Books from Canada Reads True Stories Top 40Created by 49thShelf on October 19, 2011
From Captain George Vancouver to Muriel "Curve of Time" Blanchet to Jim "Spilsbury's Coast" Spilsbury, visitors to Desolation Sound have left behind a trail of books endowing the area with a romantic aura that helps to make it British Columbia's most popular marine park. In this hilarious and captivating book, CBC personality Grant Lawrence adds a …
During World War II, Farley Mowat fought in Italy and Sicily with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. And No Birds Sang is the gripping eyewitness account of a young man in combat, detailing everything from how he lost his virginity to his growing disenchantment with war. Heard in the author’s own voice, And No Birds Sang showcases both Mowa …
Baltimore's Mansion introduces us to the Johnstons of Ferryland, a Catholic colony founded by Lord Baltimore in the 1620s on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, and centres on three generations of fathers and sons. Filled with heart-stopping description and a cast of stubborn, acerbic, yet utterly irresistible family members, it is an evocation o …
I am foreborn of spud runts who fled the famines of Ireland in the 1830s, not a man or woman among them more than five foot two, leaving behind a life of beggarment and setting sail for what since Malory were called the Happy Isles to take up unadvertised positions as servants in the underclass of Newfoundland.
Having worked off their indenture, they who had been sea-fearing farmers became seafaring fishermen and learned some truck-augmenting trade or craft that they practised during the part of the year or day when they could not fish.
In reverse order: Johnston. Johnson. Jonson. Jenson...MacKeown. "Mac" in Gaelic meaning "son" and Keown "John."
My father grew up in a house that was blessed with water from an iceberg. A picture of that iceberg hung on the walls in the front rooms of the many houses I grew up in. It was a blown-up photograph that yellowed gradually with age until we could barely make it out. My grandmother, Nan Johnston, said the proper name for the iceberg was Our Lady of the Fjords, but we called it the Virgin Berg.
In 1905, on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist and the day in 1497 of John Cabot's landfall at Cape Bonavista and "discovery" of Newfoundland, an iceberg hundreds of feet high and bearing an undeniable likeness to the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared off St. John's harbour. As word of the apparition spread, thousands of people flocked to Signal Hill to get a glimpse of it. An ever-growing flotilla of fishing boats escorted it along the southern shore as it passed Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, Tors Cove, Ferryland, where my father's grandparents and his father, Charlie, who was twelve, saw it from a rise of land known as the Gaze.
At first the islands blocked their view and all they could see was the profile of the Virgin. But when it cleared Bois Island, they saw the iceberg whole. It resembled Mary in everything but colour. Mary's colours were blue and white, but the Virgin Berg was uniformly white, a startling white in the sunlight against the blue-green backdrop of the sea. Mary's cowl and shawl and robes were all one colour, the same colour as her face and hands, each feature distinguishable by shape alone. Charlie imagined that, under the water, was the marble pedestal, with its network of veins and cracks. Mary rode without one on the water and there did not extend outwards from her base the usual lighter shade of sea-green sunken ice.
The ice was enfolded like layers of garment that bunched about her feet. Long drapings of ice hung from her arms, which were crossed below her neck, and her head was tilted down as in statues to meet in love and modesty the gaze of supplicants below.
Charlie's mother fell to her knees, and then his father fell to his. Though he wanted to run up the hill to get a better look at the Virgin as some friends of his were doing, his parents made him kneel beside them. His mother reached up and, putting her hand on his shoulder, pulled him down. A convoy of full-masted schooners trailed out behind the iceberg like the tail of some massive kite. It was surrounded at the base by smaller vessels, fishing boats, traps, skiffs, punts. His mother said the Hail Mary over and over and blessed herself repeatedly, while his father stared as though witnessing some end-of-the-world-heralding event, some sight foretold by prophets in the last book of the Bible. Charlie was terrified by the look on his father's face and had to fight back the urge to cry. Everywhere, at staggered heights on the Gaze, people knelt, some side-on to keep their balance, others to avert their eyes, as if to look for too long on such a sight would be a sacrilege.
A man none of them knew climbed the hill frantically, lugging his camera, which he assembled with shaking hands, trying to balance the tripod, propping up one leg of it with stones. He crouched under his blanket and held above his head a periscope-like box which, with a flash and a puff of foul-smelling yellow smoke, exploded, the mechanism confounded by the Virgin, Charlie thought, until days later when he saw the picture in the Daily News. Even then it seemed to him that the Virgin must have lent the man's machine the power to re-create in black and white her image on the paper, the same way she had willed the elements to fashion her image out of ice.
