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Kodiak Spotlight: Wilderness mystery writer Robin Barefield

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This story was originally published in the March 19, 2021, issue of Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Robin Barefield knows the Kodiak wilderness. For more than 30 years, she has worked as a naturalist and guide at Munsey’s Bear Camp at remote Uyak Bay on the western end of the island.

Barefield owns the camp with her husband Mike, and they live there year-round. Using the knowledge she gained from earning a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology from the University of Hawaii, she spends her summers taking guests bear viewing, whale watching and sport fishing.

Given her long-standing familiarity with Kodiak’s outdoors, it only made sense that when she started writing mystery novels, the island’s rugged terrain and tempestuous weather would factor heavily in her stories.

“Kodiak is just such a wonderful backdrop for anything,” Barefield said. “But for a mystery novel, you’ve got the environment, you’ve got the ocean, you’ve got the difficult terrain, you’ve got bears, the weather, so many different things that can play into it. I try to use the environmental aspects as much as I can.”

From the start, Barefield’s mystery writing has been deeply rooted in her own experiences. Her first story unfolded unexpectedly as she sat in the hospital with her mother, who was battling cancer.

“I sat with her every day. It was very depressing, so I started to write down my feelings,” Barefield said. Before she realized it, her anguished journaling had veered into the realm of fiction.

“I had this character who had been sitting in the hospital with her mother and she goes out on a drive to get away from everything for a bit. She started to think about all the things she would never be able to do with her mother again,” she said.

“Then, all of a sudden, this guy goes off the road and she goes to help him, and he tells her this mysterious message, and that starts the mystery. I just laughed because it’s like, here I am sitting here and I’m supposed to be writing my feelings down, and I murdered somebody.”

That brief scene sowed the seeds for a story that Barefield would work on for the next 10 years. It eventually grew into her first novel “Big Game,” which she self-published as an e-book in 1992. The story involves a band of politicians hatching a sinister plot in a remote Alaskan hunting lodge.

Since then, her mystery novels have come more quickly. The manuscript for her second book, “Murder Over Kodiak,” caught the attention of Evan Swensen of Anchorage-based Publication Consultants.

Swensen said that when he read “Murder Over Kodiak,” he knew right away that it was a book he wanted to publish.

“Most of our Alaska-themed books were nonfiction biographies. We needed a good Alaska mystery author, and we felt that Robin would fit that bill — we haven’t been disappointed,” he said. “She’s a book publisher’s ideal author. Readers of Dana Stabenow, C.J. Box, Joseph Haywood, Craig Johnson and Keith McCafferty will love Robin’s works.”

Publication Consultants has been publishing Barefield’s novels ever since. She followed “Murder Over Kodiak” with “The Fisherman’s Daughter” in 2017 and, most recently, “Karluk Bones” in 2019.

Although Barefield originally thought of her stories as straight mysteries with a “whodunit” angle — early influences included writers like Sue Grafton and Dick Francis — she has come to be known as a “wilderness mystery author.”  

“I never actually read any wilderness mysteries and didn’t really think of myself as writing wilderness mysteries. I just set the characters in the place I knew, which is the Kodiak wilderness. So my publisher called me a wilderness mystery author, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I am a wilderness mystery author,’” she said.

For Barefield, though, the categorization of her stories seems of secondary importance to the writing itself.

“I started writing and I’ve just never quit. I love writing stories, I love telling stories, I love making up stories. I don’t have a background in writing, but I just use what I know. I studied and I learned as I went.”

What she knows is not only Kodiak but also wildlife biology. The main character in her novels, Jane Marcus, is a fisheries biologist who works at a marine center in Kodiak. Whale necropsies and paralytic shellfish poisoning have played roles in her plots.

Getting the science right in realms beyond biology is also important. For “Karluk Bones,” whose storyline involves the discovery of human remains in the middle of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Barefield did extensive research to figure out what information forensic anthropologists could glean from the study of bones, such as how long the person has been dead and how old they were at the time of death.

For many people, balancing life as a bear camp owner, naturalist and prolific mystery writer would be enough to keep them busy. But not Barefield. She also finds time to produce a true crime newsletter and podcast.

The online newsletter came first, stemming from her desire to find more readers for her books. There is a crowded market for mystery novels, so she was advised to create free content that would introduce new readers to her writing.

“If they like your writing, they’ll want to read more of it and they’ll be willing to pay for it,” Barefield said. “I thought, true crime is so popular, Alaska is so popular. True crime in Alaska has got to be a goldmine.”

For someone who mostly wrote fiction, which gives the author complete freedom of invention, she found writing true crime to be much harder than anticipated because of the research involved and the grisly content of the stories, not to mention the challenge of turning passive historical facts into engaging tales.

“I always pick an Alaska crime or a mysterious disappearance that I hear about or read about. I’m always researching,” she said, adding, “It’s tougher and it’s darker because you’re writing about real people and real murders. … A lot of them are so crazy, I don’t think anyone would believe them as a plot.”

Eventually, some of her newsletter subscribers suggested that she start a true crime podcast. At first, she resisted the idea, but then she started looking into it and realized it might be another fun outlet for her urge to tell stories. Her husband built her a small office at the bear camp with a sound studio in the corner, and the “Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier” podcast was launched.

Her first episode was about a 1983 murder spree in McCarthy, Alaska, that was part of a convoluted, and ultimately unsuccessful, plan to steal a mail plane and blow up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. More recently, she did a podcast on the Birdman of Alcatraz, whose original crime was killing a man in a Juneau bar.

The podcasts have helped Barefield gain more attention for her work. She’s received multiple enquiries from the producers of true crime television shows who wanted to interview her, or who were searching for information on crime in Alaska.

“The podcast has been the most successful thing I’ve done by far, but it isn’t the thing I like to do the most. I’d much rather write my novels,” Barefield said. “But it reaches so many more people. I think it might be a sad statement that not many people read anymore.”

Yet another one of Barefield’s ongoing projects is her nature blog. Many of the posts about animals and the environment are inspired by questions that guests at Munsey’s Bear Camp have asked during guided excursions. Those questions, and their answers, grew into the idea to write a book about Kodiak’s wildlife, a project that Barefield has been working on for about 10 years.

