Fiction and Tibet: few have any difficulty with either term. But their conjugation poses a series of peculiar problems. In retrospect, the year 1985 was an annus mirabilis of new art and literature in the People’s Republic of China. Central to it was the emergence of important novelists, of both Tibetan and Chinese origin, whose fiction was set in Tibet. How should their work be described? Ought it to be grouped together? Herbert Batt’s collection, and the special issue of Manoa solve—or sidestep—the problem with different prepositions, a genitive and an ablative: Tales of Tibet, and Writing from Tibet. The first is, perhaps deliberately, ambiguous: does it refer to source, or subject-matter? The second indicates place of production, without specifying any producers. What we find inside these volumes is a body of work to be marvelled at, that has as yet hardly been seriously studied in the languages in which it is written, let alone in English. The publication of these collections is thus something of a landmark. They reward the reading of anyone interested in contemporary fiction.

The paradox is that, although each contains a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese writers, the prose of both is written in Chinese. This has led some critics, both Tibetan and Chinese, to question whether this fiction should be called Tibetan at all. Some Tibetan critics deny it has any connexion with Tibet, on the grounds that it is written in a foreign language, that of an occupying power. For their part certain Chinese critics, like Zhang Jun in the anthology Xizang Xin Xiaoshuo, doubt whether ‘genuine Tibetans’ could understand such avant-garde narratives—as if they were designed for the Chinese masses either. Their admirers in China are, of course, students and intellectuals. But these two collections, each containing an impressive foreword by the distinguished Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, are themselves evidence of the unity of the phenomenon that is perhaps best called simply ‘Tibetan New Fiction’.

This literature is the creation of two distinct contingents. Traditional Tibetan culture certainly had a long history of narratives, but these were mainly epic or religious forms. No prose fiction seems to have existed before modern times. When the CCP took control of Tibet in the early 1950s, it started to remould the Tibetan language by importing a great number of Chinese words, reinforced in recent years by a considerable influx of English words via Chinese. Since higher education remained in Chinese, this did not produce a new literary Tibetan of general use. When the Chinese-language magazine Tibetan Literature—which has a remarkable record of encouraging new forms of fiction, with a courage rarely seen in provincial journals in the PRC—began to publish a Tibetan-language version in 1980, it found itself essentially translating stories written by Tibetans in Chinese back into Tibetan, often tales of a rather elementary or didactic kind designed for an uneducated audience. Original prose fiction in Tibetan was lacking. If we are to judge by Tales of Tibet and Songs of the Snow Lion, the situation does not appear to have changed much today, since there is only one Tibetan-language story between them, out of a total of eighteen in the two selections. Represented instead are poems written in Tibetan, which include the powerful ‘Waterfall of Youth’ by Dhondup Gyal, somewhat Mayakovskyan in accent, conceived as a manifesto for a national literature. Why there should be this asymmetry between poetry and prose is something of an enigma.

What is clear, at all events, is that Tibetan authors have made a signal mark in Chinese-language fiction. Most of these writers come not from the Tibet Autonomous Region—i.e. the historic land once controlled by the Dalai Lama, with its capital in Lhasa—but from the Tibetan borderlands around it, within the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, where a majority of ethnic Tibetans live. But they have been exposed to Chinese culture for much longer, and have higher rates of intermarriage and university education than Tibet ‘proper’. It is this setting that has produced a remarkable cluster of talents: Dhondup Gyal himself, from Qinghai, who committed suicide in his early thirties; Tashi Dawa, from Chongqing, the most celebrated, who has recently moved to Lhasa; Sebo, from Chengdu; Geyang, from Kham; and the newest star Alai, from the west of Sichuan. Some have little spoken Tibetan—Tashi Dawa’s mother was Chinese, and Sebo’s childhood was spent in Hunan—but their choice of Chinese as a written language implies no diminution of national feeling. It could be compared to the use of French by novelists from the Maghreb, or English by Irish writers in the period when Ireland was still a colony. Not unlike the Irish, Tibetans—with a population just under two per cent of the PRC—are, in fact, strikingly over-represented in Chinese letters. Alai’s last novel The Dust Settles, set in his native borderlands in late Qing and early Republican times, won the Mao Dun prize in 1998, and will shortly be published in English. Hollywood has already bought the rights.

