Misty Ericson interviews Karen Connelly, the 2012 guest editor of Her Circle’s Magnolia Journal, and author of nine books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons, A True Love Story.
Misty Ericson: You first traveled to Burma in 1996. Can you share with us a little bit about what prompted you to make this visit?
Karen Connelly: I had done some work for PEN CANADA in 1994 and 1995—one of our honourary members was Ma Thida, a young Burmese writer imprisoned for 20 years in solitary for writing short stories critical of the regime. But my first trip there, in May, 1996, was galvanizing, life-changing. On a subsequent visit, after taking photographs of a student demonstration, I was blacklisted from re-entering Burma, so I went to the border on the Thai side and began to get to know many of the dissidents, refugees, and revolutionaries who live there. During that time (almost two years), I was working on versions of what eventually became The Lizard Cage. The dictatorship was still very brutal—nowhere near its present state of transformation—and the people I met there fascinated and inspired me with their dynamism, their dedication to helping their people, their faith that the country would change, would get better. So many creative people had found various crafty ways to keep working, to defy the censors, to continue thinking and talking and growing—in effect, to keep insisting on life. Their sense of rebellion was spirited and infectious; they had wonderful senses of humour, too. They were the most interesting, passionate people I had met in years, and yet they lived under so many different kinds of constraints. I saw how the impulse to be creative and the impulse to revolt against oppression—or at least to not be destroyed by it spiritually—are drawn from the same source: to live an authentic life, a life in truth. That is why so many governments (perhaps all governments?) are suspicious of artists and writers and innovative thinkers.
ME: In Burmese Lessons, you examine the meanings behind being a foreigner, an observer, an intruder, and how the work of the foreigner is to reach past the veneer of a location, to a place of understanding, connection and truth. What “veneers” are present in Burma, and how were you able to move beyond them?
KC: Countries are like people: they present us with an image, sometimes idealized, sometimes oppressive and fearful. Those images are often corroborated and distorted by other overlays, colonialist, post-colonialist, particular political and religious affiliations that have laid on their own colours (think of Communism in China and Eastern Europe, or Christian fundamentalism in America, or Islam in the Middle East). Each of those layers is “true”. Or none of them is “true”, in the sense that they are not the only truth.
The work of being present in another country, for me, involves trying to connect well enough with a few people, and learning enough about the politics and history, to approach some fairly basic understanding of the place. There is also a humility about how much you can never understand. But not a false humility: you have to be able to own your experience, and appreciate what it teaches you, what the people of a place are willing to give you. The longer you have, the better; the more years, the deeper the implication. I mean the foreigner becomes implicated, not so much politically as emotionally, historically, through her own life, with the life of the place. Few of us can be Lawrence of Arabia. But we can be open; we can allow ourselves to be invaded. We can learn how wrong our assumptions are. I came to love Burma: is this a cliché, is it impossible, or is it simply true, the reason I spent so many years writing books about the place? I know Greece (and Greek) much better, and have spent more years there. I love Greece, too, and feel both fury and despair about what is happening there now. I love many individuals in Greece who are part of my life. But it was Burma, and Burmese people, in the 1990’s, that forced me to become a political animal, to accept the responsibility of power, and explore what that means. The people themselves shredded that veneer of exoticism, the exotic beautiful mysterious East. I lost my youth and innocence in Burma, my Western naivete, and good riddance. It provided me with something I had not yet had, and that was a political education, or the beginnings of one. And because of that, it changed my relationship with other countries, especially my relationship with Canada.
ME: The happenstance of where we are born defines the extent of our freedom. In this work, you acknowledge your own white privilege and the foreigner’s possession of the luxury of choice—to stay, to go. How did you reconcile this understanding of Western and racial privilege with what you hoped to accomplish with your travels and with the writing of Burmese Lessons?
KC: Probably all of my understanding of western and racial privilege, including my own, has come to me through my years living abroad, so no reconciliation is necessary. I may have learned about those other things in Canada, too, if I had not left the country. But I left. And I left poor, uneducated, and female, the open-minded teenager of a working class family. I did not think of myself in any of those terms at the time, but I realize now that the qualifications helped me identify with the people who had the most to teach me.