He had seen photographs before but had never watched as one was taken. She was the first object he had seen both in real life and in photographs. For the rest of his life, whenever he saw a photograph, he thought of her and the man he had been so surprised to see emerge unharmed from beneath his blanket.
How relieved he was when the Virgin Berg and her attending fleet sailed out of sight and his parents and the other grownups stood up and blessed themselves. Soon the miracle became mere talk, less and less miraculous the more they tried to describe what they had seen, as if, now that it was out of sight, they doubted that its shape had been quite as perfect as it seemed when it was looming there in front of them.
They heard later of things they could not see from shore, of the water that ran in rivers from the Virgin, from her head and from her shoulders, and that spouted from wound-like punctures in her body, cascading down upon the boats below, onto the fishermen and into the barrels and buckets they manoeuvred into place as best they could. Some fishermen stood, eyes closed and mouths wide open, beneath the little waterfalls, gulping and gagging on the ice-cold water, their hats removed, their hair and clothing drenched, hands uplifted.
Walker Brown was born with a genetic mutation so rare that doctors call it an orphan syndrome: perhaps 300 people around the world also live with it. Walker turns twelve in 2008, but he weighs only 54 pounds, is still in diapers, can’t speak and needs to wear special cuffs on his arms so that he can’t continually hit himself. “Sometimes watch …
For the first eight years of Walker's life, every night is the same. The same routine of tiny details, connected in precise order, each mundane, each crucial.
The routine makes the eight years seem long, almost endless, until I try to think about them afterwards, and then eight years evaporate to nothing, because nothing has changed.
Tonight I wake up in the dark to a steady, motorized noise. Something wrong with the water heater. Nnngah. Pause. Nnngah. Nnngah.
But it's not the water heater. It's my boy, Walker, grunting as he punches himself in the head, again and again.
He has done this since before he was two. He was born with an impossibly rare genetic mutation, cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a technical name for a mash of symptoms. He is globally delayed and can't speak, so I never know what's wrong. No one does. There are just over a hundred people with CFC around the world. The disorder turns up randomly, a misfire that has no certain cause or roots; doctors call it an orphan syndrome because it seems to come from nowhere.
I count the grunts as I pad my way into his room: one a second. To get him to stop hitting himself, I have to lure him back to sleep, which means taking him downstairs and making him a bottle and bringing him back into bed with me.
That sounds simple enough, doesn' t it? But with Walker, everything is complicated. Because of his syndrome, he can' t eat solid food by mouth, or swallow easily. Because he can't eat, he takes in formula through the night via a feeding system. The formula runs along a line from a feedbag and a pump on a metal IV stand, through a hole in Walker's sleeper and into a clever-looking permanent valve in his belly, sometimes known as a G-tube, or mickey. To take him out of bed and down to the kitchen to prepare the bottle that will ease him back to sleep, I have to disconnect the line from the mickey. To do this, I first have to turn off the pump (in the dark, so he doesn't wake up completely) and close the feed line. If I don't clamp the line, the sticky formula pours out onto the bed or the floor (the carpet in Walker's room is pale blue: there are patches that feel like the Gobi Desert under my feet, from all the times I have forgotten). To crimp the tube, I thumb a tiny red plastic roller down a slide. (It's my favourite part of the routine–one thing, at least, is easy, under my control.) I unzip his one-piece sleeper (Walker's small, and grows so slowly he wears the same sleepers for a year and a half at a time), reach inside to unlock the line from the mickey, pull the line out through the hole in his sleeper and hang it on the IV rack that holds the pump and feedbag. Close the mickey, rezip the sleeper. Then I reach in and lift all 45 pounds of Walker from the depths of the crib. He still sleeps in a crib. It's the only way we can keep him in bed at night. He can do a lot of damage on his own.
This isn't a list of complaints. There's no point to complaining. As the mother of another CFC child once told me, "You do what you have to do." If anything, that' s the easy part. The hard part is trying to answer the questions Walker raises in my mind every time I pick him up. What is the value of a life like his–a life lived in the twilight, and often in pain? What is the cost of his life to those around him? "We spend a million dollars to save them," a doctor said to me not long ago. "But then when they're discharged, we ignore them." We were sitting in her office, and she was crying. When I asked her why, she said "Because I see it all the time."
Sometimes watching Walker is like looking at the moon: you see the face of the man in the moon, yet you know there's actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me? All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own.
But there is another complication here. Before I can slip downstairs with Walker for a bottle, the bloom of his diaper pillows up around me. He's not toilet-trained. Without a new diaper, he won't fall back to sleep and stop smacking his head and ears. And so we detour from the routine of the feeding tube to the routine of the diaper.
