ABDVol.31 No.4

Myanmar Literary Scene
Maung Hsu Shin
 

General State of Myanmar Literature Today

The year 2000 saw the number of books published in Myanmar totaling over 4,000 titles in print out of which nearly 800 are eligible for the annual National Literary Awards. The other 2,000 titles consist of reprints and general printed materials such as magazines and pamphlets.
  Myanmar has had a literary tradition since the Bagan Period, at the start of the second millennium, began with palm-leaf writings and stone inscriptions. Early writings, as in many other countries, concentrated mostly on religious teachings. Later ages saw the flourishing of prose and thence poetry. In its development there were nine ages of literary periods up to the present.
  One of the sources of inspiration and encouragement comes from annual literary awards and contests held in the Writer's Day season, which usually falls in the month of December. Recently,10 people received the National Literary Awards for the books published during the year 1999. The prize-giving ceremony was held on 27 December 2000 at the National Theatre in Yangon. The awardees included writers, poets, essayists and translators in the respective categories totalling 14 and there were no claimants to the remaining 4 for the same year. But there have been 241 recipients so far for these coveted awards since 1962. In addition there are about 6 different literary competitions covering fiction as well as non-fiction on specific themes that are held yearly to stimulate writers and poets.
  Contemporary modern literature evolved out of the national struggle against colonialism in the 1920s. The movement was led by the educated young men of Yangon University. The struggle for independence and the literature generated by the campaign influenced the younger generation and increased their political consciousness. The interest in literature can be traced back to the higher literacy rate due to the traditional monastic education system.
  Present-day Myanmar writings can be sampled through the local publishing scene with the output and accomplishment of the following selective writers.

Dagon Tar Yar
(literally "the Star", own name: Mr. Htay Myaing)
Born in 1919 and a native of a riverine town in lower Myanmar. Recently won Life Achievement Award for his poetry and writings. He started his university days in the late thirties. His writings largely reflect leftist political learning since his college days which coincided with the times of Myanmar's struggles for independence under the British rule. Once he published his literary magazine entitled Tar Yar (The Star). The same word constituted his pen-name. New writing was embodied in his magazine. Dagon Tar Yar's early creative endeavours concentrated on poetry and he experimented on stories but was later attracted to the world of belles-lettres. He is also noted for his series of lucid biographical portraits of painters, poets and politicians. Though he is recognized as a poet, he has a niche in the realm of esthetics and literary criticism. Recently his collected articles on esthetics won the National Literary Award for the year 1999. His first National Award-winning book in 1961 was the collection of short stories entitled Sabai-Oo (Early Jasmine).
  Dagon Tar Yar's numerous works include, "May" (first novel, 1941), "Gandalyit" (travelogue, 1951), "Profiles" (1955), "Lotus" (novel, 1963), "Midsummer Nights" (essays, 1968), and his poems, "Mainstream" (1949), "Whisper in the Mist" (1949), "Rain Tree Testament" and "Maya" (collection of poems, 1991).
  He coined new words for the new way of thinking and many of the terms are apt. In fact, he is a professional writer with a penchant for music and art. Presently, with very poor eyesight at his ripe age, he stays away from the capital's tropical climate and is living in the northern temperate region of the country.
  He has sent himself into "exile" by reflecting in his poem: "Sending Oneself to Meza"

- alone, I am happy no one to write with no one to read with none to criticise me none to attack me no one to give order/ none to appeal to no one knows me nor my writings no hate, no war, just itself raw and green and fresh liberated area, land of Peace. (Meza is a pseudonym for his secluded place.)

 In spite of what he says it is a paradise of sorts. And he is still very much in the centre of current literary discussion.

Ma San Dar
(literally "Miss Moon", own name: Ms. Cho Cho Tin)
Born in 1947, graduate of Yangon Institute of Technology in 1971, is an architect, who started getting her short stories in print in 1965. Her writings reflect the Myanmar society of the same period. Her late father and mentor belonged to the "Experimental Literature Movement" of 1930s and later served as Myanmar ambassador to Pakistan. She collected the material for her stories from among the urban community.
  Her novels include, "Life is a Flower Dread" (1994), "Collected Short Stories-3" (1999), "The Shadow" (1980), "The New Green Leaves", "The Clouded Moon", "Faulty Being Young" (1971), etc.
  With two National Awards to her credit in 1994 and 1999 she has established herself among the creative group of contemporary female writers. Her stories portray domestic family surroundings in urban life. After publishing about 70 short stories and a dozen novels, some of them in film versions, she is regularly grinding out stories in her early middle age.

Paragu
(Literally the "Expert", own name: Mr. Hla Lyaing)
Born in 1921, translated mainly on topics relating to Buddhist religion. He started as a Buddhist novice and excelled in the field of Buddhist theological treatises and things metaphysical. This inclination led him to an Indian scholarship to study Hindi and Pali at various institutions including Varanasi Hindu University and Tagore's Shantiniketan (Peaceful Abode) from 1947-1952. Before leaving the monkhood in 1955, his articles appeared in magazines and journals.
  He won the National Awards twice in the years 1963 and 1986 for his translations: "Gawri" and "Holy Brother Minnan". Recently his wellwishers and literary disciples held a ceremony to celebrate the publication of his one-hundredth book. Most of them are novels painstakingly translated from Hindi. Most of his works become bestsellers and many won critical acclaim. Throughout his literary career, he served as Chairman of the Myanmar Theosophy Society, Myanmar Tagore Society, Myanmar Hindi Literature Society and of several literary associations.
  Paragu was equally as passionate on the subject of writing as on social services. In his recent interview he stressed the term "parahita" in Pali which means "The interest of others" and a deeper term "Lawkahita" meaning serving the interest of mankind. True to his volition, he spends much of his royalties from writings by supporting poor children and funding to build a school for them. Now at the age of 80, he is still a confirmed bachelor and actively pursuing his writings and translations.
  To honour him at his hundredth book celebration, Moe Hein, a poet, complimented him with a verse: "He fought not a battle yet made a request. Silently, his pen captured many a heart and head...", "A testing career and a pen in hand, he dispels the dark/he shed light on the land." His prominent works include; "Words of Buddha", "Son Rahula", "The Buddha Dairy", "Nivirma", "Thiha Senapati", "Siddhatta", etc.

Present Literary Landscape

All in all, themes depicted in post-war novels were: (a) Social problems brought by civil war waged with communists and some national races in the fifties and sixties. (b) Preservation of traditional culture against onslaught of western and other foreign influence. (c) Building of a peaceful and developed nation and national identity. (d) Social changes as a result of urbanization and modernization.
  To sum up on the present literary landscape, it has some sustenance like Myanmar orthography, technical terms, dictionaries (English and Myanmar) encyclopedia and yearbooks. Collected works of five veteran authors, a book club, over 400 reading rooms and libraries, onset of Desktop Publishing (DTP) and modern printing facilities.
  The above-mentioned selected poet, novelist and translator in a way represent present-day Myanmar literature. At the same time there are many successful and upcoming writers of different genres moving towards their position in the future Myanmar world of writing. With this Myanmar enters the Knowledge Age of the 21st Century.

Maung Hsu Shin (own name: Myo Thant)
He is former Director and currently advisor of Printing and Publishing Enterprise of the Ministry of Information. Studied abroad on journalism and publishing. Being a former Chairman and General Secretary, he is actively participating with the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association in its various activities.