Shining light on censored fiction

By Zon Pann Pwint
Volume 32, No. 629
June 4 - 10, 2012

U Saw Wai.
Pic: Myanmar Times Archive

FOR the past 50 years, literature lovers in Myanmar have been able to read only the bowdlerised versions of the short stories, novels and poems published by local writers, with much of the best material left on the cutting room floor as a result of the relentless assault of the censor’s red pen.

But now, as the burden of censorship becomes lighter, some writers and publishers are endeavouring to release previously suppressed work to the public.

Among them is best-selling author U Min Khite Soe San, who says he has been contacted by publishers who are interested in printing copies of his many novels that have been censored over the years.

U Min Khite Soe San has maintained an archive of more than 70 of his novels and novellas that have been suppressed by officials.

One of his novels titled Thay Min Naing Ngan Hmar Thone Tae Pite San (Currency Used in Purgatory), set against the background of the abolition of K75 note in 1986, will be published this month by Two Cats Publishing House.

“The censors have long regarded our art with suspicion,” he said. “We honestly share what we know with our readers, but the censors have removed parts of novels unnecessarily with doubts beyond their duties, so that our artistic flesh is sliced away.”

“Not every feeling should be shared, every writer knows that. But the censors think we’re writing to become famous without reasoning about whether the public should be able to read it or not. They think censorship of the press exists to edit and cut our work because we don’t have reason to think whether it is good for readers. But writers are not idiots, we know whether our work poisons the reader.”

He added that he did not want to attack any single person involved in the censorship process, but he blamed the entire system for “diluting the flavour of art”.

U Min Khite Soe San said that not all of his previously rejected works will be published.

“I haven’t given all my stories to publishers. I’m reading them again because some stories were written when I was angry and some were written when I was disappointed about society or a particular person. Not all my work has purity. I will select a few that have remained unaffected by my anger, one-sided opinions and prejudice,” he said.

He predicted that in the future, more novels will be published that reflect the reality of life for many people in Myanmar, such as families living in small huts roofed with plastic tarps and people drinking contaminated water.

Writer U Saw Wai, who was imprisoned in 2008 for a poem that appeared in Love journal, said the relaxation of pre-censorship rules has helped free his mind from worries about editors getting in trouble for publishing his work.

A collection of U Saw Wai’s satirical pieces was released on May 25.

“Despite decades of the imposition of heavy censorship on our novels and poems, writers had no fears about portraying how the people endured their hardships. But these literary works were denied access to public eyes, ears and feelings because of censorship,” he said.

On May 17, at a birthday celebration for writer U Maung Moe Thu, the head of Sarpae Lawka publishing house, U Myo Nyunt, announced that another collection of U Saw Wai’s poems and stories that had been rejected during the past 28 years would soon be released to the public.

“I wrote a short story about a girl to whom I donated blood. To show her gratitude, the girl’s mother took off a pair of gold earrings worn by her sick daughter, took them to a teashop near the hospital and exchanged them for tea and bread, which she gave to me, U Saw Wai said.

“It was a true story, but it was rejected several times even when the editor kept changing my pen name and re-submitting it. That story will soon be published by Sarpae Lawka.”

He added: “I am optimistic about the new system of publication before submitting to the censors. There is no worry about writing the realities of life. It is true that we will have no barriers to cross.”

He was referring to last month’s announcement by the government that pre-press censorship would be abolished at the end of June.

However, writer Saung Win Latt said he doubted that changing from a system of censorship before publication, to a system of censorship after publication, would ensure that writers enjoyed freedom of expression and thought to the fullest extent.

“There will be a press council to check our work after publication. We don’t know who will work for the council. We don’t know whether they will be artists or bureaucrats,” he said.

“Writers will be happy if they merely need to register the book after publication, otherwise we can run into trouble if they ask us to cut or remove parts of the story after publication, or to stop distributing it to the public.”

Saung Win Latt said it has been many decades since poets and writers in Myanmar have enjoyed “peace of mind”.

“We would like to hear officials say, ‘We have distressed writers and poets and have made them feel worried and unhappy for many decades. We have restricted the freedom of your art in various ways. We think it’s time to give you the right and freedom to write novels and poems that will enlighten the public’,” he said.

He said writers represent the opinions and feelings of the people, and oppression of writers has come from those who have neglected public sentiment.

“Myanmar is rich in new words, and now the new word ‘pre-publication’ has been created. To the best of my belief, it will take time to express the feelings about this word that fill my heart,” Saung Win Latt said.

Hantharwady U Win Tin, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who spent 19 years in jail, wrote a collection of short stories, titled Lu Ng Ye (Human Hell), about the life of political prisoners in Insein Prison.

It was published to commemorate the author’s 80th birthday, which fell on March 12, 2010. Due to censorship restrictions, the Myanmar-language book was released only in Thailand at the time. However, copies are now available at NLD headquarters in Yangon.

U Win Tin said he welcomed end of pre-press censorship but would like to see censorship end altogether.

“My book Lu Ng Ye aims to highlight the appalling conditions in the prison and the inhumanity of the prisoners’ treatment. My hope is that authorities will feel reluctant to oppress the prisoners and that readers will gain courage from the stories of prisoners who struggled on with dauntless bravery and commitment despite the scale of oppression,” he said.

He said that for years the public in Myanmar has had little knowledge of what life is like inside the prison because there were no books that explored the topic.

“Writers, journalists, politicians and students were put into prison but there is no such literary genre. It is possible that they dare not write about it, or that they wrote about it but the stories didn’t reach the public. I hope that as censorship rules change, more such books will appear and raise public awareness,” he said.