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The Dalai Lama's Sister Shares Her Story.

Jetsun Pema, sister of the Dalai Lama. She's written an autobiography about Tibet and her work there,"Tibet: My Story" (Element). In it she recounts life in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, exile from Tibet, and her work as the president of the Tibetan Children's Village, which encompasses over 11,000 Tibetan refugees in India. Pema also plays the role of the mother of the young Dalai Lama in the film "Seven Years in Tibet."


Other segments from the episode on December 10, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 10, 1997: Interview with Claire Tomalin; Interview with Jetsun Pema.


Date: DECEMBER 10, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121001NP.217
Head: Jane Austen: A Life
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Movie and TV adaptations of "Sense and Sensibility," "Emma," "Persuasion," and "Pride and Prejudice" have revived interest in the writer Jane Austen.

Austen lived from 1775 to 1817. Through the centuries, her readers have wondered how a single woman with little money, facing the gender restrictions of her time, managed to write such insightful and witty novels about love, class, and social life.

Claire Tomalin tries to answer that in her new biography of Jane Austen. Tomalin is the author of an earlier biography of 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The Austen biography begins with a quote from Austen's great-nephews, who said "the uneventful nature of the author's life has been a good deal exaggerated."

Tomalin agrees. She says Austen's life was full of dramas, and they're reflected in her novels.

CLAIRE TOMALIN, AUTHOR, "JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE": We have Sense and Sensibility, which as I see it, is really a debate. It's a novel about how people should behave.

Of course, it's presented through the lives of young woman, but essentially it is a debate that went on with considerable ferocity in the 1790s when it was written, about whether the correct way to behave was to conceal your emotions, to tell social lies, to protect yourself by behaving very conventionally; or whether it wasn't better to show your emotions -- to be open, to be frank, to be free, as Mary Anne (ph) is.

And it explores the effects of these two sorts of behavior, and it seems to me that Jane Austen starts by somewhat endorsing one code of behavior -- the conventional one -- and in fact becomes quite uncertain and somewhat changes her attitude, and really comes 'round in many ways much more to the radical behavior of Mary Anne. She gives her love to Mary Anne, I feel.

GROSS: In Sense and Sensibility, that contrast between two different views -- the one the view of like discretion and rationality and the social code, versus freedom and truth-telling and instinct, those two differences were represented in the sensibilities of two different sisters. Do you think that there was a conflict with Austen herself that represented these two different points of view?

TOMALIN: I think it's certainly possible to believe that. The book was being written during the period when we know she was in love with a glamorous young Irishman stranger who arrived in Hampshire -- Tom Lefroi (ph). And we know that he was in love with her, too, and that the incipient love affair was swiftly aborted by Lefroi's family.

And we know from Jane Austen's first surviving letter that she exposed herself to comment; that she let her feelings show; that people were talking about this. And that she felt humiliated and she sorrowed for several years afterwards.

So I think, although I'm always chary about feeling there's any biographical -- about suggesting there's any biographical element -- I think there is some element there. And she gives some very sharp remarks to Mary Anne, who puts down some of her crosser, older male neighbors, which you can well imagine coming from the lips of Jane Austen, who had a very sharp pen and one presumes tongue at times.

GROSS: Do you think this was the only time that she was in love?

TOMALIN: Well, there is so much missed and so much uncertainty about the other alleged episodes of love. Her sister Cassandra, long after Jane Austen's death, remembered a possible love affair that took place on the Devon coast. But since -- since the only evidence we have is Cassandra's misty memory, I think it would be rash to make too much of that.

We do know, of course, that she had a proposal of marriage seven years after the love affair with Tom Lefroi, and that is very interesting and very moving because in her brief episode with Tom Lefroi there was a very important dance where they had a lot of fun together and made a spectacle of themselves by sitting out together. And that dance took place at a neighbor's rather grand house called "Manydown" (ph). And it was the son of that house, Manydown, Horace Bigwither (ph), preposterous name but a real one, who proposed to Jane Austen in Manydown house seven years later.