ME: A clear theme plaited throughout the narrative of Burmese Lessons is your perception of home, roots, belonging, and there is the recurrent presence of your struggle with identity and purpose. In the time since you visited Burma, how have your ideas of home and belonging evolved? Did your travels play a role in those transformations?
KC: I lived abroad from the age of 17 to 34. I would return to various cities in Canada to publish books, make money, and visit my family. But I always identified with elsewhere, and made a home in Greece. Even Greece was a point of departure as I continued to travel and live in other places. There were years when I never experienced more than two seasons in the same country—which is not something I recommend to anyone. I learned to speak five languages besides my native English, although my Burmese is still not very good. Language is home; I could not feel at home in any of the places I lived unless I learned to speak the language; it was always the first thing I focused on.
Out of those years of homelessness, or repeatedly making homes and leaving them, I learned how much I wanted to have a home, how much I needed one, and how anxious and bored having one usually made me. That’s often the case with the children of severely dysfunctional homes—who wants to do it all over again? And yet, one is compelled to do it all over again, to try to make a better home, to achieve domestic peace and sanity. It’s a deep human yearning—one of the deepest. It is, after all, the basis of every long-lasting human society, even nomadic ones. Though I still travel, and return to Greece almost every year, I now have a Canadian home, in Toronto, and a husband, a child, a house—the whole shebang. And while my Canadian home and family are crucial to the way I live my life now, I am still a restless person who needs more than the domestic sphere, or even the literary one. I like adventure, challenges, open-endedness; I like not knowing what’s going to happen next. I like learning about the world by being inside it, not just by reading and talking about it. I still do that by traveling on my own at least once a year. I was in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, for just over three weeks. It was wonderfully difficult; that was why I went. I had hosts who kept passing me on to other hosts, so I was never sure whose house I would be sleeping in next, or next to whom—meaning, I often slept in family homes, in communal rooms with other women. I went to talk to women, mostly, though it took me a while to get through the loud, powerful wall of men and find the women who had the most to tell me.
ME: Burmese Lessons is a “True Love Story,” wherein your relationship with Maung runs parallel to the story of Burma itself as you experience it. Knowing the level of censorship imposed upon the people of Burma, particularly to women, did you have any reservations about speaking so freely of your relationship?
KC: The Burmese people who have been most supportive of the story I tell in Burmese Lessons have been the women. I think they are supportive because they recognize themselves in the “main character”—the young, idealistic, in-love woman that I was, attached to a man whose politics and ego were much stronger than any personal relationship could be. Though they lacked the power I had (the power of leaving, the power of my whiteness, the power of financial independence, even the power of speaking Thai), many Burmese women on the border (many dissidents had fled Burma and lived on the Thai side of the Thai-Burmese border) had similar relationships. I remember asking one woman what she thought of a particular political squabble among a few powerful dissident factions, and she laughed dismissively and said, “I don’t care what they’re fighting about now. All I want to do is help some Burmese women have better lives.” The true politics of dissent, for her, had become feminism; she was sick of the men and their power games. I thought at the time how radical that was, even shocking, that she would admit to such a thing. It seemed disloyal to “the cause”. And it was, in a way, which was thrilling, as well as sobering. She was a recruit to the Burmese cause for democracy, but then that cause—its inequities, its blind spots—turned her into a different kind of revolutionary.
The men are less enthusiastic about the book, naturally, because in it, I expose a Burmese man—his foibles, his untruths, the way he uses his political power. I also describe the sexual relationship I had with him. (Of course I write of his great intelligence, humour, and charisma; I fell in love with him for good reasons, and I admire him even now; he is quite the politician.) I expose myself much more than I expose Maung, at least emotionally and sexually, but I knew when I wrote the book that it went against cultural taboos around sexuality. I also wrote about some unresolved political violence that is still a sensitive topic for many people. I knew writing about those things would upset certain people, and it did.
That’s exactly what a writer should do. We have to be brave enough to upset people sometimes; we should upset ourselves; we should speak out of turn. I don’t want what I write to make people feel comfortable. I want my work to make people think, to arouse them, to make them angry. As I get older, I get braver, and I try not to care what people think of me. I say this while also bearing in mind my responsibility as a writer to get the story straight, to try to be honest, to work “rightly” as the Buddhists say.
