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Literary Life in Myanmar under Censorship and in Transition
By Ellen Wiles
Published by Columbia University Press New York 2015
illus., notes, biblio., index
ISBN 978-0-231-53929 (ebook)
from Amazon £20.25 to £34.50 new
Review by Anna Allott:
The intriguing main title, Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts, does not quite reveal what this important book is actually about; the longer sub-title, Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition, tells us more clearly. Based upon recent interviews in early 2013 with nine contemporary Burmese authors from three different generations, it presents through each one's life story a fascinating picture of what it was like to be a writer under the country's harsh and arbitrary censorship rules from the 1960s until 2011. The life stories of the three youngest writers bring the book right up to today and the age of the internet - the period of "transition".|
The author, Ellen Wiles, went to Burma in early 2013 in her capacity as a human rights lawyer to work on a project to train community lawyers about the rule of law. Because of her personal interest in literature and because an essential element of the rule of law is freedom of expression, she became very interested to learn how the repressive censorship regime had affected writers and the literary life of the country. In a short period of about 6 months, she was helped by many new Burmese friends, including translators, to interview nine well-known men and women writers, among them U Win Tin, U Pe Myint, Shwegu May Hnin, Zeyar Lynn and Ma Thida.
Ellen Wiles was particularly fortunate to have been able to meet with U Win Tin, one of the founding members of the NLD, then in his eighty-fourth year, as he died early in 2014; the book is dedicated to him. His story tells how this former leading journalist founded a newspaper, worked for the Dutch publishing house Djam Pattam in the early 50s, travelled widely abroad especially to Eastern Europe, writing political articles all the time, and came back to Burma in 1962 to find that the military junta had come back to power. From then on he worked to try to maintain the right of journalists to write freely. In 1968, inspired by news of the Czech Spring, he and fellow journalists asked for more press freedom but the only result was that he was banished to Mandalay with the paper, the Hanthawaddy, that he was editing, for nine years. In 1978 the Hanthawaddy was closed down and he was sent back to Rangoon where he continued to pursue political reform until 1988 when he met and joined Aung San Suu Kyi; they decided with U Tin Oo in September to form the NLD.
He was first arrested on a trumped up charge in 1989, later in 1991 sent before a military tribunal in the jail, sentenced to eleven more years in prison. Ten more pages are needed for his detailed and harrowing account of his life in prison, including torture, isolation, ill health, deprivation. He was finally released in 2011 and immediately started work again with the NLD. Lovers of Burma will be immensely grateful to Ellen Wiles for making U Win Tin's inspirational story more widely known.
The book has a very satisfying structure; the introduction gives the historical background of the imposition of censorship after the military coup of March 1962. Chapter 2, The Older Generation, presents the stories of three writers, Win Tin, Shwegu May Hnin, a leading woman supporter of the NLD who spent three years in prison, and Pe Myint, a former doctor, later writer and publisher who managed to gain the respect of the general reading public without submitting to the demands of the government. Chapter 3, The Middle Generation presents three sharply contrasting individuals: Ye Shan, a hard working railway superintendent who wrote interesting and popular stories about the railway in the required style of 'socialist realism'; (Dr) Ma Thida, short story writer, doctor, surgeon, early keen supporter of the NLD, sentenced in 1993 to twenty years imprisonment; her case was taken up by Amnesty International and she was released after five and a half years; she is now a journalist, an editor and a political activist and her prison memoir was able to be published in 2011; and Zeyar Lynn, a poet, essayist and (English) language teacher who, unlike all the other writers who feature in the book, started his education in Kuala Lumpur as the son of a diplomat and from his teenage began to read widely in modern western poetry. Chapter 4 presents three writers of The Younger Generation: Nay Phone Lat, (born in 1980) blogger, short story writer, internet educator, political activist who was arrested and roughly interrogated in January 2009; during his time in prison until 2012 he met with Zarganar, Min Ko Naing and other leaders of the 88 generation. He had met with some of them before and had already helped them with websites, blogging and other technical matters. To a non-blogger like me, this life-story is of special interest. The second younger generation writer is Pandora, (born in 1974), poet, short story writer who had done a master's in Singapore and then worked there, returning to Burma in 2011. Always an avid reader, the story of her poetic and literary education begins with the mainly realist writers mentioned by Pe Myint, regrets that she had never been taught by the maverick Zeyar Lynn and concludes with a very perceptive critique of the contemporary teaching of literature in Burma. The third younger generation writer, Myay Hmon Lwin (born 1987), publisher, novelist, short storywriter, poet is 'a young literary radical who has broken extraordinary boundaries in the world of books'. Because of his efforts as a publisher to get controversial work through the censors, his life story includes real, often hilarious, insights into what the censorship board was like to deal with. He it was who published Ma Thida's prison memoir when restrictions were first lifted.
This most fascinating book is further enriched by the new translations that follow each writer's life story, maybe an extract from a novel, a short story or several poems. The author is to be congratulated on the excellence and readability of these translated examples as this can be a difficult task for someone ignorant of the original language.
The fifth and concluding chapter, Literary Life in Transition brings the work right up to mid 2014. It links many of the themes and writers and their works mentioned in the various life stories, and emphasises the fact that the change from the habit of self-censorship to feeling able to express oneself freely comes only quite slowly. What also becomes clear from reading the nine life stories is that the imposition of censorship at the start of the sixties was also a slow process, initially strongly resisted and only gradually growing harsher and more arbitrary. Ellen Wiles book is an extraordinarily valuable and timely documentation of a critical time of change in the literary and intellectual life of Burma. A must read!
Reviewed by Anna Allott