A Fictional Feast

By The Irrawaddy 20 May 2014

YANGON — Myanmar fiction is still largely inaccessible to non-native readers, so an anthology in English of short stories by local women writers is very welcome.

Heartless Forest is the brainchild of writer, journalist and film producer Mon Mon Myat. Published under the Pansodan Books imprint, it collects together 10 stories written from the late 1990s up to a few years ago.

The authors include names that will be familiar to many local readers, such as Phyu Mon, Mi Chan Way, Than Myint Aung, Khin Mya Zin and May Thingyan Hein. Their stories were first published in the Myanmar language in journals including Kalya, Tharaphu, and Padauk Pwint Thit.

Foreign readers may be surprised by the range of writing styles, which vary from the recognizably traditional to the experimental.

Stories set in the Ayeyarwady Delta, in the remote Myeik archipelago, in a rural dry zone and in Yangon suburbs take outside readers on a rewarding journey into physical and cultural landscapes that will be unfamiliar to most.

Meeting elderly water-sellers, middle-aged lovers, a destitute Kayin child and a loner painter on a remote island, we glimpse the secret pulse of everyday life as it has been lived for generations. That many of the tales shed light on female perspectives is an extra bonus.

Some journeys are purely psychological. Mon Mon Myat’s “Neurotic Disorders” is a raw account of inner turmoil, told from a decidedly modern, soul-baring female perspective. Ma Thida’s “Real Tale Dream” explores the dislocation and alienation that was the experience of so many under the former military regime.

Given that most of the stories here were written during the period of direct censorship, there is a good deal of allegory and allusion between the covers of this book. Foreign readers may not understand all of the “real meanings,” but don’t be frustrated; play the literary detective. Have fun.

This story was first published in the May 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.