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The People Elsewhere

Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar

Lucas Stewart

In a five year journey all across Myanmar, Lucas Stewart travels from Yangon in the south to the northern limits of Kachin State in search of the literary luminaries of the country’s recent past. He bonds with censored and jailed writers, poets, publishers and booksellers, recording their stories of heritage and resilience. In his conversations with students at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally or sharing stories with a Kayah farmer in his village house, the long-suppressed literatures and languages of minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and others shine through. The People Elsewhere is a vivid tableau of time and place, and an ode to the ethnic richness of Myanmar.

Penguin Books/Viking

…This book isn’t a memoir but a weaving of two stories. On the one hand it is a simple journey through the writers of a country that is undergoing a transformation many thought would never come; this is a story set in the ‘now’, where change can be seen and touched. The other story is much more complicated: it tells of a country in which the ‘now’ is not as important as the ‘before’, where history and the lessons learnt from it, cannot be easily set aside or forgotten…

Lucas Stewart, The People Elsewhere, Viking, 2016

Available from Penguin/Viking and in digital formats from Amazon.

 

Praise for ‘The People Elsewhere’:

‘Lucas Stewart’s book is an exquisite map of the many literatures of Myanmar, of the human impulse to express oneself through story and song… In scenes alternately warming and harrowing, it braids travel, history and literary criticism in a most ingenious way to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country long forgotten by the world.’

Chandrahas Choudhury, Author of Clouds and editor of India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion

‘The People Elsewhere is a vigorous and compelling travel parable … In a vivid and tenacious tour through some of the country’s militarily-sealed borderlands, Lucas Stewart explores with great generosity and kinship how previously banned or censored languages are still being preserved in some of remotest and educationally-marginalised areas in the world.’

James Byrne, Co-editor of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets

‘Lucas Stewart’s journey across Myanmar offers a fascinating insight and a rare glimpse of life through its storytellers … Anyone wanting to discover Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage and how these endearing, diverse and remarkable peoples did more than just survive will find this an important and essential read.’

Nick Danziger, Photojournalist and Author of Danziger’s Travels.

More by Lucas Stewart:

The Act of Insanity – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Shadow Signatures: A Legacy of Burmese Pen Names – The Bamboo Sea

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK A digital manuscript chest for all things literary in Myanmar

 

Further Reading:

Burma or Myanmar? Burmese or Burman? – U Khin Maung Saw

Between Two Fires – Ludu U Hla (The Caged Ones, Orchid Press, 1998)

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

 

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Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires

When I first met Saw Htee Byan in Rangoon Central Jail in 1956 he was just twenty-four years old. He was a strapping young man with a stocky build and a healthy complexion. His mother was Karen and like most Karens he possessed a fine melodious voice. At my request he sang several Karen songs while accompanying himself on the guitar.

After we had grown better acquainted he readily recounted to me the story of his life.

*

My grandfather was a village headman in Pyapon during the administration of the Hteebyan District Commissioner. Because I was born at this time I was named Saw Htee Pyan. My birthplace is Amar village which is about thirty miles away from Bogale Town, Pyapon District. My father’s name is Ko Hla Shein and my mother’s is Ma Ngwe Khin or Naw Yon Mu. My father is pure Burmese hailing from Upper Burma and my mother the daughter of a Karen Headman. My grandfather, U Po Bylu was well known in the area, being a headman who had been awarded a double barreled shotgun by the government for meritorious service. My father was a carpenter. He had come to repair the paddy barges belonging to my grandfather and had fallen in love with my mother. Grandfather approved of the match, and had them married with a proper ceremony.

I was the first child to be born of their union. My grandfather doted on me and named me Htee Pyan (“The umbrella returning” Commissioner, because practically all accused who appeared before him were sent to prison and only their umbrellas returned home).