I spin 180 degrees to the battered changing table, wondering, as I do every time, how this will work when he's twenty and I'm sixty. The trick is to pin his arms to keep him from whacking himself. But how do you change a 45-pound boy's brimming diaper while immobilizing both his hands so he doesn't bang his head or (even worse) reach down to scratch his tiny, plum-like but suddenly liberated backside, thereby smearing excrement everywhere? While at the same time immobilizing his feet, because ditto? You can't let your attention wander for a second. All this is done in the dark as well.
But I have my routine. I hold his left hand with my left hand, and tuck his right hand out of commission under my left armpit. I've done it so many times, it's like walking. I keep his heels out of the disaster zone by using my right elbow to stop his knees from bending, and do all the actual nasty business with my right hand. My wife, Johanna, can't manage this alone any longer and sometimes calls me to help her. I am never charming when she does.
And the change itself: a task to be approached with all the delicacy of a munitions expert in a Bond movie defusing an atomic device. The unfolding and positioning of a new nappy; the signature feel of the scratchy Velcro tabs on the soft paper of the nappy, the disbelief that it will ever hold; the immense, surging relief of finally refastening it–we made it! The world is safe again! The reinsertion of his legs into the sleeper.
Now we're ready to head downstairs to make the bottle.
Three flights, taking it in the knees, looking out the landing windows as we go. He's stirring, so I describe the night to him in a low voice. There's no moon tonight and it's damp for November.
In the kitchen, I perform the bottle ritual. The weightless plastic bottle (the third model we tried before we found one that worked, big enough for his not-so-fine motor skills yet light enough for him to hold), the economy-sized vat of Enfamil (whose bulk alone is discouraging, it implies so much), the tricky one-handed titrating of tiny tablespoonfuls of Pablum and oatmeal (he aspirates thin fluids; it took us months to find these exact manageable proportions that produced the exact manageable consistency. I have a head full of these numbers: dosages, warm-up times, the frequency of his bowel movements/scratchings/cries/naps). The nightly pang about the fine film of Pablum dust everywhere: Will we ever again have anything like an ordered life? The second pang, of shame, for having such thoughts in the first place. The rummage in the ever-full blue and white dish drainer (we're always washing something, a pipette or a syringe or a bottle or a medicine measuring cup) for a nipple (but the right nipple, one whose hole I have enlarged into an X, to let the thickened liquid out) and a plastic nipple cap. Pull the nipple into the cap, the satisfying pop as it slips into place. The gonad-shrinking microwave.
Back up three flights. He's still trying to smash his head. Why does he do it? Because he wants to talk, but can't? Because–this is my latest theory–he can't do what he can see other people doing? I'm sure he's aware of his own difference.
Cart him into the bed in his older sister Hayley's room on the third floor where I have been sleeping, so I can be near him. Hayley, meanwhile, is downstairs with her mother in our bedroom so they can get some sleep. We take turns like this, reduced by the boy to bedroom Bedouins. Neither Johanna nor I has slept two full nights in a row in eight years. We both work during the day. After the first six months, I stopped noticing how tired I was: my days and nights simply became more elastic and similar.
Lay him down on the bed. Oh, fuck me dead–forgot the pump! Build a wall of pillows around him so he doesn't escape or fall off the bed while I nip back into the other room. Remember 4 cc's (or is it 6?) of chloral hydrate, prescribed for sleep and to calm his self-mutilation. (I tried a dose once: the kick of a double martini. William S. Burroughs was thrown out of school as a kid for experimenting with it.) Reprogram the pump, restart the familiar mild repetitive whine, his night pulse.
At last I sink into bed beside him and pull the wriggling boy close. He begins to hit his head again, and because we know of no acceptable way to restrain him mechanically, I hold down his small right hand with my large right one. This brings his left hand up to his other ear–"he's a genius for finding ways to hurt himself," his teacher told me the other day. I grab his left in my left, which I have threaded behind his head. He begins to kick himself in the crotch with his right heel, so hard it makes me wince. I run my big leg over his little leg, and lay my right hand (holding his right hand) on his left thigh, to keep it still. He's stronger than he looks. Under his birdy limbs, he's granite. He'll mash his ears to a pulp if no one stops him.
There is a chance, of course, that none of this will work. Every once in a while, the chloral hydrate rebounds and transforms him into a giggling drunk. It's not unusual to have to perform the entire routine again an hour later. When he has a cold (eight, ten times a year), he coughs himself awake every twenty minutes. Sometimes he cries for hours for no reason. There are nights when nothing works, and nights when he is up and at it, laughing and playing and crawling all over me. I don't mind those nights, tired as I am: his sight is poor, but in the dark we're equal, and I know this makes him happy. In the night, there can be stretches when he is no different from any normal lively boy. It makes me almost cry to tell you that.
