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We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies

by Tsering Yangzom Lama

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1364203,382 (4.17)17
"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"--… (more)
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» See also 17 mentions

Showing 3 of 3
Tibetan sisters Lhamo and Tenkyi, along with their parents, flee their home in the wake of the Chinese army’s occupation in the 1950s. During the journey into Nepal, the family is asked to safeguard a small religious statue, called a ku. The sisters end up in a Nepalese refugee settlement, where Lhamo meets and develops a complicated relationship with Samphel. Tenkyi eventually emigrates to Canada, and Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, eventually joins her in Toronto to pursue an education in Tibetan culture and history. It is a story of relocation, suffering, and resilience.

The ku is a recurring object throughout the story. “And here he is. Our camp’s lost Saint. So humble, so precious. Looking up with teeth bared, eyes wide, as if struggling to speak. I almost want to laugh because right here on this cluttered oak table, in this object, is our entire history, the whole of our civilization.”

The storyline travels backward and forward in time to provide the family’s ancestral history, trace the provenance of the ku, and follow Dolma’s increasing awareness of her family’s past traumas. She has been shielded from finding out too much by the older generation, who closely guard their painful past experiences.

The prose is beautiful. It is an intricately crafted story. It contains enough complexity to keep the reader’s interest. The author employs alternating first person perspectives that shift in time to contrast the old and new lifestyles. It also provides an opportunity to learn more about our world – in this case the Tibetan refugee experience, Tibetan culture, and its annexation by China. Much of it is set near the border of Tibet and Nepal.

The importance of a homeland to a sense of identity is integral to the narrative. It is sprinkled with Tibetan words, rites, and spiritual beliefs. Moving parts include an oracle, a love story, orphaned children, art collectors, multiple journeys, and personal growth for the main characters. The ending is emotional and satisfying. It is a wonderful reading experience. Highly recommended!
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
This is the story of three women across two generations, all Tibetan refugees. First, two sisters make the difficult walk into Nepal with their parents soon after the Red Army arrives in their part of Tibet. They end up in a camp that becomes a permanent community, one sister dutiful and who stays, and the other who does well in school, so well that the community works to get her to higher education in India, an experience she finds overwhelming. Then there is the daughter of a sister, who attends university in Toronto, living with the aunt who reached Toronto before she did and who becomes involved in trying to repatriate an artifact she sees in a wealthy Canadian's home.

This is a vivid portrayal of what life is like for refugees and for their children, who always feel their strongest connection to a place they can't even visit. This is a book set in the Tibetan communities of Nepal and Canada, but written for western readers; explaining cultural practices and how it feels to live as a permanent exile. The plot, involving a stolen artifact and star-crossed lovers was fun, even if it lost a little momentum at the end. ( )
  RidgewayGirl | Jul 30, 2022 |
Tsering Yangzom Lama's We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a multigenerational novel beginning shortly before the Chinese invasion of Tibet and continuing through to the present day. The generations included in the novel are those who were adults at the time of the invasion, their children, and the subsequent generation of children born in the refugee camps that Tibetans were forced to flee to.

At the center of the novel is a nameless clay saint figurine, rescued from a destroyed monastery. Unlike most such figures, this one is humble, unembellished, human and vulnerable in appearance. This nameless saint is reputed to disappear, then reappear in times of crisis when his presence is needed—times such as the invasion of Tibet and the years following that invasion. Readers see the nameless saint being used in healing rituals pre-invasion and in the refugee camps, and in Canada purchased as an addition to a wealthy orientalist's "Asian" collection. (The choice of "orientalist," rather than another term is deliberate here, intended to reflect both Western lumping together of the cultures within China and across the Asian continent and the view of the nameless saint as an artifact, rather than a living protector of a community that continues to exist after decades of cultural genocide.)

The aspiring scholar/daughter of a woman living in a refugee camp in Nepal who has immigrated to Canada and is pursuing graduate work in Tibetan Culture is shown the nameless saint at a party of mingled scholars, art patrons, and activists and recognizes it as the legendary figurine she grew up hearing about but had never seen. The novel's central characters include this woman—one of the generation born in refugee camps—her aunt, who has also immigrated to Canada; her mother, who continues to live in the camp in Nepal; and the grandmother she never knew who was a traditional healer.

Lama gives us a powerful narrative of the Tibetan diaspora, along with an exploration of the cultural changes that resulting from this diaspora. Is the nameless saint a god or is it merely an object? Where does it belong—carefully preserved in a museum or private collection or among the people who still see it as a living force with protective powers? We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies makes for powerful and enlightening reading, serving as both history (as experienced through fiction) and as an opening into a larger consideration of colonialism, conquest, and the deliberate erasure of cultures.

I received a free electronic review copy of this title; the opinions are my own. ( )
  Sarah-Hope | Jun 19, 2022 |
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"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"--

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