Interview: Tsering Yangzom Lama, author, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies - “Tibetans are always translating”

BySimar Bhasin
Mar 04, 2023 11:58 AM IST

On exile, placing women at the centre of the narrative, and how the structure of Tibetan stories aligns with a samsaric understanding of life

This was originally meant to be a “comedy of manners” about the Tibetan community in Toronto. How then did it take its present shape?

Author Tsering Yangzom Lama (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Tsering Yangzom Lama (Courtesy the publisher)

As I began to write about the characters’ present reality, I found myself thinking about everything that had brought them to the West. How did they get there? Where are their families? What are the historical forces impacting them? Even a tiny bit of digging into their recent histories revealed that the story really began when Tibet was invaded and our exile began. Thus, I had to broaden the scope of the novel – to tell the story of a nation as well as individuals. My characters also drew me in in a way that changed the tone and character of the novel. Their tragedies and heroism are profound. They demanded closer proximity and tenderness, for their experiences and perspectives. Of course, a comedy can also achieve this effect, but just not for this novel.

Your narrative almost becomes a site for contestation between conversations and orally transmitted stories of the colonized or the exiled on the one hand, and the more official modes of record keeping by the colonial forces or the nations providing asylum in the Global North on the other. Was that what you had set out to do from the start?

This emerged as I started to research the setting and time of the novel. It became increasingly clear that the lives of Tibetans, and especially refugees, are not served by the historical record. Like most Tibetans, I’m used to not seeing my country on any modern map, but I was surprised to see how difficult it was to research our recent past. The paucity of written sources led me to draw from interviews and oral history records (the Tibetan Oral History Project was vital). I also drew from records of aid organizations as well as trips to Dharamsala as well as a trek to the border of Tibet and Nepal. I remember at a community book event in New York City, a Tibetan person said that we often don’t think of our lives (as exiles or refugees) as being important. I think this is the internalization of trauma. In a way, the novel is a record of a history I couldn’t find elsewhere and also an assertion to myself and my community that our stories do matter.

Did you choose to concentrate on the story of a particular family as a means to show how the vocabulary adopted by the “global” liberal public sphere on human rights is informed by a Western political imagination which overlooks such personal narratives that lie outside of it?

“Human rights” is a legal and political frame. There’s value in that lens for certain advocacy spaces, but it only covers part of the story of colonization and displacement. I’m interested in talking about the spiritual, cultural, familial aspects of living as a Tibetan person today. The spiritual violence of being uprooted from a land that you consider holy… that can’t be conveyed or even comprehended within a strictly rational materialist or colonial framework. Nor can the disorientation of shifting from a Tibetan world view to a Western one, or the ways families are fractured and have to be remade in exile, nor the shame of selling precious statues from your culture in order to earn a living. Art and literature give us the ability to go beyond the frames and lenses of dominant powers. They can give us an understanding that is simultaneously particular and panoramic. They show us what it feels like to be alive in a specific body. That’s what I’m striving for.

The part where Dolma contends with the apathy of Western academia when it comes to the Tibetan struggle, did that stem from personal experience?

Not in that exact way, but I was educated in the West and have taken Tibet studies classes in a few universities. As such, I have experienced the particular sense of self-doubt that Dolma feels, where a non-Tibetan scholar made me question both my credibility and knowledge about my own history and community. Speaking with other young Tibetans in exile, I’ve learned that this is pretty common. It’s one of the invisible effects of colonization – where the study and discourse around Tibetans is owned by non-Tibetans. But it’s encouraging to see a new generation of Tibetan scholars who are reclaiming and reasserting their knowledge.

What was it like to create separate voices for different characters?

This was maybe the most basic and also the hardest part of writing this book. It took me a long time to understand each of my characters. It’s not unlike getting to know someone in real life. It takes time, patience, and a lot of effort. It’s an exercise of expanding your imagination and identification with another being. I had to listen for false notes and to continually revise as my understanding altered.

368pp, ₹599; Bloomsbury
368pp, ₹599; Bloomsbury

How myth and folklore inform the lived experience of the exiled challenges Western literary aesthetics particularly when it comes to the writing of historical fiction. What was your thought process behind this?

There’s a lot to dig into here. But I would say that these traditional stories are important because they convey our way of knowing, being, and doing. For instance, there’s a repetitive structure in Tibetan stories – where a character repeatedly does the same thing day after day with small differences each time – and this aligns with a samsaric, cyclical understanding of life. In this light, I thought about what kind of novelistic form or shape could reflect this world view. Eventually I landed on a shape with chapter pairings that are relationships (daughters, sisters, lovers, self) because I believe that identity is relational rather than something inherent or static. This goes deep in Tibetan Buddhist thought. The Western novel meanwhile tends to privilege the individual. I always knew that I wanted to write a novel in which no character is more important than another.

Do you feel that your women protagonists provide an alternate mode of articulating the migrant condition?

Narratives of nation states have been largely exclusionary towards women. The novel itself came out of a hunger for stories that reflected and appealed to women. Nowadays, we have this silly differentiation between “systems novels” (read: political, masculine, serious) and “domestic novel” (read: personal, feminine, sentimental). I wanted to combine both, to write about the nation through women. I wanted to put Tibetan women at the very centre of our modern story because we are at the centre as well as the margins.

You are aware of the limitations of English and the impossibility of translating the experiences of Tibetan refugees. What challenges did you encounter in this regard?

There are a myriad of challenges but I think about what Tenzin Dickie, a Tibetan writer and friend has said -- that Tibetans are always translating. In exile, we live as guests in other people’s countries, and in occupied Tibet, Tibetans contend with a colonizer’s language and frames. I grew up speaking Nepali, Hindi, Tibetan, and English – trying to code-switch as I moved through different spaces and communities. In each case, I could convey some ideas but not all. As any translator can tell you, failure is inherent in the act.

In my writing, I try to keep multiple audiences in mind. I think about communicating with Tibetan readers and with readers who have no knowledge whatsoever of Tibet or our customs. I want to be understood by any reader willing to do the work of reading my book. I don’t believe in opacity for its own sake. I also don’t want to be a tour guide who writes for the foreign gaze. So I am always negotiating between what’s minimally legible to a broader audience so that they get enough of what’s happening, while keep Tibetans as my core audience. It’s vital to me that this text reads as true and honest to the Tibetan reader, that it reads as though it were written for us – because it was.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing some smaller pieces right now, seeing what could stick and become the next book. After 10 years of fixation on a single project, I’m enjoying the freedom of play. I’m trying to be patient and receptive to whatever emerges.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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