Tonight is a lucky night: I can feel him slip off after ten minutes. He stops grunting, strokes his bottle, turns his back and jams his bony little ass into my hip, a sure sign. He falls asleep.
I hurry after him. For all this nightly nightmare–the years of desperate worry and illness and chronic sleep deprivation, the havoc he has caused in our lives, threatening our marriage and our finances and our sanity–I long for the moment when he lets his crazy formless body fall asleep against me. For a short while, I feel like a regular little boy's father. Sometimes I think this is his gift to me–parcelled out, to show me how rare and valuable it is. Walker, my teacher, my sweet, sweet, lost and broken boy.
In the early years, after Walker was first diagnosed with CFC syndrome at the age of seven months, the estimated number of people who suffered from the syndrome changed every time we visited the doctor. The medical profession–at least the handful of doctors who studied cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, or knew what it was–was learning about the syndrome as we did. The name itself was nothing more than an amalgam of the syndrome' s most prominent symptoms: cardio, for ever-present murmurs and malformations and enlargements of the heart; facio, for the facial dysmorphia that was its signal characteristic, a prominent brow and down-sloping eyes; cutaneous, for its many skin irregularities. The first time a geneticist ever described the syndrome to me, he told me there were eight other children in the world with CFC. Eight: it wasn't possible. Surely we had been blasted out to an unknown galaxy.
But within a year, after our doctors had begun to sweep the medical literature for references to CFC, I was informed there were 20 cases, because more had turned up in Italy. Then there were 40. (The speed with which the number changed made me sneer at the doctors: they were trained medical professionals, surely they ought to know more than we did.) More than 100 cases of CFC have been reported since the syndrome was first described publicly in three people in 1979; some estimates are as high as 300. Everything about the syndrome was a mystery, an unknown. It was 1986 before it had a name. Symptoms ranged wildly in severity and kind. (Some researchers believe there may be thousands of people with CFC, but with symptoms so mild the condition has never been noticed.) Some CFC children hit themselves, though most didn't. Some could speak or sign. All but a few were anywhere from mildly to severely retarded. Heart defects ranged from serious to unimportant. (Walker had a mild murmur.) Their skin was often sensitive to touch, to the point of agony. Like many CFC children, Walker couldn't chew or swallow easily; he couldn' t speak; his vision and hearing were compromised (he had narrowed optic nerves, one more than the other, and skinny ear canals subject to incessant infection); he was thin and wobbly, "hypotonic" in the medical jargon.
Like virtually all CFC children, he had no eyebrows, sparse curly hair, a prominent brow, wide-set eyes, low-set ears and an often charming cocktail-party personality. The CFC features grew more noticeable, more "abnormal," as he grew older. I assumed my little boy was an average example of the condition. It turned out I was wrong. It turned out the average didn't exist– not here.
Nor did those conditions change. Today, at thirteen, mentally, developmentally– I'm terrified even to write these words–he's somewhere between one and three years old. Physically, he's better off than many CFC children (he doesn't have frequent seizures, doesn't have ulcerated intestines); cognitively, less so. He could live to middle age. Would that be good luck, or bad?
Minus a few new genetic details, this was and still is the sum total of what the medical profession knows about CFC. It isn't widely studied, as autism is. Most parents of CFC children know more about the affliction than their pediatricians. The CFC population isn't large and politically powerful like that of Down syndrome, which more than 350,000 people live with in North America, and which occurs once in every 800 births. CFC shows up no more often than once in every 300,000 births, and possibly as rarely as once in a million. The National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Diseases characterized CFC as "extremely rare," way out at the far, thin end of the statistical branch, alongside bizarre genetic anomalies such as Chédiak—Higashi syndrome, a bleeding disorder caused by platelet dysfunction and white cell abnormalities. There were only two hundred known cases of Chédiak—Higashi, in part because so few born with it ever survived.
Raising Walker was like raising a question mark. I often wanted to tell someone the story, what the adventure felt and smelled and sounded like, what I noticed when I wasn' t running through darkness. But who could relate to such a human anomaly, to the rare and exotic corner of existence where we suddenly found ourselves? Eleven years would pass before I met anyone like him.
From the Hardcover edition.
Burmese Lessons is a love story. Unlike conventional love stories, this one takes the reader into a world as dangerous and heartbreaking as it is enchanting.
When Karen Connelly finds herself in Burma in the late 1990s, she is immersed in a world of students staging mass demonstrations in opposition to Burma’s dictators, revolutionaries fighting …
The Dinner Party
I said that I would find the place myself. I wanted to walk through the city, into Chinatown. “No, thank you. I do not want a ride, it’s all right.”
The pause at the other end of the phone was so long that I thought the line had gone dead.
