(Cover photo by Wonderlane Photography)
Restored Voice will be a book - a work of creative non-fiction, to be published as a collection of narratives and photography. It shares the lives of the refugee Tibetan nuns of Dharamsala, who have escaped the Chinese armed forces to gain access to education, self-sufficiency, and - at the crux of it all - freedom.
This book is intended to be an empowering space for these women and an informative source for the globe. It will be published in English so that the book can reach a large audience, but it will also include each authors' original words in Tibetan script. Since digital photography courses have become available to the nuns in recent years, I plan to include the women's photos to further add to the scope of their perspectives and creative eye.
A Collection of Silenced Voices
I became impassioned with a desire to make this a reality when I volunteered for the Tibetan Nuns Project in Seattle in 2010. On my very first day at the TNP office, I was asked to update the nuns’ information. Kristina, one of the two women who staffed the whole place, handed me a heavy binder, laden with papers and photos - it was the collection of the nuns’ biographies for sponsorship.
“Feel free to read their bios as you work,” Kristina advised me. ”They are really incredible women, and some of them have been through a lot.”
I did. And she was right. It occurred to me then that I held a treasure trove in my hands – the forbidden stories of these wonderful women. Stories that, according to the Chinese government, are not allowed to be told, and, for all intents and purposes, do not exist.
Empowerment and Freedom
Giving oppressed individuals a chance to express their perspectives offers them a sense of agency - of ownership of their experiences. These women are refugees from a land grasped under occupation and terror; the Chinese government tortures, imprisons, and kills Tibetans for any act of freedom or preservation of their culture. So what could be more subversive than an act of free speech?
I want to help these women share their stories. Not only are they inspiring, but they deserve to be heard. So, I will travel to Dharamsala, meet up with my Tibetan-English translator, and return with a collection of the nuns’ powerful narratives and photography to be published. My own writing and research will stitch together the nuns' stories and provide context to further educate and immerse the reader. Additionally, descriptions of my journey, the nuns themselves, and beautiful Dharamsala will make the book more human, so that it's not only circulating through academia but is read by lay people as well.
I cannot wait for these women to share their lives, dreams, and passion with the world.
PREVIEW some of their stories here on Tibetan Nuns Project's site - these are examples of some of the abbreviated bios that inspired this project (there are more bios under the "Connect" page):
"[The Chinese police] asked the same questions over and over, 'Why did you shout? Who taught you to do this?' I answered truthfully, that I did not need to be taught to demonstrate, that I had come of my own free will... I pray that my actions may serve as an example to remind younger Tibetans of the power of a courageous heart in the face of abuse. We all need to be brave." (tnp.org)
Since a large portion of this project takes place in India, where the currency is 1 rupee to 0.018th of a dollar (and also because, as a traveler and '09 college grad with lots of loans, I'm a seasoned expert at living on the cheap), my budget is very small:
- Travel expenses (visa, planes, trains, and rikshas)
- Living expenses (studio apt., food, utilities, all totaling at about $300/month)
- Compensation for translator (TBD, depending on how much of their time is required)
- Research tools (recording device and used books)
- Trips to neighboring towns and villages where women who have graduated from the nunneries now teach (TBD, as these women are very hard to contact from the United States)
Everything left over from the upfront costs will go toward publishing, which will also be partially fulfilled by myself if necessary.
Small Budget, Big Scope
While this budget is several thousand dollars less than your average Kickstarter, the positive implications of this book are vast. This is not like your typical product in that it is socially-minded. It's not for a non-profit, not a volunteered cause - book sales will compensate the nuns and myself - but it is a project that empowers and educates. With young Tibetans - nuns included - growing tragically more desperate to make their voices heard, a project like this one is more important than ever. And, as we're seeing with movements like Half the Sky, books that spread the personal stories and benefits of female empowerment are not only uplifting to read, but they are vital to the future of our communities.
I want all of my backers to have the option to watch Restored Voice unfold in India, as I add photos, videos, and preview some sample writing for the upcoming book. I will have the website, restoringvoices.org, and the Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/RestoredVoice, running updates to keep everyone in the loop about the progression of the project.
It's important to me that you feel like you've had a hand in helping these stories get told. Even a few dollars is worth several ricksha rides to the nunnery! I will be adding maps and distinct locations to the website soon, so all of you can actually see where the nuns and I will be, and picture RVP's forward movement.
