A Tibetan Saga of Survival and Resistance

Tsering Yangzom Lama ’s novel "We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies" centers the everyday struggles of Tibetans in exile

Photo by Daniele Salutari on Unsplash

What does it mean to be displaced from your homeland? How are families broken and remade? When people lose everything, how do they find the will to survive?

Both vast and intimate, Tsering Yangzom Lama’s riveting debut, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, begins with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, when sisters Lhamo and Tenkyi and their parents are embark on a perilous journey to reach Nepal. The novel tells the story of two generations of their family’s life in exile, seamlessly weaving urgent political and moral questions into the narratives of the sisters, Lhamo’s daughter Dolma, and Lhamo’s childhood friend Samphel.

I first met Tsering in 2009, when we were classmates at Columbia University’s MFA program in Fiction. Over the years, our friendship has included so many meals, pep talks, and reading each other’s drafts. As luck would have it, we’re publishing our first novels in the same year and deriving much joy from watching each other realize long-held dreams. 

Tsering and I spoke via Zoom about why it’s important to understand the experiences of ordinary Tibetans in exile, the many effects of colonization, survival, resistance, and spirituality. 

Jessamine Chan: I’d love to hear about your journey to this first book. What made this the story you wanted to tell? 

Tsering Lama: In a way, it’s the story that’s always been there, being born into the exiled Tibetan community in Nepal. I came to Columbia right after having done a couple of years as a community organizer, having done activist work talking about the Tibetan struggle, and I was missing my art. Starting this book in the first semester of Columbia was a way for me to enter this space through a different lens, to get beyond the headlines and abstract understanding of this historical issue and struggle, and basically what colonialism, exile, dispossession from land means at a human level for ordinary Tibetan people, and for my family specifically.

My grandparents were nomads, my parents were refugees, and I’ve lived in Canada, the U.S., and Nepal. This is a huge change in just a few decades, from a nomadic lifestyle to living in in New York, trying to be a writer. I wanted to understand how that happened, what that’s done to us, and who we are as a result. Like a lot of people from immigrant refugee backgrounds, the past is not a space that people often want to go to. There’s a lot of pain there. I wanted to give myself space to explore the past and to research, imagine, and sit patiently, and try to figure out the story. 

JC: Silence is often part of growing up in an Asian immigrant family. I was especially moved by your novel’s depiction of how trauma affects a person’s whole life, which you show through Tenkyi’s mental health struggles. Was this question regarding the unknowable past one of the animating forces for the book? 

TL: When I would ask my mom or my late grandmother about their village or what it was like in the early days of exile, I’d get a few words here and there, like a little detail about losing all their yaks or what the landscape look like in their old house, but I wouldn’t get the whole thing.

The power of literature is to be able to enter other people’s consciousness and experiences. There’s nothing like that for my community. There’s a fetishization of Tibetan people which can feel positive because, in the West, Tibetans are thought of as peaceful and Buddhist, and that’s true, but that’s because we’ve cultivated a peaceful Buddhist stance and chosen to be nonviolent in our struggle. That doesn’t mean that that’s innately who we are. Like anybody else, dispossession, being stateless, and living like a refugee has profound mental health implications. Aside from all the work that Tibetan people have done in their Buddhist practice, there’s so much that’s unexplored. 

I think a lot of Tibetans in exile feel the need to fight for the people inside Tibet, which is effectively a black box. That’s an additional layer of responsibility, something that we all believe in and want to struggle for because it’s so much worse for people inside. 

Think about a group of people that have been essentially fighting alone against a major authoritarian state for decades, then add the fact that many are refugees, then add general trauma. I really wanted to get down to the level of individual Tibetan people, especially women, and talk about all the everyday struggles that don’t get discussed in the national struggle for liberation or freedom or human rights. Colonization and exile have many effects. It’s not just the political or the loss of the land. It’s also interpersonal relationships, including individual self-conception, how we see ourselves and our worth. 

JC: How did you contend with writing for a Western audience and navigating the white gaze? That’s kind of baked into our daily life and something that I’ve certainly struggled with in my own writing. 

TL: It would be a lie to say that it’s not been a struggle for me as well. Writing in English, living in a country where we’re not the dominant culture or dominant race, that’s part of the tension for every writer from a marginal background. I can’t write straight to Tibetans, for Tibetans in Tibet, because this book is banned before it’s ever published. 

When a people who have almost no reason to believe that they’re going to succeed continues in their struggle, it’s because of faith, because we believe in our moral perspective.

