A Tibetan-American Family: A Literary Novel


For my thesis topic, I have chosen a creative project. I plan to write a literary novel that will entail a practical combination of intensive research and creative thought.

Purpose and Crystallization of Themes

I will center my novel around a few main themes. The story will relate to a Tibetan-American refugee family, thus implicitly calling into question the politics surrounding the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Through my writing, I will address issues of cultural adaptation and the dynamic between the powerful and the powerless. I will also symbolically negotiate the probability of a hopeful future for the Tibetan people and culture. I hope that my novel will not only raise awareness of the Tibetan plight but appeal to a more general audience through my use of engaging details of characterization as well as the tool of the intermediary of American characters’ perspectives.
Issues in Contemporary Fiction

The plot that I am choosing to pursue lends itself well to the literary structure explored by Lois E. Bueler in her recent work entitled The Tested Woman Plot. She analyses several works which follow a pattern characterized by three distinct elements: the moral test, a double-stage plot action involving both choice and judgment, and a specific pattern of character functions. My character named Tara (who represents a strange combination of Tibetan, Chinese, and American cultures) will face a moral decision concerning the choice between embracing and rejecting her mixed cultural heritage. She will be able to reflect upon her decision until it has already occurred. The characters both around and before her will play into the pattern of functions described by Bueler.

Another issue that I hope to address is the limit of cultural identity and survival. This theme has been pertinent to contemporary fiction and narratology, as evidenced by the recent publication Narratives for a New Belonging in which editor Roger Bromley compiles examples of “cultural fictions which, in Barthes’s phrase, speak ‘outside the sentence’…texts which are written from the affective experience of social marginality, from a disjunctive, fragmented, displaced agency, and from the perspective of the edge,” (1). In using several different first-person perspectives in my narrative, I will attempt to represent the hybridized, fragmented, revised, and reconstructed version of this story of the Tibetan struggle. One of the main issues faced by Tibetans today is the problem of preserving their cultural identity in spite of the restrictions placed by the Chinese government on the life they led in their original territory. In exploring the possibilities for my character Tara’s future, I hope to symbolically negotiate the choices which Tibetan cultural survival must face. This facet of the novel will relate closely to many issues raised by the field of cultural studies. As Tara looks for a place of “belonging” so will the culture and religion of Tibet, thus addressing the crucial “issue of citizenship” on a primarily individual basis (12). She will be the symbolic, reluctant student-researcher-philosopher-ethnographer-mediator of Tibetan survival, learning how Tibet-the-nation-state can stretch the boundaries of its cultural identity to encompass different geographical locations, ethnicities, genders, classes, and affiliations.

Plot Summary

The story finds its center around a woman named Ani Khadro. She lives in Tibet before the Chinese invasion as a struggling Tibetan Buddhist nun, but upon the invasion, she is taken as a political-religious prisoner. She lives in the prison camp for 5 years, suffering through mental and physical forms of torture and rape, before finally escaping to India, where she rejoins the exiled Tibetan community.

In India, she realizes that she is pregnant, and her family urges her to take the opportunity to move to the US before she gives birth so that she and her baby can have a peaceful, safe life away from the horrors of the new Tibet. She decides to move and joins other Tibetans who have relocated to New Mexico. There, she tries to make a new life, but struggles as any single mother with a newborn baby and very poor English-speaking skills would.

Fortunately, she is put in contact with the St. Vincent De Paul organization, which helps refugees adjust to their new lives, and, thanks to this organization, Ani finds a friend in a Catholic nun named Sister Laurence. To this woman alone does she tell her story. With the help of her new friend and the St. Vincent de Paul organization, Ani is soon on her feet and finally lands in a poor neighborhood with a secure job and her healthy daughter, Tara, who likes to play with the family next door. The Johnsons play a large role in the life of the Khadro family.

Tara grows up believing that her father was killed during the Chinese invasion until she discovers the truth at the age of 26. Not until she meets Sister Laurence at her mother’s funeral that year does she learn of everything her mother went through. Tara is left to grapple with her horrifying origin, her mixed blood, and her unsure future. The ending is one of hope, but not one of love, marriage, children, and “happily ever after.
Structural Techniques

I plan to use a shifting first-person narrative technique; the narrator will rotate with each chapter. I have enclosed the first chapter as a writing sample, and Tara is the speaker in this chapter. I will develop the skills necessary to make this technique work by developing narrative strategies and conversational tones that will be unique to each narrator, without overstepping the specific boundaries of each individual’s perspective. I hope to create a colorful mosaic of voices in order to convey this unique story. My chapters will remain relatively short, with the exception of Ani Khadro’s personal narrative which will take up a large part of the novel’s center.

The timeline of the narrative will begin in the middle of the story and proceed to skip around in terms of both points of view, as described above, and in terms of chronology. The opening chapter recounts Tara’s experiences following her mother’s death. She will return to her hometown and stay with the Johnsons. There, she will eventually learn the truth about her mother’s identity, as well as her own strange origins, when she meets Sister Laurence at Ani’s funeral. This part of the narrative will involve a lengthy shift to the past as Ani’s story is revealed simultaneously to the reader and to Tara. Then the narrative timeline will shift forward to the time period after Ani’s death as Tara struggles to come to grips with the alarming information she has discovered.

The Writing Sample and the Writing Process

In order to provide a writing sample in my proposed genre, I began working on the novel over the course of last semester. After I finished the first few chapters, I decided to polish up Chapter One to submit as my writing sample. This seemingly simple task has taught me more about the writing process than any academic experience I have had thus far. My draft has drastically changed both in terms of content and style over the course of the past six months. During that time, the revision process has been a constant one, and this first chapter is far from polished and consistent in the way I would like it to be. I decided to submit some of the subsequent chapters I’ve written in order to provide a concrete idea of where I want to go after the first chapter. Although these chapters cannot represent any more than an extremely rough draft, I believe that they serve to demonstrate materially the high expectations and ambitious intentions I have outlined in this proposal. Thank you for considering my application.

Annotated Bibliography

Beyer, Stephan. Magic and Ritual in Tibet: The Cult of Tara. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.

This exploration into the significance of the Tibetan Goddess “Tara” in terms of worship and cultural self-understanding provides ample information on the role that the goddess plays in Tibetan culture, particularly in the extreme group referred to as the “Cult of Tara.” This example of the living ritual tradition of Tibetan Buddhists will serve both as a source of knowledge for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism as portrayed in my novel and as a source of information surrounding the symbolic significance of Tara for Tibetan Buddhists. I plan to subtly circumscribe some of Goddess Tara’s meanings around the potential that my character Tara discovers within herself, without ever explicitly making the connection between these two figures.

Bloefeld, John. The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide to the Theory, Purpose, and Techniques of Tantric Meditation. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.

This is the first Tantric text that was ever translated into English, and it remains a definitive general work on the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet. Bloefeld outlines the goals, techniques, and practices of Tantric mysticism and clarifies the relationship between its ornate ritualism and the spiritual effects that these practices have on the human mind. The work will serve as a general introduction and foundation upon which I can work with Tibetan Buddhism in my novel.

Bromley, Roger, ed. Narratives for a New Belonging: Diasporic Cultural Fictions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

A series of articles analyzing various literary cases of stories that treat the topic of ethnic belonging in some way. As my piece of fiction will fit into this category, the literary mechanisms identified may be useful from the other end as techniques for me as a writer trying to achieve effects similar to those achieved by the authors discussed in these articles.

Campbell, June. Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1996.

This unique work reverses the traditionally masculine approach to Tibet and its religious culture by connecting the institutional structures of Tibetan society, as well as Tibetan Buddhist religious belief, to the conceptualization of female identity in Tibet. Campbell focuses on the subservient role of nuns within the religious structures of Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that “Old Tibet” was a place of patriarchy will prove relevant to several themes raised by Ani Khadro’s story. Chapters of particular interest to my research will include Chapter 4: Monasticism and the Emergence of the Lineage of the Self-Born, Chapter 6: At One with the Secret Other, and Chapter 9: Perspectives on Culture and Gender.

