Literary “Gypsy” Leaves Burma
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Monday, October 25, 2021


Literary “Gypsy” Leaves Burma

By The Irrawaddy JULY, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.6

The Irrawaddy recently spoke to celebrated author Maung Tha Ya, who recently left Burma after more than a decade of fears that writing anything new would be “like giving the government a noose” to hang him. Noted for his itinerant lifestyle as well as his naturalistic literary style, he told us about his past and his plans for the future. Sitting in a sparsely furnished room in a house that serves as the office of a Burmese dissident group in Thailand, Maung Tha Ya exudes the easy assurance of a man who knows he belongs. Wherever there are Burmese, he can consider himself at home. As a well-known author in a country that remains highly literate despite declining educational standards, Maung Tha Ya has the status of a movie star—a man whose face is known to anyone who has ever picked up a popular magazine in Burma. Even in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, he said, young Burmese recognized him instantly. But Maung Tha Ya’s fame also carries a certain measure of notoriety. Most Burmese know him as the “Gypsy Writer” who seldom stays in one place for long. Most of his stories and novels were written in hotels in various parts of the country. “I need privacy,” he explained. He speaks of the hospitality he routinely received from admirers during his travels, giving no hint that he might on occasion have overstayed his welcome. At 69, Maung Tha Ya has embarked on a new journey that he hopes will take him back to the place from which he was effectively exiled more than a decade ago—the world of literature. “The literary world in Burma has been annihilated,” he says, explaining why he decided to leave his native soil for the first time in his life. A confident speaker of English, he says he wants to go to the United States. He said that he had received invitations to visit Japan in the past, but was denied permission to leave Burma. With works translated into a number of languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese, he knows that his literary reputation precedes him, and will possibly pave the way for a new life in a country that recognizes the value of creative freedom. Since the military coup that put Burma’s current regime in power in 1988, Maung Tha Ya has shared the fate of all Burmese writers whose work has been severely censored or banned outright for offending the political sensibilities of the powers that be. In the early 1990s he attempted to create a space for new talent by publishing his own magazine, Tha Ya, and offering a literary prize of the same name. But this venture was soon shut down by the military government, which refused to renew his publishing license. Despite the ubiquity of his image in Burma, he has not dared to write or publish any of his own work for over a decade. But he said he had three articles with him that he carried out of the country when he fled at the beginning of July. Maung Tha Ya’s pre-literary career as a political activist has landed him in trouble before. After serving a two-year prison sentence from 1953-55, he started writing, grabbing attention at once with his “flowery” literary style. This was later superseded by a more realistic style that has since become his trademark. In 1970 (when writers were relatively free from censorship under the dictatorship of General Ne Win) he won the National Literary Award for his novel, Standing on the Road, Sobbing, a title taken from a popular nursery rhyme. Writing with an intimate understanding of contemporary life in Burma, based on his investigations into the lives of ordinary people, his treatment of his subjects—from taxi drivers and prostitutes to political prisoners and mental patients—resonates with allusive imagery drawn from Burmese literary tradition. Now forced into exile from the land that has long supported him and his creative vision, Maung Tha Ya may need more than his reputation to sustain him in his remaining years. But as a perpetual traveler and keen observer of humanity, he already possesses the detached eye that it will take to survive in an unfamiliar world. Departing from a worldview deeply colored by his familiarity with Burmese life and literature, his understanding of his country’s current political situation betrays a distinctly Hegelian Weltanschauung. Discussing the standoff between Burmese pro-democracy forces and the country’s military regime, he speaks in terms of a conflict between thesis and antithesis that must eventually be resolved through some synthesis of opposing views. His unspoken hope, perhaps, is that he will live to see it.

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