And she accepted his proposal, and the next morning, she told him she had to change her mind. She was very mortified. She was very upset. And it is a weird episode because he was the brother of her great friends. He would become the owner of an estate in Hampshire and she loved living in Hampshire.

And had she married him, he would have given her all the things girls at that time were brought up to think mattered -- status, money, children; the ability to help her mother, her unmarried sister, and probably her many brothers who some of them could do with a big of a leg up in their careers in the navy, for instance.

So her turning down this really very suitable proposal of marriage is a real turning point in her life. I think we have to assume she was not in love with Horace. And I think we may also think she had begun to think that there were more interesting things in life for her than marriage.

GROSS: But as you say, by turning down this proposal, she turned down the security that a man with an estate could provide, and that left her dependent on her family.

TOMALIN: Yes, and she was very poor. Her poverty can hardly be exaggerated. She had, I think, two legacies in the early part of her life -- of 50 pounds each -- and apart from the, until she was in her 30s, she depended upon whatever pocket money her parents or her brothers could give her.

GROSS: Who did she live with over the years and how was she treated?

TOMALIN: She was born into a large family. She was the seventh child of a clergyman, George Austen, and his wife Cassandra. And they were both very clever, very interesting, very remarkable people. Her father had been an orphan and a scholarship boy and had made his way. Her mother came of a grander family. But when they married, they had very little, and they settled in a pretty remote parsonage -- pretty -- which was called "a living" when you were a clergyman in the 18th century.

But it was a poor living and her father, in fact, had to earn most of his money to keep his children by farming, by really farming commercially. He was very interested in beef and hops and wheat and prices of the crops. Even that wasn't enough. He had to run a boys school in his house. He had to take in boy boarders whom he taught with his own sons.

So Jane Austen was born into this busy boys school. A very striking event in her childhood was that her mother, with all her children as far as we know, fed them at the breast for a few months, and then put them out into the village to be reared. So Jane Austen, like her brothers and sisters, was sent away at a few months into the laborer's cottages. We don't even know the names of the family -- families they were -- the children were put into.

But then, again, when she was seven she was sent away from her family to boarding school, and she fell very ill. She nearly died. She came back and she was sent away again. So she had this series of, I think, painful episodes in her infancy and in her childhood which must have been both difficult to deal with and also perhaps, I think, the school episodes may have stimulated her imagination -- stimulated her interest in reading and writing.

GROSS: Did the members of Jane Austen's family respect her as a writer and appreciate the gifts that she had?

TOMALIN: She was much loved in her family. Her eldest brother James, who became a country clergyman, really thought of himself as the writer of the family, I think. And there was a little tension between James and Jane.

I think his nose was probably a bit put out of joint when he found that his younger sister was so much more successful a writer than he was. But her brother Henry greatly valued her writing and helped to get her work published, and obviously was a great believer in her talent.

Curiously, he almost certainly composed the epitaph on her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral, and he doesn't mention that she was a writer. People have shaken their fingers at him. But he did, actually, in obituary notices in the newspapers talk about her books. Her books, as everyone knows, were published anonymously. Her name was not put upon them.

And she was shy and she protected her privacy. A lot of...

GROSS: Well, was her name not put on the books because she was a woman? Or because she was shy? I mean, what was the reason why they were published anonymously?

TOMALIN: I think it was her -- I think it was her choice. There is evidence from other women writers of that period that they just felt it would be too much to be exposed to public attention. They didn't want to appear to be boastful. I mean, it's very fascinating.

Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, the first to be published says "by a lady." Pride and Prejudice says "by the author of Sense and Sensibility." "Mansfield Park" says "by the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice." And so, it goes on. And even the two that were published posthumously still do not have her name on them.

GROSS: How rare was it for a woman novelist to be published in the late 1700s and early 1800s when she was writing?

TOMALIN: Well, not as rare as all that. It's a very interesting statistic. I think if you go through the 18th century, the publication of work by women increases in every decade.

And in fact, 1775, when Jane Austen was born, was a very good time for an aspiring woman writer to be born. Publishers had realized that not only were women capable of writing very well -- we've had -- of course, Fanny Burniy (ph) is the great success -- but there was a considerable market among women readers.

