Split is a story about Katja, a girl from Sweden who falls in love with Myanmar/Burma. She loves everything about Myanmar so much that she even falls in love with a Buddhist monk. It is a story about being split because of conflicting emotions, and it is also a story about paṭiccasamuppāda (ပဋိစ္စ သမုပ္ပါဒ်), the law of dependent origination/dependent arising…
Once my mother said in Finnish: “Joillekin kirjoittaminen on kuin henki ja elämä” (For some people writing is as their spirit and life) and this is truly so. I write because I must, because I need it to live…
On this website you can read about my writings. In one way or the other my writing is always linked to Myanmar/Burma of some reason still unknown to me…
In 2007, after I had worked extensively as an interpreter between Burmese/Myanmar and Swedish for quota refugees from Burma/Myanmar who came to Sweden, I got an idea for a fictive, future novel called The Escape to Myanmar. I was fascinated by the reactions of these refugees who had come to a country so different from what they were used to. On his first day in Sweden one man told me that he felt like he was born anew. He knew nothing about the new country he had come to and everything seemed so strange to him, he said. Perhaps that is why he had a hard time to learn the language and adapt to the new society? Perhaps that was why he then sought safety in his own group and in his own cultural traditions instead? For others, it was easier. Some settled quickly and learned the new language and the new customs easily.
In The Escape to Myanmar I wanted to explore these individual differences in a group of people who arrive to a new country of the same reason, namely as refugees. Why do some of them adapt to the culture and learn the language, whereas others do not? Instead of writing about Burmese/Myanmar refugees who have arrived to Sweden, and whom I have observed closely, I decided to write about Northern European refugees who arrive to Myanmar because of a war in Europe. The reasons for this are many. One is that I have the obligation to observe silence in my work as an interpreter. As one of my work leaders once said: “An interpreter can never write his or her memoirs”. But this is of course not true. Even an interpreter can write her memoirs, but only as fiction. To only change the names of the people and places would not feel enough, so I felt it is better to reverse everything and change the scene. The further away from reality I am from my work as an interpreter, the more honest can I be when I write, I think. The other reason for changing the setting of this refugee story is that I wanted to “show and don’t tell” how life as a refugee can be in a strange and different country. To describe the reality of those who actually lives as refugees is telling. To make the Western reader become the refugee in the story is showing how it it instead of just describing it. I want the reader to feel the reality of being in exile.
The Pain of Exile
It was so important that she should understand something of what his life in this country had been; that she should grasp the nature of the loneliness that he wanted her to nullify. And it was so devilishly difficult to explain. It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile? (George Orwell, Burmese Days, 2004, p. 232)
Just like the character Flory in Orwell’s Burmese Days suffers the pain of exile, many of the characters in The Escape to Myanmar suffers the same. They have an unclassifiable disease without a cure. Even though the outer conditions can get better because of exile to an other country, the inner condition can stay the same or even get worse. As an interpreter for political refugees from Burma/Myanmar, I have heared some of them say that they long for the life they had before, even though it was a life in uncertainty and fear. Some say they would even prefer a prison sentence in their home country to the difficulties of being in exile. These comments show how hard it is to live in a country that does not feel like home. In The Escape to Myanmar, I wanted to show this feeling of desperation in another context. Instead of writing a documentary about Burmese/Myanmar refugees in Sweden, I turned the perspective around and wrote about Swedish and other Northern European refugees in a future Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
A reader of the story, Laila Asplund, wrote (translation from Swedish):
“When I started reading your text it took a while before the penny dropped down. That it was Swedes who were refugees. Then they flee to a country with a colorful history. I reckon that Burma is not a country one does flee to today. You turn the reader’s (read ordinary Swedes’) reality upside down. Once I landed in the idea, I grasp the story. This insight is awakening.”
The Exile Theme
The main theme in The Escape to Myanmar is exile. I wanted to show what happens with people when they have to adapt to a new society very different from their own and how they cope living in exile. According to the Palestinian American literary theorist, Edward W. Said, exile is:
[…] the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted (Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 173)
In Robert Edwards’ opinion exile is a psychological experience:
Under various guises, exile means separation, banishment, withdrawal, expatriation, and displacement; its emotional expression is loss, usually manifested as sorrow, though sometimes as nostalgia. (‘Exile, Self, and Society’ in Exile in literature ed. María-Inés Lagos Pope, 1988, p. 15)
Yet by its very nature, exile is a psychological experience, a response of mind and spirit to customs, codes, and political actions; […] (1988, p. 17)
In The Escape to Myanmar I have tried to portray the deep sadness and the unhealable rift between the self and its true home that Said associates with exile. I also agree with Edwards that exile is a psychological experience that involves a loss that often manifests as sadness or nostalgia, and several of the characters in The Escape to Myanmar are experiencing the “pain of exile”, George Orwell has written about in Burmese Days.
