Yangon, Tuesday 12th December 2017
I find Dan Feng on a sofa in the corner of the hotel lobby. The place is slowly filling up, men in their longyis, a couple of women in traditional ethnic dress, a mother holding her baby close to her chest. While we wait for the volunteer from the conference Dan and I catch up on our news since we last saw each other, at the Link the Worlds translation festival here in Yangon in 2016, organised with support from Writers’ Centre Norwich and Dan’s organisation, the Select Centre in Singapore.
Suddenly everyone stands up and we are summoned to the bus outside. It turns out we have been sitting among writers from all over Myanmar, come to Yangon for the literature conference, courtesy of PEN Myanmar. Dan and I are the only foreigners taking part, and all the information we’ve seen has been in Burmese, so we’re not entirely sure what’s going on.
On the bus we talk to Thara Won, who lives north of Yangon and writes short stories and articles for a local paper. He’s written 35 books, and when Dan looks him up on google we find that he’s also translated a book about the Dalai Lama. ‘This is the first literature conference in Myanmar since 1962,’ he tells us. The last conference was held under General Ne Win, with the aim of persuading writers to adopt the Burmese Way to Socialism. The military coup put a stop to most literary activity in Myanmar for decades – public literary activity, that is.
It’s a long journey into the city centre. We’re staying at the Hotel Yangon, at 8 Mile Junction, which means that it’s 8 miles to the Sule Pagoda, next to the City Hall, where our opening is to take place. When we arrive, our host, San Mon Aung, emerges from behind several stacks of chairs in front of an empty stage, looking relatively relaxed for the secretary of the central committee organising the conference. He ushers us into City Hall. As we walk up the grand staircase Aung tells us that over 1,000 writers have registered for the conference, around 200 from outside Yangon.
We are led along the corridor to a waiting room, and let loose to explore, as we’re early for the ceremony. The City Hall looks like a typical British colonial building, but above us is a portrait of the architect, U Tin. The other side of the corridor looks out onto a garden with brightly painted murals and a small child playing on one of the lawns. Some of us wander into a meeting room with maps on the walls, mostly of Yangon and the district. One of them is a world map in English, dating from when Russia was the USSR, Myanmar was Burma and Yangon Rangoon, with stickers to bring it up to date.
The ceremony is delayed as the sun is still too high in the sky. We sit in the antechamber to another grand meeting room, in golden upholstered chairs of Burmese teak, drinking coffee from gold-rimmed cups, peeking through the gold-curtained carved wooden doorway at the painting of the City Hall and a row of portraits hanging over a stately oval of chairs. As we sit there, we witness a series of audiences in the inner chamber, some with politicians who look around the same age as us, others with writers, the more elderly escorted in on the respectful arms of younger women.
While we wait, Dan looks up the Minister of Information, Pe Myint, who is supporting the conference. When he was appointed, he made the headlines for the fact that he’s a poet. He has also translated Chekhov, and a number of self help books. We recognise him from the photo when he walks past into the chamber.
Dan tells me that Chinese writing from Burma from the 1930s to the 1950s was the most vibrant of the SE Asian Chinese diaspora, also known as the Southern Seas Chinese. Pre-Independence Rangoon was a cosmopolitan place, with a particularly large population from India. The three main British ports were Rangoon, Calcutta and Singapore. We are interrupted by Ma Thida, a writer and former political prisoner who was the first president of PEN Myanmar and worked with us on Link the Worlds. She has recently returned from Japan and wants to include Japanese in the next translation festival in 2019. Of course, we nod.
I wander off in search of the washroom, past a couple of offices that are less ornate, furnished with a desk, piles of paper, flasks of tea, and portraits of the Buddha. A woman sitting reading behind a desk smiles as I go past. I decide to take a photo of the gated lift, decorated with mirrors and more Burmese teak. A guard steps forward, I assume to stop me, but he simply opens the gate across the lift so that I get a better view.
Finally we are summoned and all troop downstairs into the afternoon sun. The road has been blocked off and the stacks have become rows of chairs in front of a blue stage adorned with baskets of flowers, one from each of the eleven organisations involved in the conference. Through the melee of journalists and photographers we are escorted to seats in the front row, facing the City Hall. The sun is now behind Sule Pagoda so the street is finally in shadow; on the other side of us is the church, its bells chiming the hour, and close by is the mosque. We are in the heart of Yangon.
