U Win Pe: A Versatile Man
A portrait of a Burmese artist, writer, director, and cartoonist.
If a person can do one form of art, that is something they can take pride in. If he can do two forms of art, he is a smart man. If he can do three or four kinds of art, then that man is a genius.
- In Burma if you want to hear about issues the newspapers can’t talk about, you should go to a tea shop. Tea houses were where I used to meet with other activists, writers and artists, as well as where I built friendships. Within tea houses we talked about Burmese writers, literary trends we noticed, and, of course, politics. This online space attempts to emulate the conversations I enjoyed in Rangoon’s tea houses.
- Khet Mar is a journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist from Burma. She is the author of one novel, Wild Snowy Night, as well as several collections of short stories, essays and poems. Her work has been translated into English and Japanese, been broadcast on radio, and made into a film. She is a former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
Burmese writer U Win Pe is a genius. As a child he started studying music and art, and since he was a university student he has had many exhibitions of his paintings. In 1959 he worked for the newspaper Ludu as a foreign editor, illustrator, and satirical cartoonist before becoming the Principal of the State School of Fine Arts, Music, and Dancing from 1966 until 1973. After retiring from this position, U Win Pe began writing screenplays and directing movies. His films are famous for inspiring discussion and debate. In 1981 he received the Academy Award in Burma for Best Director and in 1994 he studied film at UCLA and in Hollywood as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the US Department of State.
Before UCLA, U Win Pe became the first writer from Burma to participate in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. He has been writing short stories since 1988 and like his films, his stories are famous for causing his readers to debate their meanings.
Because he wrote and spoke out about freedom of expression while at the International Writing Program in Iowa, U Win Pe couldn’t go back to Burma. He had to continue living in America, so he worked as a senior editor at Radio Free Asia from 1997 to 2005.
When we were both in Burma I didn’t get the chance to get to know U Win Pe very well. But when my family and I came to the United States in 2009 I was able to spend time with him at literary conferences, where I learned about his perspective on literature and art.
U Win Pe believes that creating art and writing literature is like discovering and sharing freedom. We talked about this in 2010 when I was with him in Los Angeles for a literary conference. I remember his comments from our conversation:
“If you study art and literature, you are getting to know freedom. It is very important to have freedom of expression to create art or literature. People who study art are studying freedom indirectly. If you do not have freedom within you, you cannot create any art form.”
As a cartoonist, writer, editor, director, and artist U Win Pe is well known for the quality of his work. Right now, he is working at Voice of America and has a well-known weekly program on the BBC.
Despite his desire to return to Burma, U Win Pe has been away from his native land for 18 years. However after 2010, because a new government was elected in Burma, some people, including U Win Pe, were able to get visas to go home.
“Are you going to stay in Burma for the rest of your life?” I asked him.
“When I came to the States, I intended to stay for just three months, but I ended up having to live here for 18 years. I have been thinking about visiting Burma for a while, but I can’t say if I will live there for the rest of my life or come back to US,” he replied immediately. He added, “If I have to live in Burma, I can definitely say that I am going to paint and write.”
I am very excited for U Win Pe’s return home and I pray that the trip back is uncomplicated, successful, and fun.
Read U Win Pe’s short story “The Middle of May.”
Translation: Courtney Wittekind