My article appears in the early February 2011 print edition of the Annex Gleaner. I was able to interview one of my favourite writers Karen Connelly; she even invited me to her house for tea. I can only hope to be as fortunate in future interviews.
Writer’s book explores Burmese love affair
“To keep my own future safe for my work as a writer, I had to leave”—Karen Connolly
The outskirts of Karen Connelly’s home appear forbidding: the perimeters are enclosed in lurid yellow crime scene tape, and the hedges are mired in a Transylvanian fog. But it is simply the aftermath of Halloween, and the evidence that another life, a young one, exists inside this house.
Further proof is found in the living room where her four-year-old son Timo has built a fort. The writer is now living in Toronto and married with one child. It is not hard to reconcile this Karen Connelly—a petite, attractive woman with short, dark hair—with the one who wanted to marry her revolutionary on the Thai-Burma border in Burmese Lessons: A Love Story.
Connelly admits that the daily rigours of family life uneasily co-exist with the duties of being an artist, and the act of recreating worlds for her books can be exhausting. “You’re always using your personal experiences and imagination to try and create this other world. It is a physical labour to do that—to call those worlds, to conjure those worlds,” she said.
But, her creative output has not suffered. This year, she was nominated for the second time for the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction for Burmese Lessons: A Love Story. Set in the mid-1990s, it is the true story of her love affair with Burma, and with Maung, one of the leaders of the dissident guerrilla army.
What initially brought Connelly to Burma was not her own restless spirit, but the plight of a female Burmese writer named Ma Thida who had been sentenced to 20 years in solitary confinement. At the time, she was the chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, an organization that defends writers who are persecuted for the expression of their ideas.
She was struck by their similarities as young, female writers who were passionate about social justice, and how the disparities between them had been augmented by the accident of birth and Burma’s autocracy. Her goal was to give a voice to these marginalized people.
When Connelly travelled to Burma, she did not experience culture shock immediately. She had lived in a small village in Thailand as an exchange student and was familiar with the physical environment of Southeast Asia. (She refuses to use the name Myanmar, because it was changed by the regime without a referendum.)
However, as she met with writers and others oppressed by the military junta, she began to realize that the totalitarian government was an Orwellian beast that these people “experienced on a daily basis, a moment-to-moment basis, but which is—for the foreigner—rather hard to feel or know,” she said.
She met numerous writers and members of the Free Burma movement, who had been fighting the regime for decades. She was captivated by their commitment to this cause. “Being in Burma and on the border was a real education for me in how deeply people are willing to become engaged in those movements to the point of really risking their lives,” said Connelly.
In 1996, Connelly met Maung, a professional dissident, and the attraction was immediate and unrelenting. The intense love affair was compounded by the Burmese cause that would prove detrimental to their future.
Connelly gingerly strokes the handle of her mug as she recalls their relationship. She writes about it with an unbridled candour, but the distance between these memories and her current life have provided her with perspective.
“I was in a very different position. I had just had my son, I was married, I was living in Toronto. I could look back on her, the young woman that I was, and understand who she was and what [she] was after in a way that I couldn’t when I was that young woman. Then there was much more welter, much more confusion.”
Indeed, she seems comfortable speaking about this relationship, letting out a laugh as she shares her relationships with “disastrous men.”
As Connelly became more embedded in her relationship with Maung and the Free Burma Movement, she was able to witness significant moments including a rare appearance of “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi. (The military junta do not even allow her name to be published or spoken.)
She marvelled at the hold Burma’s spiritual leader had over the Burmese people. “People would make that trek to the capital city and this tremendous onslaught of voices would rise into the air. As a child of democracy, I had never seen people so passionate about a political figure.” It is incredible to realize that she saw Aung San Suu Kyi when she had another decade of house arrest to serve before being released on Nov. 13.
Burma politicized Connelly by opening her eyes to all the forms of injustice. When she translated these lessons into words, she was able to draw on her perspective as an outsider. She saw certain advantages in this point of view. “But, actually I do [know] that it is possible. If that person is a good anthropologist and a very keen observer, there can be an apprehension of culture that those who are in the place don’t necessarily have, because they’re so close to it.
“There is a more distant viewing and therefore you can see in a different way; that said, my intention when I’ve lived abroad has always been to get close. I’ve been very interested in breaking down those borders—which to some degree are impermeable—but that’s kind of the attraction.”
The mores of the Western world strongly reasserted themselves when Connelly lived in refugee and dissident camps along the Thai-Burma demarcation. The women were in clearly defined support roles as mothers, wives, and caretakers. They had to sacrifice their lives for the cause—as their partners had—while enduring long separations. These experiences reinforced the apprehension that she would never be able to dissolve through the barriers that separated her and Maung.
“To keep my own future safe for my work as a writer, I had to leave both Maung and the border. I had seen my private nature. I would not be able to make the sacrifices that other Western women had made.”
On Feb. 11, 1999, the Burmese junta released Ma Thida in response to intense lobbying by Amnesty International and PEN; she had served seven years of her 22-year sentence. Her release was a fitting end to the decade that had represented the zenith of Connelly’s political activism. However, she remains committed to these causes through PEN and her writing.
Her experiences in Burma profoundly changed her. “She is gone, the one who could go forth so easily, so readily, wishing to enter another world and opening herself to it completely, like a door or a flower.”
But in leaving Burma behind, she has built the family life she had always desired. Now she is ensconced in her Toronto home where the borders are self-made constructs. She believes this domestic circumference yields freedoms rather than withholding them. In time, this expanse will grow, like her son, to embrace other wisdoms, and other worlds.