So you get something very interesting happening economically. I mean, one can think at once of contemporaries -- Anne Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hayes (ph), Elizabeth Fennick (ph), Susan Feria (ph) -- there really was a considerable body of serious women novelists. And of course, there were a lot of sort of junk women novelists, too, who were writing for the circulating library trade.

It was a favorable time.

GROSS: Claire Tomalin, you have written an earlier book on Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of "The Vindication of the Rights of Women" which was published in 1792, so you know a lot about the feminist issues of the time in which Jane Austen lived.

How much was Jane Austen involved in feminist issues? What did -- did she have a stand on them?

TOMALIN: Well, Jane Austen remains very silent on some subjects, or at any rate whatever papers of her survive are silent. But I don't think you can read her novels without a very strong sense that by putting young women as the moral and intellectual centers of her stories, she rated them very highly. And in fact, she presents them very often as having finer reactions, finer sensibilities, quicker wits than the men around them.

I don't think one can doubt, and in fact many English and American scholars have discussed this, and I would agree with them, that there is a clear feeling that "feminism," though the word didn't exist, was present in Jane Austen's consciousness and favorably present.

GROSS: What were the women's issues of the time that were being debated?

TOMALIN: Well, Mary Wollstonecraft really laid out for the first time the claim that it would be better for the whole of society if women had equal -- had the same education as men; if they had the same professional opportunities; if they had the same legal status.

And she even -- she even sketches in the idea that she might discuss their political situation, though she says -- this is all Mary Wollstonecraft -- that since so many men didn't have the vote at that time, it was a bit early to be thinking of women.

So she really -- she really spelt out this program and she also wrote about marriage. And she suggested that in some circumstances, marriage could be a form of prostitution, and that it would be much better if marriage were established on a different basis.

These -- these were the main issues being discussed.

GROSS: My guest is Claire Tomalin, author of a new biography of Jane Austen. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Claire Tomalin, author of a new biography of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen has been described with that I think awful word "spinster." And I'm wondering if you think that she was proud of the independent life that she chose? Or, whether she felt diminished by her status as a spinster or a single woman?

TOMALIN: She probably went through a period of adjustment, when she had to adjust to the fact that she was not going to marry; that she was not going to have those wonderful things -- a loving husband, children. And you see her becoming, instead, a very, very good aunt -- and she was an excellent aunt.

Her sister Cassandra spoke to one of her nieces again, after Jane Austen's death, and said that there had been letters by Jane Austen in which I think Cassandra uses the word -- in which she "triumphed" over her married sisters. Now, this is towards the end of her life.

When Jane Austen -- the implication is that she saw the benefits for her as a writer, as an independent woman, of not being tied by childbearing. We know she talked -- she used the phrase "poor animal" about her niece Anna who was perpetually pregnant. And she certainly had the example of many of her sisters-in-law who bore babies year after year after year, and in some cases died of too much childbearing.

So I think you have to see Jane's like progressing from being a young girl who was, of course, interested in love and who of course hoped to marry; and then when both she and her sister -- her sister's fiance died and Cassandra would never then look at another man -- they settled into this, in some ways, sad partnership of sisters. And then Jane developed her talent and then it flowered when she began to publish and she began to make money; and this great burst of writing in her 30s, the end of her life.

And I think by then she was perfectly happy not to be married.

GROSS: You mentioned early on that the stereotype of Jane Austen is that she led this unruffled life, and isn't it amazing she was able to write such good books when her life was so uneventful -- but you think that there were many dramas that shaped her life. Tell us about one of the dramas that you haven't yet mentioned.

TOMALIN: Well, I've tried to sketch in what I see as the crucial drama of her childhood, which I think -- these perpetual exiles from home which were imposed on her -- what I speculate in my book is that they may have made her prone to depression.

Now, there is a mystery in Jane Austen's life, and the mystery is that she wrote from her early teens to the age of 25, and she was enormously productive and produced already works of genius. And then, she is silent for about nine years. And then she starts writing again and has this second burst.

