WE MEASURE THE EARTH WITH OUR BODIES
For readers of Homegoing and The Leavers, a compelling and profound debut novel about a Tibetan family’s journey through exile.
In the wake of China’s invasion of Tibet throughout the 1950s, Lhamo and her younger sister, Tenkyi, arrive at a refugee camp in Nepal. They survived the dangerous journey across the Himalayas, but their parents did not. As Lhamo—haunted by the loss of her homeland and her mother, a village oracle—tries to rebuild a life amid a shattered community, hope arrives in the form of a young man named Samphel and his uncle,
For readers of Homegoing and The Leavers, a compelling and profound debut novel about a Tibetan family’s journey through exile.
In the wake of China’s invasion of Tibet throughout the 1950s, Lhamo and her younger sister, Tenkyi, arrive at a refugee camp in Nepal. They survived the dangerous journey across the Himalayas, but their parents did not. As Lhamo—haunted by the loss of her homeland and her mother, a village oracle—tries to rebuild a life amid a shattered community, hope arrives in the form of a young man named Samphel and his uncle, who brings with him the ancient statue of the Nameless Saint—a relic known to vanish and reappear in times of need.
Decades later, the sisters are separated, and Tenkyi is living with Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, in Toronto. While Tenkyi works as a cleaner and struggles with traumatic memories, Dolma vies for a place as a scholar of Tibetan Studies. But when Dolma comes across the Nameless Saint in a collector’s vault, she must decide what she is willing to do for her community, even if it means risking her dreams.
Breathtaking in its scope and powerful in its intimacy, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a gorgeously written meditation on colonization, displacement, and the lengths we’ll go to remain connected to our families and ancestral lands. Told through the lives of four people over fifty years, this novel provides a nuanced, moving portrait of the little-known world of Tibetan exiles.
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- September 2023
- 384 Pages
“Lama’s novel spans 50 years and three generations, vividly documenting one family’s attempts to stay faithful to time-honored traditions.” —New York Times Book Review
“Newly orphaned and stranded in a Nepalese refugee camp after fleeing Chinese invaders, the Tibetan sisters must navigate an unknown world.
Lama . . . brings a personal perspective to the plight of refugees and immigrants as they try to assimilate while honoring their pasts.” —Washington Post
“Wise and devastating . . . Through the heartbreaking, yet hopeful story of one Tibetan family’s struggle to survive and their yearning for liberation, she delivers a stirring love letter to a country and culture. A must-read and a marvel.” —Jessamine Chan, New York Times bestselling author of The School for Good Mothers
“Showcases a writer of rare talent and uncompromising vision. A triumph.” —Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King, shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize
“A true polished gem of a novel, every sentence is a revelation. Built out of both myth and history, Tsering Lama’s first novel marks the debut of a stunning new voice.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Our Country Friends
- Consider the book’s epigraph. How do you feel it resonates with the events of the novel?
- The novel consists of four parts (“Daughters”; “Sisters”; “Lovers”; “Self”) and switches between four different perspectives over the course of half a century. Consider the book’s interlacing structure, especially in relation to Lhamo’s work as a weaver—how does it affect your reading experience?
- “My mother was not just an idea. She was made of a body, and a body is not simple or plain. It has its own will and its own mysteries,” says Lhamo at the beginning of the novel (page 29). Consider the mother-daughter lineage in the novel—how might this statement apply to Dolma’s relationship with Lhamo later on in the novel?
- In describing the story of the Nameless Saint, Ashang Migmar asks, “Have you ever had a dream that returns to you over and over? A dream that repeats across time, linking years of your life? Have you described this dream, gone through everything you saw and heard and felt, recounted it in great detail to a friend or a neighbor, and then heard the other person say, ‘I know this dream! This was also my dream’?” (51). How do you feel these words might relate to the journeys of the novel’s central characters?
- The Nameless Saint is said to appear when he is needed the most. What do you make of his appearances in the novel? What do you think the characters needed in the moment of each appearance? What value do they derive from the Nameless Saint, in addition to his mythology?
- “It’s the ghost season,” says young Tenkyi to young Lhamo, who replies, “You say that about every season,” (54). What kind of “ghosts” manifest for the characters throughout the novel? What are they haunted by?
- Dolma aspires to make a career of studying the history of her people, but is uninterested in her own present tense. “What surrounds us is temporary, a placeholder for what will come someday. For what must come. This is why I don’t keep a diary or collect photographs like other girls my age. I want no record of this time,” she says (80–81). Consider your own personal history. What relationship—if any—do you think it has with your family’s ancestry?
- What do you make of the ants in Tenkyi’s apartment that Dolma tries to deter and of which Tenkyi later observes: “Hundreds of ants are making a long passage from the bathroom to the kitchen and back. Two delicate threads in motion. Could this be the most important thing happening in Parkdale?” (180). What symbolic weight might the ants carry in the novel?
