About the Book:
Set against the vibrant backdrop of Burma from the 1940s to the 1960s, Miss Burma is a powerful and epic novel that follows one prominent Burmese family struggling to overcome war and political repression while trying to build a meaningful life.
Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.
Based on the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.
Historical fiction grounded in fact is my favourite type of novel to read. They’re also the one’s that take me the longest to read, mostly on account of how much I linger over the events within, contemplating the very realness of what I’m reading and analysing it in terms of the world we live in today. Miss Burma is one such novel, a truly mesmerising and terribly beautiful account of a history I have until now not been aware of. Burma is a country I know of in only the briefest of terms, within the context of the Burma railway that Australian prisoners of war were forced to build during WWII, but that’s it. That is quite honestly the extent of my knowledge. Miss Burma offers readers the opportunity to learn quite a bit about this troubled nation, from its days as a British colony through to its tumultuous grapple for independence post WWII and through to the mid 1960s. It’s a political war story that orbits around love, honour and identity; a modern masterpiece in my opinion.
Authenticity to this novel is enhanced by the fact that the author’s own family history forms the basis of the narrative. The main characters are her own grandparents, her mother and uncle and aunts. It’s almost like a memoir in terms of this personalisation, but it most definitely reads like a novel; an extremely articulate and intelligent novel. The prose is exquisite, the story unfolding rapidly, with a multitude of detail, yet never bogging down or over complicating matters. There is so much history within the pages of this novel, heartbreaking history of a nation besieged by civil war, genocide, and betrayal on an international scale. It’s unflinchingly honest, quite difficult to read at times because of this, but truth, in essence, is often difficult, so I appreciated the frankness, the lack of sugar coating, the bare bones honesty of this novel immensely.
Benny and Khin are an interesting dynamic. Their marriage is inter-racial, and this in itself presents challenges that at times seem insurmountable. Khin is a part of a long persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen, while Benny is a Jewish Indian born in Burma. We see Khin drawn to other Karen men throughout the novel, and it was intriguing for me to dwell on this as I found myself not considering it within the normal parameters of adultery. Certainly, the ethnic barrier between husband and wife played a role in this, but also the conditions of life, the never ending war and separation they endured. And then there was Benny himself, who to be perfectly honest, I didn’t always like. I certainly had a great deal of empathy for him and what he continually was forced to endure, but I never really liked him. So my sympathies lay with Khin and her perspective was portrayed well enough to enhance this.
With Saw Lay she had escaped not just her fear for Benny’s life, but also all the agitation that came with loving a man with whom she had never easily been able to speak in her first language, and to whom her Karen tendencies too often had to be explained. She had not known how very Karen she was until there was Benny – boisterous, belligerent Benny, who bigheartedly trampled all over her preferences for gentleness and humility and silent attunement to others. And she had not known how isolated she had felt with him until there was Saw Lay.
Khin is not a woman who wears her failings lightly. She punishes herself on so many levels throughout the course of her life, and it was so difficult at times to bear witness to her suffering. On the matter of her adultery though, in the end, the words of a Rabbi, spoken to her when she was at the beginning of her marriage, become a balm to counter her self-flagellation:
We must find a way to rejoice in our circumstances. We must find a way to do more than endure.
I really do love this pearl of wisdom. Words to live by.
Now, the title of the novel, Miss Burma, refers to Louisa, Benny and Khin’s daughter. Louisa very much played the part of the sacrificial lamb within her family. The whole notion of her running for Miss Burma came out of a passive aggressive encounter between Benny and Khin at a dinner party. Khin had already previously used Louisa’s poise and beauty in an earlier pageant to secure her husband’s release from prison, so essentially, the bonfire was already laid out, it just needed a match to set it all aflame. Louisa, as a dutiful daughter, went along with it all, despite great detriment to her spiritual self and her reputation. She talks of becoming a great pretender and no longer knowing who her real self is anymore. This was so sad to contemplate in someone so young. Louisa winning Miss Burma, not once but twice, consecutively, was entirely political. Reflections in hindsight by her father highlight the extent of this:
He’d wanted, with this Miss Burma business, to have something to write about – or so he’d claimed; but it turned out he’d only given the Burmans an angle. Or, no, a weapon. A weapon of Burmanisation. A weapon against revolution. For if Louisa, as the racially indistinct product of assimilation, was already a symbol of a “higher form of unity,” as Aung San had once put it (one might serve “national tasks and objectives”), then her winning the pageant would be an argument that racism in the country didn’t exist, and there was no discrimination to fight against.
Louisa was my favourite from this novel. She emerges from her childhood as a woman with incredible strength. She sheds her beauty queen persona and marries a General of the Karen Revolutionary Council in 1963. Theirs is a genuine love story and his regard for Louisa as a trustworthy partner is all encompassing. But Louisa has strong revolutionary inclinations of her own and I loved watching these strengthen within her until she reached a point where she could no longer deny them.
She’d never dared pursue such a radical thought- how could she, given Daddy’s part in the Karen Union’s solidification? But hadn’t the university massacre taught her that if ethnic hatred had fashioned the nation’s history, its new dictator was making the country over with an even broader, blinder, indiscriminate hate? Burman students had also died in the massacre. And if the nation was to heal, if the nation was to do away with both the hater and the hated, the nation’s peoples must do so together. Undeniably, ethnic minorities had suffered and were still suffering more than any Burmans: rape, beheadings, dismemberments, slavery, not to mention chronic humiliation, chronic displacement, a chronic sense of inferiority – non-Burmans had suffered for ages just because of Burman supremacy. But Burmans were also victims of Ne Win’s military dictatorship; they, too, had grown up – perhaps enough to recognise that they were no more deserving of protection and justice.
All throughout this novel, I was aware of the pressing truth of it, the glaring fact that Charmaine Craig was telling her family’s story, with literary license of course, but still, this all happened. Louisa is Charmaine’s mother and this in itself is rather incredible, to have such a family legacy to draw from creatively. The weight of it is so important though and I can understand why Charmaine has written this as a novel rather than a memoir. The achievement lies in the detail and scope. I am interested now to find out more about Burma and it’s history since the 1960s.
The writing within Miss Burma is superb. Even the terrible is articulated with some measure of beauty at the mercy of Charmaine’s hand. This is literary fiction at its finest and most accessible, because I never, for a single second while reading this novel, felt as though I wasn’t able to appreciate it. I will definitely be making a point of seeking out Charmaine’s previous novel, The Good Men, because I love her style, the visual narration and tight dialogue. So much unsaid, yet conveyed with clarity. Emotions laid bare without fanfare and dramatics. This is a novel that will become a timeless classic, a contender for big literary prizes. I am so impressed with Miss Burma and utterly bereft that I have finished it. I want to know more. What happens next? The ending is in many ways all encompassing and yet we are still left dangling on a precipice, with so much more still to come.
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of Miss Burma for review.
About the Author:
Charmaine Craig is a faculty member in the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, and the descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history. A former actor in film and television, she studied literature at Harvard University and received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Her first novel, The Good Men, was a national bestseller in the US and was translated into six languages.