And one of the questions I've put myself when I was working on my research for this book was: what -- how can we account for this mystery? And the answer, I offer, is that she did, indeed, go through a period of acute depression and writer's block.

And I speculate that when her parents decided that the whole family was to leave the home in which she'd grown up and in which she had learnt to write and in which she had established a good writing pattern, she was quite powerless to do anything but accept her parents' dictat.

But all the evidence is that she then became acutely depressed. They moved to Bath, and the few letters that survive are the letters of a depressed person. She says how she cannot like people; how she detests the social life.

In a way, this is a circular argument of mine because the fact that she did fall silent for this period -- she had one go at writing a novel; she wrote a fragment called "The Watsons" and then she gave it up -- the fact that she was silent seems to me to indicate depression.

GROSS: What are some of the difficulties that Jane Austen posed to you as a biographer?

TOMALIN: The difficulty of writing about a genius, because there is something unknowable, I think, in the end about a Mozart, a Jane Austen -- something mysterious has happened. You can say that she had this very clever father who was very supportive. She had a mother who wrote -- her mother wrote very good poetry. She had a very good atmosphere of access to books. She read, and one can trace what she read and talk about that. And one can point to the other members of her family and their abilities.

But in the end, you cannot account for it. You cannot say why this one person turned out to be a genius as she did. And I very much enjoyed -- I particularly enjoyed -- writing about her writing; about her novels. In a sense, I felt I could be closer to her in considering her novels than I could be in considering her letters.

That was a difficulty in writing about her -- the letters. They are the letters of a very defended person. Jane Austen had a shell, a protective shell, over her, which I think may have been something to do with her childhood -- the difficulties, the pains of her childhood. She does not offer herself to -- when you read her letters -- as romantic writers do. Her letters were not written for publication. They were not intended for other eyes than those of their recipients.

GROSS: Do you see Jane Austen's novels not only as great works of literature, but important documents in women's history?

TOMALIN: That's how I first approached them, I suppose, really. When I -- apart from reading them as a girl for pleasure -- when I began researching Mary Wollstonecraft, I -- you -- I turned to them for evidence of attitudes in the period. Yes, I think they are. You have to be cautious about using fiction like that, but I think they are generally accepted by historians as giving very good evidence of the attitudes of the time.

GROSS: Well, Claire Tomalin, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

TOMALIN: Oh, thank you. I've much enjoyed talking to you.

GROSS: Claire Tomalin is the author of a new biography of Jane Austen.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Claire Tomalin
High: Claire Tomalin, author of the biography "Jane Austen: A Life." The biography addresses Austen's world, family, and works, many of which in recent years have inspired popular film versions. Tomalin is also the biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft and Nelly Ternan.
Spec: History; Books; Authors; Jane Austen
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jane Austen: A Life
Date: DECEMBER 10, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121002NP.217
Head: Jetsun Pema
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Jetsun Pema is the younger sister of the Dalai Lama. They're both dedicated to keeping alive Tibetan culture and religion, despite the Chinese occupation in which over 100,000 Tibetan monks and nuns have been killed or tortured.

Jetsun Pema grew up in Tibet and now lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, which is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. She heads the Tibetan Children's Village, which educates exiled Tibetan children about their culture and religion. She was the first woman minister of the Tibetan government in exile, and was awarded the title "Mother of Tibet" by its national assembly.

Some of her family's story is told in the film "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun," Martin Scorcese's new movie which opens Christmas Day. Pema tells her own story in her new autobiography.

When she was born in 1940, her brother was already recognized as the Dalai Lama. I asked if, as a child, she was expected to behave a certain way in his presence.

JETSUN PEMA, "MOTHER OF TIBET," AUTHOR, "TIBET: MY STORY," HEAD, TIBETAN CHILDREN'S VILLAGE: You know, His Holiness was already recognized and he was installed in the Potala. And so as a child, I always knew that I had a brother who was living up in the Potala.

GROSS: That's the palace?

