RANGOON—Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience at Burma’s first international literary festival this weekend that fictional characters and fiction writers had provided her with political inspiration, while poetry was also deeply important in her life.
During a talk on the second day of the Irrawaddy Festival Saturday, the Nobel laureate revealed that French Romantic writer Victor Hugo and Victorian English novelist George Eliot are her “favorite authors” for their explorations of the human mind and emotions, as well as their “very valuable” political and social conscience.
Suu Kyi explained to a local and international audience of more than 500 people, packed in Inya Lake Hotel’s Ballroom and on its lawn, that she likes Hugo’s fictional characters as they revolutionize the way we look at the world. She appreciates Eliot’s writing as it supports individuality and because her characters survive in the face of adversity.
“People ask me who inspires me in politics. It occurred to me that I have been tremendously inspired and influenced by fictional characters and writers, not just by historical figures or political leaders. So, literature for me is not just something you read just for fun or to pass your time,” said the 67-year-old democracy icon.
“Lots of [Eliot’s] characters didn’t end up any wealthier or materially better off than they were at in the beginning, but they always managed to maintain their spiritual strength throughout until the very end, pursuing the goal in which they believe,” she continued.
During the 30-minute session, Suu Kyi recounted how her life-long reading habit helped her cope intellectually and spiritually with the challenges of life, including the isolation she faced during her period under house arrest.
“When people asked me whether my years of house arrest were hard, I only said ‘no’ because there are lots of books to read. As long as I’m able to make books my companion, I need never be lonely,” she said.
Suu Kyi spent almost 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner during Burma’s previous military dictatorship, until her release in November 2010. She is currently the Chairperson of the National League for Democracy and was voted into Parliament in April 2012.
At the festival, Suu Kyi also revealed that apart from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, her reading list contains detective stories.
These stories helped her understand how to analyze a situation in a way that is useful for a politician, as she had learned “to ask the question: ‘Who is going to profit from a particular crime?’” which “gives me a clear idea of what people are up to.”
She also said that reading has helped her understand people from different cultures and backgrounds, adding that for this reason she would like to encourage young Burmese people to read literature and not only rely on online information.
Poetry holds a special place in Suu Kyi’s life as she explained that sometimes a single line of a verse gave her more to think about than a whole book. This particular feature of poetry means that a line can come back from memory to serve a person at unexpected moments in their lives, according to the opposition leader.
“You would find it would be very useful should you ever be in prison, which I hope you were not to be,” she said, advising the audience to learn many poems by heart.
Suu Kyi also urged the festival’s participants to read while they have free time, noting that her many tasks as opposition leader had prevented her from reaching beyond chapter 2 of Hillary Mantel’s 2012 award-winning book “Bring up the Bodies.”
“You can see how little time I have now! This is the sort of book one shouldn’t be able to put down,” Suu Kyi said. “But I have to put it down because I have to wade through not terribly exciting [government] documents, which I am obliged to read through.”
“So, please read while you can,” she said.