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Book Review: Lessons in life and death from small-town Tibetans

Barbara Demick's 'Eat the Buddha' highlights personal impact of Chinese rule

In her latest book, "Eat the Buddha," Barbara Demick gives a human face and an intense sense of personal travail to one of Asia's most intractable injustices. (Nikkei montage; Cover image from Random House, author photo by Madeleine Grant) 

The history of our times can sometimes have the greatest impact, and be best illustrated, in places far from lofty capitals of power. Operating on that principle, veteran journalist and author Barbara Demick's previous delve into Asia, "Nothing to Envy," was a U.S. National Book Award finalist in 2010 for its stark portrayal of the harshness of repression and famine in North Korea's Chongjin -- a large town that, she says, is "nothing like Pyongyang, where the winners live," and was off-limits to foreigners.

Demick, a longtime correspondent in Asia for the Los Angeles Times, never managed to visit the city. Speaking via Zoom from her home in New York City, she summarizes her approach to reporting, explaining: "I'm drawn to the things you can't always spot on Google Earth."

Some years later, enter Ngaba, sometimes called Aba or Nagaba, a "nothing town," as Demick puts it, that is now administered as part of China's Sichuan Province but is historically part of Tibet. Few in China would know of the town, let alone how to spell or pronounce its name. It takes all of 15 minutes to drive through, and did not get its first traffic light until 2013. Twelve hours' drive up winding mountain roads from Chengdu, the Sichuan Province capital, as remote as it is difficult to report from, Ngaba is not even close to the official borders of China's Tibet autonomous region.

Yet in her role as Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times from 2007 to 2014, Demick learned of the place as a major "engine of resistance" and as the site of one of the worst massacres of Tibetan protesters by Chinese forces, in 2008. By some estimates, a third of all self-immolations -- Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese occupation -- have taken place in or around Ngaba.

So for six summers running, the intrepid American reporter made investigative pilgrimages there, often cloaking her foreign (while not technically illegal) presence in "an ugly polka-dot hat, a raincoat and muddy shoes, plus a face mask the locals tend to wear often." When driven about, she would slink down in dark back seats. She could speak Mandarin, but it was "too dangerous to have a Tibetan translator."

A Tibetan exile cries during a vigil in Dharmsala, India, in August 2012 organized to show solidarity with two Tibetans from the Kirti Monastery in Ngaba whom exiles claim immolated themselves.   © AP

Yet with "Eat the Buddha," published in 2020, the author has once again given a human face and an intense sense of personal travail to one of the continent's most intractable injustices. Recently shortlisted for the U.K.'s vaunted Orwell Prize for Political Writing, in line with the writer's goal to "turn political writing into an art," the compelling nature of the stories told here, ranging from the lives of a former royal princess to a respected scholar to a rural goatherd turned monk, may help to refocus the world's gaze on the plight of Tibet.

"Compassion is a revolving spotlight," Demick readily acknowledges. "There are a lot more competing hot spots these days, like Syria." For this reason, and amid Chinese repression in the Xinjiang region and Hong Kong, the Tibet issue may have receded from the international gaze. "But we have to remember that Tibet was the original laboratory for the so-called one country, two systems," she notes. "The [Chinese Communist] Party secretary who brought concentration camps to Xinjiang was in charge of Tibet before that. So I think interest will come back around."

In "Eat the Buddha," named for the former Chinese Red Army's custom of consuming temple statuary held together by edible flour, the author recapitulates the history of relations between Tibet and Chinese kingdoms, through the 1959 expulsion of the Dalai Lama by the Communist regime. Meticulously researched and reported, this is a veritable textbook, but never feels plodding thanks to its seamlessly integrated narratives that capture in harrowing detail a regime where being distinguished, honored or earmarked for "model behavior" can end up being more dangerous to navigate than mere silent insolence.

Horsemen and prayer flags in Ngaba. In preparing her book, Demick made investigative pilgrimages to the area for six straight summers. (Courtesy of Barbara Demick)

For some, like the dethroned Princess Gonpo, having seen her parents destroyed, even the best efforts and intentions lead eventually to escape and sad exile. For others, curiosity about a book by the Dalai Lama can be life-altering. Describing how a Tibetan herder's flock was confiscated for slaughter by the Chinese, Demick writes with characteristic detail, "If the butchers were kind, they would allow Delek and other children to stand around with their enamel mugs to catch the blood oozing out from the slit throats of the animals. That was all they got of the animals they had once owned."

