Reading in Myanmar: Text and sub-text
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
I was reading in Myanmar.
It was my time, my panel appearance at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival with Canadian literary prodigy Karen Connelly. We were to be speaking about my novel As the Heart Bones Break. We ended up speaking about Myanmar.
Not of course in so many words…
But as I learnt last week in Mandalay, there’s text and then there’s sub-text. As the Heart Bones Break is a novel about Vietnam but it’s also about division, isolation and transition. It’s about layers of secrets and their gradual uncovering. When Karen and I discussed the writing of the story, the hurdles I had to overcome, it’s reception among the different Vietnamese and other communities, it would not have been difficult for my mostly Burmese audience to see similarities and draw parallels.
Text, then subtext. It’s an interesting way to read a country or a Literary Festival. Here’s my attempt.
Text – I met many Burmese writers at the Festival. A majority were members of the Association of Burmese writers. They have been allowed to write undisturbed – obliquely, using metaphor, parables or jokes to mirror truths; disguising their lives as fiction; leaving the most cutting sentences to the last in the hope the point will be missed by the censors. It is a hard way to live as writers. I’m in no position to question their choices. But there are those in the country who refuse to write or live this way and don’t agree with those who do. They have paid a different price – harassment, incarceration, even torture. Unfortunately, I did not meet many of these writers at the festival.
Text – The 2014 Festival was to be held at the Kuthoodaw Pagoda, a temple complex consisting of a central prayer hall and 729 stone tablets of Buddhist scriptures. The Burmese tourist guides call it “the world’s largest book”. Iconic and yet familiar to many Burmese, the organizers thought it would be a fitting venue for both ordinary Burmese and foreign visitors to mingle. As it turned out, the Festival, which is sponsored by opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, kicked off at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel. Many local people still attended, especially at the open-air pavilions. But it wasn’t until well into the 3rd and final day of the festival that they felt comfortable enough to venture into the sessions programmed in the resort’s air-conditioned conference rooms.
Making sense of it all
It would be arrogant to say I understood Myanmar because I attended the festival and made one other visit prior to that. But certainly – because of the missing writers, the change in venue, the metaphors and the layers of silence in between – I learnt to be a better reader of the country and its complexities at the Festival.
What sums it up best for me is an impromptu poem I overheard as we were herded from the cancelled opening ceremony at the Kuthoodaw to the Mandalay Resort Hotel.
In the center of the lake a green stem Rises Disturbing the pack dogs on the banks
Under moonlight The petals unfurl
The dogs howl
The dogs die
In starlight the lotus basks To the yip yip of the churl pups Circling
What was this poem about? Aung San Suu Kyi’s unflinching doggedness when incarcerated in her house on the lake? The old Burmese royalty holding on to their identity behind the moat of Mandalay Palace even as the British troops were taking their country? Buddhism, the majority religion, remaining untainted by foreign ideas?
It all depends, the poet might have told me if I’d asked.
Right there, right then, the ambiguity seemed right.