By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The English Writer
Author: San Lin Tun
Publisher: Duwon Books, 2019.
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
The storyline shuttles between 2016 and the early twentieth century. Richards’s story is related to two young men very deeply interested in literature, called Oo and Lin, by an older man well-versed about the author’s life, U Aung Aye Myint. The setting brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s famed detective Feluda ( based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) who would consult his uncle Sidhu every once in a while to unearth a mine of information on any given issue. However, Uncle Sidhu was based on Mycroft and the discussion was mostly not literary as it is in San Lin Tun’s novel and the visits were repeated. Here the story is given at a single sitting.
Flavoured with contrasts between the eras and cultures of the Raj and current day Myanmar, we get a glimpse of a country where bookshops still seem to thrive and young men roam about in longyis, their traditional wear. The style of writing reminds one of Henry Feilding’s Joseph Andrews though rendered in modern Myanmar English. The story is direct and detailed with minimal layering used to add realism to the telling.
One of the most interesting observations made by the protagonist Lin, who develops a curiosity about Richardson after reading his poems, is a comparison he makes between this writer and George Orwell, who was also stationed in Burma.
After reading the poetry book, Lin wanted to find more books by the same author. He found that the author’s sentiment towards local people was quite different from other foreign authors who wrote about Burma.
Especially George Orwell, who wrote a novel set in Burma of that time. The novel was so well-known that almost every visitor enjoyed reading it. But Lin disagreed with some of the points in the novel, mainly those concerned with the portrayal of Burmese characters.
It is interesting to note his observation because when one reads Orwell’s Burmese Days, one reads more about the British stationed in Burma and not really the Burmese. The sketch of Burmese is used by Orwell to expose the cruelty, the harshness and the lack of sensitivity in his own countrymen. The Burmese and Indians are coincidental. They are there to play out the stories of the pukka sahibs at the Englishmen’s club.
We are told C J Richards wrote because he missed his life in Burma. Even to this day, expats find it difficult to go back and settle into their own countries. Described as the adult third culture kids’ (ATCK) syndrome, the term applies to people who evolved a hybrid culture like Richards in San Lin Tun’s novel or the protagonist John Flory and even the pukka sahibs in Burmese Days. They evolved a culture in between their country of birth and the country they spent their lives in. This was first identified by Ruth Useem in 1950 and the syndrome is evident in CJ Richards who does not like living in England after his retirement and keeps reliving his Burmese days with his writing and occasional trips to Burma. Born in Burma, CJ Richards finds many positives in the local culture as does Flory in Burmese Days.
We have seen such characters in stories written during this period by authors who lived and grew within the Indian subcontinent but did not belong to the local culture. However, perhaps, very seldom have we experienced such a positive account given of a British officer by the people who suffered under the regime of the Raj. To explain his unique stance and the culture of Myanmar, Sanlin Tun gave us an exclusive interview.
What made you pick the life of CJ Richards as a subject for your book?
I firstly found his poetry book on Burma/Myanmar and he called that Rainbow Land and Other Burma Verses. When foreign writers visit or pass Yangon and write about Burma or Myanmar, they mostly write in prose, not in poetry. This was one of the reasons I became interested in the author. But I could not find any relevant facts on his life though I searched the Internet. I wondered why he had sunk into oblivion though he had a number of his literary works. That made me curious. So, I thought that it would be nice for me and other people to find out more of his life and I decided to reconstruct it through the medium of a novel.
What is the difference you see between the writing of George Orwell and CJ Richards? Can you explain, as many would have read George Orwell but CJ Richards is not freely available?
That is point I pondered on too.
Most of the people who visited or will visit Burma know and read George Orwell and his book, Burmese Days. I agree that George Orwell is the finest writer and novelist. But I wonder what other writers who are the contemporaries of George Orwell wrote about Burma or Myanmar. These authors might have their own opinions on the country which could be quite different from the views of George Orwell.
CJ Richards lived in Burma for nearly 30 years or more. While George Orwell lived in Burma for five years and served in colonial police, CJ Richards was a former I.C.S and he had been serving as Deputy Commissioner. CJ Richards had more Burmese friends than George Orwell. I would like to give readers a glimpse of Myanmar via someone who assumed himself as a Burmophile.
How do you feel your culture varies from the one portrayed by George Orwell in Burmese Days?
