For almost six weeks in a row, two debut novels in the Myanmar language were featured in the top-ten list of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious bookstore, Sar Pay Law Ka. The pair share many similarities—the authors, Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye, are prominent leaders of the 88 Generation Students civil society group who were recently released after many years as political prisoners. Indeed, until early 2012, their novels would not have passed the former regime’s strict censorship criteria.
Considering the authors’ backgrounds, many readers would anticipate comparable plots involving political intrigue or prison experiences; but this is not so.
“Rear Mirror” by Min Ko Naing revolves around the life of a student activist and a girl with whom he meets while hiding at a monastery in her village. In the foreword, the author says he considered rewriting the whole novel as it was first penned towards the end of 1988 before he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The last page was completed in 2004 upon his release, but he finally decided against a thorough revision as he wished to maintain his 26-year-old style and ideas.
“Rear Mirror” reflects on the tribulations a student activist goes through during 1988—fear felt by the families of student activists for their safety; being constantly on the lookout while hiding in a faraway place; warm support from villagers; and being somewhat frustrated at not being amidst the action.
The metaphor behind the novel’s title is especially telling—how a student activist needs a rear mirror to see what he leaves behind, especially those closest to him, in his arduous struggle to fight a greater cause for the people.
By contrast, Mya Aye’s novel “Clouds in the Sky” took around one year to complete—from late 2009 to the end of 2010. The main characters are a mysterious young man, who lives alone in a poor suburban neighborhood and helps the lives of surrounding people, and a beautiful doctor.
Apart from these main protagonists, other characters are chosen to representing the poor and downtrodden in Myanmar—a trishaw driver who resorts to robbery to pay for his sick child’s operation, a lost and alcoholic old man, and a young girl who becomes a prostitute to support her brother and gambling-addicted mother.
Unlike Min Ko Naing’s straightforward style of focusing on just two characters, Mya Aye’s novel has intertwining narratives. Whether readers prefer a storyline reflective of a particular tumultuous era, or one with a twist and more fictional style, readers will not be disappointed with the literary merit of either.
In November 2009, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) based in Mae Sot, Thailand, published “Rear Mirror” to commemorate Min Ko Naing’s birthday. He was in prison at the time and his novel was not allowed to be printed or distributed inside Myanmar.
Almost three years later, after President U Thein Sein’s reformist administration came to power, Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye, along with many other prisoners, have been released and their bestselling books can be bought legally inside the country.
Thus, the success of these two debut novels should be considered not only for their pure literary worth, of which there is plenty, but also for a subtle indicator of wider change in Myanmar.
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.