Chador Wangmo, teacher turned writer, lives in Thimpu, Bhutan. She has authored four novels, including La Ama and Kyetse, and ten illustrated books for children, including books from the series Superhero Dema. Although her work is mostly prose, she likes writing poems and has recently published her first poetry compilation titled Phases. She has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Literature by the Vikram Sheela Vidyapeeth, Sidharth Nagar, UP. She has also been awarded the Sidhartha Tathagat Sansthan Sahitya award in recognition of her contribution to literature.
Here Anika Shah, on behalf of Prachya Review, interviews the writer and poet to know more about her thoughts and literary journey.
Anika Shah: How did your journey as a writer begin? Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, or did something drive you towards that journey?
Chador Wangmo: When I was growing up, we never had any Bhutanese authors. All the books we read came from outside. So, I guess the notion that someday I might become a writer was never on my mind when I was a little girl. But I was an ardent reader and I loved listening to oral folktales. Even when I was little girl, I loved retelling these stories to whoever was ready to listen to me and that ultimately made me a writer. I guess I’m that girl who grew up with stories and then she just chose to write these stories. (Smiles)
Anika Shah: When we met at the South Asian Literature Festival in 2018, you mentioned that the people of Bhutan often feel confused about their identity as a Bhutanese and their identity as a Buddhist. How do you think that effects the literature of Bhutan?
Chador Wangmo: Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that it’s an “identity crisis” as I seem to have made it sound like but yes, definitely in Bhutan, the people are largely driven by the Buddhist philosophies that are so much ingrained in our everyday lifestyle. So, even in our stories, or literature for that matter, you will come across many of these elements. To cite an example, as a Buddhist, we practice being mindful about the impermanence of life. So, you might see even school going children writing poems on death. That was one simple example I could think of at the moment but you have to read many Bhutanese author’s works to understand how neatly our ideologies are woven around our Buddhist beliefs. (Laughs).
Anika Shah: How do you balance between writing for adults and writing for children? Is there any transition that occurs within you as a writer?
Chador Wangmo: I think I write what stories nudge me from within. I don’t exactly plan what level I want to write or what kind of stories I want to write but there are times when stories simply come bubbling from within, wanting to be told and basically that’s what I land up writing. So, you can say that it is almost like an inner call more than a planned activity!
Anika: Tell us a little bit about Dema – the little girl from your books who is a superhero and also a nun. What kind of response did you get from children after the publication of this series?
Chador: (Excited) Dema is the first ever superhero in our country and she is just a twelve years old nun, that makes her extra special. Special because in these times of #MeToo and #WomenEmpowerment being so strongly voiced out, I feel that it is so timely that a young female superhero had to surface in our part of the world too.
Whenever I am asked about the response I have received from the little ones, I land up narrating this incident, which was shared to me by one of my acquaintances. It was few days after the second book of the series had been launched. This friend of mine was on his evening walk. Suddenly, he heard a little girl call out to him from her verandah. Believe it or not, the little girl calls out to this stranger and she proudly shows her Dema Book and even gives a summary of this book so that the stranger she is talking to knows who Dema, the superhero is. How sweet is that!
So this zest and the various mails I receive from little ones asking me when the next book in the series will be out keeps me motivated to write more. Actually I’ve already started writing the third book of this series.
Anika: Since you were in the teaching profession, do you ever find your teacher-self resurface when you write for children?
Chador: (Blush! Blush!) Can’t help that I guess (Laughs). I guess the “teacher self” always wants to teach something or the other through the books I write. I don’t want to write preachy books but every book of mine has some concept or the other that I would want the children of that particular age group to learn but I’m mindful not to make them sound preachy at all!
Anika: Do you recall any particular struggle in your literary journey?
Chador: The biggest struggle that every Bhutanese author faces as of now is the small market for our books. But that too is changing now. More and more people are reading and embracing Bhutanese authors so hopefully in few years time that too wouldn’t be much of a problem.
Anika: I know it is difficult for writers to pick one of their works as a favorite, but still, I will ask – which work of yours do you hold the closest to your heart?
Chador: Well, as you put it, I am tempted to say all the books (Laughs). But I think I’m more popularly known for my first novel La Ama which came out in 2015. I choose this book for two reasons:
- As already mentioned, people know me mostly for this book.
- I wrote this book as I was drowning in the sorrows after I lost my mother. Creating the mother character of this book was like bringing my mother back to life. I’ve used her as a reference to create this character. The way she walked, the songs she listened to, and the way she dressed. So even today, four years after this book when people mention this book, I feel I have resurrected my mother.
So, it would be La Ama (Winks).
Anika: Do you prefer writing poetry more or prose? Since your book of poetry came out very recently, I was curious to know, do you prefer either one of them, or do they go hand in hand?
Chador: I write poetry more on an impulse than planned writing. I write prose with my target audience in mind, which means it comes more from the head and I write poetry whenever my emotions nudge me to, so poetry comes from the heart. It goes “heart in head” rather! (Laughs loudly)
Anika: How do you feel about the current literary scene in Bhutan? Is it different from what you grew up to see?
Chador: A lot more different! As I said in my first response, we never had Bhutanese writers back then. So the whole idea of being a writer was almost non-existent. Maybe, I grew up shoving the role of writing to the foreign writers only.
But today, when I visit schools, and interact with little ones, it’s heartening to see that now little ones carry the dream of becoming writers. That’s a major leap if we talk about the change in our interest in literature.
Anika: Do you think that people are writing more in English these days rather than Dzongkha? When I keep in mind Bangladesh, I can feel that a lot of people feel more comfortable in expressing themselves in English rather than in Bangla. Is it the same in Bhutan?
Chador: It’s a shame but yes. But again, even if it is in English, I am happy that Bhutanese are at least picking up their pen and writing our stories now. Better that than not having anything written.
As you mentioned, there are more readers and writers of English than Dzongkha. However, that doesn’t mean that Dzongkha isn’t written or read at all. We have organizations that are doing their best to lift and promote writings in Dzongkha.
Anika: What do you think about literary festivals as platforms to uphold emerging writers and poets?
Chador: Essential! Otherwise, how would one showcase one’s work? I think literary festivals are the best platform for any emerging writers. I personally feel, the first ever-literary festival I was invited to, groomed the speaker that I’ve become today. So, my deepest gratitude to Mountain Echoes, the only literary festival we have in our country.
Anika: Who are your favorite writers and poets?
Chador: Anytime I’m ready for Kahlil Gibran, Pablo Neruda, Charles Bukowski, Keats, and I feel the poems by Mary Oliver and Sylvia Plath resonate deep in my soul.
I will never forget the first book I ever read that touched my heart like no other book – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. That book has always stayed in me after all these years and I am a huge Murakami fan. But I make sure to read whatever I can lay my paws on. That gives me a wide choice of works to keep me equipped with different styles and stories.
Anika: What are you working on now? Any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us?
Chador: I am more of what the stories nudge me than what I plan to create as a writer. So, I’m currently working on three projects. Two illustrated books for children and they are for two different age groups and I think I mentioned earlier that I’m working on the third book of the Superhero Dema series.
(Psst! Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve a theme for my next anthology of poems that’s been yelling loud in my heart for the past three weeks now. Laughs)