Heavy Earth, Golden Sky provides a collection of autobiographies of ten women from the Kham and Amdo regions of Tibet. Compiled by C. Michelle Kleisath from students who either were attending or had already graduated from the English Training Program at Qinghai Normal University, these autobiographies give readers a brief look into a series of influential moments that shaped the women into who they are at the time of publication. While these narratives are relatively contemporaneous since they range from the late 1980s to 2007, some of them recount life experiences of their parents’ or elder relatives’ generation(s). These accounts are crucial to the women’s recollections as they testify to reoccurring hardships of domestic violence, poverty, and androcentrism, as well as living in the Tibetan countryside. With education at the center of each story, these women use it to broaden their agency and control over their circumstances and envision futures where they assist individuals and communities of interest.
Crafting and Gathering Stories
As an anthology-esque text, Heavy Earth, Golden Sky presents a spectrum of autobiographies from ten Tibetan women in their early twenties. These autobiographies, according to the text’s editor, C. Michelle Kleisath, are “one of the two unprecedented projects to come out” from gender studies courses at Qinghai Normal University’s English Training Program (henceforth, ETP). Kleisath stresses that these accounts come from women in the Kham and Amdo regions of the Tibetan Plateau, rather than “Tibet proper” (dbus gtsang). This distinction is necessary to separate the abundance of attention the West gives to Tibet proper and to problematize the monolithic imagination that Tibetan customs and ways of life are the same throughout the Plateau. Through reading these autobiographies, Kleisath and Dr. Vincanne Adams urge readers to recalibrate their understandings of women and Tibetan histories, with a focus on viewing the hardships these young women undergo through a critical, non-romantic lens.
While summarizing all ten autobiographies may offer a comprehensive scope to the aforementioned challenges the women experience, it is easier to digest these stories through some of the patterns that emerge in the writings. Issues pertaining to domestic violence, living in the Tibetan countryside (which includes poverty), and androcentrism are some of the repeating obstacles. The autobiographies’ authors recognize the intersectional nature of these barriers, which makes it even more important to read the autobiographies alongside these forces. Moreover, attaining education and having a formidable work ethic is another repeating idea in these stories. Despite the fact that these women who enter the ETP hail from different parts of the Qinghai (mtsho sngon), Gansu (kan su’u), Sichuan (zi khron), and Yunnan (yun nan) provinces, they have similar coming-to-realizations in deeming education as a critical tool in becoming self-sufficient. They acknowledge that this type of autonomy is neither for a selfish or selfless purpose. Yet, a majority of the narratives illustrate how education was the key factor that allowed the women to draft and petition for projects for the sake of ameliorating troubling conditions in their communities. Hence, these women consider education a panacea, but they note that they cannot acquire it without an unwavering mindset and work ethic.
For almost all of the stories, suffering appears as a concept the author either sees, endures, or both during their childhood. Dawa Drolma (zla ba sgrol ma) talks about the physical maltreatment her adopted family—specifically her brother—puts her through. Wende Drolma (ban sde sgrol ma) and her friend Lhamo (lha mo) witness Lhamo’s father thrashing his wife, and Lumo Tsering (klu mo tshe ring) not only recounts her mother’s psychosomatic trauma via Lumo’s father’s repeated assaults on her and his death by suicide, but also brings up her own bubbling anxieties of living in a fractured household. The portrayals of these domestic violence incidents, though vivid in their details, do not attempt to obtain surface-level sympathy from the readers. Rather, their temporal placements in the authors’ narratives serve as significant turning points that led them to question their own realities, agencies, and worth. One can see this in Wende Drolma’s autobiography, where Lhamo’s mother visits Wende’s home on the family’s last night in their village. She advises Wende to study hard as “After you get an education[,] you will not suffer like me. My life is my Karma and everything is settled. … Your future has not yet been written.” Even though Wende retrospectively discloses that she did not comprehend her message back then, she ingrained it into her mind, to the point in the last part of her autobiography, she quotes the advice when rhetorically asking if young women, like the one carving ice in front of her, have to suffer because of fate.
