Best known for her revelatory book about North Korea, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick returns with a familiar style but a new location. Choosing as her focus the small town of Ngaba, located in Sichuan Province, China, but Tibetan in every way, she uses the intimate, traumatic and inspirational stories of residents past and present to tell the wider story of modern Tibet.
Beginning in 1958 during the early years of Chinese rule, she traces a land that has undergone profound changes and endless interference. In a remarkably short period, Ngaba was transformed from a feudal society presided over by a royal family, to a communist experiment of forced collectivisation, and then out the other side to the present day land of tension and frequent unrest.
As with Nothing to Envy, Demick’s skill lies in her careful choice of characters and the way she narrates their stories across many years, revealing personalities, flaws, hopes and dreams and in doing so making a political story deeply personal.
Here are young monks who just want to study and play basketball, girls bizarrely caught up in the worship of Mao, and old women with pictures of the Dalai Llama hung loosely on their walls (Chinese attitudes to such pictures changes and they often have to be removed at speed).
All are touched by the violence and fear of Chinese occupation (Ngaba is known as a hotspot of dissent and is therefore heavily guarded by soldiers), though a very human sense of resilience persists. In fact what is most remarkable is that the people of Ngaba, and Tibet in general, keep persisting; even willing to die for the cause.
Demick describes the shocking wave of self immolations, which began in 2009 when the first Buddhist monk from the region doused himself in gasoline. At the time of writing, 156 Tibetans have self-immolated, a third from Ngaba and its environs – a truly remarkable place, and a remarkable people.