"There are 60 guys here and me," she began in her e-mail to friends on the eve of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, ending with "... hope this is intelligible, because I will not edit." The bulk of that message, written in passionate haste, conveyed not only the challenges of the journey, but also what she saw as the grating ironies of the "official" Chinese portrayal of an idealized Tibet.
In contrast, she found Lhasa far from ideal, a city utterly changed from the serene, spacious, pure-aired place she had known in years past. Now she saw fast-food joints, cheap hotels and high-rise concrete structures obscuring the view of the surrounding mountains. It was a place, she wrote, that "broke my heart to see."
Those raw jottings — later much edited — eventually formed a small but crucial part of Canyon Sam's 2009 book "Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History," which she will be presenting at Stanford University on April 14.
The story of Sam's return to Tibet on the Sky Train is remarkable in itself (traveling through permafrost at 17,000 feet), but it is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The book was wrested out of 25 years of the author's increasingly profound engagement with the Tibetan people, culture and philosophy, starting with her first visit to China in the mid-1980s to explore her own ethnic heritage. She is a third-generation San Francisco Chinese American, though in Tibet she was often mistaken for a Tibetan.
Over months and years of traveling in Tibet and working in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government in exile, Sam heard numerous stories of imprisonment, torture, denunciation, starvation, loss and exile after the Chinese invasion and occupation of 1959. Yet while much has been written and said about those years, Sam said nobody had recorded the women's dramatic stories or the critical roles they played.
As Sam recalled, "There were a lot of Western guys, Tibetan Buddhists and scholars, writing their books, and they would interview all men — but no women. They did not include women in their projects."
Back in the United States, Sam raised money for Tibetan causes, engaged in political activism on the country's behalf, and did a stint as a performance artist, notably with her one-woman show called "the Dissident." She returned to Tibet and Dharamsala in the mid-'90s with a purpose, interviewing dozens of Tibetan women between ages 18 and 90, listening to accounts of suffering, resistance and survival with the help of translators, including a Tibetan nun and a niece of the Dalai Lama.
Though Sam sometimes resisted the enormous project she had given herself, she said the historical importance of the interviews became clear to her. "This is amazing material," she remembered thinking, "and if I don't get it out, I know it's not going to get out."
After years of recording, transcribing, re-interviewing and editing, Sam winnowed the trove of oral history down to four stories for the book. She said choosing them was not easy, especially since many of the women's lives had changed radically over the years, whether they stayed in Tibet or left for India, Switzerland or Australia. Eventually, Sam chose older women from a range of regions, classes and life experiences.
"I decided to include stories that represented different aspects of Tibetan history," she said. "So one woman's experience represents the invasion; she was giving birth when Lhasa was bombed. One represents the occupation: After her husband escaped, she was imprisoned for years as a slave laborer.
"Another was a freedom fighter who lost many relatives to the Chinese, including her husband and son, yet still was very impassioned — her life represents resistance. Mrs. Taring's story represents exile: The Dalai Lama asked her to start an institution in India to educate and house the thousands of children who had lost their parents, the Tibetan Homes Foundation."
Through the closely observed portrayals of these women emerges a complex book, covering major themes of women's rights, political oppression, courage and hardship, as well as the author's personal journey to a new understanding of the meaning of Tibet.
The book has been praised by scholars of Tibetan Buddhism including Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, who wrote a review at the request of the publisher. His writing included these testaments: "'Sky Train' powerfully moves the heart, as it brings to life deep truths about our world today, about Tibet, the land and people and especially its outstanding women. Just as important is the author's own revelatory discovery of 'Tibet' as a compassionate, wise, and down to earth state of mind essential to the survival of the whole world."
Raised without religion herself, Sam said she was repeatedly struck by the women's "special quality of devotion and faith, even after they had lost everything. That did intrigue me a lot: It made me think, 'What is Buddhism?'" Early on, she started reading, studying and attending the Dalai Lama's teachings, until Buddhism "became more and more part of my pursuit."
Ultimately, the Dalai Lama, with whom she had her first private audience in 1986, wrote the foreword to "Sky Train."
What: Canyon Sam speaks about her book "Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History."
Where: Old Union, Third Floor, Stanford University
When: Wednesday, April 14, 7 p.m.
Info: For more about the event, which is sponsored by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, call 650-736-1301.