Thursday, February 20, 2014

Necessary Noise: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at Irrawaddy Literary Festival 2014
A year ago, my friend living in Yangon posted a link to the Irrawaddy Literary Festival on her Facebook page. Even though it was taking place in Myanmar, a country I knew almost nothing about and I was sure to not attend, I opened up the link and read all about this festival I would not be able to go to. Cut to, January 2014, after I have booked my ticked to Myanmar and my friend emails the link for the same festival, happening in Mandalay, with a note: "This should be one of your stops."

"Human Trafficking" - Duncan Jepson, Caroline Moorehead, Wendy Law-Yone & Nu Nu Kyi
I was shocked that something I was so curious about and had completely forgotten about had reappeared in front of me with the actual possibility that this year I could attend! And on February 15th, 2014, we ran wild at this literary festival where we listened to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak (Twice! No less!) and listened to renowned authors talks about the qualities of heroes and villains, a Cambridge professor talk about where English as a world language should be welcomed or deplored, listened to a BBC journalist debate with an audience member about the lasting truth or perhaps fraud of Marcel Duchamp and his brilliant or clever creation of conceptual art. We listened to authors and a human rights activist talk about the ugly truth of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. I listened to myself talk with panelists, including an English Pakistani author, (Qaisra Shahraz) about my experiences with social media and writing including the struggle to find balance between its necessity and the overwhelming distraction in can become. It was a day that lit my creative soul on fire.

But perhaps the only reason I was supposed to be there in Mandalay, Myanmar on February 15th, 2014 was to hear author (a Chinese born writer whose work is banned in China), Jung Chang, who grew up in communist China tell an auditorium packed full of Myanmar citizens still just wading in the water of a recently opened society that when she was a girl she wanted to be a wrier. "When I was a child," she said, "I wanted to be a writer, but I couldn't even say to myself I wanted to be a writer." She could not even dream it. She recalled police coming to her home when she was sixteen and taking a story she had written and shoving pages down a toilet for fear of being caught. The question was raised if writers who grew up in totalitarian states have a certain responsibility and I couldn't help but wonder about my responsibility as a writer who has only ever known a free and democratic existence. Sometimes it takes a long journey to hear what we already know. This same author added that her favorite literary hero was the boy in Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes -that all it takes to be a hero is to stand up and state what is right before us.

"Where China Meets India" Session with Thant Myint U and Louis de Bernieres
In her conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former political prisoner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talked about democracy and duty. "Rights entail responsibilities," she noted. When asked if she felt her life had a sense of destiny to follow in her father's footsteps, (He was assassinated when she was two years old.) she said it was never destiny but more duty, and not a moral duty but a personal duty. "A sense of duty means you broaden the world around you," she said. In her later discussion on literary heroes and villains, she added that Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was her favorite literary character. She admitted she must be a rebel at heart. When asked about the disillusionment some westerners have regarding their democratic states she laughed, commenting that, "some of the disillusionment is on the surface...but those same people would be very put to defend those rights." And then she said something that made me feel hope about my disillusionment with my own country's faults. She said, "Societies deeply entrenched in democratic values don't go backwards." She added that people tire from adventuristic thinking and so may swing more conservative at times, but that: "It's a gentle swing within a democratic society." But she also warned that if you don't practice your democratic responsibilities, you will find that you will lose your democratic rights.

She danced around the Buddhism and Muslim conflict scorching villages along the country's borders, especially in Rakhine State, but when asked about what she wants for her country, she said, "What I want are people who understand if they want to be a part of a peaceful, prosperous country, they have to be a part of the struggle." Simply put: struggle as solution. Then what is involved in the struggle? When asked about what characterizes an enemy of democracy, she first defined democracy as "a respect for human beings and human rights." When Dame Bakewell suggested the notion that "wealth disparity is an enemy of democracy," a thought that never occurred to me before, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed. To recognize the wealth disparity in the United States as something dangerous, something beyond the republican/democrat discourse, but something inherently toxic and threatening to the principles of the country made it more urgent than I have understood it.

For the first time in maybe ever, I thought of my writing, this writing, as neither successful or unsuccessful, good or bad. I saw it as a small duty, and a personal one. There is a reason I feel compelled to string together a bunch of nouns and adjectives and verbs and because of that I have to keep writing, even if I never make a cent from it, and simply because I can. It's not about who is listening, but rather am I talking? Am I writing as loud as possible? In the words of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, "A certain amount of noise in one's life is necessary.

1 comment:

Carmen said...

"lit my creative soul on fire"!!! i love it. so glad this was part of your trip. love you