The Carlsberg Foundation’s Nomad Research Project. Tibetan Nomads: Environment, Pastoral Economy, and Material Culture.

This compilation of facts about Tibetan nomadic life provides extremely detailed information about the material aspects of this particular culture. I will draw primarily on information concerning methods of trade, diet, costume, furniture, and homes. The one drawback of this source will be its primary focus on nomadic culture, not village Tibetan culture. I do not foresee this as an insurmountable problem as much of the information includes references to other classes of Tibetan life as a means of comparison to the nomadic way of life. The pictures, drawings, and charts of these day-to-day aspects of Tibetan living will help me tremendously in creating a descriptive narrative that will be simultaneously vivid and accurate.

Choedrak, Tenzin. The Rainbow Palace: A Harrowing Spiritual Memoir. Trans. Judith Armbruster. London: Bantam Books, 2000.

This memoir represents an account of a Tibetan monk and doctor’s life growing up in Tibet, being invaded by the Chinese, being taken as a political prisoner, and finally escaping after over twenty years of torture and suffering under the communist Chinese government. His life story provides me not only with a first-hand account of Tibetan life before and after the invasion but provides the additional benefit of a background in Tibetan medicine. Both of these assets make this memoir a significant contributor to my research.

Coleman, Graham, et al. A Handbook of Tibetan Culture: A Guide to Tibetan Centres and Resources throughout the World. Boston: Shambhala Press, 1994.

This comprehensive source includes introductions to the histories of the five major cultural traditions of Tibet, a glossary of key Tibetan Buddhist Sanskrit terms, and even an international resource directory including lamas, museums, scholars, and spiritual communities. It will provide me with a broad knowledge of basic information on Tibet, as well as people in the area who I can contact for the purpose of personal interviews and fact-checking.

Craig, Mary. Tears of Blood: A Cry for Tibet. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999.

This account of the genocide and human rights violations associated with the Chinese occupation of Tibet sheds light on nonviolent people struggling for freedom. It provides information about the lives of exiled Tibetans and a comparison between the Tibetan plight and traditional colonialism. Craig provides insight into the modern Tibetan struggle: the survival of a culture. As I plan to take up this theme in my novel, I will draw upon some of Craig’s analysis as a basis upon which to build my theme.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Beall, Cynthia M. Insert Title Here. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 1990.

Similar to the source I’ve cited by the Carlsberg Foundation’s Nomad Research Project, this book provides detailed information about nomadic life in Tibet. Although it is certainly less detailed in describing the physical, and material aspects of these people’s way of life, this book includes an extremely interesting analysis of the way that the Chinese government has influenced this culture and the people’s persistence in ensuring their cultural survival.

Gyurme, Dorje. Footprint Tibet Handbook with Bhutan. Bath: Footprint Handbooks Ltd., 1999.

This travel guide provides ample information about the geography, culture, architecture, art, and religion found in Tibet today. This will be my source for information concerning references to these aspects of contemporary Tibet.

Jest, Corneille. Tales of the Turquoise: A Pilgrimage in Dolpo. Trans. Margaret Stein. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998.

Jest spent time traveling in Tibet with a companion named Karma. She describes him in her introduction as the storyteller and nomad who made more of a contribution than anyone or anything else to her understanding of the Tibetan spirit. In her book, she records dozens of the stories that Karma recounted to her during their travels together. These mysterious, oral legends serve to capture some of the most vivid wisdom and soul of the Tibetan people. I hope to weave some of these oral traditions into my novel through the character of Ani Khadro.

Keegan, Marcia. Ancient Wisdom, Living Tradition: The Spirit of Tibet in the Himalayas. Trans. Lobsang Lhalungpa. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1998.

This photographic and philosophical collection provides insight into the true spirit of Tibet. A selection of verses attributed to various Buddhist sages accompany a sensitively selected collection of photographs that capture the Tibetan people and their homeland today. The pictures of the landscape and people as well as the traditional quotes will aid me in crafting a realistic picture of the Tibetan spirit in my novel.

Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Klein opens her preface by explicitly stating the purpose of her work as “ a conversation between the profoundly different voices of Tibetan Buddhism and Western feminism,” (xiii). She explores both the tensions between these two traditions as well as the meaningful connections that can be made between them. Of particular interest is Klein’s analysis of “Yeshey Tsogyelas a Buddha who takes the form of an ordinary Tibetan woman so that people of her country might more easily form a relationship with her.” Since one connection that I want to make in my description of Tibetan Buddhism is its similarities with Roman Catholicism, this Tibetan figure may be of particular usefulness as a counterpart to the Catholic figure of Mary. Other chapters of significance (pertaining to the search for self that Tara undergoes in the latter part of the novel) will be Chapter 4 Gain or Drain? Compassion and the Self-Other Boundary, Chapter 5 Self: One Exists, the other Doesn’t, Chapter 7 Becoming the Great Bliss Queen: Her Ritual, and Chapter 8 Inconclusion.

Mayhew, Bradley et al. Lonely Planet: Tibet. Oakland: Lonely Planet Publications, 1999.

This travel guide provides ample information about the geography, culture, architecture, art, and religion found in Tibet today. Along with the Footprints guide mentioned above, this will be my source of information concerning references to these aspects of contemporary Tibet.

Norbu, Dawa. Red Star over Tibet. New York: Envoy Press, 1988.

This first-hand account is recommended by several Tibetan groups as a source of information about “Old Tibet.” This concept of Old Tibet is central to my negotiation of Tibet’s future as well as being pivotal in terms of accurately portraying the Tibet in which Ani Khadro would have grown up and become a nun. The book also provides ample analysis of the way in which Tibetan education, government, and religion changed under Chinese rule. The final chapter of the book, entitled “The Future of Tibet” will be of particular significance to the themes of the future in my book, as this provides a first-hand account of one Tibetan’s hopes for the future of his culture.

Nowak, Margaret. Tibetan Refugees: Youth and the New Generation of Meaning. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984.

This highly significant work explores the possibility of cultural survival and traditional meaning-making through the example of Tibetan Refugees in India. I hope to be able to use some of this analysis in the way that I handle Tara’s interpretation of her heritage’s meaning and its future. The limitation that I foresee is that this book focuses primarily on refugees in India, not in the United States, but I hope that with more research I can find proof that the underlying mechanisms delineated in this book can also apply to the new generation of refugees in the US, of which Tara takes apart.

Pachen, Ani, and Donnelley, Adelaide. Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. New York: Kodansha International Ltd., 2000.

Ani Pachen is a prominent figure in the Tibetan exile community whose story of survival is told in this narrative-style work. She tells the story of her life: her time growing up in “Old Tibet,” her life as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, the invasion of the Chinese, her contributions to the Tibetan resistance, her imprisonment, her escape, and finally her present work with the Tibetan Government in Exile in India. From her, I took inspiration for my character Ani’s first name. This incredible woman led a life extraordinarily similar to the life that I imagine for my character Ani, although I invented her tale before I came across Ani Pachen’s story. I hope to use Ani Pachen’s life as a source of inspiration for my character’s story while steering away from relying on Pachen as a strict blueprint.

Pal, Pratapaditya, et al. Tibet: Tradition and Change. Italy: The Albuquerque Museum Press, 1997.

This catalog came out in conjunction with the exhibition Tibet: Tradition and Change at the Albuquerque Museum from October 18, 1997-January 18, 1998. It focuses most of its attention on the Tibetan exiles relocated to New Mexico, where my story takes place. It includes essays on the changes which have occurred in Tibetan culture and government, oral histories of the refugees, and some examples of traditional Tibetan Buddhist art. I hope to use this catalog as a tool with which to tap into the cultural side of this New Mexican Tibetan refugee community. After obtaining this sort of background research, I will be better prepared to pursue a phone interview with a Tibetan refugee living in New Mexico.

Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction after Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

In this theoretical writing, Rebein asks important questions for contemporary literature and writers of fiction. What comes after post-modernism? What role are authors to play in the contemporary creative cultural scene? The direction that fiction will take over the next few years will influence the way in which our culture will view literature, as we find ourselves at the end of an era, so to speak. He goes on to analyze various trends which he observes in present literature. These trends include the broadening of cultural voices in American literature, shocking realism, the return of the native, and the new west. I hope to sift through his analysis in order to find my own place in contemporary fiction among all these various trends.

Richardson, Hugh. High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture. London: Serindia Publications, 1998.

This work serves as a completely comprehensive source of information about the cultural history of Tibet, ranging from the very earliest record to the present speculations about Tibet’s national and cultural future. With Richardson’s work, I can easily find specific information about cultural and historical movements going on in Tibet during the range of periods through which my characters live. The sections of analysis pertaining to the role Tibet has grown to play in Western culture will be of particular interest to Tara’s plot line.

Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997.

This book provides a detailed analysis of the Termas (or jewels held within a certain sacred teaching) of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a school particularly rich in Termas, as it is the “oldest, the mother school, of Tibetan Buddhism,” (14). I plan to make Ani a nun within the monastic tradition of this particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, and this book will be my primary source of information about the philosophical teachings and ritual practices that took place within this school. The author even goes into detail about the teaching methods that masters within the school would use in order to train their students, which will be essential in portraying an accurate image of Ani’s life as a student and a nun.

Sambhava, Padma. Tibetan Book of the Dead. Trans. Robert A. F. Thurman. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

This sacred text delineates the experiences of the soul as it travels between one existence and the next in the cycle of reincarnation. During the state between death and rebirth, members of the spiritual community and loved ones of the deceased recite prayers and mantras in order to obtain for them the intercession of bodhisattvas and buddhas. These prayers and rituals will be important to the section of the novel during which Ani Khadro’s funeral occurs.

Sharma, S.K., and Sharma, Usha, eds. Society and Culture of Tibet. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1997.

This collection of academic articles provides a description and analysis of a wide variety of Tibetan cultural, religious, and societal practices. I would particularly like to focus on the following articles offered in this volume: “Folk-Lore of Tibet,” “Tibetan Culture,” “Manners and Customs,” “Superstitions: Manners and Customs: Art,” “Superstitions,” “Early Ethnography of the Koko-Nor and Eastern Tibet,” “Tibetan Boys and Girls,” “Tibetan and Bhotia Death Ceremonies,” “Tibetan Women,” “Education and Castes,” “Student’s Life in Tibet,” “Education in the Borderlands,” and “Mystic Plays and Masquerades.” I believe that these articles will provide depth and believability to my narrative as well as provoke interest in this foreign and largely unknown culture that I wish to portray in my novel.

Stein, Sol. Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

In this work, Stein outlines techniques that he has found useful as a writer and an editor of fiction and nonfiction. He describes how to craft an imaginative, compelling, and credible narrative. I will use his advice as a guide in shaping characters, plot, and suspense in my novel.

Tapontsang, Adhe. Ama Adhe: The Voice that Remembers. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997.

This is the story of a Tibetan woman named Ama Adhe as told to writer Joy Blakeslee. When Adhe and her family participated in the Tibetan resistance movement, they were taken prisoners by the Chinese government. Adhe was imprisoned for a total of twenty-seven years before escaping to India. Her story serves as an example of the suffering that has become too typical for Tibetans, but, additionally, it provides a beautiful picture of the female participation in the Tibetan struggle for justice and freedom. Her story in its details as well as its overarching symbolic significance will influence my shaping of Ani Khadro’s story.

Wilentz, Gay. Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Dis-Ease. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

This collection of analytical essays looks at a wide variety of examples in literature of narratives that heal certain problems linked specifically to the culture in which the narrative takes place. As my novel will fall into this category, especially when I incorporate various aspects of Tibetan medicine into my narrative, the underlying mechanisms that Wilentz identifies in these healing narratives will be useful to me as a writer.