Intergenerational Trauma and The Oracular Voice in Tsering Yangzom Lama’s Debut Novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies

Holly Gayley


Abstract: Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, tells the story of a Tibetan family in exile across three generations and fifty years, focused on female characters. It shares much with postcolonial literature, including the decentered subject and a concern for subalterns, except that Tibetans on the plateau continue to live under colonial conditions. This essay traces a number of ways that Tsering Lama speaks back to prevailing representations of Tibet in line with decolonizing praxis. Through her deployment of the oracular voice of women and an agentive statue called the Nameless Saint, she anchors the narrative in a Tibetan religious framework—part Indigenous, part Buddhist—that recaptures magical elements of Tibetan life while remaining acutely attuned to the hardships of exile. By chronicling the everyday and quotidian lives and struggles of Tibetans in diaspora, she explores the intersection of historical events, intergenerational trauma, and the contributions of women through the regenerative work of care and maintenance. By highlighting Tibetan place-based religious practices that become severed through dislocation, she draws attention to the religious and cultural toll of exile. While much of exile literature has been nonfiction works chronicling Tibetan life prior to the 1950s or offering eye-witness accounts of the devastating violence of the Maoist era, in this work of Anglophone fiction, Tsering Lama recovers the early experience of Tibetans in refugee resettlement camps in Nepal. Less magical realism, more a restorative narrative process, the novel is both a recovery of a forgotten history and a testament to the more-than-human forces understood to operate in Tibetan lives and lifeways.


Keywords: Tsering Yangzom Lama, Tibetan women writers, female oracles, intergenerational trauma, postcolonial Anglophone literature


The “Year of Tibetan Women Writers” highlighted the literary accomplishments of Tibetan women writing in multiple languages: Tibetan, Chinese, and English. It started in April 2022 with a workshop at the University of Virginia, followed by a series of loosely coordinated, but independently organized, events at Columbia, Harvard, University of Colorado Boulder, Northwestern, and INALCO in Paris.[1] Tibetan women writers traveled from India, the Tibetan plateau, Chinese cities, North America, and Europe—some meeting each other for the first time across borders—to read their works to eager audiences, participate in panels together, and engage in ongoing conversations with scholars, translators, and the general public. Alongside sharing their literary journeys, Tibetan women writers raised a range of fascinating issues in these gatherings, such as the material and social conditions of women writers, the structures of Tibetan and Himalayan storytelling, gender discrimination in schooling and publishing, and the meaningful way that writing serves as a companion through sharing private feelings and emotion, which also makes it difficult to publish in the public domain. One of the lingering questions that emerged from these events has to do with what is distinctive about Tibetan women’s writings: Is an emphasis on the everyday and quotidian facets of life, its intimacies and specificities, particular to women’s writings or a salient feature of good writing altogether?

Although it is notoriously difficult to define “women’s writing” without essentializing gender, one thing we can say with some certainty is that Tibetan and Himalayan women writers tend to center women’s experiences, perspectives, and challenges more than their male counterparts. A number of such writers—Tsedrön Kyi and Tsering Yangkyi in Tibet, Kunzang Choden and Chador Wangmo in Bhutan, and Manjushree Thapa and Sita Pandey in Nepal—explicitly address women’s issues in their novels and short stories, including domestic violence, sexual violation, prostitution, and sex trafficking.[2] In her debut novel, Tsering Yangzom Lama takes a different tack: highlighting female religious authority in Tibet and centering Tibetan women’s experiences in exile. This literary choice is a complement to Dawa Lokyitsang’s ethnographic research on the contributions of women leaders to reconstituting Tibetan communities in exile following their arrival in India as refugees in 1959.[3] In her public reading in Boulder, Colorado, Lama put it this way: “I wanted to recast the Loss of a Nation, this really central narrative in modern Tibetan history, with oracles. But I also wanted to highlight the ways in which women have been leaders in their communities in Tibet for centuries. So basically I am recasting that narrative with a female oracle.”[4] This is Ama, a pivotal figure whose empowerment as an oracle opens the novel. She continues to serve as a focal point for her daughters, Lhamo and Tenkyi, as they navigate their own oracular proclivities while enduring the intergenerational trauma of exile. Alongside Anglophone women writers in South Asia—from Anita Desai (Clear Light of Day, 1980) to Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows, 2009)—Tsering Lama interweaves a family saga with sweeping historical events bound up with the ongoing impacts of colonialism and the narrative of the nation.

The cyclic and relational nature of Tsering Lama’s storytelling in We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is arguably female in orientation. It is multi-perspectival and polyphonic—narrated at various times and places by different characters—and tells the story of a Tibetan family across three generations and fifty years, focused on female characters. Ama is the matriarch and oracle who leads her village safely into exile but dies enroute. Her daughters Lhamo and Tenkyi inherit some of her oracular capacities but cannot master them due to the rupture and trauma of exile. One remains in the refugee settlement camps in Nepal while the other aspires to social mobility, traversing to Kathmandu, Delhi, and finally Toronto, her dreams of success withering along the way. Lhamo’s exile-born daughter Dolma seeks entrance into the hallowed halls of academia but turns away in disillusionment only to circle back to Nepal and discover her identity anew. The relational nature of the novel is clear from its arrangement into four sections: Daughters (Lhamo and Dolma), Sisters (Lhamo and Tenkyi), Lovers (Lhamo and Samphel), and Self (Dolma). As Tsering Lama pointed out in our conversations, her narrative “defies the craft expectation of linear time in the novel” and breaks down the distinction between the domestic novel and political novel, often correlated with female and male sensibilities respectively.[5] Instead it deals with the personal effects of political events and is narrated in cyclic fashion with the story beginning and ending at the Tibetan border and moving back through key episodes from different vantage points. This cyclic narration also relates to the unfolding layers of collective memory and the quotidian female-coded labor of care and maintenance. On exile Tibetan women’s labor to sustain the collective, Dawa Lokyitsang writes:


The children raised from [Tibetan] orphanages went on to become the mothers, fathers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, and other leading figures that the Tibetan refugee apparatus and community at large needed and desired to ‘produce [a fully functioning Tibetan] society’ in exile. The caring-labor produced by these women, who performed the roles of mothers—literally called Ama, mother, by Tibetans who were raised under their guidance—ensured the ‘lives’ needed to sustain the continuity of the Tibetan collective in exile.[6]


