The first time I attended the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay in 2014, I was dazzled. Irrawaddy. Mandalay. Bagan. The words tripped off the tongue poetically, redolent of Rudyard Kipling read on wide tropical verandahs in the monsoon. Mandalay is home to the Kuthodaw Pagoda, a Buddhist stupa known for containing the world’s largest book; 729 pristine white domes stretch to the horizon as far as the eye can see, each containing a marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page from the Buddhist text, Tripitaka. A bibliophile’s dream, it is like walking in the middle of an ancient open book.
This festival, in its second year in 2014, was lit up by the patronage of Aung San Suu Kyi. It felt like the G8 of literary festivals, run like a diplomatic summit by the staff of the British Embassy and various literary organisations around Myanmar.
That Suu Kyi was an alumna of the same elite New Delhi college I attended as an undergrad, was an added thrill in this historical festival that was opening up Myanmar to the international literary world. Burma, as Myanmar was formerly known, features in the Bengali literature written by Sarat Chandra and Rabindranath Tagore and other luminaries, and I grew up with this land of many-splendored things. Burma was literally the “golden land,” or “Suvarnabhumi” in ancient Sanskrit texts.
A memory of the Burma teak bed in my grandparent’s home, an uncle who made his fortune in this country long before I was born… this festival felt like a homecoming.
The festival had teething problems, with bureaucratic hurdles placed in the path of the detractors of a popular political figure – the problems persisted through the years. Yet, the organisation always rallied valiantly, and in 2014, despite a last-minute change of venue, Suu Kyi showed up in person to discuss her childhood reading habits, and express a special fondness for poetry.
Huge crowds gathered to watch her speak at the festival. Taxi drivers, without exception, sang her praises. Poets read fiery paeans to her, while bemoaning the encroachment of Chinese money into every aspect of life in Myanmar. Even the red-robed monks hotly debated the finer points of politics and social change. In an audience filled with students bussed into the venue from surrounding regions, a writer angrily demanded to know why there was a Ministry of Defence, but no Ministry of Peace in our world. Young nuns in light pink robes nodded, and the trendy young volunteers from the Jefferson Centre conducted simultaneous translations for foreign delegates in fluent English, breaking into a giggle when the exchange became too heated to translate.
It was all incredibly thrilling. A Brave New World of Free Speech made possible in one of the most censored countries in Southeast Asia.
By the time I returned in 2019, Suu Kyi had not lived up to the ideals she represented in 2014 – at least not for the international community that found her response to the Rohingya crisis unforgivable. But the festival had grown, with multiple parallel sessions running concurrently with books in translation from all over the world. Suu Kyi’s welcome message was broadcast on giant screens, but she was physically absent in the packed standing-room-only hall.
“To be in a room like this, filled with the people of Myanmar chatting easily to foreign writers who had come from around the world, felt simply unbelievable,” said author Aung Myint in 2014, a member of the organising committee.
In 2019, the number of panels grew, as had the diplomatic presence. During the launch of a book on regional textiles, the Singaporean ambassador, Vanessa Chan, spoke with great erudition on the history of indigenous weaving techniques in Myanmar, before Mai Ni Ni Aung took the stage to describe, with emotional impact, how dangerous it was becoming to source textiles, especially in the contentious Rakhine state. The Indian Ambassador, Saurabh Kumar, flew from Yangon to hear me speak on teaching creative writing in Asia.
There were many more panels featuring women in 2019. I made lots of friends with writers who were also schoolteachers, lawyers, homemakers and hairdressers. In a panel titled Literary Lovers of Myanmar, women began the discussion with an ancient writer who had to give up literature after a royal decree. The panel then highlighted modern examples of women writing under pseudonyms to be read by men, and only men having authority over Buddhist literature. Women were asked questions about whether they needed an evolution or a revolution. Patriarchy was in the air, but so was the indomitable spirit of Suu Kyi.
Now, in Chicago, I watch with horror as poets and thinkers are killed in Myanmar’s protests. I scroll through Facebook posts of writers in Myanmar: pictures of protest sites, protestors sharing lunchboxes, intimations of another internet blackout, pictures of Suu Kyi, pictures of the Buddha and images of broken flowers still in bloom.
I mentored Southeast Asian writers for over two decades now and I know the dangers of self-censorship as well as its naïve twin, the foreign-savior. As a result, I do not comment online. Just when the windows to freedom in Myanmar seemed to be opening, they are being shut in a region with so many stories still untold. In Southeast Asia, even the more mature democracies in Malaysia and Singapore are grappling with the problem of whether to allow non-Muslims to use the word Allah and bankrupting any opposition.
In 2019, on my final panel on Indian literature and Myanmar, I was with Zaw Thun, a poet and professor at the Mandalay University of Foreign Languages. We exchanged books as goodbye gifts, and I brought home his book of poems, a book filled with heart and hope for Myanmar. In At the Roadside Magic Show, he writes:
Now Myanmar is like the man inside the box,
being poked by sharp, inhuman spikes after spikes,
tangible and intangible,
from within and outside.
Yet, as after the show,
appeared the man from inside the bamboo box
with not a scratch on his body,
So does Myanmar survive safe and sound…
terrorism finds no room here.
For the sake of the many writers I grew to admire in Myanmar, I hope the country emerges unscathed to find a voice – and freedom – again.
Dipika Mukherjee is the author of the novels Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She teaches at the Graham School at the University of Chicago and at StoryStudio Chicago. She is finishing a third novel.
This article first appeared in Newsweek, on March 29, 2021.