We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies 

Tsering Yangzom Lama 

368 pages, 2022, CAD 24.95 (Paperback) 

McClelland & Stewart
Reviewed by Kalsang Yangzom

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama depicts a multi-generational journey into exile of a Tibetan family in 1960, from their home in Tibet to countries offering a measure of protection and stability, first in refugee camps in Nepal and then in Canada. The fragility of that existence as well as its resilience permeates throughout the book and provides a compassionate and nuanced window into the lives of the exiled. Told through the perspectives of its four main characters, sisters Lhamo and Tenkyi, Lhamo’s daughter Dolma, and Lhamo’s estranged lover and Dolma’s father Samphel, the story jumps back and forth in time that takes a while to get used to. Beginning in 1960 in Tibet, the story ends there in 2012, bringing a sense of tenuous closure for this family.
Immigrant, refugee, foreigner- these are words that are used to describe the thousands of Tibetans in the diaspora in India, Nepal, Bhutan, etc. The first generation that crossed those frigid borders of Tibet and tried to make a life for what remained of their families after the arduous journey into a foreign country is something that every Tibetan in exile and many in Tibet are familiar with. Lama’s novel opens at the beginning of one such journey for Lhamo and Tenkyi. Their mother, the village oracle, guides the village across the mountains, and the hope of those early days, of going back home, of fighting against the Gyami dwindle as the realities of survival take the forefront. Even the divine seems to fold in front of the cruelty of a foreign terrain and environment, their mother’s death a profound familial, cultural, and religious loss. The grand historical narrative of Tibet’s invasion, recorded in historical and political science books, is retold here in the everyday struggles of Lhamo, Tenkyi, and the people that make up their refugee camp in Nepal. From the desire to eat bananas, an exotic fruit for them, to hearing news of whole villages dying or being imprisoned in their bid to escape, the mundane and the terrible are revealed without any melodramatics. Lhamo’s old Ashang Migmar, who finally cut off his braid twenty-five years after he vowed to never cut them till he went back to Tibet speaks to the quiet pain of this life, this never-ending trail. This is what makes Lama’s debut novel a moving evocation of the sacrifices, struggles, and joys of her people, especially the first generation of refugees that built the foundation on which today’s successful and thriving Tibetan diasporic community lives. There is no pitiful recounting of the horrors of the journey, though they were horrific and traumatic, nor is there a romanticization of the Tibet of the past. What Lama puts forth is the reality of this fraught existence, each character’s life and choices determined by the need to lead a more fulfilling life stymied by the realities of being a refugee.
Lama also introduces us to the Ku of the Nameless Saint, an ancient relic of a mystic believed to have the ability to appear and disappear on its own. Dolma finds the long-lost statue in Toronto in the private collection of an “Asian culture” and art enthusiast, to be loaned to the National Gallery in Ottawa later (110). This aspect of the narrative seamlessly weaves two contradictory worlds, one that contains the Tibetan people and their religious faith that can border on the extreme sometimes, and the other that contains the gilded and powerful world of those who deal in art and antiques of cultures and peoples powerless to take them back. The Ku is priceless to the people of Lhamo’s camp because it is a part of their lived reality, a precious link to their past, to the country that they were forced to leave. The Ku is an “exquisite” acquisition for these art collectors, introduced to Dolma by her university Professor (97). Lama highlights how this seemingly charitable world of art collectors is just the same old colonial thievery in the garb of cultural preservation. It is later revealed that Samphel sold the Ku and he himself was one of the many smugglers who sold other artifacts, pilfered from Tibet to the West. Lama’s unflinching depiction of this unsavory aspect of survival, the complicity, and compromises made by their own people in the commodification of their culture is a harsh but necessary reminder of the violence of being exiled.
Another aspect of the novel that makes it distinct from other fictional depictions of the Tibetan diaspora is its compassionate handling of mental health which makes the work so much the better for it. Tenkyi now an aunt and living with Dolma in Parkdale in Toronto, suffers from the trauma wrought by the struggles of exile and remaking one’s life in a new country. For some this uprooting and rerooting takes place just once, but for many it is multiple. From Tibet to Nepal to India to Canada, Tenkyi’s journey has turned her into a shadow of her confident younger self, laughing abruptly in the streets, and her strange behavior worries Dolma. This “affliction” is a secret between aunt and niece. Even though Lama doesn’t explicitly state that Tenkyi’s mental health is suffering, being forced to be a cleaner when she was touted as someone who would do great things while at the camp and who was once a teacher in Nepal, such drastic changes in her life coupled with the toll of making a living in Toronto can be overwhelming. The aspirational aspects of immigration are always talked about, but the sheer courage, willpower, hard work, and support needed to succeed in a country that’s completely foreign to you are hardly discussed. Here, however, it finds a moving and much-needed portrayal. One hopes that those reading the novel are encouraged to talk about mental health, especially here in Toronto which has one of the largest Tibetan communities in North America and which recently saw how dangerous and heart-breaking ignoring mental health can get.
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is an exceptional addition to the growing cache of Tibetan Anglophone writing. Stories are never just stories, they have the power to make you feel seen and heard, to make you realize that you are not alone in this vast world. Seeing all the different Tibetan names in the novel is gratifying in a world where such names are underlined in red on various writing platforms as if to accentuate their foreignness. This is also a story about love, both nourishing and painful, that binds people, that makes enduring hardships a little easier. Lama gives dignity and beauty to the lives of refugees, in the ways in which they love and lose and rebuild their lives. As for the novel’s cover art, although it is a beautiful amalgamation of Tibetan textile prints and cloths, I felt it was a missed opportunity to promote a Tibetan artist and their art, given that such platforms are not easily accessible to them.
To those who are a part of the ever-growing Tibetan diaspora, the novel works as a palimpsest, written on the stories, myths, folktales, and experiences of the Tibetan people living far away from their ancestral land, remaking their life in India, Nepal, Bhutan, America, Canada, France, Switzerland and many more. The echoes of many memories and histories find their permanent home in the voices of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Samphel, and Dolma. At the same time, the novel manages to hold its own, Lama’s deft hand spinning a story that is at once familiar and new. The ten years she put into researching and bringing this novel to life is a testament to her desire to bring out a story that will resonate with every Tibetan who reads it. To those who are new to Tibet, the novel is a poignant and honest depiction of being a refugee in today’s global capitalistic world, where survival trumps ideals, where the neo-colonial largesse hides the exploitation and dehumanization of people who have already paid a high price for their existence. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is ultimately a display of the immutable spirit of human will and survival, to continue the struggle for emancipation in the face of impossibly powerful enemies, and to live in spite of the odds stacked against us.
Kalsang Yangzom is a writer and poet currently living in Toronto, Canada. She holds an M. Phil in English from the University of Delhi. Her writings have been published in High Peaks Pure Earth, Sahitya Akademi, and Yeshe among others. Kalsang’s latest publication is an SF short story in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Volume 2.