Great book, mixed feelings – Burmese Lessons and Loves
It’s been almost two months since my visit to Myanmar and I’m still caught in the Burmese web.
I’m not the first to be captured by the country. There was Rudyard Kipling, Amitash Ghosh, Emma Larkin…
Now there’s Karen Connelly. I’ve just put down her book Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story. It’s brilliant, you need to read it. But it also stirred mixed feelings on my part. Here’s the story.
Karen Connelly is wonderful writer, one who makes me want to set down my keyboard and weep because I don’t think I’ll ever be as good. I can’t wait to dive into her Orange Broadband Prize winner, The Lizard Cage, and her debut Touch of the Dragon: A Thai Journal.
I must confess though that I was intimidated by the feisty easily angered 28 year old woman portrayed in the book, the one who recklessly gives herself over to lust and love for a people and a man she barely knows, ranting, crying and exulting through the whole experience. She did not seem like the sort of person I would feel comfortable having a cosy cup of tea with.
But one doesn’t read a memoir to like a writer, or to approve of his or her choices. Why should I be so concerned about whether or not I’ll like the writer? More on that in the next post.
Here, being writerly and readerish, I just note that one reads for the subjective experience of a particular time, place and events, seen from a specific writer’s perspective. I wanted to enter the mind of a North American woman, perhaps Asian-American, seeing the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border for the first time and trying to live as one of them. Seen that way, Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, was an entirely satisfactory read from which I emerged sated from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.
Karen Connelly is a poet, accustomed to suggesting multiple layers of meaning with just a few words. This memoir is not just a record of a love affair between the author and a leading Burmese dissident sometime in the second half of the 1990’s. I take the book to be a record of the lessons Ms. Connelly learnt after becoming captivated by Burma and the Burmese.
Connelly is an acute observer, with a piercing intelligence and a sensitive heart. She sees through herself and writes about her own dilemmas with acuity. “My emotions for him are tangled up with my thoughts and feelings about his country… Am I just a parasite, falling in love with this man because he brings me closer to his country?”
Regardless, she does fall for him, despite her friends and acquaintances warnings that he is not quite who he seems and a cross-cultural relationship between a North American woman and an Asian man is fraught with difficulties.
On the way to resolution, these are the Burmese lessons Ms. Connelly learns: What it means to wait for “a man who comes to me from no fixed address and who will depart from me, in all likelihood, for an equally unspecified location”…. To understand that in a refugee camp “making a home safe enough for a child is the ordinary miracle” because among refugees and exiles “it’s no small act to make a home.” She learns “Tragedy is a climate” and believes she has “acclimatized” like the displaced who “forced to live in a prison, under a piece of tarpaulin, in one place then another, and another” … learn to build their lives “on a fracture”; something she proclaims, perhaps too early, that she too can do. “A shelter within a broken shelter is another version of home. I can live there, if I want to. In some ways, I already do. And the company is fine.”
But it is a bout of malaria caught from a trip into a jungle guerilla camp that provides the ultimate Burmese lesson,. This is when we see that the affair with Burma that started with an exotic encounter in a temple, a scintillating literary meal and pretty tourist excursions, becomes a fire that consumes and transforms her; and with an unexpected result.
“Is this not what I wanted, what I have always craved – to be transformed? The change I sought when I first went to Burma is complete. It is an irrevocable alteration: the fever has seared something into me, burned something out. She is gone, the one who could go forth so easily, so readily, wishing to enter another world and opening herself to it completely, like a door or a flower.”
This is the ultimate lesson, that loving is also suffering, and with suffering we learn to be careful for ourselves. The carefree 28 year old who first gave herself to Asia when she was seventeen and came back to Asia ripe for the taking, learns, she cannot go on forever. She learns there are boundaries she must hold on to because they are necessary to preserve her sense of who she is.
Ms. Connelly’s renders the world she entered with such clarity we’re caught by it as much as she was. The men picking their noses, spitting phlegm, chewing betel; the cheroot smoking women; the flesh market in the gem-trading town of Mae Sot; Ms. Connelly’s sweaty encounters with her lover; they are all served up piping hot. Some may argue that it was too much, especially the sex. “Not everything or everyone is for the artist’s palate,” some may quote Ms. Connelly’s friend Marla. But I did not feel squeamish about what was offered. It was what I wanted, to enter into the experience of a North American somewhat Asianized woman on the Thai-Burmese Border. That the woman was in love, with the culture and a man of that culture was an added bonus.
There is a second quiet thread in the book, about the Burmese women Ms. Connelly encountered. I must confess, I missed this thread until Ms. Connelly herself directed me to it. It’s actually clear as day. But, because the “backgroundness” of these women has been rendered so accurately, their story too becomes just so much “background”. Yet it is that story of the quietly serving women who lose sons and bring up daughters in the jungle that captures the true tragedy of the conflict.
This is not a book to read for objective historical analysis of the whys and wherefores or rights and wrongs of the Burmese Border dissidents’ wars or their internecine battles. Hundreds of thousands of refugees still languish in the border camps but the number of fighters in the jungle are dwindling as Myanmar inches towards democracy. Institutions and structures have changed. In August 2012 many of the dissident leaders including Ms. Connelly’s lover and his rival were allowed to return to Burma to attend talks with the government on how they might contribute to a future democracy. The heart of the story though, how a young woman fell in love with a Burmese man, his country and his people and the lessons she learnt remain.
Highly recommended for those who like their memoir writers as they are, real and un-polished; and the words they read as crafted and gleaming.
For readers who enjoyed Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’ Disturbances in the Field, both about strong women who love whole-heartedly and with unashamed bodies.