A piece of art that has inspired me to write The Escape to Myanmar is Manuha Temple in Bagan in Myanmar/Burma, built by the imprisoned Mon king Manuha of Thaton in 1059. He was captured by King Anawrahta of Bagan because he refused to give away the Buddhist scriptures (Donald K. Swearer, “Buddhism: Buddhism in Southeast Asia”, Encyclopedia of Religion, Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 6. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, p. 1133).
Three huge seated Buddha figures and an enormous reclining Buddha, which seem to have too little space inside the temple, are an allegorical representation of the physical discomfort and mental suffering that the captured king had to endure (Pictorial guide to Pagan, Ministry of Culture, Archeology Department, Socialist Republic of Burma, Rangoon, 1979 (1955), p. 39.). Just the reclining (dying) Buddha has a smile on its face showing that for Manuha only death was a release from his suffering. (http://www.ancientbagan.com/manuha-temple.htm)
Since king Manuha had to leave the Thaton Kingdom he was not only captured, but he was also exiled in the Bagan Kingdom. Even though it is said that he was treated well (Ma Thanegi, Bagan Mystique, Yangon: Tanintaye Sarpay, 2011, p. 102), he must have felt severely distressed. At the dedication of Manuha Temple he made this prayer:
“Whithersoever I migrate in samsara, may I never be conquered by another”.)
(Pe Maung Tin & G. H. Luce. The glass palace chronicle of the kings of Burma. The Text Publication Fund of the Burma Research Society. Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 108)
Maybe the lack of independence is the greatest hardship when being in exile and maybe the loss of a home is just as distressful as the loss of a whole kingdom? These have been some of my thoughts while writing The Escape to Myanmar.
In The Escape to Myanmar the refugees from Europe has to participate in different projects to get an income and a place to stay. In Yangon some of them work within the “Facelift of Yangon”-project and when their houses are needed to new refugees, they are transfered to Bagan, where they are supposted to work within a pagoda restoration project, aiming to get Bagan on UNESCO’s list of World Heritages. The first pagoda they have to restore is Manuha Pagoda.
Is “The Escape to Myanmar” Exile Literature?
In The Escape to Myanmar I have tried to portray the experience of exile. It is a fictional interpretation of the exile condition. Robert Edwards considers exile to be a psychological experience (‘Exile, Self, and Society’ in Exile in literature ed. María-Inés Lagos Pope, 1988, p. 17) and this is one of the things I have wanted to portray in The Escape to Myanmar.
According to Hungarian author Paul Tabori exile is experienced as a temporary condition:
“As defined by Paul Tabori in his Anatomy of exile, an exile is someone who considers his or her displacement as temporary even though it may last a lifetime, or someone who inhabits one place and remembers or projects the reality of another.”
(Gabriella Ibieta, ’Transcending the culture of exile: Raining backwards’ in Literature and Exile, ed. by David Bevan, Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V, 1990, p. 68)
In The Escape to Myanmar the character Lisa is assured that she is only temporary in Myanmar and she is reluctant to adapt to the local customs. For Lisa exile is a psychological experience. She reacts to the new customs and codes with her whole being. When the teacher Ma Cho Cho suggests that Viktor is like a myanmares Lisa’s pulse starts to beat faster. She feels disgusted with the new way to eat and have a strong desire to return home to Sweden. Her whole being is protesting against the new customs. The character Viktor does not consider his stay in Myanmar as temporary and and the explanation given in the story for this is that he has lived in Myanmar in a previous life.
The character Daniel lives in Myanmar but his mind is always in Sweden, so he inhabits one place and remembers the reality of another, as Tabori mean that exiles do (Gabriella Ibieta, 1990, p. 68).
Since The Escape to Myanmar is a story about displacement, longing for a lost home, adaptedness and maladaptiveness to new customs and codes, I would argue that it is indeed exile literature.
Homosexuality from a Samsaric Perspective
In The Escape to Myanmar homosexuality is interpreted from a samsaric perspective. I do not mean from a Buddhist point of view, because the Buddhist perception of homosexuality is condemnatory. In Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced in Myanmar /Burma, there are five basic commandments to be followed and one of these commandments is to refrain from sexual misconduct, which, according to Richard H. Jones includes homosexuality (Mysticism and Morality: A New Look at Old Questions, Lexington Books, 2004, p. 154). Thus I have written from a cyclic perspective without religious morals involved.
The character Viktor in this story was the Myanmar/Burmese man Aung in his past life, while the refugee coordinator Nay Lin Aung was a woman called Katja in his former life. In the serial of novels, State of Emergency, of which The Escape to Myanmar is a freestanding sequel, they where husband and wife.