At the same time, I do want to speak to the white western gaze without censoring them. There’s interest in Tibet, and a lot of it is well-meaning, but it’s not enough. I’m trying to reach those people and expand their awareness. To expand their imagination and their identification with Tibetan people and with refugees writ large. 

Our struggle has not been taken seriously by the West or by a lot of countries. I’m not saying that a novel is going to make people take this issue more seriously, but I’m trying to get people to be immersed in the experience of this very specific struggle. 

JC: There’s a scene where Dolma says the West is interested in our culture and our religion, but not our suffering. I thought it was so important that you wrote about the physicality of your characters’ suffering, including frostbite and starvation, and how the homes in the refugee camp are vulnerable to the elements, that people are living on one cup of rice a day, how starvation affects things we take for granted like your teeth and going through puberty and how tall you’re going to grow. Was that part of your initial concept for the book or did it develop along the way? 

TL: It developed along the way as my research became fuller and I was reading documents from aid organizations about the refugee settlements. I was finding images online of refugee camps in the 1970s and so that developed as I learned more. Because that’s not been the focus. Our suffering in exile hasn’t been the focus because we’re so concerned with the suffering of Tibetans in Tibet. 

I think it’s important to focus on the body, on the physicality, because it tells the very specific story of what it’s like to move across the Earth as people who lose everything. That’s happening right now to four million Ukrainians. That’s been happening to people for thousands of years. It’s happening in Yemen. 

I wanted to get beyond that nation-level political understanding of occupation and war and talk about what it’s like for ordinary people. When I could get into that level of detail, that’s how I could also begin to understand how people survived. If you lose everything, you can’t survive unless you have resistance, unless you have that spirit. And that’s coming from people’s bodies, from people’s connections with each other. It’s not coming from the government or military power. It was important for me to show that struggle in order to highlight the resilience and the resistance, to show just how inspiring people were, and continue to be, who face these kinds of deprivations. 

JC: One element of your book that really impressed me was the novel’s scale. You cover 50 years of time, but you’re also writing about eternity. Can you talk about the role of faith and religion in the book? 

TL: Trying to write a novel about Tibetan characters without touching on our spirituality would be an incomplete project. This is a story about colonization and all of the complex and myriad effects of that violence, not just in terms of loss of land, but also spiritually, culturally, interpersonally, and at an individual level. A land is not just soil and or Earth, it’s also all the things that people imbue that soil with. All the meaning. That’s a spiritual thing for my community. This [idea] is thousands of years old, even before Buddhism came to Tibet 1200 years ago. We believe that there are gods in the land, in the water, in the mountains, specific gods that watch over different communities. 

On the one hand, it’s nice to have some Western appreciation for Tibetan culture. On the other hand, it’s painful to see how Tibetan culture has been decoupled from Tibetan people.

When people are forced off that land or have to flee, it’s not just their home that they leave. They leave those gods. They leave that protection. Coming to a non-Tibetan space of exile, there really isn’t a place where our metaphysics or beliefs or ways of doing or seeing or being make sense innately. We have to learn other languages. We have to understand other ways of looking at the world. I wanted that violence to be captured in this story, because that’s a spiritual violence. 

At the same time, that spirituality is the source of our resistance. Tibetan monks and nuns are at the forefront of resisting the ongoing subjugation of Tibetans. They’re often at the forefront of protests. When a people who have almost no reason to believe that they’re going to succeed continues in their struggle, I think it’s because of faith, because we believe in our moral perspective. 

In terms of the mythic scale, it wasn’t the original intent. I thought I would just write a simple story about refugees, but as I got engaged with my research and learned about the oracular tradition in Tibet and the tradition of hiding texts in the land, I saw the mythic scale of Tibetan thought and Tibetan civilization. I had to bring that in because it’s something that I had been cut off from because I always went to Western schools. And of course, I haven’t been to Tibet per se, except for 15 minutes on the border. So I wanted to study that. I felt my characters demanded that. 

JC:  Can you talk about those 15 minutes.

Colonization and exile has many effects. It’s not just the political or the loss of the land. It’s also individual self-conception, how we see ourselves and our worth. 

TL: In the very early years of writing this novel, I decided to make that journey. I trekked to the border of Nepal and Tibet. That’s a landscape that I really needed to know myself because that’s also the pathway that my parents and grandparents took, that a lot of Tibetans have taken over the years to flee. That land is also an ancient passageway for Tibetans to conduct trade. It’s been cut off because of the occupation. There’s a chain link fence and lots of guards. Honestly, I couldn’t even get into Hong Kong, so I had very little hope for going to Tibet. 