George Orwell portrayed Burmese culture in one aspect which is not complete in its own sense. I think that he failed to see the perspective of Sir George Scott, the author of The Burman: His Life and Notions (under the pseudonym of Shway Yoe). Sir Scott liked to call Myanmar people as “Irish of the East” because we have twelve different festivals in each month. He had a more wholistic perspective on Burmans.
The local names and titles in your book raised questions in my mind. What does the honorific ‘U’ mean? What would be its English parallel? Also I have read online that Burmese names can be changed easily and they have no surnames. Is that authentic information? What shows people you belong to a particular family if you do not have a surname? How do you address a person then as Mr or Ms what – by their first name?
We use the honorific “U” before someone’s name when that person is in his seniority in age and position. If he is in his adulthood, we use “Ko” and if he is in his young, we use “Maung”. “U” is equivalent to “Mr”. It is true that we have no surname. But for giving names, it depends on the days on which someone is born. There are some Westernized families, though, which like to follow English naming system. When we address someone, if it is for intimacy or the level of closeness, we like to use the initial of the name. For example, someone’s name is Khin Maung Win. We just simply call him “Ko Khin”, “Ko Maung” or “Ko Win” taking initials from his full name.
Where do you place your novel in Myanmar literature? Do you count it as a pioneering effort at writing and publishing an English novel, both from within Myanmar?
I do not think I am the first writer who has written in English and published in Myanmar. I was inspired by my senior Myanmar writers who write in English. I found that there should be a genre which we can call “Myanmar-English writing” after reading a book by GP Sharma titled Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction(1978). I mean that for “Myanmar-English writing”, one should not only write in Myanmar but also use English language as a medium to create literary works. We have those kinds of writers such as Daw Khin Myo Chit, Dr Maung Maung Pyae and several others.
Why do you feel the need to write in “Myanmar English” when most of your readers within Burma read in Burmese?
When I look at our neighboring countries like Thailand, India, Malaysia, and others, we will find contemporary writers who write in English and they enjoy their literary success not only within their countries but also in other countries. Their success stories encouraged me much. If we write in English and create our literary works, we can reach out to the audience outside of Myanmar.
We live in a world where internet plays a major role in our lives. We do not see much of that in the modern context in Myanmar as portrayed in your book. You even have bookstores and people pay in hard currency. Has internet not invaded Myanmar as it has the rest of the world?
Most of the people here still like to read hard copies than reading online. For younger generation they are more familiar with online culture. But we have found much development of online book sales these days when everyone has started to use hand phones and internet widely.
In your introduction, you have written of how difficult it is to acquire books online in Myanmar. How is your novel distributed if online purchase is denied within your country? Do readers from other parts of the world have access to your book, or for that matter any writing published in Myanmar?
We are still expecting those improvements very soon. These days we have online book stores within the country. I myself am looking for international publishers and distributors.
You had only one sketchy woman character in your book, Oo’s girlfriend, who seems to be irresponsible and careless. You have barely mentioned much of women in your book, even in context of CJ Richards. Why?
For my personal view, a girl should have decorum, modesty and gentleness because I was raised up in a Buddhist family. I like to ask the question of what is the ideal of a Myanmar woman. As our saying goes, “Decorum of a girl earns more worth than gold.” That means we think highly of womenfolk who have decorum, gentleness and intellect. These days, some do not care much about those norms.
Reading your book, one wonders, do women in Myanmar have the same access to education as men?
They have the same access to education as men do. In some sectors, you will find leading woman entrepreneurs in our Myanmar society.
In one of your short stories, ‘When you talk about what you feel’, you had reflected that a foreigner has to step into Thailand to renew his visa to Myanmar. I was confused. Is there no immigration office within Myanmar?
Actually, we have immigration office in Myanmar. It depends on the types of visa they applied for and then they need to go to Thailand to get their visa extension. These days there are changes in visa application policy.
How would you expect people outside of Myanmar to react to your novel? What are your future plans? Do you see people accessing more writing from Myanmar
I think they will know more about Myanmar and they will get to know this forgotten poet/writer who wrote seven books and nearly two hundred articles in The Guardian. I think we should remember his literary merits and his contribution to human knowledge. They can also learn the past history of Burma through the forgotten writer’s voice. If we have more of Myanmar English writers and if we translate more of Myanmar literary works into English, people can access Myanmar literature, culture, customs and beliefs. My future plan is that I will write more in English. I am now working on my second novel “A Classroom for Mr. KT” and my second poetry collection whose title is still under consideration.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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