By Tenzin Pelkyi
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I was born in Tokyo, and when I was 13 I moved to New York City. I have been a full-time artist for the last 25 years, and that’s how I make my living. I know I’m very fortunate!
I began getting involved with the Tibet cause about 25 years ago from a dream. Until then I did not know where exactly Tibet was. I didn’t even know who the Dalai Lama was.
One night I had a dream, and in the dream I heard a voice that said, “You must help Tibet now!” in a very commanding tone. As an artist I always drew or painted my dreams, so I took this dream very seriously. I went to the public library on 42nd Street in New York and spent all day researching about Tibet. That was the first time I ever learned about the tragic history of Tibet. Growing up in Japan we had very limited information about Tibet. It was just not in the spotlight in the mass media. It is embarrassing how little I knew about Tibet.
And then, all of a sudden, I started to meet Tibetans. I had already lived in New York for more than 20 years and had never met one single Tibetan person before. One of the first Tibetans I met was Sonam Zoksang, who later became a dear friend.
One day, we were chatting and he was telling me about his refugee camp in South India. He told me that when he was growing up they didn’t have any books to read. Then I thought to myself, “I’m an artist who can draw and write. And if I am going to make a book why don’t I turn a folk tale into a children’s book to preserve the Tibetan history, culture and language?”
I spent one full year collecting Tibetan folk tales. I asked around and wrote letters to many Tibetan organizations around the world. Finally, I was able to hear six folk tales from Lama Pema Wangdak in New York. I picked one and created a book called Wonder Talk. And that was the beginning of my organization, Books for Children, for which I fundraised and shipped thousands of books to refugee schools in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. As of today I’ve created five books, including Wonder Talk, Wonder Garden, TB Aware, and Save the Himalayas. They are all written in Tibetan, English and Japanese, in order to help the Tibetan children learn Tibetan and for the non-Tibetans to learn about the Tibetan culture and language. I have donated more than 12,000 books to the exile community so far. I feel extremely grateful for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s forewords for my books.
How did you get the idea for your book, Rewa?
It was my first collaborative project with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Until this book I always produced the books alone, but CTA’s Department of Health contacted me one day and asked me if I could participate in producing a book called Rewa. They had seen my other books and really liked them so they wanted to work with me. There was a wonderful lady, Trinley Palmo, who left CTA recently but was the key person at the Health Department who contacted me about making this book. They already had the idea to publish the first sexual health book.
When she mentioned a sex ed book, I pictured a typical American sex ed book with illustrations of safe sex, condoms, how to prevent STDs and so on. It took me a while to know what they really wanted me to do. To describe the book simply— it is a book of empowerment, especially for girls. CTA wanted to make a book to support girls who may be suffering from sexual abuse to speak up and also help all girls to feel safe and secure. I eventually understood what they really wanted was a book to help girls feel empowered. So we created a writing contest throughout all the refugee schools in India, and we picked five essays about growing up, puberty, sex, and so on. Then, I illustrated those selected essays.
One of the five essays was written by a young girl who was sexually abused by a very close friend of her family, and her message was this:
“Don’t hide it. Speak to your mom. Speak to somebody. Speak up. Fight back. It’ll be okay. Don’t hold it inside and keep it secret because people will help you.”
We were so proud of her courage to write about her painful experience to help and inspire others.
Also, I would like to share one unique story with you: At the beginning of this book’s production, I consulted with several experts such as professional child psychologists and social workers who work with sexually abused children, about this particular idea I had for the book; I asked them what they thought of using Yetis as the main characters of the book instead of humans because I had thought this would have made the young readers at ease and might have made the book more fun to read.
Some said, “Good” and some said, “Not good.”
So I discussed this idea with Ms. Trinley Lhamo, and just to get another opinion she consulted a very respected geshe la (PhD. in Buddhism) in Dharmsala whom I know very well. He said to her, “I like Rima’s idea very much, but it’s not a good idea to use a Yeti as a character in this book.” And he explained why.
Apparently, there is a very remote village high up in the Himalayan mountains where humans actually ‘marry’ Yetis. That means that humans have sex with Yetis, have babies and live as human families. This geshe la claimed to personally know those people. Therefore, he thought that using a Yeti as the main character in a sex ed book might create some confusion for the young readers.
To me, this story was the highlight of this project. And this is one of many reasons why I have been so drawn to the Tibetan culture and people— there are so many mysteries and bizarre stories that are hard to believe, but somehow I want to believe in them. They bring me the world of the unknown and wonders that have no explanations. As an artist, I am totally inspired by this!
So, therefore, we decided not to use a Yeti as the main character of the book, and it was for a good reason. However, my fantasy is to meet the “Yeti-human” people one day.
Do you follow issues of reproductive justice and women’s rights around the world?
Working on Rewa really triggered me to have more interest in this subject, and I know how complex it is. I know that I would have a problem if a government tells me what to do with my own body and control my reproductive rights. As far as women’s rights issues are concerned, I always try to do my best to support it.
For example, I am on the host committee for a big upcoming event called Gender Equality/Women’s Empowerment, hosted by U.N. Women on May 17 in New York. Hundreds of powerful advocates will gather at the United Nations to help bring more awareness, and actual change and progress towards the women’s rights issue. Singer Jewel and actress Geena Davis will be joining us at the event. Every woman must do whatever she can do to bring change into the world.
I know that the book Rewa was just the beginning for young Tibetan girls and even the CTA said this is just the start and that we have so much more to go.
I grew up in New York, so I am straightforward. When I was consulting on this book, they told me, “Rima la, the Tibetan culture is very different from the West. We have to be more subtle.”
So to respect their culture and customs, we did it their way. It was an amazing start. I really hope CTA will keep updating this project every year because this is a good warm-up and a soft introduction. The goal is to get these kids used to talking about sex and to discuss what can be awkward subjects for children. If they get used to it, then we can get into more detailed situations, such as what to do when someone you know starts touching you inappropriately or when someone wants to have sex with you without any protection.
When I had a workshop with the juniors at TCV in Dharamsala we talked about this awkward issue only briefly. I’d really like to bring this subject to the next level because children already know a lot. It’s really the adults who have trouble with this topic. We have to create an environment where we can talk about it comfortably. I think CTA was smart to ask me to be on the team because I’m not Tibetan. It’s easier to bring to light this kind of issue through an enji (non-Tibetan). I think that I created a nice cushion for conveying this sensitive subject.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I think every woman is a feminist, and we all should be because it is human nature to want freedom and be happy. It depends how much a person is allowed to express it, but I think by nature we, women, are all feminists. However, still today in many countries women do not even have full basic rights as a human being.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where women are not treated equally for various reasons. And down at the bottom I think men are just afraid of women because we are so powerful. They are often intimidated by us, therefore they oppress us. It has been that way for many centuries.
It is about time we change it, and the only way to do so is for women to initiate and demand the change because men are not going to stand up for us first. We are the ones who have to speak up and fight for our rights, and then get them to cooperate with us. Some women are not ready for it because they don’t have the freedom to do so or they are scared since they live in an environment where they are subject to abuse and brutality.
I am not a feminist to condemn men because if I did that it would be just the same, how badly women are treated in some countries. I believe in equality. However, we must think hard about what equality really means since men and women are naturally different in some ways. True equality can, however, exist with genuine and fair understanding and total acceptance of one other.
Artwork by Rima Fujita
*Note: Rima Fujita’s solo exhibition, “Empowering The Extraordinary Dakinis,” will open on May 20th, 2016 at the Tibet House in New York City. It will include her most recent works and her original art for the book Rewa, as well. The exhibition will be open until August 4th, 2016.