Censored Stories: Report From Literary Myanmar

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

He lets me look at some selections from his second poetry collection and explains that the censors, who are uncertain whether his preference for aesthetics over literal meaning isn't somehow obscuring a politically charged message, have rejected it. His face grows sober as he tells me this, and he admits that the censorship has led to a debilitating depression that occasionally affects his writing.

Pyin Thu is forty-seven with two children: a daughter about to go off to college and a son already studying to be a doctor. He's of Chinese descent, a minority that currently comprises about 3 percent of the Burmese population. I ask him about his literary influences, and he lists Plath, Hughes, Auden, and the contemporary poet Charles Bernstein. He's also a fan of the Burmese "khit san" writers, a Burmese avant-garde who, in the 1920s, abandoned the traditional florid style favored by the Buddhist writers and experimented with simpler, secular forms.

We talk for more than an hour, and he grows excited as he discusses his philosophies. He's looking forward to an upcoming trip to the American southwest (his exit visa has been approved) when he will meet with writers and read his poetry. "I can't stop writing," he admits. "I always say, ‘No more, nothing else.' But it just keeps on coming out."

It is unusual for a contemporary Burmese author's work to be translated into English, but in September Hyperion released Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi Inwe. The novel, about a Burmese transvestite, a controversial subject in communist and conservative Myanmar, was censored for twelve years before being published in its native language. Its translation was almost immediately short-listed for the ten-thousand-dollar Man Asian Literary Prize. The attention earned the writer an invitation to read at a literary festival in Korea, but it also made her cautious.

When I call and ask to meet with her in the days before the storm, she hesitates. "I'll call you back at your hotel," she says.

"In Myanmar, they can revoke your permission to leave the country at any time and for any reason," another writer tells me. "Even at the airport they can change their minds and say, ‘No, you can't go.'"

In the midst of processing her visa to Korea, Nu Nu Yi Inwe decides it is not a convenient time to meet with a visiting writer from the United States.

The day before I leave Myanmar on my return flight to Beijing, I arrange to meet Dr. Ma Thida. An earlier meeting we arranged was delayed by the cyclone, but on Monday she suggests that we meet in the restaurant of the City Star Hotel, behind the old City Hall near Sule Pagoda and within sight of the storm-ruined High Court building. She sounded uncertain on her telephone, which clicked and faded as we spoke.

Dr. Ma Thida is a medical doctor as well as the author of the novel The Sunflower and the short story collection In the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree, both of which are banned in Myanmar. In the early nineties, she aligned herself with the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her activism resulted in her arrest and secret trial. She spent six years in Insein Prison, much of it in solitary confinement, until international efforts earned her release in 1999. In recent years, she has lectured at the University of Iowa and Yale University, and shortly before my visit to Myanmar, Brown University selected her to receive the International Writers Project Fellowship, a one-year residency designed to help writers who are unable to work freely in their home countries.

On the Monday after the storm, I make the trek through the eastern neighborhoods to the City Star Hotel, which is still without power. I arrive fifteen minutes before our appointed time and take the exterior stairs to the quiet, second-floor restaurant. In the powerless gloom, the fans are still and no food is available. Sunlight, thick with dust motes, angles past curtains on the windows that line the south side of the room. Despite the motionless air and burdensome heat, three men sit at a round table in the center of the room.

I order a warm Coke—the hotel doesn't carry the cheaper Burmese brands like Lemon Sparkling—and take out my copy of Thein Pe Myint's short stories. I find a story written in 1938 that begins: "The monsoon skies were ominously dark over Rangoon. Above the wet green trees and the red buildings, the High Court clock tower stood out tall against the threatening sky. The big clock face, very white against the dark background, showed the time as half past six." A block away, the cyclone has knocked the white face out of the clock tower, leaving a gaping hole. As I turn the pages, I sneak glances at the people seated at the center table. Two are stocky, middle-aged Burmese men, their frames suggestive of ex-athletes. One has a pitted face and wears a Hawaiian shirt. The other has on a black collared T-shirt. Both wear slacks and smoke. The third member of the group is a younger, slender man with Indian features. They do not talk or order drinks. The waiters do not approach their table. I wonder if they are members of the Burmese intelligence assigned to monitor my meeting with the writer. This is the paranoia encouraged by the police state. I've learned to worry; during interviews, I lower my voice to ask certain questions, even when nobody is near.

At 2:30, the exact time the author proposed for our meeting, a member of the hotel staff approaches me with his hand outstretched. "Are you Mr. Steve?" he says. "I am sorry, but Dr. Ma Thida has given me a message. She cannot come. Do you have a message to give to her?" He offers me a piece of paper to write on.