When a country ‘opens’ up after isolation or conflict, a type of literature is usually not far behind. From Cambodia, it’s hard to find works in English that don’t cover the Khmer Rouge years. From Vietnam, the memoirs of those that survived are prevalent. It has been too soon since Myanmar’s opening to foretell what will become the dominant theme. Prison memoirs stand a good chance, Dr Ma Thida and Ma Thanegi already having published theirs. Politics will undoubtedly loom large in some form. One interesting strand could come, not from Myanmar itself, but from those who left.
Since the transition and the partial abolition of the notorious blacklist in August 2012, many Burmese in exile have started to look towards home. In some, such as ‘The Burmese Heart’ by Tinsa Maw Naing and Y.M.V. Han their gaze is only on the past, of the times before they left. For others, they look forward, to a return.
One of the first of these is ‘A Gentle Kind of Poverty’ by Mu Mu Winn. Lwin Lwin is a journalist working for the BBC in UK. After 14 years, she returns to Yangon for a short trip. Visiting family and neighbours, she dwells on her decision to leave, unsure of her commitment. Upon her return to London, she falls in love with an English friend, Richard, whose death provides her the impetus to abandon the life she has attempted to build overseas and return to Myanmar.
Lwin Lwin’s life in England was just an interlude. She neither married nor had children. Despite 14 years and more in the country, she has few English friends, bar Richard, nor does she socialise with the resident Burmese community outside of those she works with. Her ties are non-existent, her decision to return to Myanmar ultimately made easier by the simple ability to be able to do so. She has a passport, she left Myanmar voluntarily and with a purpose. Others were not so fortunate. Many Burmese were forced into exile, especially during the time the novel recounts, fleeing politics and persecution. With no papers, blacklisted and banned the choice to return is no choice. Lwin Lwin’s internal struggle then, to reconcile her unlife in the UK with a return to the past in Myanmar seems unfair mirrored in the real world.
Though the author tries, the unceasing probes into Lwin Lwin’s thoughts are at times irritating and unwarranted. As she piles her doubts and uncertainties one upon the other it’s hard to dispel a weakness, an insipidness in Lwin Lwin that distracts from the intended clash of the heart.
Her return to Myanmar could have provided relief, a chance to delve deeper but here too the narrative falls thin. Her sister, her mother and father, her relatives from afar and now grown neighbours ably serve a purpose, acting as memorial boundaries to which Lwin Lwin can anchor herself to, to appraise herself against and to justify the choice she made to leave them behind, but they are all peripheral, they pass through the novel like discarded photographs; a glimpse then they are gone.
Perhaps this is for the best. In a novel of memory and nostalgia, it would be easy to slip into maudlin depression, attaching a dark significance to every trigger. It is to the author’s credit that Lwin Lwin takes these moments; the first meal of fried beans and black sticky rice; the empty markets stalls, and uplifts them into passages of joy and delight.
Lwin Lwin finally settles into a peace of sorts, building an orphanage. Topical issues, of those you assume must be included in any work on Myanmar appear; Military Intelligence, ethnic conflict, human trafficking, burst unexpectedly into her life, but there is neither time nor inclination to explore them as the book rushes towards a happy, if saccharine, conclusion.
For its faults though, A Gentle Kind of Poverty is to be commended for a first novel written in a second language. The ease at which Mu Mu Winn hurdles many of the structural challenges Burmese face when writing in English – repetition of nouns, absence of adjectives, etc – is stark and encouraging. She is a writer of English in progress, and one I would like to read more of in the future.
Myanmar Book Centre is primarily a chain of book shops in Yangon and Mandalay, though it’s CEO, Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, is also a great patron of publishing books from Myanmar in English. (Visit his main store at the corner of Ahlone road and Baho Road, second floor, for one of the best selections of these titles in Yangon). Like many of the books produced by MBC, ‘A Gentle Kind of Poverty’ is in good, if simple, construction. The pages are clear and clean, the typesetting is uniform throughout. There are no illustrations, which would make a nice emendment if there were a 2nd edition. The front cover confuses me slightly. The central figure appears to be wearing Shan trousers, (loose, dyed thick cotton pants), though the Shan people are not written into the narrative.
The Book Matter:
Title: A Gentle Kind of Poverty
Author: Mu Mu Winn
Publisher: Myanmar Book Centre
Pub Date: December 2015
Circulation: 500 Copies
Cost: 5 USD