To live in exile is to experience time in cruel ways. Wedged between what was and what could be, the émigré lives outside of the present tense, her back turned slightly toward the past, her gaze fixed on some hypothetical future. Though she moves toward this speculative future, it recedes, like the past, farther and farther away as the possibility of return becomes all but impossible. To tell the story of exile, then, is to tell the story of the cruelty of time and its passage, the wear and tear it wreaks on the body.
Tibetan-Canadian writer Tsering Yangzom Lama does just that in her mythical, magical, and multigenerational debut novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies. In lyrical prose, Lama fluidly moves back and forth between past and future, scattered geographies, and the perspectives and tragedies of her four main characters as she narrates the fifty-year saga of a Tibetan family.
As the characters grapple with their new homes in different ways, Lama’s novel interrogates: Is a return home the only cure to the alienated position of exile?
The story begins in the spring of 1960, eleven years after the People’s Liberation Army’s occupation of Tibet and just a year after the Dalai Lama’s escape from the country. Lhamo, a young teenager, and her family follow suit, eventually settling in Nepal. Unable to bear the brute force of their flight, Lhamo’s parents die while trekking the treacherous Himalayan landscape.
Left to fend for themselves, Lhamo and her sister find solace in the “Nameless Saint,” an emaciated statue dressed in only a loincloth. Its abilities to heal, appear, and disappear as it wishes make it a precious object. Precious enough to be looted and circulated in the shadowy global art market—the statue, like its people, also becomes scattered and displaced.
When Lhamo and her sister first settle in the borderlands between Tibet and Nepal, the geography, its rivers and mountains, taunts its new arrivals. Told that the river by their makeshift camp flows from Tibet, Lhamo watches with envy as fish swim easily through the water, possibly to go into her homeland. Lhamo meanwhile is stuck, fixed to the earth as firmly as the inescapable mountains that spot the landscape.
Though a return initially feels possible to Lhamo, her temporary situation begins to feel more permanent as she spends more time living in refugee camps in Nepal. Lhamo’s lover, Samphel, summarizes the growing hopelessness when he says, “Back then, we all thought we would return after a little while, maybe a few weeks.” But a few weeks turn into decades and new generations are born into exile. While some adapt well to life in exile, growing rich from their businesses, others like Lhamo sell trinkets on the street to tourists who pass by.
In one poignant scene, Lhamo is surprised when her uncle—who has been growing his hair for as long as the thirty years they have lived in Nepal—asks her to shave his head. Lhamo’s uncle had always vowed that “[he] would not die in this country,” his long locks symbolizing his fierce attachment to his homeland and his resistance to the condition of exile. To Lhamo, then, her uncle’s decision to cut his hair feels like a quiet resignation that they will likely die alienated in this strange land.
As hopeless as the family’s situation seems, the tide swings a bit when, years later in 2012 at an art collector’s party in Toronto, Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, discovers the missing Nameless Saint, its whereabouts long unknown to her family. Though she has never set eyes on the figure before, Dolma immediately recognizes it from her mother’s descriptions. Emboldened, Dolma rescues the object from its new owners, securing what feels like her rightful inheritance.
At the same party, Dolma meets a Tibetologist who rhapsodizes about his visits to Tibet and the ritual of prostrations there. Hearing him regale the group with tales of a homeland she has never stepped foot in, Dolma longs “to measure the earth with [her] body, to know [her] country with [her] own skin.”
Dolma’s character represents a new breed of Tibetans born outside of Tibet—ones who look nostalgically at a place and past they’ve never inhabited. It might also be the closest avatar for Lama’s own desires as a Tibetan.
Dolma is further thrusted into the past when her mother, Lhamo, passes away in Nepal after a tragic accident. Lhamo’s uncle grieves, “We fled and lived like beggars even though we have a home. Now everyone has gone. Where is my little girl? What’s happened to my poor girl? I won’t let her die in this goddamn country! My poor girl!”
To die in exile is to be bestowed an improper death—one that evaporates all hope of return— worse than almost death itself.
How does one cure this condition when return is made all but impossible? Lama arrives at a compromise of sorts when she ends the novel with a grief-stricken Dolma scattering her mother’s ashes at the border between Tibet and Nepal.
“Standing here at the cleft of two worlds, I feel a kind of stability,” Dolma says. “This is a familiar threshold, facing in opposite directions: Toward a country I cannot truly enter. And back to a world that cannot be my home. Forward or back, no step makes sense…Here, I will cease to wonder about my past or my future because I will see with new eyes.”
Though Dolma expresses a quiet resignation of her position in exile—this unruly place where neither the past nor future makes sense, as she declares—she has found a new kind of peace. This may be the closest Dolma ever steps foot inside Tibet. It might be all she ever gets. It might be all we ever get.
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