Restored Voice will be a work of creative non-fiction, to be published as a collection of narratives and photography. It centers around the refugee Tibetan nuns of Dharamsala, who have been supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project to gain access to education, healthcare, self-sufficiency, and – at the crux of it all – freedom.

One of the ani-la (nuns) interviewed for the project, at the new debate platform of Dolma Ling

One of the ani-la (nuns) interviewed for the project, at the new debate platform of Dolma Ling. Photo by Olivia Engel (COPYRIGHT Restored Voice Project)

RVP is an independent project, publicly funded via Kickstarter, designed and completed by myself. The bulk of the book, however, will consist of the nuns’ voices.  I will visit the nuns in Dharamsala with a Tibetan-English translator and record their narratives live. Each woman featured will share a personal narrative – their life, as they see it. Their words will not be altered when published, aside from translation to English; it will be a first-person source.

The mission behind this project is to give these women a chance to share their stories – first and foremost, it is about them. This book is intended to be an empowering space for these women and an informative source for the globe. It will be originally published in English so that the book can reach a large, international audience, but the book will also include some of each authors’ featured original words in Tibetan script.

My own writing stitches together the nuns’ stories and provides background and context to further educate the reader. I will provide an introduction and conclusion, research on Tibet, and experiences I will have with the women on the nunneries. Additionally, descriptions of my journey, the nuns themselves, and of beautiful Dharamsala make the book more human, so that it’s not only circulating through academia but is read by lay people as well.

I cannot wait for these women to share their lives, dreams, and creativity with the world.

The Original Inspiration

I became impassioned with a desire to make this a reality when I volunteered for the Tibetan Nuns Project in 2010.  On my very first day at the TNP Seattle office, I was asked to update the nuns’ information.  Kristina, one of the two women who staffed the whole place, handed me a heavy binder, laden with papers and photos – it was the collection of the nuns’ biographies for sponsorship.

“Feel free to read their bios as you work,” Kristina advised me.  ”They are really incredible women, and some of them have been through a lot.”

I did.  And she was right.  They came from varying backgrounds and told different stories, but I got a sense of the unified struggles they’d all overcome to be free.  It occurred to me then that I held a treasure trove in my hands – the forbidden stories of these wonderful women.  Stories that, according to the Chinese government, are not allowed to be told, and, for all intents and purposes, do not exist.

I want to help these nuns share their stories.  Not only are they inspiring, but they deserve to be heard.  So, I aim to travel to Dharamshala, where I will meet up with my Tibetan-English translator, and return with a collection of the nuns’ powerful narratives and photography.  The collection will be stitched together with my own account of the project and ensuing journey to Dharmashala, and then finally be published.  So that the nuns have the chance to feel the empowerment that comes from expressing one’s story and creative eye.

 An Empowering Project

A Tibetan girl watches boys learning dialectics at the Tsuglag Khang temple in Dharamsala

A Tibetan girl  shyly watches boys learning debate dialectics at the Tsuglag Khang – photo by Olivia Engel (COPYRIGHT Restored Voice Project)

Restored Voice Project will produce a space for these women to share their experiences, impressions, and opinions.  Their perspectives, after having spent decades being silenced by the Chinese Communist Party or obscured in exile, will finally be accessible to the rest of the world.

Tibetan women did not have access to higher education until the 1980’s, and you can find volume after volume about Tibetan monks – where are the nuns? We see time and time again that bringing art to oppressed peoples, and giving them a chance to individuate their perspectives offers to them a sense of agency, of ownership of their experiences. Every nun I interviewed thanked me for telling their story on behalf of Tibet, and several thanked me for offering a chance of release and introspection.

These women are refugees from a land grasped under occupation and terror; the Chinese government currently tortures, imprisons, and kills Tibetans for even the smallest act of independence.  Many of these very nuns and/or their families protested peacefully in Tibet by speaking out or holding a banner at a rally, and lost their ear, or their hand, or their dignity as a result.

So what could be more subversive than an act of free speech?  The action of telling her story, and telling it how she wants it to be told, is not only an act of sharing but also inherently an act of rebellion.  Of ownership.  Not that these women are needy for our validation – they have already bravely made their own freedom and shaped their own destinies.  But many of them express a desire to extend their voices to the West, so that the issue of a Chinese-occupied Tibet is not forgotten.  We, at the very least, need to hear and learn from them.