“Are you still there?”
He asked again, “You . . . want . . . to walk?” Judging from the hesitating formality of the telephone exchanges we’d had earlier, I’d decided my volunteer guide, San Aung, was over fifty, and a dedicated worrywart.
“I do want to walk. Please tell me again the name of the restaurant. And how to get there.”
He did. He described it all carefully. He said, “But it can get dark in the evenings. You will be all right alone? I do not want you to get lost.”
How dark could it possibly get, in a city? I said, “There is no possibility that I will get lost.”
I set off gamely enough. The light coaxes me out of weariness and into intoxicating newness: the tea shop stools, the bottle caps pressed like ancient coins into the hardened mud of the streets, the scowling face of a boy as he pours steaming water into a large pot, then tosses in a load of dirty dishes. As I cross the street, a woman reaches up to a yellow-waterfall tree–laburnum?–snaps off a lemony sprig, and tucks it like a bird into her braided hair.
Even the dirt draws me in, the realness of dirt that lines the edges of millions of flip-flopped feet, including my own, which I wash every evening before I sleep, as I am unable to get into bed with dirty feet, a habit ingrained a decade ago, when I lived with Pee-Moi and Paw Prasert in northern Thailand. It comes flooding back to me in the flood of Rangoon, that early time cascading into this one.
I experienced a surge of those memories when I first moved back to Thailand six months ago, a vivid unrolling of the past in a small Thai town, my long-ago life with a Thai family. Now I live in the welter and roar of Bangkok, a city I both love and hate for its chaos. At the height of the after-work rush, Rangoon seems much quieter than Bangkok, more manageable, less noisy. Though noisy enough. The glorious disorder slowly organizes itself into the busy face of evening. Where at first I moved, dazed and jostled, in a thick crowd of bodies, now I float from one stream of rushing humans to another. Young office men with soft faces, housewives confounded by the price of chicken, students who glimmer with intelligence. On Anawrahta Street, small-time salesmen with slicked-back hair have spread their wares–nail clippers, small electronic gizmos, hand mirrors, ballpoint pens, sunglasses, bottles of cologne and loads of used clothes, much of it smuggled in from Thailand or Bangladesh, since Burma produces very little–on swaths of the wide sidewalk.
One of these salesmen, white-suited and handsome, like a Burmese version of an Italian gangster, is picking his nose when he meets my inquisitive eyes. He smiles at me unabashedly. Women walk home with their baskets of greens and onions, and other women stride in the opposite direction, toward the river and the boats that will ferry them across it. Four young Indian children in their pyjamas, their eyes kohled and their cheeks swirled with thanaka, play a checkers-like game on a set of broad steps. Normally I would stop to watch, but I must not be late for dinner.
Here is Chinatown, with its blue and green buildings, wooden shutters and elegant roofs, looking romantic in the gold leaf of dusk. The paint on the buildings is new, thin and lime-based, making the whitewashing both literal and figurative. The State Law and Order Restoration Council recently decreed it for all the buildings of Rangoon. Not so long ago, the SLORC also forcibly moved entire communities of the city’s poorest people into primitive shantytowns on the periphery of the city so that foreign visitors like myself are not burdened with the sight of them.
Darkness falls quickly, as it does in the tropics, and falls hard, as it does in Rangoon, because none of the lights on these streets are working. I take a moment to get my bearings and consult my map, which happens to have several errors on it–that is, if I’m reading it correctly. Soon I am rushing around in the dark, flustered and big-eyed and without composure, approaching and retreating from the wrong pools of light and people, my glasses slipping down my nose.
But I do find my dinner party, finally, when San Aung sees a woman stumbling by on the broken pavement and calls out, “Miss Karen,” accent on the second syllable, Ka ren, like the ethnic group that has been at war with the Burmese military for half a century. I approach the table, smiling and sweating in equal measure as I greet everyone, a dozen or so dinner guests gathered together by San Aung, who is not in his fifties at all but is a good-looking man of perhaps thirty-five with high cheekbones in a long Indian face. With his gorgeous head of gleaming hair and his immaculate clothes, he looks like a movie star. He wears a blue pinstriped shirt and a dark blue longyi; both seem to have been lifted off an ironing board five minutes ago. He shakes my hand three times, then lets go and turns to introduce me to the others, giving me condensed biographies as we make our way around the table of mostly Burmese writers. But a lawyer is also here, and a history professor who works at the Japanese embassy (the pay is much better, the university is a shambles), a burly ship’s captain who loves Gorky–he announces this immediately, as an intellectual credential–a woman who collects Burmese folk tales, and a Swedish journalist, Anita. Even though she’s sitting down, I can tell that she is very tall.
