Poetry of Burma’s literary frontiers

Wawn Awng, Mya Kabyar, Tin Moe and more

© Tamalar and Pansodan Gallery. Painting by Tamalar, a contemporary Karen artist.

The Burmese poetic canon has long been dominated by writers in the main cities of the central plains, in Burmese language, privileging text over oral form. The canon of contemporary poetry is embedded in the culture of the Bamar majority, and only provides a partial picture of poetry at a national level.

Myanmar is ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. The ethnic minority population is over 30% of the total. Ethnic minority literary cultures are an important and marginalised part of the literary culture of the country. Once classified by the British colonial regime as frontier people, our intention is to bring a sampling of ‘frontier’ poetry to the fore, to showcase it as a significant part of Burmese literature. We take the term ‘frontier’ loosely, to refer to geographical/topographical frontiers and cultural frontiers, as well as the Burmese diaspora, whether ethnic minority or not. 

In 1948, Burma became independent from British colonial rule. Through colonialism, the contemporary borders of the Burmese state came to be, containing deep divisions between the majority Bamar centre and the largely upland, ethnic minority periphery. These areas were ruled by separate administrative regimes under the British. Since independence, conflict and suffering has been an enduring characteristic of life, and literature, in the frontier.

Many ethnic minority poets, including Wawn Awng, featured here, choose to write in their own language, therefore significantly narrowing their audience. While Myanmar has had a long tradition of literary translation into Burmese, the source texts have almost exclusively been in English, rather than the non-Burmese-language literature of the country. Other ‘frontier’ poets, such as Mya Kabyar, write in Burmese, but as an ethnic minority poet writing on ethnic related themes, his main audience is those from his own ethnic group, Chin.

Wawn Awng writes from Myitkyina, nearly 1500 kilometres from Yangon, Myanmar’s metropolis and centre of publishing and contemporary and avant-garde culture, making him geographically isolated. However Myitkyina is its own centre, of a Kachin ‘national’ literary scene with magazines and books, many of which are in Jinghpaw, the lingua franca of Kachin languages. Mya Kabyar, who grew up in the western borderlands, now lives in Yangon – however his work is on the cultural periphery. Mya Kabyar has a feeling of ambivalence in relation to Burmese literature; he sees himself as outside the ‘national’ literary scene, and sees the canon as inaccessible to him. At the same time, he does not see his work strictly as Chin poetry, which he largely defines linguistically, as in the medium of one of the many Chin dialects.

In addition to featuring two ethnic minority poets, and a wider discussion of contemporary ethnic Karen poetry, we have also included Tin Moe, one of Myanmar’s most prominent contemporary poets. A common theme of ethnic minority poetry is the experience of being outside the centre, marginalised and a victim of political oppression. Tin Moe was active in opposition politics after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and was imprisoned for his political activities. After release, he fled the country to avoid further imprisonment, where he continued writing from outside, from the ‘frontier’. His experience in exile changed his poetry, which reflects a commonality with much minority poetry, through representation of the difficulty of belonging, coping with lose and sentimentality for ‘home’.

Tin Moe in exile, and Mya Kabyar in Yangon, are both struggling with the dislocation of an identity tied to a place that they are separated from. Frontier poetry is also politically significant, linked to social movements and the imaginings of (ethno) nations. Violet Cho discusses exiled Karen poetry as productive of a sense of Karen nation, linked to cultural trauma. Cultural trauma is often expressed in sentimental form, as in Tin Moe’s longing for a Myanmar past, in ‘Awake from a Homesick Dream’, or in Mya Kabyar’s descriptions of hill life and nature in ‘To the Snowy Mountain Range’ and ‘Greater Coucals.’

Burmese contemporary poetry (or perhaps more accurately, poetries), needs to be viewed in an atomised way, in order to challenge the boundaries that endure in the country’s literary culture. This means taking contemporary ‘frontier’ poetry seriously, whether from the hills or plains, whether in Burmese or the many other minority languages, and whether from within the state borders or the diaspora.

© Violet Cho and David Gilbert  

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