A Creative Project

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Unlike many other socially- and politically-minded works of non-fiction,  Restored Voice will engage a creative voice.  These women will tell their stories with the passion and personal affectation of real women, not journalists or archivists. It has been a top priority to find a Tibetan-English translator who shares my desire to bring beauty and honesty to this project. The nuns’ stories will be brought to life for readers around the globe.

In addition, I aim to bring to life the beauty of the women, their home and communities, and the ancient mountains and forests of Dharamsala with present narration of my project and journey interwoven throughout the book.  I firmly believe that just because RVP is non-fiction and relevant to current events does not mean it should be dull to read – it should be beautiful, engaging, and unique.

A Human Project

My first interview, a Khampa named Kalsang. She lives in Geden Choeling, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala

My first interview, a Khampa named Kalsang. She lives in Geden Choeling, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo by Olivia Engel (COPYRIGHT Restored Voice Project)

Restored Voice Project is an alchemy of real-world urgency and the beauty of the personal.  It siphons the richest yolk from two academic pursuits – Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology.  Another reason I feel this project is something important – and something new – is because it will be a work of creative non-fiction that can be utilized and enjoyed by students of anthropology or global politics, the director of an NGO, and pleasure-readers alike.  I intend for this book to be as sound and informational in an academic setting as it would be relatable and powerful for any individual to read.

As a student of Anthropology and of Creative Writing, I know that the most compelling way to reach people, to teach and to inspire, is through stories.  Tibetan refugees have been the subjects of many sociological studies and documentaries.  But I would like to publish something personal and beautiful that is not obscure, something that might be read by any individual – not only an academic or an already-like-minded activist.  Our world can always benefit from more compassion, more understanding, and more fulfilled curiosity.  The Humanities, therefore, should be accessible to all humans.  We should all be able to read – and enjoy reading – these women’s stories.

An Urgent Project

The Tibetan freedom struggle continues - it officially began in 1959.

The Tibetan freedom struggle continues – it officially began in 1959. Photo by Olivia Engel (COPYRIGHT Restored Voice Project)

Restored Voice’s purpose is to give a voice to these women.   It is what these women have experienced, what they desire to express.  It is their opportunity to share their voices with the world.

However, while writing, photography, and shared human experience are main components of Restored Voice, one cannot forget that these women are refugees.  Their position as exiles come from a context – one in which freedom of speech, or lack thereof, is very important.  There is inherently a message to be heard: Tibetans are not free.  This is not just a movement from the past – this is still the reality of all Tibetans, today.  And it is not getting better.

It is important to understand that these women come from and are a part of an issue that is largely ignored by the world.  Tibetans cannot practice their religion, cannot hear the Dalai Lama, cannot even own a picture of him, and they definitely do not have freedom of speech – which is why Restored Voice is important.  Tibetans that show peaceful resistance are tortured, imprisoned, or killed.  Sometimes their young people are sent to mainland China to be “re-educated.”  Their culture and way of life have been – and are still being – intentionally torn apart.  However,  at least in terms of political and economic decisions, most of the world does not hold China accountable for these ongoing human rights violations.

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Having stated the goals of the Restored Voice Project, it is my personal hope that, through reading RVP, more and more individuals will find themselves a step closer to the plight of Tibetans. I hope that more of us will feel connected to this group of people as people, that we will be inspired by their bravery and commitment, and that our collective understanding of the Tibetan issue will be fuller.

4 responses to “About

  1. Thank you for uplifting my spirit. When I reflect on my time with the Tibetan Nuns, I often touch a bit of the compassion, vibrant spirit, and warmth the community shares. The images you speak of linger. Memories and stories to share.

    I was in western and central Tibet about a month ago. You may enjoy a slide show/video I created from my travels. Here’s a link:


    Thank you for taking time to write such a beautiful piece to support TNP.

    Jeffrey Davis

  2. oliviaengel

    Thank-you so much for your support!

  3. Robbie

    Olivia, your beautiful writings reveal
    a true passion for these women and for the ideals of freedom and dignity for all. I can’t wait to read your book.

  4. Cara Hiripitiyage

    I am excited to learn more about this project and see it unfold. Your passion is evident. What an exciting opportunity to learn about others!


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