A Tibetan refugee’s life in Toronto: Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel a ‘strange and compelling’ tale

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What a strange and compelling tale is told in Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel “We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies.” It’s 1960, and mysterious changes are happening in a western Tibetan village. Ama, the narrator’s mother, becomes an oracle — part of an 800-year-old tradition-after her mind “cracks,” allowing the gods to speak through her, advising those who seek her help. Other changes are decidedly ominous. Packs of wolves and rats sweep through the valley. An earthquake tears a jagged line through the village monastery. Soon the Chinese invaders arrive, appearing in trucks like “two enormous snakes,” plundering the land. Tales of resistance and massacre reach the village. Under relentless repression, the people flee, following the path over the mountains the spirits have shown Ama.

Born in Nepal to exiled Tibetan parents, Lama beautifully conveys both the harshness of the refugee experience and a people’s fierce loyalty to a country that most will never see in their lifetimes. Her plot centers on Tibetan farming families — Ama’s friends and descendants — whose lives are upended and whom we follow through decades defined by hardship. Relegated to refugee camps with poor soil, meagre accommodations, some make new lives in Nepal’s capitol, Kathmandu, or fly across the globe to Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. At the core of these families are Ama’s children, big sister Lhamo and little sister Tenkyi, survivors of the snowy escape from their homeland.

At once brutally realistic and threaded through with romance and the supernatural, Lama’s tale captures the essence of a deracinated people whose plight is frequently mentioned but never remedied. “No one is coming to help,” declares one prescient villager. He’s right. Still, without help, Tibetans secreted their “Precious One” (the Dalai Lama) safely out of the country, and in the novel’s most powerful passages, Lama evokes daily lives — cups of butter tea, ragged children “lucky” to be wearing their dead parents’ clothes — as well as traditional religious observances.

In one memorable scene, a dead refugee is smuggled from the camp aboard a bus to the capital. Near-comic images are elegantly balanced by rituals that ensure the deceased’s soul is comforted in the “bardo.” Candles, chants of encouragement, everything is designed to urge his soul onward on the path he must take after death.

For many Tibetan refugees, future survival lies in businesses — rug-making, selling tourist trinkets — or, best of all, an education that leads to a new life in the west. Younger sister Tenkyi makes it to Parkdale, where she is joined by her niece Dolma, who hopes to pursue university graduate studies. Sadly, the West fails to deliver on its promise. Canada is cold — not only in temperature — and Parkdale’s “Little Tibet” seems like a facsimile of the refugee camp in Nepal. Dolma’s once-bright aunt is given to bouts of helpless crying in public. Together they share an insect-infested apartment.

Wealthy Toronto collectors claim to love Asian art, basking in the reflected glow of their acquisitions. When Dolma happens on a rich couple’s latest Tibetan acquisition at a fancy party, her reaction is wonder, then anger. Questioning its provenance, her careful good manners desert her. When she learns that this is her home village’s “Nameless Saint,” a small, earthy deity that “would appear and disappear depending on who needed it,” the narrative suddenly swings into detective story territory. Where did the saint come from? Should Dolma risk taking it back?

Safe, yet feeling patronized in Toronto, the young scholar feels increasingly unanchored. The “life of the mind” that had been her goal might not suffice. “The distances we’ve traveled. The distances we dream of. For those who cannot return home, all the world is a dream.” Returning to Nepal in a family crisis, she uncovers more mysteries, long-hidden family secrets.

Lama has packed a whole lot into her tale, sharing with her readers the frightening realities of invasion and flight, the unexpected sweetness of romance and the outrages of cultural appropriation. Mostly we’ll remember her primary focus: the tenacious identity of a people forever cast out from home.

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