Plates of food are already arriving, heaps of greens and noodles and two whole fishes. And a pile of twisted, glistening stuff: very possibly a platter of silver worms. The ship’s captain and a very rotund poet make a place for me between them and, once I’m seated, the introductory quiet closes up with voices again, like steady waves after a lull. Streams of Burmese rush around me, and English strides out into the air, directed to Anita, the journalist, to myself, and to a man I’d assumed was part of the local contingent but who is, in fact, Johnny, a Filipino photographer employed by Time magazine.
Everyone talks about books and writers, passing the names back and forth like gem dealers handling sapphires and rubies, marvelling at the riches. Though at the mention of Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, San Aung pushes out his bottom lip in contemptuous-Frenchman style and huffs, “But it was too much, all those characters. I couldn’t keep them straight. There were too many of them at the beginning and too many at the end.” He laughs. “I did not read the middle, but I’m sure it was the same problem.”
The ship’s captain, clearly a great admirer of the old Russian writers, is scandalized. “But that is how Tolstoy . . .” He looks at me, open-mouthed, searching for the word on my white face. Apparently, he finds it. “That is how Tolstoy re-creates the world. He fills his books with real human beings. Yes, there are many of them; Russia is a big country! And all different kinds of people live in his work, not just one class or another class.”
Is he really a ship’s captain? He talks like a professor. I tell him, “Listening to you makes me want to be a writer.”
He replies in a tone close to reverence, “You already are a writer. How fortunate!”
“But writing is hard work. And lonely. There may be a lot of characters in a story or a book, but the writer is always alone with them.” I look around the table. “And there’s never enough money.”
My fellow writers at the table nod their agreement. But I know that none of them are spoiled as I am spoiled: by early success, by government grants and, most abundantly, by freedom. Yet still I complain. In Burma! It’s disgusting.
Lately I’ve found my enthusiasm for my calling on the wane, partly because I know I’m stuck with it. Most of my life will be spent in a room in front of a computer, tapping out the visions in my head, reworking handwritten scrawls. This notion once filled me with delight. Now it just makes me want to get out of the room and meet someone for a drink–preferably someone who looks like San Aung.
However–the captain is right. Tolstoy has been dead for one hundred years, yet Anna Karenina is alive and beloved in Rangoon. It is extraordinary that something so still, so lifeless–black type on the cheap paper of Penguin’s classic pocketbook–can contain a living world. A Burmese man can step into a time machine and go to nineteenth-century Russia just by turning one page, then another, and another, until he is entangled emotionally and intellectually in fictional lives. Strangers become his familiars.
I look around the table at the animated faces. Tall Anita is flushed, the tip of her nose red; did she eat a chili? The folk tale collector talks across the table to the lawyer, who nods and grunts every few sentences (ah, I know it well, the Asian male grunt–so expressive, so full of feeling!) to show her that he’s listening. He also stares, as I do, at the woman’s plump mauve mouth. I wonder if she is married. Or if he is. Possibly they are married to each other.
Good travel is like good reading: you go inside a new world and cannot resist it. This will implicate me, I think, chopsticking a load of delicious oily noodles into my mouth. I love eating with strangers. Nothing but sex brings people together so quickly; dining is usually more friendly and lasts longer. People are still chatting, but the steamed fish has displaced the miracle of Tolstoy. Under a gloss of sweet sauce and dark skin is delicious white flesh, fat flakes of it without too many bones.
The poet spoons a tangle of worms onto my plate. “Excuse me,” he says, his voice reminiscent of Tom Waits’s, a rough engine idling the vocal cords. “This is the custom. You have not tasted this yet. Delicious. We make sure you eat. I still do this for my daughter.” He means placing the finest morsels of food on her plate, feeding her. When he smiles, his narrow eyes sink into folds of heavy eyelid. He has great bulldog jowls, too, a wide, lumpy nose, and a few dribbles of a previous meal staining his shirt. He smells like a tea shop during the early morning rush: earthy and smoky and surprisingly sweet, as though he has an Indian pastry in his breast pocket. He has not stopped smoking his cheroot since I arrived. Many Burmese people are beautiful. If not truly endowed with good looks, they have the straight-backed, slender grace that passes as beauty. Therefore it is refreshing, even reassuring, to meet this man.
“I’m very sorry, but can you tell me your name again?”
“I am Tin Moe,” he answers.
And now I recognize him. Sayagyi–the great teacher–Tin Moe, the famous, beloved poet laureate of Burma, imprisoned for five years because of his writings and his support for the National League for Democracy, the political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. He was on a list of imprisoned Burmese writers that PEN published a couple of years ago. Ma Thida, a young woman writer, was on the same list. Tin Moe was released; Ma Thida is still in prison.
