Tsering Yangzom Lama lives in Vancouver. She holds a BA in creative writing and international relations from the University of British Columbia, and an MFA from Columbia University. She was born and raised in Nepal and has lived in Toronto and New York City. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, published in 2022, is her first novel.
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a rich and lyrical story of Tibetans in exile told through four characters over 50 years. The novel recounts a Tibetan family’s struggle to create new lives of dignity, love and hope after China’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s. Readers follow sisters Lhamo and Tenkyi on a multi-decade journey through exile, from a harrowing trek across the Himalayas to a refugee camp on the border of Nepal. Decades later, the sisters are separated. Tenyki lives in Toronto with Lhamo’s daughter Dolma, who must decide if it’s worth risking her dreams to help her community. (adapted from CBC)
Interviewed by Isabel Jones
Isabel Jones (IJ): There is a strong and specific sense of place in your book. Your characters have deep reverence for Tibet and are very much shaped by the land and their ancestry in that place. Can you talk about the title and how its meaning is revealed throughout the story?
Tsering Yangzom Lama (TYL): The title came quite late, after the book was sold and I had finished my edits, in fact. I felt that my original title didn’t seem right, but the new title already existed inside my novel, in the Dolma section when she talks about the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. Thematically the title has many meanings. The first is about our direct connection to land and how important land is for Tibetans. We have an ancient practice of doing full body prostrations around holy sites or across a great distance in pilgrimage. This is a way of showing reverence and worshipping the land which we consider to be home to gods and spirits.
The title is also about the difficult journeys and experiences that Tibetans and many other refugees have when they leave or are expelled or exiled from their homes. That experience is a bodily experience. It’s not a theoretical idea but something that is borne by each individual and has real consequences. It lives inside our bodies and impacts everything we do — how we love, how we live, the way we have memories, every aspect. I’m interested in talking about the day-to-day ordinary experiences of Tibetan people who have had tremendous upheaval and trauma in the last five decades, and that’s a bodily experience.
IJ: How much of a personal exploration of your own psyche and history was the writing of your book? Did you come to new understandings about your Tibetan identity?
TYL: The Tibetans I grew up around were humble people from nomadic stock. They were refugees who had to figure out how to survive in a new country after losing everything, and yet they managed to raise children who could get educated in the West. That kind of extreme loss and transformation within just a couple of generations is quite striking. I wanted to capture through these characters how much has changed for Tibetans in only a few decades. My generation is, for the first time, able to spend time thinking about artistic expression or personal ambitions, spending years studying a topic like I got to do for this book. There are so many things my parents’ generation didn’t get to do. Even small things skipped a generation in a sense. For instance, my grandparents’ generation might have had certain traditions around beauty regimens or hair care rituals that my parents’ generation didn’t get to learn or practice, but which are now reemerging. I wanted to explore that entire shift in experience by this group of people who have been largely ignored by historical record and certainly in the global literary space. Because this history is something I have a personal connection with, writing this novel was a meaningful and transformative experience for me as well — in ways I’m not even able to articulate. It’s such a vast and complex thing to encounter and experience.
IJ: Was some of your purpose in writing this book to teach your readers about the culture and history of Tibet?
TYL: I would say that didn’t drive me in writing this work. It was a ten-year process and an additional two years of editing. As any writer, what I want to do is to write stories, and especially to be engaged in the work of crafting and working with language. I spent most of my time tinkering with sentences. I am obsessive about my language. I was more compelled by my love of literature, by my love of books. At the end of the day if I wanted primarily to create a message directed to the west, I think I would’ve written a work of nonfiction. Instead, I want to be in the literary tradition, to write novels like the ones I love which are so much more complex than a single message. Even though that didn’t compel me, I’m conscious of the fact that my novel is being published in the west. I had to navigate that tension of balancing the story itself, the artistic pursuit, with the recognition that I wanted to make sure it would be accessible for people who are not part of this community. That tension is something that any writer who is not from the mainstream must contend with, whether Indigenous, immigrant, or from a class or gender group that’s not historically represented in the literary space. Ultimately, I want my book to find the people who will connect with the story, whatever their backgrounds.
