Martin Kovan reviews “Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar”
Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar
Edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum
Reviewed by MARTIN KOVAN
Hidden Words Hidden Worlds, an anthology of short fiction from contemporary Myanmar (Burma), is unusual in many senses. It assembles the work of seven established Burmese-language writers, and the same number of newly-discovered voices from a range of ethnic groups, translated by up to thirty literary volunteers into English. Singular not merely in its collaborative breadth, it is unprecedented: it is the first time in a half-century that such an ambitious and eclectic literary undertaking has been able to occur at all.
As well as Burmese, other ethnic groups represented include the Mon, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Kachin, Chin and Rakhine, their writers ranging from “WW2 veterans and rubber tappers to poets and journalists”: aptly eclectic for a document that looks beyond its purely literary status. Yet, Burmese remains the lingua franca of the whole, mediating the translation of the ‘ethnic’ pieces into English, as much as the speech of fictional protagonists (‘He spoke in Burmese, so all would understand him” in “The Right Answer”). Inasmuch as Burmese national hegemony is a frequent theme, it is also built into the production of the text itself.
The textual surface of the stories is thus a literal melting-pot of voices in which something of local lore and linguistic flavour has doubtless been lost from the specifically located original. On the other hand, much of the thematic territory and familiar tropes of ‘the literary’ (love-letters, metaphorical and real moonlight, journeys and partings, fêtes and rendezvous) are in full evidence, a time-warped tropical evocation of something like a 19th-century Russian sensibility. Family visitors meet, try new foods, talk, brood, sightsee, arrange foiled meetings and would-be trysts, and it is often politics that gets in their narrative way.
Stock figures of a Chekhov or Turgenev recur: bachelor uncles, adolescent yearning that discovers disillusion too soon, unmarried young women—not yet spinsters but not always hewing to the traditional social fabric of religious or social rituals of marriage, the fulfilments of family, of Buddhist renunciation, and happy old age. In a Chin variation on the theme (“Takeaway Bride”) young lovers risk separation by her potential marriage, for the dowry’s sake, to an expatriate suitor overseas. A contrasting, less anodyne, tale (“The Poisoned Future”) has an unmarried mother-to-be cast out to live among the socially derelict. Even the great Buddhist boon of being “given a chance to be born a human” proves ironic when, as a drunken grave-digger soliloquizes, “‘Like the saying goes, ‘where walks an ill-fated woman, rain follows.’”
A thematic comparison could also be made with earlier English-language Indian fiction of the feuding family genre (despite the absence in the Burmese context of the great social cartographer of souls in the Hindu caste-system). A prominent theme through-out, unsurprisingly in such an anthology, is ethnicity as such: its richness and divisions. At the heart of these (and another sign of something they share despite difference) are social celebrations that often broach geographic and linguistic frontiers: the famous Thingyan water festival (with its regional variations), local fêtes for unique traditions of music, dance and theatre, spirit rituals, monastic and political ceremonies. Lives from many social strata come together in these as unifying and discriminating at once: ethnic differences potentially erased are also re-defined in their purview (“The Moon…”).
“Reading the Heart” frames the same point in terms of a betrayal of tradition when a growing boy derides, from his own inexperience, efforts to present his local traditions to a national public (his seaside Hsalon village newly crammed with city ‘VIPs’, a term he doesn’t understand) in such a way that the authentic is made fake. But like other figures in these stories of innocence (lost) he only half realises the fact, or only until it is too late to reverse it. Other signalled differences are starkly racial: a darker skin colour signifies (as it tends to generally in South Asia) a lower class which is not just a marker of education or savvy, but also of aesthetic values.
Read in their benign literary contexts, these norms are easy to pass over as an effect of the naïf that runs through the collection in multiple senses: in its simply-limned characters, a plain-spoken style, a fatalism in the face of injustice. But read with the background of recent Burmese history, the fictional surface of disquiet, in this case, is also something which dare not speak its name. Myanmar is a religious-ethnic congeries, but it is curious that no Hindu or Muslim cultural elements feature among these stories. Perhaps another generation has to wait before we can read stories of or from the recently expelled Rohingya Muslim population, whose real sufferings tragically reiterate those so frequently described here as the merciless deus ex machina of the military state: a faceless and unforgiving force that crushes first loves, marriages, literary ambitions and careers, dreams and hopes, underfoot.
