Mae Yway (b. 1991) grew up in Myeik, a coastal city on the Andaman Sea, in Myanmar’s far south. Myeik is a sleepy fishing town, dominated by an enormous reclining Buddha in the bay that curves around the town. Mae Yway’s family migrated to Yangon when she was nine years old:
I had culture shock when I moved to Yangon. We were laughed at for how we spoke and our Myeik accent. I didn’t dare talk to people except for two or three friends. I didn’t dare speak in public: a feeling I have to this day. I’m afraid and shake all over when I recite my poetry in public.
Mae Yway started writing poetry as a teenager:
When I read a poem in a magazine, I wanted to write one on my own. I didn’t know you needed to study how to write a poem. I just wrote down my emotions.
But you can’t just write something down. You need to create it. Poetry has to be composed, so it will be beautiful, artistic.
Not just poetry. You know, cooking is also an art. When cooking and combining ingredients, this is also creation. It’s also art. Creativity is essential. You should study every part of it. How does an onion taste if you add it to another ingredient? So, when you create a poem, you have to know other poems.
Art, however, was not valued by the military dictatorship.
At school, we were taught art is something useless, what losers do: if you are inclined to art, you will starve. That was the message to young students. I wanted to write poetry, but none of my friends were interested in poetry. We studied poems at school, but no one respected poetry.
The military government also made young people indifferent to politics. Most of my friends, and most young people of our time, are still not interested in politics at all.
Now with the new democratic government, the word ‘politics’ has become popular, heard everywhere. Now some care about politics, some don’t. It’s a chaotic time.
Myanmar’s political landscape is changing, but the country remains a deeply conservative society. Mae Yway wears her resistance to it on her skin – covered in tattoos, which are highly unusual for a woman in Myanmar.
It’s what I wanted to do very much since childhood – I liked tattoos since I was four or five years old. But I only had the courage to start tattooing in my twenties. Most people look badly on those who have tattoos. They look at me and think: what kind of girl am I? But I don’t care about those who stare.
Some people think I got my tattoos – and do other things – like drinking and smoking – to show I can do whatever men are allowed to do. But I don’t have gender differentiation in mind. I do it because I want to and like it. I will tattoo my entire body.
She seeks a similar freedom from gender roles in her relationships:
I’m neither lesbian nor straight: I‘m human. I will have a relationship with whoever is okay with me, whether man or woman. Right now, I prefer girls. They are better at relationships.
People around me say it’s disgusting that I hang out with girls, telling me not to reverse nature. I ask them: what is nature? There is no nature. It is nonsense that men must like women because they are men; and women must like men because they are women. These are only man-made issues. You have the right to choose. If you are just following what others do, your life has no meaning. You have your own life, your own existence. You have to go with your own thinking. If not, go back to the military government.
Myanmar’s democratic transition has also been accompanied by an opening to the global market: it now has the fastest growing economy in the world. Mae Yway joined this economic wave, working as an airline customer service agent for the last two years.
I had a lot of responsibility, work pressure, taking care of passengers. When I came home, work was still in my head, dissatisfaction and anger too. During those two years, I couldn’t read and write. I became depressed. The only thing I could save during those two years was money. And blank paper. No poems. No thinking.
I can’t make a living from writing poetry. But I want to live with poetry, and improve my skills in writing. With no time and energy for poetry, it was worth it to give up my job. So I quit. I will find something else.
When I ask her about the place of poetry in her life, she replies:
Poetry is not the most important thing. But it’s congruent with me. If I can’t write poetry I will be depressed and lose hope to live.
Poetry is me. It’s inside me. So, as long as I exist, poetry will exist. If there is no me, there is no poetry.
Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom.
The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel.
A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.
There will be a Free Open Air Screening of the Burma Storybook documentary film (82 min.) in Mahabandoola Park in Yangon on November 25 at 6 p.m. From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the interactive Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.
For more information: www.burmastorybook.com