“‘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.'”
I’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.