On a different node of suffering in the shape of physical labor, the autobiographies underscore the everyday pains of living in the Tibetan countryside. There is a spectrum of these trials and tribulations, including poverty, alcohol use disorder, the previously discussed domestic violence, hunger, and death. For women like Lhamotso (lhamo‘tsho), Drolmatso (sgrol ma tsho), and Rendzenjyi (rig ‘dzin skyid), much of their childhood years consisted of their families struggling to live and make ends meet. Sometimes, this meant families asking other families for money to fund their children’s education, taking their children out from school to help them harvest and sell crops and shepherd livestock, and walking kilometers on end with lesions and blisters after a poor sale at the local market. Lhamotso’s autobiography shows that some of these problems occur as a consequence of forced migrations and geoenvironmental changes as her family and other families had to leave Longyangxia town (tsha rnga ‘gag) in Qinghai after the local government built a hydroelectric station there in 1987. Their exodus from Longyangxia indicates a severance of an agricultural lifestyle that Lhamotso’s kinfolk enjoyed for centuries, in a place where the environment itself abundantly gave a variety of fruits and vegetables. Yet her narrative simultaneously cautions readers that the villagers did not live lavishly before the dam’s construction; instead they “were satisfied to work the land and take care of [their] families.” Therefore, the dilemmas that befell families like Lhamotso’s ask for a class-based reading that demonstrates how displacement and poverty disrupt agricultural lifestyles, leading to intersectional problems that threaten the Tibetans’ physical, psychological, and socioeconomic qualities of life.
Sensing Education’s Power
As the previous section illustrates a spectrum of suffering, the autobiographies also provide contrasting attitudes towards education, specifically its necessity. Oftentimes this clash materializes amongst the villagers, but it also exists between the nuclear and extended families, the parents, and within the author’s psyche. The rationale is based on finances since it was better for the family to have additional hands for physical labor and sales than to invest in a school where the child may flunk. Tsering Drolma’s (tse ring sgrol ma) grandparents held this “traditional way of life” as they had a firm belief that “skills gained in the schoolhouse were useless in the fields.” In a similar fashion, most people in Samtsogye’s (bsam tso skyid) semi-nomadic village thought girls were a financial debt, and it was “useless to send them to school” as women performed most of the laborious work in the village. On the contrary, people that favored their children/relatives going to school, such as Chodpay Lhamo’s (mchod pa’i lhamo) father, used their own impoverished and semi-educated selves as living examples of what their children should not be: low-income, physically exhausted people. To them, education was a long-term investment that had the potential of allowing the family to escape from pressing circumstances.
Economic benefits aside, becoming educated was not a satisfactory solution for some of the issues women faced, considering that their societies still value certain gender norms and existences. Gelsang Lhamu’s (skal bzang lha mo) autobiography reveals Gelsang’s isolation when her ETP classmates and one of two female Tibetan doctors agree with Uncle Aka’s disappointment in her not performing a hospitable act that was expected of her as a woman. Drolmatso’s time in the ETP depicts people’s assumptions based on classroom dynamics that the male students were “smarter and more useful” than the female students due to the former’s open expression and participation in the classroom. Instead of acquiescing to these interplays, both individuals outline the significance of their instinctive act to question the spaces they explore as marginalized individuals. Drolmatso argues that assertion is required for Tibetan women to succeed, and Gelsang reclaims the inner tiger within her which gives her the impetus to challenge forces she disagrees with.
These latter points are what the text overall argues to its readers, acknowledging the instances where Tibetan women overcome their circumstances and understanding how their agencies give them the authority and solace to make decisions that matter to them the most. Regardless of whether those decisions leave a significant impact on their surroundings, they still animate the authors’ narratives as stories where they encounter obstacles, develop their own convictions, and evolve as individuals capable of controlling their futures.
 C. Michelle Kleisath, ed., Heavy Earth, Golden Sky: Tibetan Women Speak About Their Lives (California: Shem Women’s Group USA, 2007), 2.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 10-11, 43-44, 84-86, 77-78.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 29-30, 115-116, 95.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 68-69.
 Ibid., 55-56.
 Ibid., 115.