Wendy Law-Yone: Banishment from certain states is a form of salvation
Wendy Law-Yone identifies herself as “half Burmese, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter English.” However, Burma, the country where she was born, is the common denominator of her three novels: The Coffin Tree (1983), Irrawaddy Tango (1993), and The Road to Wanting (2010).
The daughter of a notable newspaper publisher who was imprisoned by the military regime during the sixties, Law-Yone was banished from her country and came to the United States in 1973, where she lived for more than 30 years.
She speaks German, Burmese, and English, but the language of her novels is English. Her book reviews and articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, and Time magazine, and she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, a Harvard Foundation award, and a David T.K. Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in England.
Although an American citizen, Law-Yone is now a permanent resident of the United Kingdom, where she answered this interview via email. Here, she discusses her new book, her exile, and her fear of returning to Burma.
Your new book The Road to Wanting tells the story of Na Ga, a young Burmese woman who fled Burma and suffers poverty, slavery, prostitution, and abandonment. Where did you get the idea for this character?
You know the old saying, “In order to understand the village, you first have to know the world?” Well, for much of my early adult life I was hell-bent on escaping the ‘village’ of Burma in order to know the wider world. When you stop to think of the energy and drive involved in acquiring this worldly knowledge, you wonder that you’re still alive. But it also strikes you at a certain point that in your endless quest to know the world, you have let go, or simply lost, your knowledge of the village. I suppose the character of Na Ga came partly from that tension, that headlong journey from the village to the world, and the more sober, more halting, journey from the big world back to the lost village.
To trace the provenance of a fictional character is to make a spurious sort of genealogical claim and the truthful answer to your question is that I don’t really know where Na Ga came from.
The difference is that Na Ga became another victim of the sex slave industry in her trip from the village to the world. How has prostitution affected Burmese women?
If official figures mean anything, something like 40,000 Burmese women work in the brothels of Thailand. Most of them are from ethnic minorities. Most of them are underage. And more than half of them are infected with HIV. But the Thai brothels are only part of the story. The situation in Burma, the very ethos of the military regime, has led to the export of large numbers of Burmese women—again, mostly from the ethnic minorities—to service the sex trade not only in Thailand, but in China, in Japan, in Korea, in India, in Malaysia, and in Bangladesh.
The Burma I grew up in was a conservative, even prudish society. Sex was not a subject one could speak about freely—let alone prostitution. How things have changed. In Rangoon—Yangon today—prostitutes work out of hotel/brothels, casinos, massage parlors, and restaurants that are fully or partly owned by the generals. Prostitution may be illegal, but it’s alive and kicking.
You also point out a reality that is even less exposed than prostitution—the exotification of Asian women by the West. Will, an American with an interest in native peoples and their customs, discovers Na Ga. She lives as a lover, servant, and an exotic subject in Will’s Bangkok house, until his interest evaporates and he wants to send her back to Burma. What was the inspiration for the character of Will?
I have met many Wills, and in the most unlikely places. The Wills of the world seem to me to have traits of both The Quiet American and The Ugly American. (The first is the Graham Greene classic, set in Vietnam, and the second is the 1958 bestseller set in the fictional nation of Sarkhan, a combination of Burma and Thailand.) These Wills have a touching wide-eyed attitude they never seem to lose towards the cultures and peoples they discover and embrace. Along with a not-so-touching certainty that in the end they know what’s best for the objects of their interest and devotion.
Will also threatens Na Ga with her biggest fear: go return to Burma. Is that also one of your biggest fears?
Yes, I associate going back to Burma with fear, ignorance, inhumanity, helplessness. To be trapped there, for whatever reason, is one of my worst nightmares. Another nightmare is not living long enough to see a time when it will be possible to go back in the right way.
One of the reviewers of The Road to Wanting said that, after all her suffering, “Na Ga is too calm and measured for her voice to sound especially authentic.” Do you think the reviewer’s comment is a misunderstanding of your culture?
I don’t know this review, so I don’t want to take the comment out of context. But I suspect if there is any misunderstanding, it isn’t one of anthropology so much as psychology. It depends too on what is meant by ‘authentic.’ The authentically damaged are often ‘calm and measured.’
In your Time article “The Outsider,” you wrote that the people you met when you temporarily returned to Burma made you feel “that exile was more a badge of honor than a state of banishment.” What exactly has exile meant for you?
