Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cultural norms trump literary merit at state-run book awards

National Literary Award winner U Nyein Min. (Photo : The Myanmar Times Archive)National Literary Award winner U Nyein Min. (Photo : The Myanmar Times Archive)

The winners of the National Literary Award for books published in 2011 were announced on November 22, with 13 honourees named by a judging committee working under the Ministry of Information.

Prizes were meant to be given in 16 categories, but the selection committee decided that the entries in the Novel, Youth Literature and English-Language Fiction categories failed to meet specified selection criteria.

“We have read all the literature published in the 2011 calendar year, including comedy, satire and fantasy. We define the criteria for each category, and if works don’t meet these standards, we reject them and select the best from the remaining books,” said poet U Myo Tun, secretary of National Literary Award Selection Committee.

The committee picked the 13 winners from more than 2400 books in all genres. Of these, 827 were novels but none were deemed sufficient to warrant the literary prize.

“There were many good novels that were left unrewarded,” U Myo Tun said.

“One work in particular that was under consideration had the characteristics of good realistic fiction. There was a display of sentiment and fine presentation, but the story was all about a life of toil spent burning wood to make charcoal. When we evaluated it from an environmental point of view, we didn’t chose it.”

He declined to reveal the title of book “for the sake of the author”.

U Myo Tun went farther in revealing the manner in which the committee’s demand for adherence to Myanmar’s cultural norms can eliminate worthy candidates.

“The judges had another excellent novel to consider, based on real-life events. The author was meticulous in creating plausible characters, and the dialect they used and their actions reflected the period and the setting in which they lived,” U Myo Tun said.

“We praise the author’s knowledge and artistic merit, but the female character in the novel committed suicide in the end because of her feelings of defeat. It can give a false impression, and such actions are not encouraged in our religion and culture. We didn’t take account of similar novels for the award.”

He added that the committee does not consider horror and mystery books for the award, because these subjects “can mislead the readers”.

While none of the hundreds of novels published in 2011 were deemed to have met the proper criteria, the year’s single dramatic work was awarded the prize in its category.

“There was only one drama book published for the whole year, and we picked it for the award because it met the criteria we used for assessing quality, and also because it was a single excellent book published at a time when this type of drama is fading into virtual obscurity,” U Myo Tun said.

The work, titled Tapin Kyo Hlyin Naut Hna Pin (Two Trees Grow where One Falls Down) was written by three-time Myanmar Academy Award-winning scriptwriter and film director U Nyein Min.

He said he had written the drama as a reminder of his work writing plays for actor Nan Win’s theatre in the 1980s.

“I didn’t feel confident about publishing it because of lack of demand, so I submitted the unpublished work to compete for the Sarpay Beikman manuscript award,” U Nyein Min said.

It won the 2009 Sarpay Beikman award for best manuscript in the drama category, and was published in book form in 2011.

“I feel happy about winning in the drama category because this category isn’t given every year,” U Nyein Min said.

“In the text of a novel the author can compose the atmosphere of the surroundings, and the nature and actions of the characters. But playwrights must present the atmosphere, action and feeling of the characters only through dialogue,” he said.

“Reading drama forces the audience to fully comprehend the human mind and feeling through listening to what he says.”

For U Nyein Min, drama holds higher aesthetic value than any other literary form. He said the genre flourished in Myanmar in the late 19th century, with U Ku’s Luwwun Maung Hnama (Ape Brother and Sister) enjoying a circulation of 15,000 copies in 1875.

“But drama dies a death now, and readers hardly show any interest in the genre,” he said.

U Nyein Min said there were many fine works that didn’t win National Literary Awards because they did not meet the standards set by the judging committee, but he added that they would get their chance to win privately run prizes, such as Dr Tin Shwe, Thuta Swesone, Shwe Amutae, Tun Foundation and Pakokku U Ohn Pe literary awards.

This year’s Lifetime Achievement National Literary Award was presented to 85-year-old Min Yu Wai, whose real name is U Win Maung.

“I started writing when I was 17 years old. Since then I have never taken a rest from writing. I feel encouraged and happy to be awarded,” he said.

When asked if the age of 85 was too late to win a lifetime achievement award, he said: “My friends think so. I too have the same feeling. But the award is not an important matter; to write is the first importance. But if I had died at the age of 80, I would not have received the award.”

The other National Literary Awards winners were Ye Myat Tin in the Collected Short Stories category; Pyinmana Maung Ni Thin for Collected Poems; Kaythipan U Hla Myint (Belles-letters); Natmauk Tun Shein (Myanmar Culture and Arts), Maung Seinn Naung (Children’s Literature); U Kyi Myint (Translation — General Knowledge); Tin Maung Myint (Translation — Aesthetic); U Win Naing (General Knowledge — Art); Dr Khin Maung Swe (General Knowledge — Science); Thaung Nyunt Thit (General Knowledge — Applied Science); Ko Ko Maung Gyi (Politics); and U Thet Tun (English-language — General Knowledge).

The awards ceremony will be held at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Nay Pyi Taw on December 14.