PEMA: Yes, that's the palace. It's a -- you know, it's up on a hill and it's very impressive. There's over thousands of -- a thousand rooms. And it overlooks the little town of Lhasa. And when you heard your mother saying, you know, "His Holiness is living up there," I think it gave you the impression that he was very special.

And so whenever we went up those flights of stairs to go and see him, and he had all the -- you know, his monk attendants around him. And my mother and father would prostrate in front of him. And so, we also had to do that.

And with all that kind of, sort of, you know ceremony just to go and see him, I think it put a message in my head that he was somebody special, and somebody who had to be treated with great respect.

GROSS: Do you ever think what it was like for your parents to have their baby boy be "His Holiness" and to have to bow when they saw him?

PEMA: Well, for any Tibetan family, you know, for a Tibetan, parents to have their son recognized as a reincarnate lama -- it's a great privilege and an honor, because Tibetans by nature are very religious, and our religion is very important in our lives. It's not just religion as such, but it's become a way of life for the Tibetans.

So when you have a reincarnate lama as your son, I think parents are really awed by that, and they are -- they feel that it's an honor and they pay great respect to their incarnate, you know, reincarnate lama son.

GROSS: You were born about nine years before China invaded Tibet, and the way of life in Tibet was changed. Would you share with us some of your memories of life in Tibet before the Chinese invasion? Just about what day to day life was like for you?

PEMA: Well, for me, being born after His Holiness was recognized, you know, we had all the special privileges. My parents came from a little village in eastern Tibet. They were, you know, just farmers. And they -- all of a sudden, the Dalai Lama is discovered in their family, and then they were brought to Lhasa, to the capital of Tibet. And there they were given whatever they needed and they were, you know, a new -- big new house was built for them.

And I grew up in this. You know, I was born after His -- one year later. And I grew up with my young -- with my sister's children, a boy and a girl. And then many of our servants, they had their children and we had a wonderful time.

So my memories of Tibet was always always very happy memories, where we had just wonderful times and, you know, playing with our -- with my nephew and niece and the children of the servants. Then going to school to learn to read and write Tibetan. And also, you know, visiting the various monasteries and enjoying the various festivals that were celebrated in the city of Lhasa.

So, I think I just have just wonderful memories of Tibet.

GROSS: What do you think your parents expected that your life would be like when you grew up? Before the invasion?

PEMA: Oh, well, if -- if the Chinese didn't come to Tibet and, you know, then I think I might have stayed on in Lhasa and just got a Tibetan education and stayed on. But then because the Chinese entered Tibet at the end of 1949, then my sister -- my older sister -- she was also not feeling well, and my mother decided that we should accompany her to India and to remain in India to get an education.

And along with me, my sister's two children, they also came. And so the three of us, we were sent with my sister to India to study.

GROSS: So you were sent to India for your education, as a girl, and I believe you were educated in a Catholic convent. What was it like for you, as a Buddhist, as the sister of the Dalai Lama, to have a rigorous Catholic education? Did the nuns expect you to forsake Buddhism for Catholicism?

PEMA: Oh well, the education, you know, I was sent to a convent school because these convent schools in India recognized to be the best schools for girls in India in those days. And then also, the nuns, they were very kind and, you know, they were really good educationalists. Most of the girls in the school were either, you know, Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists, and they were not really -- I think about -- only about 10 or 15 percent were Catholics.

The nuns were all -- they, you know, understood our background and they didn't sort of really try to convert us. And for me, I already, you know, even at the age of 10, I already knew my own sort of roots and I was -- I knew I was Buddhist and I don't think I could change my religion, even at that age.

GROSS: My guest is Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama. She's written a new autobiography. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Jetsun Pema. She's the sister of the Dalai Lama and president of the Tibetan Children's Village, which oversees the resettlement and education of Tibetan children in exile. And she's written a new book called "Tibet: My Story."

Your brother, the Dalai Lama, fled Tibet in 1959 and resettled in Dharamsala which has become the -- kind of like Tibet in exile. Were you living in Dharamsala at the time?

PEMA: No, I was still, when in 1959, when His Holiness, you know, after the Tibetans had the uprising against the Chinese, he had to leave Tibet and seek asylum in India. And at that time, it was my -- almost the final year of my schooling. So when he arrived, I was in school.