“It’s so good to meet you, U Tin Moe. I’m honoured to be sitting with people who love books so much. And with such a famous poet! I didn’t expect to be so lucky on my first trip to Burma.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you. It is our pleasure.” He motions toward my plate with his chin. “Your eels will be cold, Miss Karen. Please eat them.”
“Those are eels?”
The captain, who has been listening to every word, interjects, “Babies.”
“Really?” Poor things! They are salty, faintly crablike, and sublime.
My fellow diners have started talking about writers again: Havel, Kundera, Faulkner, have I read them, and do I like Gabriel García Márquez, and why, and who else have I read, who is my favourite writer? Someone makes the joke that Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, was competing with Tolstoy for the greatest number of characters, to which San Aung responds sharply, “That’s another novel I could not read. Life is too short.” Then he asks my opinion about several Swedish authors. I have to admit that I’ve never read them.
The hunger for books is greater than the hunger for food, though there is no doubt that the conversation is enhanced by the meal. When the waiter brings new dishes, of prawns, a broccoli-like green stir-fried with garlic and ginger, and spicy eggplant, new discussions arise with the fragrant steam. We eat and talk, turning to each other as we swallow, laughing often, over many comments and turns in the conversation, our voices growing louder and louder, until Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “It’s very good, to talk about all these books, these writers.” His eyes shine. “But this talk makes me think of all the books that Burmese people cannot read.” He heaves a sigh and picks up his cheroot again. He scrabbles in his breast pockets for a lighter. “So many of our own books are banned now. Many names cannot be printed. Her name. No one is allowed to publish her name.”
The table has fallen silent and we attend him, respectfully, knowing who the unnamed woman is. His time in prison had as much to do with his unequivocal support of Aung San Suu Kyi as it did with his writing.
“Did you know”–he turns to me–“that each new book a writer produces here must be copied out four times and given to four different censors? For a Burmese writer, that is a great expense. Then each censor puts lines through any offending passages. After that, the manuscript has to be rewritten without those passages. This is not the way any normal writer likes to write. It’s the way the censors like to write. One of my friends, a popular novelist, not a political writer, had to write her last book five times. It almost drove her crazy. But she had to do it. She wants to write her books. She doesn’t want to go to jail and get tuberculosis.”
“Like Ma Thida,” I say in a low tone.
“Do you know her?”
“I know of her. One of the reasons I’ve come here is to find out more about her. I do some work for a group in Canada that has made Ma Thida an honorary member, and we’re lobbying the Burmese government for her release.”
“No. PEN Canada. It’s an international organization. I’m a member of the Canadian chapter.”
“Ah, yes,” someone says. “They support U Win Tin also.” U Win Tin was detained at the same time as Suu Kyi began her house arrest. His sentence was recently extended because he had made an attempt to inform the UN about the appalling conditions of Burmese prisons.*
“Ma Thida and I worked together,” says the old poet. “She is like a daughter to me. She’s a dear woman, and a fine writer.”
“Do you know much about her situation?”
“The tuberculosis is under control. But she also has some–I don’t know, some female problems. I’m not sure. She suffers with that, but she is doing a lot of meditation. For many hours a day, meditating. That is how she survives in the prison.”
“Vipassana meditation,” clarifies the folktale collector. “That is how Buddhism helps many political prisoners.” She lowers her voice. “While the Lady was under house arrest, she used to sit vipassana every day, for some hours. Do you ever meditate?”
“I try. But I’m not very good at it.”
She laughs. “That’s normal. We need to practise every day or it remains very difficult. Sometimes I go into retreat at a monastery near Mandalay, and by the end of two weeks I start to feel calm!”
Sayagyi Tin Moe snorts. “By the end of twenty years, you would be very, very calm.”
“No,” says the woman reflectively. “I think I would be insane.”
“Insane in Insein,” intones San Aung in a jokey voice. Insein is the name of the prison where many political prisoners are held, including Ma Thida.
Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “If you are a writer in this country, going to Insein is an occupational hazard. I am not allowed to publish anymore, not even magazine articles. My old poems are in the school books, but my books are banned.” He looks across the table and says something to the folk tale woman, who breathes a few words, a consolation or a whispered condemnation, I don’t know. It’s not the moment to ask for a translation. Everyone at our table is silent, as though in a show of respect to all the banned words and writers, which throws the noise of the street and the voices of the other diners into sharp relief, the ongoing clatter of plates and cutlery, the hum of gaslights and music playing nearby.
Suddenly the poet lifts his hands up like an orchestra conductor. “Keep talking! Talk, talk.” He raises his voice. “It is a good thing to do. We can still talk!” Then he has such an energetic coughing fit that he has to put down his cheroot. After recovering, he raises the dark green cigar and addresses it, “My good friend.” Then, to me, “It is like a companion. The tea shop, the cheroot and the writing. They go together.”