- “I am not looking for the human in the gods. I don’t want to lock these saints to the mundane. Far from it. I want to be close to them, closer than even prayer can bring me. I want to be near to these saints in their time, in their world,” says Dolma (100). What relationship does the human world have with the divine across the course of the novel?
- Consider the starving leopard that Dolma speaks of. “Have I ever seen anything so beautiful since that day? Why don’t they build altars for leopards?” (118). What does the leopard mean for Dolma? What might it symbolize in the story?
- How do the central characters of the novel reckon with their past—or do they? In a novel of interweaving timelines, what relationship do you think the past has to the future? Does it change throughout the course of the story?
- “For years, I held a dream of a homecoming. Now that I stand here, I see that I am a stranger, for what do I know of this place, of what lies beyond this fence?” (344). Discuss the complicated meaning of “home” for the characters of the novel. What does “home” mean for you?
An Interview between Tsering Yangzom Lama and Jessamine Chan for Electric Literature
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 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 and Tenkyi, 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, as well as 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, the world of this novel has always been a part of my life, having been born into the exile Tibetan community in Nepal. I came to Columbia after working as a community organizer for a couple of years in Toronto, advocating for Tibetan human rights and freedom. Starting this book in the first semester of the writing program was a way for me to think about my community and our history through a different lens, to get beyond the headlines and abstract frameworks of nation-states to a deeper understanding of this historical issue and struggle. Through fiction, I wanted to explore what colonialism, exile, dispossession from our land has meant for ordinary Tibetan people at a human level, in the terrain of families and relationships.
My grandparents were nomads, my parents became refugees as children, and I’ve lived in Nepal, Canada, and the United States. There’s been so much upheaval and transformation for my family in just a few decades, from an ancient nomadic lifestyle to living in New York City, where I was trying to become a writer. This is a story of many Tibetans. And yet, our stories have been ignored or subjected to colonial erasure. I wanted to understand what’s happened to us—what we’ve lost, how we’ve survived, and who we are as a result. I wanted to give myself space to explore the past and to research, imagine, sit patiently, and find a narrative thread that could connect us from our present exile back to our nation’s invasion, and even further into history.
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: Growing up, when I would ask my mom or my late grandmother about their village or what it was like in the early days of exile, they would tell me a little detail about losing their treasured yaks at the border or what the landscape looked like by their old house, but I wouldn’t receive a great deal more. It’s understandable. When there is a loss so great, when the world refuses to hear you, I suppose silence must follow. And yet so many Tibetans have been speaking our stories, even in the earliest days of invasion and fleeing. I hold all of their stories as sacred, for each instance of speech is an act of hope, defiance, and resistance. But it’s one thing to speak, it’s another to be heard. I also hold our silence as sacred, for it illustrates many things, including the immensity of our personal and collective grief.
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 this hasn’t been a source of tension for me as well. Living in a series of countries where we’re more or less guests, I have experienced this negotiation with the hegemonic gaze that every writer from a marginalized background must contend with. But this book is banned in Tibet before it’s ever published. So I must work within Western publishing and all that it entails.
At the same time, I do want to speak to the white Western gaze without censoring myself. There’s interest in Tibet, and a lot of it is well-meaning, but I’m trying to reach for more. I’m choosing to decenter the hegemonic or colonial gaze and to center the Tibetan story, to celebrate a threatened worldview. I’m trying to look directly and honestly at a historic scale of grievances we have endured, and to make some meaning of it all, to find the particular beauty of spirit that can arise from such pain. I feel a great debt to Toni Morrison, in particular, and to the broader lineages of Black, Indigenous, and other decolonial writers around the world for their lessons in this domain.
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 conditions of those refugee settlements. I found images of those camps and oral history records of our elders speaking about the early days of exile. Such precious bits of information allowed me to create a history of a people that have not been served by the historical record. From these scraps, I could finally see the deprivation of that period so clearly, and it awed me greatly, to think of the strength and tenacity of our elders.
I felt it was important to focus on the body because this is a story about what it’s like to live, day to day, after you lose everything—your home, your family, your way of life. It’s easy to lose sight of what this loss means, what it feels like, within the abstract rhetoric of nation-states or romantic notions of exile. Our suffering is embodied and so is our spirit of resistance. It’s a spirit that comes from our bodies, from our connections with one another. To be human, to suffer and love and persist as we do despite our frailty. That is a bodily experience.
For centuries, Tibetan culture has been fetishized in the West but Tibetan people have been rendered mute. Nowadays, this form of dehumanization is taking place in Chinese literature about Tibet, feeding colonial fantasies of Tibetans as backward, exotic savages in need of a civilizing hero.
My novel is a kind of reclamation of our modern history—from the invasion to the early days of refugee life in camps, to our decades of exile. Because (like most Tibetans in exile) I’m unable to go to Tibet, and because the Chinese government has waged a decades-long campaign to erase our history, I had to rely on a whole constellation of formal and informal sources to carefully rebuild the past.
