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Excerpts from an interview with Kunzang Choden, writer of Circle of Karma, who is the first Bhutanese woman to have published an English novel.
Kunzang Choden is a Bhutanese woman writer who is also the co-director of the 6th edition of ‘Mountain Echoes’ literary festival that happens annually in Bhutan, bringing distinct speakers together. Here in a conversation with her about her journey as an author and the inspiration behind her works.
How did you get associated with ‘Mountain Echoes’ literature festival? And what have you enjoyed the most during its journey till now?
Kunzang Choden: I was invited to participate in the first Mountains in 2010 by Namita Gokhale the festival founder/director and Mita Kapur of Siyahi. I was later nominated to be a co-director of the festival along with another Bhutanese. For me, meeting the participants and listening to the writers from the region and beyond has been most enjoyable and beneficial.
How do you see the reading and writing habits in Bhutan, especially its women now, when compared to your childhood days?
Kunzang Choden: Until the 1960s Bhutan as basically an oral society with literacy limited to the monastic/ religious institutes which catered mainly to the boys. From the initiation of modern western education in Bhutan, from the 1960s onward, educational opportunities have been open for both males and females. I had the chance to go to a school in India in 1962. In my childhood days, reading and writing were not normal habits. Educational opportunities have changed the literary scene in Bhutan. Reading and writing habits are maturing and developing gradually.
How did you decide to become an author?
Kunzang Choden: I never decided to become a writer, I enjoy reading and writing. I always read and I wrote and I was fortunate to have some of my works published. I still do not consider myself a full-time writer. I am too distracted by so many things that I like doing and other things I have to do so that writing gets only some time of my full life.
Being the first Bhutanese lady to write a novel in English, you are truly an inspiration! Please tell us what was your inspiration in writing your first book – ‘The Circle Of Karma’?
Kunzang Choden: Thank you. The Circle of Karma is the collective stories of what I perceived and understood to bet the experiences of women, in Bhutan, at the time Bhutan was just beginning to initiate modernization and development. I think the construction of motor roads was one of the most important factors heralding change, therefore I mention the road works. The protagonist Tsomo is a composite of many women. Although it is not autobiographical, there are also a lot of my own experiences. So there wasn’t a singular inspiration that made me write the story.
Please tell us how your characters or stories relate to your own life and has that changed over the years?
Kunzang Choden: I have written mostly about rural and semi-rural women probably because I can identify and relate to them. Now I feel that I want to write about the young urbane women in the cities. Urbanization and urbane lifestyles are such a new phenomenon in Bhutan. It will be a challenge because I cannot easily identify or relate to them but I am going to try.
Tell us about your future works/books
Kunzang Choden: I am presently writing my childhood memories which have taken me a very long time. I have a few story ideas and I will continue writing for children which I have been doing for some time now. I am convinced that reading cannot be forced, it has to be nurtured and children must learn to enjoy reading and illustrated children’s books are helpful in this process. I really enjoy writing stories for children.
What do you think on how much literature festivals are playing a significant role in promoting the reading/writing culture?
Kunzang Choden: That is the BIG question. Even in a small country like Bhutan, literature festivals are confined by spatial limits and have a sense of exclusivity. I hope the media will contribute in expanding the spatial limits and the impact of literature festivals will go beyond the boundaries to reach those you cannot physically attend them. How can one make the festivals more inclusive is the question!
Given the kind of noteworthy gender equality in Bhutan, how difficult or easy it is for Bhutanese women to read extensively, excel in academics or have a writing career?
Kunzang Choden: One of the most amazing things is that, I am inclined to think that there are more female creative writers today in Bhutan than males, at least those writing in English. That is especially remarkable because traditionally there were no female writers throughout our literary history. Talking about excelling in academics there is a steady growing number of women with PhDs if that is any measurement.
Where do contemporary women writers from Bhutan draw their inspiration from? Are there any such emerging writers you would like to share with us?
Kunzang Choden: Probably because we have a very strong oral tradition, both men and women in the beginning have drawn inspiration from the oral folk stories. Kinley Wangmo wrote an edition of folk tales years ago. Chador Wangmo has written several children’s stories has just written a novel. Tashi Pem, Jigme Zangmo and Lily Wangchuk are few names among others. There are also several women who write poetry.
Could you please share with us your personal learning in the journey of being an author?
Kunzang Choden: Life is an ongoing learning process and in this overall process that, specific lessons are picked out. In my journey, I have learned to be humble; to listen to observe and be myself in thoughts and expressions. I have learned that writing is hard work.
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I wanted to scream with excitement that my daughter chose to write about her ambition and aspirations over everything else first. To me, this was one of those parenting 'win' moments.
My daughter turned eight years old in January, and among the various gifts she received from friends and family was an absolutely beautiful personal journal for self-growth. A few days ago, she was exploring the pages when she found a section for writing a letter to her future self. She found this intriguing and began jotting down her thoughts animatedly.
My curiosity piqued and she could sense it immediately. She assured me that she would show me the letter soon, and lo behold, she kept her word.
I glanced at her words, expecting to see a mention of her parents in the first sentence. But, to my utter delight, the first thing she had written about was her AMBITION. Yes, the caps here are intentional because I want to scream with excitement that my daughter chose to write about her ambition and aspirations over everything else first. To me, this was one of those parenting ‘win’ moments.
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