Pema Tseden Interviews Takbum Gyal: “In my Previous Life I May Have Been a Dog”

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an interview with Tibetan writer and teacher Takbum Gyal carried out by well-known filmmaker, translator and writer Pema Tseden. The interview was conducted in January 2016, published in literary journal “Qinghai Lake” in March 2016 and subsequently circulated on WeChat on June 10, 2016.

Takbum Gyal, as one of the few novelists in Tibet, has managed to maintain a prolific output. This conversation is between friends but also between a writer and his translator, Pema Tseden, who translates from Tibetan into Chinese.

There is little of Takbum Gyal’s work available in English but Tibet Web Digest translated his short story “Kyablo and his Ponytail”:

To read an interview with Takbum Gyal from 2012, see this post, also from Tibet Web Digest: 


Pema Tseden Interviews Takbum Gyal:
“In my Previous Life I May Have Been a Dog”

Interviewer: Pema Tseden
Interviewee: Takbum Gyal
Time: January 2016

Source: From the column of the third issue of “Literature Scene” of “Qinghai Lake”

Takbum Gyal is a Tibetan who was born in 1966 on the Sumdo grasslands of Mangra (Ch: Guinan) County, Tsolho (Ch: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province. He graduated in 1986 from Hainan Minzu Normal University and started working as a teacher the same year. Between 1988 and 1990, he studied at Northwest Nationalities Institute. After graduation until today, he has been working as a teacher.

Takbum Gyal started publishing his works in 1987 and has since published over 100 pieces in literary journals such as “Drangchar” (A Light Rain), “Tibetan Literature and Art”, “Daser”, “Qinghai People’s Arts” etc. He has already published three short stories, “The Dream of Three Generations”, “Kyablo and his Ponytail” and “The Old Man and the Ox”. He has published three novels including “The Silent Grassland” which was the first ever Tibetan language novel from Qinghai Province. He also published a Chinese language collection of short stories titled “The Song of Life” and a Japanese language collection titled “Records of Adopting a Pekingese Dog”. Some of his short stories have been translated into English, French and German and were widely promoted abroad.

His novella “Ghost of the Innocent” received the second “Drangchar Literature Award” in 1997; “The Silent Grassland” received a special price at the fourth Qinghai Province Literature and Arts Awards in 1999 and the “Gangchen Tibetan literature Award” in 2006; in 2002, he received the “Daser” 20th publishing anniversary award of excellence; his long novel “Decline” received the fourth “Drangchar Literature Award” in 2003, and a special prize at the fifth Qinghai Province Literature and Arts Awards in 2005; in 2006, his novella “A Dog, Its Master, and Their Relatives” received the fifth “Drangchar Literature Award”; His novella “Records of Adopting a Pekingese Dog” received the China Mobile Annual “Qinghai Lake” Literature Award in 2009; his short story collection “The Song of Life” received the 2011 Minority Literary Award in Beijing. He is a member of the China’s Writers Association.

Pema Tseden: The past year has been an extremely fruitful one for you. The Japanese translation of your collection of short stories “Records of Adopting a Pekingese Dog” was officially published in Japan; the second of your short stories “Kyablo and his Ponytail” was published by the Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House; and the second of your collection of novels “The Old Man and the Ox” was published by Sichuan Nationalities Publishing House. We are really very happy for you, congratulations!

Takbum Gyal: Thank you, thank you.

▲ Japanese edition of Takbum Gyal’s novel “Records of Adopting a Pekingese Dog”

Pema Tseden: I remember, last year, you wrote a couple of novels about dogs?

Takbum Gyal: Yes that is true, I wrote five. They were published in various literary journals and really represent my main achievements last year. I am quite happy with them.

Pema Tseden: Once again, congratulations. Among Tibetan writers, I feel that you are the most original, vigorous and persistent one. You write short stories, novellas, essays and novels; and you produce an astonishing quantity of work. I have read most of your novels, have translated quite a few of them; for example the “Dog Series” left a deep impression on me; it was also well-received by a wide readership. So, let’s start this interview from the “dog series”; could you tell us why you like to write novels about dogs and how you can write them so well?

Takbum Gyal: Actually, “liking” or “not liking” is only a personal feeling; there exists no absolute standard. The dogs I write about are based on emotions that I have accumulated throughout my life, that I have pondered over and that naturally reveal themselves in the form of stories. It is not that I “like them” and the stories come out, sometimes they quietly reveal themselves when I “don’t like them”. I often joke to my friends: I like to write about dogs because mastiffs have become so expensive these few years! Haha.

