The Burmese writer Thawda Aye Lei has published four novels and two short story collections.She is currently working as a researcher on gender- and media-related studies for Burma-based international NGOs. In 2021, she enrolled in the PhD program in Political Science at McMaster University, Canada.
I. Literary / personal
Q 1: Your background is as a journalist and social theory researcher, yet you have also delved into fiction, and in quite original ways. How do you combine—or keep separate—these distinct modes of writing?
TAL: Basically, I think the main task of all these—whether a journalist, social researcher, or an author—is to communicate with people to try to understand their suffering and experiences, and their interpretation of them. All these professions connect with the social world. But a journalist reports the news in more objective ways because news stories are mainly based on facts. There can also be subjective journalism, closer to the process of a social theory researcher, as we also seek all the connecting and influencing factors of a social setting. And as an author, one is also a member of the human community: we also represent the society through our stories, or may even be the main character of own story. So while the nature of conducting research or writing a story or a news item is similar, the standpoint is different. When a case was intended for advocacy or for educating the general public, I wrote it creatively, taking the opportunity to combine my research skill and creative sense. So for example, I published real-life stories of people living on the border alongside my socio-economic research about the people living on the Myanmar-China border. Research findings aren’t easy to understand for general public but the stories can touch hearts. And inversely, to create historical fiction, I need research skills. So, to me these two skill sets are complementary. To be honest, I enjoy the life of an author more than those others—it is simpler and more independent.
Q 2: What are the topics/areas of special interest for you at this moment? Do you have writing open on your desk?
TAL: As people all over the world know, on February 1 of this year (2021) the military seized the power in our country, and people’s resistance against the coup is constantly growing stronger. This coup is the third Myanmar’s people have experienced since 1962. Yet this time the situation looks more revolutionary because now people are fighting not only against the military but also against racism and other traditional values, all of which also oppress them. I have come realize that, to reach equilibrium, it is not only the market that is regulated by an invisible hand, but that such invisible hand can also regulate the social world by eliminating extremes. Our lives here in Myanmar are in chaos; we have only ourselves to rely on. There is no common leadership, because we have many diverse ethnic groups and political units. But we, the people, do have a common enemy and we suffer together. We are united yet are at the same time also trying to harmonize the different perspectives of the various groups. People are negotiating with each other to avoid extremes even while we all are combating the junta. For example, people are persuading each other to respect human dignity of an opposing group even if they are faced with inhumane acts committed by those same groups. So, I am taking notes on these historical events. I learned history from novels like War and Peace, Freedom at Midnight, Gone with the Wind, and many others. Now I have become one of the characters in our movement. I could never buy these experiences anywhere, and that also goes for those that were bitter. With my writing, I want to honor our people’s courage, their struggle, their love in this turmoil. But I need to wait and see what will happen six months, a year, from now—how this society will have been changed then.
Q 3: How did you manage to work in this COVID period, between spring 2020 and now—as a writer, as a citizen, and as a private person?
TAL: During the initial Covid period, book sales had been decreasing. That situation worsened even further after the coup. Before then, I had some time to write and read: for my fifth work of fiction, I had been gradually developing a story about the struggle of three women and their mid-life crisis. But when the coup happened, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I felt as if the future was being lost. At first, I joined the protests and led fundraising activities to support the protesters. And banging pots and pans was what I did every night, until the end of April. In our tradition, we bang pots and pans to drive the evil spirits away—we used it as a metaphor to fight the military. This was the easiest way everyone could do something individually at home, at night. People could show their disagreement and anger. But when the military increased their repressive measures, we had to stop banging. Though we cannot make them hear our protest, we are not ending other activities, such as supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). I am organizing some fundraising activities to support the government staff who have refused to work for the military administration and joined the CDM. The junta has tried to arrest these people so we found them secure places to hide, and provided them with funds and psychosocial support, to keep them secure and remain motivated. Once the military cut off Internet access, tried to control bank transactions of fundraising groups, and tried to arrest CDM supporters, the resistance groups had to be decentralized into clusters. As we couldn’t expand the funding networks or publicly organize fundraising, we decided to support only the CDM staff within or nearest to our own communities. I for instance collected funds from my literary fans and among my friends, and organized small discussions with the threatened CDM staff to sustain their motivation. Now I am writing material intended to lead to the boycott of products manufactured by businesses backed by the military in order to avoid paying taxes to the junta. I also keep a diary to record our daily lives under the crackdown, and have contributed a short story about the coup to Adi Magazine. We have only limited access of the Internet and our use of social media is restricted; most of the on-line campaigns require the use of VPNs. To sum up, I am more reliant on online platforms and more engaged with online media, both because of Covid and because of the coup.