The MC invites four men in formal longyis up to the stage to place their hands on a glass globe, which starts spinning and reveals the words ‘literature conference’ in electric blue. At the same time, a huge conference banner falls across the front of City Hall. The speeches begin with a message of congratulation from Aung San Suu Kyi, followed by Pe Myint, the Minister of Information, and the Chief Minister of Yangon. The man sitting next to me takes notes as they speak. Finally my neighbour is invited to the stage to speak. Like the others he speaks in Burmese, which I don’t understand, but I can hear that he is passionate about whatever he’s talking about. Towards the end I catch a couple of phrases I recognise: Myanmar, freedom of expression, democracy.
During this final speech we are given white balloons to hold, which we release at the end. As we watch them float off into the sky Dan mutters something about the environment, but still, it’s a moving sight. Then everyone evaporates, and Dan and I hang around the stage, watching various people, including monks, being photographed at the podium. A cartoonist has drawn on some of his balloons; his wife gives me one, in return for a message and autograph for their baby, who is not best pleased by this exchange.
Eventually we notice that everyone has gone across the road to another stage, where there’s traditional music and banter, the audience surrounded by stalls selling books, many of them for children. Under the Sule Pagoda there’s an exhibition of portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. At one table, cartoonists are drawing caricatures for anyone who’ll pay them 5000 kyat. In the park, where the statue of Queen Victoria has been replaced by a monument to independence, there are plinths dedicated to Myanmar writers, their biographies in Burmese, for locals not tourists. Everyone is sitting around enjoying themselves in the early evening cool.
‘Can you think of another city where the centre would be turned over like this for such a public celebration of literature?’ Dan asks me. I can’t, but silently resolve that the next Worlds festival should open with speeches in front of Norwich City Hall, projections on the Castle, and the market taken over by books.
As we leave the park, a toddler wearing only a t-shirt tugs my frock insistently. At first I think he’s begging and try to ignore him, but then I realise that he’s after my balloon. He waits impatiently as I untie it from my bag, and when I hand it to him he takes it triumphantly. Seeing an older child heading in his direction, he runs off across the grass. Then he stops, waves to me, and blows a kiss.
Thursday 14th December
The day starts badly. We arrive at the Myanmar Convention Centre in plenty of time for our session, but the projector is nowhere to be found. Anxious that my presentation will be exceedingly dull without my photos of the Norwich skyline and WCN staff reading in the snow, I let Dan Feng go first. While he’s ad libbing, the equipment finally arrives – the Burmese way, says our chair San Mon Aung – and off we go.
Our panel is ostensibly about setting up a semi-governmental arts organisation. Instead, Dan and I describe our respective organisations, both independent. We do however talk about how essential Arts Council funding is for developing the literary infrastructure, which is the point of this panel, as Myanmar has no Arts Council, and Aung wants to set one up. Actually, that’s not quite true. Myanmar had an Arts Council back in the 1950s, just after independence, but it didn’t have much time to achieve anything before the military coup.
This is a huge conference: eighteen panels a day, for three days, with each panel passing resolutions to be discussed on the final day and presented to the Ministry of Information. ‘Will the minstry take any notice?’ I ask. Others have wondered the same thing, but Aung thinks so. A few months ago, Pe Myint, the poet minister, asked him how to improve the situation for writers in Myanmar; they decided to hold this conference to ask the writers for their views.
Yangon’s Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein is also firmly behind the event. At the opening ceremony, Aung tells me, the Chief Minister was reminding the audience that the Literature Conference banner had just been unfurled on the spot where in the past snipers stood firing at writers and other protestors outside the Sule Pagoda. City Hall itself was a place of execution. Fortunately times have changed, as have the people in charge. Phyo Min Thein knows a number of writers quite well; they were in jail together.
This conference is for Myanmar writers to talk to each other rather than to interact with outsiders, so there is no interpretation. I’m reliant on people telling me what’s going on. Although the demographic is mostly older and male, I notice a few young people in the audience, often sitting on the floor. As we wander around the conference, Aung explains briefly what’s happening in each room. In one session they’re discussing education; in another, a panel of eminent scholars is lamenting the decline of the Burmese language. A third is talking about the demise of literary magazines in Myanmar. When I walk into the session on international literary prizes, the speaker switches to English. ‘How to defend our culture and literature? Through knowledge of English and translation.’
Over the three days, panels are focusing on topics ranging from children’s literature, poetry and translation to changes in publishing and distribution, and the impact of social media. There are sessions on women poets, ethnic literature, political writing, cartoons. Mostly people are in agreement about what should be done, but I hear about a fight between traditional and more modern poets over a poetry award. Some panels are making recommendations about practical issues such as copyright, royalties and tax. New laws are being introduced by the still relatively new government, but they’re less than perfect, and there’s a lot of work to do.
After lunch, we head downtown to the Yangon Book Plaza, which Aung has set up since my last visit. It’s a huge space above an indoor market full of tin kettles and woks. The Plaza sells all kinds of books, from children’s picture books to romance novels and thrillers. We lose Dan in the rare books section, set up in the style of the old pavement bookstalls in Pansodan Street.
