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 an armed insurgency against that same military regime, and refugees living in hellish limbo in Thailand. Connelly first comes to love a wounded, remarkably beautiful country, then a gifted man who has given his life to its struggle for political change. Burmese Lessons is illuminated by the sensual language and flashes of humour that have won her fans around the world.
About the author
Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Her first book, a collection of poems called The Small Words in my Body was published 22 years ago. It won the Pat Lowther Award. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian, and Burmese. She is also the author of several acclaimed books of prose, including The Lizard Cage, winner of the Orange Broadband New Writers Prize, Touch the Dragon, winner of the Governor General’s Award, and Burmese Lessons, a love story, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her journalism, essays and poetry have been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Toronto Star, The Walrus, The New Humanist (Britain), National Geographic Traveller, Shambhala Sun, and dozens of literary magazines and periodicals in Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Asia.Her books are explorations of the countries where she has lived and travelled: Burma, Thailand, Spain, France, Greece, and, of course, Canada. In all three genres, she has increasingly assumed the role of writer as political witness. She has long been a supporter and an occasional board member of PEN Canada and has been active in various campaigns on behalf of writers in prison or living under persecution. She makes her home in Toronto with her family.
- Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
Excerpt: Burmese Lessons (by (author) Karen Connelly)
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.
“Passionate and poetic.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[Burmese Lessons] boldly examines Burma’s tumultuous climate and nuanced cultural ethos with colorful prose and gritty self-reflection.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Karen Connelly has given her heart to Asia. I bow in gratitude to this writer whose love story is personal and political—and true.” —Maxine Hong Kingston, author of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life and The Woman Warrior
“A tour de force. At once beautiful literature, an intimate account of a moving journey, a nuanced portrait of another country, a complex yet quietly honest reportage, this book is also a page-turner. It will, I believe, become a classic in the new genre that mixes personal memory with public events.” —Susan Griffin, author of A Chorus of Stones and Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy
“Sweeping in its historical research, devoid of personal commentary (or indeed experience), I highly recommend Burmese Lessons. In quietly beautiful, searching prose, Connelly shows us the small stories. . . . Burmese Lessons shows us more than a place, or a person in a place: it shows us a way to be in the world: open, seeing, breathing, awake.” —Jamie Zeppa, Literary Review of Canada
“Beautifully written. . . . The book is rich with a nostalgia for Connelly’s youth, and the passion of it, when she flung herself into unknown cultures and the arms of dangerous lovers.” —The Globe and Mail (interview)
“A harrowing account of life under Burma’s military dictatorship—the terror, the treachery, the brutality, but also the astonishingly resilient serenity, camaraderie and fatalism of the Burmese people. . . . An insightful, riveting book.” —B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction jury citation
“A poetic love story with all the strengths of her previous works, a tale of a wounded country and a gifted political activist struggling to transform it.” —Maclean’s
“[Connelly] compels admiration for her brave intrusions into dangerous and awkward situations, and above all for her candour.” ––National Post (Open Book feature)
“Connelly has continued to astound. . . . [Her] fans will be enthralled.” —Quill & Quire
“With Burmese Lessons, [Connelly] explores a relationship that defined who she is today.” —National Post
“The enchanting story of a highly erotic love affair, one made wonky and dangerous by politics. . . . The book goes far beyond memoir. . . . Her personal loss has become her book’s gain.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“Connelly is a sensualist, as a writer; this memoir is redolent with the smells of food, the stink of bodies, the weight of stones carried on her head as she helps the women in a camp build a well, the sharp, deep pleasures of sex, the edgy frustrations of sex denied, for the sake of propriety. . . . Readers familiar with The Lizard Cage will experience several shocks of recognition of characters and images and ideas . . . especially the sweet wisdom of monks, and the fleeting encounter with a feral boy who becomes one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction.” —The Globe and Mail
Praise for Karen Connelly:
“[Karen Connelly] shows us what autobiography usually veils: the human spirit not at its most defiant and brave, but as it really is and can only be.”
— The New York Times