Cristina Maria Chiorean interviews renowned Myanmar author Ma Thanegi.
In 1988, during the countrywide uprising, author and artist Ma Thanegi was a volunteer assistant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In July 1989, together with many of her colleagues, she was detained in prison for nearly three years. In 2010 Things Asian Press published her book Nor Iron Bars A Cage, a surprisingly hilarious account from within the prison of her experiences and the lasting friendships forged between a wildly diverse group of women, from political prisoners to prostitutes and pickpockets.
With a deep knowledge and love for her country, Ma Thanegi has often found inspiration for her books in the country’s traditions and culture, presenting Myanmar’s customs, describing Buddhism, depicting the touristic sights, the architecture, or detailing recipes for those keen to try their hand at Myanmar food.
Born in 1946 in Shwebo, growing up in Yangon Ma Thanegi attended the Methodist English High School and later studied at the State School of Fine Arts. All her books are written in English for the benefit of readers interested in gaining a deeper insight on Myanmar. In Yangon her books are available at the street sellers’ stalls on Pansodan Road, at the Bagan Bookstore or at Myanmar Book Centre. Many are also available on amazon.com.
Reading her two travelogues, The Native Tourist and Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, what really struck me was the ease at which the reader is taken along on her travel experiences and the unconventional, witty style through which Ma Thanegi reveals her thoughts and describes her adventures. The reader is left with a deeper appreciation through the genuine presentation of a local’s behaviour and the description of their beliefs and traditions. For foreigners, it is not always easy to understand what people in Myanmar really think and why they act in a certain way.
Though widely known for her writing, Ma Thanegi started out as a painter. She exhibited in Myanmar from 1967 until 1998 in collective shows, as well as in seven solo exhibitions. In her travel book The Native Tourist her own sketches complement the writing to depict her pilgrimage through the country.
I met with her earlier this month, and her answers to my questions reveal Ma Thanegi’s unique personality.
Please describe yourself in three words.
Tough old bitch.
Your biggest achievement so far?
Rather not say, don’t like to brag unless absolutely necessary.
What don’t you like about yourself?
Too much impatience with people who:
- Don’t think
- Can’t think as have no brains
- Don’t know how to think
Not really their fault, is it?
Who do you admire most?
Too many to say. Those I love and admire have pure souls and smart minds, young or old.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Nothing worth mentioning.
We are curious about your biggest fear?
Being trapped somewhere for long with chatty idiots.
Which is your favourite place in Myanmar and why?
Any place that I can be alone. I love, love, love Myanmar and I love being alone.
In which restaurant or bar in Yangon do you love to hang out with friends?
My ex political prisoner friends from the same time, same jail. There’s about 30 of us from the ”Insein Mafia” and we meet at someone’s house. Restaurants would probably kick us out and I am not willing to meet them in a bar, no thank you very much.
What is your favourite Myanmar dish?
Too many to name. I love to eat. Mum wanted a princess daughter and got a pig.
A book about Myanmar you would recommend?
The Burman by Shwe Yoe. I think we confuse others with our strange beliefs and behaviour and this ancient book is still spot on about it. Almost like a ”how to make sense of people from Myanmar”. Western friends have told me only half-jokingly that we must be aliens.
Where do you think you will be in 10 years’ time?
Not dead yet, hopefully. However, if dead I am determined to be reincarnated as pampered female cat because then I don’t need to go to school and study Math.
Where did your interest of writing come from?
I loved to read since I was ten but at 15 I saw an art exhibition at the Goethe Institute. Then and there I decided I would be a painter. I never had any ambitions about being a writer. My co-member at Peacock Gallery, the modern sculptor Sonny Nyein, who is deeply interested in as well as very knowledgeable of Burmese culture and history suggested in 1985 that I write a book in English on our marionette tradition and that he would help with research. He still does. Anyway I completed the manuscript in one year with necessary transparencies but White Orchid Press from Bangkok could publish it only in 1994 as “The Illusion of Life: Burmese marionettes”. To earn my living after my divorce in 1986 I was teaching art privately and writing some commissioned stuff and somehow got too busy with it. However it was only after my fourth or so book came out that I realised to my surprise that I had found another profession. I enjoy writing on our people and traditions but one day I will go back to painting.
Nowadays what is the biggest difficulty for a Myanmar writer who wants to publish a book in Myanmar?
I have no idea because I have only two publishers: Asia House in Myanmar and ThingsAsianPress from Hong Kong and both are amazing and great to work with. That said, it is easy to self-publish in Myanmar.
What messages are you trying to project through your work?
People outside of Myanmar know about our political issues past and present but nothing much about the people. In spite of the hardships they are not cowed or holding out hands to beg. I want my readers to know about their strength of character, humour, resilience, generosity, timidity, friendliness, honesty, simplicity, rashness, overflowing emotions, love of gossip and rumours plus their easy-going natures that often spills over into total lack of discipline. It is mostly rural people that fit most of the above descriptions.