Hidden Words from Not So Hidden Worlds

By ko ko thett

The failure of state building in Myanmar can be read as the failure of the country’s national language policy — the failure of successive Myanmar governments in forcibly imposing Burmese, or the Myanmar language, as a unifying tongue onto a host of ethno-linguistic communities all over the country. In transitional Myanmar today, Burmese remains the lingua franca, while ethnic language and literature movements, which had been suppressed previously, are enjoying a renaissance. Prior to today’s dominance of Burmese, English was the language of the ruling elite throughout colonial Burma from the 1820s to the end of the 1940s.

Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds, “a unique five-year project” by the British Council, has been part of the wider resurgence of interest in ethnic language and literature movements in transitional Myanmar. The project began in 2012, and is unique in that it aims to give voice to “previously unheard and aspiring writers” of all ethnic backgrounds across the country. To that end, the British Council held multilingual creative writing workshops all over the country. The result is a collection of twenty-eight short stories from seven Burmese writers and twenty-one ethnic writers in twelve different languages, published in 2015. Sadly, the book has not been widely distributed in Myanmar. 

Although originally published in Myanmar in 2015, Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds appeared in English in 2017, just in time to celebrate the centennial of the publication of Shwe U Daung’s “Maung Thein Tin and Ma Thein Shin wuthu,” which is regarded as the very first modern Burmese short story. The English collection includes seven well-known authors writing in Burmese and seven new voices representing Mon, Sgaw Karen, Kayah Li, Shan Gyi, Jinghpaw, Lai Hakha, and Rakhine languages. Five of the six Burmese-English translators are graduates of “the 2015 Link the Wor(l)ds Literary Translation Programme,” a British Council project that trained the translators specifically for the book. Given the time, devotion, efforts, and resources that went into publishing Hidden Words in English, expectations for the book are high.

Anyone wishing to read a lucid and laconic history of modern Burmese literature might begin with the volume’s introduction, written by editor Lucas Stewart. The literary history of modern Burma, the issue of the country’s ethnic and linguistic complexity, the horror of literary censorship under military regimes, the composition of the book, as well as an anecdote about sitting with “five decades of imprisoned writers in a single teashop” in Yangon are all described there.  

Each story is preceded by an author’s biography and a brief introduction. The title of each story appears in English and in the original language, giving the reader a hint of the diversity of written texts across Burma. As someone who is well-versed only in the dominant languages of Burmese and English (I can also make out some Rakhine texts, which are very similar to Burmese), I appreciate the Burmese and Rakhine titles and their English translations. “The Sty” by the Burmese writer Letyar Tun, for instance, is translated by the author as “The Court Martial” — sty being the Burmese slang for the dock in a criminal court. Lest I should give too much away, let me highlight a number of selections from the book. 

The opener is by Lay Ko Tin, one of the oldest and most respected living writers featured in the collection. He spent more than ten years behind bars under two different military regimes, allegedly for his communist sympathies. Just as Marcel Proust’s childhood memory about his aunt was triggered by the smell of madeleine cakes, the scent of mangosteens during a trip to a town in the southernmost part of Myanmar (an area close to the Mon region) prompts the protagonist in Lay Ko Tin’s story to remember his teenage crush, a Mon girl. More importantly, the protagonist remembers how he was unexpectedly and unjustly jailed after the military coup in 1962 and how his four-year imprisonment put an end to his budding romance with the Mon girl, but left him with a passion for reading and writing that had come to define his life since then.  

“The Right Answer” by Min Yar Mon, originally written in the Mon language, is constructed around an event that celebrates the bilateral ceasefire agreement between the New Mon State Party and the Myanmar government in the Mon town of Than Phyu Zayat. Peace, just like war, is an industry that invites investment, expertise, and international organizations. How does the Mon populace, some of whom have been used to living in makeshift bomb shelters in a culture of fear, make sense of such unprecedented developments in transitional Myanmar?

“[…] all the often heard but seldom understood words – Mon Front Army, New Mon State Party, Mon National Liberation Army, truce, ceasefire – meant little to the people of Than Hpyu Zayat that afternoon.”

The answer may not be immediately apparent to the Mon and Myanmar elite, who have negotiated the fragile peace, but it is loud and clear enough.