In The Escape to Myanmar Viktor has a heterosexual relationship with Lisa, while Nay Lin Aung is single. When they arrive to the town Nyaung Shwe in Myanmar, where they (Aung and Katja) met first time, Viktor gets more and more flashbacks:
He closed his eyes and let the images come as they wanted instead of driving them away. Two persons sitting on a balcony. One of them was a man and he played the guitar. The other was a woman with golden hair and she was wearing a green dress.
Viktor feel more and more attracted to Nay Lin Aung whose green eyes resemble the eyes of the woman in the flashbacks he gets:
He closed his eyes and tried not to think about anything other than what happened, but when Lisa untied the knot on his longyi he once again saw eyes that reminded of Nay Lin Aung’s. Then he thought about nothing more.
I got the idea to write about homosexuality from a samsaric perspective after watching a Myanmar/Burmese film called Strand, by film creator Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. In this film a male teacher falls in love with his male student Moe Sat (”raindrop”, a name which in my opinion can also be interpreted as a drop of water ”ye set” which in Myanmar Buddhism also has the meaning of meeting again in a another life). Moe Sat is a reincarnation of the teacher’s former girlfriend Moe, who died. They cannot break the fetters of attachment, thanyozin, to each other, and therefore they meet again in different roles. In the end of the film Moe Sat dies, but is reborn again as the teacher’s baby girl.
From a samsaric perspective anyone could have had either sex in a previous life, and because two people who had a relationship in a past life can be reunited in the next, they may as well have the same sex when they meet again.
The problem Viktor and Nay Lin Aung wrestle with in The Escape to Myanmar is the conflict between the strong ties that exist between them on one side and the social view of gay relationships on the other. Are social conventions stronger than the bond, thanyozin, between them? Will they accept their destiny or not, and what happens if they do not accept it?
It was a decision by both of us
that I would come and work
to this side of Bothnia
I did not go on an adventure
I do not know what to expect here
still I persists like a man
And keep spirits up
even if the heart would be filled with ice
Now it’s too long way home for me
That I realized recently when
I looked at a foreign shore again
Now it’s too long way home for me…
(translation from Finnish)
Too long way home (Liian pitkä matka kotiin) sung by Jamppa Tuominen, was popular among Finnish immigrants in Sweden during the 1970’s and for me it describes the sorrow of being in a foreign country. Even though Finland is very close to Sweden and even though most of these immigrants migrated voluntarily to find work on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia, the way home seemed too long for many of them. In a study of Marjaliisa Lukkarinen Kvist, only two of the respondents moved to Sweden with the intention to remain and many dreamed of returning to Finland for decades, yet they stayed (Tiden har haft sin gång: hem och tillhörighet bland sverigefinnar i Mälardalen, Linköpings universitet, 2006, p. 195).
To be in exile does not always mean to be on the other side of the world of political reasons, but it can be something as simple as being unable to return to the other side of the gulf because it would mean loss of face in front of the relatives. No matter how easy it would be to return practically and no matter how close the home country is, the feeling of loss and homelessness can be severe, in my opinion. Being in exile is not a label awarded only to people who have been forced to escape to another country because of persecution, but it is a feeling of loss that cannot be replaced by anything in the new country, no matter what the reason was for the migration, as I see it. According to Edwards exile means separation and its emotional expression is loss that may manifest as sadness or nostalgia (‘Exile, Self, and Society’ in Exile in literature ed. María-Inés Lagos Pope, 1988, p. 15). I wanted to portray this sadness in The Escape to Myanmar, and Too long way home is one of the songs I have listened to in order to be able to describe this feeling while writing the story.
Another song that describes the longing for home when being in exile is the Myanmar singer Htoo Eain Thin’s Kyae Thwe Sone Te Nya. Many exiles from Myanmar/Burma likes Htoo Eain Thin’s songs about longing for a home far away.
I have also listened to I want to know what love is by Rappers Against Racism, since it describes another aspect of being in exile, namely the experience of racism: We people gotta stop all the hate and the shame that we’re bringin’. We’re all the same, we all feel pain some uf us don’t even know what we remain. This is the life, the life that we’re livin’. With a little respect, we should all be givin’.
Another song that has given me inspiration to write this story is Ehkä ensi elämässä (Maybe in next life) by the Finnish singer Johanna Kurkela. It is a song about parting in sorrow with a wish to meet in a next life, in another situation:
Maybe In Next Life
Today you avoid my gaze
you only change the topic
you’re not feeling well
something’s troubling you now
just say it bravely
I want to know your innermost
Maybe in next life
we two are here again
totally silent, just like this
close to each other
maybe in next life
in a moment so passing
we can be again like this
in each other’s arms
Don’t care about the tears
be like you don’t notice
I just can’t yet
let go of us completely
you stay in my mind
even though you leave now
maybe someday everything could be differently
Translation from Finnish
This song has helped me to understand one of the greatest sorrows of exile, the sorrow of parting, and about the wish to meet again one day. Several of the charachters in The Escape to Myanmar feel this sorrow and listening to the song has made it easier to write about it.