In addition, a cyclic narrative style is reminiscent of the Buddhist practice of korra or circumambulation (སྐོར་ར།). Indeed the title, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, is an explicit evocation of Buddhist pilgrimage practices in which Tibetans prostrate across wide swaths of land toward or around a sacred site. As a different kind of circuit, the novel chronicles the migrations of an extended family along the devastating contours of the Tibetan diaspora. Tsering Lama speaks of encountering the phrase in a video of a Tibetan who prostrated the whole way to India in order to receive the Kālacakra empowerment from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For her, “This verbiage is an intentional way of considering distance and the relationship between body and land. It’s not walking on it. Every part of a prostration is connected to the body… face to face, skin to skin with the earth.”[7] The phrase appears in the Tibetan saying: ས་ནག་པོ་འདོམ་ལ་འཇལ།། སྤྲིན་དཀར་བོ་ཐོལ་ལ་བཟུང་།། (The dark earth is measured by the body’s span; the light clouds are grasped in an instant).[8] This phrase gestures to an embodied, tactile mode of movement. For Lama the image also captures the slow and impeded movement of refugees. As she puts it, “This evokes the hardship of exile. It captures how hard it is for exiled peoples to move across distances. Traveling without citizenship is slow. You can get stuck for a decade in one place, unable to move.”[9] Mobility is hindered for those who lack citizenship, such as Tibetan refugees who hold a “green book” issued by the Tibetan Government in Exile, but not a passport.

In We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, Tsering Lama speaks back to western academic representations of Tibet in line with decolonizing praxis. Through her deployment of the oracular voice of women and an agentive statue called the Nameless Saint, she anchors the narrative in a Tibetan religious framework—part Indigenous, part Buddhist—that recaptures magical elements of Tibetan life while remaining acutely attuned to the hardships of exile. By chronicling the everyday and quotidian lives and struggles of Tibetans in diaspora, she explores the intersection of historical events, intergenerational trauma, and the contributions of women through the regenerative work of care and maintenance, which Dawa Lokyitsang’s scholarship has also emphasized. By highlighting Tibetan place-based religious practices that become severed through dislocation, she draws attention to the religious and cultural toll of exile. Alongside the loss of homeland and sovereignty is the severing of ancestral connections to the land, access to sacred sites, and the daily rhythms of circumambulation, participation in Tibetan lifeways linked to livestock and pasture management, and the protective powers of local mountain deities. While much of exile literature has been nonfiction works chronicling Tibetan life prior to the 1950s or offering eye-witness accounts of the devastating violence of the Maoist era,[10] in this work of Anglophone fiction, Tsering Lama recovers the early experience of Tibetans in refugee resettlement camps in Nepal in similar ways to Lokyitsang’s scholarship on early exile.[11] Her debut novel shares much with postcolonial literature, including the decentered subject and a concern for subalterns, except that Tibetans are not “postcolonial” and continue to endure the ongoing impacts of colonialism. That Tibet has been subjected to settler colonial conditions under Chinese Communist rule since the 1950s has been largely disguised by the euphemism, “occupied Tibet.” This is one of the reasons that young Tibetan intellectuals, writers and academics living and studying in North America are turning to Indigenous studies for resources to engage in decolonizing praxis.[12]

In this essay, I engage themes that arose in conversations with Tsering Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang over the past year. The two longtime friends and co-founders of the Tibetan blog Lhakar Diaries ([13] share a set of concerns which they express in different forms of writing, literary and academic. This essay draws parallels in their writings while doing a thematic reading of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies structured around its main characters. Lokyitsang’s cutting-edge research on Tibetan women leaders in the exile community, intergenerational trauma, decolonizing praxis, and intersectional feminism provides a significant theoretical lens, and references to her publications are interspersed throughout this essay. The result is all the richer from hosting Tsering Lama for events at the University of Colorado Boulder together with Lokyitsang and drawing from the themes and theoretical points they raised, rather than overlaying my own. What began as a rather limited project on Buddhist notions of korra as a narrative device has expanded into something more nuanced and layered.[14] The interview with Tsering Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang on “Decolonizing Praxis” in this issue of Yeshe is one of the gems to come out of our conversations.


Women and The Oracular


It’s no small matter to leave… Our homes are here. Our gods are here, in our mountains and rivers that we know so well. We are tied to this land and this land is tied to us, in every way possible. But one thing has become clear to me. This destruction will not end, not for many years. Meanwhile, our doorway to escape will shrink and shrink, until only a few souls will manage to cross the border each year, like the final raindrops after a storm. This is why my family will leave tomorrow night. If you want to come with us, pack your belongings now. Be ready to walk when the moon is blanketed by clouds. The spirits have given me the path.

—Ama, Border of Tibet and Western Nepal, 1960[15]


Ama was empowered as an oracle at the moment of Tibetan dispossession. There were ominous signs of calamitous change—packs of wolves, earthquakes, and a “snake” moving along valleys and rivers between mountain ranges, namely the columns of invading Chinese Communist troops. Donning the ritual implements and regalia of an oracle, Ama becomes invested with religious authority in the longstanding oracular tradition. She trembles as the mountain god Targo speaks through her, warning of the troubled times to come and pledging to lead her community into exile. “Oracles are figures of crisis. They are people to go to in a time when everything seems turned upside down,” states Tsering Lama.[16] In the novel, Ama is the axis around which the crisis unfolds, a pillar of strength in a quickly deteriorating situation. As a female oracle, she mediates between divine and human, past and present, empowerment and dispossession, setting up a contrast between the chthonic powers of Tibetan lands and their impending loss after the long journey into exile over Himālaya on foot. In Lama’s words, this is a “displacement that is spiritual as well as physical”[17] or, put another way, a “dispossession of entire ways of being, entire ways of seeing the world; our metaphysics, our civilization, all of these were also displaced.”[18]

One of the ways that Tsering Lama speaks back to prevailing representations of Tibet is by highlighting placed-based religious practices that become severed through dispossession and exile. Oracles serve as mediums for gods that are based in the local terrain (mountains, lakes, etc.) rather than transcendent tantric deities (Diemberger 130), so the losses incurred in exile involve a palpable severing of kinship ties with the land and its deities. In one of our conversations, Lama emphasized, “Indigenous writers discuss how places and their relationship with the land can’t be transferred. The land is kin. Instead of ‘worshipping’ the land, it is the specific knowledge of certain sites.”[19] Glen Sean Coulthard refers to place-based knowledge as grounded normativity, which he defines as “modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others over time” (13).[20] This type of knowledge is visceral, as Lauren Tynan highlights: “It is an affective force that compels us to not just understand the world as relational, but feel the world as kin” (600). In similar terms, Tashi Dekyid Monet has emphasized the “intergenerational reciprocity between people and place” in Tibetan culture as “co-constituted in spiritual and genealogical relationship.”[21] An Indigenous place-based perspective augments Edward Said’s description of exile as “an unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home” involving an “essential sadness that can never be surmounted” and the “crippling sorrow of estrangement.”[22] In the novel, the cost of dispossession is immediately evident in Ama, who loses her oracular powers after crossing Himālaya. No longer on Tibetan soil, Ama’s powers fail her by the time the family reaches Mustang. As she concedes, “Our home is far away. The spirits are far away” (Lama 26). She is able to see but no longer hear the gods using her divination mirror. A refugee stripped of bearings and possessions, Ama soon loses strength and dies along the way.