For these writers (half of whom are Burmese) racism is not an overt cost of ethnocentrism, so much as a normal condition of tradition that would never think to justify it. Some of the fictions here downplay that condition in the same way a seeming majority of contemporary Burmese (Buddhist) public life does, and the elision of the two would seem to belie the open, national literature to which the anthology as a whole aspires.
Along with a prominence of the carnival, one could suppose that the popular Burmese ‘anything-goes’ vaudeville of performed comic satire (nyeint) might be an irreverent background (of a kind that often sent its practitioners, also, to prison) for the narrative foreground of these contemporary fictions. If any non-Western lifeworld could reproduce the social conditions for the political-satirical flights of a Bulgakov or Kundera, it would have to be modern Myanmar. But here literariness translates often into earnest understatement, as if the fear of the people has for too long dominated their very norms of speech, and writing, as well:
When discussions of religion and community […] strayed into talk of the government, the Abbot would warn everyone: “Stop, stop! The walls have ears.” Then no one dared utter another word. (“The Right Answer”)
The government-cum-military (with its insidiously anonymous intelligence network, or MI) figures as its own personage through-out: all-powerful, deceitful, unfairly extortionate, yet rarely if ever assigned any other symbolic status despite its ubiquitous will to destroy so much of the value the protagonists represent to themselves and the reader of local and national versions of the good and the beautiful.
Even a much-loved local tom-cat is a victim of unknown malefactors (“Silenced Night”), and in Letyar Tun’s self-translated “The Court Martial” it is a disobedient soldier, reflecting on a history of grievous violence for which, in moral if not military terms, he appears on the eve of his retirement likely to pay the highest cost. This story is also rare in giving an individual face, and conscience, to the faceless machine of power, ultimately prey to it, also, for no other reason than power’s indefinite perpetuation:
In black zones, soldiers went “code red”—cruel as sun and fire—though they needed to distance themselves from their targets in order to harden to inhuman purpose.
Plain first-person statement frequently drives narrative with a pervasively plangent tone, born of misgiving or surrender: not yet moral drama, or the classical values of a tragedy waged for a metaphysical truth won. Without overt ideological argument, many of the stories enter into an abstraction of defeat and resignation such that Lay Ko Tin can write (in “The Moon…”), past nostalgia, of his stolen and imprisoned youth that:
Our future was vague, neither black nor white. […] The saying ‘time is the best medicine’ was not true for us […] Maybe the heaviest burden of all was to stay true to our belief that the new regime was false.
The reader sympathises with repeated scenes of incarceration and injustice, without always knowing what stakes drive an absent conflict. It is not so much understood, as enacted, that even a meaningful resistance can sometimes seem to lose even that. Ko Tin’s concluding confession “Yet even now that I’m out, I’ve lost the moon that shone within me” (appearing to belie how literary success has won him subsequent esteem) could stand as a summary metaphor for many of the stories’ protagonists, no matter their ethnic background.
If anything it is literature itself, or even only its idea, that, in being so scarce and valued, is a frequent sole redemption of the worst of deprivations, in both its clandestine consumption and practice. San Lin Tun’s “An Overheated Heart” puts writerliness at self-conscious centre-stage. Where the romanticism of the ethnic stories remains conservative and traditional, this Burmese counterpoint is infected by an urbanity romanticising not literary redemption, but a very modern and ironic appreciation of its capacity to foreclose other fulfilments. One of its pedagogic protagonist’s students reflects on her teacher’s dilemma:
When you write, maybe you compare yourself to other writers, but you can’t […] measure love. Maybe you draw strength from your books, but […] Literature and love are not the same.
Many of the narratives have in stylistic common this mode of realist but understated homiletic, pitched between fiction and memoir, recitative or spoken tale. What often results is a social reportage in which historical events are frequently the pivot around which a minimal fiction turns: little seems invented, as if fiction dare not risk the imagined or possible. When truth-telling is such a prized and dangerous commodity, anything more than verisimilitude might seem profane. A thematic comparison could then finally be made with the European modernist and post-war preoccupation with the police state and paranoia, with Fate and Unreason, the submission and resistance to an impersonal, seemingly baseless power.
In 20th-century Burma, too, if less so since, meaning has been in short supply when speech is curtailed, its expressive powers denied any context in which literature, and life, builds an authentic identity beyond that of ethnicity alone. A malignity in these narratives is pressed by an unspecific Other for seemingly no reason than to make innocents or idealists, or their political exemplars (such as Communists in “The Court Martial”), suffer. Despite reference to Buddhist principles, such as their gothic gloss given by the callow protagonists of “Thus Come, Thus Gone”, religious truism seems unequal to the eeriness of events. “A Flight Path…” negotiates more mundane encounters with a deft obliqueness of address, in which wickedness (figured with regard to the Lord of Death) respects no sacred or profane status quo: “‘When you are the anvil, you must endure the hammer. Am I right?’”