“It’s like that in Canada too. And Greece. Writers love to smoke and drink.”
“An international brotherhood,” remarks the lawyer.
“And sisterhood,” adds the folk tale collector with her mauve smile.
Sayagyi Tin Moe turns his big head to me and asks, “Will you write a book about our country?”
Memorably, I answer, “Uh . . . I’m not sure. I’m . . .” How to dodge the question with some grace? “Right now I am still reading books about your country. I have so much to learn.”
Which is absolutely true. The purpose of my visit, ostensibly, is to collect enough material to publish a few articles about political prisoners here. Ma Thida is only one of more than two thousand. I’ve become attached to her because of the similarities between us–and the gaping differences. Twenty-nine years old, she is very close to my age. While I am free to write my books and live my adventurous life, Ma Thida is in solitary confinement, ticking the days off her twenty-year sentence. Her crime? Writing short stories that are critical of the military regime.
Both of us are young women writers. Is that where the similarity ends? The single great accident of human existence is geography: where we are born in this bordered, divided, largely unjust world. My life would have been different if I had been born elsewhere. This is an obvious enough notion, but when I was a child I used to think of it as a kind of magic. At the age of eight, when the Filipino neighbours moved in next door, I had an epiphany: “I” would not exist if I had been born in another country, to other parents. “I” was contingent upon so many things that “I” had no control over. It was a dizzying concept, and I have never ceased to feel its power. If I had been born in a country like Burma, who would I be? What would I look like?
In the depth of a Canadian winter, Ma Thida’s photograph had haunted me. Framed by black hair, the attractive round face wore a small, impish smile. She regarded me with a calm gaze. It was hard to believe that she was in prison even as I thought of her; that she was suffering from tuberculosis as I prepared to return to Asia, packing up my old house, putting all the necessities for a year or two of travel into a small suitcase and a backpack. The least I could do was to try to find out more about her, and write a couple of articles.
That was the modest, reasonable plan of a few days ago, before the plane touched down in Rangoon. Now my mind has been tossed upside down by these people. Yesterday, my cab driver said of the ruling generals, “They have guns, but no brains.” He grimly bared his teeth. “But guns kill us.” And the merchant I chatted with at a tea shop: when I quietly asked him about the Lady–a more discreet way to refer to Aung San Suu Kyi–he was so taken aback he said, “No, I am sorry, I am afraid to talk about that.” Then he stood up and left me sitting there, ashamed that I had not anticipated his fear, that I do not have the mechanism of fear myself. At least, not the fear of speaking.
Plates of fruit arrive. The end of the evening has come, but the lawyer asks me about Noam Chomsky, which in turn leads to a discussion about the failures of democracy, and how those failures are preferable to the bloodier failures of dictatorship. As the tables around us empty, we’re talking about art. Anita describes the beauty of the Musée d’Orsay (her long hands in the air like white sculpture) and Sayagyi Tin Moe invites us to a gallery opening. San Aung says he knows a group of painters and asks if I would like to meet them. The fruit is finished and we are drowsy–the old poet has nodded off, twice, snoring so loudly that he wakes himself up again–but my companions are still hungry for more information, more news, more evidence of the ongoing life of the world, and how their own country, how they themselves, are connected to that world, the realm of freely circulating ideas and books and newspapers and technologies. Freely circulating people, in fact–Anita and Johnny and myself bring our worlds with us. In an isolated place like Burma, this kind of meeting is also communion that vivifies, renews, the way colour comes as a mind-sparking pleasure after weeks in a monochromatic hospital ward.
The boys who clean and stack the night tables are swishing rags over the wood and cracked Formica and sluicing the dirty water down the gutters. Our party cannot stretch the evening any further, we need to sleep. No, no, the folk tale collector says, shaking her head theatrically and pressing my hand, you must not walk back to your guest house, San Aung will see you home, he has a car.
Goodbye, goodbye. We turn to each other with a curious mixture of formality and friendliness, not quite bowing but almost, smiling too, laughter igniting without reason, just the punchiness of being so tired, so pleased with the company. “Nowmak dwei-may,” I say, which brings another laugh, the colloquialism comical in the mouth of someone who cannot speak the language. See you later.
The poet shakes my hand and whispers in his gravelly voice, “Very quickly you will learn Burmese. That will help you.”
“Help me what?”
“Write the book.”
*U Win Tin was Burma’s longest-serving prisoner of conscience. After being in prison for nineteen years, he was finally released in September 2008, at the age of seventy-nine.
From the Hardcover edition.
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