“Our spring season last year [at the bear camp] was completely canceled, and then our summer was about 50%. I got a lot more writing done. I finally said, this is getting finished,” Barefield said.

The resulting book, “Kodiak Island Wildlife: Biology and Behavior of the Wild Animals of Alaska’s Emerald Isle,” will be released by Publication Consultants at the end of April. It will feature not only Barefield’s writing, but also her husband’s photographs.

Barefield describes “Kodiak Island Wildlife” as more in-depth than a simple guidebook. It focuses on the island’s endemic mammals, as well as those introduced to the environment by humans. Ocean and avian species are also covered, including sea otters, sea lions, porpoises, whales, bald eagles, puffins and arctic terns.

“The Kodiak bear is a huge section, of course. I talk about the biology, bear and human interaction, the crazy history the bears have on this island, management,” she said. “I didn’t spend a long time, say, on caribou because there’s some on the south end of the island but it’s not a major animal that most people are going to run into here.”

Aside from “Kodiak Island Wildlife,” other Barefield projects that will hit the shelves later in the year include her fifth mystery novel, which she hopes will be out by the fall, and a true crime book based on stories she has published in her online newsletter. She has about 60 stories — enough for two books — but will start by publishing a single volume with some of the major Alaska crime stories.

In the midst of all these projects, Barefield’s primary motivation remains a simple love of writing, which includes her dedication to bringing Kodiak to life for her readers.

“For me, writing just relaxes my brain. It’s a great pastime. It’s something I love. I don’t think you go into writing to make money. You hope that happens. But you go into writing because you love to write,” she said.

Hopefully I describe [Kodiak] well. The best compliments I get from people is when they say, ‘Oh I love this, it just brought back Kodiak to me when I was there or when I visited.’ That’s what I’m trying hard to do.” 

Robin Barefield’s website can be found at http://robinbarefield.com, where she writes a blog about Kodiak wildlife. Her “Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier” podcast be found at https://murder-in-the-last-frontier.blubrry.net. She is also a charter member of Author Masterminds: https://authormasterminds.com/robinbarefield. Her books can be purchased online through Publication Consultants (https://publicationconsultants.com/).

Indiana’s poet laureate writes his truths

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MatejkaColor

Adrian Matejka discovered his vocation as a poet in a roundabout way. His first love was not literature, but rap music, a creative calling that he soon determined was not meant to be.

“I was a terrible emcee, so I gave it up and decided to be a stockbroker,” he said. But during his second year in college, he heard American poet Yusef Komunyakaa reading in a coffee shop and felt compelled to try his hand at writing verse.

Despite abandoning his early dreams of musical stardom, Matejka (pronounced Mah-TEE-kuh) still finds inspiration in rap, which he describes as “the most popular example of poetry we have.”

“Rappers use the same language devices – rhyme, simile, metaphor, allusion – as poets. The big difference … is the goal of the language. Rappers are trying to team up with music in order to evoke emotion, tell stories or get the party going. Poets are teaming up with the reader’s imagination to do those same things.”

Musical and other pop culture references are among the means by which Matejka provides readers a non-intimidating entry into his work, with the goal of creating poems that “offer up stories and circumstances that I hope will be both familiar and surprising to the reader.”

The accessibility of Matejka’s work was perhaps one of the contributing factors to his appointment as the new poet laureate of Indiana by the Indiana Arts Commission. He began his two-year tenure on January 1, and will continue serving through December 31, 2019.

His published poetry collections include The Devil’s Garden (2003), Mixology (2009) and The Big Smoke (2013), the latter of which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and 2014 Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, Map to the Stars (2017), explores growing up in Indianapolis in the 1980s.

TheBigSmoke

Matejka was born into an American military family in Germany, but settled in Indianapolis in 1980. After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington, he left the state for nearly 20 years to live in Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis and elsewhere before returning to Bloomington in 2012 to take up his current position as poet-in-residence at Indiana University.

“I rarely wrote poems that were influenced by geography before Map to the Stars. When I came back to Indiana [in 2012], I was struck by how little the place has changed cosmetically but how completely different the climate and culture is now,” he said. “So growing up in Indianapolis didn’t influence writing the poems as much as coming back did. I was able to think about my experiences here in the 1980s a little differently after being gone so long.”

Matejka’s other preoccupations as a poet include race, economics, family and masculinity.

“The racial conflicts in our country have been exacerbated by the current politics of ignorance and bluster, but all of this bigotry was here before. It just has a bigger megaphone in 2018,” he said, adding that while poetry “can’t change legislation, reduce gun violence or right electoral maleficence,” it can offer a way to speak out against oppression like sexism and racism.

“Poetry is a great enabler of voices,” he said. “The art has empowered many people who were previously disenfranchised, silenced or otherwise ignored in the larger public discourse. Poetry has the power to amplify the natural voice of protest, which I hope is happening in some of my work.”

He said one of his obligations as poet laureate is to remind people that poetry is vital and that anyone is “welcome to join us, as creators or listeners of poems in whatever way they would like.”

“Poetry can sometimes be intimidating because it has its own agenda for music and creativity, and it can feel like a party we’ve crashed without an invitation. At the same time, poetry often uses traditional English building blocks – words, syntax, allusions, even punctuation – that are familiar to many of us.”

Matejka also hopes to emphasize poetry as one of the oldest forms of communication, a means by which people remembered history, entertained and shared political ideas long before there were novels, radios or movies.

“[Poetry] is our most essential public art and there is room in it for everyone. It’s cheap to create and easily available. Once people accept that there is no right or wrong in poetry and there are no secret handshakes or initiation rituals necessary to writing poetry, creation naturally follows,” he said. “If you write your truths, you can learn the rest as you go along.”

Read Adrian Matejka’s poetry here:

“Gymnopédies No. 1”

“Gymnopédies No. 2”

“Gymnopédies No. 3”

Portrait Photo: Stephen Sproll

China’s next big export: state-sponsored ecocide (Book Review)

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Meltdown cover image

In September 2011, President U Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State for the duration of his term in office, which ends later this year.