Amar was a Karen-Burmese village of about two hundred houses. While it boasted two Buddhist monasteries, it had no secular school. When I was five years old my grandfather died and we moved to a village about fifty miles away called Kanyin-tabin. This village also had about two hundred houses and there were both Karen and Burmese families in the village. However, the Burmese far out-numbered the Karens, of whom there were only twenty households. My father set up shop as a carpenter, while my mother opened a small school to teach Karen and Burmese.

About the end of the Japanese occupation I was ten years old, and had acquired three sisters. The person charged with the anti-Japanese Resistance in our area was a man named Bo Kyaing. This officer attacked the Japanese prematurely and in reprisal they came and razed our village to the ground. We had to flee to another village thirty miles away called Myit-nga-hseik. Father set up a general provision store there, in partnership with five friends from Ohn-bin-su village near Pyapon. My mother no longer taught school and I had to attend the Karen school in the village.

Grandfather had been a pastor in the Karen Christian Church. Before he died he had managed to convert my father from Buddhism to Christianity and my father now became a pastor as well. He could deliver very fine sermons both in Burmese and Karen.

At about this time the political situation took a turn for the worse, and one day hearing gunshots, I ran home to find that rebels from the Karen National Defense Organisation had attacked our home. Father had managed to escape unscathed, but of his five Burmese friends, two were found dead inside the house while the remaining three were found outside also dead from gunshot wounds. Mother was inside the house weeping. The rebels pointed their rifles at the me and shouted, “How about you? Do you want to be a Burman or a Karen?” Only by replying that I wanted to be a Karen was my life spared. They then carried off all our property, leaving only our clothes, some salt, and a basket full of rice.

The K.N.D.O rebels then left after ordering the village militia to deliver the corpses to Pyapon. The militia had been organised by the government, but its members were Karen. They took the bodies to the Pyapon police station, where they reported that my father Ko Hla Shein had murdered his partners and absconded.

Meanwhile my father was hiding out in the jungle without food and water, not daring to approach the vicinity of human habitation because the story the K.N.D.O rebels had spread and had turned every man’s hand against him.

I travelled to Pyapon to see my father’s younger brother who was a Lieutenant in the Army and related the true story to him. My uncle came with me to view the corpses to make sure that father was not included in their number. Then he accompanied me back to the village, together with a squad of soldiers to search for him.

Some young cowherds informed us that a man had been seen sleeping at nights in the cemetery of nearby Char-gyin village, and making our way there quietly, we saw that it was my father. “Father! Father!” I called out to him, but he took fright and ran away. However the others immediately gave chase and finally succeeded in capturing him. Since he was wanted by the authorities my uncle had to surrender his own brother into custody.

After a month’s investigation the government published its findings declaring that my father was innocent of the crime, and that the K.N.D.O’s and the militiamen were the murderers. The relatives of the victims wanted action to be taken against the real culprits, but they could not be found. Ever since the news broke that my father was innocent, the militiamen had refused to obey all summonses issued for their appearance at the Pyapon police station. Father was released from custody, but he no longer dared to return to the village. Mother also was afraid to join him. Their separation dates from this time. I remained with my mother. I hear that father is living in Rangoon but I know neither his address nor his present occupation.

*

Although father had been a pastor he had put me in the Buddhist monastery school. He said that he wished to see his son brought up as a Buddhist. Accordingly, during the Japanese occupation I was novitiated together with seven other boys in a grand ceremony.

*

When I returned to the village with mother the Karen insurgents asked me: “Are you going to stay here, or do you wish to move to a Burmese village?” I had to reply: “I would like to stay in this village please.”

To make both ends meet, my mother had to sell the five cows that we had left, and with the proceeds buy a garden plot which we worked for the next two years. At the end of this period the Communists attacked Myit-nga-hseik village and so we returned to our original home in Amar village where we took up catching shrimps for a living.

