Reviews/Literature/Perth Festival

Myanmar’s poetic narrative

22 February 2019

Perth Festival Writers Week review: Spotlight on Burma ⋅
The Centre for Stories, February 20 ⋅
Review by Elizabeth Lewis ⋅

Every seat is full. The open-air courtyard of The Centre for Stories is a welcome venue on a muggy summer evening in Perth. Samosas and banana semolina pudding delight and intrigue people on their way in.

This sold-out Perth Festival Writers Week event is co-hosted by PEN Perth, the local chapter of PEN International. What began as a dinner club in the 1920s to promote friendship among writers regardless of race, gender or politics has evolved into a worldwide organisation that defends freedom of expression, campaigns for writers in prison and seeks to raise awareness of minority voices.

The collaboration with Centre for Stories is reflective of the diversity of narratives in William Yeoman’s carefully curated program, which culminates this weekend with the Writer’s Weekend. It is of particular interest to me because of my Burmese heritage, and has attracted overwhelming interest from the general public.

Every seat is full, except for two of the five bar stools on the stage; they are for writers who won’t be appearing tonight. Propped on the empty stools are placards featuring the faces and stories of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Burmese journalists imprisoned earlier this year for allegedly breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act. The two writers were reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Both have been served with a seven-year jail term. The empty seats are a powerful introduction.

The three speakers present are Burmese intellectual Chris Lin and local authors Michelle Johnston and Holden Sheppard. Lin, humble and informative, gives us a nuanced overview of his experiences growing up in Burma in the late eighties/early nineties, acknowledging that he speaks as an expatriate of a conflicted country. We hear about the problematic naming of the country, choosing Burma or Myanmar, “both refer to an ethnic majority at the cost of silencing others” and a brief history of a country “opening itself up to the wider world, tourists, multinational food chains nestled incongruously alongside traditional tea houses.”

Lin doesn’t hold back on naming the recent atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in which both the military and civilians are complicit: “the authorities control the narrative and in doing so control public opinion, there is persecution from both sides.” We hear about the mass exodus of one million Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh, as well as the mixed attitudes towards State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the ethnic violence.

This potted history adds weight to the second part of the evening where Johnston and Sheppard read translations of contemporary Burmese poetry by Tin Moe, Thitsar Ni, Ko Ko Thett and Maung Yu Py. At first, this seems a strange choice. Why not have Burmese people reading Burmese poems? Why not have poets?

Happily (despite the odd mispronunciation) it is clear both readers have taken the time to prepare and show a sincere desire to honour the poets and their work. Johnston (author of Dustfall, UWAP, 2018) performs with grace and bold clarity and Sheppard (winner of the 2018 TAG Hungerford Award) with a humility and emotional connectedness.

The poems range in gravity. Ko Ko Thett’s ironic and humorous ode to MSG in monosodium glutamate is a crowd favourite:

‘it’s umami
the savory delight of monosodium glutamate
the buddha’s poop that has colonized our cuisines since 1908…

…the enhancer of life’s flavours
the condiment to contemporary conditions…

…if you are a 1-kilogram rat
15 grams of the sweet dust is your lethal oral dose
it works 50 percent of the time.’

Tin Moe’s The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn is realistic and heart-rending:

‘…Half unknowing
My days are running out
My paunch thickens and my neck folds sag
As I grow older.
A time of getting nowhere…

The way we live now,
Submitting reports
Loaded with lies…

At this time,
We are not poetry,
We are not human,
This is not life,
This is just so much wastepaper.’

The murmurs and applause of the audience shows that they too have connected with Johnston, Sheppard and with the Burmese poets.

As when literature meets politics, the Q&A session with Lin and PEN Chair Robert Wood was fraught with strong opinions and high emotions regarding the political and religious issues plaguing Burma. After a discussion that almost ran away from the hosts, people left the event moved, educated and with a samosa for the road.

Writers Week continues until February 24. 

Pictured top: L – R: PEN Perth Chair Robert Wood, Michelle Johnston, Holden Sheppard and Chris Lin shine the spotlight on Burma. Photo Elizabeth Lewis

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