Barbara Demick on Her Book “Eat the Buddha”

Barbara Demick is a journalist and author of three books. Most recently Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, as well as Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood. She was bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Beijing and Seoul, and previously reported from the Middle East and Balkans for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Demick grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Yale College Her work has won many awards including the Samuel Johnson prize (now the Baillie Gifford prize) for non-fiction in the U.K., the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott prize, the Overseas Press Club’s, the Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy award and Stanford University’s Shorenstein Award for Asia coverage. Her North Korea book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is currently a the Janice B. and Milford D. Gerton fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center.
Shanil Verjee CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Barbara Demick on October 21, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Barbara Demick.

After your last books on North Korea and Bosnia, what inspired you to turn to Tibet?

Some of the same factors that motivated me to write about Bosnia and North Korea also applied to Tibet. Tibet is obviously very different from North Korea, but I felt like the portrayal of Tibetans in the media lacked nuance or was outdated. In the case of North Koreans, I think they are portrayed as automatons, marching in step to the leadership. Sometimes it's also a little bit racist: those “inscrutable Asians.” Tibetans are more sympathetically portrayed, but they come off as clichéd. They are characterized as these noble nomads with their yaks and their holy man sitting on the mountain. Most of what was written about life in Tibet came from writers from Central Tibet, from Lhasa, where the aristocracy was based, or where the elites who fled to India are from. That is only one part of Tibet. Tibet is much, much larger. Those portraits of Tibetans were also done much earlier. I wanted to show what it was like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, living at the edge of China, and trying to figure out where they belonged in the world. In these books, there was very little sense of what it was like to be a Tibetan. All my books have been about creating empathy for people who are not well known to readers. Most of my readers are American, although the books have been translated elsewhere and also sold well in the U.K., where readers are not so knowledgeable about other peoples.

What inspired you to write this specific story?

I like to work with microcosms. It is just much easier to take on a small place than a big place. My first book, Logavina Street, is about one street in Sarajevo. Nothing to Envy is about one city in North Korea. So I knew I would pick one place in Tibet. Tibet is just so vast and complicated. I was looking around for a place and I wanted something outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, because, first of all, that's where I could travel as a journalist, and second, because so many tourists go to Lhasa. There are millions of pictures of Lhasa. I wanted someplace that represented ordinary Tibetan people. Ngaba jumped out at me. I had decided this before the self-immolations started. A lot of the reviews of this book have considered this to be a book about self-immolation. It isn’t and it certainly didn't start out that way. Ngaba was the hardest place in the Tibetan plateau to go to for foreigners. It is hard for journalists and diplomats to go to Lhasa, but it's relatively easy for tourists who have money to go to Lhasa, and many do. Ngaba was just the most restricted town, the most sensitive town, so I thought it might as well be Ngaba. Besides the self-immolations, I had stumbled across some interesting writings about the history of Ngaba by two scholars, Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester; one is Chinese American and the other is British. I refer to them in the book. They had written several pieces on their blog about the 1930s and how the Long March came through Ngaba. It was one of the first places where the Chinese Communist Party collided with Tibetans and set the stage for the animosity that followed. There were also some very interesting writings about resistance to the Red Army in the 1950s and to some of the Tibetan uprisings during the Cultural Revolution. Overall, the history of Ngaba and the self-immolations made it stand out.

How would you describe your research and writing process for this book?

I started by interviewing everybody I could find from Ngaba, some of them living in India, Nepal, and other parts of China like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province where many Tibetans live. Then I looked at the people who had the most interesting narratives and whose stories fit into the structure of the book. Then I stitched them together. The book changed shape quite a bit over the years. I was gathering threads very slowly from the time I moved to China in 2007. I knew I wanted to write a book about western China, and probably Tibet. I was in China for seven years. I knew I wouldn't have the time to write another book while I was in China, since I was finishing my North Korea book. I made several trips to different parts of the plateau. Some were just for tourism, not even for reporting. But the book changed shape considerably over the course of the writing. Originally, I had wanted to focus on young people in the 21st century, living at the edge of China. Do you try to become part of the so-called Chinese dream? Or do you try to resist? Do you try to live a traditional lifestyle or a modern one? I was looking at some of their dilemmas. Most of the people in the book were pretty young but then I met Gonpo. Originally, I was somewhat reluctant to include her in the book or to give her a big role because she was not young. Also, she was not an ordinary person, she was a princess. She had left China in 1989. She was none of the things I was looking for, but her story was so compelling. It covered a lot of the history of this region and so the book ended up becoming more historical than I had intended.

Did you have a favorite subject in the book and if so, which was your favorite perspective to relay and why?