The announcement came in the midst of an ongoing campaign supported by environmental and civil society groups that focused on the image of the Ayeyarwady as the cultural lifeblood of Myanmar, and that highlighted worries that the dam would destroy downstream fisheries, rice production and livelihoods.

The 6000-megawatt Myitsone project, which would supply electricity to China while displacing about 20,000 people in Kachin, is only part of a series of seven dams on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady planned by the China’s state-owned Chinese Power Investment Corporation.

The Chinese company has made clear its desire to resume the Myitsone project, but many locals and civil society groups want it cancelled altogether. The issue promises to re-emerge as a major conflict following the end of U Thein Sein’s tenure as president.

Whatever the outcome, Myanmar will remain at the mercy of China’s insatiable greed for energy, warns Canadian author Michael Buckley in his 2014 book Meltdown in Tibet. This is due to the negative environmental fallout from rampant dam-building and mining projects in Tibet, which will affect the 2 billion people – in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan – who rely on the 10 major rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau for drinking, agriculture, fishing and industry. Among these rivers are Myanmar’s Thanlwin (Salween) and Ayeyarwady.

Buckley first visited Tibet in the 1980s as a guidebook writer, and the environmental degradation he witnessed over time prompted him to produce the 40-minute documentary film Meltdown in Tibet (2009), and last year a book of the same name.

The author describes what is happening in Tibet as “ecocide” and contends that China is destroying Tibet “on all fronts”. “The wildlife in Tibet was one of the first casualties of the Chinese occupation. Another casualty was clear-cutting the forests,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tibet’s glaciers are melting fast, and China is “aggravating the situation” with massive dam-building and mining projects. Buckley’s book supplies numerous statistics for a litany of “hydro megaprojects” in China that have already started affecting countries downriver, as well as for projects in the planning stages that will magnify the devastation.

“What appears to be just a Tibetan Plateau problem or a Chinese problem is going to become an Asia-wide problem. There are no boundaries when it comes to environmental impact,” he writes, warning that as a result of China’s policies “Asia will tumble into chaos”.

Among the downstream effects of China’s frenzy for “progress” will be the destruction of fisheries and the blockage of nutrient-rich silt vital to farming. Without fresh silt, farmers must resort to increased use of expensive, environmentally destructive artificial fertilizers. Another casualty will be mangrove forests.

“Mangroves are your first line of defense against sea-level rise and against cyclones,” Buckley said during his appearance at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay in March.

“But mangroves need silt and fresh water to grow. If you put a dam upriver, silt and fresh water are not getting through to the mangroves, and the mangroves will slowly disappear, which leaves you open to disasters along the coast.” This is of particular concern in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady delta.

Buckley has visited the site of the Myitsone Dam, and in an interview with Mizzima last month he posed two questions concerning the current state of the project: “Why are the Chinese workers still there? Why are the people who lived there not allowed to come back?” He is clearly unconvinced that the dam will ever be officially cancelled.

He is also concerned about the Thanlwin, which he describes as “a virgin river untouched by big dams”. But China aims to nullify this idyllic state of affairs with plans for five major hydropower projects.

“If they build the five dams that are planned, it means [Myanmar’s] water flow can be controlled by China at any point,” Buckley said. “China will say, ‘We’re solving your flooding problems.’ But most downstream countries want the flooding because they need it for rice and fishing. It’s an annual cycle. So the Chinese dams do not solve the problem, they only create other problems. By the time they put all those dams up, they’re going to ruin the river and affect the people who depend on the river.”

Buckley said that in supporting the construction of dams on the Ayeyarwady and the Thanlwin, Myanmar would be sacrificing its own people and environment for the sake of greed.

“But who can stop China? Nobody can stop China because they’re too entangled in economic relations and nobody wants to upset the Chinese government. So they’re getting away with this,” he said. “It’s insane what China is doing.”

***

This article was published in the May 8-14 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

Weekend_May_08 __ 04-05

Book Review: Pole to Pole by Pat Farmer

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Rare is the person who can perform amazing deeds and then write an extraordinary book on the subject; standout adventurer-writers include Jon Krakauer, Kira Salak, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and Ernest Shackleton.
Unfortunately, ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer is not among them.
If I were asked to rate Farmer’s accomplishments as an adventurer– spending 10 months running nearly 21,000 kilometers from North Pole to South Pole, with barely a day off during the entire journey, and with the noble aim of raising donations for the Red Cross – I would, without qualms, give him five stars.
But his book Pole to Pole: One Man, 20 Million Steps, which recounts the expedition from beginning to end, fails to satisfy. Told in the form of a daily journal, the book is dull and repetitive, the descriptions clichéd and forgettable, and the “insights” lacking in profundity. We read over and over again about Farmer’s sore knee, the type of road kill he encounters during the day, how much he misses his kids, how his journey is 90 percent mental – and not much else. It reads more like an interminable series of unedited blog posts than a proper book.
Farmer also demonstrates a disappointingly narrow view of the world. At one point he wonders “if the hospitality I’ve been experiencing [in Canada and the United States] will cease at the Mexican border.”As varied and vibrant as Mexico’s culture is, we learn virtually nothing about it once he enters the country. Instead, barely a sentence passes without some reference to “bandits” or “drug-runners,” and this obsession with negative stereotypes continues unabated all the way through the Central and South American countries through which he passes.
Farmer explains at the end that the book “reflects my thoughts and feelings each day as I ran from pole to pole” and that “I have not returned to revise my words.” It’s understandable that after spending all day running 80-plus kilometers he would have more blood in his legs than in his brain, but this is all the more reason to abandon the day-by-day journal format and pen a retrospective account into which he might have injected more analysis, heartfelt introspection, and “bigger-picture” insight.
But it’s also doubtful whether this alternative approach would have made for a more compelling read. As Farmer proudly writes, “I’ve never been a great reader, preferring to experience life first-hand rather than vicariously” – as if it’s not possible to balance both. As such, the book goes a long way toward reinforcing my belief that to be a good writer, it’s necessary to be a good reader.
Of course it’s possible that I’m underestimating Farmer’s genius as a writer. Perhaps his aim was to write a book that forces the reader to share the tedium of his adventure, requiring tremendous fortitude to continue turning the pages and slog all the way through to the end. If so, anyone who reads the entire book should feel proud that they made it all the way from one pole to the other. But I was able to do so only because I was using the book as bedtime reading, for which its soporific effect was just the ticket for drifting off into a good night’s sleep.

