Bhutanese-Nepali community celebrates literature as a way to preserve culture

Lila Pradhan sat recently at the entrance to the auditorium at the Ohio History Center, welcoming guests to the third International Bhutanese Literary Convention.

Nearby, a millennia-old mastodon skeleton towered over Pradhan, while a replica Lustron home — a prefabricated house mass-produced in Columbus during the 1940s — beckoned visitors.

Pradhan, 50, of Solon City, Ohio, had come to celebrate a more recent epoch of the state’s history, though — the cultural contributions of the Bhutanese-Nepali community, who began arriving here as refugees 15 years ago. Pradhan is a poet and member of the Literature Council of Bhutan who goes by the pen name Lila Nisha.

Several hundred people attended the two-day convention on Saturday and Sunday. It featured Bhutanese-Nepali writers from across Ohio as well as special guests from Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina, Canada, Norway and Nepal.

Members of the diaspora reunited at the convention and celebrated their literature as an outlet for creative expression, a tool for advocacy and a means of cultural preservation.

“If we are going to continue to exist, not just as Americans, but as Bhutanese-Nepali-Americans, we need to preserve our customs and language,” Pradhan said in Nepali. “We have to pass these down to the next generation.”

The Greater Columbus area is home to around 30,000 Bhutanese-Nepalis, according to the nonprofit Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio.

After the Bhutanese government drove them from their homes in the early 1990s because of their different ethnic identity, the Nepali-speaking minority languished in refugee camps in Nepal for nearly two decades. From 2007 to 2016, the United Nations facilitated Bhutanese-Nepalis’ resettlement in the U.S. and other countries. Altogether, the U.S. has accepted more than 90,000 Bhutanese-Nepali refugees.

Writers from the diaspora have been prolific. The council released 11 new books of Bhutanese poetry, personal history and fiction in the Nepali language this year, in addition to one musical album by the Reynoldsburg-based artist Dil Khadka.

Ramesh Gautam, 37, a poet who lives in Norway, attributed Bhutanese-Nepalis’ artistic fecundity to their desire to educate the world about their community’s plight.

“Most people in the West don’t know about Bhutan since it’s a small, isolated country. If they know something, they might have heard about its measure of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (an alternative to Gross National Product). But they should also know that Bhutan rendered one-sixth of their population homeless,” he said in Nepali.

Before the Bhutanese government drove out the Bhutanese-Nepali community, it banned their traditional clothing in public and stopped teaching Nepali language in schools in favor of the national language, Dzongkha. This linguistic suppression in Bhutan contributed to the literary blossoming abroad, according to Gautam.