Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds – Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum (eds.), British Council, London, 2017. Pp. 153.

Richard Roewer reviews a new collection of short stories from Myanmar writers.

At one point in Mali Hku Shini’s story about loss and longing in the mining town of Hpakant, the protagonist turns to a bridge and asks ‘Do you recall a story that started from here, from this very place?’ The bridge has no answer for him but the protagonist holds on to its handrail nonetheless as it leads him into the past. The moment effortlessly captures the way we observe and explore the world – through things we relate to, whether they are inanimate objects, people, memories or words. They invariably trigger a response in us, urge us to search for an answer, dwell on a thought or seek company.

In a similar fashion, the story captures the essence of Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, a collection of short stories that invites the reader to dive into the multifaceted world of the relationships that have shaped life in Myanmar over the past six decades.

Often the relationships between protagonists are complicated because they influence their surroundings just as much as they are being influenced by them. Possibly, this is clearest in the many stories of love that fill the anthology. Sayama Thinn’s love for the student-turned-rebel Tun in Khin Pann Hnin’s ‘A Pledge of Love to the Malikha River’ remains strong even though the lovers were separated by the political persecution that led Tun to flee into the jungle. When she is brought in for questioning by the military, her colleagues and friends desert her, forcing her to make a new life for herself in another town.

At times, the interplay between the relationships at the heart of the stories and their setting is more nuanced. In Mi Chan Wai’s ‘Reading the Heart of the Sea’, the two protagonists meet due to a mutual curiosity in the otherness of a world they didn’t know before (city and island respectively) only to find that it’s their similar look at the world that draws them closer together. Thus, the stories all touch on multiple subjects at once. Saw Lambert’s ‘Kaw Tha Wah – The Hunter’ tells a tale not only of love but of the political eras that shaped the reality of life in the hunter’s village. Sai San Pyae’s ‘Thus Come, Thus Gone’ tells the story of four friends on a road trip to the hills in northern Shan State while exploring common perceptions of the supernatural.   

The anthology does effectively reveal worlds that have often remained hidden from readers who are dependent on English translations. Translations of Burmese short stories into English are few and far between and there are fewer translations still of stories that were written in languages such as Lai Hakha, Sgaw Karen or Shan Gyi. Myanmar is famous for its linguistic and ethnic diversity, that is often difficult to capture in a single publication. The book, however, mirrors this better than most, with writers belonging to the Mon, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Kachin, Chin and Rakhine ethnic communities.

In fact, the diversity of the authors is one of the book’s greatest features. There is something extremely refreshing about a publication that did not select authors based on their reputation (some are first time writers) or based on how economical the translation of their stories would be, but rather on the basis of each story’s ability to open a door to new perspectives.

As expected, some stories do this more convincingly that others. Letyar Tun’s ‘The Court Martial’ is intriguing at first because the reader is confronted with the perspective of a Tatmadaw Soldier, an uncommon take on the grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the army. The story, however, informs the reader about the life of the soldier rather than developing a narrative of experiences. The reader is told that the soldier was ‘indoctrinated’ and ‘brainwashed’ but struggles to develop a relationship with the character since he hasn’t been able to follow the protagonist’s development.

This mechanism, telling the reader what a protagonist feels or thinks at a certain time without supporting it through the narrative, is present in other stories too but doesn’t necessarily affect their overall quality too negatively. In Maw Ma Thae’s ‘The Love of Ka Nya Maw’, the protagonist, also named Maw Thae, befriends a young man after a single encounter on the street. The friendship that turns into a short burst of love is the central theme of the story but the reader is offered little for understanding how it emerged in the first place. Yet, other aspects of the story, for example, its retelling of the legend of Prince Suu Reh and the goddess Ka Nya Maw, are so interesting in themselves that the story is still enjoyable.

Few authors can combine the excellent use of language with the superb construction of a narrative and a splendid topic. Yet, enough authors who can have found a place in this anthology, making for an enjoyable, at times even mesmerizing read. Mali Hku Shini’s ‘A Bridge made from cord’, from which I took the opening quote, is a daunting account of the harsh realities in Hpakant as well as a deeply moving story about the pleasure one can take in small gestures. Zaw Htwae, a Kahprek teacher and the protagonist of the story, develops a relationship with Ah Nang, who works for a local bank. Before the two of them meet alone they built intimacy by passing each other on the street. ‘Despite the thirty feet of road between us, we started to build a bridge of our own. It was small at first, just smiles and glances, but over time the bridge drew us closer and I could hear her whisper, “Are you going back?” and I’d reply, “Yes, take care.”’

The relationship between the two shines like a light into a scenery of misery in a place where locals are forced to sift through the mine residue of big companies in the hope that they may find a stone of some value. ‘Hens, roosters and chicks of all different shapes and sizes rush in, screech and fight. We Kachins are like animals caged up by foreign companies. I myself turned chicken that day, scratching the ground to find something, anything.’

Most of the stories share a deeply political element. ‘A Flight Path for Spiritual Birds’ by Ah Phyu Yaung (Shwe) addresses the nepotism in a rural village. Myint Win Hlaing’s ‘The Poisoned Future’ unravels the devastating stigma that comes with a pregnancy out of wedlock and ‘Takeaway Bride’ examines the conditions that force families to ‘sell’ a daughter in order to support themselves. ‘The Right Answer’ by Min Yar Moe tries to capture the emotions evoked by a ceremony held to celebrate the peace treaty between the central government and the New Mon State Party in 1994. That such an open analysis of these topics is now possible in a published work is noteworthy and itself a signal of change.

At a time when much of the debate culture in Myanmar can appear one-sided and dominated by populist voices, this book makes an important contribution. None of the stories can replace real political discourse about the issues they raise and neither should they – after all they are stories – but they show facets of political discourse that don’t find their way into English language media and are, thus, often overlooked. Quite possibly, that is the most interesting world these hidden words reveal.

[Editor’s note: Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds can be read online here. It is not available for purchase, but paper copies can be requested (while supplies last) by emailing uk-literature@britishcouncil.org with your full name and postal address.]

Richard Roewer is a DPhil candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. His research focuses on the formation of political parties at times of regime transformation in Myanmar.