Although Ama dies enroute, buried unceremoniously under rocks by a river, she continues to appear in the visions of her daughters, Lhamo and Tenkyi, who inherit her oracular propensity. However, they are unable to ground the “god sickness” (ལྷ་ནད།) or call of the spirits (Diemberger 128) without proximity to mountain deities like Targo, for whom Ama and her own mother were mediums. As the novel progresses, the more long-term debilitating effects of exile and intergenerational trauma surface in Ama’s daughters. Tsering Lama offers poignant depictions of mental breakdowns, the cracking open of the mind to fearsome dimensions, which Lhamo and Tenkyi endure as children.[23] In adulthood, these breakdowns becomes so severe for Tenkyi that she has to return from Delhi to the resettlement camp for several months in order to recover. In the novel, these episodes become emblematic of the trauma of displacement. As girls Lhamo and Tenkyi are orphaned during the journey into exile by losing their parents and homeland all at once. At one point, Lhamo asks, “Where are our gods? Have they left their ancient homes in the mountains and lakes to walk with us, or are we truly alone in this new earth?” (Lama 16). This question evokes the loss of protection on multiple levels: parental, spiritual, territorial, and geopolitical. For her daughters, Ama is the only cord back to their ancestral homeland. Whatever oracular visions appear to them come in the form of living memories and conversations with her. The importance of Ama (mother) as a crucial link to Tibet as homeland is a salient feature of other exile writings by Tibetan women, such as Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s Coming Home to Tibet and Min Nangzey’s “Remembering My Mother’s Handmade Tsampa” (ཨ་མའི་ལག་རྩམ་དྲན་པ།).[24] Only Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, is able to fully access the prophetic voice, when she returns to the Tibetan border in the closing chapter of the novel.

Tsering Lama is not the first to speak back to representations of Tibet. That honor goes to Richen Lhamo.[25] In We Tibetans, published in 1926, she offers a comprehensive account of Tibetan life and culture in order to counter western misrepresentations of Tibetans in popular books and newspapers as “a primitive people living in a desolate country” (95) and to demonstrate that “we are, like yourselves, a people with a highly developed culture, spiritual, social and material” (96). Exile testimonials of the next generation, including significant accounts by Tibetan women such as House of the Turquoise Roof and Ama Adhe: The Voice that Remembers, aim at a different target by refuting Chinese Communist propaganda regarding the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and appealing to western audiences to become supporters of the Tibetan nationalist struggle.[26] These are English-language works—resulting from collaborations between Tibetans and English-speaking translators, ghost writers, and/or editors—that offer intimate portraits of Tibetan life prior to the 1950s or bear witness to the rampant violence and destruction of the Chinese Communist invasion and socialist transformation of Tibet from the late 1950s through the 1970s. At the Paris conference on Tibetan women writers, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa characterized these Anglophone memoires as refutations in a “testimonial gesture.” As “stories of dispossession,” she elaborated, they are rarely “a story of a single person,” instead their first-hand accounts are the “stories of an entire generation of Tibetans… the ‘I’ as representative of ‘we’” as in the title of Rinchen Lhamo’s book.[27] Whereas in exile testimonials of the 1990s, women assumed a “supportive position” in the national struggle and adhered closely to its narratives, today the new generation of Tibetan women writers in exile are more free to challenge the male-dominated national narrative as well as ongoing lacunas in academic research on Tibet.[28]


Tibetan Refugee Settlement Camps


My labors have only just begun and then there will be more. Day after day, for years to come, I will grind garlic, make tea, pick insects from rice, wash the clothes. Meanwhile, men will make plans. They will look at our Saints the same way they look at our bodies, and they will decide what to move where, whom to claim, and whom to send away.                                                   

— Lhamo, Tsemo Seymakar Tibetan Refugee Settlement, 1973[29]


Lhamo is the nexus of her family in exile as the person to whom other characters circle back, as they leave and return to the Tsemo Seymakar Tibetan refugee settlement outside of Pokhara in Nepal. Surrounded by and tethered to a tight-knit community of elders and children in the camp, she engages in the work of maintenance: cooking, weaving, washing, raising a child, taking care of her uncle. In this, she embodies the labor that Tibetan women have engaged in to care for the next generation and sustain Tibetan culture in exile. Dawa Lokyitsang calls attention to this “gendered labor in the period of reconstruction” as follows:


In the aftermath following [the] Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Tibetan refugee collective required immense labor from its newly displaced population to re-establish community in exile in order to ensure their own survival as a people… Division of labor and roles quickly became gendered. While elite men handled external work involving political advocacy and securing aid in the international arena, the women busied themselves in domestic arenas as caregivers to the refugee collective. For instance, at the beginning of exile, elite Tibetan women cared after the welfare of orphaned Tibetan children in facilities that they later transform[ed] into residential schools.[30]


Bemoaning the repetitive nature of her daily tasks, Lhamo contrasts the cyclic work of maintenance by women with linear time in which men make decisions and determine a course of action on behalf of those around them. At this point in the novel, she is grieving the loss of Tenkyi, who recently left the refugee settlement camp to continue her education, but she is also worried that the Nameless Saint, a ku or statue (སྐུ) that has brought healing to her family at crucial junctures, will be given away by her uncle, Ashang Migmar, to a monastery. So, in the dark of night, she dons her mother’s leopard skin oracular garb to retrieve the ku and hide it securely away. In the midst of her audacity, Lhamo reflects, “Are women even allowed to walk alone in the dark? Are they allowed to take what they want? Tonight, I will” (Lama 175). Through a bold act of repossession, she takes the ku and later gives it to her childhood sweetheart Samphel in the moment of their love’s consummation.

