Bailey's Prize, books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig

“‘You must understand,’ Saw Lay explained as he and Benny walked one evening in April. ‘The loyalist bond we share with the Brits … what made it stick was our mutual security. Their takeover of the country wasn’t easy. It happened over time, with several wars. We welcomed them because we’d been persecuted by the Burmans for centuries, we’d been their slaves – our villages perpetually attacked, our people perpetually preyed upon, stripped of everything from our clothing to our lives. This is a reason that we are characteristically afraid. Our tendency to be shy, to be modest, to avoid confrontation, to be cautious – all of this comes from our long history of being intimidated. And the Brits, well, they made use of that history. It didn’t hurt that we populated strategic territory. It behooved them to make nice with us, as they say. And, well, it behooved us, too.'”

IMG-0303I’ll fully admit to being woefully ignorant of Burma (now Myanmar) and its complicated history of ethnic conflict and colonization, a fact which made my reading of “Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig all the more important and enlightening. “Miss Burma” is the story of Benny, a Burmese man of Jewish and Indian descent, and his wife Khin, a striking young woman from among one of Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Karen. Khin and Benny speak no common language; they are both virtually alone in the world and both adrift in a country that is at once home and hostile.

“It wasn’t that this rabbi had spoken to her as a Burman might; anytime a Burman engaged with a Karen, it was with the posture of superiority – intellectual, spiritual, racial. No, this rabbi hadn’t condescended to her, but had treated her as something alien. He was fighting to preserve his people in a country, it so happened, that was ceaselessly obliterating hers. And she saw that much as she wanted to find someplace to take root with Benny, she would never not be a lost Karen. She would never not be wandering in the desert, homeless, unwanted – except by some of her own. Except by equally rootless Benny.”

Beginning in the late 1930s, “Miss Burma” follows this young couple through decades of struggle and conflict. Burma is fighting both global threats of imperialism – Britain, Germany, Japan – and endless internal ethnic conflict, dominated by the asserted supremacy of ethnic Burmans – “to be Burmese – meaning to be one of Burma’s natives – but not to be Burman was, in Burman terms, to be distinctly undesirable.” Benny and Khin, too, in their own ways, fight for a place in their country, for the safety of their people, and for a secure sense of home neither has ever truly known.

Craig’s writing is sometimes spare, often vivid, and always visceral. From the fecund forests through which Khin and her children must flee to the graphic and inhumane torture Benny and others face at the hands of various militant groups, Craig’s writing had me covering my eyes, unable to resist reading between my fingers. Like its main characters, “Miss Burma” is deceptively soft-spoken, a mildness which thinly disguises its strength and unbending will. With its under-celebrated subject matter and its understated tone, “Miss Burma” is an excellent addition to the Women’s Prize Longlist and a strong contender for the 2018 prize.

 

 

 

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books, Debut Novel, Immigration, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“The Parking Lot Attendant” by Nafkote Tamirat

          “During my second week on the island, I woke up in the witching hour between night and day and saw the sky divided into pink, orange, and gold. The lines between each were jagged but distinct, and I realized that this probably happened all the time, I’d just been sleeping through it. It made me hope that I would have something to look forward to.
           When I indulge in this crepuscular glory (the colors always differ, the patterns sometimes less defined) it’s easier to believe that I’m here by choice. It’s only when the sun comes out and my father silently rises from bed that I know I have once again been fooled. More infuriating is the knowledge that come the next dawn, I’ll be fooled once more.
            I’m beginning to feel old.”

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Our unnamed narrator is a high school aged girl who finds herself with her father in a secret island community established by representatives of the Ethiopian diaspora. We learn, over time, that their presence on the island isn’t completely unforeseen; over the past several years, she has ingratiated herself to a man named Ayale, virtually the king of the Ethiopian underworld of Boston, and the presumed leader of this island community.

Our narrator is now essentially held captive with her father, a man with whom she has a complicated relationship.

“It hasn’t escaped my notice that while the others persist in treating me like a plague victim, my father has only to tinker with an object for ten seconds before, hey presto, he’s the goddamn Messiah. I don’t like that people are gravitating toward him, asking him for counsel, blatantly fucking liking him. I’m sorry, but that’s not who we are and that’s not what we do: we’re supposed to be ignored and all the better for it. Nonetheless, he continues to betray me with his popularity. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. I don’t know how I could have forgotten and let myself love him so recklessly.”

The narrator embodies the spirit and essence of the novel – detachment. As a child of immigrants, as a precocious and rebellious teenager, as a member of a diaspora, she is set apart and always at a remove from the world around her.

“I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere ‘It’s so pretty!’ I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.”

The challenge of writing a novel about detachment, of course, is that it strains to engage the reader in a meaningful way. From the narrator’s tone to the shadowed ways in which the plot was revealed, this book was well-written certainly, but far from gripping. Where I had hoped for a searing peek at a subculture thriving in and around Boston, the book’s disorienting atmosphere left me a bit cold and disconnected.

Thank you to Henry Holt for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy
in exchange for a fair and honest review.