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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Can Bhutanese writers wield the pen? (An article published in The Journalist)

A young girl was stranded in the middle of an isolated island for more than a decade. She survived alone on the island because she had the life-skills. She knew how to fish, light a bonfire and swim. Many passing ships tried to rescue her but she was a good runner and knew all the hiding places on the forbidden land. Whenever the travelers left disappointed, she would be on a cliff waving at them. Then one fine day, a group of determined sailors decided they had to take her back to civilization by any means. They formed a band and started a search operation, combing the whole area. At last, by a stroke of luck, one of them found her, sitting by a cliff, humming to herself and swinging her hands. He reached up to her silently and touched her shoulder. What was the girl’s reaction? Did she jump, scream, run away or catch hold of the man? No. She silently motioned for the man to take a seat and prepared a meal for him. What was happening here? The castaway girl was catering to one of the most basic needs of a human being. Even she knew and felt that. “And that is what a writer is supposed to do,” ended Kim Stafford, a writer and teacher from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, USA who along with team members from Poland and Alaska, conducted a writers’ retreat at VAST, Thimphu on January 25, 2011.
Writers are supposed to be a gifted lot. They gift their creations to the world. And in turn, they themselves are rewarded with the gifts of personal expression and realization. Kim Stafford, the son of the American poet William Stafford who has authored more than 2,000 volumes, said that even Bhutan is a rich breeding ground for potential writers.
“The people I have met in Bhutan are filled with stories from their lives and from their country. Having a strong story to tell, and clear affection for the human community - these are the foundation for being a writer. So, yes, of course, Bhutan is filled with people who could do important writing,” he told The Journalist.
He believes that Bhutan needs writers and their stories in order to develop its full identity.
According to him, democracy is not just counting votes but real democracy is a society where many voices can be heard - young, old, beginner, advanced and “each writer's voice can make a crucial contribution to this process”.
 “The world needs to learn how to behave in better ways, and I believe writers in Bhutan can help us all to better understand our responsibilities and joys as human beings,” he added.
Azhi Kunzang Choden, a popular Bhutanese writer who has books like “The Circle of Karma,” “Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan,” “Tales in Colors and other Stories,” besides several articles, to her credit feels that Bhutanese writers need to keep on growing by challenging themselves constantly to become better writers.
According to her, there is a market anywhere for good, inspired, well written stories but Bhutanese writers have yet to prove themselves in the international arena. The test, she said, is for Bhutanese works to be accepted for publication by an international publisher.
But Tashi Gyeltshen, an independent filmmaker who also dabbles in photography and creative writing, said that research one of the most important elements that goes into a piece of superb writing is sorely missing in the Bhutanese writing culture.
He feels that creativity depends on the freedom that culture/society gives to an artist including a writer. “Creativity means you should have discipline, passion, skills, and the willingness to take risks,” he said.
According to him, the potential of a writer depends on how the society can promote and nurture it but that the creative culture cannot be changed overnight such as poor reading habits, growing up with orthodox views which constrict creativity and  expression, etc.
What inspires Tashi Gyeltshen is personal expression. He said that when you want to say something, or have a story to tell the world, it motivates you to create. For most people, he feels, writing is a form of self indulgence but for works of art to have that magical quality, it must be authentic and rooted in one’s own practices, of course, not without having a universal quality to it which the global community can relate to.
And “passion”, he says is “the grease that keeps the machine running”.
“Otherwise talent breaks down. When we talk about writers, it is not about good language but creativity.”
Some of the Bhutanese writers The Journalist talked to agreed that the publishing world in Bhutan also has to develop. And no amount of publicity will work if the product is not up to the mark.
A critic however said that readers do not exist in Bhutan and the few that do are “show-offs” trying to fit into the elite intellectual society. “Books here are meant to be published, not read,” he observed, “And there is no such formula by which a Bhutanese writer can touch the pulse of readers in our society.”
It is not an unknown fact that Bhutanese representation in the international literary circles is almost nil and an observer who agreed said that this is because there is no platform for nurturing creative talent in Bhutan.
“Because of the non-existence of an enabling environment, the Bhutanese have very little belief in themselves. Nobody will say they want to become a writer, photographer or film-maker. Everybody will vouch on becoming a doctor or engineer,” he said.
Tandin Wangchuk, an upcoming young writer who has already published three books, agrees that there is almost no market for books written by Bhutanese writers as compared to foreign authors.
“The books written in English are too expensive and only a few buy books in Dzongkha which is a sad thing.”
However, not to lose hope, is Azhi Kunzang Choden’s mantra. “Each one of us is a unique individual, so write as individuals, as you see, understand and interpret your world. You do not have to try to be somebody else by using their thoughts and their language. Write simple sentences,” she suggests.
And like Kim Stafford advised writers against discouragement, “Writing, like any spiritual practice, requires the long view. You are on a journey, and if you can learn to give yourself to the journey and enjoy the process of creation, we will meet in the land of success together as writers.”