From the Archive

Mac and Her Dudes

By Jim Andrews 26 February 2015

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 night time silence, in darkness still thorough but thin-feeling. I guessed it was 4am 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 hangouts in Mae Sot.

Her unsentimental but sympathetic record of kitchen table debates is hilarious and sad by turns. When one of the group has difficulty explaining to her the animist belief in the mystical powers of chicken bones he resorts in frustration to modern technology and gives her a power point presentation.

One exercise required her students to make a list of the subjects she could video for them on her return to the US—“things they’d heard of but never seen.”

Three items dominated that list: clubs, strippers and city skyscrapers!

A natural enough request, one supposes, from a group of inquisitive young fellows, but in the context of McClelland’s book it acquires an aching poignancy—summing up the fenced-in existence of so many displaced Karen denied access to a world we take for granted.

“For Us, Surrender is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War”, by Mac McClelland is published by Soft Skull Press.

This story first appeared in the April 2010 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.