Then later, I joined him in Masouri (ph), in one of the hill stations where the Indian government had provided him with accommodation, and he was staying there. And in 1960, from Masouri, then he moved to Dharamsala. And in 1960 when I finished my school, then I went to Dharamsala and spent a couple of months there helping my sister with the work that she had -- she was doing and looking after the Tibetan refugee children.

GROSS: Your sister died in 1964, and you took over her work...

PEMA: That's right.

GROSS: ... overseeing the education and resettlement of Tibetan children living in exile in India. What was it like for you when you started doing this work -- watching children refugees come to India, often with no parents, either because their parents were killed or because their parents had to stay behind?

PEMA: Yes, it was -- in the beginning it was really very difficult situation for the children, as well as for those of -- you know, like my sister and all those ladies who were looking after the children. It was then, in the beginning, they didn't have proper food, clothing, shelter -- and everybody was coming. You know, the refugees were pouring into India from Tibet. And so many children were, you know, had skin infections and they had stomach ailments, and those earlier years of the refugees, it was really a terrible situation.

And many children lost their lives, and even many adults, you know, they lost their lives because they were not used to the climate in India. And also, they had to take long journeys across the mountainous regions to get into India. So, it was a very difficult time.

GROSS: What kind of schooling have you tried to give the children in India and how does it compare to the schooling that they would have received before the invasion in Tibet?

PEMA: Well, in -- today in exile, 99 percent of Tibetan children receive education, and it's a modern education. They learn since now -- since 1986, we have switched, you know, from English to Tibetan language as the medium of instruction up to the primary school level. Then from the -- from primary school onwards, then the medium of instruction is in English.

And they get a very strong foundation in their own, you know, mother tongue, and then also their education is a education which is recognized by the Indian central board of secondary education, because unless we give our children an education which is recognized in the country, it would be very difficult for our children to pursue their further education in the various training centers and, you know, in the colleges and in the universities within India.

But then at the same time, what we are also emphasizing is that His Holiness always says: "you must have a good education, but at the same time, in the end, you must be a good human being." So we want to give our children a value-oriented education so that these young people who finish their schools and go for further education and all, they should be good human beings and also good Tibetans.

GROSS: Some of the children have come to you as teenagers, and they have grown up in post-invasion Tibet. And I know you've had some trouble with these older teenagers who have come to Tibet. You write in your book that there has been some gang fighting and rock throwing. And it was very difficult to figure out how to deal with -- with these problems.

Would you tell us a little bit about what you tried?

PEMA: Yes, this -- you know, this special group of young people who are now coming in quite a large numbers, you know, escaping into exile, and these young people, most of them have never had any kind of formal education. And they have gone through a lot of hardship, and they've seen terrible things like they've seen their, you know, parents being sort of tortured in front of them; and they've seen their whole family disrupted because of the situation being what it is in Tibet.

And then -- now when they came into exile, you know, they were not able to tackle with the freedom that we enjoy. You know, they couldn't believe that they could just get enough to eat every day and that, you know, they've got clothing. And you know, we try to look after them as best as we could.

But then at the same time, they had so much of anger and hatred in them. So you know, we felt that they were very aggressive and they were impolite. So we discussed together how we should look after these young people, and the first thing that was to make them feel that all of us, and also the school facilities and whatever we had, that it was for them; that we cared for them; that we wanted to look after them.

And you know, like sometimes they would play football or volleyball, and they would kick the balls. And one day, two or three, you know, footballs were going, and we always said: "it doesn't matter. Let them, you know, sort of bring out their anger on the balls and on the field playing and all."

And then later, it's surprising how they changed in a couple of months. Their whole attitude changed and the expressions on their face changed and it was just through letting them know that we cared for them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jetsun Pema. She is the sister of the Dalai Lama and she's the president of the Tibetan Children's Village, which oversees the resettlement and education of Tibetan children in exile in India.

She's also written a new book called Tibet: My Story.

