Writers find inspiration in all kinds of places: urban landscapes, the great outdoors, a room of one’s own. For Nay Phone Latt, a Burmese writer and online activist, it was a jail cell. “Prison is a good place to write. You can concentrate,” he said with a chuckle in an interview this week, seven years after he was locked up for posting a cartoon of Myanmar’s then-military junta leader Than Shwe on his blog. Writing was banned inside the prison but he befriended a few young guards who smuggled in pens and paper. On the scraps, he wrote short stories that were sent to his family. His stories made it to the outside world through local magazines and, eventually, as part of a mass pardon of political prisoners in 2012, so did Nay Phone Latt.
Few could have predicted then that three years later he would be on stage at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which took place in Mandalay, Myanmar’s cultural capital, last weekend. His talk, on the changing use of language by the younger generation, was one of more than 80 held by leading Burmese intellectuals like Ma Thida and authors from overseas including Louis de Bernières, the British author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Booker prize-winning Irish writer Anne Enright. It was a warm, informal affair. Burmese, Indian, British, Australian and European men, women, students and monks mingled in the shiny halls of the Mandalay Hill Resort. Fried rice and donuts were sold in the gardens, where writers made speeches under white marquees and poems in rounded Burmese script were pinned to boards.
The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, now three years old, was the first international event of its kind in Myanmar when it was held in 2012, shortly after the abolition of censorship and a chance conversation between Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Kelly Falconer, a Hong Kong-based literary agent who has a Burmese author among her roster of writers, recalls the weekend, which drew a crowd of 10,000, as “momentous.” In an email, she said: “I was profoundly moved by the reaction of the Burmese in the audience, who seemed at once awestruck and dumbstruck by the freedoms so suddenly allowed, by the sight of journalists around so openly reporting, by the presence of other writers who had never been censored, by the presence of writers who had formerly been censored, or jailed, or exiled, standing up in front of all of us to read from their own works, or to discuss them with others, without fear of reprisal.”
Two years have passed since then. The realities of the post-censorship era have set in, bringing political minefields as well as a dip in momentum. This year, the crowds were much thinner – in the hundreds, rather than thousands. Some of the talks were sparsely attended and, for the most part, Burmese people went to talks by Burmese people and foreigners went to talks by foreigners. Things got political: some writers objected to the invitation – or perceived snubbing – of others, particularly those associated with the government. Last year, the same issue got so heated that a number of authors boycotted the event.
There was no boycott this year but some, including Wai Phyo Maung, a 25-year-old academic researcher, walked out of events. “A literary festival like this is a rare opportunity in a country like Burma,” said Wai Phyo Maung, a tall man with shoulder-length hair and glasses. He had come from a talk on the work of a female existentialist writer. “To be frank, I think the analysis should have been more in depth – anyway, I liked it, it’s a very interesting topic,” he said. In an email after the festival, he explained how another speaker, with her talk of “state-building” had turned him off. “I walked out of the room after hearing the first few sentences,” he said. “Living under military regime, I can sense the smell of government lobbyists, which never fails to make me puke.” A spokesman for the festival did not return requests for comment. But in Falconer’s view, the dispute was a good sign. “I’m glad there was a festival, sorry there was dissent,” she said. “But the fact that there was open dissent must be seen as a positive sign of the right to speak freely and openly without fear of reprisal.”
Myanmar’s literary world has been bound up with politics for decades. The country’s first prime minister, U Nu, was a writer as well as a politician. From the late colonial era, which ended with Burmese independence in 1948, onward, nationalism was the driving force behind much of the writing that was produced. Writing in The Atlantic in 1958, U On Pe bemoaned the “apparent total abandonment” of old literary traditions when the British arrived “in favour of imitation of sometimes rather mediocre Western authors” and novelists who were “little better than hacks” who “turned out ‘penny-dreadfuls’.” Some groups went for ‘art for art’s sake’ – there was a poetic movement in the 1930s comparable to Ezra Pound’s Imagism – but the main thrust was political.
The military coup of 1962 ushered in an era of pre-publication censorship that spread fear and stifled creativity. As Pe Myint, a renowned Burmese author and journalist said in Mandalay on Sunday: “For 48 years, censorship repressed the Myanmar literary world.” The allegiances forged then – some writers joined forces with the authorities – sowed the seeds of today’s disputes. “China and its writers have similar issues between government-associated writers and those who refuse to be associated,” said Falconer. “Sometimes joining these associations is a matter of survival; sometimes refusing to join is a matter of survival.”
That era is now over – sort of. Writers are more free to operate. There are more chances for them to speak at both literary talks and festivals. But self-censorship is common. Some government critics are still blacklisted by local authorities, according to Nay Phone Latt, who has organised talks as part of an ongoing anti-hate speech campaign. Pe Myint organised the Nobel Myanmar Literary Festival in Yangon in January. But the practicalities were difficult: authors were spread wide across the country and finding a building was a challenge as the most suitable in Yangon belong to the government.
Nobody knows if the country’s experiment with reform will come to a sudden end. When asked about Myanmar’s literary future, Pe Myint voiced the fears of many, saying that “it depends on the state of the political transition – how far will it go to proceed after 2015 election [planned for November]. Some people not sure about the election – will it happen? Will it be free or fair? And what kind of government will take over?”
In the meantime, the debates continue. They’re significant in a country where an oppressive government has encouraged a culture of monologue. During the international isolation of the military regime, writers “thought that they were on the upper level and the reader on the lower level,” said Nay Phone Latt. Now the mindset has shifted: “It’s not only a monologue but discussion and debate.” Throughout the activist’s own speech at the festival, audience members – old and young – threw out questions and objections. Towards the end, the talk descended into a barrage of point-scoring and laughter.
The interpreter, unable to keep up with the flow of conversation, turned around and asked, in a cheerfully exasperated tone: “Does this ever happen in your country?”
Poppy McPherson is a journalist working for Coconuts Media in Southeast Asia.