Q: Who are ‘refugee Tibetan nuns’? What does that mean?
A: A refugee is someone who is forced to leave their country because of persecution or danger. This could be religious persecution, political persecution, physical danger toward one’s self or one’s family, or any combination of these factors. See Merriam-Webster’s online definition, or the U.N.’s page on refugees for more information.
Tibetan refugees qualify for all of these factors. Since the Chinese Communist Party invaded Tibet in 1949, their spiritual leaders, political figures, and advocates for freedom and Tibetan culture have been under fire. PM Nehru offered asylum to all Tibetan refugees in 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, had to flee Tibet for his life. He set up a Government in Exile there, and today, Dharamsala has the largest Tibetan population outside of Tibet.
So, these are women who have fled from their home for freedom from persecution and harm, and are now living in exile in India’s Tibetan nunneries. Most of them, upon escape, already aimed to devote their lives to peace, education, and spiritual enlightenment by becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Dharamshala is a hub for nunneries largely because His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sister-in-law, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, set up the Tibetan Nuns Project in 1991 – and, of course, because H.H. the Dalai Lama lives nearby.
Q: Why would I read a book of their narratives?
A: Because these women are incredible. They grew up in beautiful, faraway places, in an occupied region, surrounded by and participating in protests for Tibetan independence – braving frostbite, snow blindness, robbery, and death for freedom in their escapes from Tibet. From the small, daily choices and reflections to which every human can relate, to the unique perspectives of a world most people have never encountered, the refugee women of Dharamsala have much to show us and share with us.
Narratives are particularly powerful source material because they are first-person – no outsider bias or twist via paraphrase. While I will contribute to the book, with research on Tibet and experiences with the nuns, my writing will serve only as footnotes to the central content: the women’s stories as they relate them, framed only by their perspectives, not mine. As you read a nuns’ narrative, you know you don’t have a middle(wo)man’s voice interfering. And a collection of narratives is, in my view, even more powerful in that it offers a collective experience and perspective, instead of just one author’s.
Reading a collection of narratives is a great way to immerse yourself in a group of people you have never met. Imagine any issue. Can you understand something as complicated as religion, gender, politics, or health after hearing from one source? Even one expert, who compiled many sources? Perhaps it would be better to ask many different individuals who are actually living out your questions about what it means to them. It may be a matter of opinion, but I believe that a collection of narratives is one of the very best ways to understand an issue that is unfamiliar to you.
Q: What are the goals of this project?
A: The main mission behind this project is to give the 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. Each woman featured will share a personal narrative – their life, as they see it. I will have a translator with me so that the book can reach an international audience, but the book will also include the authors’ original words, in Tibetan script.
Because the nuns are sharing their voices and their photography, 50% of all revenue generated by this book will go directly to the nuns featured. I intend to eventually break even for costs of publishing and advertisement and be moderately compensated for my time, research, and artistic contributions.
The secondary mission of the RVP is that 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.
Q: Is Restored Voice Project exclusively for one sect of Tibetan Buddhism, or are any of the nuns accepted?
A: This book should be representative of women from many different backgrounds and traditions, so that the collection of narratives gives us a full picture of who the Tibetan nuns really are. Any woman born in Tibet and devoted to the life of the ani (Tibetan nuns) will happily be included.
Q: Is Restored Voice Project sponsored by or affiliated with an organization, religion, or institution?
A: No. RVP is a completely independent project, with a lot of smart, compassionate friends.
Q: How are you going to make RVP a reality?
A: Via a publicly-funded campaign on Kickstarter.com, I will travel to Dharamsala to record the nuns’ narratives. My Kickstarter goal will be just $5500.00, to cover:
– Flight to Dharamshala and back
– Securing suitable recording equipment
– Cost of living in Dharamsala for 3 months to complete interviews with nuns
– Compensation for interpreter
– Indian visa
– Cost of transportation within Dharamsala and to other nearby locations where graduated nuns now live and teach
(It should be understood that I am committed to this project, regardless of the outcome of the fundraising campaign)
I lived and studied in India in 2008, and made some lasting bonds with my host family. My host mother works for IGNOU, a vast network of universities throughout the country – so, I have connections wherever I go. This is an independent project, and so it is largely thanks to friends – my Indian mother and her IGNOU network, my anthropology professor’s free (but priceless!) advice, TNP’s allowing my research in their office and for communicating directly with the nuns in India about my project, and of course the many intelligent, supportive, and creative people with whom I’ve brainstormed – that it has been possible to get this far.
Q: Why use Kickstarter.com?
A: I chose Kickstarter for two reasons, both of which relating to the fact that it is publicly funded:
1) Independence and neutrality are guaranteed. I don’t need to worry about altering my vision for the project or the way these women will share their stories due to the interests or preferences of whoever is funding me.
2) (Perhaps more importantly) The public chooses its projects. We collectively invest in what we want to see. I think this will lend an added warmth and sense of shared experience to RVP. Plus, the nuns can know that people are interested in what they have to say.
Q: What is the timeline for this project?
A: The Kickstarter campaign will launch soon – see the countdown widget at the top right of the home page to follow! – and the trip itself will be this coming January 2013 through March 2013. After I return from India with the material I need to put the book together, I will begin the editing and publishing process. There is a lot of transcribing and translating to do – many hours will need to be put into the finalization of the nuns’ stories before I can publish, and I need a translator in order to work. Since the women have waited a long time to tell their stories, and the situation in Tibet is worsening, I will work hard to publish as soon as I can. My goal is by the end of 2014.
Q: How can it be creative but also be non-fiction?
A: Creative Non-fiction is a genre of writing, in which the content is real and the style is artful. As Creativenonfiction.org describes:
“The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”
I intentionally fashion this project as Creative Non-fiction because I want it to be read by many people, not just academics or those already vested in Tibetan issues. I would like to see Restored Voice on a best-seller list – a book that has reached many people. And wouldn’t it be something to tell the nuns that their stories, silenced by the Chinese government and waiting in obscurity for so long, are best-sellers?
Q: Why is this project important? Isn’t it too big a world to focus on such a specific group of people?
A: I include this question because I have encountered it many times. Not only do I believe that everyone has something to teach us, but I believe that each pocket of people – big, small, well-known or mysterious – are reflections of each other. As we learn about the way others do things, the way history has treated them, the better we can understand our own lives and histories, and the more readily we understand another’s the next time we’re presented with an issue.
Also, with 100 self-immolations, Lobsang Sangay now appointed as a Tibetan Prime Minister (they are still not an official government, according to China, and the rest of the world won’t acknowledge them for fear of hurting political relations), leadership changing in China, and more and more Tibetans beaten and detained in protests each week, the Tibetan issue is becoming increasingly volatile. The sooner we as a global community understand more about this issue, the better.