“Reading the Heart of the Sea” by Mi Chan Wai, an award-winning Mon writer, is another young-adult romance, but this time between a Hsalon “sea gypsy” boy and an urban girl from Yangon. Perhaps it is best to read between the lines of the story in order to understand how marginal communities look up to the so-called developed urban centres, and how this relationship between the margin and the centre will always remain lopsided. The traditionally self-sufficient livelihood of the Hsalon communities has already been shattered by the touristification and overfishing of their seas. When read in this light, the Burmese father’s well-meaning advice to his half-Hsalon son, “As long as the sea exists there’ll always be fishery business. A man of the sea should learn the ropes and take it to the international level,” sounds more like the saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“Silenced Night” by Yu Ya, who belongs to “a new generation of rising writers,” is the only story whose protagonist is not a human. It is also the only story introduced as “experimental” in style in which “one sentence thuds into another, with a sparseness crafted to reveal just enough to keep the reader wondering.” It’s about a cat known as “Lanky One,” thanks to the extraordinary length of his body. Lanky is a champion mouser, who even earns himself a role in a film. The anthropomorphic cat loves human food, as opposed to smelly cat food. Yet Lanky isn’t above other cats in that he, too, is fond of wandering around the alleys at night in search of love. While Lanky’s story is poignantly told, I am not sure if I agree with the author when she singles out “construction site night watchmen from who-knows-where” as possible culprits when Lanky falls victim to someone’s rage one night. Perhaps, as humans, we are all complicit in Lanky’s death given our impact on the natural world.

The next entry in the anthology is by another up-and-coming Burmese writer and translator, Letyar Tun, whose elegantly crafted story questions the sacrosanctity of the military command. In “The Court Martial,” Nyo Maung, a Burmese army soldier on the verge of retirement, finds himself in the military dock for refusing to shoot at a group of student protesters in Yangon, presumably during the months leading up to the 1988 nationwide uprising that would shake the country. Nyo Maung is court-martialed inside the Insein prison near Yangon, which is best known for torture and horrid living conditions. Letyar Tun might well be one of the best authorities on the subject, for he was a prisoner of conscience for eighteen years in Burmese jails, fourteen of which he spent on death row. 

The Chin writer June Nilian Sang’s “Takeaway Bride” takes us to his native Chin State, one of the most impoverished regions in the northwestern corner of Myanmar, bordering India. The death of scores of children since the 2008 famine in Chin State has caused some international organizations to sound the alarm of humanitarian disaster. It is said that only the elderly, the disabled, and children are to be found in Chin villages these days. All the able-bodied men and women have left their communities for work abroad or in cities, or as “takeaway brides” — Chin State gets by mostly on a remittance economy and aid. As the editor’s introduction points out, it is all too common in the Chin community for women to be “sold” to bachelors while working overseas. Who can resist a brokered marriage that promises a better life, even if not love?

Next to Chin State, to the south, is Rakhine State, a region that has sadly come to be associated with the Rohingya issue. The Rakhine writer Myint Win Hlaing (aka Green Maung) is a published author who writes in both Burmese and Rakhine and it shows. “The Poisoned Future,” “the unhappiest tale in the anthology,” goes deep into the social fabric of a poverty-stricken Rakhine community. It’s about Lon Lon Chaw, an orphaned girl who lives with her aunt and makes a living brewing and selling firewater in the village. Lon Lon Chaw’s routine is summarized in the following way:

“[She] had to feed pigs in the sty behind the house and clean the yard as well as work as a waitress in the liquor joint. She was not as attractive as her name ‘curvy beauty’ implied, though healthy with a round bottom, a tiny waist, pointed breasts and brown skin; local men thought she walked like a young mare and never tired of watching her.”

In such a community, pregnancy outside of marriage is not tolerated, but unwanted pregnancy is exactly what happens to Lon Lon Chaw. The rest of the story concerns human intolerance, indifference, and unrelenting human suffering. The only agreeable characters in the story are the old woman, who pulls Lon Lon Chaw up from the brink of suicide, and the doctor at the hospital, who helps her deliver the baby. However, for a baby born into such circumstances, there is no future, not even a poisoned one.

