Irrawaddy Literary Festival (ILF), a non-profit venture, is renowned not only in Myanmar but also in South East Asia and the rest of the world. Since its inauguration in 2013, the festival has hosted writers of international repute like Vikram Seth, Jung Chang, William Dalrymple, BBC journalist Fergal Keane and photojournalist Thierry Falise as well as those from Myanmar including Dr. Thant Myint-U and Pascal Khoo Thwe. The following and ensuing years saw more writers and authors across the world such as Louis de Bernières, Anne Enright, Barnaby Phillips, Ratna Vira and Margaret Simons participating in the festival. The venue has been in Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar. The festival is a major attraction for writers, agents and literary enthusiasts even from the non-literary community.
The fifth ILF 2019 was held in Mandalay at Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort for three consecutive days from Nov 9 to Nov 11 from 9am to 7pm. Local and international writers attended the festival. The theme of the festival this time was ‘Youth and literature’ to promote literary enthusiasm in the younger generations.
This festival has been an occasion when literature crosses national borders and the local and international writers meet to create an awareness of each other’s concerns and cultures. A fusion of literatures from varied countries adds colour and vibrancy to the festivities. Such exchanges lead to a heightened awareness of current literary trends.
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.
Myanmar modern poetry became popular and gained much momentum in 1970’s. They often appeared in the reputable journal, Moe Way Literary Magazine. The young poets liked the flavours explored in Htinn Yoo Pin Yeik (The Shade of Pine Tree), a collection of English poems which had been translated by the literary genius of Maung Tha Noe. The youth attempted to use the techniques used by poets translated in this pioneering collection.
Conventional poets criticized them for not following the classical styles of poetry writing. The old school poets said that modern poems did not follow the conventional versification forms. While conventional poets preferred “rhymes and rhyming systems”, modern poets used “rhythms and un-rhymes systems” in their poems which resembled “free verse” and allusions to literature and the world outside of Myanmar.
A well-known Myanmar modern poet Aung Cheint reinforced: “There are no hard and fast rules or ways to write Myanmar modern poetry. They read English poetry books and translated poems. They felt inspired by reading them and tried to compose modern poems like them. In that way, Myanmar modern poetry came into existence.”
Among those rebellious young poets, Maung Lin Yeik was one of the prominent exponents of Myanmar modern poetry. Though he worked as a technical school teacher, he wrote poetry that won admiration and praise from both fellow poets as well as the readers. As a part of Myanmar Poet Union in 2010, he participated in poetry readings and literary festivals within the country. He talked more about modern poetry than conventional one.
About: Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.
About: An English Writer is a story about a forgotten English poet/writer, C.J Richards (retired I.C.S) who lived and worked in Burma for over 35 years as an Indian Civil Servant. He retired in 1947 and settled in Swarraton, Hampshire in UK. Although he wrote seven books and many articles on Burma and UK, not many people know much of him and his life. The novel “An English Writer” explores the life of the English writer and defines his connection with both communities, Burma (Myanmar) and Britain as a poet and writer. The story, set in present Yangon, transports people back into the times of the English writer, C. J Richards, from 1920 to 1947 and then to 1976.
Roughcut Bar, Myanmar;Photocredit: Roughcut Bar FaceBook page
Roughcut Bar; Photocredit: Roughcut Bar FaceBook page
Moe did not know what he could do while he sat in his chair and his mind drifted like a kite floating with the free flow of wind. Something dampened his strength and he felt frayed. He had been feeling this way for a couple of days. It started gradually till it took concrete shape in his mind, tending to block his mental processes. That is why he could not focus on his job. He decided to try to deal with it…
Though he felt it, he could not name the sensation. He picked up the pen from the rectangular lacquer pen holder in front of him on the table, unconsciously. He did not intend to use the pen but his laptop. He sighed at his confusion and looked at his watch — fifteen past four in the afternoon. He stood up, pushed his laptop away and picked up his shoulder bag that lay in a slant against the foot of the table.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, the globally popular romance novel set in Myanmar by German author Jan-Philipp Sendker, is to be made into a movie with shooting scheduled to start next year.
Published in 2002, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was the first book by the author. It was the beginning of a series, with the second book, Well Tempered Heart, released in 2012.
The novels have proven successful not only in Myanmar but worldwide, being translated into 35 languages including Burmese. They are set in Myanmar’s popular tourist destination, the hill town of Kalaw in Shan State.
The main producer of the film is Danny Krausz of Austria’s DOR Film, with Germany’s Detlev Buck set to direct.
“Currently, they are casting the actors in Thailand, [Myanmar] and other countries. I and other [crew] members went to Kalaw last month for location scouting,” Sendker told TheIrrawaddy.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a romance mystery novel set in Kalaw featuring Burmese characters. Young lawyer Julia Win seeks to track down her father four years after he disappeared in Myanmar. She meets U Ba, a mysterious man who knows many things about Julia through her father. U Ba tells the story of her father’s first 20 years of life—a mystery love story about which her family knew nothing.
Prior to writing the novel, Sendker traveled to Myanmar many times starting in 1995.