By Sam Ritz

Collected by C. Michelle Kleisath, Heavy Earth, Golden Sky compiles ten autobiographical stories written by her Tibetan students at Quighai Normal University in Xining, China. The students all derive from the Tibetan Plateau (specifically, the Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces) and were born from 1983-1986. Each of their stories captures a childhood lived contemporary Chinese occupied Tibet. There’s no single plot thread—each life-story is around ten to fifteen pages long—but a cohesive narrative still emerges from the reading of all the stories. All the women describe their childhoods in Chinese Tibet, linked by a common destiny to enter university to study English. Some grow up well off, but far more poor: there are none, truth be told, where the specter of economic struggle is not a central character. The authors write their stories in a straightforward manner with hints of mystical forces—a method that mirrors the classic mode of a Tibetan life story.

Heavy Earth, Golden Sky collects ten separate autobiographical narratives from young women living in contemporary Tibet, under Chinese occupation. Each woman differs slightly in their respective geographic and economic circumstance—where they’re from, the means with which they grew up—yet are connected by their shared education. Every story presented in this collection shows a woman leaving her hometown to study English, that foreign (yet, increasingly, universal) tongue. This experience of leaving home is something most readers can relate to; initially this kinship is what binds us to keep on reading. However alien the culture and landscape of Tibet may seem, we too have hometowns to escape from, a promise we seek to fulfill.

This universal theme of the text quickly subordinates to the precise struggle of its storytellers: being a young women in Tibet at the twilight of the 20th century. Taught English but raised in a state subsumed by the political and moral ends of post-Mao China, these women find themselves at an interesting juncture between their ambition and the conservative conditions of their homeland. Long subjugated by Tibetan culture, the late 20th century seems to give Tibetan women a chance—if of the slight variety—to assert themselves amidst the socio-political landmine of contemporary Tibet. The stories within the book beg the question: why are these women still attached to where they grew up? If their education offers an escape from many kinds of cultural subjugation, why do they return to their homeland? Why do they even respect it? We’re presented with their fascinating Catch 22—this desire to return home after trying with everything to leave—and wonder how much their cultural nurture informs their personal nature. In a world where this regional, religious culture becomes more peripheral to a globalized kind, this book asks how can we classify the struggle of these contemporary Tibetan women. Who were they? How was their upbringing? What will they go on to become?

Being a set of collected short autobiographies, the book itself has no overarching plot. Still, a shared narrative of personal and cultural identity emerges between the women. Each of the stories begins in a Tibetan woman’s childhood and concludes when they determine what to do with their education (typically learning English). The threads of the usual coming-of-age story are present—struggles with family, a new ambition for adulthood, attachment or frustration with the land, the people that they grew up with. Having said this, I find that the way each woman tells their story is in a specifically Tibetan way; utilizing the narrative devices commonly found in Tibetan Buddhist autobiographies. The stories of Dawa Drowla and Lhamatso, for instance, both hinge upon dream sequences, which, like those in Tibetan life-writing, expose the central concern of each of their life-stories. In Dawa Drowla’s dream, she is greeted by her long deceased, much beloved grandfather, who tells her to remember the Losar celebration, Tibetan New Year (15). Lhamataso’s dream has no deceased grandfather, but a kata that she wears (a Tibetan ceremonial scarf) while celebrating the childhood version of her village, one with ”clear clean glowing water” prior to its transformation into a hydroelectric dam (38). She too has this dream around Losar. It seems that both these women link the positive aspects of their upbringing to a uniquely Tibetan event.

Each of these authors has these dreams crystallize to a specific conflict of this larger group of Tibetan women: reckoning with a traumatic event in their upbringing as it fits into their newfound success as a student. In her life-story, Drowla describes her connection to her father’s failed goldmine; when she was born, the goldmine collapsed. Her family lost their wealth and Drowla was forced to live with relatives. A gradual rise in education allows her to leave her hometown and attend university; yet, somehow, she finds herself back in the village where she grew up in by story’s end. The grandfather’s presence in the dream signals to the reader that Drowla has, in some aspects, reached an internal acceptance between herself and the trauma of her childhood. We gather a similar kind of resolution in the dream found in Lhamatso’s tale: by having herself recall the beauty of her childhood home—made concrete in her wearing of the kata—Lhamatso transforms the ugly circumstances of her childhood into something she can take pride in.

Although not in the form of a dream, other life stories in this collection also use tropes from Tibetan culture to describe the challenging arcs of their subjects’ lives. A women named Samtsoye likens her struggle for education to that of a religious pilgrim; although born with a supportive family, she nonetheless clashes with the judgmental nature of her larger village community (22). Studying for a shot at escape is also a kind of harsh journey, with questionable returns. Another women, one Gelsang Lhamu, describes how her mother, at a young age, told her how her “animal year” of the Tiger allegedly would bring her daughter awful karma (57). Lhamu’s story thus centers around how her understanding of her “birth year” would come to infect her feelings about her own self-worth and perception of her intelligence. Here we see how Tibetan culture equally damages and strengthens the personal identities of these women. For example, a recurring thread throughout the women’s stories is their sense of familial duty (a traditional part of Tibetan culture). Regardless of whether their parents support their education or not, these women still follow—or at least, take highly into consideration—the opinions and concerns of their elders. As we see in the contrasting role of parents in the upbringings of Samtsoye and Gelsang Lhamu, Tibetan culture still impacts the way which these women interpret the course of their lives. While the experience of their lives derives from their ability and personality, how they experience life is still dictated by the culture in which they grew up in. In other words, these Tibetan women would’ve still attempted to go to school, regardless of what their family said or their culture implied. In each of their stories is a universal sense of curiosity.

There is one more constant in the life stories of all these women: the threat of cultural homogeneity upon the Tibetan way of life. Whether in the form of post-Mao Chinese oppression (think of the hydroelectric dam that destroyed Lhamatso’s hometown) or even in the form of studying English, these women often find themselves threatened by the possibility of forgetting where they came from. Regardless of the individual trauma that defined many of these women’s upbringing, they still write of cherishing of where they grew up, and many of the traditions, such as Losar, that come with it. None want to move on, in their effort to move forward. This is not their endorsement for the politely-described-as-conservative politics that long defined—continues to define—being a women in Tibet. What I found most often in these stories was an attempt to reconcile a rich cultural tradition with its most repressive qualities.