Hidden Worlds

By Lucas Stewart 14 July 2014

HAKHA, Chin State — The road from Kalaymyo to Hakha is lined with grave markers. With little flat ground in the northern Chin Hills, cemeteries are exchanged for solitary memorials overlooking the knuckled mountain ranges. Some—usually those of the young—have photographs embedded into them; the elders are left faceless. All are etched with a name, an age, and a date of death. Yet in Chin State, as in the other six states of Myanmar, the lives of those who lived and passed away here are not recorded and remembered in the Myanmar language, but in an ethnic-minority language and literature.

I was in Chin State accompanying former political prisoner and writer Letyar Tun as part of “Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds,” a project funded by the British Council that assists in the development of creative expression in ethnic-minority languages. Twenty people—pastors, farmers, journalists and business owners, from Hakha, Kalaymyo, Thantlang, Kanggaw and Matupi townships—had gathered in Hakha to spend five days learning how to write short stories.

Among them was Sara Simon Thang, a lecturer at the Zion Baptist College in Matupi Township. Short with a wide smile, he travelled more than two days on a motorbike over mountain tracks to get to the
workshop. He was one of the few participants who could speak English.

“Our youth cannot write their own words, only Myanmar,” he said. “This is what they are taught in schools now.”

“You mean Lai Hakha?” I asked, referring to the language that our workshop was focusing on.

“No,” he answered, with a small shake of his head. “I am from Matupi. I can read and write Lai Hakha, but I mean they cannot write in Matu language.”

Silenced for over 50 years by government policies forbidding the teaching of ethnic-minority languages and the publication or distribution of literature in those languages, these literatures are among the least accessible forms of creative expression in Myanmar. That they survive at all is largely thanks to the perseverance of monastic schools in Shan and Mon states and church-based committees in Kayin, Kachin, Kayah and Chin states, where the mother tongue is taught as part of instruction in the religious literature. Secular cultural groups, often unregistered, have also played a role. Some, such as the Kachin Culture and Literature Co-operation, run annual summer camps teaching junior- and middle-school students their own language and literature.

It is these groups that the British Council collaborates with to identify ethnic-language writers to co-lead with a respected Yangon writer the seven ethnic state workshops, such as our Chin writer, Rev. Tang Mang, the literature secretary of the Chin Association for Christian Communication.

Often these writers are at the frontline of efforts to preserve their oral-storytelling traditions, publishing—despite the lack of resources and, until recently, the threat of imprisonment—texts that record their proverbs, sayings and origin myths, such as Rev. Tang Mang’s “Lai Tuanphung, Chin Folktales Vol. 1.”

However, narratives that reflect contemporary conditions are almost unheard of. And yet, it is these narratives that allow for scope and depth to raise awareness of critical social and cultural issues relevant to communities ignored for so long.

So while the “Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds” workshops focus on the technical structure of a short story—narrator, plot movement and dialogue—the instructors also guide the participants on content, on exploring emotive connections to the landscape they live in and how to interweave these themes into a literary form.

In our Kayin workshop, led by San Lin Tun and Saw Chit Than, one of the stories we discussed centered on a young man who leaves his village to work illegally on a construction site in Thailand. Separated from his family, he descends into a spiral of alcohol and drug abuse, eventually contracting AIDS. Leaving Thailand to return to his village, he is exiled by his elders. It is only after the arrival of a doctor, who educates the villagers about AIDS and teaches them that the young man is no threat to them, that he is allowed to finally return home.

In the Kachin workshop, environmental concerns, the threat of Chinese influence in the local economy and, of course, the continuing war were dominant motifs. In Hakha, poverty, exiled Chin communities and sustainable farming practices were important points of discussion.

With workshops in Kayin, Mon, Kachin, northern Shan, Chin and Kayah states already completed, and only Rakhine State left to go, the next step will be to translate the stories into Myanmar, which the participants will do themselves, and publish them in Yangon as the first collection of short stories in ethnic-minority languages.

But there is still so much more that needs to be done.

Back in Hakha, as the participants were preparing for the end-of-workshop Live Literature Night, one of them, Rev. Lang Uk, a retired pastor also from Matupi Township, but from a smaller ethnic group named the Zo Tung, pulled an unbound folio of papers out of his bag. Already an author of four Zo Tung-language hymn books, the manuscript contained his unpublished collection of writing about Zo Tung customs, rights, rituals, proverbs, sayings and legendary myths.

“Our stories haven’t been published yet,” he said, handing me the papers. “This is the first time they have been written down. Can you help me to publish?”

I looked down at the 100 pages and I really didn’t know what to say.

This story first appeared in the July 2014 edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.