There are (at least) two different histories of the land we know as Tibet, depending on who you ask. The official People’s Republic of China version calls its actions a “liberation” or an “annexation” of Tibet. If you ask Tibetans, China invaded and occupied their country. In 1959, after an attempt to get the Chinese Army out of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, his government, and thousands of Tibetans fled their mountains to India, Nepal, and other countries. Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, follows a family of refugees from their mountain village to Nepal and Canada, from 1960 to the early 2010s. Through the eyes of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and others, we see the effects of exile, loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding. This book is a welter of emotion that, among other things, serves as a reminder that the Tibet many once called home may never be reclaimed.
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies follows a roughly chronological structure, with some jumping around the generations. The book opens in 1960, with Lhamo. Lhamo is the daughter of a shaman. She and her father mind the house and keep people fed and clothed while Lhamo’s mother consults gods and spirits for any visitor who needs answers to their questions. Lhamo is the kind of dependable person who, from a Western perspective, might be seen as a doormat. She is always taking care of others, especially her younger sister, Tenkyi. We learn about her dreams and longings as we spend time with her. She wants better than a life of very hard work but always puts other ahead of herself. Tenkyi, who we meet later in the novel, travels further than her sister. Her intelligence is recognized early and the teacher in their Nepali refugee camp helps raise funds to send Tenkyi to college in Dehli. Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, perhaps travels the furthest. She and Tenkyi manage to get visas to Canada, where Dolma goes to graduate school. Dolma’s distance isn’t just geographical. Unlike Tenkyi and Lhamo, Dolma never lived in Tibet. She was never fully immersed in the culture and beliefs. The closest she can come to knowing her heritage culture is to study it with Western anthropologists on another continent.
As we sojourn with the women through the decades and the miles, we watch them try to make a life for themselves out of their displacement. None of them can know what might have happened if Lhamo and Tenkyi’s parents hadn’t chosen to flee. (Their mother was under suspicion for her role as a religious leader and healer.) When those parents tragically die, the girls are even more adrift. It seems like Lhamo, Tenkyi, and Dolma constantly revisit the question of what might have been as they grow older. What might have happened if Lhamo had been able to find love? What might have happened if Tenkyi had been with the security of a family? And what might Dolma have been able to become if she’d grown up fully living her culture, instead of learning about it secondhand?
Under the heartbreaking plot and character studies, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is the richest depiction of Tibetan life and culture that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I was engrossed in the narrative but what really grabbed me were the details about Tibet’s shamanic traditions, the food Tibetans were able to create in their sparse homeland, and a way of life ruled by the tenets of Gelug Buddhism. I spent a lot of time bouncing around online and in Wikipedia looking at pictures of Tibet and its people, while trying to get up to speed on the political history. I wanted to see what I was reading about. The Wikipedia dive isn’t necessary to understand this book and, actually, I recommend saving the research for after you’ve read the book. Without prior knowledge of the historical context, readers of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies—which I think is a reference to pilgrim’s prostrations—might be able to feel some of the bewilderment of an uprooted people, who have unreliable access to trustworthy information, living in long-term exile.
If you enjoy family sagas or books set in locations far away from any place you’ve ever been, I would definitely recommend We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.