Lhamo’s entrapment in the cyclic work of maintenance can be captured in the Buddhist term saṃsāra, or khorwa (འཁོར་བ།), long associated with women and domesticity in Buddhist monastic literature.[31] Khorwa is the passive, i.e. cyclic existence as an effect, versus the active form of the same verbal root, korra, meaning circumambulation. Both khorwa and korra feature as themes in contemporary Tibetan women’s writings on the plateau, for example, in the poems “The Ring” (ཨ་ལོང་།) by Chimay and “Mothers in Barkhor Circuit” (བར་སྐོར་གླིང་གི་ཨ་མ་ལགས།) by Wo Jig Jil respectively.[32] In the novel, Lhamo’s sense of entrapment extends to the refugee settlement camps, where Tsering Lama depicts a general sense of suspended animation and waiting, exemplified in Ashang Migmar’s refusal to unpack and cut off his long braids. Dawa Lokyitsang explains, “For the older generation, returning to Tibet was only a matter of time. Culture preservation had to be initiated to allow them to resume their lives upon return to Tibet—a return many assumed would be soon.”[33] Along similar lines, in her memoir Coming Home to Tibet, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa recounts from her childhood in exile: “I lived with the notion that, as refugees, our life in exile was temporary. It was easy to accept that idea in our two-room house in Dharamshala where everything we owned fit into the four aluminum steel suitcases under our two twin cots” (3). For Tenkyi, the resettlement camps embodied “the small world of chores, the buzzing kerosene lamps, the endless gossiping, and most of all, the impossibility of breaking out” (Lama 193). Her hope for a better life was through education, which offered her the chance to leave, first for Kathmandu and Delhi and finally to Toronto. From passive enmeshment in cyclic time, here transcendence comes through an act of departure, not the impossible return home but a social mobility somewhere else.[34] In theorizing the transnational movement of people between Himālaya and North America, Sienna Craig links the notions of korra and khorwa to describe “patterns of mobility, processes of world making, and the dialectical relationship between loss and wonder around which diasporic experiences turn” (8).[35]

The connection between mobility and transcendence is most evident in the ku, or Nameless Saint, which enters their family’s life at the border, just at the moment when all seems lost. The ku is agentive as “a statue of a Saint that disappears and reappears, as if by its own will” (51). Found by Po Dhondup amidst the rubble of a village temple, it is an improbable and portable remnant of sacred power, which brings healing and serves as a redemptive force in the narrative. In the midst of irretrievable loss the Nameless Saint endures. When Tenkyi has a mental breakdown, it is the ku that soothes her, a relic of the Tibetan past to heal the mind fractured by trauma. This is collective and intergenerational trauma, shared by Tibetans who endured the brutal twenty years of persecution in the name of socialist transformation under Mao Zedong and by Tibetans in exile, then and now, displaced from their land and cognizant of their imperiled culture. The ku functions like a terma (གཏེར་མ།) or “treasure,” sacred texts and objects hidden away in the Tibetan and Himalayan landscape for future benefit during times of strife.[36] When discovered, terma provides a form of continuity in times of rupture, something recovered when all else is lost, a means of “healing the damage of degenerate times” (དུས་སྙིགས་མའི་རྒུད་གསོ་བ།), and as such has played an important role in the revitalization of Buddhism on the Tibetan plateau in the post-Mao era.[37]

Tsering Lama deftly reinfuses magical elements like the Nameless Saint into her novel while avoiding a Shangri-la idealization of Tibet or Tibetans in exile. “There is a certain magic and worldview that I’m interested in capturing in this book,” she mentioned when reading from her novel in Boulder, an important way that she speaks back to academic representations of Tibet. Early generations of Tibetologists were most interested in Buddhist texts, first Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in the arid Tibetan climate and later in Tibetan commentaries, in what was then called “Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.” No wonder the “magic and mystery” that Alexandra David Neel[38] attested to during her travels on the Tibetan plateau in early twentieth century gave way to rationalized representations of Tibetan Buddhism as lamas and clerics in exile interacted with textually focused Anglo-European scholars. Such rationalized representations, created in a collaborative process of “intercultural mimesis,” is emblematic of Buddhist modernism, which emphasizes the ethical, rational, and this-worldly facets of Buddhism.[39] In its expression in the west, Buddhist modernism tends to psychologize the gods and demons of Tibet which, in emic terms, are agents in the more-than-human world.[40] Until anthropological interventions in the 1990s,[41] territorial and mountain deities (ཡུལ་ལྷ།, གཞི་བདག) were little studied by scholars,[42] and the centrality of Tibetan land-based practices has yet to come into full view in academic research. As Tenkyi laments, “Long ago, our world was full of enchantment. When Ama was alive, when we roamed our pastures and lived beside lakes and mountains filled with gods. Then we crossed over the mountains and magic snagged on the ridges” (187).

While including magical elements in the novel, Tsering Lama’s portrait of daily life in the early refugee settlements is nowhere romanticized. It shows the gritty hardships and community resilience against all odds and required considerable archival research to reconstruct. “Like most refugees, Tibetan refugees have not been served by historical records,” she reflects.[43] Researching the novel meant cobbling together “glimmers of data” akin to fragments of traumatic memory: oral accounts such as the leopard appearing in one of the refugee settlements, material artifacts like a statue at the Rubin Museum that inspired the Nameless Saint, archival photos of the settlement camps showing thatched grass huts giving way to concrete buildings with corrugated tin roofs, research on the oracular tradition, and her own ten-day trek to the border of Tibet and Nepal. Less magical realism, more a restorative narrative process, the novel is both a recovery of the forgotten history of the early Tibetan refugee settlements and a testament to the more-than-human forces understood to operate in Tibetan lives and lifeways.


Memory, Loss, and Intergenerational Trauma


I’m cursed with a thousand memories I cannot reach. My sister must remember what you look like, but Acha Lhamo never answers my questions about the past. If only I could open her mind like a jar—if I could just peer inside and see you once, how real you would become. How real you are struggling to become, even now, from the distance of fifty years… I want to tell you about everything that you’ve missed—of my life, of what I have done and what has been done to me, your youngest, the camp’s hope, the one nobody speaks of anymore. Even if it is a broken story, I must have you know it. Just tell me that you can hear me.

— Tenkyi, Toronto, 2012[44]


Once the camp’s hope, the one who pursued higher education and became a teacher, Tenkyi wishes to tell her story, to share her life with her long-deceased Ama. But she cannot remember her mother’s face, and her sister Lhamo will not speak of it. In our Boulder dialogue, Tsering Lama put it this way: “Tenkyi’s memory is fractured because she left [Tibet] quite young and she’s a child of war, essentially. She grows up as an orphan and, because her sister Lhamo doesn’t speak her memory—Lhamo has a little more memory but won’t access it because it’s painful—so then her daughter Dolma is also denied those memories.”[45] This results in a “generational silence” and the passing of unhealed trauma from one generation to the next.[46] According to Dawa Lokyitsang, the “fear of cultural extinction in exile” based on the “lived traumas of the older generation” continues to inform “collective efforts toward cultural preservation” that can homogenize and ossify Tibetan culture when the underlying pain is not addressed.[47] In the silences, traumatic memory gets split off from one’s narrative identity, the evolving story of an individual or collective, and can be sealed away as a protective mechanism from overwhelming events and experiences.

