Recommended Reading List
Salonistas
Download list
Please login or register to use this feature.

Salonistas

By 49thShelf
0 ratings
rated!
rated!
tagged:
Books by Salonistas
Perfecting

Perfecting

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

With blood on his hands, Curtis Woolf flees his home in New Mexico for Canada, where he starts a religious commune, the Family. There he heals others and preaches pacifism while enduring the torment of this own damaged soul. Then his lover, Martha, finds his gun and goes south to discover the truth, whatever that might be. Curtis sets out to bring her back, lest the Family fall apart. In the half-light of a nursing home sits Hollis, dragon lord of a lost Mormon line, who has anointed Curtis, dam …

More Info
Outside the Box

Outside the Box

The Life and Legacy of Writer Mona Gould, the Grandmother I Thought I Knew
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook

Years later, Maria took on the daunting task of sorting through Mona's mountain of papers to create an archive for the University of Toronto's Fisher Rare Book Library. The chaotic state of the boxes reflected Mona's flamboyant and demanding personality, yet they also drew an important picture of the life of a Canadian freelancer in the twentieth century. Mona had begun publishing poetry and features in newspapers in the 1920s and published three books of poetry in the 1940s. In the 1950s, at a …

More Info
The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : historical

Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak's novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia's greatest matriarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.
 
Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara is a servant who will become on …

More Info
Excerpt

I could have warned her when she arrived in Russia, this petty German princess from Zerbst, a town no bigger than St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden, this frail girl who would become Catherine.
 
This court is a new world to you, I could have said to her, a slippery ground. Do not be deceived by tender looks and flattering words, promises of splendor and triumph. This place is where hopes shrivel and die. This is where dreams turn to ashes.
 
She has charmed you already, our Empress. With her simplicity, the gentle touch of her hand, the tears she dried from her eyes at her first sight of you. With the vivacity of her speech and gestures, her brisk impatience with etiquette. How kind and frank Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is, you have said. Others have, too. Many others. But frankness can be a mask, a disguise, as her predecessor has learned far too late.
 
Three years ago our bewitching Empress was but a maiden princess at the court of Ivan VI, the baby Emperor, and his Regent Mother. There had been a fiance lost to smallpox, there had been other prospects derailed by political intrigues until everyone believed that, at thirty- two and without a husband, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great had missed her chance at the throne. They all thought Elizabeth Petrovna flippant and flighty then, entangled in the intricacies of her dancing steps and the cut of her ball dresses— all but a handful who kept their eyes opened wide, who gambled on the power of her father’s blood.
 
The French call her “Elizabeth the Merciful.” For the day before she stole the throne of Russia from Ivan VI, she swore on the icon of St. Nicholas the Maker of Miracles that no one under her rule would ever be put to death. True to her word, on the day of the coup, she stopped the Palace Guards from slashing Ivan’s infant throat. She plucked the wailing baby Emperor from his crib and kissed his rosy cheeks before she handed him back to his mother and packed them both off to live in prison.
 
She likes when we repeat that no head has been cut off since the day she took power but forbids us to mention the tongues and ears. Or the backs torn to meaty shreds by the knout. Or the prisoners nailed to a board and thrown into a freezing river. Mercy, too, knows how to deceive.
 
Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. For those who know, secret passages allow access where none is suspected. Panels open, bookcases move, sounds travel through hidden pipes. Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you.
 
Your trunks will be searched. Double bottoms and hollowed books will not hold their secrets for long. Your letters will be copied before they are sent on their way. When your servant complains that an intimate piece of your clothing is missing, it may be because your scent is preserved in a corked bottle for the time when a hound is sent to sniff out your presence.
 
Keep your hands on your pockets. Learn the art of deception. When you are questioned, even in jest, even in passing, you have mere seconds to hide your thoughts, to split your soul and conceal what you do not want known. The eyes and ears of an inquisitor have no equals.
 
Listen to me.
 
I know.
 
The one you do not suspect is the most dangerous of spies.
 
As soon as she seized the throne of Russia, Empress Elizabeth made no secret of her resolve to rule alone, without a royal husband. Since she would have no children to succeed her, she sent for her sister’s orphaned son, Karl Peter Ulrich, the Duke of Holstein. When the young Duke was brought to her, lanky and bone- thin, his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion after the long journey, she pressed him to her heaving bosom. “The blood of the Romanovs,” she announced, as he stiffened in her arms. “The grandson of Peter the Great.” She presided over his conversion to the Orthodox faith, renamed him Peter Fyodorovich, and made him the Crown Prince. He was fourteen years old.
 