Written by latefornowhere

April 7, 2015 at 3:38 am

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Book Review: Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People”

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The names Chernobyl, Minamata and Bhopal serve as powerful reminders of the damage that humans can cause others through the careless pursuit of progress and a callous disregard for the well-being of the victims when things go terribly wrong.

The facts of these disasters, however convoluted, have been probed, recorded and widely reported by journalists. But newspaper and television reports – due in part to space and time constraints – tend toward the reductive, with journalists often simplifying complex situations to help the public more easily digest unfolding events. As a result, there is little leeway in the news for profound exploration of the human costs of disaster.

Where journalism falls short, well-crafted fiction can fill the gaps by getting into the heads of major and minor players, thereby providing deep insight into the effects of dire situations on those whose views might otherwise be neglected. As American writer William Faulkner said, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism”.

Novelist John Gardner explored this idea in the collection of essays On Moral Fiction (1978): “In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, literature’s incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity and foolishness – literature’s incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.”

Such is the case with Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, a fictionalised account of the aftermath of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a chemical leak from an American-owned plant on the night of December 2-3 resulted in thousands of deaths, some immediate and others occurring weeks, months and even years later.

Sinha’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is set in a fictional stand-in for Bhopal called Khaufpur.

The action takes place 18 years after the disaster – chemicals remain in the ground and the water, and residents continue to suffer and die from their poisoned environment. The survivors and their damaged offspring still wait for assistance from the American owners of the chemical plant, as well as from corrupt Indian authorities who care more about protecting foreign investors than helping their own people.

Our guide through Khaufpur is a first-person narrator known only as Animal, born just a few days before the leak and found abandoned in the street in the aftermath of the disaster, his parents presumably killed by the gas cloud.

Raised in an orphanage, Animal seems like a healthy child until the age of six, when he is suddenly wracked by pain and fever. The mystery ailment twists his spine until he is forced to walk around on all fours. With no proper medical facilities in the area, Animal’s condition remains undiagnosed and uncured.

As a result of his dog-like posture, the other children in the orphanage start calling the boy Animal, a name, and a persona, that sticks through the intervening 12 years until the novel’s narrative starts.

Animal is an entertaining but brutal (and often foul-mouthed) narrator, recounting the horrors of death, poverty and oppression in relentless detail. Early on he warns the reader, “If you want my story, you’ll have to put up with how I tell it,” adding, “If a person leaves things unsaid so as to avoid looking bad, it’s a lie.”

This is his way of saying that the truth must include the whole story, however unpleasant or offensive, and that censorship through omission is still censorship. Those who are embarrassed by the realities of life in Khaufpur are admonished to “throw down the book in which these words are printed”.

Readers who can handle the blunt language and embrace the novel will be treated to an enthralling, instructive and harrowing story of social justice pursued in the face of impossible odds.

Animal, who has spent most of his life as a dumpster-diving street rogue, becomes involved with Zafar, a university-educated activist who has given up a cushy life to live among the poor, helping them organise in their fight to force the factory owners to take responsibility for the effects of the chemical spill.

Animal willingly falls in with Zafar’s crowd, not because he’s interested in politics but because he wants to be near Zafar’s girlfriend Nisha, with whom he falls in love. Animal, who had always thought himself content to roam the streets on all fours, suddenly develops a desire to find a cure for his ailment so he can once again walk upright, which he thinks will help him win Nisha’s love.

Once within Zafar’s orbit, however, Animal can’t avoid getting caught up in the greater social struggle at a moment when the poor residents of the city, after a fruitless 18-year crawl through the Indian legal system, are growing tired of waiting for corrupt politicians to come to their aid.

Sinha is careful to illustrate exactly what is at stake for the characters in this fight, not only for Animal, Zafar and Nisha, but also for a wider cast of downtrodden people who have trouble envisioning brighter days ahead.

“In the Kingdom of the Poor, time doesn’t exist,” Animal explains. “Hope dies in places like this, because hope lies in the future and there’s no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today?”

But Sinha also manages to delve into the convoluted logic and sentiment that keep the people from giving up the struggle, even when key players don’t see eye to eye on matters of principles and tactics.

Zafar, for example, is seen by many residents of Khaufpur as a saint for giving up his comfortable life to help the poor, but he also reveals his paranoia and ideological rigidity when he organises a boycott against a free health clinic that opens in the neighborhood.

Free healthcare is just what the suffering people need, but Zafar believes, without any supporting evidence, that the American doctor is collecting medical data for the chemical company.

Animal raises his voice against the boycott, seeing the opening of the clinic as the only development in years that could bring some relief to his neighbors and, he frankly admits, that might help correct his condition. He worries that Zafar’s decision is causing the people to “suffer for nothing” and argues that “noble ideas” don’t dull pain or cure illness.

Zafar also counsels nonviolence, but Nisha speaks for many frustrated residents when she warns, “Maybe you remember such a thing as justice, but in my lifetime there’s been no sign of it. If we want justice we’ll have to fight for it in the streets.”

Indeed, as the story unfolds, the game of brinkmanship between the oppressed and the authorities intensifies, inevitably resulting in an outbreak of unrest that seems more necessary than tragic. Even lovesick Animal concedes that “there are times to be afraid and there are times when you can be pushed just so far”.

Predictably, the police blame the agitation on “Hindu extremists” who have “come from outside to sow hatred and divide your community”. This is a refrain familiar to anyone who has lived under despots, who are forever shifting blame from where it belongs and onto the shoulders of some unfortunate minority group demonized as a phantom menace.

While the street riots spread, the story remains focused on the personal concerns of the characters. Where journalists are keen to document ideological invective and body counts, Sinha opts to explore the complexities of human psychology.

In the midst of these community-rattling events, Animal’s main concern is rediscovering his own humanity in a world in which a human-engineered chemical disaster has caused him to be perceived as something less than a whole person.

