Nay Pyone Latt, the blogger, short story writer and activist, leaned forward in his chair and asked, “but why would i want to promote my work?”. Patrick Neate, the Whitbread Award winning novelist and man behind the global BookSlam events, paused for a moment, clearly puzzled by a comment that perhaps explains a lot about the state of literature in Burma.
Since the general amnesty in January 2011, there have been a host of books published by ex-prisoners detailing their imprisonment; a selection of personal stories exorcising the memories in public but made for private reasons. Looking inwards and writing for yourself, not for an audience. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of 50 years of censorship, after material, thoughts and ideas are strictly controlled in their distribution and who they reach, when this is taken away, self-censorship kicks in and writers question why they need to promote and distribute their work. Patrick Neate, to his credit, agreed that it was up to the writer to decide if their work is promoted or not and didn’t push the question further, but it was a stark introduction to Burmese literature for a man who had been in the country less than 24 hours.
Patrick Neate, along with Jonathan Douglas, the Director of the National Literacy Trust were in Yangon at the invitation of the British Council Arts team to participate at a Literature Development event at the Park Royal hotel last weekend.
It was a fantastic weekend where selected members of the literature community in Yangon were invited to the two day event; the short story writer and columnist Han Zaw, linguist and freelance writer Phyu Phyu Win, Tan Swe from Unity Publishing, Mra Hinzi translator of River of Lost Footsteps, Nang Voe Seng Yangon Deputy Chairperson of the SLCA, Nace Cunningham from Pansodan Galleries, Douglas Long from the Myanmar Times and representatives from Myanmar Book Centre, Monument Books, Popular Books, Inwa Books and Tab Book centre.
Jonathan Douglas presented sessions on ‘Building Communities through Literature” and “Promoting Reading through Partnerships’ explaining how literacy in children and adults can be encouraged through strategic collaborations and campaigns, highlighting successful campaigns in the UK, such as “One Book, One City” and how this could be transferred to Burma.
Patrick Neate, through his BookSlam literary night club, described the process needed to run your own Live Literature events, from applied skills, to building an audience.
While much was discussed, several key issues arose time and again over the weekend, with translation at the forefront of most of the participants minds. Mra Hinzi, as a translator, noted that the most difficult aspect of her work was translating from Burmese to English, not from English to Burmese, which only compounds the lack of good quality translated works. The absence of editors was highlighted as a major concern and the desperate need for an Association of Translators to provide guidelines and editorial management. Han Zaw and a few others questioned not just the quality of translations but also the genre, and suggested some consensus needs to be taken between the translators, publishers and book distributors as to which works should be prioritized to ensure maximum impact.
Although it was only two days, and it passed very quickly, this weekend was the first serious attempt to bring the literary community under one roof, not to promote a book, or to showcase an author, but to assess the state of Burmese literature, to learn and understand what the key players in the industries are doing and how they can work together to contribute to the development of literature in Burma.