In Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), there is a lively booksellers district on Pansodan Street. Like the rest of the country, the street is a clash between the old Burma and the new. The majestic pastel façades of colonial buildings—once gleaming new offices and stores, now more than 100 years old—are crumbling. Shopkeepers young and old (who, locked away from the world for decades by a brutal military regime, gained access to the Internet only a few years ago) buy cheap SIM cards and smartphones to communicate with friends and follow political news on Facebook. Inside the tiny shops and their crowded shelves, it’s impossible to avoid stumbling on relics of colonialism: teak-foresting manuals from the 1920s, Burmese-English translations of Wuthering Heights, trashy Burmese-language romance novels. And if you keep browsing, some modern English-language classics might turn up—stories by some of the greatest writers of the last two centuries—set right in Myanmar, a country still mysterious to much of the Western world.
For the most part, the English literary history of Myanmar has revolved around the British colonial experience. There’s George Orwell’s 1934 novel Burmese Days, based on his experiences working as a police captain in Burma (which scholars suggest is where he got his first taste of dystopia). More recently, Amitav Ghosh’s 2000 epic The Glass Palace traces the downfall and desolate exile of Burma’s last king. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, depicts the unspeakable horrors experienced by Allied prisoners in Burma during World War II. And of course, there’s Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem “Mandalay,” cemented in popular culture by Frank Sinatra’s “On the Road to Mandalay.” I found myself humming the campy tune as I sat in the teak-adorned Kipling’s Lounge at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel.
These acclaimed works—though separated by decades—share one common thread: All of them are white male-centric narratives. But this summer, a female writer will cast her gaze on her mother’s homeland with the publication of a stunning new novel. Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig—the daughter of famous Burmese-born beauty queen and Karen freedom fighter Louisa Benson Craig—will give English-language readers an unprecedented glimpse into Myanmar’s culture and history—not only through the eyes of a woman, but also through those of the persecuted Karen people, who suffered for centuries in their country’s bloody ethnic conflicts.
The political history of Myanmar in the 20th century is complicated. If you’re familiar with the country, you probably know that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, recently won control of the government after a half century of rule by a brutal military junta. Even the former name of the country, “Burma,” was a point of violent contention—it refers to the ethnic Burmese people, just one of the hundreds of ethnic groups who have long called the country home, including (among many others) the Karen, Mon and Kachin people.
Miss Burma is the story of Craig’s mother, born to a Jewish man and a Karen woman in the opening days of World War II. Through the lens of historical fiction, we watch the lives of these characters unfold—the British leave after the war, infighting for freedom gives way to a coup and 60 years of authoritarian rule sets in. The book tells a story little known to English audiences, taking readers to corners of the country still largely inaccessible to foreigners. A significant portion of the novel takes place in the wild forests of central and northern Burma, which are areas of conflict even today. Outsiders still need special permission from the government to enter huge swaths of the country, and are discouraged from leaving the modern cities.
But the novel also provides readers and travelers eager to connect with the history of their surroundings ample landmarks to visit and begin exploring the country’s history. The story opens at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), where the story’s central couple struggles to understand each other’s language, culture and faith. The synagogue is still open to visitors and worshippers, despite Myanmar’s dwindling Jewish population. Today, Muslim caretakers maintain the grounds and protect the Torah, unconcerned with the religious and territorial conflict between the two peoples a few thousand miles away.
You can still stroll across the lush green grass of Fytche Square, renamed Maha Bandula Park in 1935. In the novel, Craig’s grandfather crosses the park every day to visit government buildings to acquire permits for his various businesses. The park is adjacent to the sparkling gold Sule Pagoda, which is now encased in a traffic circle that requires real courage to cross on foot. The regime did little to improve infrastructure, and even the once-sparkling Jewish-owned stores of Craig’s grandfather’s youth are still standing, their imported Mancunian tile floors now coated in dust.
But the world is still catching up with the long-sequestered nation. Myanmar is a place of extremes: The great wealth in the ruling military class is contrasted with the dire poverty of the people who have been left behind. There are banks in the major cities with ATMs and plenty of kyats to dispense, though progress is slow—only a small handful of hotels accept credit cards. In more existential ways, progress is even slower. As the young democracy struggles to form a national identity, it needs heroes like Louisa Benson Craig—and stories like Miss Burma.
Main image: ACP/Trunk Archive