Myanmar Literature: Burmese or Ethnic?

For the final post of 2017, I thought I would look more generally at the position of ethnic literature and its place in a wider definition of Myanmar Literature.

Though there has been little mention of it the English language press, (for a good blog piece, read Kate Griffin, who attended on behalf of the Writers Centre Norwich) the Yangon Literary Conference 2017 was held between the 13th and 16th December at MCC Hall with bookstalls, poetry recitals and exhibitions displayed by the City Hall from the 8th to the 12th.

With a somewhat ironic theme (given the arrests of two Reuter journalists just days after the conference closing), Free Literature – Free Voice came together under the direction of 11 Burmese literary associations, including PEN Myanmar, Myanmar Writers Union, MPBA, Myanmar Writers Club and others with the intention of providing a space for dialogue between the literary industries and the formation of an agreed upon blueprint for the future of Myanmar literature.

The event was deemed historic, with MOI minister U Pe Myint declaring no such conference had been held in Myanmar before and the event was given all the pomp and fanfare it deserved with a large opening ceremony at City Hall and suitably important guests in the Mayor of Yangon, U Maung Maung Soe, Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and a special message form State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

A small, churlish part of me feels the need to point out that this is not in fact the first literature conference held in Myanmar in 55 years.  In March 2015, the British Council held a 2 day symposium on ethnic literature featuring closed dialogue sessions, working groups and public events with the intention of exploring ways in which a future ‘national literature’ of Myanmar could and should include all languages and literatures written in the country.  The symposium collaborated with 14 literature organisations nationwide, including representatives from PEN Myanmar, the Myanmar Storytellers Association, The Myanmar Literature and Development Committee (of which Dr U Pe Myint represented in his capacity as Chairman), the Myanmar Publishers and Booksellers Association, the Myanmar Poets Union, and the Chairpersons of the culture and literature associations from the Karen, Mon, Kachin, Kayah, Kayaw, Chin, Rakhine, Shan and Taang.

It’s difficult to tell if any of the ethnic writers and publishers were invited to this 2017 Literature Conference.  None that I have spoken to had heard of it, though there was one ethnic literature panel:  “The Part of Ethnic National Literature”, moderated by Mi Chan Wai, with Khin Ma Ma Myo, A Phyu Yaung (Shwe) and Moe Pan Mon (Yamanya).  While I’m glad to see our own A Phyu Yaung (shwe) and Mi Chan Wai, presumably chosen due to their involvement in ethnic lit through the H2 anthology and though A Phyu Yaung is of Shan heritage and Mi Chan Wai of Mon, neither can write in the respective languages.  It is curious that famed writers who do write in ethnic languages and who live in Yangon were not present. (and opens the session to the thorny question of who exactly is an ‘ethnic writer’?  Can you be a Kachin writer if you cannot speak, read and write in Jinghpaw?)

It could be there was no funding to provide travel and accommodation to writers from far away, which is understandable, it would be less forgivable if they had never been invited in the first place.  As Union Minister U Pe Myint stated in his opening address,

Literature in all subjects is making progress in developed countries. People then become wise and learned, by knowing more about life and the world through aesthetic literary works. Due to literature, there is progress in political, social and economic sectors, allowing those countries to become the leading countries of the world. The development of Myanmar literature will have the same effect in other sectors.’

Honourable intentions aside, ‘Myanmar literature’ as in Burmese language literature? Or all literatures from Myanmar?  It seems to be a question often skirted around during my work in Myanmar.  Most (if not all) writers I asked were adamant that ethnic language literature is of course recognised as Myanmar Literature, and yet when it came to act on ethnic literature on equal terms, for examples in awards, in workshops, in shelf space in bookshops, literary events and talks, when it came to collaborations and connections, to funding opportunities and awareness, Burmese language literature is treated far differently than her sister literatures.

As the conference concluded, 40 proposals on the future of Myanmar Literature, were approved by the attendants and handed over to the Ministry of Information.  I wonder if any of them made reference to the other Literatures in Myanmar.

Image credit @wikimedia

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