Having grown up in Burmese villages I could not speak Karen when I was young. On going to live with my mother and her relatives my cousins found out that I could not speak Karen and ostracized me as a Burman. Occasionally I would be punched and kicked by the older boys. When my mother complained to her brother about this he summoned all of us and explained to the other children that I was the son of their aunt and a Karen also and that I did not know their language because I had been brought up in a Burmese village. He urged them to help me learn Karen instead of ill-treating me because I could not speak the language. He then turned to me and said that from that day on I was not to speak a single word of Burmese and that every time I did so I would be caned, and also fined one anna. For a long time I found great difficulty in communicating with the people around me. My uncle would talk to me in Karen asking me to fetch something and I would have to rush to my mother and ask her in a whisper what it was that he wanted. Then I would run to him and say in Karen: “Here it is, uncle.” His face would be wreathed in smiles and he would rattle off some long sentences, none of which I understood.

Finally my mother had a brilliant idea and had me enrolled in the Karen village school. The schoolmaster was a very sympathetic and kindly soul, and took my education in hand. I worked very hard under his tutelage, with the result that now I can speak and read Karen more correctly than any of my cousins.

When I reached manhood I was enlisted as a member of the local security force set up by the Karens to maintain law and order in our area. I was appointed leader of a platoon. One day a member of my unit got drunk and held up a Chinese merchant from Bogalesetsu. On my next trip to this town to deliver dried shrimps I was stopped by armed police and searched. They also proceeded to my hut where they uncovered a revolver and three cartridges. I was arrested straightaway. At first they charged me with the unsolved murder of a man named U Than Maung, but I could prove my innocence on that charge and so it was dropped. However the Chinese merchant came forward to accuse me of robbery and the magistrate sentenced me to two years imprisonment.

I have been working as a carpenter in the prison. When I have served my sentence I intend to go back to shrimping, at which I can earn up to fifteen kyats a day.

Being a Karen-Burmese I often encounter armed partisans of both sides. The Karens want to kill the Burmese and the Burmese feel that the only solution is to exterminate the Karens. It saddens me greatly to hear such talk. Having witnessed how my father and his friends had to suffer at the hands of Karens holding narrow sectarian views I find it difficult to forgive the Karens. On the other hand I have seen how cruel the Burmese can be and that makes me embittered at them. When Karens suffer I feel resentful and when Burmans suffer I feel resentful also. Sometimes I wonder whether racial strife and civil war will ever be ended.

*

Ludu U Hla

Extract from:

The Caged Ones

Translated from Burmese by Sein Tu

© Orchid Press, Bangkok, 1998

ISBN 974-8299-15-5

The extract above is reproduced with the kind permission of Orchid Press.

It may not be reproduced, copied or used anywhere else without the written permission of the publisher.

The Caged Ones - Ludu U Hla

Ludu U Hla (1910 – 1982) was born in Nyaunglebin in lower Burma. In 1933, he began publishing a magazine named Kyipwa yay (“Progress for Youth”), which continued until the beginning of the second World War. In 1939 he married Daw Amar.

During the war, Ludu U Hla translated into Burmese and published Ashihae Hino’s “War and Soldier”, the first book ever published during the Fascist occupation.

After the war, he began publishing the fortnightly journal Ludu, which means “The People” and from which his pen name Ludu U Hla originates.

An avid collector and publisher of folktales, Ludu U Hla collected around 2,000 folktales of the peoples of Burma and published around 1,500 folktales in a total of 43 books. In 1963, he was awarded the prestigious Burmese “Sarpay Beikman Literary Award” for his collection of Arakanese folktales.

Alongside this vast undertaking, he wrote 54 books, nine of which were biographies of prisoners he met whilst jailed for political reasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Before he passed away, he also left more than 500 unpublished folktales and seven unfinished manuscripts to his wife.

Haung-chaine-hte-ga-nghet-nge-myar (“The Caged Ones”), from which “Between Two Fires” comes, was originally published in Burmese and won the 1958 UNESCO Award. In the book, Ludu U Hla recounts with great compassion the life stories of sixteen young prisoners he met whilst in Rangoon Central Jail. Told in their own words, these accounts outline and explain the social pressures and reasons why these unfortunate young people had been driven to a life outside the law.

