Mac and Her Dudes
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Sunday, June 16, 2024


Mac and Her Dudes



Six eventful weeks that enriched the lives of a young American volunteer and a group of Karen rights activists

For Us, Surrender is Out of the Question. A Story from Burma’s never- ending War, by Mac McClelland. Soft Skull Press, Berkeley, US, 2009. P 388.

After six weeks’ voluntary work with a group of Karen activists in Thailand, Mac McClelland was told by one of them at a farewell party that she was “like the rain, coming to cool things and make things pleasant and then leaving and everything was sweltering again.”

His tribute was a polite understatement. McClelland blew into that vulnerable little community of migrants like a monsoon storm from the nearby mountains, marking the border between Thailand and Burma.

At the end of her brief assignment with the ad hoc group Burma Action, as she boarded the bus to take her to Bangkok and from there to her Ohio home, McClelland left behind a group of young men—her “dudes” as she called them—whose ideas, beliefs, fears and prejudices had been shaken to their very roots. And they had changed her, too.

Tears flowed as she left. And few readers of this captivating book will end it dry-eyed. Not only because of its emotive power—but also moved to  laughter by the hilarious attempts of McClelland’s “dudes” to cope with her invasion of their domestic menage and working lives.

This is no lightweight read, however. Whenever McClelland’s gutsy account of the daily routine in her unconventional Mae Sot household hits a point of reference that needs explanation she steps adroitly aside and takes up the task without once breaking the uncompromising, unconventional style and rhythm of her robust writing.

A typical chapter begins with a breakfast table anecdote and ends with a  harrowing account of forced labor in a Karen village or a description of the sterling work done by the Free Burma Rangers or the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, written in the same limpid, instantly accessible prose.

One day’s diary-like narrative, for instance, is preceded by this unforgettable passage:

“The Mae Sot gongs broke the nighttime silence, in darkness still thorough but thin-feeling. I guessed it was 4 a.m. when the shallow tinning struck, and I listened to the distant shimmer and the dogs that caught it and spread it through the city, the far-off barking and howling coming closer and louder in a wave with the ringing at their backs until it smacked against the house, our street’s dogs in a sudden frenzy, and echoed still by the woofing and tolling from the temple where it started. The monks were awake, and I was, too.”

McClelland was invited to help her small group of Karen rights activists hone their English skills, although her teaching was as unconventional as her writing. She followed the classroom maxim of staying one lesson ahead of the pupils.

One of her prize students, she relates, “said something to me about present continuous tense which, had I not looked up practically the day before, I couldn’t have named to save my life.

“When once, as I wrote a sentence on the dry-erase board, he said ‘That’s passive voice,’ I started laughing so hard that I had to put my marker down. ‘I love the shit that you know, baby,’ I said, and if I could whistle, I would have.”

As a declared atheist and an outspoken liberal thinker on sexual mores and much more, McClelland sparked lively debates in the crowded quarters she shared with her predominantly male house-mates. Table-top exchanges rang with cultural clashes, east and west banging away over religion, politics, sex and any other topic of the day.

The one sentiment all shared was a deep sense of outrage sparked by the reports on human rights abuses collected by the Action Burma workers. The chicanery experienced at the hands of the Thai police by the young activists—most of whom seem to have lacked legal documentation—was also witnessed first-hand by McClelland, whose reports add up to a ringing indictment of the treatment of Karen refugees in Thailand.

Even here, though, McClelland mines humor in the midst of risky motorbike jaunts to bars and hang-outs in Mae Sot.

Her unsentimental but sympathetic record of kitchen table debates is  hilarious and sad by turns.

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Charles F. Wrote:
This book should be read by anyone wanting a better understanding of the refugee crisis in Thailand, as well as the reasons for it.
McClelland has an easy style to her writing that carries you along with her on her adventure.

The important thing about this book is that McClelland makes the case against the Burmese junta far better than some of the official pronouncements coming out of the various capitols.

And don't forget to read the footnotes.

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