Myanmar has yet to face the overwhelming and savage force of centralised, literary capitalism. All bookshops in the country, with the exception of those owned by the state, are ‘independent’. There are no national chains listed on a stock exchange. No Barnes and Noble. No Waterstones. There is a Kinokuniya but it has not yet dared venture beyond the safety of the new International airport terminal …
This has given Myanmar a fairly unique scene in which bookshops – and there are many – are in private hands. Unfortunately, the majority of them are in the literary power centres of Yangon and Myanmar.
Outside of these centres, especially in the ethnic borderlands, bookshops are few and far between, mainly just shelves in a general store.
With one peculiar and wonderful exception: Laika Naura bookshop in Myitkyina, Kachin State.
Laika Naura may well be Myanmar’s most northerly, dedicated bookshop. A small shop house set into a line of one floor shops, brick and wood with corrugated iron roofs overlooking a wide road busy with tri-shaws loaded with fruits and bags of rice, Laika Naura may also lay claim to be one of the oldest bookshops in Myanmar.
The owner, Lazing Hpaga Shawng, is the fourth generation of his family to run the shop. His great-grandfather opened the shop as a traditional medicine store. Even now, one half of the shop is dedicated to small, plastic vials wrapped in coloured notes with images of deer antlers and split roots, inside are powders which can assuage anything from headaches to pre-menstrual cramps.
Lazing Hpaga Shawng remembers, perhaps around 1957, his father took over the shop and bought the lot next door, expanding the medicinal business into stationery and books.
The book selection is now the pre-eminent choice for Jinghpaw readers in Myitkyina. Though there a few titles published in Jinghpaw, those that are, are sold in Laika Naura. Many books sold are dictated by the decades of government censorship on the literature and the Jinghpaw language and the deleterious effect this had on the writing community.
Books on culture, on family clans, on traditional ceremonies, on flowers and festivals were deemed acceptable by the previous military administrations and so there are many examples of these. Biographies of missionaries, bibles, psalms, and other religious tracts bear the majority of the books available. Occasionally, a short story collection might be sold, but Lazing Hpaga Shawng has never seen a Jinghpaw novel pass through his store.
I forgot to ask him if he has any children and if they will take over his bookstore when he retires. Given how long his family has been at the front of providing literature suppressed for decades by unelected leaders so far away; given the shop’s and the city’s remoteness it would be easy to think that such a bookshop would just wither away. But with Laika Naura, I think – I hope – not. If Laika Naura can survive what has passed, at the periphery of the professional literature world, at the centre of war and censorship, for so long, surely it can survive whatever comes next?