Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Political Prisoners Myanmar Burma

Prison life and the art of joyful rebellion

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With the end of direct pre-publication censorship in August 2012 came the proliferation of a previously stifled genre of Myanmar literary nonfiction: the prison memoir.

Within months, a flood of books and articles by ex-political prisoners hit the market. Most of these accounts were written in the Myanmar language, with one notable exception being Ma Thanegi’s book Nor Iron Bars a Cage, released earlier this year by San Francisco-based Things Asian Press.

Ma Thanegi is an artist and writer who, before her arrest in 1989, worked as a personal assistant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But in the years following Ma Thanegi’s 1992 release from Yangon’s Insein Prison, she was accused by a particularly rabid element of the Myanmar exile community of being a “traitor” to the pro-democracy cause.

Among Ma Thanegi’s supposedly traitorous ideas was daring to realize earlier than most that Daw Suu Kyi was merely human and not an infallible demigod. The artist/writer also challenged the National League for Democracy’s unbending junta-era doctrine by suggesting that economic sanctions and tourism boycotts might not be doing much to uplift the country’s poor.

Ma Thanegi’s approach in Nor Iron Bars likewise would have irked certain political zealots of years gone by, who might have preferred their prison narratives to be jam-packed with titillating torture porn – whether fact or fiction – meant to showcase the malevolence of the military regime.

Fortunately, Ma Thanegi does not indulge.

While she does dedicate some time in Nor Iron Bars to detailing the belligerent and psychologically taxing interrogation sessions she endured, and she also describes how some pro-democracy political prisoners and Burma Communist Party members were subject to occasional beatings, she shows little interest in exaggerating to fulfill popular notions of what life in Insein Prison was supposed to have been like.

There are some readers who, even now, are bound to feel let down by the dearth of over-the-top brutality aimed at the women who spent time in jail following the 8-8-88 uprising. As Ma Thanegi complains in the Foreword, “What disgusts me is the number of people I have met who were actually disappointed or upset that we weren’t raped by the male guards.”

Instead, the book focuses on day-to-day life in the jail, in particular the “steady, strong and warm friendships” that formed within the community of inmates, and their relations with the guards and prison administrators. The cast of characters includes accessories to murder, student political prisoners, parliamentarians elected in 1990 and never allowed to take office, prison guards both cranky and sympathetic, and young women repeatedly jailed for prostitution.

Of course, not everything was rosy in Insein Prison. There were, among other hardships, the grueling interrogation sessions, the sadistic lack of adequate healthcare, and acute feelings of boredom and depression with which to contend.

One of Ma Thanegi’s great themes as an author has always been food, and here she writes at length about the sub-par prison rations and the never-ending efforts by inmates to procure proper ingredients for adequate meals.

Despite the subject matter, there is simple beauty in these stories, a matter-of-fact frankness and sincerity that sometimes borders on the childlike, especially when the author writes about her affinity for cats, dogs, birds and butterflies. There are practical jokes, real-life ghost stories and recitals of verse composed entirely in the head of the poet.

The overall tone is one of resilient optimism in the face of deprivation. The prisoners quickly learned how to improvise in an environment designed to quell creative thought, and discovered in their own ways how to find small bits of happiness in the dark corners of a setting meant to destroy all enjoyment.

Structurally, Nor Iron Bars reads more like a collection of anecdotes than a coherent narrative. There is little in the way of plot to pull readers through the book, but the stories and character profiles are united by the overarching theme, which is clearly expressed in the book’s most oft-quoted sentence, “We were supposed to be miserable, and we were damned if we’d oblige.”

You might not plow straight through the book without interruption – I finished two other novels in the same period that I read Nor Iron Bars – but like a collection of poetry, it will pull you back again and again for its inspirational tales of rebellious joy and optimism.

This review was originally published in the October 21-27 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

October 21, 2013 at 5:13 am