Censored Stories: Report From Literary Myanmar

Stephen Morison Jr.
From the November/December 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The storm arrives that evening at 11:30. I suffer through a sleepless night listening as the hotel's windows smash and the corrugated panels of the neighboring rooftop slap and eventually fly away. At two in the morning, the ancient tamarind tree growing out of the sidewalk in front of the hotel comes crashing down on the three-story rooftop, causing the whole structure to shudder. By three, the hotel has begun to leak; water seeps down from the ruined roof, dripping through the ceilings of the rooms and flooding the corridors. By daylight, the power is out across the city, and the shortages begin. By the time the trees have been chopped to pieces by teams of patient men with simple hand tools (machetes, axes, and handsaws) and vehicles can begin to get through, the cost of gasoline has tripled.

In isolated corners of the city, I discover that, miraculously, some telephones are working. I borrow the hotel owner's mobile phone (which I learned was a rare and expensive luxury in Myanmar when I walked into a cell phone store and was told that, although phones were being sold as status symbols, no SIM cards were available without government permission and $2,500). Using the borrowed cell phone, I reach several more writers and arrange to meet them. Taxis are no longer an option, so I trek across the city, weaving around, over, and even through downed trees that have fallen onto the electrical and telephone lines, webbing the streets with wires.

I meet with Chit Oo Nyo in his modest flat, one floor up from the numbered streets just north of the imperial-era Strand Hotel. Thankfully, his apartment has escaped major damage, but he's without electricity and has to carry water up from the street. He introduces himself as simply "Mr. Chit." His wife, "Lady Chit," is a bright, plump woman who sits across from us and fans us with a plastic fan while we talk. I'm still sweating from the walk through the humid streets. Mr. Chit leaves a lit flashlight on the table. On a daybed in the shadows at the back of the room sit his silent, bald mother and his similarly silent sister; both of them appear to be meditating.

Mr. Chit has written and published sixty-two books. His novels are often based on the tales from Hindu legends (stories incorporated into Myanmar's Buddhist belief system much as Christians incorporated the Jewish Old Testament into theirs), and they are all set in the ancient past. One of his most famous books is a retelling of the Ramayana, a poem attributed to the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, who lived in 400 BCE. "The conservatives condemn me because I've reversed some elements," he says. Much like John Gardner's Grendel, which retells Beowulf from the perspective of the monster, Mr. Chit's book is told from the perspective of the Ramayana's antagonist, the ten-headed ogre Ravana.

Lady Chit brings me tea while Mr. Chit takes puffs of a long brown cheroot with a silver band and drinks coffee. "I don't have a schedule," he says. "I write for three or four hours a day. Some days I don't write; I can't. I need not only the will but also the inspiration. Sometimes I can't help writing, as if the words are streaming out." He adjusts his square glasses. "I don't use a computer; I write with my own hand on blank paper—I don't want to confine my words even between two lines."

He is currently working on a novel that reflects the client-state relationship that exists between Myanmar and China. Several of the Burmese I have met have complained that Chinese executives are taking over the country, and my acquaintances at the American Center explain that the Chinese government is heavily invested in Myanmar's oil and raw materials. Mr. Chit's novel, set in the ninth century, avoids contemporary politics by focusing on the relationship between the Burmese Pyu dynasty and the Chinese Later Han dynasty.

Mr. Chit's father was a choreographer of Burmese traditional dances; in the novelist's apartment there is a glass cabinet lined with small statuettes of Burmese dancers. Mr. Chit tells me he has written a story in English about the figurines that was published in a local magazine. It's about how the figurines come to life and finish a story after the writer falls asleep. It begins: "Dr. Maheinda, enjoying the moonlight, opened the window of his study (which was also his reading room, his research room and his library). He felt pleased the air-conditioner did not work as the electricity had gone out. Not relying on the generator or the battery, he lit the Waso [a Buddhist celebration held in July] candles. But under the moonlight, the candlelight was brassy and ugly, so he put it out."

Mr. Chit's novels and stories reflect the oldest traditions in Burmese literature, the Pali religious stories. It is a market he has tapped successfully, but when I ask him if writing sixty-two novels makes for a profitable career in Myanmar, Mr. Chit puffs on his cheroot and tells me he would prefer not to answer. He says no more, but I can interpret his silence: To answer would mean criticizing the government, and that is something Mr. Chit is careful not to do.

The second afternoon following the storm, I meet with the poet Pyin Thu in a third-floor studio on Sule Paya Road, where he holds his English-language classes. He has a dark ponytail and wears steel-rimmed glasses, a purple longyi, and a chartreuse collared T-shirt. Despite occasional problems with censorship, he has published poems and articles in a number of prestigious Burmese literary magazines and has translated the writings of Kenneth Goldsmith into Burmese. He has a poem in English forthcoming in the New Mexico-based arts magazine THE. His first collection of poetry was published in Myanmar in 2005.

On the round wooden table where we sit and talk, there is a copy of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and Christopher Merrill's Things of a Hidden God (Random House, 2005). Pyin Thu describes his poetry as postmodern, but this isn't something he strives for. "This came to me naturally, according to my experience," he says. "In my life meaning is not fixed. [We] always talk about chaos and uncertainty in life, how the reality you see is not the reality that is happening around you."

Outside, the city has been transformed by the storm: The colonial-era buildings downtown are missing their roofs, the glass lobby of the Asia Plaza Hotel is gutted, and the streets are a labyrinth of wires, branches, trunks, and twisted signs. Meanwhile, from their new, undamaged capital to the north, the government estimates that hundreds have died. In actuality, that number may be closer to a hundred thousand. But Pyin Thu isn't really talking about this kind of difference in perspective. Instead, he says, he's referring to the metaphysical possibilities such absurd discrepancies suggest. "There can be another alternate reality beyond your senses. Whenever I write poetry, I try to show the bridge between Reality A and Reality B."