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Fiction Sagas

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies

A Novel

by (author) Tsering Yangzom Lama

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
May 2022
Sagas, Literary, Cultural Heritage
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2022
    List Price

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2023 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Shortlist
2023 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize Shortlist
2023 Jim Deva Prize for Writing that Provokes Shortlist
2023 Carol Shields Prize for Fiction Longlist
2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist
2022 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Longlist
2022 Toronto Book Awards Longlist
For readers of Homegoing and The Boat People, a compelling and profound debut novel about a Tibetan family's journey through exile.

In the wake of China’s invasion of Tibet throughout the 1950s, Lhamo and her sister, Tenkyi, arrive at a refugee camp on the border of Nepal, having survived the dangerous journey across the Himalayas into exile when so many others did not. As Lhamo—haunted by the loss of her homeland and her mother, the 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 long rumoured 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's Parkdale neighbourhood. 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.
Breathtaking in scope and powerfully intimate, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a gorgeously written meditation on colonization, displacement, and the lengths we'll go to remain connected to our families and ancestral lands. Told through the lives of four people over fifty years, this beautifully lyrical debut novel provides a nuanced portrait of the world of Tibetan exiles.

About the author

Contributor Notes

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, Lama has lived in Toronto, New York City, and Vancouver, where she now resides. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is her first novel, and it was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Toronto Book Award, and the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction.

Excerpt: We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies: A Novel (by (author) Tsering Yangzom Lama)

Border of Western Tibet and Nepal
Spring 1960

Ama was an oracle. The realization came to my mother late in life, when her monthly bleedings stopped and something else opened inside. Some in our village called it an affliction. They said there was a crack in her mind that left her open to spirits who would consume her. But Ama insisted it was a blessing to lend her body to the gods and allow them to speak through her. In time, everyone would listen, and the words of an otherwise ordinary woman would lead us through the coming troubles.
It wasn’t just my mother who had changed. Packs of wolves and rats swept through our valley. Next, there was an earthquake that tore a jagged line through our village monastery. Then, just as I was learning to speak, there came news that invaders had crossed our border, entering our land as two enormous snakes. In the distant town of Kardze, people watched them cross the river in long lines and burrow into the highlands. They wished to be called the People’s Liberation Army, but we knew them as the Gyami, a people from the lowlands to the east.
In the years that followed, rumors came like crows, even traveling as far west as our village. Although I was just a young girl, many of the rumors landed in my ears before anyone else in my family. My source was Lhaksam, my oldest friend. He worked as a servant to a traveling merchant who traded in gossip as much as iron pots and pans. In our free moments, Lhaksam and I wandered in the pastures with my little sister Tenkyi hanging on my back or flopping around in the grass. In those hills, Lhaksam told me the most shocking stories. Gyami soldiers had seized farmland in the east, and many of our people were now starving. No grain, no salt, no meat or even butter. I walked around in a daze after hearing this, unable to imagine life without butter. Lhaksam said that although it was quiet in our region, a resistance raged in the east, in places where iron birds circled the skies and bullets big and small rained down on entire towns, smashing bodies as if they were nothing but effigies made of dough, where rooftops were torn apart and no one could tell whether they had found the remains of a loved one or that of a stranger. But I did not tell my family these things. I never repeated them to anyone.
Then, last spring, our village heard of a terrifying ruse: a plan to lead the Precious One into the dragon’s home. Hearing about this trap, thousands of our people in Lhasa gathered outside the summer palace, forming a protective circle with their bodies. Even as the soldiers neared and the scent of gunpowder swirled in the air, our people refused to leave. To prevent a massacre, the Precious One disguised himself as a commoner and fled south by night to another country. So did the great Nechung Oracle, who had divined their escape route through the mountains. When the foreign troops learned that our leader had slipped away, they pierced the crowd with bullets and lined the streets with corpses.
After the Precious One left, the sun was erased from our skies. Flowers refused to bloom, and our yaks made no milk. In that darkness, every family in our village wondered if it was time to leave, to follow our leader to the lowlands until the day when it would be safe to return. Others recited a bleak, ancient prophecy: When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the People of Snows will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.
It was that day, nearly ten years after revealing that the gods had spoken to her, when Ama said to us, “Now is the time. I must give my body to the spirits.”
Sitting on the kitchen floor beside my sister, I watched my father’s face in the hearth’s glow. Pala remained still as we chewed on strips of dried meat that Ama had cured over the winter. I could see that our father was clearly picturing everything that would change for us, but after a long while, he frowned, showing all of his new wrinkles at once, and nodded in agreement. By morning, our entire village had heard that Ama would begin the rites for instructing the gods. She would finally call them down to her.