You write that ironically, exile has enabled the women of Tibet to evolve; to be liberated from the taboos which had previously confined them in Tibet. What are some of the taboos and restrictions that Tibetan women faced that you think they are getting out of now, living in exile?

PEMA: Well, in Tibet -- in the old Tibet -- Tibetan women didn't take any part in politics. And they didn't do any kind of, you know, like in the government service and all -- you didn't see any kind of -- any women. But then because of the occupation of Tibet by China and the brutality that the -- you know, we saw over there. And I think the women, they really felt this very much, especially, you know, when they saw their sons and husbands being, you know, so ill-treated. And they, many of them, lost their, you know, sons and husbands.

Then, the Tibetan women, like when we had the uprising on the 10th of March, it was the women of Lhasa who were the ones who instigated, you know, all the people to come and, you know, try to protect His Holiness. And that's the time when the women really sort of stood up and they united, you know, together.

And then now in exile, Tibetan women, they get equal kind of education with the boys, and Tibetan women are now, you know, involved in politics and now today, like the Tibetan government, you know, we have a democratic system of government. They are members of the parliament in exile, they are selected, you know, they are voted by the people. And there are 46 members of parliament, and of that, 12 are women, which means more than -- almost 35 percent are women.

So the Tibetan women are really coming forward and, you know, they are doing very well.

GROSS: I should point out that you are the minister of education.

PEMA: I was. Not anymore, no. I resigned.

GROSS: Former, OK.

PEMA: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: That's right.

PEMA: Yes.

GROSS: OK. And is your daughter elected to the parliament herself?

PEMA: Yes, yes. She's serving her second term.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PEMA: And yes, she's enjoying it.

GROSS: What do you miss most, geographically, about your country?

PEMA: Oh, I -- the mountains and the lakes and the, you know, the clear blue sky, and the fresh air -- unpolluted air. Yes.

GROSS: Describe what the mountains look like.

PEMA: The mountains?

GROSS: Yeah.

PEMA: Well, they look very, very high and, you know, magnificent and it's always -- you always have these mountains which are snow-covered very high up. And then you have these kind of, you know, wonderful grassland with lots of the yak and the sheep and all. And then it's all green and you have a beautiful river, sort of flowing through this large stretch of green grassland. And then far away, you see the mountain peaks.

GROSS: Your brother the Dalai Lama sent you back to Tibet in 1980 on a kind of fact-finding mission to see what life was like there. And one of the things you discovered was your parents' old house was now an inn for Chinese military officers. That must have been quite startling.

PEMA: Yes, it was quite startling. But then, what was more startling is that, you know, you have -- you see Lhasa. If you go up the Potala and you see -- look down into the city, all you -- you don't see anymore of the Tibetan houses. It's full of army, sort of barracks, and you have these horrible-looking sort of buildings, you know, four or five storeys high, with tin sheet roofs. And it's -- it's terrible.

GROSS: I know you have a small part in the movie Seven Years in Tibet, and in fact you play the role of your mother, the Dalai Lama's mother.

PEMA: Yes.

GROSS: And the movie Kundun, which is about the young Dalai Lama -- the movie made by Martin Scorcese that's opening later this year. Your daughter plays the role -- one of your daughters plays the role of...

PEMA: Yes.

GROSS: ... your mother.

PEMA: That's right.

GROSS: What did the Dalai Lama have to say about you and your daughter being involved in these movies?

PEMA: Oh well, he approved of it, you know, because we told him about these movies and he approved of that, yes. And also my children and my brothers, my other brothers, they all felt that they couldn't see our mother being portrayed by somebody else. So, they told myself and my daughter to, oh, go ahead and do play the role of, you know, our mother in the two movies.

GROSS: My guest is Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama. She's written a new autobiography. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Jetsun Pema. She's the sister of the Dalai Lama and president of the Tibetan Children's Village, which oversees the resettlement and education of destitute Tibetan children in exile who have come to India.

At the end of your book, Tibet: My Story, you write: "today, I am alive, but who knows what may happen tomorrow. Throughout my adult life, death has been present. I am conscious that life is not eternal and that one must think about one's own impermanence."