Q 4: What do you do to recharge your batteries?
TAL: Ever since we have been deprived of our rights, I too have been struggling with mood swings, going between hope and despair. It’s not easy to maintain a positive attitude but I try to hold on as much as possible by meditating—a means of calming down. Another way has been to plant some flowering trees—roses and jasmine. When I water them in the evening, I feel as if I am cultivating something that will grow stronger. When I see them bloom, I can at least believe that my effort is not in vain.
Q 5: What marks—ideas, friendships, networks—has your time in the IWP left?
Many, many. We spent almost three months at the IWP, and that was enough to build strong friendship among us. Now we keep in touch and share our updates through WhatsApp. I was preparing to publish a book, Iowa Diary, about my time at IWP: all my memories were depicted there. I had planned to publish it in late February but the coup shattered this dream. Anyway, I got huge support, care, and love from my IWP friends when they heard the bad news from Myanmar. In the first week of the coup, as a representative of independent writers not affiliated with any literary association, I led a push to organize a statement of condemnation, which called for immediate release of all political prisoners. My IWP friends shared that statement in their networks, raising international awareness of the Myanmar issue. I truly appreciate their support.
II. Literary / general
Q 6 : While contemporary Burmese poetry is gradually recognized as very sophisticated and also very activist, new Myanma prose is somewhat less known. As a prose writer, can you speculate on some reasons for this, and offer some titles and names?
TAL: Here, let me raise two issues—internal problems like censorship, and the external issues, like less translation of prose into other languages.
Both modern Burmese prose and poetry started literally developing in the 1930s, under the British rule. Along with other national movements, national education was emerging, and demands arose to recognize Burmese as an official language. These movements, including the promotion of modern Burmese prose and poetry, were led by university students and educated people. The content they contributed was usually related to independence, or class struggle, or social change and the people’s political awareness. But under the military rule, particularly after 1990, censorship seemed more oppressive to freedom of press and expression than had been the case before independence. Prose, being more straightforward, was therefore more likely to be restricted by the military censorship board because of unacceptable words or content. So, writers avoided writing about democracy, or poverty, or human rights violations and concentrated on love and family relationships, or stories based on traditional society. But the language of poetry is expressive, linking words, lines and rhymes in an artistic way. So, using metaphors, poets had more tools to make some twists and turns around the censorship board. After 2012, censorship was lifted. Since then, we have seen the content of poems become more liberating—for example there have been many poems about the modern world, sexual oppression and liberation, civil war and social harmony. The themes of prose fiction, and its style have been changing only gradually, however. Which is one reason for why the development of Burmese prose has been left behind that of contemporary poetry.
Now about translation: there are a few Burmese poets able to translate contemporary Burmese poetry into English so as to introduce it to the international community. As natives, they understand the Burmese culture very well and are also competent in both languages. But it is challenging to translate a whole novel from the Burmese. A literary translator must have excellent language skill, and more yet: if he or she is not Burmese, they also need to know about Burmese society and culture to fully understand the whole story, and to interpret between its lines. There aren’t many Burmese novels translated to other languages. It would be ideal if we could do projects translating Burmese prose fiction.
Q 7: What writers and/or books have been important to you, as a writer and as a reader?
TAL: I have many, many favorite writers, for example Chekhov, Maupassant, Kafka and many Burmese writers such as Thein Pe Myint, Mya Than Tint, Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay and Moe Moe (Inya). I appreciated all their art. If I have to choose some literary genres, I prefer historical novels and drama.
Q 8: Are there are some unique issues in translating to and from Burmese texts, literary and otherwise?
TAL: As said earlier, the main issue in translating Burmese literature is the language barrier—lack of literary-gifted speakers competent in both languages. Only a few books have been translated into other languages, mainly to English. And there, short stories and poems are more available than novels. None of the literary associations can support this type of literary translation projects. And this is not only about foreign languages: no one is leading translation between Burmese and the other ethnic languages (for example, Kachin, Chin, Shan, or Rakhine) within the country.
Another thing is the market. Burmese literature is less well-known, and under the previous military regime, Myanmar had been a forbidden country for many years. Actually, there are many interesting stories here, particularly about our resistance and our resilience. It’d be great if the outside world could explore this through Burmese writing. Instead, we get Burmese translations of international best-sellers. Within the last decade, books translated from other languages have been published more than books originally written in Burmese, and they are mostly from English. Actually, we have many translated books of great non-English authors such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Sartre. Most of them were translated though the English version. A few literati like Saya Paragu, Taw Kaung Min, and Ye Mya Lwin translated books originally written in Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, and Japanese.
Right now, Haruki Murakami and García Márquez are the best-selling authors in Myanmar: they are always on the top 10 list, even more popular than Burmese authors’ books. Perhaps Murakami has had some influence on some Burmese authors, as their style has changed in their late writing, tending toward a surrealism or magical realism.
Q 9: From the outside, Burma/Myanmar is perceived as one nation-state. Can writing—literary or factual—bring together the many ethnic and linguistic groups in the country? Should it? And, do the Burmese writers who now live and write outside of the country matter inside?
TAL: Myanmar is an ethnically diverse nation, but Burmese, the language of the major ethnic group, Bamar, is the official language. In the art industries as a whole, there are many ethnic popular singers who are not Bamar. But in the creative writing field, very few non-Bamar ethnic writers are known, and moreover they all publish their work in Burmese. Mostly it is just the well-known Bamar-ethnic writers who try to present the lives of other ethnic people and cultures, so that we barely ever hear the narratives of non-Bamar ethnic people directly from them. The language barrier has led to loss of self-representation. A few years ago, at a literary event in Naypyidaw [Myanmar’s current administrative capital—ed.], I urged officials to develop more ethnic literatures, and the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs had some initiatives to promote this, but we haven’t seen any outcome as yet. The ethnic minorities living in very remote areas and mountainous regions barely read, write, or speak Burmese. I would say that the development of ethnic literature might to a degree support national reconciliation for we need to build mutual trust and understand each other by sharing our narratives. Books written in Burmese should be translated to other ethnic languages, and other ethnic stories should be provided with Burmese translation. If I am not mistaken, only the writer Ludu U Hla published some 1500 folk tales of the various ethnic minorities in Burmese, more than four decades ago now. I truly support that kind of initiative.
Regarding the Burmese writers who now live outside the country, let me talk about two groups. One writes in English, for example, Wendy Law-Yone and Pascal Khoo Thwe, though neither is very prolific. Their books reflect the struggle of people inside the country very well, but their themes are not contemporary. The second group are the writers abroad who write in Burmese. But many of them are now working for the exile media or for international media and have only been contributing articles or memoirs or literary criticism. So for the time being, I would say that only the writers who are inside the country are producing contemporary narratives.
Q 10: Does contemporary writing in Burma engage with, reflect, people’s spirituality?
TAL: For almost five decades of censorship rules, all our creative sense was lost. Even when censorship was lifted in 2012, we had to practice self-censorship. But the poets and writers continue to be arrested under Section 66(d) or 505(a) paragraphs that relate to “defamation” or “statements or rumors likely to cause members of the military to mutiny or fail in their duty.” Which shows that writers are still taking a risk in order to engage the public with their art. And this has become much more obvious during the protests after the coup. Their writings are simply being posted on social media and so reaching a wider public, where their touching and powerful stories have given people greater energy, and more hope.
Q 11: Describe your utopia.
TAL: To be “Nothing” is my utopia. But that is more difficult than to be “something.” I am always battling my ego.