Tenkyi’s impulse to speak to her mother is reminiscent of the need to weave the fragmented memory of traumatic events into a cohesive narrative of one’s life, part of the healing process for individual trauma (Herman 178). Narrative also plays a key role in healing collective trauma,[48] which I discuss in Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet in relation to the trauma that Tibetans endured during the ravages of the Maoist period, the narrative frames that later encapsulated the period, and the process of revitalizing Buddhism and Tibetan culture on the plateau from the 1980s forward.[49] Testimony requires another to receive and validate it, to serve as witness to a truth that is otherwise unspeakable and to events that exceed comprehensibility—whether in relation to individual and collective trauma.[50] As the “camp’s hope,” Tenkyi is plagued by successive dislocations and seeks out her mother as witness and source of comfort. For her, narrative cohesion is prevented by the blank patches of her memory, encapsulating the sense of irretrievable loss that permeates the novel. Moreover, the face of an angry woman menaces her in terrifying visions during her mental breakdowns. Who is the angry woman, gritting her teeth as if prevented from speaking? Is it the chthonic forces of Tibet attempting to speak through her as an oracle, but unable to do so at such a distance? Could it be her mother’s frustrated attempt to communicate across time and space, her “struggling to become, even now, from the distance of fifty years,” as Tenkyi puts it in the passage above? Something shifts when the ku comes back into her life. A portal opens to a living memory of the past.

Tenkyi creates a morning ritual of building a cairn in a hidden spot under a bridge by Lake Ontario. It is her daily pilgrimage living in Toronto: a form of remembrance and embodied cultural rhythm. As a daily ritual, Tibetan women circumambulate the local stūpa or monastery as a time for prayer, a break from household chores, and an opportunity for exercise and mobility. Transposed onto a Canadian urban landscape, Tenkyi clears the beer bottles and cigarettes from an alcove under a bridge and adds a pebble each day. More typically, cairns mark passages and embody prayers at mountain passes across the Tibetan plateau. At the lakeshore at dawn, the bridge becomes a portal to Tibet as the memory of her mother awakens one morning and she can see again the turquoise lake and red cliffs surrounding her family home and the dark clouds rolling down the valley, a portent of the turbulence to come. This is a living memory,[51] neither the fleeting images of ordinary childhood reminiscences nor the fragmented memory of trauma. It’s something else. A presence, a visionary capacity connected to the oracular tradition among the women in her family. Home again, the child Tenkyi sits in Ama’s lap, receiving ritual knowledge amid the scent of the hearth and through the haunting melodies of chöd (severance, གཅོད།). But the transmission is incomplete, soon interrupted by the Chinese Communist arrival in their village and the family’s departure into exile.

In this episode, as if looking into the mirror for a divination, Tenkyi can see her home again and journey there to her mother’s lap, a return to the time before the rupture. A restoration, however temporary. The oracular impulse is more explicit when Lhamo gives birth to Dolma and imagines Ama kicking the divination mirror to her in the hospital bed. Such moments are a sign of Lhamo and Tenkyi’s ongoing oracular capacity, even as it is never fully actualized. The cracks in the psyche from trauma, in parallel fashion to “god sickness,” seem to make possible these oracular visions, as if looking into the divination mirror to witness scenes of the past, present, or future as if happening now in real time. This has synergies with how Jeanine Canty describes the “new vision” that can come from “our cracks, our brokenness that reorder our vision of the world” (26). Some other kind of knowing is afforded—perhaps even prophetic (ལུང་བསྟན།), visionary (དག་སྣང།), or revelatory (གཏེར་མ།). This is especially the case in the final chapter of the novel, when Dolma has an epiphany while visiting the border of Tibet, a moment that Tsering Lama describes as a “mind terma.”[52]

Lhamo’s childhood sweetheart Samphel also yearns to see his mother’s face, a symbol of home and homeland. Born out of wedlock and raised by his father, then orphaned in exile, Samphel responds by focusing on the material dimensions of loss. He is obsessed with finding an amulet containing his mother’s photograph, buried among other belongings by his father prior to their escape. The Tibetan impulse to bury sacred objects in times of duress is longstanding, and many buried their family’s valuables, precious statues and other items too heavy to carry with them on the arduous journey over Himālaya into exile. After canvasing elders in the resettlement camp about the burial site, he seeks out his patrimony on several occasions, but is thwarted each time. Driven by nostalgia and the pursuit of fortune, Samphel becomes an unscrupulous arts dealer arranging illegal expeditions into Tibet to smuggle out sacred objects and sell them for profit. Ironically, this is how the ku finds its way to Canada.

As such, Samphel is a morally ambiguous figure in the novel, selling out to larger orientalizing forces in the international art world that value Tibetan culture and seek to appropriate its artifacts. Internally, he justifies his work: “How so much has been stolen from me, from us, more than I could ever take back; and so, if anyone should sell statues of our gods to survive, it should be us, because it was the gods who abandoned us first” (Lama 283, italics in the original). For Tibetans the sale of sacred objects, legal or illegal, is morally inappropriate in Buddhist terms; instead traditional art production occurred through networks of patronage, rather than in the marketplace.[53] But Samphel has a point. After all, the invading Chinese Communist armies ransacked many, if not most, Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan plateau during the 1950s and 60s, hauling off gilded statues and other precious objects to China. For exile Tibetans, the “new demand for portable Tibetan heritage” (272) in the 1990s became an entrepreneurial opportunity and site of reclamation: carpet factories, studios and shops for traditional arts, and antique stores all flourished, while the Free Tibet movement and Tibetan Buddhism were going global. Samphel’s store of imitation antiques sat along the circumambulatory path around the Boudhanāth Stūpa. In his words: “While thousands of pilgrims passed before me, circling the stupa to earn merit, I was building a one-way tunnel from Tibet. A secret pathway to retrieve and unearth what was ours” (273).


Decolonizing Praxis


How do you buy anything from Tibet legitimately?… The people have no control over their policies, much less their precious artifacts.

