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Flowers of Lhasa
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B : solid if grim novel showing slices of contemporary life in Lhasa
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The 'flowers of Lhasa' of the title are four young women who wind up sharing living quarters in the Tibetan city and working as hostesses in an establishment called the Rose.
Three of them are Tibetan; one hails from Sichuan.
Each becomes known by the name of a flower -- Azalea (actually: Yangdzom), Cassia (Xiao Li), Dahlia (Drölkar), and Magnolia (Dzomkyi) -- hence the title.
They are basically girls who grew up in rural environments, in small villages, and while their childhoods were mostly stable and comfortable, circumstances left them in more dire straits.
A sudden plunge into poverty, making it impossible for the girls to continue with their schooling, affects some of them, while another is pushed by her stepmother out of school into earning money for the family; one of the girls got pregnant and couldn't face her family or school in the aftermath and ran away from home.
Each girl arrives in Lhasa as a teenager and initially gets a regular if low-paying job in Lhasa, but one way or another they wind up at the Rose, where they can earn much more but only at a terrible human cost.
You don't need to ask me what I do. It's a job people don't like to talk about anyway, so it's best if you don't know. You can squeeze in my bed with me for now, and we'll figure out what to do later in good time.Drölkar is determined to help Yangdzom avoid her fate and they do find her a regular job for a while, but Drölkar isn't there to protect Yangdzom at a pivotal moment, and, now also fallen, Yangdzom joins Drölkar and their two roommates working at the Rose.
Flowers of Lhasa is steeped in fatalism, its characters largely resigned to their sad fates, believing in the concept of karma -- and the impossibility of escaping it. As Yangdzom puts it at one point: "Whatever happens to me, good or bad, it's all determined by my actions in a previous life". Unfortunate circumstances have led to their sad situations -- and, notably, largely cut them off from family and their hometown-communities. (Drölkar apparently does reconnect with her family at some point, helping also to support her academically successful brother, but she doesn't reveal anything about her actual situation to them.) They do find support and community with one another, selflessly looking out for and helping each other, but at the end of the novel they have also gone their separate ways. Some of their futures would seem to be more promising at that point -- one has saved up money to open a business, far away from Lhasa -- but Tsering does not reveal how things turn out for them, leaving their fates more or less dangling, with clear finality only for one of them (yet even that arguably just one more turn on the cycle of karma ...).
Flowers of Lhasa repeatedly turns back in time, only filling in the background story of how each of them got to this point, of working at the Rose, as the novel progresses. In the conclusion, there are encounters with characters who figured in some of their stories much earlier on as well. Striking throughout is the characters' unwillingness to try to work out many of their problems with the help of community or family: there are repeated instances of simply running away, rather than trying to talk through issues, and the characters abruptly cut themselves of from family and community. Even in the end, Yangdzom tells her former employer: "don't tell Mr.Nyedrak that you saw me", preferring not just her fate but her very existence go unnoticed. Yet there is always that longing to return to home and hometown, with Drölkar realizing, near the end:
I think it'd be best for all of us if we went back home. But I ...For Drölkar it is literally too late to go back home by that point; the others might have a chance. But what they've done and been through weighs heavily on them: shame has a lot to do with the young women isolating themselves in the way they have. Yangdzom has to acknowledge: "once a woman is labelled a prostitute, she will forever be a prostitute" -- and they all have some difficulty trying to move beyond that.
There are those who suggest:
When you go back home all people want to know is who brought back the most money. They don't care about what you've been through to get it, and they certainly don't care whether it's dirty or clean.Tsering shows, however, that the human toll can be enormous. There are kind and understanding people along the way -- Mr.Nyedrak stood up for Yangdzom when she worked as a maid -- but many are also unscrupulous or even outright cruel. In addition, the physical toll of the women's work is shocking -- and not just the sex-work, at that, though in Drölkar's fate as well as a customer of Xiao Li's (who insists: "I've paid for you, and you'll do what I want") it proves particularly horrific.
Flowers of Lhasa is grim and gritty. There's a hopelessness to the characters' situations -- reïnforced and magnified by a sense of inevitability to it:
They lamented their miserable karma, but their sorrow and their sense of aversion towards this life could do nothing to alter their fate.The alternate names are an effective literary device. In a sense, the characters are going through karmic cycles without having died: "I'm not that Yangdzom anymore", Azalea can insist near the end -- even claiming: "I don't know anyone called Yangdzom", because she can tell herself that that person (or version of herself) doesn't exist any longer. (Tellingly, however, she does own up to that identity at that point, she hasn't lost it completely yet.)
It makes for an interesting if limited slice of contemporary life in Lhasa -- though much of the story, of girls from villages and their experiences in the big city, is just a local variation on a familiar universal tale, found in novels all around the world, for centuries already. In some ways, however, Flowers of Lhasa is interestingly localized, not least in its descriptions of the contrasts in lifestyles here, many of which are still close to those from long ago. There are mentions of, for example, laptops, but modern technology barely features here and Flowers of Lhasa has an almost timeless feel in how far back it could be set -- reïnforcing the idea of an almost unchanging cycle of life, at its most fundamental and elemental.
The Tibet-specific color is certainly of interest but also largely incidental to the novel, observations such as the languages characters use and understand revealing but not pointed to too obviously by Tsering. Also interesting is that the author does present Tibet as, essentially, separate from China. So, for example, one character mentions that his family has: "gone off to China for the new year". The Chinese girl, Xiao Li, fits in and is treated like the others in the quartet and also otherwise ethnic differences are not highlighted -- beyond observations such as, at the opening, that local Chinese restaurants are doing much better business in Lhasa than traditional Tibetan ones and that an alley which used to be packed with Tibetan establishments barely has any left -- but a distinction between 'Tibet' and 'China' is certainly made.
Flowers of Lhasa is yet another novel that presents the tensions between traditional lifestyles and a rapidly modernizing world, compounded by a growing rural-urban divide, and young women with limited education and little or no family or financial support trying to navigate it all. There is still a strong sense of community -- on the larger scale, to some extent, but especially on the smaller one, the four women strongly supportive of one another, but it is not sufficient. (It also remains limited: as Drölkar notes, while their neighbors are friendly enough, they don't know, and don't want to know, what the girls (whom they refer to as "night owls") do for a living.) The fatalism can be a bit hard to take -- readers may wish the characters were a bit more willing to act more firmly on their own behalf -- but at least the characters' belief in it is convincingly presented.
Flowers of Lhasa is rather grim, and the way the story unfolds, with each of the quartet's stories separately presented, often quite a while after the characters themselves have been introduced, can feel a bit awkward, but it is a quite powerful and affecting tale. It is certainly a welcome, authentic-feeling glimpse at lives in a place and situations very different from that most readers will be are familiar with.
- M.A.Orthofer, 15 June 2022
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Tibetan author Tsering Yangkyi (ཚེ་རིང་དབྱངས་སྐྱིད) was born in 1962.
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