Because I have written a lot about the prisoners, I do not want the reader to assume that I am wholly on the side of the criminals. But what I wish to make clear is that though they may commit atrocious crimes, they are not animals. I strongly believe that they should have a chance to be re-accepted among their fellow citizens should they repent.”

Orchid Press

Orchid Press was founded in 1981, originally as White Orchid Press, by Hallvard K. Kuløy, a former United Nations executive who lived and worked for many years in Asia.

A specialized publishing house devoted to books related to Asia, Orchid Press publishes and provides readers with affordable high-quality editions of important works on the art, culture and religions of Asia.

For more information, please visit their website: Orchidbooks.com

 

Further Reading:

Between Holidays and Hell – Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, May, 2003

The Karen: Prospects for a Durable Peace

– The Karen National Union, Burma Debate Vol. III, No. 6, 1996

A Window to the Past – Stuart Alan Becker, Myanmar Times, January, 2015

Ludu and I – Bo Bo Lansin, The Dissident Blog, March, 2014

Ludu Daw Amar: A Burmese Literary Figure of Conviction and Courage – Myint Zan

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power – Min Zin, The Irrawaddy, October, 2002

 

 

 

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Daw Khin Myo Chit

Shadow Signatures

A Legacy of Burmese Literary Pen Names

U Win Tun may not have had his face emblazoned on T-shirts sold for Westerners outside Yangon’s tourist shopping mecca of Scott Market, but for the Burmese, he was one of a trio of democratic heroes, just as iconic as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing, having spent nineteen years in prison for his involvement in the 1988 revolution.

Then in his eighties, his frail figure dwarfed by the chair he sat on, he mesmerized the Pearl Room of the Asia Plaza Hotel in Yangon with his love for books; how when he was a child books spurred him to become a journalist; how in prison books were banned by the jailors; how scraps of papers with letters became novels in his free imagination. Flanking him were two people with very similar stories; Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung) political activist and writer, jailed for four year in the nineties and blogger Nay Phone Latt, sentenced to twenty one and a half years for ‘creating public alarm’ by reporting on the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

In fact, a lot of the people in the room that day had breathed U Win Tun’s memories.

On my table alone, there were two ex-literary prisoners and a former exile: Seyar Lay Ko Tin, sentenced for 4 to 10 years for possession and distribution of censored materials in the 1970’s under the Ne Win era; poet and installation artist Saw Wai, imprisoned for his infamous 2008 Valentine Day poem which criticized General Than Swe; and poet-translator U Zeyar Lynn, forcibly relocated from Yangon to Upper Burma.

But then, such a roll call of literary giants was to be expected when the event was to officially announce the new chapter of a literary organisation once so despised by the military junta; PEN Myanmar. Inconceivable as little as a year ago, the event was an historical occasion, for many of those present had won PEN Freedom awards during their imprisonment.

For me, however, the afternoon took on a more personal significance. It was the afternoon when, almost by accident, I was gifted a pen name.

Top-L-R-U Win Tu, Min Ko Naing, Ma Thida, Bottom-L-R-Nay Phone Latt, Saw Wai, U Zeyar Lynn

The use of alternative names is not just reserved for writers in Burma. Unlike in the West, Burmese do not use surnames, and often use astrology to name their children, corresponding to the day they were born to the consonant that represents that day; which accounts for the propensity of Aungs and Kyaws amongst ethnic Bama men. People will also use numerology and horoscopes to forecast their lives. If a negative future is viewed, then a simple change of name will divert the bad luck.

In other regions of Burma such as the northern Kachin State, clan names are prevalent resulting in several ‘Bawk’s in a single room. In in the east, most Kayin men you meet will be called ‘Saw’ meaning ‘Mr.’ but used as integral part of their name; on passports and national registration cards. A few months ago I conducted a short story workshop in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon Sate in which every participant, man and woman, had ‘Mon’ in their name.

