Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma by James Hla Gyaw is widely regarded as the first novel written by a citizen of Myanmar, and yet in the introduction to the first English translation produced in 2014, it is described as ‘a novel being the first in the language.’
Now that is quite a twisted way to describe the first novel from Myanmar, unless, of course, it isn’t. It is the first novel in Myanmar written in Burmese.
An earlier novel, probably the true ‘first’ novel ever written by a citizen of Myanmar, appeared 6 years earlier, in 1898, in English.
Ma Pyu: An Arakanese Love Story was published by the famed Hanthawaddy Press and Printing Works. Its author is anonymous, titling themselves simply, An Arakanese.
Burmese scholars have attempted to track down the identity of this genre-breaking writer but with no success. Given the subject matter of the novel (a romance set in Rakhine state) and the alias, the general consensus is that the author is an Arakanese.
This of course may seem obvious, but the English is so good, so natural, there have been doubts whether the author was a citizen of Myanmar at all, and not an English native speaker masquerading as an Arakanese, but given the British complex of racial superiority to those they colonised, most scholars in Myanmar have agreed that no British born author would debase themselves in such a way by pretending to be of a lower racial class just to publish a book.
Given that the English narrative is so well presented, this Arakanese man (and most assume it is a man, though why I have no idea!), must have come from the higher echelon of society in British Burma. Someone with the connections and wealth to have been educated in the English language and to have access to novels from the West.
But if this is the true first novel written in Myanmar, why is there almost no mention of it? Why does Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma hold such a high place in canon of Myanmar literature while Ma Pyu is relegated to obscurity? There have even been committees set up to investigate whether the novel is even a novel, presumably freeing writers and academics of any duty they have to recognise it as the first novel, if it isn’t one. It is a novel.
It could be that a Bama dominant literary and academic scene are not comfortable with advocating for a first novel not written by a Bama, but then James Hla Gyaw was ethnic Karen (and a Christian).
There does seem to be an unwillingness to recognise, as the first novel ever written by their countrymen, a novel written in the language of their colonisers. That is a sentiment I can understand. Though, it does now seem to be accepted as the first novel written by a Myanmar citizen, it is James Hla Gyaw who is more easily embraced.
Listen to any short history of fiction by a Myanmar writer, and you will almost never hear them make any mention of Ma Pyu, but rather start their history of the novel at Maung Ying Maung and Ma Me Ma.
Ma Pyu: An Arakanese Love Story is available for a free download from the National Library Archive website, plus, there is a translated Burmese edition.