Canyon Sam

Canyon Sam is the author of Sky Train: Tibetan Women On the Edge of History (University of Washington Press, October 2009), winner of the 2010 PEN American Center’s Open Book Award. The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword for this groundbreaking book which provides the missing narrative of women in modern Tibetan history through an interweaving of memoir, oral history and travel reportage. Publishers Weekly called it, “Remarkable… visceral and deeply felt, she evokes a beautiful subtle culture that is as rich as it is foreign…”

Over nineteen years in the making, Sky Train has won praise from Robert Thurman, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sylvia Boorstein, Alice Walker, Sharon Salzburg and the American Library Association. A third generation Chinese American, Ms. Sam spent a year in Asia when Tibet first opened in the mid 1980s. Returning to the States she worked as an early Tibet activist in the U.S. — helping found the Tibetan Nuns Project, hosting a cable TV program on Tibet and speaking at the Congressional hearings on Tiananmen Square. A nationally acclaimed performance artist, her shows exploring the challenges of Buddhist practice in the West — have toured North America, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Asia Society in New York, colleges and universities. The Village Voice called her, “A master storyteller …whose work is universally relevant.”

Her memoirs, plays, and articles have appeared in over two dozen publications including Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time (2007, Seal Press/Avalon), Shambhala Sun, The Seattle Review, and the San Jose Mercury News. She wrote for Agence France Presse. Ms. Sam is the recipient of numerous artists’ residencies and awards including a Screenwriting Fellowship from the Center for Asian American Media, a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship, and a San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist’s grant in literature.

FAQ

Is Canyon your given name?
Are you Tibetan?
How did you get interested in Tibet?
What’s your background and how did you start performing?

Is Canyon your given name?
I took the name as a teenager. I dropped out of university and was a little nomadic for a while. One day while I was living in Oregon I had a dream about a beautiful canyon. I was a weightless consciousness flying over this canyon and I could swoop up and see the vast scope of it and I could fly around into different side canyons and I could fly close and see tiny details of plant and animal life. I woke up and had this wave of sound washing over me, saying “Canyon, Canyon”, and these visions of this place. My friend, who knew I’d been looking for a new name for two years, said, “That can be your name.” -
Maybe twenty five years later I learned that in Native American culture a young person at aged nineteen goes out and lives in nature alone for weeks or months until a part of nature gives her or him its name.

Are you Tibetan?
No, I am third generation Chinese American. My family was from the rural Canton area, north of Hong Kong. In Tibet during my first trip, the local people thought I was from Dharamsala, the Tibetan community in India. In Dharamsala, the local people also thought I was Tibetan, maybe from Canada. Actually in the early 1990s a Chinese man told me, based on seeing my Chinese name on my Dad’s side, that I was from the north, up near Mongolia. My family name means people of the camel, or camel tribe. So for a long time I thought my family had originally come from Mongolia many generations ago and maybe that’s why I instantly felt a kinship with the Tibetans. The Tibetans and Mongolians were linked very closely culturally, spiritually, ethnically and politically in eras gone by. Eventually I even had my DNA tested. (But that’s another story…)

How did you get interested in Tibet?
When I backpacked through China in my twenties in the mid-1980s I visited Tibet in the fifth week and was taken in by a family my second day in town. Tibet had just opened to the outside world for the first time since the 19th century. The family lived in an old ninth-century monastery. I ended up staying and traveling in other parts of Tibet for another couple months, then I released myself from my long-standing plans to live in China and teach English for the year and went overland on the Silk Road into northern Pakistan and circled into India. I lived in Dharamsala for the fall.
When I came back to the States people were envious — thinking that I’d taken a year-long holiday in China. But I said I spent half the time in China being lost. In 1986, China did not have infrastructure for foreigners, especially for travelers off the beaten path, in the western part of the country where ethnic minorities live and where I went. All the signs were in Chinese, and the maps, and no one spoke English. I really did spend a lot of time lost and roaming around and observing life. China was very poor then.

What’s your background and how did you start performing?
I grew up in the western part of San Francisco on those straight, long, grey streets that lead to the Golden Gate Bridge on the one end and to Golden Gate Park on the other. I grew up hearing the bleating of the foghorns at night when I went to sleep. Our neighbors on all three sides were named Mary – one was Japanese American, one was Italian American, and one was Irish American. About a third of the neighborhood was Asian American then, in the sixties, though now the area has many Chinese and Russian immigrants. The Chinese Americans I grew up with had been in the States for three, four, five generations and were originally from Canton and spoke Cantonese.
I went to public schools in San Francisco; in fact I attended the same high school as my father. I went to U.C. Berkeley for a couple years, but dropped out.
More than fifteen years later I got accepted to graduate school in creative writing, so I had to finish my undergraduate degree. We were required to do a creative thesis for the B.A and I stumbled into doing performance that way because I created a solo show for the thesis. Otherwise I wouldn’t have uncovered the performance aspect of my creative life. Eventually I earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. I also taught there in Women’s Studies and in Creative Writing.

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