Interview: Tsering Yangzom Lama on Colonialism, Exile, and the Importance of Listening to Tibetans’ Stories

Starting in March 2008, Tibetans across the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan took to the streets to call for religious freedom and an end to oppressive political and social controls and economic inequalities. The People’s Armed Police cracked down, sometimes violentlyarresting thousands. Chinese authorities expelled foreign journalists from the TAR, locked down monasteries, blocked YouTube and foreign news sites, and closed the border with Nepal, cutting off a primary route for refugees. Many of these restrictions have remained in place for the last 15 years. Since 2009, at least 155 Tibetans have self-immolated in desperate protest. (For more about the 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, see reports from Human Rights Watch and the Central Tibet Administration)

When he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping intensified a policy of Sinicization and assimilation, whereby the languages, religions, and cultures of ethnic minority groups are subsumed into the larger Chinese historical narrative. In Tibet, this is partnered with intense securitization and pervasive surveillance. Family members of those who defy authorities are punished. Any behavior that asserts Tibetan identity is seen as a political act. Local schools have been replaced with colonial boarding schools where at least 80% of Tibetan children are cut off from their families, language, and culture. At the same time, a targeted censorship and propaganda campaign has sought to erase Tibetan identity and advocacy from global consciousness. Freedom House has ranked Tibet the least free region in the world.

In such a repressive environment, how do Tibetans in Tibet hold onto their cultural identity? How does the world find out what is happening there? How do exiles stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans? CDT has launched this interview series as a way to explore these questions and to learn more about current conditions in Tibet, efforts to preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, and the important work being done every day by activists, writers, researchers, and others to help and support Tibetans inside and outside the region. Read all interviews in the series.

Tsering Yangzom Lama was born in Nepal to Tibetan refugee parents, and later moved to Vancouver. She received her B.A. from the University of British Columbia and a MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. Her debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, tells a multigenerational story of a Tibetan family over the course of 50 years. Opening with the invasion of Tibet by Chinese forces in 1950, the story then follows two sisters as they flee their country with their family, establishing a new home in Nepal and later Canada. It is a rich, lyrical story that touches on issues of displacement, colonialism, cultural preservation, and the struggles of life in exile. One of the first novels by a Tibetan author to be published by a major English-language publisher, it has received numerous awards and accolades and has been translated into eight languages so far (with a Tibetan version in the works).

Lama is also politically active in support of Tibet and is the founder of Lhakar Diaries, a website that platforms the voices of Tibetan youth. She recently spoke with CDT about her book, about the struggle to protect and promote Tibet’s cultural and religious heritage, and about the importance of sharing the stories of Tibetan exiles. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

The author, wearing a vivid blue collared shirt, seated in front of a row of bookcases.
Tsering Yangzom Lama

China Digital Times (CDT): Tibetan traditions and cultural and religious customs play an important role in your book. Did you grow up hearing and learning about this history and these customs? How much research did you do when crafting the story?

Tsering Yangzom Lama (TYL): I grew up in a Tibetan household, surrounded by family and relatives, going to the monastery, speaking Tibetan at home. So I think I grew up around a lot of Tibetan rituals, religious and otherwise – Tibetan food, Tibetan songs, Tibetan dance, the whole thing. But some of the things I’m writing about in my book are a little more, I guess, esoteric. The Terma tradition, which is a tradition of texts that have been buried all over the land of Tibet by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal, this tradition is basically a way of having a line of connection from the beginning of Buddhism in Tibet to the present day, to have this authorship be all connected to Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal. This is a really interesting and esoteric tradition that I don’t think most Tibetans would be thinking about. It’s kind of like if you are really interested in Kierkegaard. It’s not everyday stuff. And that I did not know about just from my upbringing, although my father was very interested in Buddhist philosophy and would often teach us philosophy. And my mother, who is still alive, is Buddhist in the sense of being very compassionate and very interested in doing right. In a sense, Tibetan Buddhism has both of these channels, the intellectual and just in the sense of being compassionate. Both are legitimate vehicles for being a practitioner of that faith. So I had that example, but again this is a little more historical and academic, like Tibetan Buddhist monks would know about this tradition, and academics would, but I don’t think most lay people sit around thinking about this tradition. And I had certainly not known about it until I was studying Tibetan literature and Tibetan history at Columbia University, and before that, at the University of British Columbia.