— Dolma, Toronto, 2012


Dolma is the character who speaks back most overtly to western academic representations of Tibet, as well as to the cultural appropriation of art and antiques. Her perspective enters the novel early on, as a college student in Toronto living with her aunt Tenkyi, who continues to struggle with mental illness and cleans hotel rooms for a living. Dolma aspires to attend graduate school to study Tibetan history and literature and attends a party at an art collector’s home at the invitation of her professor in order to meet Asian studies scholars in Toronto. She immediately picks up on the power imbalances at play in the art and academic worlds and proceeds to raise pointed questions, like the one above, on the validity of the international art market and academic research when it remains silent about Tibet’s political plight. This is the most overt decolonizing scene in the novel, if we understand decolonizing in Natalie Avalos’ terms as “challeng[ing] coloniality’s hierarchies of power/knowledge by denaturalizing the white western world’s monopoly on legitimate knowledge production.”[54] The western fascination with Tibetan culture has inadvertently caused, in Tsering Lama’s words, “a decoupling from our bodies and our culture” as religious objects enter into secular spaces as art and antiques in private homes, galleries, and museums.[55]

“This is an extension of colonialism,” she elaborates, “that our culture and objects are celebrated in the west and elsewhere, but there’s not as much attention paid to the people that are connected to these objects.”[56] In recent decades, this kind of recognition has inspired an ongoing and contested movement to repatriate the remains, cultural artifacts, and ritual objects of Indigenous and previously colonized peoples around the world.[57] In the novel, it turns out the art collector has a new acquisition from Tibet, and her secretary takes the liberty to show it to Dolma. Lo and behold, it is the ku, the Nameless Saint. Dolma recognizes it almost immediately even though she has never laid eyes on it. Dolma determines to get the ku back by whatever means necessary, and she succeeds through stealth in a daring act of reclamation, having memorized the code to the safe. As reviewer Kalzang Yangzom notes, this scene illustrates how the “seemingly charitable world of art collectors is just the same old colonial thievery in the garb of cultural preservation.”[58]

Decolonizing praxis goes beyond recognizing colonial systems of knowledge production that constituted Asian studies or critiquing the enduring Orientalist tropes in academic discourse and popular culture.[59] There is another step: “to decolonize is to identify and dismantle historical legacies of imperialism,” according to Dawa Lokyitsang.[60] For Nelson Maldonado-Torres, this means “rehumanizing the world… breaking hierarchies of difference that dehumanize subjects and communities and that destroy nature” as well as “counter-practices that seek to dismantle coloniality and open up to multiple other forms of being in the world.”[61] Included in this, Natalie Avalos suggests, is “reclaiming marginalized histories and cultural practices,” something that Tsering Lama does masterfully in We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.[62] What comes through in the interview with Tsering Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang on “Decolonizing Praxis” in this issue of Yeshe is that scholars need to center Tibetan voices, perspectives, and epistemes; to tend to the everyday lives of ordinary Tibetans, not just the great religious masters; and to amplify issues related to the Tibetan nationalist movement.[63] In her essay, “Decolonizing Ethnographic ‘Responsibility’: Towards a Decolonial Praxis,” Dawa Lokyitsang writes about this from the perspective of a Native scholar:


I consider the historical approach I have adopted over the course of my progression as a scholar to be a method to decolonize. It is a method that has helped me center the voices and subjectivities of Tibetans in the present using their memories of the past—a method many Indigenous scholars stress. It also allows me to engage Tibetan pasts in order to make sense of Tibetan presents, so that we may collectively engage in imagining Tibetan futures—an engagement that Indigenous scholars argue preoccupies itself with the project of healing (Dillon 2012). For my work to be truly decolonial, it must engage the concerns of my community at all times, because it engages the futures of not just myself, but my family and thus, my community. Decolonized [work] suggests pathways towards individual and communal healing. This is how I view my obligation as a Native scholar doing work with my own community.[64]


For non-Tibetan scholars, this call for honoring the concerns of Tibetan communities means going beyond the standard practice of asking permission to do research on a specific text or topic. It may entail putting aside one’s own preconceived research agenda to listen to Tibetan interlocutors, engaging in extended dialogue about the framing of a project, and following their lead on how to approach one’s research. Indigenous studies scholar Margaret Kovach recommends a methodological approach that centers community engagement in the shaping of research projects to ensure reciprocal benefit.[65] Tashi Dekyid Monet calls this approach to research “relationship as method.”[66] Decolonizing the field also includes working to reverse ongoing structural asymmetries regarding who speaks for Tibet, especially as Tibetan studies is being gradually eroded at “minority universities” (minzu daxue) in China and more Tibetans are entering graduate programs in Europe and North America.

To conclude, let me call attention to the importance of storytelling and the key role that contemporary Tibetan writers play in cultural memory. Tenzin Dickie used the felicitous phrase, “memory keeper” to refer to the Anglophone poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa in a previous issue of Yeshe journal,[67] but perhaps it can be extended more broadly. According to anthropologist Michael Jackson, “storytelling is a vital strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances” (15). As I have discussed elsewhere, the healing of collective trauma requires cultural figures—artists, intellectuals, oracles, lamas—who can craft a “symbolic restructuring” of historical events on behalf of the collective, whether through fiction, biography, prophecy, the arts, or ethnographic history.[68] In addressing intergenerational trauma in their writings, Tsering Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang offer a language and lens through which to acknowledge and address its ongoing effects. By focusing on “elements of magic within the banal, day to day… which has not been translated into the west,” Lama contests the cultural erasure that has occurred through selective representations of Tibetan culture.[69] By foregrounding the everyday care and maintenance of Tibetan women as regenerative work, she makes space—in parallel to Lokyitsang’s research on women’s leadership in exile and intersectional feminism—for Tibetan women’s contributions to the national struggle.[70]

What Tsering Lama has accomplished in the novel is to reconstruct the world of the early refugee settlements out of dispersed fragments of archival materials, itself a significant act of collective memory with restorative power.[71] Just as the Nameless Saint weaves together disparate times and places in the family saga and provides a healing balm for intergenerational trauma, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies likewise functions as a kind of restoration. It fills in gaps of collective memory and shows cultural ruptures and continuities in Tibetan everyday lives and practices in exile. In her own words, it is a means of “building a bridge back to the things that colonization has denied.”[72]


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–––. “The Discursive Art of China’s Colonialism: Reconfiguring Tibetan and State Identities.” In Foregrounding Tibet, edited by Tenzin Desal. Tibet Policy Institute Journal, vol. VII, no. 2, 2020, pp. 29–50;

–––. “Who Is a Pure Tibetan? Identity, Intergenerational History, and Trauma in Exile.” In Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage: Negotiating Dispossession, edited by Shelly Bhoil and Enrique Galvan-Alvarez. Lexington Books, 2018, pp. 195–211;

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[1] Thanks to Tashi Dekyid Monet and the other organizers of the ground-breaking “Tibetan Women Writers Symposium” at the University of Virginia, 8–10 April 2022. The conversation continued across the year at subsequent events that April at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Colorado Boulder; the second Lotsawa Translation Workshop on “Celebrating Buddhist Women’s Voices in the Tibetan Tradition” at Northwestern University in October 2022; a conference in Paris in January 2023 featuring research on multilingual literary production by Tibetan women writers over the last century; and smaller events in March and April 2023 at the University of Colorado Boulder (hereafter CU Boulder) and Lehigh University. The “Year of Tibetan Women Writers” is my own descriptor for this extraordinary series of events. For a summary of the UVA symposium, see Tashi Dekyid Monet’s “Conference Notes” in the Journal of Tibetan Literature. Translations of the poems and short stories presented at the symposium will be available in a special issue of Yeshe this fall.