I remember from previous conversations that one of the big problems for the Myanmar publishing industry is the lack of distribution. Since then Aung, who has his own publishing company, NDSP, has set up WeDistribute. Each month he sells between 20,000 and 30,000 books through the WeDistribute facebook page, delivered to the customers’ door. Although NDSP specialises in translation of contemporary fiction – from The Game of Thrones to The Vegetarian by Han Kang – Burmese readers are mostly interested in self help books and social media celebrity memoirs.
It’s a struggle to get people in Yangon interested in books and reading. The Book Plaza hosts book launches and poetry events, art classes and workshops. Throughout, there are plinths celebrating famous Myanmar writers. At one end is a children’s play area complete with inflatable castle. There’s a coffee shop with elegant wooden furniture, and a cafe selling cheap local food. Aung has plans for expansion; he wants to open a gallery, and a lending library for those who can’t afford to buy books.
In the car back to the hotel, we discuss Aung’s current dilemma. What should he do first, set up an Arts Council, or organise an international book fair in Yangon? ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’ I say. He nods. ‘How old are you?’ Aung smiles. ‘32.’
Friday 15th December
I’m not quite sure about the local delicacy our hosts presented us with on our arrival at the cavernous Myanmar Convention Centre. Unwrapping the oily banana leaf I discover an equally oily lump of sticky rice cake; tearing it apart, I find a centre of dessicated coconut. It is delicious. There is no way to eat it elegantly with my fingers, but fortunately I have a packet of tissues buried deep in my turquoise Literature Conference bag. Maybe it was my imagination, but I’m sure that on arrival we were given conference bags that matched the colour of our outfits.
Over a cup of tea, more condensed milk than anything else, I chat with Letyar Tun, who visited Norwich recently to promote the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds anthology. I ask whether there are many writers from the ethnic states at the conference, but he says no, most of the writers have come from the major cities – Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw. It’s difficult to bring literature experts from the ethnic states all the way to Yangon without plenty of notice; if the conference becomes a regular event, maybe they can be more involved.
We talk about the metaphor that Dan Feng had used the previous day. He’d described the literary sector as a forest, with writers as trees, taking nourishment from the soil of ideas and creativity, interconnected under the earth. Letyar’s view is that Myanmar’s landscape has been deforested; the discussions at this conference are part of an effort to encourage regrowth, preferably leading to support that is enshrined in law as protection from future changes in government.
Music blares out from the speakers and people start moving, so we wander upstairs to the room where our session on translation is taking place. I bump into Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of the memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, who has just been speaking on a panel about working with international publishers and agents. He was at my session yesterday, and likes the idea of persuading the government to use Lottery money to fund artists and writers.
After years in the UK, Pascal is back in Myanmar, working in the ethnic states to promote community-based tourism, though the conference has reminded him how much he’d like to return to writing. He feels that it’s taking a while for writers in Myanmar to break out from their long period of isolation and find their place in the world. Although the small literary circles can feel pleasantly cozy, the writers he’s talked to feel cut off from outside ideas and different ways of seeing life. Pascal himself is deep in a nineteenth-century book on the Renaissance, inspiration for his own reflections on Myanmar’s own rebirth.
Dan Feng is chairing our panel and opens the session by returning to the woods and describing translation as the cross-pollination that occurs between writers, languages and cultures, necessary to keep the forest healthy. Also on the panel is one of Myanmar’s leading translators from English, Moe Thet Han. Moe talks not just about linguistic issues but also about the difficulties of conveying very different cultures to his readership, inadvertently extending the metaphor by describing how he once spent an afternoon looking up the names of trees that don’t actually grow in Myanmar.
Many of the audience members have heard about the very timely Prospect Burma postgraduate scholarship for a translator from Myanmar to pursue an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, so I’m bombarded with questions about eligibility. It’s a wonderful opportunity for a translator, not just to improve their own skills, but to equip them to train other literary translators in Myanmar.
Currently there is little training for translators in Myanmar, something that the recently formed Myanmar Translation Network plans to change. The network has 100 members so far, mostly in the cities though they would like to improve their contacts with the ethnic states. They also want to find younger members through the Find New Faces project, an open competition which will offer three new translators mentoring and publication opportunities.
The last question is from an elderly English teacher, asking for guidelines for translators who want to translate out of their Burmese mother tongue and into English, to take stories and ideas from Myanmar out into the world. As he says, ‘We translate to know each other, and to let other people know us.’
