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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History

Sam, Canyon. Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History.

The book opens with a foreword by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama which lends a certain gravitas to Ms. Sam's collection of oral histories. One of the Dalai Lama's statements enjoins those concerned with the fate of Tibet "neither to give up nor to give in to destructive emotions like anger and hatred." A difficult concept for most of us, but the four women whose stories are told here found their religion to be a sustaining factor despite the Chinese attempts to obliterate Tibetan Buddhism and severely punish those who practiced it.

In 1986, Canyon Sam, a third-generation Chinese American, decided to spend a year in Asia, concentrating on China. It didn't turn out that way; Ms. Sam did not enjoy China and ended up spending most of her time in Tibet after falling in love with the Tibetan people and landscape.

In 1990, the author returned to Tibet and began gathering oral histories from the women who survived the Chinese take over in 1959. We should all be grateful to Ms. Sam for caring enough to gather these stories and to preserve and publish them before they were lost. They may well be the only real overview of those decades that detail the experiences of women from their own perspectives.

Although the final version of her book has been limited to the stories of only four of the women interviewed, they are broadly representative of the situations of all Tibetan women who endured the horrors of the Chinese invasion and occupation of their country.

In 2007, Ms. Sam returned to Tibet and interviewed some of the women she had met and recorded in 1990. The author's own journeys to Tibet, her reception by the Tibetan people, her first-hand views of the Chinese presence and purpose are woven into this work, although the stories of the women whose stories she relates take precedence.

Moving and informative, Sky Train leaves the reader with much to think about, with new insights, and with new appreciation for the freedoms and privileges people in free countries take for granted. The tragedy of Tibet seems to be an almost hidden part of history.

The last 50 years of Tibetan history is heart-breaking in many ways, but the resilience and courage of the Tibetan people who have survived half a century of oppression is a fantastic and inspirational story in itself.

I read this book because of an email I received from Shaila Abdullah, author of Saffron Dreams, recommending it. The University of Washington Press sent me the book for review; I'm grateful to them for sending me a copy and to Shaila Abdullah for her recommendation and the suggestion that I read Sky Train.

Also of interest are the following documentaries, I watched earlier this year: 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama and Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion.

Nonfiction. Memoir/Oral History. 2009. 246 pages + notes.


  1. The statement you quoted by the Dalai Lama is so true, but as you mentioned, a difficult concept for most of us no doubt.

    Sky Train sounds like a really interesting book. I do not know much about Tibet other than what I hear through the media.

    Thank you for bringing this one to my attention, Jenclair.

  2. LF - I was moved by the courage of these women, over and over again. The treatment they received was so inhumane; their resilience astonishing. What the Chinese have done (and are doing) to the Tibetan culture is so sad...

  3. This sounds like a powerful read. I'd not heard of it before but it's going on my list. I can't remember if you blogged about it but what did you think of 10 Questions? I must get that. I'm afraid my video store probably doesn't carry it but I'll have a look one day.

  4. iliana - It WAS a powerful book.

    I liked the 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, an excellent documentary. Netflix has lots of documentaries that aren't available locally. This one is available to watch on the computer.