Once upon a time, exile meant punishment through banishment—from a civilized center to a desolate wasteland: from Rome to Sarmatia; Peking to Tibet; St. Petersburg to Siberia. The Latin exilium means banishment; and the melancholy of banishment can be sensed in words as various as the Old English wrecca (wretch, stranger, exile) and wreccan (to drive out, punish); in the German word elend (misery), in turn derived from the Old High German elilenti (sojourn in a foreign land, exile). But as I said in the Time article you mention, we live in an age when half of the world is on the move, on the run. It isn’t just intellectuals and other enemies of the state but whole populations that are ousted from their countries of origin. And while the burdens of exile are still the same, it has to be acknowledged that banishment from certain states is a form of salvation. The wretch in our time is often as much the one who stays as the one who has been forced to leave. This applies to writers too—especially for the privileges it brings—the wider experiences, the opportunities for self-expression, the possibilities of reaching larger audiences. That’s how I’ve looked at my own career in exile, anyway.
You wrote, “Buddhism is the official religion of Burma, and Buddhism, with its teachings on impermanence and the universality of human suffering, is thought to explain in large part the extraordinary tolerance of the Burmese. They have tolerated, above all, four decades of a government renowned for lying, cheating, stealing, torturing and murdering.” Does that mean that you see Buddhist teachings as one of the causes of the situation in Burma?
No, that’s not what I meant. And your question has made me aware of the slipperiness of stock terms like ‘tolerance.’ What I meant by tolerance in the above instance was not so much a general permissiveness towards attitudes or behaviors that differ from one’s own. I meant by tolerance the capacity for endurance. And there is no doubt that this capacity is honed by the teachings of Buddhism. But it would be absurd to infer that Buddhist tolerance is one of the causes of Burma’s woes. It’s an effect, not a cause. Perhaps the sense I was reaching for is more in line with the medical definition of tolerance: ‘The ability of an organism to resist or survive infection by a parasitic or pathogenic organism.’
How has fighting for democratic causes affected your writing?
I can’t claim to have fought for a single worthy cause, democratic or otherwise. I leave that to the hopeful and the brave.
But don’t you feel that exposing Burma’s situation through your writing is a contribution to the democratic cause?
If I felt that, I would be writing in a very different way. I don’t think fiction has to (or ever manages to) promote a cause, except the cause of literature itself.
Your father was a famous journalist who was in prison for 5 years. In what ways did your father’s imprisonment influence your understanding of the significance of language?
That may have been a big influence. But there were other influences that coincided with his imprisonment. Adolescence, for instance. The inevitable introspection of teenage years, coupled with the introspection forced upon a young mind by a tyrannical state. To try to make sense of a world that seemed senseless on so many fronts, I looked more closely at what words meant—in the books I read, but also in the heavily censored letters that we received from our imprisoned father. I learned the critical importance of reading between the lines. This led, I fear, to a lasting tendency to write between the lines. By that I mean an over-cautious approach to writing that makes the process even more difficult than it already is.
How was the process of moving away from the Burmese language in order to write in English?
I only started writing in earnest after I left Burma, so Burmese was not my first literary tongue. Nor was English, for that matter. The first language in which I aspired to literature was German. I happened to take an intensive German language and literature course when I was seventeen. Enchanted by Goethe, Rilke, and Hölderlin, I began writing poetry in German. How I wish I could recover that naive (if utterly misplaced) brashness and self-confidence.
Is English your first language?
I’m not sure what my first language was, really. I grew up in a bi-lingual household, speaking Burmese to our domestic help and to my more conservative relatives. With my immediate family, I would say it was a patois of half-Burmese and half-English. My parents and older siblings were educated in the English system, but because I grew up in the post-independence period, when the nationalist spirit was high, all subjects in school were taught in Burmese, and English was just a second language in the curriculum. But, as I say, the first language in which I had my eyes opened to serious literature was neither Burmese nor English, but German.
Did the fact that you and your family were Catholics affect you in some way?
Did it ever! When I first began to react to my Catholic upbringing—this was in my early teenage years—I was deeply resentful of the anguish and guilt it had inflicted on me as a child. But, later, I saw that those dreaded weekly confessions, those ‘examinations of conscience,’ prepared me for the introspection required to write novels.
As a Burmese writer, what is your strong desire for the future?
Freedom. The many different kinds of freedom that have been denied the people of Burma. Freedom of thought and expression. Freedom of choice. Freedom of speech and action. A free press such as my father was lucky enough to represent—for a short while, anyway. A profusion—a profligacy—of affordable books for the multitudes of book-loving Burmese.
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