CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 17. . . .January 9, 2015
Nick Gray and Laura Scandiffio’s Escape from Tibet provides an intimate look into a largely untouched subject in fiction for young readers—that of Tibet’s cultural and societal existence. Based on a true story of two brothers’ experiences in the mid-1990s, the novel is an inspirational narrative of hardship, struggle, and escape. Narrated through the perspective of young Tenzin, Escape from Tibet is a gripping narrative about two young brothers’ escape from oppressive circumstances in their homeland to India, a country where they believe that they can be free. The names of the two brothers and other escapees have been changed, but the narrative is otherwise based on the experiences that the two brothers related to Nick Gray and Laura Scandiffio.
Escape from Tibet opens with Pasang’s surprise return home, but the reasons for his return soon become clear. With their family struggling to make ends meet and their mother overworking herself on the family farm, Pasang convinces their mother that he and Tenzin should leave and start a new life elsewhere so that the rest of their family can survive. As Pasang asserts, they can do better with their lives elsewhere and, hopefully, come back to Tibet one day to help the rest of their family. Pasang’s plan is for him and Tenzin to trek across Tibet and through the Himalayas and Nepal to reach India where they can then request asylum as refugees.
After Pasang and Tenzin leave home, the rest of the story focuses on the two brothers’ experiences and the obstacles and dangers that they encounter as they pass through different towns and landscapes. Battling against the elements and the threat of capture by local police and border guards, they later join a guide who is leading other Tibetans through the Himalayas to cross into India. During their journey, Pasang tells Tenzin about the historical struggles of their mother’s family, describing how the government took away all the grain harvested from their family farm and how the whole family was relocated to another province where some relations whom they have never met have died of starvation and disease. In addition, Pasang tells Tenzin that he would like to become a monk so that he could help their family. With this newfound awareness, Tenzin grows more determined to escape with his brother. However, their challenges do not end once they cross into Nepal as Tenzin faces another obstacle that could force him to return home, but the Dalai Lama becomes an unexpected source of hope.
The book’s narrative style is a plot-driven adventure-style narrative that includes much dialogue and action, but with sufficient character development and included details of Tibet’s culture, society, and natural environment that will allow readers to visualize the two brothers’ experiences. For example, readers get an impression of Lhasa through evocative descriptions of the city, its people, and its religious heritage. In addition, they are reminded of the constant surveillance that Tenzin’s and other Tibetan communities experience from the local police and military. Guards further restrict their movement within Tibet as well as in and out of it. With the threat of imprisonment and punishment for actions deemed to threaten the state, they are careful to avoid any actions that might raise suspicion and cause them to be targeted.
Escape from Tibet’s supplementary material provides valuable background and historical context that will help to inform young readers’ understanding of the story and the significance of the two brothers’ experiences. Besides an introduction from the authors, the book has a timeline of key events in Tibet’s history, a map of the country, as well as a glossary that defines unfamiliar words and references. In addition, the book’s introduction from the Dalai Lama serves to validate the story’s authenticity and contextualize it within the broader historical and contemporary struggles that Tibet faces today. In the middle of the book, readers will find a selection of black and white photographs from Nick Gray’s travels through Tibet, during which time he met the brothers and the rest of their group. These photos further enhance the story’s realism and immediacy for readers by showing Tibet’s environment as well as the two brothers and other people represented in their story. For example, readers can see photos of the brothers’ family home, which lacked electricity and running water, two refugees who befriended Tenzin, as well as the two brothers posing in front of Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
Escape from Tibet is appropriate for the intended readership, which Annick Press has targeted to be ages 12 and up. Given the complexity of the story’s historical and contemporary backdrop, younger readers may not fully understand the story’s significance in relation to Tibet’s long-standing contentious relationship with the rest of China. Nevertheless, younger readers may still find the narrative appealing—at least on an emotional level—as they could identify with the main protagonists’ struggles with adversity and their eventual triumph. Readers will experience the ups and downs of Tenzin’s emotional struggle during the course of his and his brother’s trip, including self-doubt, homesickness, and more. Divided into short manageable chapters, the book’s language will not present any significant difficulties as any unfamiliar words are listed in the glossary.
The story will motivate readers to learn more about Tibet’s history as books published in Canada for this age group do not deal often with this topic. Escape from Tibet would be a valuable addition to any library collection that wishes to expand its representation of Asian-oriented narratives, but particularly to those that cater to young readers or educational institutions. The book, itself, could work on numerous levels as a text for discussion in the classroom. In the university context, it could be analyzed for its textual elements and usage of genre, considered as a political text that represents Asian cultures and Tibetans’ experiences, or examined as a biographical representation of two brothers’ experiences and the implications of having others represent on their behalf.
However, when examining this book more closely—whether as readers or in the classroom—it would be important to look at Tibet’s history as well as its communities’ everyday experiences. To its target audience, the story would appear to be a straightforward narrative of escape from oppressive circumstances in Tibet. In part, this is due to the young readership that the book targets and consequently its restricted length, such that it is more plot-oriented and less focused on exploring Tibetan society, culture, and peoples’ everyday lives in extensive detail. As a result, the book inevitably conveys what may perhaps be a more condensed view of Tibet, with selected aspects to highlight and evoke the setting itself. Instead, it would also be important to recognize the complexity of intersecting histories between China and Tibet as well as among the communities within Tibet, itself, such that the relationship between dominant and minority cultural communities would be better understood by looking at multiple perspectives.
For example, approaches to such narratives in cultural studies have affirmed the importance of moving beyond what has been identified as “oppositional identity politics”: in other words, politics of identity that establish clear-cut distinctions between the “oppressor” and “oppressed.” While such approaches may create cohesive understandings of collective identity, they may also be limiting by inadvertently encouraging a more simplistic view of the issues. Instead, contemporary approaches in cultural studies advocate a recognition of hybridity and the everyday in identity politics which leads to a more fluid and nuanced interpretation of literary representations of identity, culture, and community. This complexity of Tibetans’ experiences is hinted at in the book when one of the young girls escaping with Tenzin to India reveals that her father was angry and worried that his governmental position would be threatened by her actions. In this case, her father benefits from the current situation and wishes to retain the status quo. Therefore, Escape from Tibet is a valuable addition to the existing body of young adult literature and would further benefit if considered alongside other stories and experiences of other Tibetans.
As a recipient of several awards for his documentary films, Nick Gray has also been a Visiting Professor in Documentary Production at the University of Lincoln in the UK since 2007. His co-author Laura Scandiffio (http://www.laurascandiffio.com/) has written several award-winning nonfiction works and currently resides in Toronto. Escape from Tibet grew from Nick Gray’s chance meeting with two brothers in the Himalayas when they were fleeing from Tibet. Their story became the main element in his documentary film of the same name. More information about the book and documentary, itself, are available at http://www.escapefromtibet.org/.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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