September 24, 2008 / 5:18 AM / 11 years ago

Myanmar author beats censors after decade-long battle

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Nu Nu Yi, the first author living in army-ruled Myanmar to have a book published outside the country, battled censors for more than a decade to get her voice heard. Now, she wants other Myanmar writers to follow her.

Yi, whose book “Smile as They Bow” was nominated for the Asian Booker prize last year, is determined to help create a canon of Burmese literature that will fill its own shelves at English-language bookshops, and not be filed under Thailand.

She spoke to Reuters after the publication of the English translation of her novel, a gritty portrayal of the raucous week-long Taungbyon festival, which celebrates spirits known as “nats” who are believed to shower luck on people they favor.

Q: “Smile as They Bow” is the first book by a writer living in Myanmar to be translated into English. Is this a milestone?

A: When I was at Oxford in 1998, I saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Letters from Burma” at Blackwell’s bookstore. It was the only book from Myanmar — on the Thailand bookshelf — they didn’t even have a Burma bookshelf.

No one knows the tears I shed there at Blackwell’s. I wanted to see Myanmar writers and Myanmar bookshelves in international bookstores. There are many writers, and even more unpublished manuscripts. But there are very few translators and no connections to foreign publishers.

So for me personally, and for Myanmar literature, the U.S. publication of “Smile As They Bow” is very important.

Q: Can you explain why the book took three years to research and write — and then 12 years to be published?

A: Initially, the censors totally banned the novel. I remember the reason they gave was that it was “unsuitable for the times,” a phrase they often use.

Q: Why was the story, set at one Myanmar’s most famous spirit festivals, deemed so sensitive?

A: One very funny thing I remember, they said my mentioning the two Taungbyon Brothers, younger and elder, was obviously aimed at Secretary One and Secretary Two of the Military Council.

They also disallowed all references to homosexuality, which are in the English version, and did not even permit a beggar character. I tried to appeal that she’s a singer, not a beggar.

Q: But you feel secure, as a writer, despite this?

A: I feel perfectly safe, because I am not political. Risk largely comes from writing open provocation. Most writers are experts at hidden meanings.

There are other writers with more government leanings, who definitely do no like the fact that I was translated and nominated for an international prize. They even say an American should not have translated it. But I do have a popular following and somehow manage to make a living.

Q: Why do spirits and superstition loom so large in your book, and other accounts of life in Myanmar?

A: Myanmar is largely pre-modern and such beliefs are very traditional. As the situation inside the country gets more and more dire, people grasp for quick desperate solutions, they want to believe in some kind of hope, anything.

Many authors write about the supernatural to escape from censorship because so many things are prohibited, both explicitly and by unwritten rules. One cannot write about poverty, beggars, sex, rape, and, of course, politics or anything positive about other countries.

Q: Do you read foreign books and reports about Myanmar?

A: We get almost no news from other countries inside Burma, except via BBC and VOA radio. I only can read journalism about my country when I am abroad. Of course such journalism is inaccurate and oversimplified to black-and-white. The situation is very complex, with many shades of gray.

Q: What do you hope overseas readers take from your work?

A: I want to give my country a human face. A real place with real people, not just an exotic tourist postcard.

Writing by Gillian Murdoch; Editing by Miral Fahmy

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