Pema Tseden: This sounds a little general, could you explain this in a bit more detail?

Takbum Gyal: For an ethnic group living on the snowland, on the plateau, the relationship between humans and nature, between humans and animals is particularly important. Back then during the slow and uncivilised times, the natural environment was not good, production was low, people were not very knowledgeable, so revering nature and life was inevitable. The mysteriousness of nature made people feel in awe and they developed various forms of worship. They worshipped the flora and fauna in excessive ways. For livelihood reasons, people particularly relied on certain animals. Dogs were extremely important and would benefit people with regards to their clothing, food, lodging, work etc; you can say without dogs, Tibetan people’s life would have been under threat. Hence, Tibetans attached certain supernatural forces to all living things and mystified and worshipped them, hoping they would get their protection and blessings; this is how animals have become very important and widespread in Tibetan people’s understanding of ecology and the worship for dogs became particularly prominent.

Pema Tseden: This is still a bit general. Could you perhaps also tell us a little about how all this relates to your own life?

Takbum Gyal: Haha, it’s probably because of me being a teacher; teachers always like to summarise and generalise things.

Pema Tseden: Just say what you think, as if we were having a casual conversation.

Takbum Gyal: Ok then. When I was young, I really liked dogs; later, when I had grown up and returned home, it was always our dog, resembling a black Tibetan bear, that would run over first to welcome me. After I left home, it was also the dog that I missed most often. So whenever I picked up pen and paper, its familiar silhouette would appear in a corner of my draft paper. A few years ago, I started writing dog stories and have written over ten of them since; they were published in some important literary journals in Tibet and some were translated into Chinese and a few into English, French, German and Japanese, exerting some influence.

Pema Tseden: Right, our conversation is still a little formal, I really hope that you can just say whatever comes to your mind. Let’s talk about some specific stories, many people think that your dog stories are very interesting, they touch upon people’s emotions, can you tell us a bit more about the “Dog Series”?

Takbum Gyal: The heroes in the “Dog Series” are all dogs. Dogs assume a really prestigious position in Tibetan areas. Dogs are part of the family. Like all other family members, dogs have certain responsibilities. The relationship between dogs and humans is very close in real life. In my already completed novel “Records of Adopting a Pekingese Dog”, a dog explains the relationship like this: “Normally, dogs are naturally half human and when they lose that state of being half human, they will turn into wolves. Even though there is a certain distance between humans and dogs, if you think about it, sometimes the idea of being half human is actually a misconception of the dog. When people refer to a dog as a ‘good dog’, they actually mean that the dog is more human-like; when they curse a human being, in contrast, they would say ‘you are a dog’, meaning that the person is lacking human qualities and is more like a dog.” This is also what I came to ponder over as I was growing up. After I started writing, I began to incorporate these reflections into my works, looking at them from different angles, trying to add an emotional element to them.

Pema Tseden: When you write stories about dogs, what kind of stream of thought do you follow?

Takbum Gyal: One of the key principles that I have been following from the very beginning when writing dog stories are: to turn the “dog” heroes of my stories into “characters”. This “character” is full of emotions, able to reflect, even able to speak and has its own morals; in a nutshell, this “character” possesses all the qualities that we find in human beings, but at the same time, it is truly and genuinely a “dog”.

Pema Tseden: Through the dogs that you write about, many readers, especially those from outside Tibet, have come to better understand Tibetan culture, Tibetan reality and what life in Tibetan areas is like; so, I would like to know what kind creative methods you use when you compose your stories.

Takbum Gyal: I like to use various different kinds of creative methods to construct my “dogs”; I use realism, fantasy and magic and hope to thus be able to convey the special relationship between humans and dogs in my hometown in an artistic way. I think that if I succeed in writing down my “Dog Series”, I succeed in telling the story of the past and the present of my hometown.

Pema Tseden: Well said. Are you happy with your “Dog Series”. How would you evaluate your own work?

Takbum Gyal: Since I have written so many dog novels, some people would joke: “Takbum Gyal, you are a dog.” I think some people would not be able to accept this kind of seemingly derogatory comment, but I think that it is actually a praise. I feel that they are highly praising my “Dog Series” and I hope everyone will say the same.

