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Tsering Yangzom Lama: We Measure The Earth with Our Bodies

This is a (semi-)autobiographical novel , telling the often sad tale of a family driven out of Tibet when the Chinese took over. Our initial narrator is Lhamo and she is still a child when the book opens. The Chinese have gradually been moving to Tibet and taking over. When the book opens, her mother, Ama, declares that the gods had spoken to her body. Ten years later she is ready to become a fully-fledged oracle and she goes through an appropriate ceremony to see is if she qualifies. Lhamo is told to look after the sheep but she delegates that to her younger sister. Tenkyi. and secretly watches the ceremony. Ama does qualify and people come from far and wide to consult her.

But the Chinese move in and the Dalai Lama is surreptitiously moved to India. The Chinese come to her village and three woman oracles have to perform a test to see if they really are oracles. All fail but the Tibetans said the test was fixed by the Chinese and do nor accept the result. The locals are then required to smash up the monastery and the statues and other artefacts in it. The monks and nuns who refuse to do so are killed.

It is time to leave. We follow their arduous journey to Nepal. Lhamo’s father dies en route. Finally they are located in a camp in Nepal, bought off the locals by an aid group but the Tibetans and Nepalis do not get on. Life is not easy there. They do get teachers but Lhamo is too old for teaching and has to work while Tenkyi studies and does well. They become close to Po Dhondup who accompanied them to Nepal and then, later to his nephew Samphel. But people die – her mother and Dhondup. Eventually they are moved to Kathmandu and go on the bus, along with the corpse of Po Dhondup! Life is not always easy there. Tenkyi is doing well at school and is sent to a school in India.

We learn later more of what happens in Nepal, including Lhamo’s less than successful marriage and the stories of various people. In particular we learn about the Nameless Saint. This a small statue of an unnamed saint which the people of the village carry around with them and which protects them. One day it mysteriously disappears, though we have an idea who is to blame.

We then jump to Toronto in 2012 and follow the story of Tenzin Dolma (Dolma is her first name), the daughter of Lhamo. She is living with an aunt who has serious health problems, who, though not initially named, is obviously Tenkyi. Dolma’s mother/Tenkyi’s sister is still in Nepal and has been unable to get a Canadian visa. Dolma is studying but also working in a sandwich shop. She is unsure of what she wants to do and how to do it.My father told me long ago: accept my ordinary looks and learn to speak English. Learn it so perfectly that even white people are struck dumb. What then, Father?

She is studying the history and literature of Tibet and has some sympathetic Canadian supporters but is still sceptical. For years, I’ve sensed this violent but hidden truth—that beyond the welcome smiles of this country lies a vast and impenetrable wall: a national self-regard that insists on a mythic goodness. This is a nation that gives and gives to the less fortunate and asks nothing in return. Nothing, that is, but our grateful acquiescence to their silent expectations.

She is shown an ancient small Tibetan statue which the new owner is very proud of but Dolma is horrified that it has essentially been stolen from her country. It is, of course, the Nameless Saint. Dolma is furious but powerless to do anything about it, though she makes reference to artefacts that have been stolen from other countries and where the original country has asked for them back, successfully in some cases. Dolma now feels that it is her duty to return the statue to its rightful owners, the Tibetan people. The Nameless Saint has come to me and braided our fates together. Whether I find a way to bring him back to our camp or do nothing, I will never be able to move on from him. Her aunt, who people think has mental health problems, is still in touch with the spirit of her people and we learn that is she rather than Lhamo, who inherits her mother’s mystic connection to the gods. Indeed, though she has not seen it or heard about it, she senses that the statue of the Nameless Saint is in the area.

Both Tenkyi and Dolma have what must be a common problem. Dolma wants to be considered a scholar while Tenkyi was a teacher, having read English at university. However, for the Canadians they meet, they are just refugees and no more. Tenkyi is now a cleaner.

We follow once more (in the past) the stories of the protagonists as well as the story of the Nameless Saint and their struggles to survive and function in a welcoming but, nevertheless, alien culture. We are asylees. We are refugees. The Chinese government took our land and killed our people, 1.2 million souls. Our documents are flimsy—just laminated scraps of common paper, not embossed leather passports like yours—and considered illegitimate by most nations. Please overlook our present degradation. You should have seen us before the invasion.

But,once again things get complicated as the back stories of both Dolma and Tenkyi are revealed to be decidedly more mixed up than either we or they thought. Moreover we learn more of Samphel’s life which is tied up with Dolma and her family in ways neither she nor we were aware of. And added to it all, when Lhamo dies both Dolma and Samphel want to bury her ashes in Tibet which, of course, is not only closed to them but whose border is heavily guarded by the Chinese.

When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be simply the story of Tibetans driven out of their country by the invading Chinese and how they struggled as refugees. That is certainly part of the story but by no means all of it. We see issues such as cultural appropriation, who owns the artefacts of a conquered and displaced people, the status of refugees even in a country where they are more or less welcomed, the issue of assimilation but remaining true to their native country and culture and differing attitudes to religion and other cultural features. In addition we have what turns out to be a far more complex story than it at first seemed, all of which makes this worthwhile reading not just because it is a novel by a Tibetan, of which there are sadly all too few, but a novel well worth reading in its own right.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Bloomsbury