Ngaba, the main town of a Tibetan-populated region of western China’s Sichuan province, has been the scene of repeated self-immolations and other protests in recent years by scores of monks, former monks, and other Tibetans calling for Tibetan freedom, language rights, and the return of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
In the just-released book Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, Los Angeles Times staff writer and former Beijing correspondent Barbara Demick looks at Ngaba’s history since 1958 and life in the town in the present day in portraits drawn from interviews with Tibetan residents of Ngaba and former Ngaba residents now living in exile in India.
Here, in an edited interview, Tenzin Dickyi of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service speaks with Demick about her new book:
RFA: What was the inspiration for the title of your book?
A: The title refers to an episode in the 1930s when the Red Army came through Ngaba. They were very ill-equipped, and they started looting Tibetan homes and monasteries. And in the monasteries they started eating tormas [offering cakes taken from the altars]. The Chinese soldiers later wrote in their memoirs that they felt like they were eating the Buddha. And it was a sign of disrespect, of destroying Tibetan culture—sometimes deliberately, and sometimes just out of selfishness. And so this seemed symbolic of a lot of what happened in that region.
Q: How long did it take for you to write this book, and how challenging was it for you?
A: It took a long time, and it involved a very high degree of difficulty. I began to think about writing this book when I was in Beijing in 2007. And I think I started working on it in earnest in 2013. There were some unusual challenges with the book. For one thing, it was very hard to go to Ngaba, although it’s not in the Tibet Autonomous Region, so you don’t need a special permit to travel there. There were often checkpoints to try to keep out people like me, journalists, and it was very difficult for a foreigner even to check into a hotel in Ngaba. It was always a sort of sensitive town.
I went in on three separate occasions. On one trip I stayed in the region for about a week, and went in and out, but it was always difficult going in. And I think what was hardest was the language. The first time I went in, I went with a Tibetan friend who helped with the translation. But I felt afterwards that it was putting her at too much risk. And actually on later trips I traveled with both a Chinese driver and a Chinese translator, which obviously wasn’t perfect, but the reason for that was they wouldn’t get into trouble.
As your listeners know, for a Tibetan to be working with an American reporter is very risky. So I felt that if I went with somebody who was Chinese and was registered with my office, that they wouldn’t get in that much trouble. That was really challenging, because a lot of the people I interviewed didn’t speak Chinese, or didn’t speak Chinese very well, so there were a lot of logistical complications in reporting about Ngaba.
I was able to do interviews elsewhere in the region. I did a lot of interviews in Golog, and I did a lot of interviews in India, as you’ll see when you read the book. Most of the major people in the book are now living in India, or were living in India, because for the kind of books I do you need continued access to people. You need hours and hours and hours of interviews and a very good translator.
Q: In the book you said you were able to make three trips into Ngaba while researching or writing. On a personal level, did you get any threats or feel in danger from the Chinese Communist Party government?
A: I didn’t personally. The thing to keep in mind was that I was a foreign correspondent based in Beijing. I had a legal visa. I had a press card. So I did not feel personally in danger. But I felt that I could be getting other people in trouble—the people who spoke with me, or the people who worked with me. That’s always been the case for foreign correspondents. And I would say that traveling to Ngaba was legal. There was nothing in it that was prohibited by law, and we were very careful not to violate any Chinese laws.
I went to Lhasa a few years ago as a tourist, and I did not write anything there—not a word—because I was on a tourist trip, and that was not allowed. And the same was true in Ngaba: I didn’t violate any laws. I traveled discreetly. I wore a large hat and I wore a mask as a lot of people do there, because of the sun and because it’s a bit dusty. But I never wore a disguise. I didn’t sneak in in a truck. Everything was legal. I didn’t feel personally in danger.
Q: In the book when you were doing research and interviewing lots of people, what surprised you the most?
A: I was surprised by the extent of Tibetans’ love for the Dalai Lama. I knew about this, but I was surprised by the way that it was so heartfelt by everybody of different political persuasions, even by some young Tibetans I met who were not religious and who were critical of the exile government. Even if people had disagreements, there was that connection with the Dalai Lama. I think it surprised me how strong it was. I don’t think I had understood that before.
Q: These were people both in exile and in Tibet?
A: Both. Some of the people I met in exile, especially in Dharamsala, were quite critical. They’re not happy with elements of the exile government. I think there are a lot of people from Amdo and Kham who feel like they aren’t adequately represented. There were all sorts of complaints. But the reverence and love was so strong, and I think I hadn’t expected it to be as powerful. I think that surprised me a bit.
Q: I want to talk a bit about the timing of the release of this book. We all know that China is under strong scrutiny for what’s happening because of COVID-19 and many other issues like Hong Kong and Taiwan and Xinjiang. So do you think the release of this book adds to all this pressure now on the Chinese government?
A: The release of the book, the timing, was sort of coincidental. It was honestly supposed to come out earlier, and there were just logistical publishing reasons that it didn’t. But I do think that Tibetans have been forgotten in the last year or two. There’s been a lot of focus on the Uyghurs, and more recently on Hong Kong, and I think people should not be forgetting the Tibetans.