There are a lot of Tibetans who can’t even make that trek because it’s dangerous. It’s hard on the body and it requires resources. I thought, why not give myself that? And why not give readers that? As a writer living outside of Tibet and not being able to go there, I can’t very easily access my research. If you’re an American writer who’s lived in the U.S. for generations, you have a wealth of knowledge to draw from. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t necessarily have that. 

JC: How did you want your book to push back against Western ideas about Tibet? 

TL: On the one hand, it’s nice to have some Western appreciation for Tibetan culture. On the other hand, it’s painful to see how Tibetan culture has been decoupled from Tibetan people. There’s a way in which Tibetan culture can be excised from the struggle of Tibetan people and put in a museum, without regard to where it all that came from, and how that’s all been being threatened. Tibetan culture is still threatened in Tibet. 

I wanted people in the West to understand that in the chain of power, the Chinese government has the most power, Westerners have less, but Tibetans have the least. Tibetans can’t move freely. You need to get a permit to move from one area to another, and that’s very difficult to get, especially in more politically active spaces. Tibetans who want to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital, need a permit. For Tibetans in exile, it’s very, very hard to get to that. And that’s by design. It’s important to acknowledge and understand those power dynamics. 

JC: One of the most surprising elements of the book to me was the role of commerce. For example, you have a Canadian art collector who’s obsessed with otherness, and there are questions regarding where museum relics actually come from. Why was that that particular thread of the story important for you? 

TL: I think commerce is a major reason for why the West and China have had such a strong relationship for the last several decades and why China has risen to superpower status. That’s impacted ordinary Tibetan people, Westerners, even Chinese people who want to resist a state that is deeply oppressive. The West can’t simply have feel-good notions about Tibetan culture. It has to examine the Western role. One aspect of that is in scholarship or in material culture like art, in feeling that this is a thing that can be owned, this is a thing that can be taken away. That’s a form of colonization, too. 

There’s a line in my novel that says colonization doesn’t just happen in Tibet. It extends into academia and the art trade. It extends into so many spaces and requires a reflection on the ways in which all of us continue to turn a blind eye. I think it’s just another phase of the ongoing colonization of Tibet. 

A lot of people don’t have a life fulfilling their personal desires. History is often very cruel to a lot of people who don’t get to fulfill their potential, no matter how brilliant.

In more recent years, this has become a topic for a lot of countries, including China, regarding the repatriation of stolen objects. That’s part of the project of empires—to loot and steal from the nations that they take over. For Tibetans, we’ve had things stolen, not just by the Chinese government, but also by the British. In more recent years through the antiques trade, our heritage has ended up all over the world. I wanted to talk about that and question the idea of what it is that people find beautiful about Tibetan culture when it’s a kind of blindness. They can look at an object by itself and not think about that object’s story or meaning to a community. 

A lot of the objects that are taken from Tibet are spiritual objects. They’re religiously significant because a lot of Tibetan art is religious. You can take something and put it in a museum, but that’s a deity. That’s something that is also part of the enormous web of consequences of colonization and exile and displacement. 

JC: You write about the dreams that Lhamo and Tenkyi have, their yearning for freedom and choices and education. Lhamo didn’t want to be stuck making tourist trinkets. Tenkyi was a teacher, but ends up a maid in Canada. There’s a line that that really resonated with me where Tenkyi says her work makes other lives possible. 

TL: A lot of people don’t have a life fulfilling their personal desires. What I’m doing is fulfilling my dream to be a writer. That’s not a possibility for a lot of people. It might be a possibility for their child or their child’s child if things go well. I was recognizing that basic truth, which is that history is often very cruel to a lot of people who don’t get to fulfill their potential, no matter how brilliant. 

In a sense, Tenkyi’s journey is the most heartbreaking, because there’s so much potential, yet the conditions of her existence make it so hard for her to accomplish the things that she could accomplish in a different life. But her life has meaning because she’s still fighting for her family, for her niece and sister and uncle, and that’s very noble and meaningful. 

A big topic of my book is actually how families are broken and remade in exile because of the violence of leaving your homeland. People die along the way. For most of the characters in my story, they lose people in their families. But they remake families as well, in the camps. Wherever they go, they find new families and that’s how they survive. Yes, it’s very hard, but in another sense, it’s joyous because it gives us focus beyond our individual selves. And that can be a salve against the loneliness that a lot of people experience, or against a sense of meaninglessness that we can often feel in this really difficult world. Having other people to fight for, having other people to take care of, is a source of meaning for my characters. 

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