Up Close and Bookish with Aung San Suu Kyi
at Myanmar’s First International Literary Festival.
Things are changing fast in Yangon. If you want to catch the old Myanmar you had better visit soon. Even a year ago brand new cars were a rarity on the roads. Most of the taxis were clapped out old models with non-existent shock absorbers and though a ride across town was hot and bumpy, getting anywhere was a breeze. Now there are luxury sedans with tinted windows and shiny new SLVs clogging the main thoroughfares, turning traffic jams into a daily routine.
Luckily our taxi drivers knew all the back ways and short cuts to ferry my group and I to the inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival which took place in Yangon in last month.
Organiser Jane Heyn, the wife of the British Ambassador to Myanmar, first discussed the idea two years ago with Aung San Suu Kyi, not long after her release from house arrest.
A year later, following changes in Myanmar’s visa and censorship laws, the idea became a reality. Heyn gathered the support of BBC correspondent Fergal Keane and William Dalrymple (author and founder of Jaipur Literary Festival) and Daw Suu, (as Aung San Suu Kyi is respectfully known in Myanmar), became the festival patron.
By late 2012 the list of guest writers had grown to include some impressive international names: Jung Chang, Vikram Seth, Pascal Khoo Thwe, Caroline Courtauld, Jocelyn Dimbleby, Rory Stewart, Victor Chan, Rupert Arrowsmith, Rory Maclean and more, as well as 120 Burmese writers, scholars and poets, including Thant Myint U, U Thaw Kaung, Pe Myint and poets Pandora, Zeyar Lyn and Nyein Way.
While it may have been Asia's best kept secret when I heard about it in late November, I put the call out to see who wanted to join me. Within two weeks nine writers had signed up for a writer's retreat that began at the festival and ended with four days workshopping their own writing projects among the eleventh century temples of Bagan.
The Inya Lake Hotel, with its classic sixties architecture set among lawns and gardens leading down to the lake, was the perfect venue (although some felt downtown would have been more accessible to local audiences). From February 1-3, the grand ballroom and terrace and three other conference rooms were in use simultaneously from 10 am to 7 pm.
On the terrace, intermittent performances of traditional music, story telling and marionettes entertained the in-between crowds. Across the lawns, stalls sold books, local food, craft and clothing, and a sunset boathouse housed spontaneous poetry readings and discussions.
With a jam packed festival schedule we managed to fit our daily writing workshops around the events, ducking off to various sessions and reporting back.
Some of my favourites were: George FitzHerbert's talk on the Tibetan Bard tradition in Oral Traditions and Literature in Tibet and Myanmar; listening to local and international poets discuss a new book of Burmese poetry, edited by James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett, called " Bones Will Crow and Other Works"; hearing how Jung Chang (acclaimed author of "Wild Swans") became a writer; and being enthralled by the photo journalist adventures of Rick Danzinger and Thierry Falise.
Others in our group proclaimed it was worth coming all this way if just for the fascinating session with William Dalrymple and Rory Stewart: Return of A King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - 42; or learning about Narrative Non Fiction from Indian author, Akash Kapur in discussion with Burma's Pascal Khoo Thwe ("From The Land Of Green Ghosts") and Burmese author/historian Thant Myint U (grandson of former UN Secretary General, U Thant).
While the the festival had a very British feel, Australia was represented by Jane Camens, director of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association, who moderated a session with Michael Vatikiosis on his recent novel "The Painter Of Lost Souls " set in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in1998. And I landed a spot in the sunset poets reading, collaborating in song with Nyein Way on his poem, “Smile Of A Leaf.”
Travel writers picked up invaluable tips from the differing techniques of British travel authors, Rory Maclean ("Stalin's Nose"), Caroline Courtauld ( "Myanmar/Burma in Style" )and London based journalist Monisha Rajesh ( "Around India In 80 Trains"), while Burmese short story writers: Lay Ko Tin, Shwegu May Hinn, Khin Pan Hinn, Nya Linn Phyu, humourously moderated by Min Khwite Soe San, illustrated the creative methods they used to get their message across under Burma's strict censorship laws.
When I asked how their writing has changed since censorship laws were lifted in August, the moderator answered, " now I can write what I like, but finding a publisher to print it is another matter!"
Choosing which session to attend was often painful. I gave up Vikram Seth in conversation with Akash Kapur, to attend Trends in Contemporary Myanmar Poetry, expertly moderated by Burma's leading female poet and blogger Pandora, author of "Tuning, An Anthology of Myanmar Women Poets".