Above all, Demick says, depicting real people with universal attachments to family and desires for a better life helps to combat "these stereotypes that are really anti-Asian. The idea, for instance, that all North Koreans are mindless automatons following their leaders. Or how Tibetans are romanticized as rugged otherworldly nomads."

The author also hoped to depict how deeply Buddhism is intertwined with Tibetans' daily life -- "even how they use monasteries like we would go to the gym," as she puts it. And she hopes readers will find new empathy in Ngaba residents' allegiance to rituals that need not be viewed as exotic. "Many of us may not believe in Jesus," she says. "But imagine how pissed off we'd feel if the government told us we couldn't have Christmas trees."

Prayer wheels in a monastery. Demick says she hoped to depict how deeply Buddhism is intertwined with Tibetans' daily life -- "even how they use monasteries like we would go to the gym." (Photo by Barbara Demick)

For her method of elevating places and individuals "out of the generic," by "taking readers right into the scene," Demick credits fellow American John Hersey. As an undergraduate at Yale University, she attended Hersey's classes in writing, especially absorbing the lessons in "deliberate understatement" he employed in "Hiroshima," his groundbreaking account of Japanese atom bomb survivors -- making "horrors more powerful" by keeping them in the words of actual witnesses.

To get such testimonies for her previous book about North Korea, Demick had to rely largely on defectors, or smuggled videos acquired during a stint as a correspondent in Seoul for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the case of Ngaba, she had to resort to cross-checking her accounts through the many exiles from the town now living in India. Though the exiles are more free to express themselves, Demick notes the "incredible bravery" required to speak out, given that the Chinese authorities "continue to use visas as a tool of control." As she explains, "All Tibetans in exile, even Tibetans in New York, are afraid to speak out because they still hope to get permission to return to see their families."

That the author herself has ended up as a professional risk-taker was never a given. "Like a lot of others," she observes, "I became a journalist because I was something of a dilettante." Switching between college majors while curious about a variety of cultures and places in the world, she could not settle on a subject for doctoral studies.

Instead, sent to Germany as a fledgling business reporter in the 1990s, she never filed a single business story -- after hearing about this "war thing" in the former Yugoslavia -- the 1991-95 Balkans war. "I'm really a rather wimpy person," she insists. "I'm not your war correspondent fascinated by big guns or diplomacy."

Top: Tibetans living in exile gather in Dharamsala in December 2013 in remembrance of Kunchok Tseten, a 30-year-old Tibetan who self-immolated in Ngaba the previous day in protest of the Chinese government. (AP) Bottom: A view from a Ngaba monastery. (Photo by Barbara Demick)

Yet she became so involved in the personal dimension of the four-year siege of Sarajevo -- now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- by Serbian forces that she felt compelled to enter the war zone to capture its terrors in microcosm, through actual inhabitants of a few blocks, the singular Logavina Street, which became the title of her first book.

Dealing with the harsher realities of life for journalists in China, the author now admits, "There were times I wished I could have picked something easier." But, she is quick to warn, "As bad as things were when I was reporting, there was actually a higher tolerance [than there is now] for free expression. The Chinese government has really used the pandemic as an excuse to upgrade their means for monitoring dissent," she notes. "Security cameras and computerized software for tracking individuals are everywhere."

Like many a Tibet watcher, Demick fears the eventual passing of the Dalai Lama, when the Chinese authorities are expected to name their own successor by "picking out a photogenic little boy," as one expert in Demick's book comments. Yet ironically, Demick notes, "Tibetans through history have employed plenty of violence, but the Dalai Lama has kept things quiet by putting his stamp of nonviolence on the whole society. The Chinese government will surely end up missing him."

Having been based in New York since 2014, Demick appears to miss her Asian stomping ground, describing the U.S. as "not cutting edge; a little boring until Trump." Back in the West, she has also had to confront the new "woke" awareness in public discourse. "I was almost embarrassed when the book came out about so much cultural appropriation," she confessed. "But the Tibetans have all been so grateful. They know they need other people to tell their stories."

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