The return to the U.S.A. may not include as many exciting updates in terms of media, but the site will chronicle the unfolding of the publishing process. Supporters of Restored Voice can stay in touch until the books are on the shelves - and then in their own hands!
This feeling of connection is essential to the core of the project. Reading the journeys of these women connects us to them, and having our support for the book connects them to us.
Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions. But, before you do, take a look at the official site for the project, restoringvoices.org, where you'll find more in depth information about the details and inspiration of the book and its goals. Feel free to follow the site for updates. There is also a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/RestoredVoice, which will appear in your newsfeed with updates on the project and on Tibetan writers, artists, and activists worldwide.
www.tnp.org: This is the site for the Tibetan Nuns Project, my initial inspiration and my supportive friends. This site will tell you all about the education and empowerment happening in Dharamsala right now.
http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1571/lhakar-taking-a-moment-to-be-tibetan: This is the address for a Facebook project dedicated to exiled Tibetans sharing their stories. It's a great example of how important the telling of Tibetan lives and perspectives is for Tibetans - and how wonderful their stories are.
http://www.savetibet.org/: This is the website for the International Campaign for Tibet, which has a lot of news (that is independent from China) and information on the Tibetan situation.
Risks and challenges
A great challenge lies inherently in the obscurity of the nuns. Dharamsala is not even accessible by train. Contacting them with no one on the ground would be daunting. It has been inexpressibly helpful to have a friendship with Tibetan Nuns Project. While this is an independent project, they have kindly helped me get connected on the ground, to the nuns at the nunneries. The nuns know I'm coming and have been presented with the option of sharing with me - I'm not simply showing up and walking around with a tape recorder. I also have that network of contacts available to me upon my arrival in Dharamsala.
The elephant in the room, so to speak, are the risks and challenges involved in my traveling and living in India (where there actually are elephants). But India is familiar to me. I studied abroad there in 2008, when I lived with a family in Pune, Maharashtra for six months. I know how to be smart, as well as how to find the best chai wala on the block. I developed the foundation for language skills, traveled to remote locations as well as big cities, and grew very close to my host family - my host sister and mother in particular.
Luckily for me, my "Indian mother," as she calls herself, is an activist, community organizer, educator, and also an administrator for the largest university network in India, Indira Gandhi Open National University (IGNOU). They have branches in almost every city. So she - and, thus, I - have contacts and connections anywhere I go. It is through this network that I have arranged for accommodations, travel details, and - perhaps most importantly - a translator. The Tibetan community is a passionate and supportive one. That has helped hugely in securing the right translator, because I see this person as more of a cultural broker than simply a repeat-back-to-me tool. I am confident that this Tibetan community will also be supportive of me once I reach Dharamsala, which mostly consists of Tibetan refugees (its pet name is "Little Lhasa").
Also, the differences in culture and custom are not intimidating to me. On the contrary - I loved the varying cultures, languages, and ways of life in Maharashtra, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura (all states in India where I traveled or lived), and I know I'll feel the same way in Dharamsala. I highly anticipate getting to know these astonishing women and making lots of Tibetan friends.
The last concern is probably my personal greatest: achieving notoriety. Part of the pull of this project is its positive reach - how many people can I reach, then? The more, the better, of course. I feel a duty to make this happen to the best of my capabilities.
In all honesty, I've only been published in literary magazines for creative stories (Catch Magazine, fall '08, spring '08, and spring '09). I have never done anything like this before. But I do have experience in campaigns. I was a supervisor for Public Outreach in Seattle, and while I was raising funds and awareness on the street for American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders - engaging hundreds of strangers every day! - I worked my way to the sixth highest fundraiser in the country, in terms of how many members I'd signed on and how much they were giving each month. And I had a very low attrition rate - after a chat with me, people understood what they were investing in and made an informed and impassioned decision to become members.
I believe my time at Public Outreach has helped me with RVP. In one week, I gained over 700 new followers of the project on Facebook - spending only $10. I've pulled together all my friends and resources to lay the framework for the logistics of a trip abroad, without hiring a travel agent or guide. I have friends in the arts and education worlds on several continents, from L.A. to Montpellier to Bombay. All of them have expressed excitement about Restored Voice. I think this is a book that people really want to read, and those who have connections have been eager to offer them to me.
There are millions of people out there who want women's stories to be told. There are millions of people out there who want Tibetan stories to be told. Refugee stories, empowerment stories, spiritual stories, political stories - these nuns' lives span the passions of so many different people. And by my being flexible, passionate, creative, and open, the project has already come so far.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)