Q&A with Barbara Demick

Q&A with Barbara Demick

The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog.

Today we are with Barbara Demick. Her book 'Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town', shortlisted for this year's Orwell Prize for Political Writing, looks at the history of China’s occupation of Tibet through the prism of a single town: Ngaba, a place where dozens of Tibetans have immolated themselves in recent years in protest of Chinese abuses of power. Our judges called it “fascinating, harrowing – and intensely human”. Demick starts by telling us why she often focusses on a specific place when investigating a larger political system or story.


You have a history of using the particular to explain/explore the general (Demick’s previous books have focused on a Sarajevo neighbourhood and Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city). What has led you to this approach?

I like to use a microcosm to tell a larger story. Specific details are stronger than generalities. I want readers to feel immersed in a real place, walking down the streets of Ngaba or Chongjin or Sarajevo, witnessing themselves events in real time. I want create empathy for people whose names they probably can’t pronounce who live in a place utterly foreign to the readers. It goes back to that old saying (erroneously attributed to Stalin) that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. As a journalist, it is easier to ensure accuracy and cross check facts when working on a smaller canvas. For the chapter in Eat the Buddha about the 2008 shootings of Tibetan protesters, I had a dozen credible witnesses and accounts from the sister and aunt of a schoolgirl killed. With Nothing to Envy, I had a half dozen people who told me independently that they saw bodies of children in the exact same spot behind the train station in Chongjin, allowing me to confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that the North Korean regime was downplaying the extent of the famine.

What do you think the history of Tibet tell us about the wider political project of the People’s Republic of China?

Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong are all part of the same story.  Xi Jinping’s Communist Party has no tolerance for any slippage at the fringes of the empire. Tibet especially has long served as the laboratory for China’s authoritarian vision. Back in 1951, Beijing cajoled the Tibetans into signing an agreement that promised internal autonomy in exchange for submitting to Chinese sovereignty. It was the original one-country two-systems arrangement that China used when it convinced Margaret Thatcher to sign away Hong Kong.  Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary overseeing the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang, earlier served in Tibet and experimented with similar techniques of coercive patriotic education.

Of all the stories and interviewees in your book, is there one you’d like to mention now, for anyone who hasn’t read the book?

The book opens in 1958 with a seven-year-old Tibetan princess named Gonpo. Her father was the ruler of a small kingdom headquartered in Ngaba. After the Communists came to power, her father was deposed and the family evicted from Ngaba. Her parents committed suicide in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution and the rest of her family died. She was sent as a teenager to do hard labor near the Russian border, where she fell in love with and married a Chinese man. She assimilated into Chinese society, memorizing the saying of Mao Zedong, serving the government and forgetting her mother tongue. But she eventually rediscovered her Tibetan identity and went to work with the Dalai Lama in India. Her husband and one daughter still live in China, a place she cannot return. The fault lines of the conflict between China and Tibet run straight through her family. As a writer, I liked the way her story encompassed so much of the tragic history of the past seven decades.

Do you intend to return to Ngaba? And how do you expect it will develop in the course of the next decade or two? Do you see any hope for positive change in the coming decades?

I doubt I will be able to return to Ngaba in the foreseeable future. China is very hostile to foreign journalists at the moment. Beijing has used the Covid pandemic to upgrade its toolbox of repression. Ngaba is blanketed with closed circuit cameras and facial recognition software that can easily identify people by ethnicity. Mandatory apps on smartphones track and report to security agencies people’s movements, social interactions, the music they listen to and what they buy--- Chinese being largely cash-free. I would worry less about myself than about any Tibetan I would meet.

Your work seems to be about human dignity in extreme and dangerous situations. Who are the writers you turn to in order to learn more about how people experience political repression?

Primo Levi writes in Survival at Auschwitz, “Sooner or later in life, everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis:  that perfect unhappiness is equally unobtainable. . . . Our

ever- insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it and this is called in the one instance hope.” Even during the worst of circumstances—the siege in Sarajevo, the famine in North Korea, the repression in Tibet--- people experienced joy. They fell in love. They told jokes and laughed. When I interview refugees and survivors about horrific experience, I ask them as well about the times they were happy.

Another major influence was John Hersey, with whom I studied non-fiction writing in college. He once described his own writing style “deliberately quiet.” In Hiroshima, he doesn’t use words like “horror” and “massacre”—he details instead how the skin hung in shreds from the face and hands of bomb victims. In Eat the Buddha, I tried to let the people tell exactly what happened to them, while avoiding overarching statements about genocide, evil, and occupation.

And of course, George Orwell/Eric Blair, although for the reasons above, I avoid the term “Orwellian.” It’s impossible to write about China’s new emotion detection software, now being tested on Uighurs, without invoking the thoughtpolice. A Chinese historian I interviewed earlier this year, explaining the Communist Party’s censorship of historical writing, used the quote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Of course, it’s not China but North Korea that fees like the real-life setting for 1984 down to almost every detail—from the cult of Big Brother, the grayness and deprivation, the repression of sexuality, the cultivation of hatred, even the cruddy cigarettes falling apart. I gave a Korean translation of 1984 to one of the defectors featured in Nothing to Envy, and he was stunned to see that it was published just a year after the founding of North Korea. He’d assumed at first his country was the model. (There’s a photo in my book of this man carrying 1984.)

How did you manage to get the access you did - and did that come at any cost, for either yourself or your interviewees?

Ngaba was one of the hardest places in China for outsiders to visit and I was often the only foreigner for a hundred miles. I used different tactics, but the surest was to ride in the back seat of a black car (like the ones used by government official) with a Chinese driver. Chinese motorists are stopped less often than Tibetans. Tibet travelogues are filled with accounts of westerners sneaking in dressed as monks or nomads, but I thought a disguise would be too goofy and deceptive-- as journalists, we are not supposed to lie about our identity. Many Tibetan women wear hats, so I bought a big one with polka dots and wore a facemask (very common in China even before Covid). It wasn’t immediately obvious that I’m Caucasian. I wore inexpensive clothing bought in Chinese markets and carried a cheap plastic backpack. I’m kind of a nondescript person anyway and I could walk around at night unnoticed. When I went to interview people, I drove up to their front gate so they would not been seen having a foreign visitor.  I should mention that it was technically legal for me to be visiting Ngaba—I had a valid visa and press card—but if I’d been spotted, I would have been kicked of town immediately.


Buy the book from Bookshop.org here

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