And then there are other things, in terms of the trade and the smuggling of Tibetan artifacts. That is certainly not something that is widely known about. It’s also not discussed a ton among Tibetans because it’s just really frowned upon. As a writer, like most writers, we want to go to the places that are taboo, or the places that are not ordinary conversation. So I was really interested in the ways Tibetans had participated in the extraction and the trade of our material culture, and really deities and sacred objects are what I am talking about when I say material culture. And the ethics of that and the politics of that. And then also the history of Tibetan refugees, and what they went through living in refugee camps and living on the border. These are things that are not really discussed that much in my family and in many Tibetan families that I’ve encountered. So a lot of that came from research, and a lot of oblique research, like looking at records of aid agencies, like the Swiss Red Cross, to find out about how Tibetans lived, because it’s not recorded that much in traditional historical record. So, yes, a lot of it was research.

CDT: The story begins with the invasion of Tibet by Chinese forces, and the subsequent fleeing into exile of one family. So while much of the story takes place outside Tibet, it also tracks the history of Tibet post-colonialization. Do you feel like that history is well known and understood by your generation and by younger Tibetans?

TYL: It depends. Most Tibetans in exile are born with the knowledge that we lost our country. Most Tibetans in exile my age or younger have never seen Tibet, but we know of it as a place that belonged to our families and where we should be able to go, but we are denied that. For Tibetans in Tibet, the young generation who have never known Tibet to be free, I think it’s a different situation. And in 2008, the uprising that happened all across historical Tibet was a real big surprise for a lot of westerners, because it showed that a lot of people who had never seen Tibet free still were unhappy and still wanted their rights and their dignity and their freedoms, and saw themselves as distinct from the Chinese government and Chinese state and the identity that has been placed upon them. They saw Tibet as something distinct. So I think that was really striking. The relationship with Tibet is an interesting one for me because it’s a place that I know only mostly through stories, and through photos I see online and videos I watch online. I think this novel was a way for me to get closer to Tibet, because I really spent so much time really entering into the minds of children who had to flee, and what that experience might have been like, which was a way for me to get closer to people of my parents’ generation as well.

CDT: Among people living in exile who are younger than you, have you seen an interest in learning Tibetan culture, language, and traditions as a means of cultural preservation? Have you seen a shift in recent years in this interest and concern?

TYL: I think preserving Tibetan culture and language has always been really important to the Tibetan exile community, especially when they were based in India and Nepal and people ended up living together in small refugee settlements that the Tibetan government and other aid organizations helped set up. It was really important to keep Tibetans together in that sense, just to keep us alive as a community and a civilization. I think now more and more Tibetans live abroad in the U.S., in France, in Canada. There was a generation, that was probably my generation in the mid-90s and early 2000s, and earlier, who when they moved to the West didn’t have all of the structures that are now available, like Sunday schools where children can gather and learn Tibetan, or learn how to do Tibetan song and dance, and play Tibetan instruments. That’s really proliferated in the last, I’d say, ten years that I’ve noticed, and I think that’s been really important. I understand that as an effect of immigration, and now there are enough Tibetans in certain parts of the world that they can come together and form these things.

The thing with my novel that I keep hearing over and over from non-Tibetans over the past year, I’ve heard it so many times, that people have said, “I had no idea that this happened to Tibet,” which is really shocking to me, because I feel like it’s one of those world events, not that long ago. We all know the basics of many things that happened around the world, and in my mind, the invasion of Tibet is one of those events. But for many people, the coverage of Tibet and the general awareness of Tibet has completely gone down or been forgotten. And then for Tibetans ourselves in exile, I think many Tibetans have not seen our struggles in exile be portrayed or given attention. We are often so focused on the suffering of Tibetans in Tibet, and we place a lot of pressure and importance on highlighting that, and that’s really important. I just don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. Our stories are all so important. Many of us do not even have the language to describe what it is that we have experienced or continue to experience, what our parents experienced, that they were not just ordinary children, that they are children of war, that they fled, that they lost everything. These are things we don’t talk about as a community, because we have been so focused on our struggle. And our struggle is for the sake of liberating a nation and a people. But I think it’s so important for us to talk about all of our experiences, because all of it encompasses the story of Tibet.

CDT: When you were writing this book, who did you have in mind as your audience?

TYL: I wanted it to be read by everybody who wanted to read it. It was really important to me that the book be available to a major publisher, most of all because I wanted distribution not to be an issue, and that’s often an issue for small Tibetan presses that do exist and do publish English language books. They are so important, but like with any independent small presses, distribution is a problem. So I wanted everyone to read it. But it was really really important that this book not some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the Tibetan exile experience. I wanted it to really resonate and ring true to young Tibetans who, like me, might have wanted a book like this. So it was most important for me to make this as real and as honest as possible for them.

CDT: You seem to make a deliberate effort in the book to avoid using the word “China” instead using the Tibetan term “Gyami.” Can you explain that decision a bit?

TYL: I think words are really powerful, and they have a lot of associations. And also I wanted this book to be very much from the perspective of the characters, because this is a first person novel, so I’m really thinking of, how would they present it? What would be the feeling of their voice? So it begins with a young Tibetan girl’s perspective, who’s 12 years old, and I think she would use the Tibetan word for it. So I said, “Gyami.” Later on, the term China does come in, but I also wanted the beginning of the book to not have the heaviness of that word, “China,” and all that is associated with it. I wanted this book primarily to be about Tibet and Tibetan people. So you’ll notice, for example, there are very few non-Tibetan characters in my book, and the focus is almost entirely on Tibetan lives.

CDT: Your book has been really well received all over the world, it seems. What has the response been among Tibetans of different generations? And has this response surprised you at all?

TYL: Overwhelmingly it’s been excitement, and people have been really really supportive and have come out to events. For many of them, it’s their first literary event. Many of the Tibetans who come are not native speakers of English and would probably not read my book even, or they would struggle to read it, and they still come and they buy five copies. I’ve noticed there is a sense of ownership and pride that a Tibetan book has come out and been received in this way, which I certainly did not expect. I did not even imagine such a thing. But it makes sense because I think I would feel the same way if I was a bit older and some young Tibetan girl showed up with a novel, I’d be thrilled. A lot of older Tibetans I have met have asked me for advice for their children, which is really funny, too. Like, “My kid wants to be an artist,” or “My kid writes stories,” and I’m just like, “That is amazing, please encourage them!” because I think so many immigrant communities don’t tend to encourage the arts, and it’s understandable why, but I’m out here saying there is so much in the arts that is important and fulfilling.

And then younger Tibetans who have read the book have been really great at telling me about their feelings and sending me messages and emailing me and coming to events. Sometimes they’re very emotional, and I think there is a sense of us recognizing each other. Even if I’m a little older than them, we still understand the very specific nature of our generation’s experience.

CDT: Has it been translated into Tibetan or are there plans to translate it?

TYL: There are plans, yes. The Tibetan Government in Exile has a press, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the LTWA. I have signed with them and they will make a translation into Tibetan.

CDT: What about a Chinese version, maybe from a publisher in Taiwan?

TYL: That would be great. It’s available if there is somebody who wants to translate it.

CDT: Have you gotten much response at your events or otherwise from Chinese readers?

TYL: Yes, I’ve had a few personal messages, and on social media, from Chinese readers – I would say probably Chinese-Canadian or Chinese-American. One message that really stuck with me was somebody who talked about that they felt some guilt and some shame for not knowing the history of Tibet and China. And I thought that was really generous of them to say that, and it gave me some hope. Not that I want them to feel shame, but that there are people who want to learn and want to listen. I think that’s really important.

CDT: In addition to being a writer, you also are politically active working to support Tibet. When did you develop that political awareness and interest?

TYL: Really it was during university, during college. Once I started attending undergraduate, I really got involved with Tibet activists. Many of them were non-Tibetan, but they had either been to Tibet or learned about Tibet and were very engaged in raising awareness for Tibetan political prisoners and against, for instance, Canadian mining companies and other Canadian corporations like Bombardier that were helping with China’s railway into Tibet, which has been devastating as a tool of settler colonialism. We were campaigning against that in the mid-2000s. So this has been a lifelong pursuit, but I think the real activation happened in college.

CDT: I believe you helped found Lhakar Diaries, a website which platforms the voices of Tibetans, both inside and outside the country. Could you talk a little bit about the goals in starting that site, and the work you do there now?

TYL: It started out in 2009, right after the Beijing Olympics and the uprising in Tibet. Things had become so locked down because once the Tibetan people started protesting, the Chinese government clamped down in a way that was really really intense, and so there was even less space for any form of protest. Tibetans in Tibet started this tradition called Lhakar Wednesdays. Lhakar means white, so White Wednesdays is essentially the meaning. And that’s the day that for His Holiness the Dalai Lama is considered an auspicious day for him. And so every Wednesday, Tibetans in Tibet were doing something to assert their identity that was really covert, and really coded. So for instance they would wear Tibetan clothes, or they would speak Tibetan purposefully more than Chinese, or they would go to only Tibetan restaurants or Tibetan shops. And this is significant, because of that railway I mentioned and the settler colonialism China has pushed in the last 20 years, Tibetans are and have been second-class citizens in many parts of Tibet, including the major cities, where they are often minorities. This was a way to assert their identities against extreme pressures. So me and some of my friends in exile saw this and thought, what’s cool about this is that it’s not a typical protest, it’s not just “Free Tibet!” There is something about it that feels like the political meaning in how we live, and how we behave, and how we talk. So we wanted to have a website in which we could present other forms of resistance that don’t look like simple protest—so that’s, again, stories of people learning Tibetan, how to read and write it, learning to cook Tibetan food. So Lhakar Diaries just became this place with a much more expansive way of engaging with Tibetan resistance.