JC: One element of your book that really impressed me was the novel’s scale. You cover fifty 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 like this about Tibetan characters without touching on our spirituality would, in my mind, be an incomplete project. This is a story about all of the complex and myriad effects of colonial violence, not just in terms of loss of land, but also spiritually, culturally, interpersonally. A land is not just soil, it’s also all the things that people imbue that soil with. All the meaning. For thousands of years, Tibetans have held the belief that there are gods in our land, in the water, in the mountains, specific gods that watch over different communities. As such, we are deeply connected to that land.
When people are forced off that land, it’s not just their homes that they leave. They leave those gods and spirits. They leave that protection. It’s also a loss of a worldview. In exile, there really isn’t a place where our metaphysics or ways of doing, seeing, and being make sense innately. We have to learn other languages. We have to adopt, at least partially, other ways of looking at the world. I wanted to capture this disorientation in my novel, this kind of spiritual dispossession.
At the same time, spirituality has been the source of our resistance. Even when there is little hope of the other side understanding their plea, Tibetans living under occupation choose to rise up because of their faith, because they believe in their moral perspective.
In terms of the mythic scale, that wasn’t the original intent. I thought I would just write a simple story about refugees, but as I 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 metaphysics and civilization. Living in exile, I had been cut off from so much of my heritage because I always went to Western schools. And, of course, I haven’t been to Tibet per se, except for fifteen minutes at the border. But as I studied and researched, I wanted to draw upon it all.
JC: Can you talk about those fifteen minutes?
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 needed to experience myself because it’s also the trail that many Tibetans have taken over the years to flee. For centuries, that region was a passageway for Tibetans and Nepalese people to conduct trade. Nowadays, free movement between Nepal and Tibet has been cut off with a fence and thousands of Chinese guards.
Many Tibetans can’t even make that trek to the border because it’s dangerous. It’s hard on the body and it requires resources. While I could, I wanted to stand on the soil of my ancestral homeland. And I wanted to give my readers that experience as well. For some Tibetans, this might be as close as they can get to their homeland.
JC: How did you want your book to push back against Western ideas about Tibet?
TL: There’s a way in which pieces of Tibetan culture can be claimed and displayed without due regard to where they came from, or the existential threat faced by the people. Many Western institutions are all too happy to never even acknowledge that Tibet is an occupied country. Their silence may help them get more access to Tibet, but they are complicit in colonial erasure.
I want people in the West to understand that in the hierarchy of power, the Chinese government has the most power, Westerners have a great deal, and Tibetans have the least. We are denied access to spaces of political or discursive power that determine how people talk about our land and history. Living under occupation, Tibetans need to get a permit to move from one area to another, and that’s very difficult to acquire, especially in more politically active spaces. For Tibetans in exile, it’s very difficult to get a visa to enter Tibet. And that’s by design. It’s important to acknowledge, understand, and correct these 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 particular thread of the story important for you?
TL: I think trade is a major reason why the West and China have had such a strong relationship for the last several decades and why China has risen to superpower status. This has impacted ordinary Tibetan people and even Chinese people who want to resist the state. The West can’t simply have feel-good notions about Tibetan culture. It has to examine its role in empowering and enriching an autocratic government. These dynamics are also present in institutions like academia and museums.
In more recent years, the role of museums in colonial theft as well as the repatriation of stolen artifacts have become a topic for many countries. For Tibetans, this conversation hasn’t even begun. We’ve had things stolen not just by the Chinese, 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 expose that and to question what it is that people find beautiful about Tibetan culture while maintaining a kind of blindness. I find it curious that someone can look at an object and not think about that object’s story or meaning to a community. You can take something and put it in a museum, but to Tibetans, that might not be a simple statue. It could be sacred, it could be a deity. And of course, its present circumstance is itself a story about colonization.
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 really resonated with me where Tenkyi says her work makes other lives possible.
TL: Many people don’t have a life of pursuing or fulfilling their personal desires. What I’m doing is fulfilling my dream to be a writer. That’s been possible because my parents and grandparents struggled for things they would never enjoy. In this way, every immigrant or refugee is a dreamer who dares to see beyond the conditions of their own life. The courage and vision they must have to walk into the unknown, to start over in foreign lands—it’s astounding.
In this novel, I grappled with the basic truth that history is often very cruel to people who don’t get to fulfill their potential. In a sense, Tenkyi’s journey is the most heartbreaking, because she has so much potential, yet her poverty and statelessness make it difficult for her to accomplish the things that she might have in a different life. She might have been a great oracle, a spiritual leader, in her homeland. But she persists in exile for her family, for her niece, sister, and uncle, and that is meaningful.
Something my book explores is how families are broken and remade in exile. Most of the characters in my story have lost family members. But wherever they go, they find new families and that’s how they survive. Yes, their lives are very hard, but in another sense, this flexible sense of kinship gives them a focus beyond their individual selves. It can counter the loneliness of displacement. Having other people to fight for, having other people to take care of, is a source of meaning for my characters.