But the other narrative that I understood only after I wrote Burmese Lessons is the portrait of the artist as a young woman. Here was a story, and a life, that wanted to fulfill the old expectation: the heroine falls in love with a charismatic man, a power broker in his small, revolutionary way, and of course she is supposed to marry him, in part because he wants her to and in part because she is swept off her feet not just by love and lust but by war, political unrest, and its excitements. (And, sad as it is, war, even its fringes, is probably one of the most exciting human activities.) Except that the young artist did not marry him; she decided to continue being a young artist instead, and struggle through, even struggle against, passionate love. That was a conscious, or at least a semi-conscious decision. I wanted to be a writer, not a revolutionary’s wife; I knew I could not be both. Not a single critic has said anything about this narrative. I suspect that’s because, even in 2012, it is still a fairly rare narrative; we don’t recognize it yet. Or we don’t think of women’s lives as artist’s lives. Critics have made much of the passionate love affair; they have said little about how the protagonist ends it in order to continue being a writer.
And, for the record, The Burmese Censorship Board doesn’t censor stories about romantic relationships; it censors stories about power and politics. The Censorship Board has loosened up a lot in the past year, but pre-Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the censor wouldn’t have minded the love story stuff in Burmese Lessons, probably not even the mild sexual descriptions. It would have canned the book for its politics.
ME: Part of Burmese Lessons was writing the forbidden for those who could not—bearing witness to their stories. This story contextualizes brutality into the entirety of lives, of community. What was your process in approaching a truth that accurately reflected the stories with which you were entrusted?
KC: I wrote for years about Burma—it took me a decade to write The Lizard Cage—before I wrote Burmese Lessons. So my process was one of fermentation; I allowed the story to become my past before touching it. And as to the stories of all those with whom I lived and traveled during that time, I had always had a profound, natural, inherent respect for them. Much of the information from the interviews I did for The Lizard Cage somehow got into the nonfiction book. And doing those interviews was sometimes like peeling the gauze off an infected wound; I learned to go carefully, slowly. I was the recipient of great generosity and in that sense, people gave of themselves because they believed it would be useful to tell the story of Burma to a larger world. Over and over again, I also learned how brave people could be, how selfless and determined. To put it plainly, when people give you such gifts, when they allow you to enter that way, you do not want to screw it up with bad work. I felt enormous responsibility towards my subjects. To Maung, as well. I believe I portrayed him fairly; his good qualities shine through.
ME: This was not your only book related to Burma. Your book of poetry, The Border Surrounds Us, consists mostly of poems about Burma and the Thai-Burmese border. Your fictional work, The Lizard Cage, portrays the life a political prisoner, Teza, and his relationship with others within the prison. In this world, a message to the outside is the “holy grail”. Do you think it is it fair to suggest that this is a sentiment shared by the people of Burma, and do you feel that this is the work of the novel? Of the memoir?
KC: In the sense that prison and confinement, or the fear of such, has defined more than two generations of Burmese citizens, I think it is right to suggest that a message to the outside is crucial. Burma’s isolation has been crippling, and the great hope provided by the new quasi-democratic government is that that isolation has finally come to an end, after more than half a century. Burma wants to be part of the bigger, freer world, whatever that may bring. People who care about Burma and Burmese people have been watching the last year’s developments with amazement, disbelief, relief. So many have been waiting for this change for their whole lives, or the better part of their lives. The work is far from over but at least some kind of step forward has been taken; and the Burmese themselves have taken it. It’s the most hopeful development taking place in the world right now.
ME: Do you have any new projects in the works?
KC: I’ve just finished a book of poetry called Come Cold River. It’s the only one of my books that explores the Canadian landscape, particularly Alberta, where I grew up, and B.C., where I lived for a while. And most of the poems are somehow about violence against women, or about sex workers’ lives, and deaths. It’s an angry, emotional book, completely out of step with ascendant (white) Canadian poetics, which tend to be cool, intellectual, and emotionally private to the point of opacity.
I’m also working on a novel that explores similar themes; it’s set in Bangkok and Calgary, the city where I grew up.
Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, the most recent being The Lizard Cage, which the New York Times Book Review compared to the works of Solzhenitsyn, Mandela and Orwell. It was nominated for the Kiriyama Prize and won Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers. Raised in Calgary, Connelly has lived for extended periods of time in different parts of Asia and Europe and now has two homes, one in Toronto and one in Greece.