She didn’t ask him if he wished to live with her. She didn’t ask him if he wanted to rule Russia one day. Now, right after his fifteenth birthday, she didn’t ask him if he wanted a bride.
 
Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt- Zerbst. It was her portrait that arrived first, and I recall the grand moment of its unveiling. Portraits of this kind are not meant to render a likeness, but to entice. “Her?” I heard Chancellor Bestuzhev say when the Empress mentioned Sophie for the first time. “But why her?” The Chancellor mentioned the need of crafty ties, and hedging one’s bets. Europe required a careful balance of power, he cautioned. The Prussians were growing too strong as it was. “Your Highness should consider a Saxon princess.”
 
The Empress stifled a yawn.
 
“I’ve not decided anything yet,” Elizabeth told him. Her nephew Peter was sitting at her feet, his long white fingers turning the turquoise ring around, as if he were tightening a screw.
 
In the weeks that followed I heard Sophie’s father referred to as a prince of quite exceptional imbecility, a Prussian general not able to control his foolhardy wife for whom the shabby Court of Brunswick had become the measure of all grandeur. The Anhalt- Zerbsts were well connected but poor, shamelessly clamoring for Empress Elizabeth’s attention, reminding her that she once almost married one of them, this tenuous link to Russia their only real hope of attaining significance.
 
When a footman parted the red velvet curtain, we saw a portrait of a slim and graceful figure standing by the mantel, a girl of fourteen, summoned from her studies. We saw the pale- green bodice of her gown, the dainty hands folded on her stomach. Whatever rumors may have reached us, Princess Sophie was not a cripple. No childhood illness had deformed her spine. There was an air of lightness around her; she seemed on the verge of breaking into a cheerful dance. Her chin was pointed, her lips small but shapely. Not quite pretty but fresh and playful, like a kitten watching a ball of yarn unfurl. The painter made sure we would not miss the exquisite pallor of her complexion, the softness of her eyes, the blue flecks of her pupils so striking a contrast to her raven- black hair. Nor could we overlook her ardent will to please.
 
Murmurs, hesitant and vague, filled the room. Courtiers’ words mumbled and slurred so praise could still be retracted, blame turned into a veiled compliment. The art of deception, I thought, the eyespots on a butterfly’s wing flickering for a lifesaving second. Grasshoppers that change their color with the seasons to match the fading leaves. The grand gentlemen and ladies of the court were still looking at the portrait, but I knew there was something far more important to watch. The face of the Empress of Russia taking her first measure of this princess child who, if she willed it, would become her nephew’s bride. The face I had learned to read.

close this panel
And Also Sharks

And Also Sharks

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

The forlornly funny stories in And Also Sharks celebrate the socially awkward, the insecure, the unfulfilled, and the obsessed.

 

A disgruntled follower of a self-esteem blog posts a rambling critical comment. On the hunt for the perfect coffee table, a pregnant woman and her husband stop to visit his terminally ill ex-wife. The office cat lady reluctantly joins her fellow employees’ crusade to cheer up their dying co-worker. A man grieving his wife’s miscarriages follows his deluded friend on …

More Info
Mad Hope

Mad Hope

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

In the stories of Mad Hope, Journey Prize winner Heather Birrell finds the heart of her characters and lets them lead us into worlds both recognizable and alarming. A science teacher and former doctor is forced to re-examine the role he played in CeauÅ?escu’s Romania after a student makes a shocking request; a tragic plane crash becomes the basis for a meditation on motherhood and its discontents; women in an online chat group share (and overshare) their anxieties and personal histories; and …

More Info
I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore

I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore

and Other Stories
edition:Paperback

The darkly humorous stories in I’m A Registered Nurse Not A Whore take dead aim at how easily our desire to be good is perverted or undermined by a desperate need for love and recognition. Despite a world of fading optimism and advancing catastrophe, plans are formulated, deals drawn, bargains struck, and hope prevails. Beautifully flawed, well-meaning yet easily sidelined, the characters in these eight stories catapult off the rails of ordinary life before raising themselves up — if only fo …

More Info
Burmese Lessons

Burmese Lessons

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

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, remar …

More Info
Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
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.”

“Amnesty International?”

“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.

close this panel
comments powered by Disqus

There are two ways to make a reading list

This way:

  1. Click the "Create a New List" button just above this panel.
  2. Add as many books as you wish using the built-in search on the list edit page.

Or that way:

  1. Go to any book page.
  2. In the right-hand column, click on "Add to List." A drop-down menu will appear.
  3. From the drop-down menu, either add your book to a list you have already created or create a new list.
  4. View and edit your lists anytime on your profile page.
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...