Pema Tseden: Haha, I also think this kind of comment is interesting. When I was translating some of your dog stories, I sometimes thought that someone who can portray dogs in such an interesting, vivid and profound way must have been a dog in his previous life.

Takbum Gyal: Haha, perhaps I was really a dog in my previous life. In fact, in one story I did also write about a character who used to be a dog in his previous life.

Pema Tseden: This is interesting. Let’s talk about some other topics. Your classmate from vocational school, Drakpa, has also become a famous Tibetan writer. In an essay about you, he describes his impressions of first getting to know you; he writes: “I have known Takbum Gyal for 28 years. In 1983, when I entered Hainan Minzu Normal University, I met this confused and naive person, Takbum Gyal. Back then, he was short and small, his skin was dark, he wasn’t good at expressing himself, he did not have any mannerisms that attracted other people, he simply disappeared in crowds of students without many people paying attention to him. In 1984, I jumped a year and was lucky to become Takbum Gyal’s classmate. He still did not speak much and when he did, he spoke very slowly, was even stuttering a bit. But then I realised that Takbum Gyal really liked basketball, other students called him the “father of basketball”. After spending more time with him, I noticed that he also had very good grasp of Tibetan language, often being referred to as Geshe; after getting to know him even better, I realised that he was a tough and stubborn person, not interested in compromises; once he had made up his mind about something, no one could change it, not even 10 yaks could could pull him back, so some students called him wild yak. There is one secret that I must reveal here: when I first got to know Takbum Gyal, he wanted to write a love letter to an Italian-Chinese girl but didn’t know how to and so he had to find someone to write it for him; it was really difficult to predict or see that he had such literary talent, let alone that he would become such an important Tibetan author later on”. Do you think your former classmate’s descriptions are correct?

Takbum Gyal: Haha, I remember myself back in those days; these descriptions are pretty good; after all, they were written by an old classmate.

Pema Tseden: So what do you think have been the main changes between the you back then and the you today?

Takbum Gyal: Haha, actually on the one hand, I have not changed all that much, but on the other hand, I have changed really a lot.

Pema Tseden: You tell me.

Takbum Gyal: Let’s start from the parts that haven’t changed. I am still short, my skin is still dark, I am still bad at expressing myself, still speak very slowly, still stutter a bit, still don’t have any manners that attract particular attention and I still often disappear in crowds of students. Precisely because I am not good at expressing myself, I don’t really like to talk about my opinions at gatherings or forums that my friends organise. I often say: “You are forcing me to speak, I’d rather write a novel instead. Haha.”

Pema Tseden: But you are a professional teacher, your main task is to convey knowledge to students through language, how do you do this?

Takbum Gyal: I may be bad at expressing myself in everyday life, but when it comes to the classroom, I am actually really good at talking, I am humorous and my students all like my classes, you can ask any of them and they will confirm this.

Pema Tseden: OK, then tell us about the changes.

Takbum Gyal: When I think about it, there are actually many changes. For example, I don’t really like playing basketball anymore; I am no longer so stubborn and even learned to compromise; I have even helped other people write love letters, have helped others to find love, haha. I think the biggest change is that now, my students really pay attention to me, my readers pay attention to me and this is what I am really grateful for.

Pema Tseden: Your particular grade at Normal University produced many writers and poets like yourself, like You Renqing of the provincial Writers Association, like Zhaba, professor at Minzu University of China, like Dhondup Tsering, Professor at Qinghai Normal University, like Drola Kyap, working in broadcasting; all of you achieved remarkable results by writing novels, poems, translations, literature reviews etc. Could you explain why your year and your class produced such a vast number of great poets, writers and critics?

Takbum Gyal: I have no idea, it was probably a coincidence. But perhaps it was related to the whole literary atmosphere in Tibet at the time. In the 1980’s, Tibet experienced the rise of a literary fever; several journals such as “Light Rain”, “Daser”, “Qinghai People’s Arts” and “Tibetan Literature and Arts” emerged, bringing about several important writers like Dhondup Gyal, Rebkong Dorje Gyal, Chaga Dorje Tsering etc. Their works and stories inspired and encouraged us students. Some like-minded students of our class started getting together, reading their works, discussing them and also trying to write ourselves; we showed our work to each other, and those that were considered quite good would be brave enough to submit their manuscripts. This is how my very first very short novel got published. It gave me a great deal of confidence and really helped me decide to pursue this career. At the time, I also came in contact with some Chinese and foreign writers, which slowly opened a door and I managed to walk myself through that door.

Pema Tseden: You have always been working as a teacher, even when you were still studying; how has this influenced you? Or has this job been restricting you in your creativity as a writer?

Takbum Gyal: For many years, I did not feel satisfied in my profession as a teacher because I felt that it was confining me to a narrow environment. But I didn’t really have a choice, 80%-90% of students graduating from that Normal University become teachers, so apart from a tiny minority, most of us did not have a choice. But from a different perspective, my work as a teacher and my work as a writer are very much alike. As a teacher, you have to find different ways to cultivate your students in the classroom; as a writer, you have to find different ways to cultivate your characters in the novels. Writing novels is about “visualising” words and eventually, these visualised words will resonate with the readers.

Pema Tseden: You have written so many novels, why do you like writing novels so much?

Takbum Gyal: Many friends always ask me: “why are you so fond of writing novels?” I think “liking” or “not liking” is just some mind game, there is no absolute standard. What I want to say is that I just give those feelings that I have cultivated for a long time a life and a meaning and then they become visible to readers. I have a very special relationship with words.

Pema Tseden: What do you mean by that?

Takbum Gyal: I believe that words are the richest, most colourful and most complex thing out there. I am someone who has been feeding on “words”, which is why I have this special feeling for them. Throughout the long and slow journey from being an ignorant person to becoming someone looking back and searching for life’s meaning, I have experienced the extraordinary charm and energy of “words”. I can say that “words” are the most basic reason and inspiration for writing novels.

Pema Tseden: You said that you are a person who has been feeding on “words”, can you say a bit more about this? How did “words” nourish you?

Takbum Gyal: I have always been a low-level teacher, haven’t been to many places, have basically come to know this world through literature. It is like a key that opened an entirely different world to me. From when I was young, I always read many folk stories, like King Gesar and other Tibetan, Chinese and foreign literary works. These pieces always made me feel moved and satisfied. I probably got to know the world by reading these works; it is probably a superficial and naive understanding of the world, but I like it this way.

Pema Tseden: As a novelist yourself, what kind of person do you think novelists should be?

Takbum Gyal: Haha, am I a novelist?

Pema Tseden: You are, and an outstanding one.

Takbum Gyal: Actually, I don’t know if I can really label myself with the title “novelist”. I am not sure how many “visualisations” I can produce with my words and to what extent these “visualisations” resonate with my readers. I am not sure who wrote this sentence, but I think it is true: “As long as we keep working, things will always get better.” So, whenever I have time, I go back to visit every single corner of my hometown and search for words intentionally or unintentionally hidden at the bottom of people’s hearts and I look for a good moment to transform these words into “visualisations”. Every time I feel like the happiest person in this world.

Pema Tseden: What kind of person should a novelist be?

Takbum Gyal: I believe that a novelist should be someone who is good at digging out the trivial things and characteristics that most people often overlook.

Pema Tseden: Let’s come back to your “Dog Series”, do you plan to continue the series?

Takbum Gyal: Of course. I am planning to write a few short stories based on the novels that I have already completed; at the end of the year, I plan to publish a collection about dogs. This plan has also been inscribed on this year’s list of key literary works of Qinghai Province.

Pema Tseden: That is great. I also have a plan. Once you have written a certain number of dog novels, I would like to translate them together and find a publisher to publish the Chinese version of “Takbum Gyal’s Collection of Dog Novels” to thus allow a wider readership to get a taste of your unique novels.

Takbum Gyal: I fully trust your translations, I will work even harder just for that, I will put in some extra hours to write dog stories, haha.

Pema Tseden: You feel the pressure now?

Takbum Gyal: Actually yes, a little bit. Continuing the dog series is a challenge and test for me; Since I have already written quite a few, I am worried that I would not have anything new to convey, maybe my readers will think that they have already encountered the same before.

Pema Tseden: I believe that you have an extraordinary advantage here, you have experienced so much in your life, I am sure you will be able to write many other dog stories. At the same time, I hope that the new dog stories will indeed be better than previous ones, so it will be more interesting and valuable for me to translate them. But of course, your past stories are all great.

Takbum Gyal: Haha, I will try to write as well as I can; don’t give me pressure.

Pema Tseden: I wish you all the best with your “Dog Series”.