Review by Brian Tanguay
The Dalai Lama is the most recognizable figure of the Tibetan diaspora, but the focus of Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, is on individual lives ruptured by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Tibetans couldn’t prevent the Chinese from occupying their country or blunt the ravages of Mao’s Cultural Revolution when Tibetan culture, language, art, and religious traditions were targeted for erasure. Buddhist monasteries that had stood for a thousand years were desecrated and ransacked. Male children were forced into the Chinese army, either as soldiers or laborers. “They will not be satisfied with our land alone,” says one of Lama’s characters. “They want to possess our minds.” In one of many heart-rending passages, the residents of a village are herded into the monastery and ordered to destroy every statue. Refusal invites an immediate beating with a rifle butt. As this kind of brutal repression intensified those that could flee did so, many to neighboring Nepal and India, settling in camps intended to be temporary, but, as the world has witnessed in our own time with refugees from war-ravaged nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, temporary refuge has a way of becoming permanent, and in the makeshift conditions of a refugee camp the burden of creating stability and normalcy falls most heavily on women.
We experience this through the lives of Lhamo and Tenkyi, sisters whose parents died on the dangerous journey to exile. From a camp in Nepal to the streets of Toronto, Canada, the sisters, along with members of their extended family, do what they must to survive, always trapped between the harsh present and memories that allow them no respite. Perhaps the call of home is at its most incessant when one has been uprooted by force and forbidden to return. “It is one thing to spend your life circling a place you cannot enter,” writes Lamo. “It is another to be forced to walk away from all you know, launched toward an abyss, onto this rocky earth that breaks apart, dissolving under your feet, as if to say even the earth here is precarious.”
The fate of a small icon, or ku as it’s known, made of earth, parallels that of the sisters. Neither an object of beauty or obvious value, the ku is nonetheless regarded as sacred. When Tenkyi first sees the ku as a child she thinks it more resembles a madman than a saint. The ku is believed to promote healing and spiritual comfort, a talismanic link to the gods and the past and for the exiled a symbol of resilience and survival. Many years later, when the sisters’ exile has become permanent and Tenkyi has emigrated to Canada, the ku will reappear and become a palpable symbol for Lhamo’s only daughter, Dolma.
Tsering Yangzom Lama’s prose is evocative and often hauntingly poetic. She captures the mood of the displaced, as in this passage describing Dolma at the border with her mother’s ashes. Dolma has literally traveled as far as she can, a journey of thousands of miles to bring her mother home, so near that she can peer across the border into territory she is forbidden to enter: “This is a familiar threshold, facing in opposite directions: Toward a country I cannot truly enter. And back to a world that cannot be my home. Forward or back, no step makes sense. So I must remain between two realms.”
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2022.