Irrawaddy Editor Wins Myanmar’s Top Literary Prize

By The Irrawaddy 14 November 2019

YANGON—Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition, has won the National Literature Award for his collection of essays reflecting on Myanmar’s political transformation from military rule to democratically elected government, and on his own experiences as a political prisoner and exile in the 1990s and 2000s.

His “The Cell, Exile and the New Burma” was one of 10 winners of the country’s most prestigious annual literary award for 2018, selected from a large number of books first published in Myanmar last year. Among the other winners was a Burmese-language translation of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”.

Written in English, the 37 nonfiction pieces in Kyaw Zwa Moe’s 245-page volume were first published in The Irrawaddy Magazine, the predecessor to The Irrawaddy news website, where he is the Senior Editor of the English section. “The Cell, Exile and the New Burma” is the result of a yearlong effort to compile the pieces. Prior to the award-winning book, he published “They Must Apologize to the People”, an anthology of his interviews with political figures and dissidents.

“A testament to the determination of a generation that grew to political maturity during and after the uprising of 1988,” as veteran journalist Bertil Lintner puts it in the book’s foreword, the collected essays touch on nearly every aspect of Myanmar’s political transition and examine many individual lives shaped, and often damaged, by the former military regime. It’s a true rarity, if not unprecedented—and has surprised the author as much as anyone—for this kind of writing to win a state-sponsored literary award in Myanmar. Until 2015, any depictions of the ’88 Uprising, or of the use of torture or deaths in custody due to political activism against the military regime, were rarely acknowledged, let alone honored.

“I think the selection of my book for the award shows there is some literary freedom these days,” Kyaw Zwa Moe said, adding that he felt glad to be honored and appreciated the award committee’s willingness to take a different approach to selecting the winners.

The editor is not exaggerating.

Also among the winners of the annual award announced on Wednesday is one of Myanmar’s most celebrated contemporary writers—Ju, a woman novelist known for her strong, intelligent female characters. Her first National Literature Award, for “Lover’s Shawl Woven With Rainbows”, comes after a long career stretching back to 1987, when her debut work made her a household name.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is not the only journalist to win a National Literature Award for 2018. Wai Yan Hpone, an editor at the Yangon-based Myanmar Now News, was also honored for his Burmese-language translation of Nobel Prize–winning British author William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies”. Wai Yan Hpone has published five translations so far, starting with his 2013 translation of Indian novelist and poet Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Home and the World”.