The second contingent are Chinese who came to Tibet in the mid-eighties, and discovered their vocation as writers there. This was a time when Chinese artists of every kind were going all out ‘to seek roots’—the phrase that became the name of the literary movement of that period. Writers in quest of a cure for the senility of Chinese mainstream culture swarmed out to the exotic peripheries of what had once been the Qing Empire—to the steppes of Inner Mongolia, to the tribal fastnesses of the Yi and Dai in Yunnan, to the oases of Muslim Turkestan. This exodus was relatively superficial and short-lived, however: the travellers did not stay long. Yet here lies a puzzle, for there was one exception. Those who went to Tibet often remained, or returned, and were deeply affected by the experience. There was something among Tibetans so free, so proud, a tradition so time-honoured and uncontaminated by modernity, that it could become the foundation of a new aesthetic once writers learnt how to develop fictional experiments out of it. Later, drawn by the reputation of the area, other writers contributed after shorter visits. The results are displayed in these two collections, which contain texts by Ma Yuan, from Manchuria, Ge Fei, from the lower Yangzi, Ma Jian, from Shandong, and Yan Geling, from Shanghai. It is worth noting, too, the writing of the novelist Wang Lixiong, from Manchuria, who represents another kind of engagement, no less deep, with Tibet: his Sky Burial—a work which had to be published outside the PRC—is the most substantial historical reflection to date by any Chinese on the fate of Tibet.

The experience of living in Tibet was so important in the formulation of the new fiction’s distinctive aesthetic that authors who became detached from the place found themselves expelled from their own art. Ma Yuan, now a university teacher in Shanghai, recently recalled in an interview that during his seven years in Tibet, he ‘seemed to be possessed’, writing with such ease that he himself was surprised. He had been a student and novelist without much promise before he moved to Lhasa in 1983. Soon his Tibetan writing made him the unannounced leader of avant-garde fiction in the whole of China. He was widely regarded as the most talented among his generation of novelists, and many thought he would eventually become a world-class master. But when he left Tibet after 1989, his ink immediately dried up and, more disappointed than anyone, he discontinued his literary career. Ma Jian, another Chinese author who won fame for powerfully original stories set in Tibet, moved to Hong Kong, then to Germany, and finally to Britain. He is still active—his Red Dust was published in London in 2000—but the magic of his earlier novellas has given way to a more subdued note.

Since, whatever the nationality of its authors, the new fiction that started to emerge in the mid-eighties was not written in Tibetan, and was completely inaccessible to most Tibetan readers, the question is unavoidably posed: should this literature really be called Tibetan at all? If the answer is a definite yes, the reason is that, in the first place, almost all of the writers concerned have lived in Tibet, and all the works that belong to this fiction are about Tibet—to put it in jargon, they are anchored on Tibetan topemes, chronemes and anthropemes. But much more importantly, the best works of this body of writing share a unique tone, atmosphere, and narrative technique that suddenly pulled the possibilities of fiction far away from the ‘realist tradition’ that had dominated Chinese vernacular prose and its recently ‘Tibetanized’ versions. This style clearly owes much to the spell of Tibetan mysticism, omnipresent in both esoteric and folk—Buddhist and pre-Buddhist—versions. This local ambience, however, could also find external resonances. Influences from Latin American literature are clearly visible in a number of writers. Ma Yuan places an epigraph from Borges at the head of ‘Vagrant Spirit’, the first story in Tales of Tibet, and another that is a play on a Buddhist Sutra above his best-known novella ‘A Fiction’. Tashi Dawa starts his celebrated story ‘Tibet: A Soul Knotted on a Leather Thong’ with a scene described in a Peruvian song. In ‘The Glory of a Wind Horse’, he pays respect to the Latin American masters in a more intriguing way. The protagonist, a young Tibetan who cannot read or write, knifes the man he regards as his father’s killer in a bar in Lhasa (a very Marquezian story). But when he confesses to the crime, the name of the street where the bar was to be found turns out to be Spanish, to the complete bafflement of the police, who decide to execute him in public anyway. In Sebo’s ‘The Circular Day’, the cyclical notion of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism is turned into the basic time-scheme of the tale—likewise in Ma Yuan’s ‘A Fiction’ and almost half the contributions to Tales of Tibet, echoing Borges’s passion for labyrinthine time- and plot-lines.