'Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story': an intimate witness to rebellion in Burma
A review of "Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story," author Karen Connelly's memoir of witnessing waves of pro-democracy rebellion in Burma and of falling in love with one of the rebel leaders.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story'
by Karen Connelly
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 382 pp., $27.95
The writing of a memoir — especially one subtitled "A True Love Story" — presents an inherent challenge: the author's self-revelation risks devolving into rank confession and undermining the larger truths of the story. When a writer can overcome this potential pitfall, as Karen Connelly does so convincingly in "Burmese Lessons," it is cause for rejoicing.
Connelly lived as an exchange student in Thailand when she was 17, and her interest in the region never waned. She achieved early literary success with "Dream of a Thousand Lives," an account of her year in Thailand, and in 1996, at age 28, she traveled to Burma to write about political prisoners for PEN Canada.
Ruled by military regimes since 1962, Burma (officially known as Myanmar) became more open by the mid-1990s, but the government still clamped down on dissension. Student protests erupted in 1988 and again in the 1990s. Insurgents, many of them from the Karen ethnic group, waged battles with government troops along the Thai-Burmese border.
The first quarter of the book is set in Burma, set up by Connelly's lush and lovely descriptions of the "Golden Land." She interviews writers, poets, artists and dissidents, including Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who lives in Rangoon under house arrest. Caught up in the spirit of rebellion, Connelly finds herself in the middle of a pro-democracy demonstration and observes the government's brutality firsthand.
Back in Thailand, she seeks out Burmese exiles, and in the northern city of Chiang Mai she meets Maung, the handsome and charismatic leader of one of the main rebel groups. Wary at first, she soon swoons and falls hard for Maung, accompanying him to villages and refugee camps along the border, and witnesses appalling, squalid conditions there. Rebel fighters tell her stories of torture and shocking cruelty.
The cause takes Maung away for long periods, heightening their romance, but creating tension between them. Love seems simple and straightforward for him, fraught and complicated for her — she wants to have children with him but doesn't want to marry someone with such an unsettled life.
Connelly avoids romanticizing both her love affair and the Burmese resistance through a fierce honesty. She writes explicitly about sexual intimacy. Neither does she shy away from how conflicted she is by their relationship. The narrative is written in the present tense, and while grating at times, it gives the story an immediacy and air of uncertainty.
Hyper-aware of her privilege as a Westerner, she continually questions her motivations and potential biases in her interpretation of Asian culture and people. "Everything becomes territory to us [Westerners], everything becomes ours," she writes. "Is the tendency to colonize genetic? Even the political struggle of a small country can become our colony. Thus, I become suspicious of myself."
Her self-policing vigilance has the unlikely consequence of freeing the reader to indulge in the book's more memorable and moving story lines: the bravery of the Burmese resistance and a heartbreaking romance set among the temples and verdure of Southeast Asia.
David Takami is the author of "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle."