Lama’s heartfelt novel documents a Tibetan family’s exile and ponders the meaning of home

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.

Photo by Paige Critcher

Author Tsering Yangzom Lama…TK


Paige Critter picture

Author Tsering Yangzom Lama…TK

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.

<p>We measure the Earth with our bodies</p>
<p>We measure the Earth with our bodies</p>
<p>Decades later, Tenkyi lives in dear Toronto.  Like many immigrants, she earns a living in menial, low-paying jobs, limited by her lack of English and credentials.  Her role in life is to support Tashi’s daughter, Dolma, so that the young woman can pursue a university education and move forward, hoping to lift the family out of poverty and out of Nepal.			</p>
<p>But although she is a generation away from Tibet, Dolma is not in her place.  She feels the sting of discrimination, the condescending attitude of Canadians.  She notes the opulence of her teachers’ homes in contrast to the deprivations of her family.  Ironically, while she has lived Tibetan history, she must appeal to non-Tibetan “experts” who gossip authoritatively about Tibet, with no interest in its past or the suffering of its people.  For them, it’s academic.  For her, the Chinese invasion and its consequences are as if they happened yesterday.			</p>
<p>Revolts against the <a class=Chinese occupation of Tibet have left thousands dead and a seemingly permanent diaspora. Born and raised in Nepal, Lama has published numerous articles in newspapers and magazines, and helped found a blog for young Tibetans in exile. A lifelong activist, she works as a storytelling advisor at Greenpeace International. Through her touching story, she tells a universal story that home is not where you are, but where your heart is.

Harriet Zaidman is a children’s writer and freelance writer in Winnipeg. Her latest novel, Second Chances, is set in the polio epidemics of the 1950s.

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