Editorial Reviews

A New York Times Book Review Summer Read Pick
A Washington Post Noteworthy Book of the Month
One of Booklist's Top 10 Historical Fiction Debuts
One of Publishers Weekly's Writers to Watch
A Most Anticipated Book - The Millions * Ms. Magazine * Bustle
Praise for
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies

"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."
—Jury citation, Scotiabank Giller Prize
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies showcases a writer of rare talent and uncompromising vision. In these pages that speak of exile and loss, of longing and sorrow, Tsering Lama also manages to remind us–with startling beauty and compassion – how much can still survive. This novel is a testament to a people’s resolve to love, no matter what. A triumph.”
Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King

“Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut announces a thrilling new talent in global literature. A gorgeous, thoughtful novel, one that wrestles with history and culpability in ways that feel moving and profound.”
Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling

“A true polished gem of a novel, every sentence is a revelation. Built out of both myth and history, Tsering Lama’s first novel marks the debut of a stunning new voice.”
Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Lake Success

“[A] heartfelt and magical saga of a Tibetan family's love, sacrifice, and heritage … Lama imbues this mesmerizing tale—informed by her own family fleeing Tibet for Nepal in the 1960s—with a rich sense of history, mysticism, and ritual.”
Publishers Weekly

“This symphonic novel sweeps like a long wave to its transcendent, devastating conclusion. A story about the violence of exile, but also about the bright threads of love that tie these characters to their culture, their ancestral land, and each other: an intelligent, adaptable love that offers them their survival. Sentence by sentence, Lama builds an unforgettable world, sharpened by the force of her characters’ longing. You must hand your heart over to this astonishing novel—it will be better for the breaking.”
Shruti Swamy, author of The Archer and A House Is a Body

“[An] achingly beautiful debut.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Tsering Lama’s wise and devastating debut implores readers to consider what it means to live in exile, what it feels like to never belong. Through the heartbreaking, yet hopeful story of one Tibetan family’s struggle to survive and their yearning for liberation, she delivers a stirring love letter to a country and culture. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies captured my heart and mind. A must-read and a marvel.”
—Jessamine Chan, author of The School for Good Mothers

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies asks what happens when colonialism and cruelty take your homeland. Is it gone forever? What remains in the mind and heart? Can loss be restored? A haunting novel of family and exile, written with beauty, authenticity, and grace.”
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife

“The novel thrives as a story about sisterhood, parenthood, and the heart-piercing feeling of exile … A smart, sweeping story about the abuse and transformation of a culture stripped of its country.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Lama is an emotionally nuanced writer. In the novel, ire and elucidation are finely balanced, underscoring ideas of unity and sacrifice. Mythological motifs are woven into the narrative. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies serves as a witness to the struggles of Tibetan exiles, and details unspoken interior lives shaped by geopolitical strife.”
Quill & Quire

“This wildly beautiful novel, epic in scale, moves back and forth in time and across continents as it traces three generations of a Tibetan family and tells the story of their lives as exiles. The narrative, which begins with China’s 1959 invasion of Tibet, is gorgeously structured, the story told with tenderness and with a restrained but felt passion that makes the lives of its characters—their individuality as well as the cultural, historical, and familial bonds that shape their destinies—palpable. This is a magnificently textured and deeply affecting novel.”
—Jay Neugeboren, author and former guest editor, Ploughshares

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