WE MEASURE THE EARTH WITH OUR BODIES captures the essence of being Tibetan through the experiences of a refugee family across 60 years and two continents

Guest review by Kristin Lee

Kristin Lee and I are friends on Instagram and did a “buddy read” of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies in August. As we read and discussed it, we found that our reading experiences were very similar. I was procrastinating about writing my review because I had so much to say and had flagged so many excerpts as I read it. When Kristin posted her review on Instagram, I was not surprised to see that she had captured my thoughts but had expressed them more eloquently than I would have. So I invited her to share her review on my blog.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a capacious novel that sweeps over continents, decades, and generations to depict one family’s escape from Tibet after China’s invasion in the 1950s to a refugee camp in Nepal, then eventually to Canada. The various sections are told from the perspectives of Lhamo, who was a child when she fled across the Himalayas; her younger sister, Tenkyi, the smart, promising one; her daughter, Dolma, a Tibetan Studies scholar in Toronto; and her heart’s love, Samphel, who disappears and reappears in her life like a passing breeze.

A relic known as the Nameless Saint is especially meaningful to this Tibetan refugee community, but it has gone missing. When Dolma encounters it in a wealthy family’s home in Canada, she must make a life-changing decision about what to do.

For readers who appreciate character-driven fiction, this is an incredibly powerful book that evokes a tactile sense of place. Lama’s prose is muscular and piercing, her observations of the realities of exile unflinching, her characters textured and compelling. While the pacing is on the slower side, I reveled in the immersive experience, fully captivated by this family’s struggle to survive and make meaning of their existence.

If you’ve never read anything by an author of Tibetan descent, please read this! It’s essential, devastating, intimate, and impassioned. Ultimately, the question Lama asks through this novel is what will the world do about this injustice, about the plight of displaced Tibetans? What will the reader do? This is a book that will not just stick with me but has changed how I view the world.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies reminded me in glancing ways of Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body (for the historical groundedness with a touch of magical realism), Belinda Huijuan Tang’s A Map of the Missing (for the wistfulness of a homeland left behind), and Mai Nakib’s An Unlasting Home (for the story structure). It also had resonance with many other books about refugees that I’ve read this year. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Photo credit: Kristin Lee


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