In a hotel conference room in Mandalay, Jung Chang, author of celebrated Chinese saga Wild Swans, told an audience of writers, Buddhist monks, and students about her own story of disorientation and tentative engagement with a peculiar, far-away land.
On a Chinese government-funded university scholarship in 1970s Britain, Chang—newly out of an isolated communist country—would stroll the streets asking passers-by where they were going, and whether they had eaten. This was natural enough: the English she had been taught in China comprised of direct translations of commonplace Chinese phrases. But the bemused pedestrians of London and York didn’t see it that way.
The fourth instalment of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which ran 3-5 November in Myanmar’s former royal capital, was enlivened with similar moments. With a platform of “bolstering free speech, improving literacy, and providing a forum for interactions between international and Myanmar authors,” the festival—under the patronage of former opposition leader, and now State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi—has since 2013 been striving to bring Myanmar and the English-speaking world closer together.
This isn’t easy. Like many other aspects of Burmese society since 1962, when a military coup plunged the post-colonial nation into half a century of authoritarian misrule, Myanmar’s modern literary culture has grown up in isolation. Ma Thida, a former political prisoner, surgeon, and board member of PEN International, was one of around 100 Burmese authors that took part in the festival, joined by almost 30 foreign authors. On the sidelines, she told me of the challenges of breaking the spell of isolation.
Prior to the lifting of pre-publication censorship in 2012, there were harsh restrictions on what could be said or written—and on what literature could be brought into the country. During the 1962-88 Socialist era, in particular, consumption of foreign literature was reduced to “Soviet propaganda and Charles Dickens,” Ma Thida said. As a result, Burmese prose and poetry—cut adrift from trends in world literature, and unable to address hard issues directly—has developed idiosyncrasies that make it a tough sell internationally, even if the current dearth of good translation were to be turned around.
The intimate panel discussion format, which the festival adheres to, is also unfamiliar in Myanmar, Ma Thida explained. Across the country, a well-established circuit of literary events involves well-known authors delivering extended lectures to crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of people, for which they sometimes receive fees to the equivalent of several hundred US dollars. Consequently, Ma Thida said, senior Burmese authors treat participation in the Irrawaddy Literary Festival—an event run on an entirely voluntary basis, with the bills met by local conglomerates KBZ and Max Myanmar among others—as a “sacrifice,” and expect equal billing with the foreign authors.
However, Ma Thida felt the festival could have done more to bridge the gap. Only a select few panels had mixed Burmese-foreign participation, and most of the sessions involving Burmese writers were not given specific titles in the festival programme, and were instead labelled merely as “presentations.” This offered little enticement for audience members unacquainted with the Burmese literary scene.
Audience turnout for individual sessions also mirrored the divide—despite the energetic two-way translation, between English and Burmese, provided by young volunteers from the US-funded Jefferson Center in Mandalay. But even expert translation could not overcome a natural inclination among attendees to hear unmediated content, preferably in their mother tongue, and to attend talks by authors they already knew of. During question and answer sessions with foreign panellists, Burmese attendees often struggled to make themselves understood, even after translators had rushed to the rescue.
Despite a dramatic expansion in English language learning opportunities in recent years—mostly targeting youth—the language barrier in Myanmar remains formidable, particularly where older generations are concerned. Furthermore, the gerontocracy that afflicts Myanmar’s political culture—where few under the age of 60 are given positions of responsibility—is echoed in most corners of society, and the arts aren’t spared. Burmese writers may be heavily divided, along geographical as well as political lines, but, in each faction, younger writers must make way for the aged and venerable.
It is this older set, which dominated the Burmese end of the festival line-up, that is least able to avail fresh opportunities for mingling and exchange. Myanmar’s increasingly connected youth are unlikely to look to them for fresh ideas. During one session, authors Shwegu May Hnin, Ma Ei, Tin Mi Khine, and Izzutta sounded a joint lament over declining reading habits among the young, who prefer Facebook. Several Burmese youths sat silently in attendance. None were invited to comment.
The festival, then, is faced with multiple yawning gaps—between Burmese and foreign authors, and between different generations in Myanmar. In addition, the current crisis in Rakhine State—from where more than six hundred thousand, largely stateless Rohingya Muslims have been driven into squalid refugee settlements in Bangladesh, in what the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing—discouraged several international authors from attending, although only Australian children’s writer Gus Gordon went public with his decision to stay home.
Ma Thida said this politicisation of the festival had galvanised her to attend, despite her misgivings about its organisation. She was concerned that her not turning up might be “misunderstood” as a boycott of the festival over the Rakhine State crisis. She was keen to signal her support for international bridge building, at a time when renewed Western sanctions are being debated.
Festival founder Jane Heyn—formerly based in Myanmar along with her husband Andrew Heyn, British Ambassador from 2009-13—told me of an imminent transition in the festival’s management. Last year, the festival was registered as a UK charity, and ultimate oversight rests with the largely British board of trustees. But the Burmese organizing committee headed by educationalist U Nay Oke, which has the unenviable task of managing the Burmese literary factions to ensure good turnout, will soon register as an independent organization in Myanmar, allowing it to take over running the festival.
Giles Fitzherbert, a festival trustee and former UK diplomat, said, “Right from the beginning, it was designed to become a Burmese festival—one that invites international authors, rather than the other way around.” Jane Heyn said Aung San Suu Kyi shared this goal as the festival’s patron. The organisers were frank about the challenges involved, but cited definite progress: the factional rivalries among Burmese writers that prompted walkouts in previous years have mostly been ironed out, and this year saw the most balanced participation, with roughly equal numbers from Lower and Upper Myanmar.
In its struggles and contradictions, the festival distils the broader challenges of international engagement in a long-isolated country. This makes its frequent moments of lively intellectual exchange and cross-cultural solidarity all the more precious, and the festival all the more unique and worth preserving, at a time when Myanmar’s opening up to the world is being cast in shadow.