CDT: What kind of response have you gotten to Lhakar Diaries? Who are your main readers?

TYL: Our main audience is young Tibetans across the diaspora followed by scholars of Tibetan studies. I think Lhakar Diaries has been important for building community and as a way of discussing important questions around identity, authenticity, and the politics of being a Tibetan living in exile. For scholars of Tibet studies (many of whom are not Tibetan, by the way), I think it has challenged existing narratives about Tibetans, and perhaps helped push for the much-needed decolonization of Tibet studies.

CDT: Is there much opportunity for exchange between writers inside Tibet and outside, or is that too risky at the moment?

TYL: I think it’s quite difficult to do this openly. Things in Tibet have really become very tight, as with other regions of China. I like to read Tibetan writers from Tibet, and once my book is translated, I hope that Tibetans in Tibet can read my books as well, covertly. But I don’t think anything can really openly happen in terms of exchange without endangering those in Tibet.

CDT: There is a quote I read by the writer Woeser, who said in an interview: “There used to be two opposite approaches to Tibet, demonizing it and seeing it as sacred. They both had the same consequences: Tibet and Tibetans were not seen as real.” Elsewhere in the interview she also said, “Tibet is the same as every other place on Earth. It is a place where people live.” Your book does a beautiful job of showing Tibetans as real people with all the depth and complexity of human experience. What do you wish the world understood better about Tibetans’ lives, both in exile and inside Tibet?

TYL: I wish and hope that the world understands just what is at stake for Tibetans at this moment. There are many communities that are struggling, but we have been up against one of the most powerful and brutal dictatorships in the world. And Tibet is regularly known to be and judged as, if not the least free, among the least free places in the world by watchdog organizations like Freedom House, for instance. So I think people don’t quite understand just what Tibetans are dealing with. I feel like sometimes people don’t even really consider Tibet as being a colonized place. I think that is really difficult for a lot of Tibetans. We are trying to assert the basic history of our community and our existence and our perspectives, while trying to take on this behemoth. Then I think also when people read Tibetan fiction or watch Tibetan movies made by Tibetan people, I hope they get to understand what that looks like on the level of an individual, those forces and those histories, what it takes to survive as a Tibetan person right now. I just think people really have no idea what Tibetans have been through and continue to fight through.

CDT: What Tibetan writers should the world be paying attention to?

TYL: Woeser, who you quoted, has been a fearless voice of truth and courage. She was living under house arrest for years. She’s inside, and she’s saying these things. So I hope more and more people are reading her. And I hope more and more people are seeking new Tibetan voices. I don’t mean me, I mean just new voices, there are lots of them – what I see among Tibetan writers, especially ones that haven’t been translated. I just hope more publishers will translate Tibetan writers who write in Tibetan or Chinese. There’s a whole lot of them. There’s a huge literary tradition, the Tibetan canon is large. So I think there are many more stories to come.

CDT: In your talk in Berkeley, you referred to “the long silence about Tibet.” What can CDT and our readers do to support Tibet and help break that silence?

TYL: I’ve met many readers who have traveled to Tibet. They seem to feel a bit guilty knowing that I and many other Tibetans cannot travel there. But I tell them, now that you’ve seen what’s happening, please don’t keep it to yourself. It’s important to keep talking about Tibet — with each other, with political representatives. This is not a struggle that Tibetans can or will give up. Allies can help by listening to Tibetans and helping to amplify our voices. If you know anyone who’s Tibetan in your area, see if they want to share their stories. Perhaps they can speak at your school, your church, your union. Bring us into the discussion whenever you can.

CDT: What are you working on now? Is there going to be another book?

TYL: I’m at the beginning stages of writing what I hope will be the next novel. But I’m really trying to have fun right now, and play. I’m dabbling with this main idea but also another idea. After spending ten, twelve years really focusing on one project, and especially now that the tours and the promotional stuff are starting to slow down a little bit more, I’m finding that I have more capacity, and I’m also more ready, to just be a writer again, and just have fun.

Tsering Yangzom Lama’s book is available in major bookstores and via Audible. To read more from Tibetan voices, she recommends the site High Peaks Pure Earth.

The cover of Tsering Yangzom Lama's debut novel, "We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies," features the title of the book in bold black text, and the shapes of five mountain peaks filled in with colorful textiles in shades of pink, red, aqua, yellow, and green.


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