Tsering Yangzom Lama on Cultural Appreciation Versus Cultural Engagement
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Tsering Yangzom Lama about her debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: There’s a very intellectual side of your book. One of the characters leaves the refugee camp in Nepal and moves to Canada because she wants to be a scholar. She attends a party in Toronto where there are a lot of discussions happening around her, not with her, and these scholars are talking at her about her Tibetan culture. There’s this idea in the West that I think is pretty prevalent about Tibet as this Shangri-La, or being a Shambhala. I think there’s a lot of reverence for that culture, and a lot of respect for it, but also, maybe in that process is a minimization of it, or not exactly a full seeing of it, which you write. Can you talk about that element of the novel?
Tsering Yangzom Lama: I think there’s been like a long-standing fascination with Tibetan culture, in the West and even in the East, for centuries. A lot of that has to do with the interest in Tibetan metaphysics and mysticism. And sometimes it’s quite confused; it’s not even accurate. Shangri-La is based on this novel by James Hilton called Lost Horizon; of course, it’s deriving from Shambhala, which is a Tibetan idea.
But Shangri-La in Lost Horizon is a place in which Tibetan people are essentially silent, grunting servants. And the Westerners who land in Shangri-La can live forever and have a beautiful life where they’re served by these grunting, barbarian Tibetans, and the Tibetans don’t live forever. There’s a Chinese leader there as well, and he also does very well in Shangri-La.
This is just an example, but just like with anything with Orientalism, these myths about an unknown place often have more to do with the fantasies, desires, anxieties of the empire imagining that place rather than actually listening to or hearing from the people from that place. I grew up as an activist, like a lot of Tibetans. We are engaged in a struggle for freedom and human rights and recognition of our ongoing occupation, which is itself a difficult thing to achieve. And I would find that a lot of people in the West were very appreciative of Tibetan Buddhism but did not know or engage with the ongoing suffering of Tibetan people who practice Buddhism, and Tibetan monks and nuns and how oppressed they are in China, and how difficult it is for them to practice.
There has been a way in which Tibetan people have been separated from Tibetan culture. And that’s not a unique situation. That’s happened to indigenous peoples, that’s happened to African Americans. There’s an appreciation for the culture of a people, but that deep engagement or ethical engagement with their material day-to-day conditions is sometimes lacking.
Tsering Yangzom Lama is a Tibetan writer. She was born and raised in Nepal, and has since lived in Canada and the United States. Tsering earned her MFA in writing from Columbia University and a BA in Creative Writing and International Relations from the University of British Columbia. Tsering’s debut novel is We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.