Forced removals, occupations, war, natural disasters and other brutal disruptions are now recognized as responsible for traumas that resonate for generations. Even across decades and distances, people are haunted by the injustices done to their families and communities.
The Tibetan writer Tsering Yangzom Lama is among those whose origins weigh heavily on her. In his tender first novel, We measure the Earth with our Body, it documents the journey of a family through the voices of different characters as they flee Tibet in 1960 after the Chinese occupation, until 2012, when they are scattered across the world. His writing is realistic and effective, representative of the sense of disbelief and displacement in every generation, no matter how much time has passed.
The child character of Lama watches the life of a Himalayan village turned upside down after the arrival of the People’s Army of China. The world changes completely for the Tashi community, from the banning of Buddhist prayer flags to the installation of mind-numbing loudspeakers strung along every path. , continuously broadcasting high-pitched music and hectoral propaganda. Food is scarce and, like tens of thousands of others, Tashi’s family escapes, taking a dangerous route through frozen mountain trails. Her parents die, leaving Tashi, barely a teenager, in charge of her 10-year-old sister.
The hardships of living in the refugee camp, where people desperately search for food and purpose, are vividly portrayed. Life is a chore, the minutes pass slowly. Refugee aid workers note that there is still a percentage of refugees who refuse any type of assistance that could result in permanent resettlement. They can’t accept the idea that they won’t be going home soon, no matter how long they’ve been living in limbo. Lama creates characters that never unpack or adapt while others, like Tashi, think about how to move forward. She encourages her sister, Tenkyi, to walk away and deliberately sends her down a different path in life.
A small statue (a ku) called the Nameless Saint unifies the experiences of the different characters. For Tashi, it’s a symbol of the past and of hope, even though she asks “Where are our gods?” Are we really alone on this new earth? When the ku disappears, the refugees still hope that his return will bring them some kind of salvation.