Luke Corbin reviews Charmaine Craig’s new book, “Miss Burma.”
“Saw Lay looked straight at Benny, his intelligent, perspiring face suddenly frightening for its startling openness. ‘If our Father (the British) abandons us, Benny, everything – everything will come undone’” (38).
Burma was a country in great flux during the first half of the twentieth century, being directly or indirectly affected by two World Wars, suffering the occupation of two imperial powers, and rocked by the agitation for— and eventual achievement of— independence in 1948.
The post-independence era was no less tumultuous than that which came before, with intense political machinations and the crushing commencement of intractable civil wars, culminating in General Ne Win’s military coup of 1962 and concomitant wider societal changes. Miss Burma, a new novel by Charmaine Craig, faculty member in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, attempts to take the reader deep into this heady world by focusing on the fate and fortunes of one particular family through the years of 1926-1965.
The family in question is the Benson (Bension) family, with the book focusing on Louisa Benson and her parents Saw Benson and Naw Chit Khin. Although their immediate character arcs relate to the home, the vagaries of war and matters of love, an explicit political stance seeps through this text of romantic historical fiction. Craig writes from the point of view of those engaged in the Karen national struggle, with little sympathy for the Bama (the majority cultural group in Myanmar) and with downright antipathy for its leaders— many of whom are still cherished in the country’s dominant national historical narrative.
The patriarch of the book, Saw Benson, has a realisation early on in the story, circa the late 1920s:
“Aung San … for all Benny could see, emphasized the supremacy of the ethnic Burmans, thereby aligning (his party) with the master-race ideals of the Nazis … Benny was only beginning to understand that to be Burmese – meaning, to be one of Burma’s natives – but not to be Burman was, in Burman terms, to be distinctly undesirable” (27).
Therefore, the book is explicitly concerned with identity politics. The Benson family are all citizens of Burma, yet are at times betwixt, or laying claim to, multiple different cultural allegiances, including to the Karen. The task of translating these inner worlds of belonging into ideology and concrete political action is what the characters of Miss Burma must confront.
The title of the book refers to Louisa Benson, two-time Miss Burma beauty pageant winner, who was hailed as a symbol of unity for her “mixed race beauty” at a time when ethnic resentments were increasing and war was wreaking havoc just outside of Rangoon. Louisa is at once a tragic symbol and a metaphor – her Karen husband ends up dying in the civil war, and she joins the Karen resistance – for what could have been, and for the Karen’s (and by extension other ethnic groups’) struggles in post-independence Myanmar.
Vitally, Louisa Benson Craig was also a real person. As mentioned, Miss Burma plays in the murky pool of historical fiction, where real people are reimagined – or simply imagined – doing things they did do, may have done, or simply never did. We see the author embellish and breathe life into CIA operative (and later Thai guesthouse-owner) Bill Young, the notorious Khin May Than (or Katie, the third wife of General Ne Win), Ne Win himself, who is rendered very much the tyrant, Karen fighter Lin Htin and others. The Benson family in the book is in fact loosely based on Craig’s own family, and their travails are based on her own family’s experiences in Burma, which ultimately concluded – both in the novel and in real life – with most of them emigrating.
Perhaps due to Craig’s close personal connection to the material being rendered, Miss Burma reads with immense sympathy for its main characters and is written with a sense of keen urgency for contextualisation, exposing and making clear to a mass audience the ethnic political history of Myanmar— particularly as it relates to the Karen. It is easy for an English-speaking audience to disassociate Myanmar’s twentieth century history from its violent, exclusionary nation-building project, and Craig is pitching her story firmly at a readership that may otherwise do so. Far from political theory, calculations of state-making, peace-building and democracy posturing, Miss Burma uses up-close, human stories to highlight the nation’s suffering.
In doing so her narrative carves broad swathes, jumping through nearly forty years of historical milestones beset with tragic romance and fleeting liaisons. Its heteronormative treatment of sexuality, unapologetically culturally and historically situated, is mournful rather than titillating, emphasising the fleeting nature of real human connection and the rueful consequences of pride. And while at times the novel’s characters do seem to pontificate politically a little too quickly, a little too knowledgably, and the author leaves out crucial, narrative-defining events (such as the real Louisa’s international US education) verisimilitude is never entirely abolished.
With all of this, it is important to note also that Miss Burma’s very earnest rendering of an enduring intercultural relationship is genuinely touching, if bittersweet in its conclusion. Like all else in the book, the personal here is political. When Benny and Khin first marry, they find themselves without a mutual language and are compelled to use Burmese:
“There was something pathetic about the way he used Burmese to draw closer to Khin, something disturbing about even the most harmless verbal exchanges […] ‘We … baby,’ he understood her to say […] in Burmese. It was almost as though she were telling him that the pregnancy, the child, was already inadequate. ‘Very good. Very happy,’ he found himself parroting […] their sputtering exchanges never failed to leave an aftertaste of disappointment in his mouth,” (31).
Miss Burma is a valuable text offering rich prose and politics. It faithfully creates a version of mid-twentieth century Burma that is believable, melancholy and dripping with the sweat of the tropics— the sweat of the countless people who have pushed, peacefully or politically, for a fairer Myanmar: one that can throw off the burdens of the past. It is eminently readable and highly recommended for readers in the Karen diaspora, students of Myanmar’s history and citizens of this great nation still grappling with the same issues now, in the twenty-first century.
It is not without bias, and at times it errs on the vindictive (referring to Burmese appropriations of Pali words as ‘bastardisations’ for example), but these gaps humanise and emplace the author, who so keenly – and in some ways, strangely – has brought her antecedents back to life, in their joys, in their resilience and in their painful union with the country of their births.
Luke Corbin is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University, currently based in Yangon.