Pandora (b. 1974) is perhaps Myanmar’s most respected woman poet. She became a professional poet only after completing her higher education, pursuing a career and having a family. She is now editing the first anthology of Burmese women’s poetry.
When did you start writing poetry?
My parents ran a book rental shop. As a child, I was allowed to read any book in the shop. My parents also encouraged me to read, recite and write poetry. I started writing some traditional rhyming verses in sixth grade (I was 11 years old). I took part in school poetry competitions and won prizes too.
Later, in university, my father did not ask me for anything, just that I write poetry and send poems to magazines. But I sent my poems only to student magazines and I did not try to become a professional poet. I didn’t have the confidence, and was too pragmatic – giving priority to other important matters in life: education, career, having a family. Only in my early thirties did I start to realize my childhood dream, to become a real poet, to be called a poet. Realizing a dream is never too late. I am happy with my life path.
How was your writing affected by living in an unfree society where freedom of speech was not permitted?
During the military dictatorship, I used several metaphors and images just like many other Myanmar poets. I was always wondering how to penetrate the restrictions. From 2007 to 2010, I didn’t send my poems to local print media, as these might not be published under censorship.
Unfree society can restrict the people but not the creative spirit in their mind. Some artists and poets were sent to jail for their work.
Unfree society can be paradoxically good for some forms of art as the artists try to find creative ways to express what they want to say. However by saying so, I don’t mean to go back under censorship. Indeed, a much bigger and better room for creativity is available in a free society.
And how has politics affected your writing now?
After the recent political changes in Myanmar, my poems appear to be less political and I try to look at my inner self. It is also because of changes in my personal life.
The current status of freedom of speech in Myanmar is significantly much more open now. Not only about politics, we find some poems on controversial and sensitive issues like sex and religion. Of course, they are highly criticized. Along with the openness of internet, we also see the spread of hate speech and cyber bullies. The Burmese are on their way to learn how to make use of “responsible freedom” – for there can be a negative side effect of freedom if one’s freedom has negative impact on the others’ freedom. In terms of restrictions, I am not sure if government policies are stable now. I would like to refer to blogger Nay Phone Latt’s words – “We are free now but we are not sure whether we are safe.”
Tell me about women and poetry in Myanmar.
Traditionally, women in Myanmar are the subjects, rather than the creators of poetry. Female experience and women’s poetic reflections on nature, romance, nostalgia and domestic life – let alone politics – have had only a marginal position in the country’s literary tradition.
Most poetry anthologies contain little, if any work by women. The same goes for magazines and journals.
Social norms in Myanmar also pose a challenge to women’s ability to write poetry that is innovative and bold. The cultural notion of women as a “second sex” can create an environment where women are reluctant to write about sexual or erotic subjects, use explicit language, or participate in the traditional male domains of politics and socio-economics.
And of course, historically women were discouraged from achieving more than just functional literacy in our country: education was reserved for men, who would be the breadwinners in their families. So the study of poetry, seen as “the property of the wise” was out of question for girls.
Our society still has fixed ideas concerning what women should be and how they should behave. And of course, the military ruling system contributed to women’s submission by excluding them from having a voice in how their country was governed.
But this is now quickly changing, and there are some young women poets who are writing very daring and very bold things.
And finally, tell me about your poetic biography you attach here.
I wrote “Probably some attributes to my poetry” for a meta poetry exercise. A meta-poem is a poem about poetry. This poem is not only about my poetry but also reflecting my life experiences. Poets usually do not explain about their poems, right? But I believe that these lines say something true about me.
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