Barbara Demick longlist author interview
Barbara Demick, author of Eat The Buddha:The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town, gives us real insight into the lives of the Tibetan people.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
As soon as I found out, I read the descriptions of the other books on the list and thought: wow, so many fantastic books I want to read. So it was a bit daunting. And I think for me, any kind of pubic recognition is equal parts thrilling and embarrassing.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
John Hersey’s Hiroshima is the non-fiction book that has been most influential. Hersey took what could have been a sensational story, but used a methodical style that he later described as “deliberately quiet.” He let his interview subjects describe what happened to them, channelling their experiences into a narrative without inserting himself or engaging in excessive editorializing. The power of that book is in the understatement. I’ve tried to emulate that—avoiding words like “genocide” and “massacre,” letting the facts tell the story.
How did you conduct your research?
Painstakingly. This book had a very high degree of difficulty because foreigners were not welcome in Ngaba, the town I was writing about. I made several discreet trips into the town, and interviewed as many people as I could in the town and its environs. Some were living in less sensitive parts of the Tibetan plateau or elsewhere in China. Others in Nepal and India. The book ended up focusing mostly on exiles in India because they were the most accessible. To construct a narrative, I needed many hours of interviews with a good interpreter. But I witnessed enough of the situation inside Tibet that I could cross-check and confirm that what was described to me was true.
What are the most important parts of your experience in Tibet that you really hope are conveyed in the message of Eat the Buddha?
Tibetans are in an impossible situation in the 21st century living at the edge of rising China. Many would like to partake in what leader Xi Jinping calls the “Chinese dream,” but expect the same privileges and rights as other citizens of China—the ability to travel freely, to get passports, to speak and study their own language, to practice a religion that is inextricably entangled with their culture. It’s not all about the economy. I sum this up in the final chapter of the book, quoting a successful businessman, who says, “I have everything I want in life but my freedom.”
What are you working on next?
Another non-fiction book mostly set in China. It is about identical twin girls born in a remote village in 2000. One of the girls was confiscated as a baby by officials who were enforcing China’s one-child policy. She ended up being adopted by a family from Texas. The other girl grew up in her village in Hunan Province. I discovered this situation when I was based in Beijing as China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and was investigating the origins of the thousands of adopted Chinese girls. A decade later, I reconnected the estranged twins, bringing the American adoptee and her family to the village for a reunion. It’s a very personal story for me. Unlike my other books, I cannot avoid inserting myself in this one.