Photo: Paige Critcher
Tsering Yangzom Lama’s Debut Novel Gives an Eloquent Voice to the Tibetan Diaspora
“We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies” traces the intergenerational effects of displacement and trauma on refugees who fled the Chinese occupation of their land / BY Dene Moore / June 10th, 2022
Like tens of thousands of Tibetans, Tsering Yangzom Lama’s family fled the country after it was annexed by China in 1951. Some of her grandparents survived the arduous journey into exile and some did not.
Lama, who was born in Nepal and now lives in Canada, explores the Tibetan refugee experience in her debut novel, We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies.
A multi-generational tale inspired by her family’s history, the novel centres on Lhamo and her sister Tenkyi, who are just children when they make the dangerous trek over the Himalayas to a refugee camp on the border of Nepal with their father and mother, an oracle who gives voice to the gods.
“It really looks at all of the effects of colonialism and exile… and how it is possible to survive when you lose everything,” Lama, 37, says in an interview from her home in Vancouver. “It looks at what it does to a family to be fractured all across the world.”
In the novel, Lhamo and Tenkyi struggle, each in their own way, with losses inflicted by exile; years later, when Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, is living with her aunt Tenkyi in Toronto, they threaten to derail the younger woman’s life. A sweeping and lyrical novel, We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies explores the role of place in culture and faith.
“I think readers might have a headline understanding of Tibet – that it’s under [Chinese] occupation – but they might not know about the day-to-day realities of Tibetan refugees,” Lama says. Many of the best-known novels about the country were written by Westerners, she points out.
“That long promise of home remains for Tibetans, who are facing the same struggles as many refugees trying to survive as a stateless people, but we also have this beautiful dream of return,” she says. Though in no way a definitive story of the Tibetan refugee experience, Lama hopes, first and foremost, readers enjoy a good story about compelling characters. “And they also learn about the particular social, economic and political realities of ordinary Tibetans who faced profound shock in the last few decades, and have not really been seen or heard by the rest of the world.”
Lama has tried to capture an important moment in Tibetan and Asian history, but also a broader truth about the refugee experience, which is just as relevant to Ukrainians and Afghans forced from their homelands today as it is to Tibetans.
“When they leave Tibet, they think it’s just for a little while. They bury their precious objects underground, because they can’t carry things. They’re leaving on foot,” Lama explains. “They believe they’re going to go home right away, and in the story, the realization comes slowly that this is not going to be a quick return home.”
Like Ukrainians today, Tibetans did not want to leave their homes, she says. It’s not something refugees choose to do.
“I think it’s important for Canadians, and I include myself, to really be thoughtful of the fact that these are people who have lost everything and they’re not coming because they want to; they’re coming because they have to. They have nowhere else to go,” she says.
Lama says writing the novel was a journey of discovery. “I did a lot of research … and I became really fascinated by Tibetan art, by Tibetan metaphysics,” Lama says. This new information about her own culture nourished her as a person and as a writer.
“Spending time really learning about these beautiful aspects of my heritage allowed me to enrich the story.”
Western culture can tend to typecast Tibetan and Buddhist culture, Lama says, another theme she explores in the novel. In New York, where she lived and completed her MFA at Columbia University, she was told families seek out Tibetan nannies because they believe them to be extraordinarily kind and compassionate people. Even positive stereotypes are still stereotypes, she notes.
“There’s a vast amount of fetishization or dehumanization of Tibetans, and whether in the positive or the negative, it’s really the same. What there isn’t is a real understanding of what it’s actually like to be a Tibetan person,” she says. “What I would like people to understand is that Tibetans are human beings just like anybody else, we are just as susceptible to the emotions and difficulties as anybody else, and perhaps even more so, because of our really marginal existence, in a lot of cases.”
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies was named one of the most anticipated books of the year by The Millions online literary magazine and Ms. Magazine, and was a New York Times Book Review Summer Read pick, as well as a Washington Post Noteworthy Book of the Month choice for May.
Lama says it’s a bit daunting to see something she wrote quietly by herself for many years released into the public space. “But overall it’s really a huge privilege and a dream come true.”