended from an earlier religious exile, John Calvin. Martin Brauen's work as an ethnographer, sparked by youthful encounters with the first Tibetans who settled in 1961, led to his embrace of the culture, and his own curatorial career and friendship with the Dalai Lama. (See my review of his fascinating study into Western and Tibetan depictions of this land, Dreamworld Tibet.)

Translated from German in 2011 by Katy Derbyshire, this reads as if it originated in English, and flows. Brauen is not a fancy writer, and it's not often that we get such passages as simply describing the setting of the labor camp where Tibetans had to toil breaking boulders into gravel for roads: "The endless rains transformed the paths into raging torrents, the forest floor into a damp sponge, and the grand roads into washed-out, impassable tracks." But choosing to downplay the prose may be wise. The calm precision of her language and its modest focus prevent this from digressing, even if the pace and tone remain largely muted after the Tibetan sections, with naturally more drama and tension.

What she seeks is noteworthy. "I am determined never to stop standing up for human rights and far-reaching autonomy, so that my people do not face the same destiny as the Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines--leading a tragic life as dying races of insignificant and landless folklore performers." Given my own study of how Bhutan has faced its own pressures, caught in its own Buddhist redoubt between Indian expansion, Nepalese incursion, and Tibetan-PRC threat, and my own identity as a "native Irish" student of its ancestral language and cultural remnants, I can relate.

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