With chaos ruling the streets, Animal’s inner turmoil sends him fleeing into the forest to confront his own Dark Night of the Soul, a personal rebellion against human life, human society and the power of the gods. This journey of transfiguration seems the last chance for Animal to come to terms with his own core being, to give up his desires for the impossible and learn what it means to live as a responsible person rather than hiding behind his sub-human persona.

While Animal’s People does focus on the fate of the narrator, the author remains cognizant of the fact that during times of social upheaval, everyone’s humanity is at stake, whether they are agents of repression or have sided with the revolutionaries.

It’s the manner in which people conduct themselves when pushed to the brink that really counts, and in such situations anti-humanist ideology all too often trumps compassion: Leaders, police, soldiers and normal people alike are all capable of descending into evil and depravity, after which they must spend the rest of their lives seeking redemption for the horrors they unleashed.

It is a lesson that, by the closing stages of Animal’s People, remains unlearned by the Indian authorities who send in the army to “clean up the mess”. As Zafar says, “Whatever happens they are ruined beings, their souls are already dead.”

Written by latefornowhere

September 24, 2014 at 7:56 am

Book review: Saunders novella evokes anti-immigration hysteria in Myanmar and elsewhere

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The-Brief-and-Frightening-R

At first glance, George Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) seems to unfold with the simplicity of a child’s fable: The prose is unpretentious, and the characters are given whimsical, abstract shapes for bodies. There are even drawings interspersed throughout the book to help illustrate the story.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that in this darkly humorous allegory the author is exploring territory much too menacing for books aimed at children: The language used by key characters will resonate with anyone familiar with the malicious rhetoric that emanates from communities in which anti-immigration hysteria has taken root, whether located in the southern United States, northern Europe or western Myanmar.

The book tells the story of Inner Horner, a country with a population of seven but only enough land area to accommodate one person at a time. Each citizen has his or her designated time to occupy the country, while the other six await their turn in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the neighboring country of Outer Horner.

This system has been in place for some time, and as the book opens, cross-border resentment is running high, with the Outer Hornerites feeling that “their country was big, but it wasn’t infinitely big, which meant that they might someday conceivably run out of room”.

They also fear what might happen to their way of life — which “afforded them such super dignity and required so much space” — if outsiders kept demanding bits of Outer Horner.

Tensions increase when, due to an unspecified geological cataclysm, the land area of Inner Horner shrinks to such a degree that it can no longer accommodate even a single person. With three-quarters of an Inner Horner citizen named Elmer suddenly hanging over the border, the Outer Hornerites promptly sound the alarm and move to “expulse” the “invader”.

Saunders plays up the absurdity of the situation, using the outlandish overreaction of the Outer Hornerites to show that immigration issues are never solely about immigration: They are also about nationalism, race, religion, socioeconomics, politics, xenophobia and a host of other interconnected factors, from which immigration cannot be isolated.

The situation on the border quickly degenerates. A particularly angry and vindictive Outer Hornerite named Phil imposes excessive taxation on the “invaders”, and when the victims run out of money, he takes their remaining resources (one apple tree, one nearly dry stream, and approximately 3 cubic feet of dry, cracked soil) and then steals their clothes.

Having, through their own callous actions, ensured the destitution of the “foreign invaders”, the Outer Hornerites only harden their stance.

In one speech Phil says to the Inner Hornerites: “We are a noble people, of ancient lineage, and have a right to live and thrive, whereas you, who would take away our right to live and thrive, I’m not sure about you, I’m not sure that you have not, over the long years of taking advantage of our simple generous nature, forfeited certain rights having to do with your continued existence!”

This is an ominous declaration, and when Phil stages a coup and declares himself president of Outer Horner, he forces his own citizens to “voluntarily” sign, with their eyes closed and their backs turned to the document, a Certificate of Total Approval to sanction his similarly obscure Border Area Improvement Initiative.

The signatories soon find out what the initiative entails: Phase I calls for the internment of the Inner Hornerites in a prison surrounded by barbed wire, which Phil euphemistically refers to as the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure.

“How typical of the Inner Horner mindset,” Phil shouts when the victims attempt to protest, “to be unable to distinguish a jail from a Peace-Encouraging Enclosure. Safe inside the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure, you will be protected from your innate violent tendencies.”

Such internments are not atypical “solutions” for immigration issues: In July 2012, Myanmar President U Thein Sein proposed that the Rohingya be thrown into refugee camps, and AFP later published an eyewitness account of the fearful conditions inside the enclosed Aung Mingalar Muslim ghetto in Sittwe, which has been segregated, Apartheid-like, from the rest of the city.

For Phase II, Phil oversees the restoration of the land that had formerly been occupied by the Inner Hornerites: “At last we are reclaiming our ancient ancestral land, and we want it to look nice!” Phil declaims.

Phase III constitutes the final solution. Phil demands that the Inner Hornerites, whom his father had always said were the “dirt of the world”, be eliminated once and for all: “For us to be at total peace they must be totally gone! Gone gone gone!” Crazed and angry words, yes, but disturbingly near in substance to sentiments demonstrated in countless extremist messages posted on social media in reaction to the violence in Rakhine State.

When his countrymen baulk at perpetrating genocide, Phil urges them on with yet another fanatical speech: “With Inner Hornerites there is no lady, there is no kid, there are only evil, which must be dealt with harsh, before it spread!” By this point his syntax is suffering under his increasingly maniacal outlook.

Without revealing precisely how the situation gets resolved, I will say that the book ends on a decidedly ominous note, indicating that few lessons have been learned from the brief and frightening reign of Phil, that the underlying causes have been swept under the carpet, and that a similar situation is very likely to recur in the future.

In October 2012 the Mizzima website published a story in which the well-known comedian Zaganar was quoted as saying that the work of the government-appointed commission to investigate the violence in Rakhine State, of which he was a member, had been stymied by lack of cooperation from community members “from all sides”.

It is perhaps understandable that the major players in this tragic situation — the government, the Rohingya, the Rakhine — would be too ashamed to discuss their role in the still-unfolding events in western Myanmar, and would likewise be reluctant to have their behavior in this regard scrutinized too closely.