Hidden Word Hidden Worlds marks a hundred-year milestone since the widely-assumed first modern short story was published in 1917 in Yangon (Rangoon) in what was then still British Burma. Its editors stress that while the form existed in the interim through changing literary influences and political fortunes, both modified from the early 1960s by the vagaries of censorial military regimes, it is really only since the fragile transition to democracy in 2012 that a half-century of pre-publication censorship has been formally abolished.
What has resulted in this collection, under the auspices of the British Council, working with surviving local literary and cultural associations through-out the country, traverses formal and rhetorical modes of address, pregnant with a sense of life lived too intensely, or sometimes painfully, to be easily subsumed under one or other literary template. Many of the fourteen stories register intense experience in comparatively traditional modes of nostalgic memoir, stymied youthful romance (with some happy exceptions), or moral confession, in which any resulting incongruity between the telling and the tale perhaps accidentally endows an unadorned form with a force it might otherwise lack.
A number of stories offer graceful homage to oral storytelling (such as “The Love of Ka Nya Maw” and “Kaw Tha Wah the Hunter” to Kayah and Karen traditions, respectively). Yet it is hard to sense, given the thousand year-old generic oral traditions (of soldier-poetry, court dramas, religious tales) how far such old style is transported into a modern English in a way that rehearses, or subverts, their old formulae, much as their sometimes wry irreverence does the political repression that for so long kept idiosyncrasy and experiment from an open literary culture.
The tension between an implicit experimental could-be and the (in the Burmese case, quite literal) safety of the formally familiar is an unspoken feature of the whole. Only an occasional piece (such as “Silenced Night”) is editorially signalled as exemplifying a formal and, in its terms, cultural subversion. Otherwise, a story such as “A Bridge Made from Cord” analogises lost love and the ravages of jade-mine exploitation in an explicit register:
This is what it means to be Kachin and dream of a different tomorrow: a jade bridge crossing over from poverty to a life free from it. I too became a […] prospector of unwashed stones. We all found lots of stones, but almost none of them were jade.
Many of the stories similarly mark a threefold division reflective of the social ones that have seen decades of civil insurgency in the north, north-east and east of the country, between the ethnic Bamar (Burmese-language) majority who still dominate the cultural and political elites, the ‘ethnic’ non-Bamar cultures and languages, and the national (read, Burmese) army which, especially during the long periods of dictatorship (1960s to 1990s) sought to actively diminish both.
“A Pledge of Love…” effectively traverses the geography, and broken loyalties, of all three, figured in the confluence of northern rivers forming the Ayeyarwaddy River, itself dividing the country as the non-aligned narrator is from her lost rebel lover. Only rarely (as in “The Court Martial”) does the fictional frame seek a more objective view of the whole, unless the transfiguring properties of fable (in which heroes overcome, tradition holds firm, and the real is attenuated) perform that function of imagination.
The prospect of a cultural project such as this one was impossible during the many (ongoing) periods of civil war, and during ceasefire too precarious to sustain. The anthology is to be welcome for the fact that seven of these hitherto repressed ethnic identities can now freely be read not only in their own, in some cases formerly outlawed (the Kayah) or otherwise regenerated languages and scripts (the Chin, over a century old; the Mon, one-thousand five hundred years old), and also Burmese, but finally into a 21st-century English, as well.
Times in Myanmar, at least in nascent literary terms, have remarkably changed. Where the eloquence of silence or dissimulation has of course played a powerful role in post-War European resistance to oppression, in Myanmar it has for decades been a literal imperative, and we can’t yet speak fully, even in the expressive terms of national literature(s), of a ‘Burmese thaw’. Hidden Word Hidden Worlds is however a brave and notable first step towards its real possibility.
MARTIN KOVAN is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He has lived in Europe and South Asia for long periods, and also pursues academic research in Buddhist ethics, philosophy and religion, including political conditions in Tibet and Burma-Myanmar. In Australia his writing has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, Island Magazine, Australian Poetry Journal, Westerly, Southerly Journal, Peril Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, and Overland Literary Journal, and in publications in the U.S., France, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, Czech Republic and the U.K.