It feels surprising that “Miss Burma” is perhaps the least known novel on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist when its plot and the origins of its story are so sensational. Perhaps its initial publication made a bigger splash in the US, but I’ve seen many people in the UK remark that they had not heard of this book before its prize nomination. The blurbs on its cover from accomplished authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Garth Greenwell certainly speak highly of the regard this novel is held in. It’s Charmaine Craig’s second novel, but prior to becoming a writer she was an actress who notably played the live-action model upon whom the animated character of Disney’s Pocahontas was based off from. The story of “Miss Burma” and the central character of Louisa were based on Craig’s mother who had a truly epic life as a beauty pageant winner, famous Burmese actress and political revolutionary. Both Louisa and her family were intimately involved in the complicated social and political changes that occurred in the recent history of Burma (presently known as Myanmar.) Charmaine Craig reimagines her family’s harrowing story which parallels this turbulent 20th century period that involved a break from colonialism, warring ethnic groups, invasion/interference from numerous foreign powers and the military leadership of the country after a coup d’etat in 1962.
One of the great missions of this novel is to evoke the presence and struggle of the indigenous peoples of Burma who were systematically stripped of their cultural heritage and were subject to acts of genocide. Many ethnic groups have struggled to establish a presence and voice within the country’s government in the past century. At one point a character feels how “His opinion didn’t matter, because Burma’s peoples didn’t matter. Burma mattered only so far as it posed a problem for the countries that did matter. America, China, Russia.” “Miss Burma” focuses in particular on the plight of the Karen people who were subjected to frequent attacks and oppression. Some Karens waged a war against the central Burmese government demanding either representation or the establishment of an independent Karen state. The bulk of the story follows the tumultuous marriage of Benny and Khin, Louisa’s parents. Although their coupling begins in the most innocent and romantic way, their lives include tremendous strife as well as some periods of success as the country and its people are ravaged by war.
The story includes very powerful sensory descriptions of Benny and Khin’s plight. These range from the fetid conditions and rat-infested cells that Benny is imprisoned within to the smell of Khin’s own sweat as she arduously hauls good to sell on the open market so that she can afford to feed her children. I was moved by the depiction of a relationship that is dragged through so much conflict and how this influences the characters’ actions as well as the transformation in how this couple view each other. This combined with the meaningful internal conflict many characters feel about what direction the country should take amidst riotous political strife made the novel really come alive for me. Most notable are evocative scenes where Benny paces in his study while scribbling his thoughts and audibly debates with himself while his bewildered family witnesses his mental fragmentation. Benny and Khin strategically plan on putting their daughter Louisa forward to win beauty competitions to first become Miss Karen and then win the country-wide title of Miss Burma. Because of her mixed race heritage Louisa subsequently becomes an “image of unity” in the press as well as a celebrity figure subject to insidious tabloid speculation. This platform that Louisa achieves allows for strategic manoeuvring between political figures and gradually Louisa takes a revolutionary stance.
It is jarring in some sections how the author curiously breezes through dramatic changes in periods of her characters’ lives. For instance, during a period of stability Benny achieves a great amount of financial success running a number of businesses. This all happens quite quickly in a few paragraphs after a long section of his living with Khin in near destitution. Equally, Louisa’s success in pageants which springboard her into celebrity status and film stardom happens so quickly its as if they required hardly any effort from her or her family at all. Perhaps for a historical novel that uses material which is so personal to its author, Craig felt that certain sections of the characters’ lives were predetermined so she didn’t need to show the challenges these individuals faced in achieving their success or the tension of what might have happened if they’d failed. Instead she is much more concerned with the intricacies of the social meetings of political figures and the very tense uncertainty of different characters’ national loyalties.
I didn’t always understand the complex politics and conflicts involved in this novel. So in some sections I did feel a bit bewildered and in some ways it was perhaps too ambitious for the author to try to contain so much about the warring factions and complex motives of different parties. I didn’t find this to be a huge problem because I’m glad it’s encouraged me to read more about Burma’s fascinating history. But it did draw me out of the story at times. However, the novel really resonated when I felt the weight of expectation put on Louisa’s shoulders as she’s moulded into a symbol who becomes cognizant of the privilege of her role to take a stance and enact change herself. It’s intriguing how Charmaine Craig remarked in an interview that she originally wrote this novel focusing on her own relationship with her mother. This final novel feels quite far removed from that more personal story as it primarily delves into the lives of Craig’s grandparents. Though it would have made it a huge epic, I would have liked to see the story carried through to the author’s own times and her mother’s later life while sacrificing some of the political conspiracy elements. I feel like this would have made the novel resonate more as a personal story rather than an inside history of Burma.