Poet, translator and editor ko ko thett was born in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1972. In 1995, whilst studying engineering at the Yangon Institute of Technology (YIT), thett began editing and publishing ‘Old Gold’, a campus samizdat in Burmese. In the aftermath of Funeral of Old Gold, his second chapbook, he was arrested and detained for his involvement in the December 1996 student uprising. After his release in April 1997, he left both YIT and Burma for Singapore and then Bangkok, where he spent three years working for the Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific. In 2000, thett went to Finland where he took up peace and conflict studies at the University of Helsinki, before finally moving to Vienna to study with Wolfram Schaffar at the Institute for International Development at the University of Vienna. Currently he lives in Belgium and is the Burmese editor for the Poetry International website and co-editor and translator of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, an anthology of Burmese poetry, recipient of the 2012 English PEN Writers in Translation Programme Award and one of '10 books that chart the country's tumultuous history', according to The Guardian. His book of poems, The Burden of Being Burmese, is forthcoming from Zephyr Press this spring, the first ever full-length collection in English by a Burmese poet.
ko ko thett describes himself as ‘a poet by choice and a Burmese by chance’, yet The Burden of Being Burmese is predominantly characterised by a Burmese subjectivity. This does not mean that the work functions in an isolation akin to that of the Burmese state; the fact that thett writes in English shows a sensibility drawn to the universality of language, an openness to the world. In The Burden of Being Burmese, this sensibility is expressed explicitly, for instance, in ‘a walk with history’ and the way it raises questions of the translatability of both subjective and collective experience: “how do you write history / in a language that has no / past tense?” Implicitly, the recurring theme of culinary culture proffers a universal language spoken through taste buds, as in the poem ‘monosodium glutamate’, in which the fifth taste, umami, triggered through the food additive MSG, is described as ‘the non-essential you can’t live without’. Food, in general, is posited as a transubstantiative device, a means to dissolve the boundary between internal and external world, simultaneously connoting issues of poverty, survival, consumerism, tourism, and cultural identity. Characteristic is the recurrence of the durian, that distinctively South-East Asian, foul-smelling fruit. For thett, the durian becomes a metaphor for militaristic oppression: ‘you despise both its shape and soldier-sock stench / you will wait until you can’t wait any longer / eat or die . . . shove the flesh down your throat / you will get used to it’.
thett describes the Burmese situation as a ‘no-progression draw . . . [n]o one can eliminate the other so the country cannot progress’. The Burden of Being Burmese aptly expresses the predicament of this static Burmese dialectic, and it does so through an oscillation between the personal and the political, resorting to a paratactical stylistics invoking the work of Buddhist poets such as Chögyam Trungpa. It is often also reminiscent of the Zen koan, a paradoxical question that knows no answer. However, thett’s paratactic writing style might just as well be an attempt to translate the tonal, syllable-timed nature of the Burmese language into English. In any case, one could say that, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant in ‘blindfolded brahmins’, The Burden of Being Burmese constantly aspires to reach middle ground, to touch upon boundaries – between subjects, languages, localities – in hope of dissolution, but, most importantly, in resistance against totalitarianism.
The Burden of Being Burmese, Zephyr Press, US/Hong Kong 2015
Translation and editing
Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets ARC, UK 2012 & Northern Illinois University Press, US 2013
From the Archive of Censored Materials at PEN Samples on English PEN
The Guardian’s Review of Bones Will Crow
The Guardian's top 10 books on Burma