But their silence will only serve to further obscure the underlying tensions, at a time when root causes need to be examined and analyzed by courageous people. This fear of democratic discussion will only ensure that no progress will be made toward an equitable, peaceful solution, and that Myanmar will continue sailing toward a dark horizon where more deadly violence awaits.

Written by latefornowhere

August 25, 2014 at 4:56 am

Posted in Books, Uncategorized

The pen sketches of Hla Myint Swe

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True creativity cannot be confined by genre. Those who demonstrate an aptitude for drawing or painting often possess the ability to bring their distinctive way of looking at the world – including their keen sense of composition – to bear in other art forms such as photography.

Such is the case with Hla Myint Swe, an artist who was born in 1948 in Bhamo, Kachin State, and who has made a name for himself by publishing a series of books containing black-and-white pen sketches of the “national tribes” of Myanmar. Many of the images are based on photographs he has taken during his travels around the country. However, he does not consider himself a true artist, but rather “an amateur with a profound interest in drawing and photography”.

This self-perception, the artist confesses, stems primarily from his lack of formal training. But he made up for this by demonstrating persistence and natural talent from an early age, teaching himself to draw by copying pictures and photographs from books. By the age of five Hla Myint Swe was receiving praise from peers and teachers for his artistic talents, and later he was even drafted by his teachers to instruct his fellow students on his drawing techniques.

Hla Myint Swe continued developing his skill by studying artwork in locally published weekly magazines, as well as in any foreign comic books he could get his hands on. He finally met his first art teacher, U Lu Tin, while attending St Peter’s High School in 1965. U Lu Tin often assigned his students to paint landscapes, but Hla Myint Swe preferred figure drawing, and so instead of painting the scenery, he drew side-view portraits of this fellow students as they worked. When U Lu Tin saw this, he remarked that Hla Myint Swe had a way of thinking that was different from the others.

Hla Myint Swe spent only six months learning from U Lu Tin. After graduating from high school, he entered the Defence Services Academy and stayed in the army for 26 years, from 1966 to 1992. Although he was unable to carry paints and brushes to the front lines, he always kept ballpoint pens in his backpack, and whenever he had the chance he drew portraits on whatever scraps of paper he could find. It was from this experience that he developed his tendency toward black-and-white sketches.

In 1992 Hla Myint Swe was transferred to Yangon, where he worked for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). His duties put him in contact with painters, writers, filmmakers, performers and photographers, from whom he was able to learn more about the finer points of creating art. In the meantime, he continued developing his own work, making at least one or two sketches even on his busiest days.

As part of his work for YCDC, Hla Myint Swe helped put together several coffee-table photography books, including Yangon: The Garden City (1995), Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity (1997) and Yangon: Green City of Grace (1999). His contact with photographers for these projects piqued his own interest in photography. Whereas previously he had used his camera only for family snapshots during trips, he now started utilizing it as a tool to enhance his artwork, a means of capturing the interesting faces of Myanmar’s ethnic people who live in remote areas of the country, which he could later sketch from the photographs.

In recent years Hla Myint Swe has held several exhibitions of his sketches in Yangon, and the work can also be seen in a series of large-format books the artist has published since 2006. The main subjects of these drawings are the ethnic people of Myanmar in their traditional dress.

The third volume, Pen Sketches of Artist Hla Myint Swe: Nature and Social Life Features of Myanmar (2010), is, according to the artist’s preface, an effort to sketch those fleeting moments during which people’s facial expressions reveal their “inner lives”. Perhaps unintentionally, the brief notes that accompany each drawing often reveal the inherent subjectivity involved in “reading” someone’s expression, and the extent to which the artist projects his own assumptions onto his models.

One example is a drawing of a Ta-ang (Palaung) trustee of Loi Hsai Taung Pagoda in Namhsan, Shan State, whom the reader is told has a “pure inner mind” that “reflects his open and simple smile”. But of course neither the artist nor the reader has any way of knowing the degree to which the trustee might possess purity of mind, or whether his smile stems from such thoughts.

However, it is a testament to Hla Myint Swe’s skill as a sketch artist that the viewer is confident that the trustee’s face has been captured with great accuracy. The viewer therefore feels free to study the man’s face, rendered in black and white, and come to his or her own conclusions about what might be occurring inside his mind.

This simple act automatically makes the sketch something more than a passive drawing, taking it into a realm in which the viewer is challenged to engage, to think, to interpret. And this, more than anything, has always been what separates the interesting from the mundane in the world of art.

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Book Review: Aung San Suu Kyi photo book emphasizes nostalgia over relevance

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Just when you thought the days of uncritical praise for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were over, along comes French photographer Christophe Loviny’s hagiographic Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait in Words and Pictures.

The 132-page hardcover book employs photographs, brief biographical excerpts and quotes in the service of perpetuating a carefully burnished image of the National League for Democracy leader.

The content is presented chronologically, and many of the images in the early pages are sourced from Daw Suu Kyi’s own private collection. There are photos of her as a child in Yangon, as a university student in India, and as a wife and mother in England and elsewhere.

One early family portrait shows an infant Suu Kyi held in the arms of her mother Daw Khin Kyi, while father Aung San smiles and clutches his two sons to his chest. Two pages later, we see Daw Khin Kyi with her three children gathered around her. The absence of Aung San, who had been assassinated a year earlier, weighs heavily on the image.

These family photographs are the strongest – and by far the most engaging – aspect of the book, but as the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Daw Suu Kyi was never destined to enjoy a quiet, domestic life.

Contextual photographs help illustrate the major events that propelled her to the forefront of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, including the untimely death of her father, the 1988 uprising against the military government and her first public appearances in support of these protests.

The book takes a strange turn about halfway through with the introduction of a series of awkward portraits of Daw Suu Kyi shot by Loviny on the veranda of her home on University Avenue; they show her posing at a table pretending to write, and standing with an open volume of Japanese poetry as if perusing the pages.

The photos are meant to evoke the period during which Daw Suu Kyi was under house arrest, even though they were actually taken sometime following her release.

But it’s not so much their uneasy staginess that disappoints; rather, it’s their failure to reveal anything remotely personal about the ordeal of being confined to home for so many years: Where did the prisoner cook her food and eat her meals? Where did she sleep? How was her famous piano situated?

