musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

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Just published this month by Things Asian Press is Nor Iron Bars a Cage, Ma Thanegi’s memoir of the three years that she spent in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, from 1989 to 1992. But don’t go expecting grim and horrific tales of prison life. Ma Thanegi and the other female prisoners created a supportive, caring community within their prison, and this surprisingly upbeat and defiant memoir is full of touching and often funny anecdotes. As one reads this fascinating account of life behind bars in Myanmar, you can’t help but admire the spirit and determination of Ma Thanegi and the other female prisoners. As Ma Thanegi writes in the book’s forward: “We were supposed to be miserable, and we were damned if we’d oblige.”

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The positive, almost light-hearted tone of this book may puzzle readers who are expecting horrific tales of torture and cruelty. and because it doesn’t paint such a grim picture of Burmese prison life, it will no doubt infuriate critics of the Myanmar government and various “Free Burma” groups, some who seem to perversely relish the aspect of hearing about more human rights violations and unjust prison sentences. But Ma Thanegi is no stranger to controversy and expects such reactions. Some critics have gone so far as to absurdly brand her a “government apologist” simply because she refused to support misguided ideas such as tourism boycotts, or justified the usage of “Myanmar” as the country’s official name. Being a staunch defender of human rights and democracy, such criticism only serves to awaken the wrath and fury of Ma Thanegi.

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In addition to this memoir, last year Things Asian Press published Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Ma Thanegi’s travelogue of a trip she took on Myanmar’s most famous river. Those who enjoyed her first travel book, The Native Tourist, will find this book even more memorable. In addition to being a descriptive account of her river journey, the book offers an enlightening window into Myanmar society and culture, and it’s funny as hell. Ma Thanegi has also written books on subjects as diverse as Myanmar cuisine, the history of Shwedagon Pagoda, and Burmese Marionettes. In between a handful of other writing projects (she’s a regular contributor to many travel magazines) and recovering from a cold she caught during a weekend trip to Bagan, I pestered her with questions about her book and current life in Myanmar.

You were released from prison in 1992, and now, 21 years later, you have finally written a memoir of that experience, Nor Iron Bars a Cage. Some might ask “What took you so long?” but obviously this was a book that could not be written, or at least published, while the previous Myanmar government was still censoring publications. Have things changed enough within the country that you feel like the time is now right — and safe — for books such as yours to be published?

Actually I had been writing this book secretly off and on since 2000. I was busy with other projects so I was working on it off and on and after I finished it I must have done it over a 100 times. I told no one. I did not want the military government to find out about it. But it’s not so much the fear; it has been my policy since I was young that if something is meant to be secret I tell NO ONE. Yes, things have changed; there are other books of jail time by ex-political prisoners out in Burmese, for example by Zargana and Ma Thida. The latter is the doctor/writer I mentioned in the forward of Nor Iron Bars a Cage. Ma Thida was ill and had a really, really hard time, which she too faced with meditation and strength of character.

Many prison memoirs dwell on the negatives of the experience and the abundance of cruelty, yet you focused more on the positive aspects of the experience, along with the spirit and determination of the other prisoners. Did you approach writing this memoir as one that would have a positive tone, or did you agonize over whether to write about the bad stuff too?

This was how we lived and so how I wrote it. I had nothing to agonize over or bad stuff to write about. I left out only personal stories about some inmates, not what bad things anyone suffered. Actually, my friends in jail have young children and elderly parents in ill health to worry about, which I don’t, but they were all strong women, too. None of us, in telling other people our experiences, has ever moaned and groaned over anything AT ALL. We are all not the self pitying type. As I wrote “It is in the Myanmar nature to face all things good or bad with pride and dignity, and not to lose face by “losing it.” For us, courage is shown by facing life calmly and without any display of anger. It is a weakness to allow others to humiliate us or break our spirits. The same is true of self pity, which we think of as disgusting. So much so that when I got out, people who truly loved me, told me how bad they felt about me being in jail, I found myself lashing out at them for pitying me. Recently when a group of us co-inmates (we call ourselves the “inside” family) met and when I told them how I was lashing out like that, each and every one said they were doing the same. We Myanmar people have a lot of pride. Our pride is in our strength of character and not how much wealth we have or how high our positions. Well, of course there are those who are vain about wealth and position, but that is vanity not pride.

Your book describes a very colorful and proud group of female prisoners. I understand that you are still in contact with some of them. Do you usually meet them individually, or do you have anything like group reunions on a regular basis?

We meet individually or in group reunions, as with groups of friends or family. It’s not a strictly regulated officious thing. At reunions there is so much noise and jokes and teasing!

In addition to this memoir, you recently wrote a travel book (Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy), will re-publish one of your Myanmar cuisine cookbooks, and have written various other books on Myanmar culture and temples. What else are you working on right now, or are planning to write?

I’m superstitious about telling people what I’m working on, sorry!

You are quite the food authority, having written or translated books and magazine articles about Myanmar Cuisine. On the subject of food, for tourists visiting your country, what are some of the “must eat” dishes that will give a visitor a true taste of the local cuisine?

The salads, and noodles, and pickled tea leaf salad. Must eats: Ohn No Kauk Swei, Shan Kauk Swei, and Monhinga (those three are noodle dishes commonly eaten for breakfast). Also, Steamed Hilsa, or Nga Tha Lauk, a fish that’s cooked until the bones are soft. This fish has a deeper taste than other fish. Alos, butterfish, a very creamy flesh and no bones at all, and village style chicken with lemongrass and gourd, and giant river prawns. Be sure to eat the tomaly in the head.

Have you read any recent novels by Myanmar writers that are so good that you think they should be translated into English and other languages?

Yep, Khin Khin Htoo’s Anyar Sway Myo Myar … vignettes of her upcountry relatives. And a short one on the feasts of rural people, Taw Ahlu, by her husband Nay Win Myint. Not recent releases, but this couple has the whole literary greatness covered! Also, a recent publication by Ma Thida about HER Insein Jail experiences titled Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard.

Along with the political changes happening in Myanmar, a deluge of developers and investors are descending on the country like locusts. Obviously, there are good and bad aspects to such “progress”. What visible changes have you seen in Yangon recently?

Too long to list. First is I think, we’re just so damn RELIEVED to be out from the military rule. When I think of people who were saying we must (must? Who the hell did they think they are?) boycott the elections of 2010, I wonder at the number of idiots out there.

Amidst all globalization and other western influences that are creeping — or perhaps stampeding — into Myanmar, are you optimistic or pessimistic that your country can retain its unique culture and traditions in the coming decades?

Progress, or anything in life for that matter, usually comes with risks to the good old things. There is nothing that I or anyone can do. ‘Educating’ people will be like trying to stem a flood … people will do what they want…. idiots will do idiotic things and smart people will do smart things. That’s their democratic right, isn’t it?

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