Just as Zeyar Lynn, shrouded in darkness save for a battery operated lamp, uttered the now immortal line ‘electricity is no longer my power supply‘, the lights in the room flickered on and the crowd before him cheered and clapped their hands.
Welcome to a very Burmese BookSlam.
With Patrick Neate, the award winning English novelist, in Yangon for last weekend’s literature development workshops, it seemed only fair to tap his knowledge and expertise in creating and running the global phenomenon of BookSlam events to hold one in Burma.
Venue is key, we were told, in the run up to BookSlam Burma, and if anyone has seen the BookSlam venues in London, they are in large, funky, cool … well, places that are pretty thin on the ground here in Yangon. Of course, holding a carbon copy of a London BookSlam in Yangon simply wouldn’t culturally translate, and let’s face, creates the image literature can only be cool and appeal to the ‘yoof’ if it is held in a Western styled environment. A Burmese BookSlam could only work with a Burmese twist to it.
And House of Memories perfectly provided that. A one hundred year old teak double storey house, literally groaning under the weight of Burmese paintings, artifacts, statues, lacquerware and the biggest sadaik i have ever seen. This intricately carved wooden manuscript chest was so big it had it’s own wheels constructed into it as the only way to move it around. Oh yeah, it was also the resident office of Bogyoke Aun San during the war and has a meticulously preserved room left just the way he used it.
But back to the BookSlam event.
The whole second floor and large balcony were reserved for the night. A small stage with a chair and microphone was set next to the gabled windows and clusters of chairs and tables spread around the room. Patrick Neate agreed to host the night with Ma Thida and Zeyar Lynn reading from their works accompanied by musical breaks from Moe Naing at the Gitameik Music Centre. Over a hundred members of the arts community in Yangon were invited with well over 70 attending the night.
Patrick Neate introduced Zeyar Lynn who kicked off the night with a superb reading of Pablo Neruda (I think it was The Fickle One, although i don’t really know Neruda’s works that well and if I’m wrong then please comment below with the correct work) first in Burmese then in English for the few foreigners in the audience – It was decided right from the beginning that the target audience for this night would be Burmese, the expat literature lovers among us having been fully catered for at the Irrawaddy Lit Festival.
Patrick Neate came on stage next and reading from his I-pad a piece on writers and what is art. Three minutes in, the first of the night’s 8 brown-outs cut the microphone off and plunged the room into darkness. Luckily, residing in Zimbabwe, Patrick is no stranger to power-cuts and and without missing a rhythmic beat he continued with – and he swears this was always going to be the next line, “in my street last week there was a blackout in Hammersmith“.
Ma Thida had been quietly waiting in the corner and completed the first set of the night with a more sombre reading of her book “The Roadmap” focusing on the chapter, “The Road Block”. Then there was a 15 minutes break when Moe Naing and his band, who had somehow, both to mine and Jonathan Douglas’, the Director of the National Literacy Trust, amazement, managed to drag a piano up the twisted stairs, played some light jazz while the audience talked and drank.
The second set began with Zeyar Lynn reading in English from “I Am a Fire Engine Going up in Flames” and in Burmese from a second poem titles “The Privacy of October“. Ma Thida finished off the night with another excerpt from “The Roadmap“, the first paragraph in Burmese on the period when she fell in Prison and her weight dropped to 80lbs. The second paragraph in English detailing the 24 hour period she spent in hospital because of her illness but where she wasn’t allowed to receive medical treatment, her jailors reckoning that spending a night in hospital was treatment enough.
It was a fitting end to the night and Patrick humbly thanked Ma Thida and Zeyar Lynn for their contribution and described how honored he was to share the stage with two literary giants of Burma. The House of Memories was the perfect venue for the event, Ma Thida and Zeyar Lynn rocked the house, an appreciative and engaged audience and hopefully, a blue print for future live literature events in Yangon.
A very Burmese BookSlam.