Review: “Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History”

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Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History (Canyon Sam)

Tibet is the “roof of the world” that teeters dangerously close to falling off the global map, despite the protests of March 2008, the 50th anniversary of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s escape into India, and the “splittist” activities all throughout China that threaten to bring down the People’s Republic.

And yet the face of Tibet is the face of men. From the US-trained guerilla warriors to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the many other, predominantly male, lamas that teach the Dharma to students the world over, when one thinks about a Tibetan, they picture a man.

One Tibetan woman notes, however, that Lhasa was a city of women. The men fled; the men fought and died. The prisons were predominantly filled with women, and the women, even nowadays, are the ones who continue to uphold important parts of the culture, such as wearing the traditional Tibetan dress, the chuba, on a daily basis.

Canyon Sam is a third-generation Chinese-American who started this book over a decade ago. In this “final” publication of it, she focuses on four Tibetan women from the original thirty-six she interviewed: Sonam Choedron, Choekyi Namseling, the late Rinchen Dolma Taring, and the late Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar. The lives of these four women can be arranged on a spectrum of Tibet’s history of the past fifty years: the invasion, the occupation, the resistance, and life in exile.

Alongside Canyon’s frantic scrambling to re-interview these four women, she revisits Lhasa and is shocked to see the once quiet city morphed into one that could pass for any other gaudy Chinese city. The book’s title comes from the train that runs from Beijing to Lhasa, and as one Tibetan woman jokes: “The Sky Train comes in like this–ding ding ding, and leaves like this–duuuuunnnngggg duuuuunnnngggg duuuuunnnggg,” referencing the use of the train to strip Tibet of its natural resources. The train helps promote tourism to Tibet and, far more damaging, facilitates the mass immigration of Chinese people into Tibet.

“Twenty years ago, when the public didn’t know the first thing about Tibet, we used to pray and dream that somehow Tibet would become a household word. If people knew the truth, we believed, they would come forth and intervene. Tibet would be saved. Now Tibet was indeed a household word, but China had imposed its will, transformed it. Beyond our worst nightmares.”

My biggest problem with the book was that it felt rushed. There were too many threads, and it felt that Canyon Sam, to use a cliche, “bit off more than she could chew.”

But if the book feels rushed, it is because it IS a rushed topic. Two of the four interviewees have since died. The older generation of Tibetans–the ones who knew life prior to the Chinese invasion, the ones who bravely protested against the initial Chinese military forces, the ones who were the first to flee into exile–are dying.

In addition to the book feeling rushed, there are important threads that just sort of dangle in the book. They’re important, and they might become your favorite part of the book, but it’s hard to ground them in anything in relation to the storyline. More planning could have been done, or at least more delineation from “here in the present” to “author’s memory of the first time she interviewed this woman.” It would have made the book more easy to swallow, stylistically–which is not to say that Canyon is a bad writer. Quite the opposite: I had to break myself away from the book at several points because I couldn’t read through my tears, and all she had mentioned was how one woman snuck her a potato while the woman was fixing dinner!.

This is an extremely important book for anyone interested in Tibet, Tibetan history, and the role women have played and will continue to play in Tibetan society.

Note: I received this book as part of GoodRead’s “First Reads” program.

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