Burma has become a favorite choice of novelists looking for an exotic locale with a hint of danger. Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner is set in the colonial period in Burma. A ghost, who accompanies a tour of Burma, narrates Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning. Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage is the story of a fictional activist. Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace describes the last king’s court. These books have placed their authors – some like Tan have been there for a long time — on the bestseller lists.
All my non-Burmese friends who have read these books have liked them, even loved them. But I find them pale and unconvincing, maybe because I am Burmese. In terms of novels by outsiders, I prefer the older generation – the novels She Was a Queen and Siamese White by Maurice Collis and F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady.
But the real treasures of Burmese literature have yet to be translated and published in the United States.
The Papillons of Burma
In the 1970s, the Burmese government arrested political dissidents and sent them first to Insein Prison in Rangoon, then to the penal colony of the Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Two notable writers were among those arrested. One of them was the late great Mya Than Tint, whose many translations into Burmese included War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, and The Catcher in the Rye. When he died in 1998, a Burmese radio commentator declared that “Mya Than Tint could have been a writer of world class standing if he had not been confined in his subject matter and forced to do translations by the oppressive politics of Burma.”
Mya Than Tint did, however, produce a notable novel: Over Mountains of Knives, I’ll Cross the Ocean of Flames. This novel is affectionately known as Dah Taung (Knife Mountain) by its large Burmese audience. In Dah Taung, a socialist hero named Than Chaung (Iron Rod) is caught in a shipwreck and washed up with his companions on an island. Mya Than Tint wrote in the preface to the seventh edition that of all the books he wrote, Dah Taung was the most successful and came to him the most easily. He wrote it in two weeks and said that he was always happy with his own writing in Dah Taung. He also wrote that Than Chaung, the hero, is based on his real life comrade-in-arms on the Coco Islands, Mahn Nyein Maung, of the Karen ethnic group, who was later to join the armed guerilla movement and is now a senior leader of the Karen National Union (KNU).
As a young man, Mahn Nyein Maung must have been very athletic and strong. In Dah Taung the character based on him swims and survives the shipwreck, climbs coconut trees effortlessly, and so on. But Dah Taung has several defects as a novel – there is not much of a plot, and the hero is uniformly good and admirable. Maybe I’ve also become too much of a “western reader.” From the physical descriptions of Than Chaung and his rippling muscles, it almost sounds as if the narrator has a homosexual interest in the hero. This may or may not be far fetched in the Burmese context. We have yet to see a Burmese work that addresses homosexuality, though there are several open gays and lesbians in the overseas democracy movement.
The guerrilla leader Mahn Nyein Maung later used the same material for his own memoir Against the Storm, Across the Waves. He has been called “the Papillon of Burma.” It’s an apt description. The novel opens with the arrest of the Mahn Nyein Maung character in a teashop and his transport to Insein prison, where the notorious Military Intelligence chief known as Shwe Myet Hman or Golden Spectacles, personally supervises the torture session. The prisoner is whipped with a flexible blue-green plastic whip imported from Singapore, notorious for its canings. Then, the prisoner, with skin shredding on his back, is laid face down on a table, and Golden Spectacles murmurs in a soft voice, “Please apply medicines to his back.” An assistant rudely splashes the prisoner with a bucketful of salt water.
From this riveting opening, the autobiographical novel takes readers from scene to lavish scene by the scruff of their necks. There are idyllic scenes on the Coco Islands, the prisoners chopping down palm trees to feast on heart of palm, scavenging for sea turtle eggs, learning how to make a raft from an article about Kon-Tiki in a magazine in the prison library, and swimming out to the wreck of an Aristotle Onassis ship to get metal to make into knives. Somewhere in there, during a rollercoaster ride of a plot that culminates in a surprise ending, is a fantastic recipe for a cake baked with a hundred sea turtle eggs.
In 2001, I translated the first part of Against the Storm with Mahn Nyein Maung’s permission. For the Burmese edition, run off fast in Thailand in a very small font, he received only a flat payment of $2,000, which, he told me over the phone, wasn’t even enough to repay the debts he incurred while writing and preparing the manuscript. The back cover shows him sitting at a bamboo table by a stream near the Burma-Thai border, with his rifle propped up against the house pole of the thatched hut. He is still in the so-called liberated areas along the Burma-Thai border. The KNU has been the longest running insurgency in the world, though in 2004 it signed a peace treaty with the Burmese State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Shortly after, the military junta violated the treaty. As a result human rights abuses against the Karen and other Burmese minorities have continued and even grown more severe. The KNU leadership, presumably including Mahn Nyein Maung, is reportedly embroiled in a leadership struggle after the recent death of their legendary leader, Gen. Saw Bo Mya.
In 2000-2001, I tried to persuade Mahn Nyein Maung that his book was of international bestseller caliber and deserved a real literary agent and mainstream publication. But it was very hard to communicate with him because of his very limited English and lack of email, his being in the jungle most times when I called (once I heard a cock crowing in the distance), and my inability to find a suitable person to act as a go between. So I promised him that I would not use the portions I had translated except in very small excerpts for book reviews or academic presentations, and I have kept my word. At the same time, I told him that I could not give him or anyone else the copyright to my translation as a gift. I still hope one day the conditions will be ripe for me to finish the English translation and get it published.
A Different Kind of Brutality
Nay Lin, now based in Australia, is a survivor of the 1988 clampdown on the pro-democracy movement. His book Cemetery of the Living Dead produced a tremendous buzz among Burmese readers when it was published in the late 1990s. In the quality of writing and the shock and awe it evokes in the mesmerized reader, it resembles the French ex-convict Jean Genet’s play Deathwatch, in which a prisoner with his back to the audience strangles another prisoner to death on stage.
