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"On Going Home"—Pandora, IWP ’12, Burma/Myanmar

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and were curious about what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly 3 months in the U.S. writing, researching, traveling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that represented "home" in some fundamental way. Our second installment comes from poet and blogger Pandora, whose transition home coincided with a larger transition currently budding in Burma/Myanmar.

It is no longer the delightful rays of light through the window that start my day. It is the vibration of the water pump that serves as my wake-up alarm. When I open my eyes, the walls, the ceiling, the curtains, the wardrobe, the washing machine at the corner of the room and most evidently, a mosquito net covering me and my hubby sleeping next to me…. all these confirm that I am home. 

I spent almost three months in Iowa City and other cities in America. What is specific about Iowa City, to me, is “tranquility” though the same might not necessarily be true in all parts of America. Most days I encountered in the fall season were cool enough to create a fresh atmosphere and warm enough to keep an Asian visitor like me comfortable. Most Iowans use their own legs to get around town yet they don’t look tired. They seem relaxed yet active. They don’t have to be in a hurry yet still are on time.  I lost a few kilos walking around town during my residency. The changing colors of beautiful leaves enchanted me, being a person who has never experienced a four-season country. New Orleans’ crazy nights raised my spirits. Art museums were my favorite places to visit in Chicago, Washington DC, and New York.

Back in Yangon, I miss the opportunity to walk naturally from place to place.  I find myself in a vehicle most of the time but I usually have to be in a rush. The increasing import of cars is making driving inconvenient, even for those who own cars, not to mention those who take public transport.  Going downtown during the daytime is a sweaty journey in heavy traffic.  I miss the breeze blowing across the bridge over the Iowa River. Nevertheless, what is a relief to me is the momentum of the “transition” in my country.  Finally we’re starting to see a faint light at the other end of the tunnel.

I arrived back home from the States in mid-November last year, which is considered the cold season in my country. Hence, after witnessing the prettiest fall in the States, excepting Sandy hurricane, I was back home to enjoy the best season in my country. For most IWP writers, the day after they landed might have been hectic, with piles of tasks on their desks. I am fortunate enough to still be on a long leave from my job in Singapore (since late 2011) in order to enjoy the sense of home and plan for my family. Fortunately again, the timing also coincides with significant changes in my country, the so-called transition period.

Transition brings us a more open outlook of the world toward a closed country. We are receiving global attention to literature and culture along with political changes. After the gradual easing of censorship to some extent, literary and artistic events can be held without needing to pass through a strict process, unlike in previous times. Among them are the Blue Wind Multimedia International Art Festival, the Irrawaddy International Literary Festival, and several other art exhibitions and literary events.  

The voice of the people is also heard louder in the transition although whether that voice can carry the expected changes is another story. Such a voice is also reflected in literary and artistic work. Messages are clearer and styles are more direct as compared to the past, when we had to be very cautious about each and every word we expressed.  Applause for such writings is also heard from the audience. Some poets express their excitement at the shifting trends in poetics and at witnessing the new challenges of writing in the process of openness.   

I remember the students I met in Iowa City, Des Moines, Spirit Lake and News Orleans. I was so envious that regardless of their ages, from primary school to seniors in college, they had opportunities to learn about contemporary international literature and hear updates from international writers. Such opportunities might not come quickly to Myanmar, but I was so glad when an IWP team visited universities in Yangon and gave lectures this year [poets Christopher Merrill, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman, and fiction writer Zuwena Packer visited Burma/Myanmar on an IWP reading tour January 11 - 17, 2013]. I hope that this will pave the way for future long term collaborations in creative writing between universities in the States and Myanmar.

Transition is not a perfect process. Despite some improvements, we are still hearing the ugly roar of civil war in the north and the noise of ethnic conflicts in the western part of the country. Farmers are still struggling for their land rights against big industrial projects. Factory workers are fighting for a better quality of work-life. We hope that democracy, still in its infancy, is not overwhelmed by the feeble educational system and the fundamental inequalities that have existed since the time of the tough ruling regime. Don’t these poor, long-suffering people deserve a pleasant future ahead?

Now, many streets all over the country are decorated with yellowish Ngu and reddish Sein Pan: the local seasonal flowers. People are waiting for Padauk, the national flower, which is supposed to blossom only once in a year right at the time of the Water Festival. The Water Festival is also called “Thingyan”, which comes from a Pali word meaning “transition”. During the “transition”, people wish for bad deeds to be cleansed by cool water and replaced with a genuinely clean body and mind in order to welcome a better New Year. Despite some still unclean dirt, I believe that the brighter and cleaner days are on their way, seen or unseen.

Maybe it’s also the time when the IWP is preparing for the upcoming fall residency. Perhaps the sweet memories of IWP’s fall 2012 residents will be replaced with those of the new batch soon. But I believe that my little footprints will remain indelible in Iowa City, whether visible or invisible.

For more from Pandora, watch her On the Map interview.

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