A New Start in Mandalay?

Smile as They Bow

by Nu Nu Yi, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye
Hyperion East, 146 pp., $21.95
Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
A painting of Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandalay, 2014

When Pascal Khoo Thwe was a boy, growing up among Padaung tribesmen in remote southeast Burma, his grandmothers and aunts wore broad rings of gold around their necks, each weighing about a pound, and they added more, year by year. He recalls that his grandmother’s “rings were fourteen inches high and rose to her head as though they were supporting a pagoda.” This was in the 1970s and the “giraffe-necked” Padaung women have largely disappeared.

In 2002 Khoo Thwe published From the Land of Green Ghosts, a highly acclaimed memoir of childhood and escape from the military dictatorship that ruled his native land from 1962 to 2011. As Burma emerges from half a century of seclusion and repression, his book is now on sale throughout the country, particularly at the gates of pagodas and along the fast-developing tourist routes, along with pirated copies of Burmese Days, George Orwell’s mordant attack on British colonialism, written after he served as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s.

In February, Khoo Thwe was one of the speakers at Burma’s second Irrawaddy Literary Festival, held this year in Mandalay. Set up by Jane Heyn, the wife of a former British ambassador, the festival is proving highly successful in lending a platform to long-silenced writers—some sixty of whom attended—while providing them with contacts to Western literary agents and publishers. The presence of a handful of them, scouting for new authors, may mean that some of the least known and translated literature in the world will finally find an international audience.

Over the last few years, ever since the military lifted its stranglehold on most aspects of Burmese life, there has been a remarkable explosion in writing. Much of it is historical and political, feeding what writers at the festival described as an overwhelming hunger among the people to learn more about what went on in their country during the dark years. Fearful that their new freedoms might again be curtailed, many feel an urgency to get their stories down on paper and published—and, if possible, translated—as quickly as possible. While no writers are said to remain in jail today, a group of journalists is awaiting trial for reporting on a secret military installation; and even as the festival was beginning came the news that the three- or six-month visa until recently accorded to foreign reporters may be reduced to one month.

The military dictators were not the first to assault Burmese writers, who for centuries cultivated a gentle, poetical style, full of intricate rhymes and delicate allusions, that was most suited to poetry and the telling of tales. With the arrival of the British occupiers in 1824 came a demand for practical, utilitarian speech, much at odds with a largely Buddhist people for whom education meant not just book learning, but mastery…

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