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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.

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCharmaine Craig

I’ve been reading some really long novels recently so I like to keep a book of short stories to read on the side. I’m very glad I picked up this new collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen despite not having yet read his debut novel “The Sympathizer” which won multiple awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. All of these stories touch upon the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America from different perspectives – frequently with characters forced to leave their native country. Many involve people who were directly affected by the Vietnam War or people who are still affected by it second hand based on the experiences of their parents. Their day to day lives are still weighed down by the recent history and trauma of severing ties with their native land to create a new life for themselves in America. This produces fascinating situations where characters wrestle with finding a cohesive sense of identity based on economic status, nationality, race, sexuality and gender. These exquisite stories are so impressive for being both profound and compulsively readable.

Generational clashes often play an important factor such as the story ‘The Americans’ where a former air force pilot locks horns with his daughter Claire who settles in an entirely different culture. Or in ‘Someone Else Besides You’ a regimental father who vandalizes the car of his son’s ex-wife demonstrates a different form of emotional repression. But these stories also show a tremendously moving fluid sense of identity where people are caught between their Vietnamese and American selves. Nguyen shows this so artfully in his characters that range from a ghost writer, to a peddler in fake merchandise, to a young woman who was given the same name as her older American half sister to a young refugee who is taken in by a gay couple in 1970s San Francisco. Their dramatic situations play out the tension between paths in life laid out for them and ones which they forge on their own.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

The economic disparity between nations and levels of society greatly influence the lives of these characters as well. Some characters are determined to compensate for what they were forced to leave behind: “His ambition was to own more books than he could ever possibly read, a desire fuelled by having left behind all his books when they had fled Vietnam.” Stories and story telling between the characters also play an important role. In ‘Black-Eyed Women’ it’s observed that “In a country where possessions counted for everything we had no belongings except our stories.” Part-factual/part-embellished tales of life in Vietnam are passed down through generations. There is a definite divide between the narrative of those who escaped persecution in their homeland and those who remained in oppressed circumstances where dissent requires time in “re-education” camps. The reader is prompted to wonder what is “authentic” about national identity or the lives we live particularly in the story ‘The Transplant’ where compulsive gambler Arthur receives a liver transplant from an Asian man and ‘Fatherland’ where a Vietnamese woman returns to her homeland to visit her father’s second family. How much do nations owe to compensate for the wrongs of wartime, what obligation do countries have to take in those that have been forced to flee their native land and how do you assimilate people caught between two wildly different cultures? These queries subtly raised throughout the stories feel highly pertinent to the broader discussions of many nations.

It’s interesting getting a different perspective of the long lasting effects of the Vietnam War after having read Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Perfume River” last year. This considered the aftermath of the war over generations from a white American perspective. Nguyen shows how some Asian characters living in the United States still feel the war in their day to day lives like in the heartrending story ‘War Years’ where the battle against the Communists is still very personal for an ardent woman struggling with irreconcilable loss. It leads the narrator to note how “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” The overall effect of these stories is subtly haunting because the perilous positions and existential dilemmas of the characters feel so emotionally real. Nguyen skilfully plays out the ambiguities of these situations in which no one can ever feel settled or fully at home.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The eight stories which form the new collection “High Crime Area” from Joyce Carol Oates are daring and provocative. She creates a wide range of vividly-written memorable characters including a pot-smoking widow, an arrogant famous author, a terrifyingly vicious nun, a neglected bi-racial baby, a mysterious dishevelled bookseller, a love-hungry subway passenger and a civic-minded dropout student. By creating tense and emotional tales about these individuals’ lives the author touches upon deep fears which run through American society. The depictions of heightened emotion and sensational violence are dramatic visions of our culture’s broader underlying feelings. Looming behind the particulars of these isolated struggles are institutions such as prisons, churches, orphanages and universities whose ideologies reverberate through the consciousness of the characters and create conflicts in each story. Racial tension, drug abuse, gambling addiction, sexual violence and floundering education are particular issues which run through multiple stories. It’s an admirable skill when short stories can present both micro and macro pictures of society in such a condensed amount of space. This allows a wider vision of the world to unfold out in the reader’s imagination.

In ‘The Home at CraigMillnar’ a formidable nun is found dead in her bed by an orderly who works for the elderly care facility. Her face is covered in a mysterious thin shroud. Many of the women at this home are former sisters who still attend mass and I was particularly struck by a creepy description of how “the old women’s tongues lapped eagerly at the little white wafer.” The orderly narrates the story giving an account of his experience of caring for the cantankerous woman before her death and the controversy surrounding her time administering a home for orphaned children.

A sense of deep mourning fills the story ‘High’ where late in life a woman named Agnes takes up drugs for the first time and lets her niece and her friends ransack her house. This seems to be a resigned reaction to what is perceived to be a futile existence that carries on regardless. “I am a widow, my heart has been broken. But I am still alive.” Agnes finds herself longing to re-establish a connection with a prison inmate she tutored and who she made an impact upon as if this slighted man could give meaning to her drifting life.

The very short story ‘Toad-Baby’ is a haunting family snap-shot narrated by a girl whose unbalanced single mother unleashes a torrent of abuse. The mixed race of the girl’s very young step brother is transformed into a mark of disgust by the mother and daughter. Witnessing the baby’s pain is something which permanently imprints itself upon the girl’s consciousness.

