THE PERSONAL AND POLITICAL ENTWINED

< back to Burmese Lessons

A Canadian's carefully observed memoir of a dark and violent place.
by Jamie Zeppa

Early on in Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, Karen Connelly notices something about the way she talks. At a dinner party in Bangkok, while journalists and consultants create in broad strokes what might be called the Bigger Picture-the history of Burma and region, an encyclopedia of issues-Connelly finds she is "always reaching for the detail, or the individual, or the subjective truth contained in the particular moment. That's how poets talk, and women." For readers who favour the Bigger Picture approach, sweeping in its historical research, devoid of personal commentary (or indeed experience), I highly recommend Burmese Lessons. In quietly beautiful, searching prose, Connelly shows us the small stories: the child labourer straining under loads of wet cement, a woman wailing over her son's corpse in a refugee camp, a mother hiding protestors in the room where her children are asleep.

Connelly, author of nine books of poetry, non-fiction and fiction, went to Burma in 1996, ostensibly to gather information for a series of articles. In this memoir, she talks to writers, artists, refugees and dissidents, attends protests, flees from police, interviews Aung San Suu Kyi, falls in love, visits refugee camps, contracts malaria and begins writing a novel that will become The Lizard Cage. It is not a memoir lacking in action or emotion, but, like Connelly's Touch the Dragon, it is a distillation, written several years after the time it describes. This gives the writing its depth and reminds us that the experience of a place continues long after we leave it, as we integrate what we saw and did and (if we are lucky) who we loved into our larger selves.

The first part of Burmese Lessons is set in Burma, where Connelly begins to learn the language as a way in. Speaking is set against silence and censorship. A manuscript in Burma, she learns, passes through four separate censors. Artists have to avoid black and red and abstraction; the regime prefers pictures of monks and elephants. As one writer says, Insein, the country's most notorious prison, is an occupational hazard for any artist in Burma. Silence is the goal not only of censorship but also of torture: Connelly discovers that people are tortured for information the regime already has. The climax of torture, she says, is not revelation, not words spilling out, but the ultimate silencing of the individual-something far worse than instant execution.

And yet, against that silence, people keep talking and writing and painting. They keep meeting in public and protesting the regime. And in the midst of crushing brutality, they keep recreating their humanity. Another night, after witnessing the police beat a man nearly to death, Connelly is offered a box of English water crackers by some monks, ostensibly for her journey back to the hotel. She realizes instantly what she is being given: "They are offering the antidote to what I've seen in the street, a gift of civilization that I can understand and ingest without fear ? I must not refuse." A Bigger Picture book would miss the gift of crackers.

Connelly learns the language so that she can connect in the simplest of ways, through the exchanges of daily life. Being aware of the terror that exists under the simplest of daily tasks, she feels unbalanced: "This is how life is every day for Burmese people, even those with uncommon privileges. Here is the surface-the sun shining down ? But another reality also exists, hidden though in full view, known by all but secret. That is the nature of life in any politically oppressed country: reality itself has a personality disorder."

The second part of the book, set in Thailand, is an exploration of what it means to be on the border. Connelly visits the literal border between Burma and Thailand, where camps are burned to the ground every year and where malaria will either provide you with a terrible vacation from the unending toil of making a home in the jungle or it will kill you. But she also shows us what it means to live on a psychological border. Burmese dissidents and refugees shift throughout Bangkok in illegal exile, trying always to carry enough money to bribe the police. "This is the way of the world," she writes. "Fragmented populations of people who live at the edges, their clothes getting thinner and dirtier with each passing day, their eyes yearning toward a centre they cannot reach."

If language is one way to enter a culture, love is another. Connelly loves Burma, but she also falls in love with the leader of one of Burma's many resistance groups. Even in the earliest, dizzying stages, she realizes this love has to fit into the larger political struggle, and over time, it becomes clear that even her writing will have to be sacrificed to the cause. She has to make a decision, one that does not require an oracular knowledge of the future, but a deep understanding of herself.

Perhaps it is the depth of her self-knowledge that allows Connelly to be an unobtrusive presence in such a personal book. This is not to say that she is absent from her own prose. An excellent guide, she is warm and wry and always aware of her position and privilege, mining her perceptions for biases and avoiding what she calls the westerner's tendency to colonize "even the political struggle of a small country." But she avoids, always, the excesses of self-examination. In explaining how her first trip to Asia allowed her to reclaim her childhood, she gives us the briefest glimpse into her own background, just enough for us to understand why her childhood would need reclaiming in the first place. In a different kind of a memoir, this would be unsatisfying, but here it serves Connelly's purpose very well. It allows the place to shine through the person who observes it. Burmese Lessons shows us more than a place, or a person in a place: it shows us a way to be in the world: open, seeing, breathing, awake.

In Connelly's reflections on the personal and political, we begin to see the relationship between the small stories and the Bigger Picture. The political activists sacrifice their personal lives for the movement, she says, but when they are together, they talk not about the cause but their families and friends. Even former prisoners, she points out, talk more about the relationships they had with small animals in their cells than their political convictions. "The politics is the road and the method. But the personal is the only shelter," she writes.

In virtually every encounter, Connelly shows us that there is no escaping the political: the reach of the regime is pervasive and poisonous. The political is there in the personal, bearing down, warping and disfiguring daily life. The mental and physical violence of the regime is suffered personally, by men and women and children, every one of whom, she points out, has a name. This is the greatest lesson in Burmese Lessons, and the most important moment: the realization that the whole history of Burma is reflected in every individual life. The small story is the Bigger Picture.