THE WEEKEND TEAM 13 SEP 2019
Myanmar has a long literary history, from the days of transcribing the Buddhist scriptures in Kuthodaw Pagoda (officially the world’s largest book), to once having the highest literacy rates in the developing world. Whether readers are interested in religion, psychology, fantasy, travel or self-help, there’s a book for every type of book lover.
Though English literacy rates may have dropped over the past few decades, Myanmar book shops are still stocked with many international and local titles. In this week’s top ten we’ll look at both local authors and translators.
1. Pascal Khoo Thwe
From the Land of the Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey (2002) tells the story of a visiting English professor to Myanmar in 1988, and his happenstance meeting with a waiter in Mandalay. The waiter has a passion for the works of James Joyce, over whom the two form a lasting bond. Set amidst the political turmoil of the democracy uprising, the story is an autobiographical account of Khoo Thwe’s life as a Padaung boy, and his remarkable love of literature. In 2002 the novel won the Kiriyama Prize, an international literary prize for the most outstanding book from South Asia and the Pacific Rim.
2. Thint Lu
Thint Lu is a doctor by trade, but also one of the most prolific writers and translators in the country. He has written essays on medical issues, and has given Burmese readers access to some of the most interesting books of world literature through his translations. His work ranges from the popular James Bowden’s A Street Cat Named Bob (2016) to the magical worlds of Gabriel in books like Love in the Time of Cholera (1988).
3. Moe Thet Han
Moe Thet Han is often thought of as the bridge between Myanmar readers and international literature. He himself has written some five novels, and translated seventeen of the most provocative works of international literature. His famous translation of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami tells the story of a young Japanese man, and his sexual interest in a young woman during the late 1960s. The book not only details sexually taboo material, but is also a subtle criticism of the baby boomer political activism at the time. Moe Thet Han has also translated other controversial titles such as Lanzarote (2000) by French author Michel Houellebecq and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (1986).
4. Chan Myae Win
Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k (2016) became an instant success in Myanmar, partly because of Chan Myae Win’s excellent translation. Intriguingly, Manson’s book seems to contradict just about every cultural norm in the country – from respecting your elders, to being polite and not being too outspoken. Chan Myae Win’s translations are very helpful for explaining Manson’s somewhat individualistic philosophy to local readers, so much so that she has also translated Manson’s next book Everything is F**ked (2019) – a title that will require a slightly different translation for that most versatile of words in the English language.
5. Sabal Phyu Nu
Sabal Phyu Nu started her writing career publishing short stories in local literary magazines, and later moving to longer novels – some of which have been adapted to film. Hlat Ywae Hlwint Thaw Kabar (The World Revealed), A Lwn Saing (The Yearning Shop) and Myauk Phyar Ka A Lwn Yarthi (Longing for the Northern Seasons) are some of her most well-known works, exploring the themes of love, travel and loss. She won the Myanmar National Literature Award for Fiction in 2015 and the Award for Children’s Literature in 2018.
6. Cho Pain Naung
Popular among young women, Cho Pain Naung writes essays, poems and short novels. She likes to experiment with her writing style, and has a reputation as being a bit edgy. This can be seen in titles like Phwint Saung Ma Ya Tae Htee (The Umbrella That Doesn’t Open) and La Ni Ni Ko Myin Tae Thu (The One Who Saw the Red Moon). Her most famous translation is of Jean Teule’s novel The Suicide Shop, a black comedy about a shop owner who sells equipment to help people kill themselves. Why such an offbeat approach to life (and death) appeals to Myanmar readers? That’s anyone’s guess.
7. Thu Way
Thu Way maintains a very low profile, but he has a large fan base. What’s unusual about his style is that it’s much more vernacular than that of his peers, describing characters and action as if having a conversation. His latest book is titled Nan Dwin Kyaung Thar (Student from the Palace), which is about a high school student from a family of army officers living in Mandalay Palace. This is his fifteenth novel.
8. Lu Nay
Lu Nay is also a contemporary writer who has published over thirty novels, some of which have been made into films. His 2013 novel Thamada Gyi Htan Pay Sar (Letter to the President) is a captivating drama about a man wrongly convicted of murder. The story follows an indignant mother’s search for justice as she seeks her son’s acquittal by writing to the president. It’s an iconic modern film that explores corruption in the legal system, and was made into a film.
9. Thoe Saung
He is one of the most popular young Myanmar writers who teases his readers with stories of intrigue and mystery. His books also include elements of adventure and the supernatural. His novel Kyaung Sin Chain (School Time is Over) is about a boy who follows the advice of a fortune teller after school, and gets caught up in a romance with a fellow student.
10. Thaw Tar Aye Lae
Thaw Tar Aye Lae was a journalist and a graduate from Queensland University. She published La Yeik Poe Hmyin (Shade of the Moon) in 2018, which is a novel based on the lives of villagers effected by Cyclone Nargis. Her other novels include Ma Nat Phyan Hma Pyone Tot Mal (I’ll Smile Tomorrow) and Kyan Yit Myit (The River I Left Behind). She is currently attending an international writing program in the United States.