Tibetan Women on the Edge of History

Sky Train

This deeply resonant and absorbing narrative draws on years of groundbreaking research in a book that is at once memoir, history, and travel narrative. This timely glimpse into Tibet’s past – in the fiftieth year of exile — through the lives of four women – a visionary educator, a freedom fighter, a gulag survivor and a child bride – affords a unique perspective on the state of Tibetan culture today. Gracefully connecting the women’s histories to larger cultural, political, and spiritual themes, the author comes full circle, finding wisdom and wholeness even as she acknowledges Tibet’s irreversible changes.

“A people are never defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” Pablo Neruda


“In Mrs. Namseling’s account, Lhasa was a city of women.  In Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar’s story, slave gulags were made up predominantly of women.  I felt I had known modern Tibetan history.  I had studied.  I had been an activist.  I kept my ear to the ground.  But I was starting to unpeel an invisible layer of history.  Years later, as I worked on this book in America, after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, people posed a similar question:  Who got to leave and who got left behind?  Who, I asked, really suffered in Tibet?  The face was changing.”


“Canyon Sam rides the Sky Train into the unknown, the dangerous and the impossible…we follow her journey of rigorous searches and protracted interviews…We sense a personal urgency as she tracks the incredible survivals and transformations of the women, the stories untold.  And we come to learn a most precious thing:  how to nourish freedom in the midst of brutality.  This is the book we need at the cusp of the new decade — bravery, compassion and family are still possible.  Bravo, bravissimo!”
PEN American Center, Open Book  Award Commendation

“In her remarkable book, writer and activist Sam examines the stories of varied Tibetan women—displaced aristocrats, impassioned freedom fighters, educators, and others—united in their desperation to reclaim their country. Over a period of years, Sam recorded stories of life under Chinese occupation, visiting her subjects by China’s new “sky train.” A third-generation Chinese-American, Sam also chronicles her own experiences in Tibet throughout the narrative, skillfully mimicking readers’ slow discovery of the country in its many dimensions. Though complicated politically, Sam handles Tibet’s dilemma with knowledge and grace, addressing the larger history of Tibet to reveal a beautiful, subtle culture that’s as rich as it is foreign. At no time does Sam sugarcoat the effects of Chinese occupation on the people or the land, rendering human rights issues in terms of intensely personal experience. Visceral and deeply felt, this narrative deserves a read from anyone interested in human rights and the untold stories of oppressed women everywhere.”
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

“Outstanding. A supremely moving account of the plight of the Tibetan people after the military occupation of their country…. An empathetic observer returns to her spiritual roots to access the devastation of what had formerly been the apex of Buddhist monasticism.”
American Library Association, 20th Edition of Recommended Books

“Years ago, following her ancestral roots to China, Canyon Sam instead found Tibet as a spiritual home. She made a miracle of a journey. Now in Sky Train she guides the reader on a life-changing adventure back to Tibet after more than twenty years and an epoch of cataclysmic change to produce a miracle of a book.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, National Book Award winner, The Woman Warrior

“What I learned from this wonderfully written book that compels with page-turning intensity is so much more than the history of how China swallowed Tibet, or how “change” looks and feels different depending on the eyes that view it. The inspiring lesson that stays with me as the book’s afterglow is that of the ability of the mind that is filled with faith to emerge from the most dreadful privation unscathed, resilient.  This book about the Dharma of connection, of companioning, of compassion has strengthened my own devotion.”
Sylvia Boorstein, Buddhist Teacher, Happiness Is An Inside Job

“Canyon Sam’s 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. Words cannot express how wonderful is this honest, generous, and perceptive book.”
Robert Thurman, Columbia University

“A striking picture of Tibet …I first met the author in 1986…when she first traveled in Tibet…I am touched to see how she has sustained interest in our country in the intervening years…readers will be moved by these powerful tales.”
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

“A book that is sure to illuminate a Tibet so many of us have been longing to know.”
Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple

“The reader feels as if she were right there on this journey. Canyon Sam weaves the stories of these women seamlessly together with her own personal experience of Tibet. It is her love for the country, its culture and its people, which makes this book so special. An important work… poignant and inspiring.”
Sharon Salzburg, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Act of Happiness

Sky Train movingly conveys women’s lessons of community-building, generosity, faith, and determination. Their strong voices illuminate a hidden history. A riveting work.”
Valerie J. Matsumoto, University of California, Los Angeles

“Captures the heartrending complexities of Tibet and China… uncovers a much more intimate Tibet, which survives stubbornly in a tattered land…The passage of time between the interviews gives the women’s testimonies both richness and preciousness.”
San Francisco Chronicle

Perhaps the most innovative book written about Tibet…[In my research] my focus has been…films “about” Tibet. I have come across countless works about the history and experiences of men…Canyon Sam offers a contrary view…”
Turning Wheel, award-winning magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

“It augments the travel writing genre…with an intriguing meld of travel, anthropology, history, politics, and interviews…with interludes of reflection and analysis….This is a book that will make you weep.”
Japan Times

“Students loved your book deeply. Just deeply. Your writing is touching in a visceral way where your language comes to the story and lingers with each movement of the story and creates breath and tenderness to the telling. A rare gift, a rare balance.”
Douglas Rice, California State University, Sacramento

“A work of dedication and moral vision.”
Maxine Chernoff, chair of creative writing, San Francisco State University.

“From Canyon Sam’s visit I learned…how brave and selfless creative nonfiction can be,”
Creative Writing major at SFSU

“She dug deeper than just the words spoken by the women…She was an anthropologist, studying every action and non-action….She guided us like Sibyl taking Aeneas through the underworld — making something far from our culture aware to us.”
Creative Writing major, SFSU

“Your perspective of the Tibet situation, your experience with the people and how it has expanded you are all at the same time sobering, heartbreaking,and affirming of the strength of the human spirit — especially as it is steeped in spiritual practice and culture.”
Margo Cooper, Buddhist teacher and practitioner, Grass Valley, CA

“Her work is bringing Buddhism into American cultural norms.”
Dairyu Michael Wenger, priest, San Francisco Zen Center

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