Singapore-based writer Nilanjana Sengupta launched her scholarly book The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi last week at Goethe Villa, where the author held a public discussion about her book and its subjects.
The book explores the lives and works of four female literary figures – Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida (Sanchaung) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The author took three years to complete the book.
“There are many female authors of Myanmar such as Dagon Khin Khin Lay, Daw Mya Sein and Journal-gyaw Ma Ma Lay. Among contemporary authors, there are thought-provoking writers like Ma Sandar, Moe Moe (Inya) and Juu. The decision to choose the four women I chose as representative voices of their times was based on natural instinct,” said Sengupta at the launch.
Khin Myo Chit and Ludu Daw Amar were both born in 1915. Khin Myo Chit is famous for her patriotic articles in journals and newspapers during the anti-colonial movement, while Ludu Daw Amar, a woman of forthright views on government, gained admirers in the country for her books on arts, theatre and music.
Ma Thida (Sanchaung) is a surgeon and human rights activist and is known for her book Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard, a memoir about her early life, her captivity and her attendance at a fellowship program at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the United States. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the author of Freedom from Fear (1991) and Letters from Burma (1991).
“As I read more of their writing, I was drawn by their literary style and individual philosophy,” said Ms Sengupta.
She said Khin Myo Chit writes with a remarkable dry humour, while Ludu Daw Amar’s writings come alive in colourful detail. Ma Thida uses homonyms and subtle wordplays which abound in the Myanmar language.
“Until I started writing the chapter on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I was not sure I was doing the right thing. She seemed too perfect for me to be able to write about her. But then I am glad that I did go ahead with the initial plan of including her in my book. I discovered a very different woman than the one portrayed in global media,” she said.
When she tried to understand any of these authors, language became a major barrier.
“Khin Myo Chit and Aung San Suu Kyi write partially in English, while the other two write almost entirely in the Myanmar language,” she said.
The state-run libraries in Myanmar are not easily accessible to foreigners because of the country’s turbulent past, and a lot of archival records have been ruined. But private collections and unpublished manuscripts archived in other countries came to Sengupta’s rescue.
“When I was trying to look up the editorials that Khin Myo Chit wrote for the Working People’s Daily between 1965 and 1968, there were not many to be found in the Myanmar archives. But Khin Myo Chit had managed to send quite a large batch of these columns to a friend in England and I could source them from her,” she said.
“I also felt a strong sense of sense of responsibility toward the protagonists who are such respected names in Myanmar,” she said.
Writer Ma Thida (Sanchaung), one of four protagonists in her book, said at the book launch, “The author’s academic research on these four women was carried out not only in the libraries, but was also based on my account. She read the books written by these writers in Myanmar language with the help of translators.”
Nilanjana Sengupta’s The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi is being translated into Myanmar and will be published in May 2016.