None of these questions are answered. Instead, the photo shoot is limited to an outdoor area that has become familiar to the public through its use as the backdrop for press conferences with US President Barack Obama, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other visiting dignitaries.

As such, the photos taken in this politicized space evoke a public rather than a private life; they point not to personal tribulations but to the further cementing of an iconic persona.

The second half of the book – featuring work by Loviny and Myanmar photographers Pyay Kyaw Myint, Minzayar, Aung Pyae, Lynn Bo Bo and Soe Than Win – runs with this theme by perpetuating the legend of the idol.

We see images of Daw Suu Kyi being adored by the masses: adored while standing at the gate of the NLD’s headquarters, adored while her bodyguards escort her through frenzied crowds, adored while campaigning from the sunroof of her white car.

We see adorers waving flags, adorers dancing and adorers plastering NLD flags onto the faces of hapless babies who have no idea what the fuss is all about.

A handful of such photos would have sufficed to convey Daw Suu Kyi’s popularity, but we get page after page of mind-numbingly repetitive images.

Cutting out a few of these images would have left more space for the book to live up to the dust jacket’s promise to evoke “the formidable challenges that still lie ahead”. The photo of Daw Suu Kyi in parliament surrounded by army representatives does not come close to accomplishing this goal.

Neither does the accompanying text, which cites the need to end “long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country” but makes no reference to the scrutiny Daw Suu Kyi has faced over her noncommittal, lukewarm approach to solving these same problems.

But this is precisely what would have been necessary to create a book that stood for something greater than simple nostalgia, that went beyond pining for the days when Daw Suu Kyi was idealistically viewed as being beyond reproach and incapable of issuing an unwise directive.

The reality is that Daw Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in 2012 has forced her to become entangled in the complex realities of Myanmar politics. With the NLD expending tremendous amounts of energy to amend the 2008 constitution for the benefit of their party leader, serious questions must be asked about her fitness to be president.

In order to successfully evoke the “formidable challenges” of the coming years, Mr Loviny would have done better to scrap some of the idolatrous images and instead include a few contextual photos that vividly illustrate the conflicts over which the blood of Daw Suu Kyi’s countrymen continues to be spilled.

The war in Kachin State, the squalid refugee camps in northern Rakhine State and anti-Muslim pogroms would have been good places to start.

Their inclusion would have served to emphasize the need for Daw Suu Kyi to take a more determined stand on certain vital humanitarian issues, while at the same time making the book substantially more relevant to Myanmar’s current state of affairs.

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait in Words and Pictures by Christophe Loviny (Hardie Grant Books, 2003)

 

Written by latefornowhere

August 18, 2014 at 8:39 am

Posted in Books, Uncategorized

Brief book review: “The Rules” by Velominati

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This book is squarely aimed at cyclists, and more specifically road cyclists, and even more specifically serious road cyclists with an interest in the Eurocentric history and traditions of the sport. It can also be an instructional read for the partners of those who fit the above criteria: for example, those hapless spouses who can’t understand why their significant other would opt to spend their Saturday cycling in the rain rather than enduring a six-hour shopping spree at the local Ikea.

Some of the 95 rules are practical (“Maintain and respect your machine”, “Be self-sufficient”, “Train properly”), while others are jokey or downright inane (“Tan lines should be cultivated and kept razor sharp”, “Espresso or macchiato only”, “Always be Casually Deliberate”). Still others serve as a reminder that bicycle racing is the toughest sport on the planet: “It never gets easier, you just go faster”; “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period”; and the most hallowed decree of all, “Harden the fuck up”. Many of these rules are illustrated with archival photos, personal accounts of past rides from the authors, and inspirational anecdotes about cycling legends like Eddy Merckx, Sean Kelly and Greg LeMond.

“The Rules” are presented as a humorous “bible” that combines concepts from Christianity, Eastern philosophy and secret societies to create a tongue-in-cheek “religion” of cycling. Unfortunately, the less-than-hilarious writers aren’t quite up to the task they have set for themselves: The idea of cycling as a secret religious order is not tremendously clever to begin with, and the conceit – Eddy Merckx as The Prophet, Mount Velomis as the mythical peak within which The Rules were forged, the Cognoscenti as a sub-sect of fundamentalists within the secret society, etc – grows old pretty quickly.

Still, the book does provide enough insight about bicycle racing culture and history to outweigh the annoyance factor, and in the end there’s not much that comes across as offensively unfunny – although if I ever hear someone actually utter the idiotic word “Velomihottie” to describe a significant other who is also a cyclist, I will not hesitate to slap them upside the head to set them straight.

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Written by latefornowhere

July 10, 2014 at 11:09 am

A geography-based guide to selected books about Myanmar

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Katha in Sagaing Region, where George Orwell (Eric Blair) lived in 1926-7 and where he set his novel “Burmese Days” under the fictional name Kyauktada

Some of these books might inspire readers to travel to the destination depicted, while others might make you think twice before following the hellish path trod by others.

Southern Kachin State

American author Tim O’Brien once wrote that “a true war story is never moral … If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted … you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Few will experience any sense of moral uplift from reading Brendan Koerner’s Now the Hell Will Start (2008), the harrowing but enthralling true story of Herman Perry, an African-American soldier assigned to help build the Ledo Road during World War II. Facing demoralizing, pestilential conditions in the jungles of Kachin State, and further unhinged by his epic-scale indulgence in opium and marijuana, Perry eventually snapped and shot dead a racist lieutenant, then fled into the wilderness where he found shelter in a Naga village. While Perry went native, even marrying the village chief’s daughter, the US Army launched its biggest manhunt of the war to bring the fugitive to justice. War is indeed hell. You can experience your own small bit of hell by trying to get an official travel permit for this difficult-to-access region.

Northern Kachin State

Well-known snake specialist Joe Slowinski has the unfortunate distinction of having died on September 11, 2001, and so news of his passing went largely unnoticed in the midst of events of greater global significance. Fortunately, writer Jamie James felt that Slowinski’s story was worth telling, which he does in fascinating detail in The Snake Charmer (2008). Slowinski met his end during an expedition north of Putao in Kachin State, the same territory explored by British plant hunter F. Kingdon-Ward in Burma’s Icy Mountains (1949). The description of Slowinski’s last 24 hours, in which he struggles to fight the effects of a venomous snake bite, will have readers gasping for breath. Of course this account should not stop anyone from trekking in the wild and beautiful Putao region – just be sure to decline if someone invites you to reach your hand into snake-filled bag.

