By Charmaine Craig, Grove Press, 355 pages, $26
“We are bewildered most of the time and doomed to be lost to history,” says Benny, one of the central characters in Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. “And yet we find that there are others who are unlike us in every conceivable way, yet to whom we are bound.” His musing gives voice to the notion of otherness that lies at the centre of this historical novel inspired by members of Craig’s own family.
Miss Burma spans nearly 40 years of Myanmarese history, from 1926 to 1965. The story begins when Burma (today called Myanmar) is still a British colony and unfolds over the course of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion, the country’s tumultuous early years of independence from colonial rule, and the subsequent military dictatorship that seized power in 1962. Given this backdrop, it is, of necessity, a novel of big themes — of identity, belonging and trust.
Benny (based on Craig’s own grandfather) is lonely from the outset. He was born in Burma, as a member of the sizable Jewish community living in the capital, Rangoon (now Yangon), and he feels like a perennial outsider. An orphan by the age of 7, shipped off to indifferent aunts in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he no longer speaks Burmese when he returns to Rangoon in 1938. After marrying Khin, a woman of Karen ethnicity, he opts to be counted as a Karen himself.
Khin is only 18 when she and Benny are wed, but she already knows too much about trust and betrayal. She grew up hearing her mother’s songs of age-old Karen enslavement at the hands of the Burmese, the country’s majority ethnic group (“They took our alphabet and holy books”), and saw her father disemboweled by Burmese bandits in their village home. Indeed, the dead-weight melody that resonates across these pages is that of Karen history — one not widely told or realised, either within Burma or beyond its borders.
Karen history is, in itself, a tale of trust and betrayal. After centuries of Burmese hegemony, the Karen welcomed British colonial rule and ended up fighting bravely on the side of Allied forces in the Second World War. British officers promised them an independent nation; instead, Karen territory was formalised into one of the seven ethnic states included in the Union of Burma. In 1949, Karen forces began an armed rebellion against Burmese rule that became one of the longest lasting civil wars in recorded history. A ceasefire signed more than six decades later, in 2012, has paved the way for peace talks. Now, as fighting has been reignited in other ethnic states battling the central government and Myanmar’s multiethnic peace process seems more precarious than ever, Miss Burma is a timely exposition of trust after trauma.
Miss Burma also serves as a much-needed recalibration of history, one that redresses the narrative imbalance by placing other ethnic, non-Burmese points of view at the centre of its story. For instance, General Aung San (the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leader of Burma’s independence movement) is not depicted in this novel as the national hero he is hailed as in Burma. As Benny warns an Anglo-Burmese acquaintance in the early stages of Aung San’s agitation against British rule, “They claim he’s starting some sort of movement, saying the Burmans are the true lords and masters — Britons be damned, and everyone else along with them.” Benny wisely worries about the fate of “everyone else.” During the Second World War, Aung San’s Burmese Independence Army wreaked havoc on the Karens for their loyalty to the British, and even after his assassination in 1947, the same soldiers marched into Rangoon reportedly chanting, “We want to eat Karen flesh.”
Though none of the book’s main characters belong easily in, or to, Burma, they are all irrevocably shaped and controlled by it. The central thread of Benny and Khin’s strained marriage — which must straddle linguistic and cultural chasms — seems to parallel the unhappy union between the Burmese government and the Karen peoples. And it is somehow fitting that their eldest daughter, Louisa (based on the author’s mother), is chosen to represent the Union of Burma when she is crowned “Miss Burma” in 1956. Louisa’s mixed-race beauty turns her body into a living symbol of hope and integration in a country that is otherwise falling apart.
When General Ne Win took control in 1962, he perpetuated and deepened the central government’s policies of so-called Burmanisation across the country that demanded, “One blood, one voice, one leader.” Louisa’s distinct otherness forces her to make her own choices about who she is and what to trust in a Rangoon that has become riddled with military spies, rebel leaders parleying for peace, and discomfited CIA agents struggling to pull the right strings in their mandate to prevent Southeast Asia from falling to Communist forces.
In reimagining the extraordinary lives of her mother and grandparents, Craig produces some passages of exquisitely precise description. As the much-feted “Miss Burma”, Louisa attends parties held in General Ne Win’s compound, where she is nauseated by “the smell of too much disinfecting fluid mixed with the perfume of cultivated flowers, the sour taste of fear on the air, the hysteric whine of false laughter.”
If at times the doling out of history lessons feels a tad heavy-handed, with characters occasionally succumbing to soliloquy or unlikely moments of narrative self-awareness, it is ultimately forgivable: The context in which Miss Burma is set is not part of a common well of knowledge. By resurrecting voices that are seldom heard on a wider stage, Craig’s novel rescues Benny from his own foretelling of oblivion and brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.
–New York Times News Service
Emma Larkin is the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma.