Rosalie Metro deftly explores some of the key issues confronting Myanmar in her debut novel Have Fun in Burma.
By DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON | FRONTIER
WOMEN WRITE the finest literature about Myanmar. Men tend to pen tough-guy travelogues. Think of Wendy Law-Yone’s novels of haunting beauty and memoirs full of humour and loss such as The Golden Parasol, Charmaine Craig’s thinly fictionalised portrait of her famous mother Naw Louisa Benson in Miss Burma, Karen Connolley’s The Lizard Cage about political prisoners, the work of Ma Ma Lay, Ludu Daw Amar, and Ma Thida (Sanchaung), and the reportage of Emma Larkin and Delphine Shrank. The American scholar Rosalie Metro has joined these ranks with her first novel, Have Fun in Burma.
The sardonic title sets the tone for the central character, 18-year-old Adela Frost, an earnest American looking for adventure and meaning who is inspired by an exiled Myanmar activist-cum-sushi-chef to visit his homeland. Exotic Myanmar on the cusp of a democratic transition in 2012 is just what she was searching for. Adela is recruited by the fictional Myanmar Volunteers United to teach English for three months. Metro reviews the debates on “voluntourism”, positioning Adela as a symbol of the well-meaning but not deeply informed West moving into a more open Myanmar.
Most of the book plays out in the confines of the Yadana Yeiktha monastery in Yangon, at which after a brief contextual induction, Adela starts teaching, first with a group of monks and then a gaggle of children and she is swiftly christened Saya Ma Sabeh (“Teacher Jasmine Flower”). Rising Buddhist-Muslim communal tensions creep into Adela’s adventure, and the novel is fundamentally an exploration of the complexities of that conflict from the ground up. Interwoven with Adela’s experiences in the monastery are her blogging insights into contemporary political currents, an analytical sub-text of dispatches in bold lettering.
The central characters are deeply drawn and heartbreakingly illustrative of the suffering endured by many people during military rule. Daw Pancavati, a Buddhist nun who endured the misery of migrant worker life overseas and then lost her family in Cyclone Nargis, is Adela’s key confidant. There’s also the daunting abbot, Bhante, and his cryptic sermonising, and encounters with the many monastery residents whom Adela struggles to place and position in the social system, and Sarah the world-weary MVU head and aid worker as the voice of Western experience that Adela initially resents.
Adela’s “fun” is mixed. She endures dysentery, learns to meditate, is instructed in the basic tenets of Buddhism, engages in vexed identity and belonging debates over Rohingya and other Muslims with the monks of her class, explores the term kala, ventures briefly out of the monastery to a nearby Muslim slum, and has a steamy love affair with a former political prisoner and activist, the enigmatic Thiha.
Weaving throughout the novel is Adela’s summer study project, a comparison of George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, two seminal novels elucidating the rot of colonialism. What could have descended into cliché is skillfully avoided by Metro’s deft writing. These are important lenses for the Western imagination and the author uses them with the right mix of scholarly insight and narrative verve. Metro even makes a sly Eat, Pray, Love allusion to that genre of New Age self-discovery, which her novel admirably navigates by wrestling with complex issues.
I won’t spoil the plot twist, but suffice to say a toxic combination of earnest good intention and social media leads to Adela’s departure from the monastery and Myanmar. It’s another topical feature of the novel that Facebook is as much a villain as Islamophobic racists: Metro predicted the pernicious effects of the social media platform well before the current drama over its role in spreading vilification and violence.
But just like Western moralising on Myanmar, Adela can at times be self-absorbed and annoying. Her naiveté is a perfect narrative device, but the reader has to remember they are still thoughts from a passionate and intelligent 18-year-old in a foreign land. She redeems herself in the final pages with a switch to first person insights into her poor judgement and its effects on the people she tried to help, and the broader dynamics of the conflict she worked so hard to understand. This is where Metro admirably ties together strands of lessons learned, more subtly effective than screaming in ignorant protest. As Adela reflects, “That’s one thing that’s changed in the past year: I can’t idealize one position or the other.”
This is a coming of age story wrapped in a thriller infused with careful political analysis. Metro maintains a laudable balance in her narratives of the Rakhine crisis, and attention to detail and nuance sadly lacking in recent books on communal conflict in Myanmar. This should come as no surprise, as the author has produced exemplary academic work on education policy and practice in Myanmar, as well as history textbooks that are some of the best on the country’s complicated past. This novel will reward you, but I also urge you to seek out Metro’s academic work.
Have Fun in Burma is a timely book that should be read broadly for its intrinsic qualities as a story and as an engaging introduction to the complexities confronting modern Myanmar. It is published by Northern Illinois University Press, 2018.