Censorship to Celebration
A landmark literary festival unfolded recently in Myanmar, another benchmark in the process of normalization after decades of isolation and repression. Aung San Suu Kyi was among the stars, but the joy was in listening to writers whose work, and very appearance, has been banned for ages in Burma.
By Ron Gluckman /in Yangon
IT'S FITTING THAT BURMA, a nation of avid readers, should mark its re-emergence on the world stage with the first Irawaddy Literary Festival. The event in February 2013 drew thousands to hear local authors recently released from prison as well as foreign writers newly removed from the government's visa blacklist.
"If you told me two years ago, that I would be here, showing my pictures of Burma, that would have been unimaginable," said Thierry Falise, a photographer who has spent two decades shooting throughout Burma. He showed slides from his new book, "Burmese Shadows," in a program with fellow photographer Nick Danziger.
Like Mr. Falise, many of the participants (including this correspondent, for decades) used to enter Burma by disguising their identity, or sneaked across the border illegally. Journalist Fergal Keane, moderating one panel, described his last visit to the venue, the Soviet-built Inya Lake Hotel. "I was posing as a water-filter salesman," he said to the delight of listeners who had plenty of their own Graham Greene-style stories. "To be here now, talking about literature is just amazing."
That atmosphere of wonderment and celebration permeated the event. Among the last nations in Asia to allow its citizens to use the Internet, Burma has now removed blocks on dissident websites that flourished during decades of opposition movements operating in exile. It can now claim freer Internet access than even neighboring Thailand.
"This was not just a literary festival, but about freedom, the ability to write, and public expression," said Serge Pun, a local tycoon who helped bankroll the three-day festival. He noted that censorship laws had been rolled back in recent months. "But this was the first real test. Before, it was talk. Now, we have proof, we have freedom.
Of course, the main draw was long-time democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and overflow crowds packed her every appearance. Released after decades of house arrest in 2010, she seemed especially jovial and relaxed in conversation with her fellow writers; her own books, "Letters from Burma" and "Freedom from Fear" have been bestsellers.
In one appearance, Ms. Suu Kyi revealed her favorite writers, Victor Hugo and George Eliot. In another, she praised Harry Potter for facing greater challenges and showing more courage than she ever had. Detective stories, she added, appealed because motives were a mystery that must be unraveled, as in politics. If marooned on an island, she'd pack the same poetry that helped her get through decades of confinement, a collection of 365 poems, one for every day. "I read, and reread them," she sighed. "I never tired of them."
That was one highlight of a powerhouse panel of writers asked to pick "Desert Island Literature," one prized book to be shipwrecked with. Prose was popular with superstars like Vikram Seth (whose rambling thoughts on the process of writing was another crowd-pleaser) and Jung Chang, author of "Wild Swans" and "Mao: The Unknown Story."
Throughout, the value of literature was stressed in a land that has long been starved for it—one session focused entirely on libraries, in dire shortage here. Burma's forlorn bookstores typically stock ancient paperbacks, pages missing, re-covered and resold repeatedly. It was this sad state of affairs that inspired Jane Heyn to formulate plans for the festival two years ago.
"You just couldn't get books here," said Ms. Heyn, wife of the British ambassador. She recalled discussing the matter with a friend, then meeting Daw Suu Kyi at about the same time. Ms. Heyn raised the idea of a literary festival, "and she agreed on the spot."
Some questioned the Anglo-centric lineup of foreign authors, along with many sessions focused on China, Tibet and India. Heavy hitters included Thant Myint U (grandson of U Thant, and author of "The River of Lost Footsteps") and Pascal Koo Thwe ("From The Land of Green Ghosts"). Ms. Heyn acknowledged that she would have preferred to feature more novelists.
Still, audience and authors alike repeatedly praised this literary milestone that exceeded all expectations. Among Ms. Heyn's proudest accomplishments was participation of more than 100 Burmese writers, and the attendance of about 3,000 per day. Perhaps the most popular stop was at the entrance to the hotel, where stalls offered steeply discounted books, imported specially for the event.
And while politics was inescapable, this remained a festival. Puppeteers and musicians performed outside, where booths served spicy Burmese food. Many attendees simply sprawled on lush lawns, savoring the sunshine and jasmine flowers, quite a turn from when tanks and troops occupied the roads around Inya Lake, where the Lady was under house arrest.
One young Rangoon resident who came to see her heroine Ms. Suu Kyi found that she liked mingling with foreign writers, even if she was unsure of their work. "We really have so much catching up to do," Zin Mar Myint acknowledged. "We're still discovering who is who."
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living and working in Asia since 1991, and visiting Myanmar/Burma since the early 1990s. He relocated to Bangkok in late 2012, partly to be closer to Myanmar, to witness the remarkable changes unfolding. He covered the country's first literary festival for the Wall Street Journal, which ran this piece in February 2013. e
All words and pictures copyright RON GLUCKMAN