Spotlight on Success: Manjushree Thapa (Part 1)
Monday | March 27, 2017 | by Gelek Badheytsang
I first learned of Manjushree Thapa’s work in 2015 when I was finishing up my trip in Nepal. Her book, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, was on my friend’s bookshelf, and I was immediately gripped by its unflinching, wry, and humane examination of Nepal’s history and present-day predicaments.
I finished reading the book in Toronto and started following Thapa through her essays, interviews, and on Twitter. It is not common to see someone from your home country succeed as a writer and artist in Canada, and I knew we had to connect once I found out that Thapa lived in the same city as I did. I also knew that her thoughts as an artist, immigrant, woman, and Canadian would be of interest to our readers, and was thrilled when she generously accepted my request for an interview. (The interview has been condensed for clarity and length.)
Does this weather remind you of Nepal and some of the places you visited there?
The wind, well you know, in Nepal you notice six seasons. So every season is two months, and each of them is quite distinct. This is kind of the windy season, and also the dry season. The last of the leaves on the trees are being shaken out and the greens are starting to come.
Do the leaves fall in Nepal?
No, not in the same way they do here. They do not turn orange. They just get brown and hang on to the trees until the season comes in and blows everything around.
I remember when I was in school in Nepal, we would pick up peepal leaves from the ground, put them inside our books, and be like “This is going to give me more wisdom just through sheer osmosis.” (Note: Peepal trees, ficus religiosa, are considered sacred in Nepal. It was under one of them that Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.) We also used to put in a lot of effort to make sure our books were properly looked after. Our teachers would even review them in school and everything.
I remember every year when we got new books, you would have to find the covers for them, and it used to be a really big deal if you found a colourful newspaper.
I used to buy book covers from the stationery store. The first week of school would be spent doing that, buying the label stickers…and then putting the leaves in. The transference is complete! Does that level of respect for education actually help in terms of intellectualism? It is a topic you visit often in your work.
Yeah, it is an interesting thing. It depends on where in Nepal you are. If you came from a village, then having a high school diploma would have made you the village intellectual. If you could read the newspaper, you had information from the outside world. Now, it has maybe changed to having a college degree.
One thing you notice in the literary world in Nepal is that, as soon as they can, people start to write poems. I think a lot of young people: they fall in love, feel forlorn. All of their emotions are intense and they spill out in poems. But there’s also so much value in poetry. Certainly in the Nepali language, it is highly valued; a sign of how erudite and sophisticated you are with being able to express yourself. To be honest, all those early poems are pretty awful.
I am smiling because I actually did compile a whole book like that, mostly dedicated to my crush at the time. How do you think Canadian kids compare to Nepali kids when it comes to education?
I feel like it is pretty taken for granted here. I don’t feel like they have that sort of amazing respect for books or learning or a sense of sophistication around it.
I mean one thing that I would say, and this is very broad and generalized so I don’t want to stick by it at all, but the immigrant families here bring that sort of veneration of education, whereas a lot of people here do not seem to observe that same level of valuation. But I actually think it is also one of the nice things about Canada. It is assumed that everyone is going to get an education—instead of cherishing it or fetishizing it like we do back in Nepal.
Does that equalize the playing field a little bit?
I think that is pretty accurate.
Happy International Women’s Day, by the way. Does this day mean anything special for you?
Thank you! Happy International Women’s Day to you as well.
It feels like the international day of tokenism to me. [laughs] Particularly because when I lived in Nepal, this was something that really came up through the NGOs [non-government organizations]. I understand the value of the day, and obviously, I am very happy to be a woman and a proud feminist. But when you see it coming up on March 8, you see everyone preparing their women’s programs and it just feels like an NGO project rather than a spontaneous, real celebration.
Do you think that kind of NGO work builds towards any kind of momentum in terms of gender equity in Nepal?
I think it is important that there is a day and that people are making it women’s empowerment month. A lot of NGOs will feature women speakers for a month to raise the visibility of women. So I do think it is important.
Today, all my editor friends are posting all women’s day things with the women in their family, but none with their colleagues because they have no women colleagues [laughs].
Everything is complicated. I am not negative about March 8. I just feel like it is really easy for people who do not do anything in a year or the rest of their lives make a big show of it on this day.
Do you consider yourself an immigrant?
Yes, I do now. I became a citizen last year in May, and until then I did not consider myself an immigrant. It was really weird. I felt like I was parked here. I migrated here mostly because of my relationship.
When was that?
That was 2008, so it has been quite a while for both my partner and me. For me—and for a lot of Nepalis—it is a bit of a traumatic experience to give up your citizenship. Many people hold on to their Nepali papers illegally, but I did not want to do that. For me, the desire to pursue Canadian citizenship was linked to the citizenship issue in Nepal. I feel like, for most of my life, I was in a situation of inequality, so it was a decision to see what it would be like to not have that. To actually be equal.
Once I started to think about applying for citizenship, I took the place more seriously. I paid attention.
What year did you apply for Canadian citizenship?
I applied at the very end of 2015.
Did you sense any difference when you got the citizenship and went through the ceremony?
Approaching it, and doing it, and afterward, in this phase as a Canadian citizen, I just don’t know what to make of being Canadian. So much of my life was about, and is writing about, Nepal and being involved in Nepali literature. I think it is quite possible to live in Nepal and not really take it up as a project, but if you are writing about it, you have taken Nepal on as a project. I had done that, and so to suddenly not just be Canadian, but also no longer be Nepali is really discombobulating and disorienting. I am still letting that settle down and trying to figure out. I spent all of the last year catching up on Indigenous history and literature. If I want to be a citizen of this country, I had better figure this out.
Do you think that is something more immigrants should be doing as they
settle down in Canada?
Yes. I think it is really easy for immigrants when they come here to be involved in the settler colonial aspect of Canada. It is hard to go past what was here before and what is going on now, an Indigenous resurgence, and I feel like that’s a real lack. You read a book about Canada [as part of the citizenship process] and it has the shortest version of Indigenous history.
Did you receive your education in the U.S.?
I got my bachelor’s degree in the U.S., went to Nepal for a bit, and then I got my master’s degree in the U.S. Almost all of my entire education was in the United States. Only the early education was in Nepal.
How did this complicate the immigrant experience for you?
I was always on a student visa there, and you never feel like it’s your place. When I was a kid, I wanted to become American, so I was unhappy y about that. Later in college, I was quite Americanized. I went to school in Providence, Rhode Island which was the most corrupt city in America at that time. I never paid attention to that or to local politics. I was just in college having my college life, and it was the same with grad school. I was in Seattle, a really dynamic and interesting city, but I was not really connected to the place. And that’s part of the confusion for me now: I’m Canadian, and unfortunately, there are no elections coming up where I can participate and feel more like a citizen.
You missed out on the 2015 federal elections.
Yes, it will be a while before the next one.
Speaking of Seattle, we’re having a Seattle type weather these past few days. Rainy, overcast, and grey, but I imagine it’s good for writers.
I hated Seattle winters. I could not handle it. Two years were enough.
How does your identity as an immigrant intersect with your sense of womanhood? For women who plan on coming here, what do you think they should be on the lookout for?
One of the things I have noticed about myself—and again, this past year has been a year of discovery—is that, “Okay, I am here. I am Canadian now. I am equal to men. I have the same rights.”
Nepal is not just a difficult place to be a woman. It has so many different layers, and I always felt this whenever I travelled between the U.S. and Nepal. Everything in Nepal is so gendered. It was almost like I was the only woman in every office I worked in. In a group of friends, I was the only woman. My mobility, the social attitudes, the way people treated me…everything had to do with me being a woman. When I got away from that in the U.S., I felt so free.
It’s very much the same here in Canada. It does not feel like it is a big deal if you are a woman. I mean, I know there are still barriers with pay scales and all of that, but it is not in your face all the time. Not to be too dramatic, but in terms of the baggage I brought with me, it is a bit post-traumatic. A lifetime of microaggressions and all of that. I’m not used to not having them. It’s weird.
In terms of advising women, I would just say to come here. There is so much more space to be who you want here. On the other hand, we also need people to stay there and fight the good fight. It really depends on the person.
In my experience, when people think of skilled immigrants here, they think of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. You come from the arts. Have you experienced people having a hard time categorizing you, not only from immigrants but also from Canadians born here?
No, I don’t think I have felt that because I move within a small, fairly artsy group, and in the University of Toronto and other academic spaces. I have not felt that in my immediate life, but I cannot imagine a Nepali immigrant family encouraging their children to study creative writing. I just cannot imagine that.
How do you think those of us who do have a yearning to be more creative—whether they are here in Canada as immigrants, young or old, or back home and planning to immigrate here—can instill some of the lessons you have learned in building a career as a writer and journalist?
It is easier in Nepal. There is this value placed on literature and prestige attached to it.
Does this come with higher income?
No. Quite the opposite.
Do you think it is better to spend time in a proper profession like a lawyer
Here is my advice for anyone who says they want to be a writer: you can only write if you have enough money. Is your writing going to be able to pay for itself? Or are you going to support your writing with other things?
All writers have to deal with this, especially in Canada. One of the more challenging things when I moved here was the cost of living, which is quite high. In Nepal, you can have a lean year and it wouldn’t matter because you would always earn enough to eat; whereas here, with the rent and everything, it starts adding up quickly. It is irresponsible to give writers and creative people an unrealistic sense of what they will be up against. If you are willing to take on the challenge and figure out how to structure your life so that your cost of living is low, maybe you can be a writer. You probably will not have the glitzy writer’s life that you imagined, but you will be able to write. So that is my advice. People who want to do it will do it. But I think it is very important to have a realistic sense of what you are going into.
Be sure to read the continuation of this Manjushree Thapa interview in Part 2, where we continue our in-depth conversation.
Interviewed by Gelek Badheytsang on March 8, 2017. Transcribed by Sahra Togone (Research Intern, WES Global Talent Bridge). Photos by Badheytsang.