WRITER COMBINES LOVE, CRITICISM OF THE DICTATORSHIP

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The Associated Press, May 17, 2010
Profile/Review carried in:
Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Yahoo News, Washington Examiner Online, San Francisco Examiner Online, Detroit News plus several other blogs and smaller outlets
by Carl Hartman

"Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 400 pages, $27.95), by Karen Connelly: A generous dollop of poetic chick lit combines surprisingly well with criticism of Burma's half-century of bloody dictatorship in Canadian Karen Connelly's "Burmese Lessons."

Her title page labels it "A True Love Story."

On her first stroll in the old Burmese capital, a wordless, smiling woman and little boy motion the author into a dark room in a narrow cement building.

The boy bows to a Buddha statue. Karen genuflects three times, recalling a year she spent with a Buddhist family in Thailand.

"I think I've happened upon the neighborhood shrine for children," she writes. "Soon there are a dozen kids clustered around me in the candlelight. As flowers surround the Buddha, I am encircled by thin brown limbs, open faces, an assortment of wide or cautious smiles.

"Thus I learn my destiny. I will never leave Rangoon. I will return to this street and find a house here and adopt children as beautiful as these ..."

She does leave Burma, but only after falling in love with the country — which she refuses to call Myanmar, the name given by the ruling generals. Her interest had been aroused by the fate of a female political prisoner, a writer like herself. She interviews several former prisoners.

"The most common form of torture in Burma's prisons is beating," she summarizes.

"Beatings with the fists, with boots, with sticks, with leather belts. Beatings standing up, beatings squatting down naked with hands clasped behind the head. ... Beatings until the kidney or the liver or the spleen or the intestine is irreparably damaged; beatings that cause permanent paralysis. Beatings with a black hood over the head. As though the victim in the interrogation cell, through her actions and her voice, has become her own executioner."

Shaken by the violence she sees at an anti-government demonstration, Karen returns to neighboring Thailand. Authorities there tolerate refugees and insurgents along the border fighting the Burmese generals' forces.

Karen falls heavily for Maung, handsome leader of an insurgent group.

She is hardly fazed by credible stories of his continued connections with Burmese women and his alleged ordering of executions without trial of suspected traitors among rival dissidents. He wants to marry her and have children, but she breaks off after an inner struggle — a little miffed at his reticence about his work.

"To keep my own future safe for my work as a writer," she says, "I had to leave both Maung and the border ... What was I but a writer? ... To endanger the work endangers the self."

Maung has since married a Burmese woman. Karen has married Robert Chang, a Toronto architect.

"We share an abiding and equal respect for each other's work," she wrote recently, "and allow each other all the space we need to accomplish it while also taking care of our little boy, who is three. (We just have one, so far.)"