Exile is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: Its essential sadness can never be surmounted’. Edward Said (2001) Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 2nd Ed, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p.173.
The late Burmese poet Tin Moe’s poems, written after he left his homeland, reflect his feelings grappling with exiled experience. The three poems I’m critiquing here are the pieces that best represent the exiled condition: Lwan Einmat Mha Nga Noe Hta Thaw (Awake from a Dream of Homesickness), Amay Boh Pan Khu Thwa Tawla (Flower-Picking Epic for Mum), and Hmyaw Lint Chat Mee Pon Kalay Hnit (With a Lantern of Hope).
Sadness and distress in Tin Moe's mind are clearly reflected in ‘Awake from a Homesick Dream’:
Belgium and Holland,
Have I become stateless?
I miss this, I miss that,
at each of life's junctures
one thing today, one thing tomorrow
my mind dyed
a dull colour,
forests on fire,
my winter dreams
This poem vividly expresses the pain Tin Moe felt in a foreign country. How much could this poet, who loved his country so deeply, have missed home? Exiles are often not those who voluntarily leave their own countries, but are coerced, forcibly relocated. Tin Moe expressed the psychological trauma of loneliness, homesickness, and a sense of being cut off in his writings simply:
I take refuge in other nations
How can I feel secure?
The path I believe
the door not yet ajar.
to meet victory
I'll pray at Shwedagon
These lines express the freedom enjoyed by an exile who left home because of political oppression. As an exile, Tin Moe could enjoy a certain level of freedom while living in a foreign country after leaving home as a result of political oppression and persecution. But for him, freedom is only interpreted in the context of achieving democracy for his own country.
In Norway Tin Moe did enjoy freedom, but genuine freedom for Tin Moe in exile means his own homeland’s political freedom. Tin Moe’s sense of belonging to a community of exiles becomes more vivid because of his longing to consolidate his own national, religious and cultural identities, as he does when looking to pray at the Shwedagon. In exile the construction and maintenance of religious and cultural signs was a preoccupation:
I would spread a mat
compose poems and read,
pick at tea leaf salad,
a life where I can do as I want.
When will my wish be fulfilled?
I search but I cannot see.
Exiles not only have to be patient away from home, waiting to return, but they also have to face adaption to the social and cultural context of their new home. In Tin Moe’s poems, the fact of adapting to the new social and cultural order is also expressed through a feeling of disconnection.
Exiled poetry can serve to construct notions of longing for home, and consolidation of religious and national identities – in this case as Tin Moe struggles with adaption to Norway rather than alienating himself in his Nordic home. This is reflected in the following lines from ‘Flower-Picking Epic for Mum’:
Not ugly, with recurrent beauty
Burma’s true friend, Norway’s winter
lovely enough to keep in memory.
“Norway’s winter is
I’d like to comment, like that
with the accent of natives of Rakhine,
a land with the sea, creeks and waterways
Min Khet Ye is the author of fourteen books of essays and translations on literary theory, literary criticism, philosophy and human rights. He is based in Yangon.