IJ: The little sculpture known as the Nameless Saint, the ku, was deeply significant to the family and appeared when it was most needed to provide comfort. Is the ku a literary invention or is it rooted in Tibetan culture?
TYL: It is an invention with a cultural basis. I talk in the book about treasure texts, termas: texts that appear and disappear at times of need. This idea is something I planted in this object — the ku. There’s a broader acceptance of this phenomenon in Tibetan culture.
IJ: The Tibetans in the story are Buddhist, but they use complex spiritual expressions in daily life that are beyond the version of Buddhism we know in the west. The Saint and other spiritual beliefs resonate with the spiritual practices and beliefs of peoples around the world such as Canadian Indigenous shamanic practices, the Dreamtime in Australia, or animism in Bali. How possible is it for the mystic spiritualism of Tibetan culture to carry on outside the homeland in a meaningful way?
TYL: It has survived in the sense that among Tibetans living in exile there is a thriving Buddhist culture of monasteries. However, this culture is very threatened in Tibet. Lots of monasteries have been targeted, demolished, basically emptied of monks down from thousands of monks to just a handful in some of the most important monasteries. It’s been devastating and has been even worse in the last two years. In exile, despite the fact we are cut off from some of the most important holy sites, we have kept the integrity of that going. But the survival of this worldview inside of Tibet is very much in the balance. As for the shamanic tradition in the book, it comes from the ancient animist tradition of having oracles, of having gods living in the land. This definitely predates the arrival of Buddhism and was subsumed or absorbed into Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not the version of Buddhism that has transferred to the west. But for Tibetans, the connection with the land is ancient and inextricably tied into our world view. It just cannot be disconnected and that’s why it is so painful to be exiled from our land.
IJ: Exile and loss; longing and sorrow — these feelings continue through the generations in the novel and in life. How can Tibetan exiles heal in their new homes? Has writing the book helped you with generational healing?
TYL: Healing is a lot like pain. There are some elements in which we can share and recognize. There are some things we can do together, recognizing what we have in common in terms of experience. And yet, like pain, it’s very individual and I wouldn’t dream of prescribing a path to healing for a group that is as varied and diverse as Tibetans. In terms of Canada being the new home for a good number of Tibetans, it is a home, but it’s complex. For any exile community, the idea of this new country they live in is always going to be laced with the home they lost and still yearn for. The original expulsion, the original loss, the shock of that loss remains in all of us in different ways. It has a real implication in terms of mental health and strategies for how we take care of each other and how we relate to Canada.
What I would wish for is that my readers recognize how complicated the concept of “home” is for immigrants and refugees. It doesn’t look like a single emotion or a single folding into Canada. It’s not a simple story. That displacement doesn’t just happen once. It’s happening over and over again. For the brief moments I have non-Tibetan characters, which is only a few pages, I wanted to convey the way in which Tibetans have to navigate not just colonialism and the effects of colonialism back in Tibet and under Chinese occupation, but also how colonialism gets manifested all around them — in academia, in the art world. There are so many ways in which colonial erasure, colonial silencing and subjugation, humiliation, and degradation are manifested, and we in Canada must examine this ourselves. It’s a hard one to talk about — healing. The wounds that people carry are unique and individual. I target academia specifically because that’s a space of knowledge creation, a space in which discourse is defined and shaped. Some scholars outside of Tibet talk about Tibet and strip it of political concerns. They talk about Tibetans in compartmentalised ways, about one aspect of us. It’s a symptom of an inhumane way of looking at a group. It’s a dehumanising thing for a community, and also politically charged because these scholars get to define what Tibet is, they get to shape knowledge and history. Tibetan people meanwhile traditionally have had so little influence in these institutions. But these days, as more young Tibetan scholars enter this space, I think things are slowly changing for the better.