Saturday 16th December
I have plenty of time to admire the numerous Literature Conference 2017 posters by the side of the road and banners hanging from bridges as we head into town in heavy traffic. My taxi driver is checking the route on his phone but there’s no hope, all roads are red. As we sit at a traffic light watching the countdown until the lights turn green, I check out the interior decor: three Buddhist deities with pointy hairstyles, a silk rose, and a picture of a monk dangling from the rearview mirror, imploring patience.
From this back seat, shared with a few lethargic mosquitos, I’m seeing more of Yangon than on previous visits, as we take the back streets to avoid the worst traffic jams. We pass leafy avenues leading to lanes with houses hidden behind high walls; stalls selling bananas; old-style tea houses on street corners with child-size plastic stools and flasks on the tables; new coffee shops with wifi and aircon; renovated buildings offering co-working office space and Australian visas; The Lady beauty shop; a Chinese and Tai (Shan) restaurant; a tiger balm outlet; t-shirts and longyis hanging from balconies to dry in the sun; men sitting smoking in the shade; monks in maroon robes, nuns in pink; a barber shaving a boy’s head in what looks like a wooden shipping container; souvenir shops selling brass Buddhas with neon flashing halos; a proliferation of gold stupas as we near the Shwedagon Pagoda. We pass the Inya Lake and the Kandawgyi Lake with its huge golden boat pulled by golden dragons, reminding me that before the British turned up much of Yangon used to be a swamp.
As we near the city centre we cross over the circular railway line, and overtake cycle rickshaws, their passengers sitting stately with umbrellas to keep off the sun. Apartment blocks display signs offering English and Japanese classes; there are bookstalls on the pavement. I’m jolted from my reverie as we reach our destination, one of the sustainable-tourism fair-trade shops selling local handicrafts with a contemporary twist, made by artisans and disadvantaged groups, ideal for last-minute Christmas shopping.
Mission accomplished, I head to the Yangon Heritage Trust office on Pansodan Street, in time for their afternoon walking tour. I’m the only one signed up for tour 2A, through the city centre to the Indian Quarter and Chinatown. My guide is a friendly and well-informed young woman called Khatar Aung, who’s originally from the Irrawaddy Delta but has been living in Yangon since she was three. Her father is Buddhist and her mother Christian. One of the Trust’s aims is to raise awareness of Yangon’s history as a melting pot from back when it was Rangoon: all the more poignant since the crisis in Northern Rakhine.
Maha Bandula Park is full of tourists taking photographs, children running around despite the heat, and courting couples seeking a quiet spot by one of the sculpted bushes. We sit under the Independence monument, formerly a statue of Queen Victoria, and Khatar Aung tells me the history of the buildings surrounding the park. After independence was declared in 1948, the architect U Tin was commissioned to design the new City Hall, but it was already half-built in colonial style, so he simply added Burmese flourishes, such as dragons and peacocks and traditional latticework arches. Following the 1962 coup, to encourage a forgetting of history, the military let the park become overgrown with bushes and vines, hiding the independence monument from sight.
In the years after 1988, fearing that a decent education would only encourage further student protests, the generals closed down many universities, while those that remained open kept standards deliberately low. Khatar Aung studied English literature, but most of what she learnt came from private lessons rather than her university classes. It dawns on me why there were so many anxious questions about eligibility and qualifications for the Prospect Burma scholarship at UEA.
In a nearby street, we stop outside a rundown building clad in green netting, one of the many buildings in the town centre left empty after the capital moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006. This, Khatar Aung tells me with pride, will be the new national library. Although she’s a keen reader and visits the Yangon Book Plaza, she’s never been to the existing national library, as it’s difficult to find, out of the city centre and far from a bus stop.
Our final stop is a tea house in Chinatown. I have a cup of the sweet Burmese tea to which I’ve become addicted. Khatar Aung asks me about the Literature Conference. She’s seen the posters, but isn’t sure what it is or where. I explain briefly. ‘What about the public outreach?’ she asks wistfully. I mention the book fair and literary talks leading up to the opening, but Khatar Aung hadn’t heard about them. Hopefully in the future there’ll be more opportunity for young people to be involved in this celebration of books and literature, we agree. And hopefully we won’t have to wait another 55 years for the next Myanmar Literature Conference.
The Myanmar Literature Conference 2017 was a collaboration of eleven organisations, including the Myanmar Writers’ Association, Myanmar Writers’ Club, PEN Myanmar, Upper Myanmar Writers’ Association, Myanmar Writers’ Union, Myanmar Poets’ Union, Myanmar Publishers and Booksellers Association, Myanmar Cartoon Union and the Myanmar Translation Network. It was supported by the Ministry of Information and the Yangon Division Government.
This blog originally appeared on the Writers’ Centre Norwich website.