On Day 2 we sacrificed our penciled in sessions when we saw the queue to the afternoon ballroom event with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, beginning to form. We inched slowly forward for an hour or more only to have our hopes dashed when it was announced the session was full. However, we were told, Daw Su would come out and speak to us at the end of her talk ( which was also broadcast outside) as she was aware so many of us were waiting.
The pay off for our patience was we now had front row positions when Daw Suu appeared flanked by a crush of minders and volunteers, and spoke from the podium of the importance of literature as a way of understanding and learning about each other.
We listened closely but her words evaporated in the collective joy we felt at being in her graceful and principled presence (while also attempting to get the perfect ‘I was here’ snapshot).
Later in the day when the crowds thinned (no rest for Daw Suu who went off to another function in between), there was a better chance to see her in a panel session where Fergal Keane asked Daw Suu, William Dalrymple, Vikram Seth and Jung Chang, which book or poem they would take with them on a desert island.
The irony was not lost on us that Daw Suu had been on such an island for 15 years, but she played along like a good sport, giving different examples of her favourite books to the ones she had mentioned in the previous session - George Eliot and Victor Hugo, whose characters " maintain their spiritual strength to the end."
In that session, of her love of detective novels she said " I am the chair of the Rule of Law Committee and detective stories have helped me. You know who the villain is the more you read. It helps you to work out people's motives. The detective story asks who is going to profit from this crime. It's very good for politicians."
Of western poets she listed among her favourites: Tennyson, Shakespeare and Yeats while her favourite Burmese poets are Zawgyi (1907 - 1990) and Min Thu Wun (1909 - 2004). Both were pioneers of Burma’s khitsan style of poetry of the 1930s which challenged the traditional literary forms.
When asked " if you were to write the story of Myanmar's last two years would it be a detective story or poetry?" Daw Suu replied, " Poetry - I hope our nation will be a nation worth writing about."
If the amount of publicity the festival has received in the international press is anything to go by, indications are good. But as Jane Heyn and her husband move on to another posting, the question remains - who will step forward to make the festival happen again?
My group of writers would sign up for it tomorrow. Sated, inspired and exhilarated, we felt humbled and privileged as we shared stories of people we'd met, sessions attended, connections made, inspiration/information received, new experiences of a country and culture the world still knows so little about.
At 5 am next morning while awaiting our flight to Bagan in the perfectly preserved Pelligrini’s style coffee bar in the domestic terminal, I found myself hoping (like Thant Myint U who spoke of his work to preserve Yangon's heritage buildings), that not all of old Myanmar gets swept away in the rush to progress.
But you can smell the money pouring into this town as a battalion of ATMs are wheeled into place. They are not quite functioning yet but it won't be long. Soon you won't have the inconvenience of bringing all your spending money in clean US dollar bills (no marks, no creases, no tears), for fear of it being rejected by your hotel or local vendor.
And yet inconvenience, discomfort, is exactly what a writer needs to get his/her characters jumping. Without it the story would be too boring, too bland - like global 7-Elevens on every corner wherever you travel, selling you the same old stuff.
There are no 7-Elevens on the plain of Bagan - just temples and pagodas as far as the eye can see - 2,200 of them. We take our inspiration from them as we did the festival; gathering stimuli, detail, sensory impressions, and applying them to our writing projects.
Some of our stories are set in Burma, others in the heart of Australia or a far off mother country, but we use the notion of being somewhere completely out of our range of experience to take us deeper into the stories we know we must write.
On a sunset cruise on the Irrawaddy RIver we read to fellow writers (strangers before this trip) things we would never attempt read before. We are rewarded for our bravery, for daring to speak the emotional truth of our characters, for giving them not just IQ, but the "EQ" ( emotional intelligence) and "SQ" ( spiritual intelligence) Daw Suu spoke of, when in reference to her favourite novel, Les Miserables, she said, " what we need is a spiritual revolution."
The temples on the shoreline begin to glow as we drift soundlessly back to the jetty, golden light rippling in our wake.
There is no need to remind my group of Daw Suu's words, "Through books you learn.... about yourself. You find out your own troubles are nothing compared with others."
(C) Jan Cornall Feb. 2013
Jan Cornall is a writer/performer who leads writing retreats in inspiring international locations - Bali, Fiji, Laos, Morocco, Burma. www.writersjourney.com.au
Find out more re all the writers who attended the Irrawaddy Literary Festival: www.irrawaddylitfest.com