Yangzom Brauen's new family memoir Across Many Mountains tells the harrowing yet ultimately inspirational story of her grandmother and mother's life in Tibet and their subsequent escape and exile after the Tibetan independence movement was suppressed by Chairman Mao's Red Army. Herself an activist for Tibet as well as a writer and actress, Brauen appears at Asia Society New York this Thursday, October 13, for a reading and Q&A that will also be a live webcast on AsiaSociety.org.
Coinciding with the program, Asia Society New York is hosting a special installation in its Visitor Center of two works by Brauen's mother, artist Sonam Dolma Brauen, from October 4–16. Brauen's work derives from her experience of the complex journey that led her from Tibet to India, to New York, and to her current home of Bern, Switzerland.
Slideshow: The Art of Sonam Dolma Brauen
Asia Society was able to talk to Yangzom Brauen in advance of her New York appearance. In the following interview, she reveals why her book on Tibet is different from all the rest, what she and the Dalai Lama agree on and what's killing Tibetan culture.
You’ve established yourself as a successful model, actress and political activist. Across Many Mountains is your first book. What inspired you to write it?
When I was a child my grandmother and mother told me many stories about Tibet, but after the huge uprising in 2008 I felt that the time had come to write everything down, and to talk about Tibetan history through the lives of three women. What amazed me was how so much could change in under a century of Tibetan history; from 1920 to 2011 so much of Tibetan culture has disappeared. I was worried that these memories would fade with each passing generation, so I felt it was important to preserve both our own story and that of Tibet’s history.
What did you feel was missing from other books about Tibet? How does your book differ from the others?
Well, first of all I felt that outside of Tibetan a lot of people knew very little about the country. I’ve met people who, when I tell them that I’m Tibetan, don’t know that it is occupied by China, and that there are even women there and nuns! Most people have heard of the Dalai Lama, but so much of what you read about Tibet is filtered through the clerical Buddhism he represents rather than the more common folk Buddhism. It was important to me to show another point of view about Tibet. My family isn’t aristocratic but rather simple, and ordinary. I feel that my book provides this kind of perspective on the country, one that you can’t find elsewhere.
What are some of the biggest misunderstandings Western people have about Tibet?
Most Westerners think that Tibetans are all good people, which is really an oversimplification. Tibetans are human beings like everyone else, and there are aspects of Tibetan history that we are not proud of. We had feudalism, for instance, and in fact one reason China invaded Tibet was to free the Tibetan people from feudalism and the aristocrats and dependency on the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans do try to avoid being violent, though, and they do not have an Army, but that does not mean that Tibetans do not wish to be violent against the Chinese. They just don’t do it because the Dalai Lama tells them not to.
What’s odd is that as a Tibetan you’re something of a "privileged" foreigner in the West. People perceive Tibetans differently than they do, for example, Thai and Filipino people. This is something that struck my mother when she first came to the West.
Can Tibet maintain its culture and traditions while developing economically?
The Chinese-led economic development in Tibet is changing society very quickly, similar in a way to when the Europeans interacted with Native Americans. With development you’ve seen things that weren’t there before, like alcohol and prostitution but also new technology. Tibetans are of course attracted to it; they don’t just want to stay exactly as they are, forever. The lamas and monks of my grandmother’s generation are a dying breed, and nowadays you see monks using laptops and mobile phones.
But that being said, technology and development doesn’t necessarily have to kill the culture. The two can be reconciled. What is destroying the culture is the Chinese saying we’re not allowed to practice our religion and our spirituality.
The Dalai Lama no longer advocates full independence for Tibet but rather real autonomy. Do you agree with him?
Even though I was president of the Tibetan Youth Organization, an organization which advocates full independence, I agree with the Dalai Lama that real autonomy is preferable. In many ways it’s exactly the same thing, as it would preserve our culture and language under a “one country, two systems”-type arrangement. Full autonomy is a far more realistic way to seek ultimate independence, I think.
How did you become interested in activism?
I had just completed a theater degree at university and felt like I needed to do something. Around this time I met a Tibetan woman who told me she was looking for a new president of the organization, and that it was difficult to find someone who was suitable. Tibetans are mostly shy and they don’t usually like speaking in public. She knew that I, with a theater degree, was comfortable being on stage and speaking in public. So I think that was one reason she was interested in having me as a president.
As president I tried to figure out ways to publicize our message. Usually, we’d end up with just a couple of photos protesting in front of the Chinese embassy, but what I wanted to do was to get journalists interested in our message, to get our causes more attention.
Did being half-Tibetan [Brauen has a Tibetan mother and Swiss father] affect your legitimacy as the head of the Tibetan Youth Organization?
Well, I would get some remarks from Tibetans on occasion. Was I Tibetan, or not? They are sensitive about words in this way. I was also the first half-Tibetan president of the organization, as prior to then all were full-blooded. What made things difficult to a certain level was that I wasn’t fluent in Tibetan, so I gave speeches in German, French, or in English. Also, for a woman to go on stage and be assertive about Tibetan rights was unusual in Tibetan culture, especially among the older generation. But I think being culturally more European than Tibetan helped make my message more effective, in a way.