Some Memorable Encounters with Fabulous Books – CSEAS Newsletter

Some Memorable Encounters with Fabulous Books

Newsletter No.81 2023-12-13

Yoko Hayami
(Cultural Anthropology, Southeast Asian Studies)

I have had some memorable encounters with fabulous books while waiting to board flights for research trips and browsing airport bookstores. Two such successful “finds” were Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of the Green Ghosts (2003) and Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma (2017). Both depict Myanmar’s twentieth-century history from the perspective of ethnic minorities, the former being an autobiography and the latter a fiction based on facts about the author’s close family. Stories depicting various scenes and intimate feelings from the lives of minority people under the military regime open our imagination in ways that ethnographies and academic research cannot. It is no wonder that both books have attracted a wide range of readers.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is from the Padaung (or Kayan) ethnic group of Shan State. The Padaung are a sub-group of the Karen and have become a tourist attraction on the Thai side of the border as the “long-neck Karens” due to the decorative rings that women wear around their necks. In this book, Pascal describes his boyhood in a mountain village under military rule in Burma, his experiences during the 1988 pro-democracy movement, in which he himself participated as a student, and the severe repression that followed. Losing his girlfriend in the atrocities committed by the soldiers, he flees to the Thai border in a state of profound loss, despair, and imminent danger. From there, he makes his way to Cambridge University, relying on a piece of paper with a contact address scribbled on it that was given to him by a Cambridge don whom he met during his days as a student in Mandalay. His graduation from Cambridge is itself amazing, but the story ends with a further miracle: the author stumbles upon a bust of his own Padaung (long-neck) grandmother in a gallery in England. The bust had been made of her wearing her layers of neck rings when she was solicited to be part of an English circus in the 1930s.

Charmaine Craig’s work is a novel about the Karen author’s grandmother and mother. It is a saga told from the perspective of ethnic minority women from Burma. The story begins with the grandmother’s inter-ethnic marriage in the colonial delta, charting the Second World War, Burma’s independence, and the ensuing ethnic struggle. It then follows the mother’s journey to becoming “Miss Burma” in the country’s first beauty contest, her involvement in politics and military struggle together with her first husband, and her migration to the US after her husband is killed by the Burmese army. The story takes us up to the author herself, who is born in the US after her mother remarries. Well researched, the book conveys the political currents flowing as a backdrop to scenes of the author’s family history written in richly emotive strokes. In the face of the current situation in Myanmar, these books give us a vivid sense of how individual life histories are evolving in the country and the diaspora.

(Illustration by Atelier Epocha)

This article is also available in Japanese. >>