Last night, six of my book hens (my mother likes to refer to my book club as “the chicken coop,” which has an amusing ring to it in Korean: “kkoh-kkoh-jang”) got together for a lively discussion of Canyon Sam‘s debut, Sky Train. Even though I usually play dictator in naming the book, this one was chosen because two of the hens requested a title on contemporary Tibet … plus Sam is scheduled to come to the Smithsonian this fall (stay tuned for details!).
Sky Train was 20 years in the making for third-generation Chinese American Sam. The book went through multiple revisions, eventually whittled down from an original 36 interviews gathered over numerous trips to Tibet, China, and India, which shrunk in number to 16, then 12, then 9, to the four contained here.
Sam’s final four are phenomenal women: Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar, who was left behind by her husband who chose to escort a religious leader to safety over his own family, who survived 22 years of death-defying separation in horrific labor camps before being reunited with her family in Switzerland; Mrs. Namseling who began her adult life as the teenage bride of a much older government official, who spent nine years in prison for her lofty position, and was only released to save face when her son-in-law, the prince of Gangtok (today, the capital of India’s last state, Sikkim), arrived on royal visit; Mrs. Taring who became a major advocate for orphan children and education of the Tibetan diaspora in India; and Sonam Choedron who, in spite of the years of suffering and deprivation she survived in unlawful prisons, somehow was able to forgive the man who murdered her son, who asked for nothing more than her son’s driver’s license as that was the only picture she would have of him because all her family pictures had been previously been destroyed by Chinese security officials. Indeed, the true story of Tibet proves to be testimony to the immense suffering and even greater strength of Tibetan women.
As much as Sky Train gives voice to Tibet’s memorable women, it is as much – if not more so – Sam’s own life journey towards acceptance and ultimately forgiveness. “A Jewish woman commented years ago that my going to China for a year and coming back a Tibetan advocate was like her going to Israel for a year and coming back a Palestinian supporter,” Sam writes. “I didn’t see it that way. I had felt little affinity for China before I’d first visited.”
That first visit to Sam’s ancestral homeland left Sam “[o]utraged and saddened.” Indeed, the problematic history between China and Tibet is violent, vicious, tragic. China invaded Tibet in 1950, and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India on March 10, 1959, which is commemorated annually as National Uprising Day. Tibetans were forced to scatter, and those who remained were trapped in cycles of indescribable brutality, genocide, labor camps, and decades of pervasive injustice. Subjugation continues today. The opening of the eponymous “sky train” now irreversibly links Tibet to China.
Sam takes us along on her own Sky Train voyage, sharing her palpable disappointment trying to get an uninterrupted shot of a once open skyline of natural wonders, her joyful if bittersweet reunion with the Tibetan family she calls her own in a chaotically transformed Lhasa she no longer recognizes, her ongoing search for the women who will finally allow her to finish her book, and eventually her own path towards her own brand of enlightenment. “Clean your heart. Keep the vision. ‘Tibet’ is a state of mind.”
Tidbit: This just in on September 21, 2010 … Canyon Sam just won PEN Prize’s annual Open Book Award, honoring books by writers of color. Whooo hoooo!!!