The life of a Tibetan refugee in Toronto: Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel is a ‘strange and captivating’ tale

What a strange and fascinating story is told in Tsering Yangzom Lama’s first 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 spirit is ‘split’, allowing the gods to speak through her, advising those who seek her help. Other changes are decidedly worrying. Packs of wolves and rats roam the valley. An earthquake tears an irregular line through the village monastery. Soon the Chinese invaders arrive, appearing in trucks as “two huge snakes”, plundering the land. Tales of resistance and massacre reach the village. Under relentless repression, people flee, following the path through the mountains that the spirits showed 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 most will never see in their lifetime. Its plot centers on the Tibetan farming families – Ama’s friends and descendants – whose lives are turned upside down and whom we follow through decades marked by hardship. Relegated to refugee camps with poor soil and cramped housing, some are rebuilding their lives in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, or flying across the world to Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. At the heart of these families are Ama’s children, Big Sister Lhamo and Little Sister Tenkyi, survivors of the snowy escape from their homeland.

Both brutally realistic and steeped in romance and the supernatural, Lama’s story captures the essence of an uprooted people whose plight is frequently mentioned but never resolved. “No one is coming to help,” says a prescient villager. He is right. Yet, unaided, the Tibetans secreted their “Precious One” (the Dalai Lama) safely out of the country, and in the most powerful passages of the novel, Lama evokes daily life – cups of buttered tea, tattered children “lucky” to wear their deceased parents’ clothes – as well as traditional religious observances.

In one memorable scene, a dead refugee is smuggled from the camp on a bus to the capital. The quasi-comical images are elegantly balanced by rituals that ensure that the soul of the deceased is comforted in the “bardo”. Candles, songs of encouragement, everything is done to push his soul on the path he must take after death.

For many Tibetan refugees, future survival lies in businesses – making carpets, selling tourist knick-knacks – or, better yet, an education that leads to a new life in the west. Younger sister Tenkyi travels to Parkdale, where she is joined by her niece Dolma, who hopes to pursue graduate school. Unfortunately, the West is not keeping its promise. Canada is cold – not just in temperature – and Parkdale’s “Little Tibet” feels like a facsimile of the refugee camp in Nepal. Dolma’s once-brilliant aunt is prone to helpless crying fits in public. Together, they share a bug-infested apartment.

Toronto’s wealthy collectors claim to love Asian art, basking in the thoughtful glow of their acquisitions. When Dolma discovers a wealthy couple’s latest Tibetan acquisition at a fancy party, her reaction is wonder, then anger. Questioning his provenance, his cautious good manners abandon him. When she learns it is the “nameless saint” of her home village, a small earthly deity who “would appear and disappear as needed”, the narrative suddenly swings into detective story territory. Where does the saint come from? Should Dolma risk taking him back?

Safe, but feeling frequented in Toronto, the young university student feels less and less anchored. The “spirit life” that had been his goal might not be enough. “The distances we have covered. The distances we dream of. For those who cannot return home, the whole world is just a dream. Back in Nepal in a family crisis, she discovers other mysteries, long-hidden family secrets.

Lama put a lot into his story, sharing with his readers the chilling realities of invasion and flight, the unexpected sweetness of romance, and the outrages of cultural appropriation. Above all, we will remember its primary objective: the tenacious identity of a people forever driven from their homes.

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