This seems strange because she's not a major figure in the book but I really liked Pema, the market woman. She was totally uneducated, really unschooled, but very smart. I felt like she was honest about what parts of her life had improved under Chinese rule, what parts had deteriorated, and also why she made the decision to choose her freedom over her material comfort. Materially speaking, her life was better in Ngaba. It might sound condescending, but she was just a regular person. There are so many people like her. In my other books, there were similar women. In Nothing to Envy, there is a woman who is a factory worker, Mrs. Song, who is similar. She is a true believer in the North Korean political system, and she eventually has this epiphany. She’s also probably the person in the North Korea book who I am closest to in some ways. I saw her about a year ago when I was in Seoul. We went to eat Korean barbecue and ice cream and went touring together. In the Bosnia book, there's a woman whose name is Jela Dzino, a former factory worker who was the smartest person in all of Bosnia that I met in terms of talking about politics and how the situation had deteriorated. Again, she was just a regular person, but very smart and insightful. I lived with her for a while when I was working in Sarajevo. She died about a year ago, but I consider her my Sarajevo mother. I like them all and I am still in touch with most of the people in the book. Gonpo is just such a lovely person, so modest and thoughtful. Of course, I tended to pick people I liked, but Pema had a special place, even though she's not somebody who I spent much time with. 

It's an interesting question to ask you, because these aren't just fictional characters that you created, but actual people that you met and spent time with. 

I tend not to use the word character because they're real.

I know you mentioned that many of the reviews of Eat the Buddha covered self-immolation. Did your views on the practice of self-immolation change through the writing of this book?

Somewhat, yes. My first reaction to it was just that it was horrible and misguided and for young people, very impetuous. I would not be supportive of anybody committing suicide. As I talked to people more, I could understand why they did it. Something that I did respect is that the self-immolations were very tied into Tibetan Buddhism’s ideas about nonviolence. Self-immolation and suicide are not big things in Tibetan Buddhism. They are actually more common in Chinese Buddhism. There's an interesting book called Burning for Buddha about self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism, which I mention in this book. But their idea was they wanted to do something dramatic, but they didn't want to hurt other people. It reminded me a bit of John Lewis, who died this year, and some of his ideas about redemptive suffering. I wouldn't say I support self-immolation, but I think I understand it better.

What are your thoughts on the future of Tibetan cultural and spiritual autonomy?

I'm not optimistic about the near future, because the current leadership of China is very intolerant of any slippage around the edges of the empire. They want to keep everything completely under control, from people's spiritual life, to their work habits, to what they eat. It's a “control freak” kind of government right now. But over the longer term, I'm not so pessimistic, because there are so many Chinese who are Tibetan Buddhists and there are also many Chinese who come to Tibet as tourists. Some of them are just taking selfies in front of famous sites. But a lot of them are spiritual seekers who genuinely want to learn. There has been a lot written about how, as the Chinese have gotten wealthier, they have found this spiritual vacuum in their lives. Something is missing. Some of them are seeing it in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, which has a long history in China. I hope they can reach some kind of accommodation. While there are all sorts of views among the Tibetans, for the most part, they have been under the current Dalai Lama, non-violent. The episodes of protest and violence, of which there have been some, have usually been in reaction to this cycle of crackdown. With this big military deployment, people resist, which creates a cycle of violence. But I feel like they could reach some sort of accommodation, which would involve the Chinese government deciding that Tibet is more peaceful or “harmonious” (that's the word the Chinese communists produced) if they let up a little bit on some of the restrictions.

By studying and writing about this Tibetan town, what new insights did you gain about China?

I think how much more of China there is than what we commonly think of as China. Most of what we read about China follows this northeast corridor—I am thinking in Amtrak terms—from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou, most of China is the east coast. Once you go out as far west as Chongqing or Chengdu, after that, it's not traditionally China. It has traditionally been mostly minorities. There's much more out there than meets the eye. Something else that wasn't really clear to me until I started meeting with Tibetans and reading about Tibetan history is that Tibetans had a relationship with the Manchu Qing Dynasty, but they didn't consider that a relationship with China. It was an accommodation between two groups of people: Tibetans and Manchus. Official Chinese historiographers look at it as the Qing were part of China. But from a Tibetan perspective, they were never part of China. They had this relationship with the Manchus and I think a lot of Chinese knowledge about Tibet is very, very thin and quite recent as a result. One of the most revealing scenes in this book is very early on when the Chinese soldiers and the Red Army end up on the Tibet plateau and they ask “where are we?” They think, “We're not in China anymore. Who are these people? They don't speak Chinese. We’re in a foreign country.” Tibet has been very foreign to the Chinese. It still is. And there is still a lot they don't understand. I really hope to have Chinese readers. This book will be translated into Chinese with the traditional characters in Taiwan. But I'm sure translations will end up on the Web with simplified characters. I would really hope that the Chinese, especially the young Chinese, read it so that they understand a bit more of what happened.

Shanil Verjee CMC '21Student Journalist

John Hill, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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