Notes on Tibetan Resettlement Stories: Voices of Boston (2019)

Knowing about my past work in Buddhist studies, and current work on oral history, one of my students very thoughtfully loaned me a book: Tibetan Resettlement Stories: Voices of Boston (2019), an oral history assembled by members of the eponymous project. I dug into it with immediate interest, and discovered that it’s an excellent example of what is often called “community history.” As editors Cliff Mayotte and Claire Kiefer explain in their book Say It Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Storytelling (2018), oral history projects of this type are guided by questions such as “What are the stories and events that have shaped our community’s history and identity? What has impacted how we see ourselves? What is our dominant narrative and how does that complement or contradict personal experience?” (pg. 12).

And indeed, as we can read on the official website for Tibetan Resettlement Stories, the organizers describe the project’s efforts this way:

Our mission is to listen, record, share, and preserve the stories of the first Tibetan immigrants to settle in Boston. In their own words, these narrators tell the story of political exile and resettlement. Hearing these accounts of first-generation immigrants has opened our eyes, touched our hearts and truly deepened our understanding of what it means to leave Tibet, to be refugees in India or Nepal, and to begin a new life in the United States of America.

In the book’s preliminary notes, the organizers also speak to the issue of how the collected voices “complement” and “contradict.” As they write (pg. ix):

Occasionally, factual details gleaned from multiple interviews might contradict each other; we believe that this is the nature of nature of oral history, which relies on imperfect, and sometimes genuinely conflicting, memories. However, all efforts were made to convey accurate accounts within each story. Other materials in the book have been verified by thorough research.

These “other materials,” interspersed at useful points throughout the book, include “brief essays” that “[describe] Tibet during its vibrant period of sovereignty, and the chaos of fleeing Chinese-occupied Tibet, living in exile in neighboring Himalayan countries, forming the early Tibetan community in Boston, the challenges and surprises of adapting to life in the U.S., the dream of building a better future through work and education, resilience and changes within Tibetan families adapting to American life, and reflections on the meaning of home for those living in exile”; as well as “a historical map of Tibet and surrounding countries, displaying birthplaces of all narrators, a glossary that defines Tibetan terms and elaborates on key concepts, organizations, and places mentioned in the text, and a timeline detailing the history of Tibetan immigration in Boston” (pg. ix). In addition, Tibetan Resettlement Stories features narrator portraits, and several archival and other photographs handsomely laid out on a series of glossy pages. (To get a sense of how all these parts of the book look on the page, do take a look at the sample images included in the product listing for the book, which can be found on the project’s official website.)

As for the interviews themselves, what we get are “excerpts” from original interviews of varying lengths “selected in order to explore particular themes,” such as those mentioned above. (I took a very similar approach with the exhibition component of the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project, and when I wrote about it for the Oral History Review blog.) The organizers explain that “the editing of these narrative has been guided by the goals of clarity and readability, and each of these abridged versions was carefully reviewed and approved by each narrator.” They also note that “translations from Tibetan to English were made by a highly esteemed Tibetan translator.” In addition, “complete versions” of the interviews “will be archived with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.” (pg. ix).

The end result of all these efforts, as I say above, is an estimable and impactful work of community history: bolstered by the volume’s careful arrangement and rich supporting material, the voices in Tibetan Resettlement Stories inform, evoke, and effect. By focusing in on the experiences and stories of those Tibetans whose diasporic journeys led to the Boston area, the book achieves the kinds of ends that Barbara W. Sommer and May Kay Quinlan articulate in the third and newest edition of The Oral History Manual (2018). Speaking about the possibilities for community history projects, they write (pg. 6-7):

In many cases, while documenting the community’s history is critical in itself, an oral history project or a set of life interviews can become a catalyst. It can provide an avenue to correct long-held misconceptions about an event or a time period, help collect information that balances the existing record, and become an impetus for developing community pride through the telling of people’s stories in their own words.

Fittingly, these are very close to the stated aspirations of the project itself: “Just as these stories engage, educate and inspire us, we hope they will have the same impact on Tibetans everywhere, and on everyone interested in political exile, immigration and resettlement.” I may be just one reader, but — on the terms the project has set for itself, and in view of best practices for community history projects — Tibetan Resettlement Stories seems to me a resounding success. So much so, in fact, that if I were ever to decide to produce a companion book for the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project, I would be utterly delighted if it came out anywhere as well as this wonderful book.

By way of closing, I should point out that Tibetan Resettlement Stories — in addition to selling copies of their book — accepts donations in order to “make it possible to collect, translate and transcribe the stories of first-generation Tibetans and to share these stories with Tibetans across the globe, other groups of refugees and immigrants, and the wider public.” If so moved, you can make a donation to support their efforts here.

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based writer and educator whose most recent work is the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), a digital storytelling initiative inspired by his partner Stephanie Lyn and her family. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and is currently a contract lecturer in that program.
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