“Kaw Tha Wah The Hunter” by Sgaw Karen writer Saw Lambert (1941-2015) is the only story set in colonial Burma. Kaw Tha Wah is a local legend, who outlived both the British dominion and the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945) of Burma. The story was likely a part of the Sgaw modern oral tradition, and has probably been written down for the first time. While the British were able to co-opt the sharpshooting hunter Kaw Tha Wah (after all the protagonist’s future father-in-law served in the colonial Karen Rifles), the Japanese, who had entered Burma with the help of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) “to liberate the country from the British yoke,” were never quite welcome in the Karen communities, to whom the British were the lesser of two evils. As a result, the Karen peoples suffered at the hand of the Japanese and the BIA. The hunters became the hunted. Like most folktales, the story has a happily-ever-after ending involving a wedding following the Japanese surrender. In reality, what awaited the Karen peoples was what would become one of the world’s most protracted conflicts against the independent state of Myanmar.

Mali Hku Shini’s “A Bridge Made from Cord” is a Kachin semi-autobiographical story about a Kachin martial arts (Kahprek) master, who is tempted by a girl from the northern Myanmar mining town of Hpakant, which is known as the source of the finest jade. The martial arts teacher is also tempted by low-quality jade often found in the dumping grounds of the big mining companies, which “can clear a whole mountain in less than six months.”

The practice of foraging mine dumps for overlooked gold or other minerals in Africa has long fascinated anthropologists and ecologists alike. So-called “tailing” is certainly one of the most parlous things one can do in a country cursed by its resources. In Kachin State, news of this or that company’s jade mine dumps collapsing and burying the foragers alive is routine. In the same way that meat in the supermarket is packaged to look remote from the slaughterhouse, the value-added jade accessories I have seen in the window display of fine jewellery shops in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong seem very distant from the blood jade of Hpakant. As I am writing this in March 2018, yet another collapse of a jade mine dump has buried alive about forty foragers, or “ants,” of which only six men were identified. In Mali Hku Shini’s words:

They showed me how to avoid being crushed to death when a truck poured unwanted soil down the hillside. Dirt, rocks, and stones would tumble down to the waiting ants, who’d scramble for first pickings, often dislodging a boulder that would roll, crashing down onto the slower ants below. If you’re an ant at the top, you need to call out, ‘Stone!’ as loud as you can. If not, the other ants will curse you and sometimes beat you.

Hpakant region is also one of the most dubious places on the planet, where opium is almost always freely available. If one is into heroin, one could easily visit one of the ubiquitous “shooting-up galleries.” So much for the romance of the protagonist of this Kachin story!

“This collection is entirely a work of fiction,” says the disclaimer. However, many stories sound semi-autobiographical, with the Kachin story admittedly so. “A Pledge of Love to the Malikha River” by Khin Pan Hninn, who served “as a government doctor before being dismissed for treating student victims of the 1988 revolution,” is an experience far too common amongst public servants of her generation. “The Love of Ka Nya Maw” by Kayah writer Maw Ma Thae, “An Overheated Heart,” self-translated by the author San Lin Tun, the Shan story “Thus Come, Thus Gone” by Sai San Pyae, and “A Flightpath for Spiritual Birds” by Ah Phyu Yaung (Shwe) are all appealing in their own ways.

The stories are contemporary only in the sense that all the authors are contemporary. Most of the stories are in first-person narrative, linear, and realist. When read in this light, the stories stand out as important testimonies of a group of individuals from very different backgrounds, who have endured and survived the ills associated with postcolonial military tyrannies. Even though all the stories have been first translated into Burmese and then rendered into English for the collection, translations by Aung Min Khant, Dr. Mirror (Taunggyi), Khin Hnit Thit Oo, and U Ye Htut, and self-translations by Letyar Tun and San Lin Tun read well, undoubtedly owing to their hard work at the translation workshop.

In bringing out parallel literatures from the ethnic states of Myanmar and “helping to foster talents” editor Lucas Stewart, who has conducted creative writing workshops, and Alfred Birnbaum, who has led the translation workshops, have done an admirable service. The book should serve as a first stop in English for anyone who would like to traverse the complex literary landscapes of Myanmar. Isn’t it ironic that stories from the ethnic languages, which have long been suppressed, have now been re-written in the languages of their erstwhile oppressors? As far as I am concerned, this kind of irony is most welcome.

Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, ed. by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum. British Council, 2017.

ko ko thett is a Myanmar-based poet, poetry translator and editor for Mekong Review. He has published and performed almost everywhere — from Sharjah International Book Fair to Shanghai Minsheng Museum of Modern Art. Noted for “The Burden of being Burmese” (Zephyr Press, 2015), his forthcoming collection, bamboophobia, is out from The Wesleyan University Press, hopefully soon enough. His poems have been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Russian.