[2] See Holly Gayley and Somtso Bhum, “Parody and Pathos” for examples of Tibetan short stories dealing with sexual violation by male and female authors, including Tsedrön Kyi.

[3] See Lokyitsang, “Conflicts of Desire” on and “Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times” on

[4] “Reading & Dialogue with Tsering Yangzom Lama” at CU Boulder on 2 March 2023.

[5] Pre-Lotsawa panel discussion via Zoom on 16 September 2022 for panelists in “Literary Perspectives from Tibetan and Himalayan Women Writers” and Tibet Himalaya Initiative Colloquium at CU Boulder on 3 March 2023.

[6] See Lokyitsang, “Conflicts of Desire” on

[7] Conversation via Zoom on 20 December 2022.

[8] At the Paris conference at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023, Lama Jabb offered this saying. According to his gloss, the earth is the site of a long journey on foot while the sky-bound clouds acts as a reference point (personal communication).

[9] Conversation via Zoom on 20 December 2022.

[10] On exile testimonials, see Laurie McMillan, English in Tibet, Tibet in English. Important exceptions include the memoirs, A Hundred Thousand White Stones by Kunsang Dolma and Coming Home to Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.

[11] See, for example, Lokyitsang, “Desiring Leadership: The Tibetan Women’s Association and Gender Advocacy” in Tibetan and Uyghur Refugees in the New Colonial Era and “Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times” on on

[12] For example, Tashi Dekyid Monet’s presentation on “Land and Body: Regenerating Place-Based Relations and Lifeways in Tibetan Literature by Women Writers” at the “Charting the Uncharted World of Tibetan Women Writers Today: An Ongoing Conversation” at INALCO in Paris, 5–7 January 2023. The title of the conference was subjected to lively commentary and critique among participants in the lead up to the conference. Related to the use of Indigenous studies theory by Tibetan intellectuals is the question of Tibetan indigeneity. See Emily Yeh, “Tibetan Indigeneity” in Indigenous Experience Today and Dawa Lokyitsang, “Are Tibetans Indigenous?” on

[13] Lhakar Diaries is a platform for Tibetan voices formed in solidarity with everyday acts of non-violent resistance inside Tibet. The blog serves to “demystify ideas about Tibet” and to “encourage young Tibetans out there to share their writing, music, art, anything that contributes to exploration and empowerment of the Tibetan identity” ( This was a venture ahead of its time, ushering in decolonizing praxis among Tibetan youth well before the academic conversation got under way.

[14] As a starting point for this essay, I gave a presentation on “KORRA: Cycles of Loss, Memory, & Return in Tibetan Anglophone Literature” at the Paris conference on Tibetan women writers at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023.

[15] Lama 14–15.

[16] “Reading & Dialogue with Tsering Yangzom Lama” at CU Boulder on 2 March 2023.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tsering Lama in interview with Francesca Rheanon in Writer’s Voice, posted 2 June 2022.

[19] Conversation via Zoom on 20 December 2022.

[20] For Coulthard, Indigenous resistance to dispossession is “a struggle primarily inspired by and oriented around the question of land—a struggle not only for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploitative terms” (13, emphasis in the original).

[21] Tashi Dekyid Monet, “Land and Body: Regenerating Place-Based Relations and Lifeways in Tibetan Literature by Women Writers” at the Paris conference at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023.

[22] See Said’s famous essay, “Reflections on Exile” (173) in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Along similar lines, in her poem “Life in Samtha/Borderlands” (ས་མཐའི་འཚོ་བ།), Nyimatso depicts exile as the site of nostalgic anguish and disillusionment, but also as “a place to heal the long-festering wounds of mind” (ཡུན་རིང་སེམས་ལ་རྣག་པའི་རྨ་ཁ་ཞིག་གསོ་ས་རེད་འདུག). Nyimatso (penname: Mutik) read this poem for a special online session on 13 November 2020 in anticipation of the UVA Tibetan Women Writers Symposium. The Tibetan original and a translation by Nicole Willock can be found in her chapter, “Samtha/the Borderlands of Tibetan Translation,” in Living Treasure: Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in Honor of Janet Gyatso.

[23] Of the many reviews of Tsering Lama’s debut novel, one in particular takes up the issue of mental health. See Kalsang Yangzom’s review in Yeshe,

[24] Min Nangzey presented her short, evocative essay at the UVA Tibetan Women Writers Symposium, 8–10 April 2022, followed by an English translation by Annabella Pitkin.

[25] Thank you to Tsering Wangmo Dhompa for calling attention to this work in her keynote, “My Daughter Will Tell My Story” for the Paris conference at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023. Rinchen Lhamo’s book was composed at the encouragement and with the help of her British husband.

[26] See McMillan 2001.

[27] Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “My Daughter Will Tell My Story,” keynote at the Paris conference at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023.

[28] For another example, see Broken Portraits: A Book of Poems (2016) by Kaysang (Tenzin Kesang), which Per Kværne discusses in his 2017 Aris Lecture at Oxford, “‘Teach me how to be Gesar’s daughter’: Voices of young Tibetan intellectuals in the diaspora” (available on He suggests that the lack of discussions about and with young Tibetan intellectuals itself is a serious lacuna in Tibetan studies, one that his lecture and this essay attempt to redress. In his lecture, Kværne states: “Until now, scholars engaged in the study of the Tibetan diaspora have paid little attention to young lay Tibetans, the focus having overwhelmingly been on monastic communities or the workings of the Tibetan exile authorities. Maybe there is a mistaken perception that these institutions are in some sense more ‘Tibetan’ than the world of young Tibetan[s]. Yet it can be argued that what I have loosely called ‘young Tibetan intellectuals’ are the ones who hold the keys to the future of the Tibetan diaspora community.”

[29] Lama 163.

[30] See Lokyitsang, “Conflicts of Desire” on

[31] See, for example, Sponberg 1992 and Wilson 1996.

[32]  On the former, see Lama Jabb, “The Immortal Ring of Samsara and Poetry” on On the latter, see Miranda Arocha Smith, “Tracing the Footsteps of Tibetan Mothers” in Longing to Awaken: Buddhist Devotion in Tibetan Poetry and Song.

[33] See Lokyitsang, “Who Is a Pure Tibetan?” on

[34] Unfortunately, mobility may or may not lead to transcendence. As Dolma observes of “Little Tibet” in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto: “To me, this place is the camp built anew. A copy of a copy of home. Another temporary stop in an endless journey” (80).

