From trekking the Tibet-Nepal border, to years of researching Tibetan art, history, and metaphysics, Tsering Yangzom Lama did whatever it took to learn more about her ancestors’ homeland.
As a child of nomads who fled Tibet during military invasion who now lives in Canada – home to the second largest community of Tibetan exiles in the western world – writing became her bridge. Her debut novel We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies has been a 12-year process of “cultural recovery”.
Lama talks about this experience and her next book in an interview with Tibetan activist Chemi Lhamo.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Growing up in Nepal, speaking multiple languages was a necessity for getting around. You have to code-switch: English at school, Tibetan at home, Nepali on the streets, Hindi when you go to the movie theatre. For Tibetans, language is a really potent site of struggle and survival.
I’ve always loved books and loved to read. In Nepal, books were very expensive and public libraries were not abundant, so I would spend hours deciding on one book to buy every once in a while. The books came from far away: America, United Kingdom. The idea of writing a book myself seemed like a very, very distant thing because the centres of literary production were so far away. It took me many years to give myself the dream of writing a book.
During this process of research and cultural recovery, you were collecting a lot of oral histories. How was that experience for you and for the folks that imparted their wisdom and stories?
The cultural recovery was actually the most joyful and interesting process of this whole thing.
It was an opportunity to learn about the oracular tradition in Tibet, which even family members like my sister had almost forgotten about. My parent’s refugee camp in Nepal used to have three oracles who helped people there for decades. Women have been central to [the tradition] in villages far away from the centres of power, especially in Western Tibet, which is where my family’s from, speaking for gods that had existed in that region for thousands of years.
The idea that there were women leaders in this way all over Tibet was really beautiful to me and something I wanted to then utilize in my text as a narrative mechanism. In exile, I’m denied access to Tibet, so I could not access some of the details about these traditions. But that gave me the freedom to invent, and this is a work of fiction, not of scholarship.
How did you deal with stories of trauma from past generations?
I did it very gently and very sparingly. It’s a difficult thing to ask somebody to do.
Over the course of 12 years, there were probably only five or six conversations from which I got little gems here and there from relatives. Little stories that I could then run with.
For instance, I visited my late grandma in Nepal before she passed away, and I asked: “What do you remember of the early days?”
She said, “We had a lot of yaks, and we came to the border and we didn’t have enough food, so we lent our yaks with somebody just for a little to go look for food. When we came back, the yaks were gone and somebody had stolen them.”
After that, she only said “we moved a lot and then we ended up here” as if the rest of it was not as important as the yaks. I thought that was a beautiful story. But there are a lot of stories I didn’t use, because I think these stories are sacred.
What was the most difficult part of this artistic process?
Tenkyi’s journey was the hardest, because it is a very painful story about somebody with immense promise who can suffer even more because their conditions don’t allow them to blossom. I rewrote it many, many times in many, many ways. By the end I found a way to give her suffering meaning. That was the most important thing for me. Even if it’s hard to find it in the real world, in the text, I want to find it.
What’s your writing routine?
I work in the environmental movement, for Greenpeace – so I have two hats. I work from about six or seven in the morning until about 2 p.m. most days, and then I go for a walk or do something to break the day and then I write in the evening until dinnertime.
It’s a very unglamorous life and I sacrificed a lot of social time. I take usually one day off a week to rest. But that’s how I have to do it. I don’t see myself writing full-time because I really like having my gaze outward as well as inward.
I’ve been thinking about another novel for about a year, and have started writing it.
Early on in Measure The Earth, it is mentioned that the mother, an oracle, can fly across the sky, and has superhuman strength. I want to write about a time and a place in which all this magic that we believed before colonization is real. The next book will go to an unnamed city somewhere along the Silk Road. It will be a space in which ancient people are treated as just as complicated and interesting and wise as anybody alive right now. It’s going to be about civilizational collapse and war and colonization, all the good stuff that I usually write about, but I want to free myself from some of the historical strictures of this specific process and really let my imagination go.
I’ve been doing a lot of image meditation on details of Tibetan paintings of magical creatures, and really looking at them and trying to see who are they, what’s their story? That’s the way that I’m entering into this other world. It’s a slow process of character study.
How was the transition to writing in English and what sort of challenges came about?
I love the English language. It’s the language I’m the most fluent in although it was the fourth language I learned. It’s a very playful language.
The tension for me has mostly been related to the audience of my writing. I did my undergraduate at UBC in the creative writing program and then I did my masters in creative writing at Columbia and in both spaces I was read by and workshopped by people who weren’t Tibetan. I’ve always been used to the idea of writing to the dominant, white gaze. I’ve had to do a lot of work to reimagine that I was actually writing for somebody like you, somebody like me.
I’m not comparing myself to her at all, but like Toni Morrison’s work, when I read it, I’m only getting a small percentage of what she’s really saying. Her community will understand a great deal more. But the brilliance of somebody like Toni Morrison is that even what little I get is enough. That’s the ultimate goal. I’m writing to young people in my community who are interested in these topics, maybe it’s 100 people, that’s fine. Those are at the very centre of my circles.
What do you hope people, especially young Tibetans or even displaced youth, will take away from this book of yours?
As a Tibetan living in exile, I think there’s a lot of tension with how we pursue our voice and our dreams. I think art is just as important as everything else for our survival. I hope that if there are any young Tibetans out there who want to be artists or be writers, this just shows in one small way that it is possible. I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last.
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