The short, darkly hallucinatory story 'Demon' appeared in another version in an earlier very short collection by Oates published in 1996. This new version has some slight changes: he's given the name Jethro, he's 19 instead of 26, there are more details about the boy's parents and, most striking of all, an extended scene is added in a bus station public lavatory which is referred to only briefly in the first version. In this location he still experiences a crisis of the self confronting his image in the mirror (the denial of the self which he attempted to suppress with prayer made unavoidably clear in the eyes staring back at him in the dirty mirror), but he also has a violent sexual encounter with a minister which is interrupted by someone who enters the lavatory. Part of his subsequent scorn by those around him is tinged with homophobia. In this new version its made more explicit that physical signs which demarcate him as other or “cursed” and “demon-like” (the prominent birth mark, red hair, stunted-growth) as well as social stigmas which have been attached to him are differences used as excuses by external social forces to ostracise and demonise him. Because, of course, there is nothing essentially evil about him or anyone; there are only the strictures people impose upon each other borne out of their own fear and dogmatic principles. Tellingly in this new version his physical reaction to a shocking attempt to rid himself of what he's come to believe is an inherent demon-curse has changed. What was described as resulting in “no pain” in the first version is now a “pain so colossal it could not be measured – like the sky.” This doesn't so accurately describe the physical sensation of his misguidedly destructive self-ameliorating act, but reflects the pain which results from continuous self-punishment for not living up to the idealized standards we create for ourselves and that are formed out of social pressures to conform. The story prompts us to question why we do this to ourselves. Tragically Jethro’s act represents a definitive decision to never look at his true self again. 

In the story ‘Lorelei’ a provocatively dressed young woman rides the subway in search of a specific unknown and unnamed “you” or someone to love her. The claustrophobic environment of the train carriages with their jostling passengers all making mental judgments upon each other and guarding their own personal space is vividly and accurately described. Like a darker “glossy black” haired mirror version of Marilyn Monroe’s character from ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, Lorelei flirts and yearns so fiercely to find that special one and aches with such yearning for someone to complete her. It’s a quest destined to destroy her.

One of the stories which particularly moved me is the complex sombre story ‘The Rescuer.’ Here a young university student named Lydia is called upon by her parents to visit her troubled brother Harvy. Once he was a promising pupil at a seminary school, but dropped out and moved to a dilapidated apartment in a depressed neighbourhood of Trenton, New Jersey. At first she is reluctant to take on the responsibility of visiting him, but once she’s there her life becomes irretrievably intertwined with his own. The siblings retreat from the institutions for higher learning that supported them and instead turn inward, Harvy working on intensely-laboured poetry and Lydia on unpicking the meaning and possible translations of ancient text about infanticide. Because of her brother’s drug and gambling habits their lives become entangled with an intimidating local man named Leander with a Maori facial tattoo and long dreadlocks and his mischievous sister who has a penchant for going to casinos. Lydia is seduced by the prospect of abandoning the torturous mental effort of her studies: “I thought how easy life is for those who merely live it without hoping to understand it; without hoping to ‘decode,’ classify and analyze it; without hoping to acquire a quasi-invulnerable meta-life which is the life of the mind and not the triumphant life of the body” The story presents a kind of crisis about the real value of an intellectual life and how the quest for knowledge can be rendered meaningless in the ruthless decimation of the weak over the strong in the human species’ quest for survival.  “Individuals die, life endures. A copy of a text is destroyed but another takes its place – just like us.” Writers and scholars scribble away in faith that their contribution will provide a further piece to assist in the evolution of humanity. The story asks what happens if that faith peters out. Even without it the narrator finds that “working diligently and even obsessively without faith did not seem to me a terrible fate, when the alternative was yet more terrible.” Although the brother and sister’s preoccupations are wholly their own they find the compulsion to articulate meaning (even if it doesn’t contribute to a greater whole) is better than a life of total resignation.

In ‘The Last Man of Letters’ an extremely famous male author only referred to as X goes on a European book tour. He takes perverse pleasure in humiliating the women who praise him and his work. His perpetually macho antagonistic stance goes unchallenged due to his awestruck admirers’ reverence for a man that has been bombastically proclaimed to be the “last man of letters.” Parades of anonymous unnamed women populate his imagination and marital bed, so many that “the effort of trying to make sense of it exhausted him, and disgusted him.” As an asthmatic he sometimes chokes for breath with the sense that he’s fighting for his life. The vile hatred he spews at the women around him is like the chilling sound of a man gasping for air. In what might be an oxygen-starved hallucination the women he’s shamed visit him in his hotel room. A breathlessly narrated scene of orgiastic excess ensues where X is plied with rich food and eager flesh by the rapacious ladies which results in a judiciously horrific conclusion.

A young white teacher who moves to Detroit asks herself “Why am I so preoccupied with racial identities, skin ‘colours’?” It’s the Spring before the Detroit riots of 1967 and this woman, Mz Mc’tyre, senses the mounting racial tension in the collection’s title story ‘High Crime Area.’ She’s witnessed the dwindling white population moving from the city into the suburbs and has a mounting fear of being attacked which escalates after reading a paper from a female student about her imprisoned cousin who has converted to “Black Islam” and expresses extremist ideas. While walking to her car she senses a man following her. She has a gun concealed in her bag. The story is incredibly suspenseful and the conclusion is utterly surprising.

The book “High Crime Area” is a seductive read with its entrancing array of voices and innovative forms of narrative. The stories draw us into danger to provide a thrilling read which challenges our assumptions.

Read a short interview with Oates at Mystery Center: http://www.mysterycenter.com/2014/04/01/Interview-with-Joyce-Carol-Oates

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson