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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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Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

(The First Irrawaddy Literary Festival)

Day One

There’s no need to mention the February heat. It is still as hot as ever.

Who wants to live in this heat? It always makes you sweat.

The traffic jams only make it worse. Whenever you think about getting away from the downtown bustle, it is always this frustration comes to mind. What a thing! Everything is stuck, nothing moves.

I am heading for the Inya Lake hotel where for the first time a literary festival called ‘The Irrawaddy Literary Festival’ is being held. Both international and local writers are going to be participating. I think it will be marvelous to take part in this festival.

At the entrance of the hotel, I look for my senior writer, Sayar Lay Ko Tin who has invited me to come to this occasion. I see several people gathered round, buying books from assorted book stalls but I don’t see him.

San Lin Tun!”

I turn around and see Sayar Lay Ko Tin walking towards me. We shake hands and he gives me an identity card to wear. I look at it and smile to see my name on it, as we both make our way into the lobby.

Entrance

There are several tables set out on the terrace. We choose one of them and sit down to discuss the topic we have to present at the panel discussion. Our session is at 11:30 after the poetry session.

My senior writer suggests we go and listen to the first session which is sure to be interesting. He says that we will leave half-way through and then walk up to Ruby Room A where we will present our topic after the poetry session has finished.

Excuse me…”

A foreign voice interjects.

Here, is it alright to call out ‘psk…psk…psk…‘ to a taxi driver?”

Looking up, I am really surprised to see who it is. It is Vikram Seth. I feel really thrilled because he is the one writer I really hoped to meet at this festival. What a chance!

It’s OK,” I reply, “as long as the custom permits.”

He seems to like my answer and smiles at me when I speak to him. I tell him I know him because I have read and admire his books. Another surprise is that the famous writer, Jung Chang is with him. She looks fabulous in her pink blouse.

When they see our ID cards, they learn that we are Myanmar writers and we talk about the festival and literature until we hear the announcer’s voice coming from the Sunset terrace where the opening ceremony is about to be held.

There, the British Ambassador makes a speech, remarking upon the significance of this festival, followed by a speech by U Pe Myint.

All the audience applauds their well-chosen words.

U Pe Myint - Irr Lit Fest

We enter the ball room where the poetry panel discussion is being held.

It is spacious and there are many people sitting there, listening to the four members of the discussion panel – the editor, James Byrne, the translator Ko Ko Thett, the moderator Zeyar Lynn and a female Filipino poet. They talk about the nature of the poems in ‘Bones Will Crow‘, a collection of Myanmar poetry which Arc Publications has recently published.

It is very interesting and I would like to stay longer but my senior writer is now pointing at his watch.

It is time to leave and we walk upstairs to Ruby Room A.

Bones Will Crow - Ko Ko Thett-1

At first, there are only a few people there, but, by the time we are ready to start, nearly every seat is taken.

The topic of our discussion is “Translation and Adaptation,” and after my senior writer has introduced us both, Ko Thet Oo begins the discussion.

I feel it goes very well and many interesting points are made.

*

In the evening, I sit out on the terrace and reflect upon the day.

The atmosphere here is peaceful yet stimulating.

Away from the daily pressures of the busy city, creativity seems to flow unimpeded.

Yes, everything appears more vivid to me.

The lake in the background. The sunlight dancing on its green ripples. The walkways fringed with palm trees. The small wooden bridge that protrudes into the lake. The men and women standing and sitting on its boards, drawing and writing.

I feel sure that this experience will linger in my mental mouth, far longer than these three days.

Hotel walkways

Day Two

I am thinking about whether I should buy the novel, ‘Two Lives’ by Vikram Seth.

I am confused because I only have a limited amount of cash but would dearly like to read the book and for him to sign it for me.

Putting it back down, I decide, for now, to make do with the photograph I took yesterday of Sayar Lay Ko Thin, Vikram Seth, Jung Chang and me together. I will buy the book later.

Unfortunately, I cannot. For when I do return, the last copy has been sold.

Books

At the festival, there are many foreigners.

They outnumber the local people, but I think it is good that they are here.

Out on the terraces, some are seated in front of a Myanmar puppet show, some are listening to Myanmar classical music being played by a young local woman upon a Myanmar harp, and some are sitting on the lawns, talking and playing with their friends and children.

The mood is relaxed and carefree and the air is an inclusive one.

The festival appears to be not only affecting me.

*

Sitting in the shade and drinking a glass of sweet iced tea, my mind goes back to the panel discussion with Jung Chang this afternoon.

In the audience there were both young and old people.

But the person I recall most clearly, is the female Japanese photographer who was trying to get the best shot she could of the lively discussion.

Although I watched her keenly, she paid no mind to my attention.

Rather than her looks, it was this modest manner which made such a strong impression on me.

modesty

Day Three

It is nearly the last session of the last day of the festival and I have to attend it.

It is the panel discussion with Vikram Seth and I want to ask him a real question.

At 4.30 PM, the discussion starts and I listen carefully, making sure to take notes.

The moderator is discussing with him the nature of his fiction. His answers are illuminating.

When I met him, he asked me how I had first discovered his work. I told him that the first thing I read were some of his poems on poemhunter.com. I liked them very much, so decided to read his novels. During our conversation, Jung Chang also told me that she’d heard that her book “The Wild Swans” has been translated into the Myanmar language. I told her that indeed it had, but, sadly, the translator had now passed away.

After the discussion, Mr Seth takes questions from the audience. There are many people who want to, so, I have to wait my turn before I ask him mine.

Do you have any advice for future writers?”

Live and write,” is his reply.

I thank him for his answer; it is inspiring enough.

*

The festival now comes to a close, as it began, on the Sunset terrace.

To an orange backdrop of the setting sun, the writers, organisers and the people in attendance listen to the closing speeches then bid farewell to one another before the curtain comes down on the festival and the darkness falls.

Leaving the hotel alone, I hear a quartet playing jazz in the lobby bar.

Like my mood, the melody is lively and happy.

Strolling slowly down the driveway, which winds its way to the gate of the hotel, I reflect upon my own experiences over the last three days.

Irrawaddy…”

I smile and nod to myself.

Live and write, live and write…”

Maybe the future will come about as I wish, or maybe not. No one can be sure.

For the time being, what matters is to stay focused and determined.

Yes, I feel I have become more mature.

San Lin Tun

End of the festival

About the Writer

San Lin Tun is a Myanmar-Mon national and lives in Yangon. He was educated at Yangon Technological University and the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University (I.T.B.M.U). He is a freelance writer, whose articles can be read in the Home and Services Journal, as well as a poet, whose poetry can be found on poemish.com (under the pen name of J-Boon), and also a Short Story Workshop Instructor for the Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds project.

 

Further Reading:

The Lady, the Writers and the Ex-Prisoners – FreeSpeechDebate, February, 2013

Literary Festival Encourages Bolder Writing, Open Debate

– Bill O’Toole, Myanmar Times, February 2013

Literary Festival Reflections – Lucas Stewart, SADAIK, February, 2013

Burma’s First Literary Festival is a Milestone – Petra Halbur, Bonfire Impact, February, 2013

A Literary Festival in Myanmar? – Sarah Hoffmann, Pen America, January 2013

Burmese Bards to Boycott Literary Festival – Kyaw Phyo Tha, The Irrawaddy

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