Karen Connelly: ‘The Need for Language Is Central to Alleviating Injustice’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 2 March 2016

Canadian author Karen Connelly was the talk of local literary circles last month with the launch of a Burmese-language translation of “The Lizard Cage.” The novel tells the story of a Burmese student leader who was jailed for more than 20 years and held in solitary confinement in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, a fictional tale that mirrors the experiences of dozens if not hundreds of Burmese prisoners of conscience under decades of repressive military rule.

Originally written in English, the book won Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in 2007. Although it first hit bookstores internationally in 2005, it took 11 years for the Canadian writer to see the book translated into Burmese, due largely to literary censorship in the country, which eased dramatically in 2012. The Irrawaddy sat down with Connelly to discuss her inspiration for the book and how language can be a powerful catalyst for justice in the Burmese context and beyond.

What was your impression of Burma when you first came here 20 years ago?

I think anybody who came to Burma 20 years ago was struck by how gracious and lovely people were. That’s one of the things that moved me most—how generous the people were. Even then, I was collecting stories about politics and the experiences of ordinary citizens under dictatorship. People were courageous and generous with their stories, despite their fear. During times when the political situation was more tumultuous, people were not so willing to talk. Obviously, I understood that.

After all these years, what is your impression now?

I think people are largely the same. It’s been such a long time under dictatorship and a long time waiting. Now, it’s a period of transition. But the hospitality and generosity of the people are the same. The city [Rangoon] is a young, developing Asian city, so it’s kind of crazy—sort of like the Rangoon that I knew 20 years ago is buried underneath cars, new building facades, noise and lots of pollution. But those things are just the surface. Underneath, people still feel the same to me.

Why exactly did you think you needed to write ‘The Lizard Cage’?

I first became interested in Burma because I worked for many years at PEN Canada [country chapter of PEN International, a global writers’ advocacy organization]. One of our honorary members who we advocated for was Ma Thida. She was like me: She was a young writer, interested in social justice issues. But she was in prison and I was free. Her case was striking to me because I could relate to her.

I was ready to go back to Thailand, where I lived as a teenager. I knew I would be close to Burma. Even on my first short visit, I was struck by how many people’s stories were of imprisonment or confinement. No matter who I talked to, there was fear of imprisonment or there was actual imprisonment in people’s lives. If they hadn’t been to prison, somebody in their family or a friend had gone to prison in 1974, 1988 or 1996. Prison stories—stories of confinement and separation from family—are powerful.

I met a few dissidents on the Thai-Burma border before I came to Burma. It was clear they had exiled themselves to continue their politics and avoid reimprisonment. They left families behind. I was struck by the importance of family in Burmese culture and how everybody talked about that separation as part of the punishment. That’s one of the things I wanted to explore in this novel.

You met many people with interesting stories along the Thai-Burma border as well as inside the country. But ‘The Lizard Cage’ is mostly based on the fictional character Teza and his struggles in prison. Why?

I was always interested in what it means to be confined—separated from other people—and how people maintain their humanity in those extreme situations. Ever since I was quite young, I was interested in the situations of political prisoners, especially young men and women who went to prison because of their writing. My work with PEN Canada had been about freedom of expression, an eternal fight against censorship. I was interested in how people use language to free themselves.

There is a deep theme in the book about language. The little boy Nyi Lay can’t read. He understands that the inability to read is a kind of confinement. You are trapped when you can’t read. I wanted to explore the power of language over political prisoners or any person who has ever been relatively powerless.

In situations of abuse or violence, the need for language, and the importance of being able to express that injustice, is central to alleviating that injustice. People tell stories in order to feel the possibility of justice. Language holds the promise of justice. As soon as you start to speak the truth, the structure of power starts to become compromised. You weaken that structure somehow. Words are very powerful things.

Over the past few years, there have been many books written about Burma by foreigners. How is your book different from others?

I haven’t read them all. My book is probably better [laughs].

In my opinion, I can never write another book like it. It took me 10 years to write because I was so worried about getting it wrong. Every time I wrote a little bit, I sent it to a Burmese friend or someone else to read it. Obviously, there are many good books on Burma. My book is different because it is a strange mixture of so many stories told to me by Burmese people, plus so much of my own heart.