It’s no surprise then that most Burmese employ multiple titles, if only to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. Yet it is a practice which even foreigners in Burma have adopted. Eric Arthur Blair most famously took an alter-ego to heart; writing ‘Burmese Days’ under the authorship of George Orwell. Mr Orwell may possibly have been influenced by Hector Hugo Munro, a Scot born in Burma in 1870, employed as an imperial policeman – like George Orwell – before going on to write short stories under the pseudonym Saki. J. G. Scott, a man who devoted most of his life to Burma and its people, wrote his seminal ‘The Burman: His Life and Notions’ in 1882, under his given Burmese name, Shway Yoe. Then of course, there was Nefaltí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Chilean Honorary Consul to Burma in the 1920’s, probably better known as the poet Pablo Neruda. Foreign writers in Burma have carried this inclination over into the 21st century, with Emma Larkin aping the object of her quest in her excellent book ‘Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop’; Emma Larkin not being her real name.

George Orwell in Myanmar (back row 3rd from left)

Among early Burmese writers, the practice of taking a pen name was a natural path to take considering the ease and familiarity at changing names in their public life. The use of literary pseudonyms can be found at the birth of modern Burmese literature. The first recognised short story published in Burmese, ‘Maung Thein Tin, Ma Thein Shin Wuthtu’, printed in Thuriya Magazine, volume 1, no.1 in March, 1917 was written by Shwe U Daung. Shwe U Daung is perhaps more famous in Burma for his detective stories based in large part on Sherlock Holmes; his Burmese Sherlock U San Sar complete with longyi and living on his own version of Baker Street – 38th Street, Kyauktada Township. Other modern literature pioneers of the early 20th century followed, with U Sein Tin, better known as Theippan Maung Wa, depicting the lives of ordinary villages through his short stories using the experimental ‘wuthtu saungbar’ style; narratives based on real people or events with a loose fictional plot and dialogue. Thein Han, an early proponent of the ‘khitsan’ movement – literally ‘testing times’; a fundamental shift in literary focus away from courtly prose, Buddhist scripture and national myths to lives and words of the common people – ironically, wrote poetry under the name Zaw Gyi, an anthropomorphic sorcerer of Burmese legend.

L-R Zaw Gyi, Dagon Taya

And then there is Dagon Taya, as close to a national bard as is possible in a country like Burma with such a legacy of literature. Passing away at the grand age of 94 only in August 2013, Dagon Taya, born Htay Myaing, was a poet, a story writer, an anti-imperialist campaigner, leading member of the 1930’s khitsan movement, Independence day speech writer, national literature award winner, political prisoner and ultimately an exile, removing himself away from the attentions of the New Win government in the 1970’s to the small town of Aungban in Southern Shan state and disappearing from public view. He was also a man of many pen names; at least 7.

The post war period saw the rise of Burma’s golden generation of female writers. Ma Khin Mya, often called the ‘grand dame’ of Burmese literature, wrote under the pen name Daw Khin Myo Chit. Her fist novelette ‘College Girls’ appeared in the 1930’s and she continued writing up to her death in January 1999. Writing in English, her short story ’13 Carat Diamond’ published in 1956, was later included in the Bantam Classics ‘50 Great Oriental Stories’.

This great tradition of female writers and pen names continues to this day in Burma with the likes of Cho Cho Tin (Ma Sandar), and Nu Nu Yi (Inwa).

Of course, in a country like Burma, the reasons for the popularity of aliases amongst writers aren’t simply down to the fluid customs of name giving and taking in Asia. In a country like Burma, with its recent history of censorship, imprisonment and general abandonment of freedom of speech and expression it was never a bad thing to write under a name which had no physical connection to you.

