After 50 years of brutal repression, Myanmar is in a state of transition. Since 2012,Burmese poets and fiction writers have been exploring the limits of their fragile new freedoms. In 2013, British human rights lawyer, Ellen Wiles,set out to discover how decades of censorship had affected writers and to assess the current state of literary life. The result is an engrossing and eye-opening book: Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts (Columbia University Press, 2015).
Wiles focuses on nine writers from three generations, introducing them, letting them tell their own stories, and offering samples of their work in translation.
Win Tin was released from prison at the age of 79and died just before the publication of this book. With Aung San Suu Kyi he co-founded the National League for Democracy in 1988, was arrested soon after on a trumped up charge and incarcerated for almost 20 years.
Torturedand isolated, he devised painstaking ways to keep writing. With paste made from brickdust and water he wrote poems on the walls, hoping to commit them to memory. He communicated with other prisoners, hiding messages inside noodles and cheroots, and adopted a crow for company. Transcribed and edited from interviews, his account comes through with a clear personal voice and a steely sense of humour.
Though Wiles is absent from these narratives, their seamless clarity is evidence of her skill as an interviewer and editor. Her introductions are invaluable in setting these writers in the context of their physical and cultural environment.
Among the middle generation, Ma Thilda is a surgeon who devotes most of her time to writing and journalism. As a literary magazine editor, she challenges the lingering preference among readers for the kind of realist stories that were favoured by the military junta. During her five years as a political prisoner during the late 90s, she was dangerously ill. Kept in solitary confinement and denied books and writing materials, she stayed sane by meditating.
In 2002 she wrote a piece called Brief Biography. Among journalistic accounts of female achievements during her lifetime, such as the election of Indira Ghandi, she interwove an extended metaphor about “the funeral of my body parts, and about how all my body parts and organs had been dead for years”. Though the female achievements were cut by the censors, the metaphor of the funeral survived their scrutiny, a telling illustration of the randomness and stupidity of censorship and the way oppressed writers are pushed towards symbolism and allegory.
Publishing is freer now but writers still distrust the authorities. 31-year-old blogger and poet, Pandora, looks forward to a time when there will be a genuine “free market” for writing. In her poem “Stuck at this Spot”, a tout offers to sell anything from plastic hangers to the texts of new laws to drivers stuck in one of Yangon's interminable traffic jams. It gives a flavour of the vibrant market place for goods, information and ideas that Myanmar is still struggling to become.