A/P John Whalen-Bridge on His Latest Book
Tibet on Fire: Buddhism, Protest, and the Rhetoric of Self-Immolation

In his book, Tibet on Fire, A/P Whalen-Bridge explores the motivations behind the controversial practice of self-immolation and its relation to Tibetan identity.

Could you tell us what inspired the writing of your book?

I was giving a series of talks at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in India during the height of the self-immolation movement. No matter what the topic, whether it was media coverage of Tibetan protest during the Olympics or postcolonial humor in films by Tibetan directors, all the students who spoke up during Q&A wanted to know whether I thought the protest act of self-immolation could properly be thought of as “Buddhist.”

I tried to waffle on this subject, since I neither wanted to criticize the religious commitment of people who offered their lives to help others nor affirm that someone should ever do such a thing—and these students might very well have been thinking about doing it. I couldn’t satisfactorily answer the question, so it became the starting point of the book. It’s almost never the case that anything a literature professor says could be a life-or-death matter. One has to answer carefully.

Immolation, as conceptualized in your book, is inherently a politically motivated act. Could you elaborate on this idea?

Of course you are right to orient our understanding of self-immolation directly in relation to political expression, but I was interested to see symbolic expression as an ecological field of meaning. Political complaint about PRC policies in Tibet is part of the story, but there is a religious element to the act as well. It was often committed by monks and nuns, and when lay-people started to commit the act, the commentators always noted when someone was a former monk. The flames of self-immolation were linked to the “flame of truth” protest in which Tibetan flags shadowed the Olympic torch as it headed towards the Beijing Olympic Games. The political motivation of the Tibetan self-immolator is important but we would not have read about each and every act in the NYT if the protest did not connect with, say, American fears about a rising China. In support of this claim, recall that we might remember one Tunisian self-immolator, Mohamed Bouazizi, but we did not receive a running count of such sacrifices in the Middle East. In short, it’s not enough to say whether or not something is political. We must ask how, specifically, it is political. When we do this, it sometimes becomes hard to draw the line between politics, religion, cultural expression, and so forth.

What challenges did you encounter in the writing of this book?

I worried somewhat about whether people at NUS would like it. I’m active in Tibetan Buddhist temples, film festivals, and so forth, and I know that sometimes there’s a bit of what I call “Tibet-phobia.” But it seems to me now that I need not have worried—everyone has been supportive.

The real difficulty, and I heard from scholars doing similar work, was that I knew at all times that to some degree I was furthering my academic career by writing about other people’s suicides. That is a pretty awful feeling, and it delayed my work quite a bit.

How has being a professor of American literature affected your writing of this book?

One of my fears is that the book will be seen as quite odd precisely because it was written by a literature professor. Usually books about this topic are written by anthropologists, area studies scholars or, more specifically, Tibetologists, and I’m clearly none of those. When interviewing religious leaders and politicians, I’d try to explain (as economically as I could) why I was writing the book the way I was.

In short, we can think of literature as this highly refined, urbane, specialized activity in which only a few people have time to engage. But then I think of Kenneth Burke’s essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” which is a consideration of the Book of Proverbs as a kind of “medicine.” He looks at the contradictory, propulsive form—answer a fool according to his folly, don’t talk to fools—as a kind of spiritual/aesthetic toolbox. When we think of tools, we do not think one is the best tool and the others are wrong. We do not rank them (except for that joke about being able to do anything with a pair of vice-grips, a hammer, and some duct tape). We go to the tool box and take out the tool we need, and we solve the problems that face us. This way of talking about literature and literary thinking opens doors. For Burke, human beings are primarily symbol users, and everything we do, even the most practical acts, are also symbolic actions.

(Interview conducted by undergraduate Michelle Lim.)