Myanmar Literature – One Year On

The National League for Democracy came to power at the end of March 2016. Lets see what has happened for literature in the year since …

In April 2016, poet and publisher Moe Way was named as one of the 5 finalists for the prestigious International Publishers Association Freedom to Publish award.  Moe Ways Eras Press is one of the leading poetry publishers in Myanmar and has constantly pushed the boundaries in poetic content and style for over ten years.

In May, the new Minister of Information, writer and journalist, Dr U Pe Myint held his first meeting with the literary industry professionals at the Printing and Publishing Department in Yangon, raising the critical issues of freedom of expressing, developing literature and the state of publishing in general.  Representatives from a selection of the now numerous literary organisations in Myanmar attended including, the Myanmar Writers Association, the Myanmar Literature Lovers Association, the Myanmar Writers Union and the Myanmar Poets Union.

July was a busy month with, Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung) writer, activist, former political prisoner, medical doctor, editor and former chairperson of the PEN Myanmar Centre, (not necessarily in that order), publishing the English translation of her memoir.  Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps Through Insein.  It is available to buy from Silkworm books.

Maung Saungkha the infamous Penis Poet, fresh from Insein jail himself organised a Monsoon Poetry Festival at the Church of the Province of Myanmar in Yangon.  The festival featured a blend of renowned poets such as Aung Cheimt with performance and installation artists.

Not to be outshone in the rainy season, the Ministry of Information held their own festival at the end of the month.  The Monsoon Book Fair at the Printing and Publishing Department on Theinbyu street, featured 3 days of political literature readings (oh how times have changed!) and 170 book stalls.

Ma Thida was in the news again in September after receiving the first annual Disturbing the Peace Award, sponsored by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.  The ceremony was held in New York.

A lovely project launched in October called Kite Tales.  The work of journalists, Thein Lei Win and Kelly Macnamara, Kite Tales is a digital repository of oral histories collected from across the country.  Do visit the website, they update it regularly with new interviews.

There was an interesting post in November in the Ministry of Informations website.  The ministry claims to be sponsoring a festival of ethnic literature and culture.  A preliminary meeting was held in Yangon in November with a stated tentative date of the festival for February 2017.  U Aung Myo Myint, the director-general of the Printing and Publishing Department of the Ministry and chairman of the committee for organizing the festival said. Books written by national races will be put on sale, whereas publication of some which were not yet published will be implemented soon. Arrangements for interpretation and presentation of the literature compiled by ethnic races, in Myanmar Language at seminars and talk shows are under way.  Sounds great.  Unfortunately, I can find little else about it.  None of the ethnic writers from Chin or Kachin state who I mentioned this to had heard of it.  There has been no media attention on it.  My guess, the committee underestimated the logistics of publishing books in several different languages and scripts, finding interpreters and translators in these languages and dealing with the grievances of those ethnic groups whose literature wasnt included.

A new literary magazine was launched in DecemberYangon Literary Magazine features poems, short stories, essays and art work.   Also in December, the Independent featured an article on the 8 best books on Burma.  Only one of which was published in the last decade!

2017 started off well, with the third edition of the Myanmar Nobel Literary festival (this years theme was Creative Literature) and the third edition of the annual Childrens Literature Festival held in Mandalay.  Book Street was opened by the Ministry of Information on the corner of Theinbyu and Anawrahta (and in the shadow of the Secretariat).  Publishers and booksellers can rent a table on the street, with the idea behind it to move the pallet booksellers from around Mahabandoola, Anawrahta and 37th Street and give them a semi-permanent home.  Though the market itself is only open on weekends and closes during the Monsoon from April to October.  Finally in January, the film Burma Storybook had its world premiere International Film Festival in Rotterdam.  Directed by Petr Lom, the film follows the life of Maung Aung Pwint, described in the tag line as Burmas most famous dissident poet, (a description I have issues with.  It may work well for marketing purposes but I cant imagine any poet in Myanmar would make such a claim themselves).  To accompany the film a book of poetry will be published featuring first person biographies of all the poets the directors have interviewed over the last two years, supposedly out in June 2017

February saw the grand opening of the Yangon Book Plaza.  For its founder, the writer and publisher San Mon Aung, the Plaza has been a labour of love.  Open from 10 am to 9pm in Yangons China Town, it holds 22 book shops including rare and antiquarian as well as a childrens play area, a coffee shop and souvenir stalls.  The plaza also functions as a dedication to the greats of Burmese language literature, such a Ludu Daw Amar, Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay, Tin Moe and Zaw Gyi with booths displaying their portraits, biographies and examples of their work.

Finally, in a rare example of literature being promoted in the ethnic states, a satellite edition of the Childrens Literature Festival was held in Mawlamyine, Mon State in March.