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Giller Prize Special 2022: The Chat with Tsering Lama

Next up in our Giller Prize special coverage, we chat with Tsering Yangzom Lama. Tsering’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies (McClelland & Stewart), is a 2022 Scotiabank Giller finalist.


The 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury says,

"Through a stirring intergenerational saga that spans decades and continents, Tsering Yangzom Lama deftly unearths how exiles create home when their homeland has been stolen. With tender authenticity, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies delicately and vigorously illustrates the ongoing human cost of Tibetan displacement, and the resolve of refugees to uphold a strong diaspora despite the violence of colonialism. The Tibetan women at the centre of Lama’s story are bound by an unflinching love for each other, their people, and the country to which they can no longer return. Vast in time, space, and feeling, this determined novel builds a vibrant world that’s both expansive and exact. Each line carefully bears the weight of longing for what once was, and the hope to sustain an uprooted culture still coming to be. Regenerative in spirit, the pages of this story are both an homage to survival and a home for the exiled."

Tsering Yangzom Lama holds a BA in creative writing and international relations from the University of British Columbia, and an MFA from Columbia University. Born and raised in Nepal, Tsering has lived in Toronto, New York City, and Vancouver, where she now resides. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is her first novel.



What advice would you give your ten-year old self about the future?

This was the year before my family immigrated to Canada, so I would tell myself to gather my cousins or friends, pocket some rupees, and go out and enjoy Kathmandu. As a child, there was a sense of freedom, adventure, and even safety in running around that bustling city. We knew where to go, what to enjoy, how to speak to anyone. Life became a lot quieter and more firmly located inside my home or school once we immigrated to Canada.

In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer—what career would you choose?

I think I would have tried my hand at visual art.

If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?

Leo Tolstoy. I’d like to take him on a drive through Kathmandu and the surrounding hills, and hear his observations.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

Dionne Brand’s Bread Out of Stone.

Your novel tells the powerful story of a Tibetan family’s journey through exile. How does it feel to find yourself on the Giller shortlist with your debut novel? 

It feels wonderful. It feels affirming; it feels surreal. I know this moment isn’t just about me. This is a story about a people facing colonial erasure and oppression. I find myself moved to tears at times when I think about this moment. The beacon of light shone upon this book by the Giller Prize shortlist is immeasurably precious and encouraging to me as a writer, as a daughter of refugees, and as a Tibetan woman.

Excerpt from We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies

Pokhara, Nepal

Summer 1962

By sundown, they tell us, we will reach our sixth and final camp. Five rented buses have driven our group as far as the roads and riverbank would allow, and now we are on foot, walking in a deep river gorge, our steps and sightlines hemmed in by an endless procession of hills. The trail is narrow, so we walk in a long, slow line, all four hundred of us gathered from various border towns. Ahead, Ashang Migmar and Po Dhondup carry our possessions, their heavy sheepskin coats hanging from their waists, while I carry Tenkyi on my back. Like so many in our group, my little sister is unwell and too weak to walk. At least she’s still with us. In Baglung, we heard that our aunt, Shumo Yangsel, and her husband had been there for several weeks before our arrival. They had begged for food on the side of the main road, telling anyone who passed by that their children were waiting in the mountains for help. Ashang thinks Shumo’s sons must not have survived the journey out. He wants to find her, his little sister, and keeps asking the two foreign aid workers who rented the buses about her. But they don’t know anything about Shumo’s whereabouts. All they can tell us is that we’re heading to the camp, our new home, they call it. A message passing slowly, in pieces, from their tongues to ours.

But where are they leading us? I had thought in Mustang that we had reached the lowlands, but here, with this heavy air, we can hardly breathe. It frightens me to think that the earth could keep falling down and down like this. Meanwhile, the sun grows hotter in each place we go, as if to light us all on fire. Yet in the corner of my eyes, behind these dark hills, I can see a line of mountains, white and silver, even more luminous than the sun. As I take these steps, I think of home, where we don’t have roads. Where we walk any place we wish, across the grassy plains, along the wide gentle hills.

Half a day has passed without food or water. We have become a silent line of bodies that traces the unceasing river to our right. My lower lip cracks and bleeds from thirst, and as I lick its rough surface, I peer down over the edge at a river that taunts me with its waters. If I go down for a drink, I doubt I could manage to climb back up this cliff.
Finally, at sunset, we hear foreign chatter. The aid workers ascend a small hilltop and pull out some papers. Then they drop their bags and move out of view.

"This must be it!" someone shouts behind me.

Gripping onto bunches of grass, we clamber up the hill to see the land. Even Tenkyi is on her feet now, walking to the top of the ridge. As we look out on a small clearing of hard earth and few trees, I clutch her hand.

Ashang kneels and rubs the soil with his fingers. "Nothing will grow here," he says. "With this kind of earth, the milk will be thin. The butter will be pale." How, he wonders, can we raise animals, or have any measure of space in this narrow plot of rocks? How, he whispers, can he call himself a nomad? A nomad would never pitch his tent on such barren land.

But no one says a word to the foreigners. We hear that they have paid the Nepali government for this bit of earth. They have also made promises to local villagers to give them water pumps and more so that our group of four hundred or so refugees, as we’re now called, can stay here. On this hilltop, we must make a new life.

Excerpted from WE MEASURE THE EARTH WITH OUR BODIES. Copyright © 2022 by Tsering Yangzom Lama. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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