By Lucas Stewart

18 November 2013 - 15:15

Nature plays a dominant role in Burmese literature. Photo of Mount Zwe Kabin in Hpa-an, where the British Council held workshops for Burmese writers, courtesy of the author.
Photo of Mount Zwe Kabin in Hpa-an, where the British Council held workshops for Burmese writers ©

Lucas Stewart.

With one of the most challenging telecommunications infrastructures in the world, an ethnically and linguistically fragmented society and a very recently initiated democratisation process, how do you cater for a country’s writers who have a pressing need to commit their stories to paper?

Any longer-term watchers of Burma will have noticed something curious over the last couple of years. After the European Union (and later the United Sates) lifted economic sanctions on the country in April 2012, Western newspapers and blogs were awash with wide-eyed stories of courageous entrepreneurs risking all in the last frontier market, making their millions over golden handshakes in hotel saloons. These reports appeared to have tailed off recently, culminating in last month’s release of a World Bank report listing Burma as one of the top ten most difficult places in the world in which to do business. Exorbitant rental prices, stifling bureaucracy, dislocated partner networks, underdeveloped infrastructures and the inimitable ‘grey areas’ – no you can’t do it, but yes you can.

Though not so much attention has been paid to it, cultural organisations working in Burma - such as the British Council and the Institut Français - face the same challenges.

Arguably, international cultural practitioners wishing to ‘invest’ in Burma face a more demanding road than their economic counterparts, considering the importance the Burma government has placed on making it easier for direct foreign investment as part of its reform priorities, while local culture and the events that support and develop it have appeared to pass them by for now.

The British Council’s Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds short story workshops in Burma’s regional states and divisions have encountered many of these roadblocks.

Burma literature vs global literature

Any organisation working in the field of creative literature in Burma has to be careful not to attract concerns of ‘literary colonialism’. One of the questions we have been asked most frequently in the course of the Hidden Word, Hidden Worlds project is whether we are instructing our participants on how to write a ‘Western’ short story. In dealing with this concern, it’s important to note that the short story narrative form is not part of Burma’s long literary heritage. Early 20th century Burmese writers such as Shwe U Daung, Dagon Khin Khin Lay and Dagon Shwe Hmyar, who were instrumental in the development of Burmese language short stories, adapted Western works (even if they weren’t always at the time known to be adaptations), Shwe U Daung himself creating one of the best-loved literary characters in Burma, U San Sher, the Burmese Sherlock Holmes. Consequently, Burmese short stories, even in modern times, follow a similar narrative structure to their Western counterparts; hero, protagonist, narrative movement, rising action and climax, etc. The difference between the two lies in the themes and content. Stories about the common man and community life are prevalent, unsurprisingly, given Burma’s agrarian society. Nature and natural motifs also play a dominant role. Within each of these lies an individual signature, a cultural footprint embedded by the writer’s ethnic background. It is this ‘mark’ that the thematic identity of the story is built upon and which the Hidden Words project concentrates on by working with regional writers familiar in their own literary landscapes and imparting that familiarity to the workshop participants.

Burma’s fragmented literary communities

Literary communities in Burma can be fractured along ethno-linguistic and religious divides, often with very little collaboration between them. Burma has 135 recognised ethnic groups with just as many distinct languages and dialects. Despite 50 years of linguistic suppression and Burmanisation, regional languages are still a symbol of ethnic identity and a cultural rallying call. Any support of local literature in Burma must take this diversity into account. Yet in some states, such as Karen State, there is not one, but three main languages, each language denoting that ethnic group’s religious affiliation and geographical location within the state. Sgaw Karen is spoken by Christians who live in the highland areas, while East Pwo Karen, also, confusingly, called Plone Karen, is spoken by Buddhists living in the lowland regions. Consequently, the Karen workshop was finally delivered in five different languages, English, Burmese, Sgaw, West Pwo and East Pwo. Each language represented by the participants in their finished short stories.

Any project that aims to bring the communities together needs a neutral ‘actor’ on the ground, who is respected in the community and has the capacity to communicate and mediate without dominating. Regional partners are paramount. The Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds project, for example, receives support from the Millennium Centres. Set up between 1999 and 2011 and jointly supported by the British Embassy and the British Council, these 19 community learning centres are spread throughout Burma, engaging with local communities through diverse programmes ranging from English language instruction to civil society work. The Hpa-an Millennium Centre, for example, brought six different Karen literature committees, representing three language groups, to work together for the first time on a literature project.

Lowest telecommunications density in the world

Burma still has the lowest telecommunications density in the world. Internet is still in its infancy with less than 1.3% of the population able to connect online. Email addresses are a new form of communication, with the few who own an email address taking days to respond. Mobile phone usage has increased since the price of SIM cards dropped from $500 to $250, but still less than 10% of the population own a SIM card, and connectivity is poor. Unbelievably, less than 8% of Burmese have access to a landline - the majority of these in Yangon and Mandalay. All of this makes communicating with people outside Yangon an interesting, time-consuming challenge.

This was most prominently demonstrated during the preparation for our Mon State workshop. An ethnic Mon short story writer, Mie Lay Mon, was recommended to us to co-lead the workshop, the only problem being that she lived in a village in Mon State, with no electricity, landline, or mobile phone. We were given the landline number of a contact in the Mon Literature and Culture Committee in Mawlamyine who knew the mobile number of a man who lived in the same village as Mie Lay Mon and who could verbally relay a message to her!

How to promote a literary event, given Burma's infrastructure

Imagine holding a workshop with no posters, no flyers and no Internet announcement. Sure, they might be useful in Yangon, but once you leave the city limits, all traditional norms of cultural promotion go out of the train window. First of all, to even promote the event beyond word of mouth, you need permission from the state department, in our case, the Karen State Literature Department. Once we were given the official ‘nod’, we were limited to promoting the workshop in those businesses and institutions that hold a literature licence, which in Hpa-an amounted to a grand total of three – three small, hole-in-the-wall shop fronts with a few rows of books and a magazine stand. Advertising in supermarkets, at bus stations and taxi stops, street canvassing and flyering is forbidden. The most successful substitute to this we found was a simple advert placed in a local paper.

Running a pilot literature project in any transitional country throws up unexpected obstacles, yet the rewards far outweigh the challenges, especially in Burma. Nobody knows for sure what will happen after the general election in 2015. The democratisation process is never easy. Hardline elements still exist in the government, the military is still engaged in conflict with the ethnic armed groups, and political prisoners still remain behind bars. This is why the window of opportunity for literature development in Burma must be opened, especially in case it is cruelly shut again.

The pilot workshop for the Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds project was delivered in Hpa-an, Karen State from 21 to 25 October 2013.13 local community members ranging from a 21-year-old pre-school trainer to a 64-year-old retired state official immersed themselves in five days of short story techniques in their regional language. A ‘Live Literature’ night celebrated the end of the workshop with live readings from the participants and a traditional Karen ‘don’ dance. The next workshop is in Mawlamyine, Mon State in the third week of November.

Find out about our wider offer in Burma by visiting the British Council Burma website.

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