How does Buddhism teach you to think about your own death?

PEMA: Well, Buddhism always, you know, teaches us that of impermanence. So, you know, death is always something which we think about. And then also you see, when you think of that, you always -- I always feel that you should be prepared for it -- prepared in the sense that, you know, because we believe in reincarnation and life after -- you know, in the next life.

So we feel that, at least I feel that, it's very important that you lead a good life so that, you know, you are prepared for the next life. And also when your death is sort of close by, that, you know, you can say to yourself that my life was meaningful. And that, I think, when you think of impermanence, then you always want to do something purposeful with your life.

GROSS: In your book, you write a little bit about how Buddhism has helped you cope with watching your people suffer. And you write that Buddhism teaches that some people suffer more; others less, and that the degree of difficulty we experience is determined by the acts of our previous existence. We therefore live according to our karma.

The thing is, though, if you look at it that way, it means that Tibetans are in a way responsible for their own suffering; a more political analysis would say, no, the Chinese government is responsible for the suffering. It's not about what the Tibetans did in their previous lives. It's about the -- the oppression of the Chinese government.

PEMA: Well, you know, we believe that in karma -- that's your sort of, you know, one's fate or whatever one did in the last life that it has an effect on this life. So like what happened to our country, it's a kind of collective karma of our people. And somewhere along the line, maybe, you know, we did some things which were not good, and now, sort of we have to live through that.

But then at the same time, you know, one's karma always can't be bad, so maybe I hope that soon, you know, the positive side will also come and that it will be easier for the Tibetans in the, you know, in the years to come.

GROSS: But you know what I mean, if you just look at it as karma, then the Chinese who are ruling Tibet now, you'd think, well, they're doing well, so they must have been good in previous lives, and the Tibetans who are suffering, well, they must have done something bad in previous lives. And it doesn't -- it doesn't seem, in a way, like a very fair way of politically analyzing the situation.

PEMA: Yes, but then it's not as simple as that. It's quite, you know, when you think of karma and how it affects your life. And you know, all that, it's quite sort of complicated and -- but yet, I think if you try to analyze it and to, you know, Tibetans, we -- you know, we always say we try to make our life simple.

And I think in that respect, we are quite lucky in the sense that, you know, Tibetan attitude is that: what is the past? It's, you know, it's gone. And tomorrow will take care of itself, and let's make the best of the present.

That's the kind of Tibetan attitude, so we don't make things too complicated, I think. You know?

GROSS: Your life has been taken over with the mission of caring for and educating Tibetan children in exile in India. Do you have any sense of what your adult life would have been like had Tibet not been invaded by the Chinese? Had you not had to take on this difficult mission of educating children in exile?

PEMA: I think it -- it would not be as interesting and as worthwhile as it is now.

GROSS: I guess that's kind of ironic.

PEMA: Yes. Yes. So maybe I have a, you know, for making my life more meaningful, maybe I have to be grateful to the Chinese.


GROSS: One last question: how often do you see your brother, the Dalai Lama?

PEMA: Oh, well, whenever I have some problems, I can always go and see him. But then, he's always so busy and traveling around. So unless I really have to see him, I don't sort of bother him. But then on his birthday and on special occasions, you know, he invites my brother -- my younger brother -- and myself, and if my -- some of our older brothers if they're there. Then we have a meal together. And so I see him, oh, quite a few times in the year.

GROSS: Jetsun Pema, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PEMA: Thank you.

GROSS: Jetsun Pema's new autobiography is called Tibet: My Story.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jetsun Pema
High: Jetsun Pema, sister of the Dalai Lama. She's written an autobiography about Tibet and her work there,"Tibet: My Story." In it she recounts life in Tibet before Chinese occupation, exile from Tibet, and her work as the president of the Tibetan Children's Village, which encompasses over 11,000 Tibetan refugees in India. Pema also plays the role of the mother of the young Dalai Lama in the film "Seven Years in Tibet."
Spec: Asia; Tibet; Human Rights; Dalai Lama; Movie Industry
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jetsun Pema
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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