[35] In her monograph, The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York, Sienna Craig interweaves two terms, korra, as circumambulation, and khorwa, as saṃsāra, into a single compound, khorra. I resist collapsing these terms, since the active and passive forms have different implications vis-à-vis agency: khorwa as the passively incurred suffering of loss, dispossession, entrapment, and korra as the active and generative cycles of mobility, merit making, restoration, and cultural transmission. For an exploration of this difference in narrating female agency in Kunzang Choden’s Circle of Karma, see Gayley 2020.

[36] On the liberating effects of statues hidden as “treasures,” see Gayley, “Ontology of the Past and its Materialization in Tibetan Treasures.”

[37] See Germano 1998 and Gayley 2016. The phrase “to heal the damage of degenerate times” is quoted in the latter from the letters of the contemporary tantric couple, Khandro Tāre Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche.

[38] Alexandra David Neel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet was first published in 1929 in Paris as Mystiques et magiciens du Thibet.

[39] Regarding the process of “intercultural mimesis,” see Hallisey 1995.

[40] On the psychologization of Buddhism in the west, see McMahan 2008. See Gayley 2021 on how Buddhist modernism operates differently on the Tibetan plateau.

[41] See, for example, Anne-Marie Blondeau 1998 and Huber 1999.

[42] An important exception is Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet.

[43] “Reading & Dialogue with Tsering Yangzom Lama” at CU Boulder on 2 March 2023.

[44] Lama 179.

[45] Reading & Dialogue with Tsering Yangzom Lama” at CU Boulder on 2 March 2023.

[46] The “generational silence” mentioned by Tsering Lama has parallels in the “arrested histories” that Carole McGranahan theorizes in Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War.

[47] See Lokyitsang, “Who Is a Pure Tibetan?” on

[48] As Irene Visser states, “Postcolonial literature provides many examples that support the claim that trauma itself instigates a strong need for narrative in order to come to terms with the aftermath of colonial wounding… Narrativization is empowering to individuals and their communities, and is in fact crucial to cultural survival” (257).

[49] More specifically, in my monograph, I discuss how the letters and intertwined biographies of the tantric couple Khandro Tāre Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche embed the twenty years of persecution that culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) within a Buddhist master narrative of decline and revival, related to their own prophetic role in “healing the damage of degenerate times.” Moreover, the couple tapped into a special type of memory related to past lives and prophetic entrustment to reveal terma—treasures in the form of rituals, prophecies, teachings, and narratives—in order to suture the rupture in tradition and reestablish vibrant continuity with Tibet’s ancient past. In the post-Mao era, during the 1980s and 90s, they reactivated sacred sites and reconstituted communities in eastern Tibet through their revelations, pilgrimages, teaching tours, and large-scale ritual gatherings.

[50] Collective trauma may result from natural disasters, war, colonialism, or other forms of displacement. For discussions of the narrativization of collective trauma and social suffering, see LaCapra 2001, Das and Kleinman 2001, Jackson 2002, Craps 2013, and Visser 2015. Dawa Lokyitsang takes up the issue of testimony and witnessing in relation to Tibetan self-immolations in “Their Burning Bodies Told Histories Never Forgotten” on See also Natalie Avalos, “What Does It Mean to Heal from Historical Trauma?” on, regarding the healing of historical trauma and structural violence in communities enduring the ongoing effects of colonialism.

[51] In “Jigme Lingpa’s Theology of Absence,” Willa Blythe Baker describes a comparable phenomenon regarding “a past that is at once alive in memory but otherwise inaccessible in the present time” (194).

[52] Conversation via Zoom on 20 December 2022.

[53] See Catanese 2020.

[54] “Taking a Critical Indigenous and Ethnic Studies Approach to Decolonizing Religious Studies” on

[55] Tsering Lama in interview with Francesca Rheanon in Writer’s Voice, posted 2 June 2022.

[56] Ibid.

[57] See, for example, the recent anthology Contested Holdings: Museum Collections in Political, Epistemic and Artistic Process of Return, edited by Felicity Bodenstein, Damiana Oţoiu, and Eva-Maria Troelenberg.

[58] See Kalsang Yangzom’s review in Yeshe,

[59] Attention to this issue has been drawn by Said 1979, Lopez 1998, King 1999, and Masuzawa 2005.

[60] “Decolonial & Intersectional Interventions,” emphasis my own.

[61] “Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality” on

[62] Natalie Avalos, “Decolonizing Tibetan/Buddhist Studies,” Lecture at Humboldt University on 1 November 2021, broadcast online as part of their series on “Decolonizing Himalayan Studies? Putting Theory into Practice.”

[63] To nuance this point, contemporary religious figures are subaltern vis-à-vis the Chinese state even if they are elite within Tibetan culture. For this reason, I would aver, it remains vital to amplify their voices through research and translation.

[64] “Decolonizing Ethnographic ‘Responsibility’” on

[65] See Kovach 2009.

[66] Tashi Dekyid Monet, “Land and Body: Regenerating Place-Based Relations and Lifeways in Tibetan Literature by Women Writers” at the Paris conference at INALCO, 5–7 January 2023.

[67] See Tenzin Dickie’s interview, “Memory Keeper” in Yeshe,

[68] See my Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet.

[69] Conversation via Zoom on 20 December 2022.

[70] See Lokyitsang, “Conflict of Desires” and ““Decolonial & Intersectional Interventions against (Neo)liberal Feminism” on

[71] As a corollary, in “Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times,” Lokyitsang’s ethnographic and historical research on Tibetan-run residential schools reconstructs crucial educational and cultural preservation efforts in the early “reconstruction” phase of exile.

[72] Lotsawa Translation Workshop II, panel on “Literary Perspectives from Tibetan and Himalayan Women Writers” on 16 October 2022.


Holly Gayley is a scholar and translator of contemporary Buddhist literature in Tibet and associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research areas include women, gender and sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism, ethical reform in contemporary Tibet, and theorizing translation, both literary and cultural, in the transmission of Buddhist teachings to North America. She is author of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (2016); translator of Inseparable Across Lifetimes: The Lives and Love Letters of Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tāre Lhamo (2019), and editor of Voices from Larung Gar: Shaping Tibetan Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century (2021). She has co-authored two articles with Somtso Bhum about Buddhist themes in contemporary Tibetan women’s writings: “Parody and Pathos: Sexual Transgression by ‘Fake’ Lamas in Tibetan Short Stories” (Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, April 2022) and “Capturing the Quotidian in the Everyday Renunciation of Buddhist Nuns in Tibet” (Journal of Tibetan Literature, July 2023).