In terms of the relative brutality of prison life, Nay Lin’s post-1988 experience was vastly different and even more severe than that of Myat Than Tint, Mahn Nyein Maung, and their fellow inmates in the mid-1970s. In the 1970s, the remnants of the penal system of the former British colonies were still in place. So on the Coco Islands Mahn Nyein Maung and his fellow prisoners still had a hospital doctor (an Indian) to attend them, a library to read in, and permission to cook their own food, being provided only with rice. The situation Nay Lin describes in his beautifully written book is much more brutal than the Coco Islands in the 1970s and, as corroborated by other prison accounts, much more typical these days under the SPDC.
Nay Lin’s memoir proceeds majestically episode by episode as a series of searing prose poems or essays. The writer/observer is right there in the cell, near the door, near the ganhpalar. Having left Burma in 1982 on a Fulbright scholarship and never gone back, I didn’t at first know what a ganhpalar was. But a democracy co-worker who had also been in prison explained it is a low ceramic bowl with a dark brown glaze that the prisoners use as a chamber pot. In Living Dead, a prisoner changes places on the concrete floor with another prisoner in the middle of the night, and just by chance ends up dead with his skull cracked in by one of the bricks used to prop up the ganhpalar.
Nay Lin describes the resident storyteller, who can remember the plots of all the kung fu movies, recounting them blow by blow to the other prisoners every evening from an impromptu stage — the top of the septic tank. Nay Lin relates, in a clear but sympathetic way, “how a heterosexual becomes a ‘rocket’” — that is, a homosexual. At night, the prison warden approaches his victim in a ward full of men sleeping like sardines on the floor. The warden then threatens the man with a sharpened iron rod and rapes him. Everyone knows exactly when the rape takes place. But to add insult to injury, some of them instead of empathizing, or even being embarrassed and avoiding the subject, tease the victim relentlessly about it in the morning. Among all these gems of writerly observation, the most searing is the chapter that describes the justified end of this rapist of a prison warden. The man is cornered at the end of a field of water convolvulus.
Several prisoners armed with spades strike down the warden, and he drowns in inch-deep water. It all unfolds before our eyes like a slow motion movie, revealing all the visual detail, with an immediacy matched in literature perhaps only by the scene in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum in which the old uncle is skinned alive by the Japanese invaders.
In 2003 I was fortunate to run into Nay Lin at a conference in Sydney. I started to ask him about his time in Burma, but great storyteller that he is, he held my hand and got caught up in telling me about how he went to see the monk that Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese democracy leader) also worships, and how he was arrested on his return home. That is how he became a member of the famous 1988 generation of activists, now in their early 40s, who had to flee the country after the clampdown that still continues today.
I asked Nay Lin who was translating his book and he said he had someone already, but he was fixated on “extending it further to include women’s experiences in prison.” To that end he said he was getting in touch with former prisoners who were women. I tried to impress on him that Living Dead was not a human rights report, that it was perfect already and to add more would destroy its literary value as well as its structure and integrity. But I am not sure if Nay Lin heard me or not. Perhaps he is like Victor Hugo, who worked on Les Miserables for another 10 years after the publication of the first edition, adding the now largely unreadable essays interspersed throughout the real story.
Why Burma Now?
Soviet samizdat and East European novels attracted much attention from Western intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. Burmese literature has not acquired a similar reputation. One reason is the Eurocentrism that still inhabits literature in the English language. Also, Burma is a very small country without the vast oil reserves of Middle Eastern countries. The United States is not embroiled in a bitter and losing war there (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) or in an ongoing conflict (as in Iran). There is still relatively little interest in Southeast Asian literature, and this may be a holdover from the bitter U.S. experience in Vietnam.
So Burma remains “off the map” for many. The civil war in Burma, which has been going on for 60 years, has rarely appeared on the radar screen of the international media. The same Russians and East Europeans who garnered a following in the West, however, follow the Burmese democracy struggle. In the mid-90s, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was in Philadelphia to promote an anthology he edited of Soviet-era poets and asked me how Aung San Suu Kyi was. Czech writer Vaclav Havel has written widely of human rights abuses.
Survivors such as Nay Lin and Mahn Nyein Maung have been able to come to terms with their harrowing experiences and write about them. But it takes time for an idea to reach fruition as a completed and published novel, not to mention the difficulties of the care and feeding of the novelist. In this sense the 19 years since 1988 have not been a long time in novel gestation years. I know of several Burmese works in progress, or work that has been self-published, because the writer did not know enough about international publishing to be able to find an agent. Among these is another “KNU memoir” in which the short stories are wonderfully interesting — but only people who know the writer personally may get a copy. Authors of self-published work cannot compete with mainstream distribution, big publishing conglomerates, and book store chains.
Non-Burmese writers, like Daniel Mason, Amitav Ghosh, Karen Connelly, and Amy Tan, have certainly done their homework and researched their subject matter — in most cases with visits to the Burma-Thai border or interviews of 1988 survivors. Many have become interested in writing about the issues from their concern over the plight of the Burmese. The international heroine quality of Nobel Peace Prize winning Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also generated a great deal of interest in Burma.
But Burmese literature – by Burmese writers – has not yet reached an international audience. Perhaps the popularity of Amy Tan and Karen Connelly will attract publishers and readers to the lived and felt experiences that are contained in the Burmese novels and that await the translation and international appreciation they deserve.