Myeik Archipelago

Hear the word “pirate” and one thinks either of the Caribbean (thanks to the seemingly never-ending Disney/Johnny Depp movie franchise) or Somalia, where modern-day ship hijackers are doing their part to de-romanticize the concept of the loveable, heroic swashbuckler. But during the 15th century the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were also hotbeds of pirate activity, with ship and cargo thieves often hiding out among the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago until they could escape from authorities. Siamese White (1936) by Maurice Collis brings this era back to life in a way that will prompt many readers to drop everything and book a boat trip in the islands. While you’re not likely to find any gold buried in sunken chests, the unspoiled sand, sea and sky will be treasure enough.

Inle Lake

Amy Tan earned her name as a writer through books that explore multi-generational family relationships, such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Her 2005 novel Saving Fish from Drowning, with its more adventure-oriented plotline and occasional attempts at humor, is somewhat less successful but it still makes for a decent casual read, especially for those interested in fictional depictions of modern-day Myanmar. The book tells the unlikely tale of a group of tourists who enter Myanmar from China, follow the Burma Road for awhile and end up at Inle Lake, where they are kidnapped by a group of ethnic guerrillas. Tan’s presentation is more whimsical than suspenseful, with the clueless tourists not even realizing they are being held hostage – they think the trek to the ethnic village is part of their package tour. In reality, of course, visitors to Inle have zero chance of being kidnapped, and the events in the novel are really no weirder than watching cats jump through hoops at the mid-lake Nga Phe Monastery.

Mawlamyine

British poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” (1892) is by far the most famous piece of English-language writing, fictional or otherwise, to have been inspired by Myanmar. It’s been posted in hotel bars, used on the websites of tour companies and cited ad infinitum in travel stories about the country. Once you get past Kipling’s religious and cultural biases, and the fact that it’s not possible to look “eastward to the sea” from anywhere in Moulmein/Mawlamyine (but you can look westward to the wide Thanlwin River), it really is a nice little poem, successfully evoking a romantic image of colonial-era Myanmar. It’s also a reminder that Mawlamyine in Mon State is well worth a visit: a quiet, leafy town bisected by a ridgeline topped with numerous pagodas, including Kyaikthanlan Paya, thought to have inspired Kipling’s poem.

Taungbyone

Smile As They Bow (2008) by Nu Nu Yi is the first novel by a Myanmar writer to be translated into English and released by a major American publisher, and in 2007 it was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. The brief novel is set in Taungbyone, just north of Mandalay, during the nat (spirit) festival held every year around the full moon of the lunar month of Wagaung (August). Nu Nu Yi follows the story of aging transvestite medium Daisy Bond and an unfolding love triangle involving his assistant and a young beggar girl, but the star of the book is the festival itself, famous for its loud and boisterous atmosphere. The author’s lively descriptions pull the reader straight into the center of the action. Travelers who find themselves in the Mandalay area in August will want to check out the festival, guaranteed to offer an over-the-top sensory experience unlike any other in Myanmar.

Katha

No Myanmar-bound backpacker’s travel kit would be complete without a copy of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, but how many visitors actually make their way up to Sagaing Region’s Katha, where the novel is set? The name of the town in the novel has been changed to Kyauktada and the story is fictional, but the place is real and visitors will still recognize many of the landmarks that were in place when Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was stationed in the town in the 1920s as part of the British colonial police force. The tennis court is still there, as is the old British Club, among others. Visitors to Katha will quickly discover that the way to these buildings isn’t exactly called out with flashing neon signs, but aimless wandering in an unfamiliar town is one of the real pleasures of independent travel. And if you get lost, locals will be happy to unintentionally misdirect you until you stumble upon the sites on your own.

Mon State (Mudon)

Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma (1946), as well as director Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant film adaptation The Burmese Harp (1956), focuses on a group of Japanese soldiers sent to Myanmar to fight during World War II, but it’s less about war and more about the effort to retain some sense of humanity under inhuman conditions. Most of the story takes place after the soldiers are captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Mudon, Mon State, where they boost their morale by singing, and also try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of one of their compatriots. Captured Japanese soldiers might have been more concerned with getting home after the war than admiring the scenery, but the area around Mudon is a fascinating landscape of forests, rubber tree plantations and streams flowing to the sea from the mountains. The town is located about halfway between Mawlamyine and Thanbyuzayat, the latter being the location of the western terminus of the Death Railway immortalized in the film Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Pyin Oo Lwin

In 1975 Paul Theroux published the book The Great Railway Bazaar, recounting his 25,000-mile journey by train from London to Southeast Asia, on to Japan, and back to London on the Trans-Siberian Express. Three decades later he repeated the trip and published his updated observations in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). On both trips he visited Myanmar, the first time on a forbidden quest to ride across the Gokteik Viaduct in northern Shan State. Most interesting, however, is the comparison between Theroux’s overnight stay at Candacraig in Pyin Oo Lwin in the 1970s, and his return decades  later, by which time it had been renamed Thiri Myaing Hotel. The manager remembers every detail from the earlier visit, and tells Theroux that people still come from the US, Britain and Australia “holding your book, wanting to meet my father” – a vivid illustration of the power of good travel writing to get people out of their homes and exploring the world.

Eastern Shan State

Set in 1886, Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner (2002) tells the story of a Londoner named Edgar Drake who is hired to travel to Myanmar to repair the piano of a British army doctor stationed in eastern Shan State. The author’s evocative description of Drake’s journey through Myanmar – by ship to Yangon, up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, eastward by horse through the mountains of Shan State to a village on the Salween River – has a dreamlike quality that combines historical realism with timeless romanticism. It’s the type of book that makes adventurous explorers yearn for the days before the invention of the package tour, when getting off the beaten track meant more than taking an air-conditioned bus down a slightly narrower road.