This was certainly the case with Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung), who published her documentary fiction ‘The Roadmap’ in Thailand under the name Suragamika, which roughly translates as, ‘Brave Traveller’; a suitable moniker giving the context of the book (it is set during and after the 1988 revolution following the lives of one family whose father had been imprisoned). Maung Thura, writer, comedian, democracy activist and a constant thorn in the military junta’s side goes by the name of Zarganar, in English, ‘Tweezers’.

Having a pen name can distance the writer from the words, can protect themselves and their families from the scrutiny of the feared special police, but often the writer cannot distance themselves from the name. The poet Maung Ba Gyan is a particular favourite of mine. When I came to Burma, I stenciled a three line poem of his onto the wall of my lounge, ‘The Great Guest’, he left Burma in 1999 never to return, yet before he died in a Californian exile in 2007 he continued to write and publish as Tin Moe.

L-R Maung Thura, Tin Moe

Often the use of a pen name in Burma goes further than self-preservation. Simple realities of the literature industry in Burma dictate that poets and short story writers must submit their work under different guises. A poem can fetch as little as 5 dollars; a short story, if the writer is lucky, maybe 10 dollars. To survive on your writing in Burma – which many writers don’t, having second day jobs as editors or language teachers – means multiple submissions. But like any publishing industry, editors are wary of over-selling a single author; so a writer will adopt several names. I once met a writer who had forgotten how many names he had submitted work under, he guessed about twenty but he wasn’t sure. Most writers here I speak to say about five is norm.

Which begs the question, how do writers in Burma choose their identities, if so many must be utilized?

As the only Westerner on my street, it’s safe to assume that everybody knows who I am; knowing who everybody else is, is trickier. Even those who have lived on the street all their lives often refer to their neighbours, not by name, but by physical or habitual characteristics that have morphed over time into the standard name that everyone uses. For example, the old Chinese man who spends his days sitting on his front step smoking, is known simply as ‘old Chinese man’, the curiously obese boy who plays street football every night is called, cruelly, ‘fatty’, there is also ‘skinny man’ and ‘tall man’. The last foreigner who lived on my street in the mid 80’s, a British Embassy employee, was affectionately known as ‘Uncle Poori’ due to him eating poori every night in the Indian restaurant on the corner.

Nobody remembers his real name.

L-R Dagon Khin Lay Lay, Ma Ma Lay.

While not many Burmese writers fashion aliases around their height or weight, there are commonalities to most. Attaching the name of the journal they publish has been a popular method since the early 20th Century. Khin Lay Latt, arguably the greatest of the pre-war female writers in Burma, wrote as Dagon Khin Khin Lay, after her magazine of the same name, ‘Dagon’, ‘The Star’. Her post-war successor, Ma Ma Lay, wrote one of only two Burmese novels to be translated into English, ‘Not Out of Hate’, though her biography of her husband ‘A Man Like Him”, translated and published in America in 2008, is without doubt one of the most heartfelt pieces of Burmese literature in English. Right through the war she published a magazine with her husband, the title of which, ‘Journal Kyaw’ (Brave Journal), she prefixed to her name to become, ‘Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay’. Ludu U Hla, the great Mandalay publisher, writer and collector, most famous for his series of interviews with prisoners in the 1950’s, ‘The Caged Ones’ simply attached the name of his printing press, Ludu.

In rare circumstances, the journal itself will decide to bestow its name upon a worthy writer. Depending on the quality of the journal, this is about as big an honour a writer can receive in Burma. ‘Shwe Amyutay’ is without doubt the leading literary journal in Burma, to have a short story included in their edition is the sign a writer has ‘made it’. In fact, competition is so fierce that the journal actually has a two tier selection criteria; to even be considered for inclusion in the journal, a writer must have published at least two stories in its smaller, less critical sister edition. Eight years ago, a young woman writer called A Phyu Yaung, translated as ‘white’ or ‘pure’, having spent two years in careful deliberation on her pen name, was distraught to find another writer had successfully submitted a story to ‘Shwe Amyutay’ under the same name only weeks before her. The Chief Editor, in a decision which caused ripples in the Yangon literary community, authorized A Phyu Yaung to affix ‘Shwe’ or ‘Gold” after her name, thereby associating this young writer – and only this writer – to his journal.

