Tibet House Interviews Eliot Pattison

Eliot Pattison, writer, lawyer, and avid supporter of the Tibetan cause, is the author of the Shan mystery novels, the only major mystery series set in Tibet. Since 1999, when he won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel with The Skull Mantra, Pattison’s works have been translated into 20 languages. The series includes three novels, with the fourth slated for release early next year. All deal with specific Tibetan crimes. Most recently, The Skull Mantra, also nominated fro two major literary prizes in Europe, has been adapted into a radio drama miniseries in Germany. Eliot visited Tibet House this spring to share his views on Tibet and respond to our members’ questions. Here he continues that dialogue with us …

T.H.U.S.: Can you tell our readers a little something about the series?
E.P.: The main character in my novels is Shan Tao Yun, a former high-ranking investigator from Beijing who was condemned for political crimes to the Tibetan gulag. Shan’s life is transformed by the Tibetan monks he is imprisoned with, and when by a strange series of events he is unofficially released after several years, he dedicates himself to helping Tibetans find justice despite the fact that the Chinese government has turned its back on them. Shan, not having an official release or identity papers, must, like many Tibetans, live in the shadows, between the cracks of society, which is why he can uniquely understand the injustices worked on the Tibetans. His background as a government investigator, moreover, means he knows how the government thinks, and how to manipulate it to find answers and solutions. He quickly learns that solving crimes among Tibetans is more often akin to resolving sin, and that getting to the truth can often involve as much spiritual discovery as factual discovery.

T.H.U.S.: What is your personal experience with China and Tibet, Chinese and Tibetans?
E.P.: I first traveled to China less than a month after relations were normalized between Washington and Beijing, working as a lawyer helping companies understand how to invest there. That was the first of many trips, business and otherwise, to the lands encompassed today by the People’s Republic. My work became a platform for me to meet people at all ranks in the government, from ministers on down, as well as a chance to mingle in the streets of cities and towns throughout China and traditional Tibet. My character Shan became an amalgam of the many quiet heroes — Chinese and Tibetan — I met this week, people how have endured, preserving traditions, family , and integrity despite tremendous, sometimes violent, pressures to abandon them. These include professors sent to prison for possessing Western literature, officials whose lives were ruined because they declined to be cowed by the Communist Party, herders who were forced into factory jobs, then eventually, often illegally, found ways to return to their beloved pastures, and, of course, monks who survived incredible adversity to maintain their faith and identity.

T.H.U.S.: What initially attracted you to the Tibet issue?
E.P.: I had always had an avid interest in Asian religions, especially Tibetan Buddhism. As soon as the Chinese began to reopen some of the Tibetan temples scattered around China I began to visit them, starting with the old Lama Temple in Beijing. The day my interest in Tibet really began to crystallize was when I sat in that temple for several hours, watching what was supposed to be an active Buddhist temple but soon realizing that there were more Public Security police there than monks. Though the monks were supposed to be engaged in their daily practice, most of them spent more time nervously watching the police than focusing on their worship. I was appalled that the government would subvert the reverence of the temple. Little did I know that that glimpse of Beijing’s interference with Tibet was the barest tip of the iceberg. From that time on I spent much more time learning about the modern Tibetan experience, meeting and speaking with Tibetans wherever I could find them, and consuming all the published firsthand accounts of the Chinese occupation I could find.

You mentioned in your remarks at this spring’s event that you felt the Tibetan issue intersects with, or represents, a host of other universal issues very much on people’s minds these days. Could you elaborate on this point?
E.P.: I’ve seen a lot of the world — I stopped counting my frequent flier miles after reaching a million, over 10 years ago — and I am convinced that nowhere on the planet is there a better example than Tibet of the sacrifices made in the name of economic progress and geopolitics. My books are not just about Tibet, they are also about how the world we have created works against the preservation of culture, religion, and fundamental human values. Underlying my second book, Water Touching Stone, was a theme of how politics can subvert science and culture, in the context of archaeology. My third novel, Bone Mountain, seeks to show the conflict between the preservation of the vital, important culture of Tibet and our insatiable appetite for natural resources while also looking at the nature of healing, outside of the framework of what we call modern medicine. Tibet has had its culture, religion, environment, even its traditional medical system systematically destroyed by forces that all of us helped to create. I don’t accept Beijing’s reasons for doing so, and I certainly don’t accept that there is nothing we can do about it.

What would you like people to understand from your work? And why did you choose fiction as your method of speaking out on these issues?
E.P.: One of the wonderful aspects of having my books in wide global distribution is that it means I get messages, usually e-mails to my website, from all over the world, from all types of readers. Quite a few are from people who have never been exposed to the Tibetan issues, who express their gratitude from my introducing them to those issues. I also get mail from people who have been involved in the Tibetan cause for years who say that for them my books are the most effective statement of the Tibetan problem they have ever read. I’m not trying to market myself here, but simply make the point that fiction sometimes can set forth the truth much more effectively than dry, firsthand accounts. I am painstaking in making sure my representations of Tibetan life are accurate, including all the religious practices referred to (which are largely rooted in the more exotic forms of old tantric practice). I am also very careful not to exaggerate the aspects of the government’s repression of Tibetans — every aspect I refer to is based on factual experience, and there is no need to exaggerate the awful reality of what Beijing has done. What I am trying to convey broadly to readers, of course, is this modern Tibetan experience and the underlying global themes I mentioned above. Hopefully, in the process I can also provide a good read.

What has the reaction to your books been in China?
E.P.: I’ve seen no official reaction to my books in China. There have been many sightings of them in Tibet, and several readers have told me they have taken my books to Tibet and left them for Tibetans to read. I have been told more than once that people cannot access my website from China — and it’s a matter of record that the government has been actively blocking sites considered to contain politically unacceptable material. I would love to see my books more widely read in China — while there are unabashedly against the Chinese government, they also show a great respect for the Chinese people, many of whom have suffered almost as much as the Tibetans during the past 50 years. When an answer to the Tibetan problem is reached, it will be driven in part by the good, virtuous Chinese who are still out there, and who are gradually finding more of a role in the government.

What is coming up in the next installment of the series?
E.P.: The fourth Shan novel is due out early next year. As in the earlier books there is a broader backdrop of current Tibetan issues, this time the dilemmas caused by the theft of Tibetan art from shrines and temples, which occurs with alarming frequency today. This context allows me to explore in some depth the complex, fascinating world of Tibetan art and its spiritual symbolism. My main character Shan will have an important new development in his life and, again, the course of solving an especially troubling series of crimes, Shan causes more than one Westerner to rethink their lives.

Eliot Pattison

“The best of historical novels allow us to commit our entire spirit to understanding another world that was once our own.”

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