Most pen name constructions are less dramatic; some like ‘U Phone’ (Chemistry) denote their university major, others are less specific, such as pre-war writer ‘Paragu’, which simply means, ‘The Expert’. Many Burmese writers choose a place of special importance to them; Dr Ma Thida places ‘Sanchaung’ after her name as this is the Yangon township where she was born; Nu Nu Yi chose ‘Inwa’ as this was the name of her university hall where she started her writing career; Naing Swann uses a combination of a location and abstract referencing, writing as Thway (Sagaing), ‘Thway’ meaning ‘blood’, a respectful allusion to her father, the famous detective novelist Sagaing Ei Lwin and ‘Sagaing’ the area in Burma she grew up in.

However a Burmese writer chooses their pen name, once they are in possession of one, it will become the name by which, for all intents and purposes, they will die with. They will introduce themselves by it, sign by it, biographies and news articles will refer to them by it. Only their passports (if they have one) and national registration card will bear their real name.

Just like the neighbours in my street, often writers who have known and respected each other for years will not know each other’s real name. Working recently with A Phyu Yaung (Shwe) it was necessary for me to book an air ticket for her. Feeling embarrassed at not knowing her real name, I trawled through my correspondence with her; emails, articles, an old application form for a workshop, I could find no mention of it. I called a writer friend, who also didn’t know, I called a second writer with the same results; at one point there was the real possibility of contacting somebody who apparently knew A Phyu Yaung (Shwe)’s mother who surely would have known. In the end, the editor of ‘Shwe Amyutay’ magazine delved into his database and came up with her real name; Yee Kyaw.

PEN MYANMAR

As a founding member of PEN Myanmar, it was A Phyu Yaung (Shwe) who steered me towards the table I was sitting on. Recognizing only some of the writers and publishers present, I asked Seyar Lay Ko Tin who else had come. Leaning his small frame closer to me he pointed to several distinguished members of the Burmese literary community; U Win Nyein, the Chief Editor of ‘Shwe Amyutay’; short story specialist Ye Shan; the poetess Pandora. Eventually he pointed to a middle aged man sitting on the table across from us.

That’s Ko Anyu.”

Mr. Brown?” I asked recognizing the colour in Burmese.

Yes. That’s his pen name.”

Why on earth is his pen name Mr. Brown?” I asked again.

Because he is brown. His skin is dark.”

But everybody is brown here,” I protested.

You’re not,” Zeyar Lynn chipped in, “You’re white.”

So what does that make me then? Mr. White?”

That is a good name for you.” Seyar Lay Ko Tin casually suggested, adding, “Although I think there is already a Ko Phyu, so you should put your township after it. Ko Phyu (Kyauktada).”

 

Lucas Stewart (Ko Phyu Kyauktada)

 

Read More by Mr White:

The Act of Insanity  – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK (An online manuscript chest for all things literary in Myanmar)

 

Further Reading:

Writers Day, 9 December, 1988 – An Address by U Win Tun

– Burma Debate, Vol. VIII, No.1, 2001

Voices of ’88: In Their Own Words – Burma Debate, Vol. V, No. 3, 1998

Burma or Myanmar? Burmese or Burman? – U Khin Maung Saw

Selected Myanmar Short Stories – Translated by Ma Thanegi

Khin Hnin Yu’s Short Stories

Dandruff in My Hair – Khin Myo Chit, Burma Debate, Vol. VI, No.1, 1999

Burmese Sketches – Taw Sein Ko, British Burma Press, 1913

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

Another Look at Burmese Days

– Stephen H. L. Keck, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, 2005

Neruda’s Burmese Days – Seamus Martov, The Irrawaddy, June 15, 2015

 

 

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